If you’re a loon, landing on a frozen lake is the last mistake you’ll likely ever make. To escape what, at this point, can only be considered certain doom, you must get to open water. And, because loons are relatively heavy, short of wing, and highly adapted for swimming and diving, they’re largely unequipped for walking or taking off from a solid surface. Unlike a duck, loons need speed, a headwind, and a long watery runway to get airborne. Such was the dire predicament of a wayward loon on this frigid New Year’s morning. And the poor fellow had about as much chance for flight as an airplane parked in your driveway.
Round Lake sits between Petoskey and Harbor Springs, just a stone’s throw from the open water of Little Traverse Bay, likely the last departure point for the loon. Had this been an uninhabited lake, the only uncertainty would be in what form, and how soon, the end would come; by attack, exposure, starvation or thirst.
Luckily for this loon, its flapping distress didn’t escape the notice of Lori Pool, who called me to say her husband Ron was coming across the ice carrying a captured, and possibly injured, loon. Couldn’t be, I wondered incredulously, dressing with one hand on this first morning of the year. She soon assured me over the phone that it was; Ron having arrived back, cradling the proof in his arms.
Twenty minutes later, we pulled the bird from a cardboard box padded with Ron’s flannel jacket, and examined it for injuries. Finding none, but fearing our own from its lightning-swift bill, we hastily, but gently, re-boxed it and decided that getting it back in water as soon as possible was the mandatory course.
In early winter, open water around Lake Michigan is a near guarantee, but this was no normal season, and the bay was churning with chunk ice, or that resembling a massive Slurpee. But a breezy morning left the water to the western side of Petoskey’s breakwall a wavy, ice-free zone.
Kneeling on an ice shelf, with a kiss to the back of its head for luck (mostly to shield my face from the loon’s snapping, dagger-like bill) I gently tossed it onto an approaching swell, which seemed to arrive with the express purpose of receiving the loon back into its rightful element.
The loon dove, surfaced, and began the long process of oiling and waterproofing its dried-out feathers, restoring order to its disheveled condition, a matter of survival for a bird living constantly in water.
Once back at Round Lake, I asked to be shown where the loon came down. From the evidence imprinted in the snow, the loon landed with more a thud than a skid, excreting on impact. From there, it traveled some yards in unhurried fashion, a trench straddled by footprints, made by its belly pushing through the snow. At one point, a dog-like track intercepted the loon’s trail, where its gait turned more frantic, wingtip prints flanked its footprints, indicating the loon was running/wing-flapping in an attempt to flee its pursuer. Soon, chaotic signs of a struggle, a few frozen drops of blood, a feather here and there, and another chase. Another confrontation, then the tracks went separate ways. The dog had had enough, the blood likely the result of bill stabs to the face, the loon escaping unscathed. Ron’s footprints joined the loon’s soon after, and the story comes full circle.
Why he came down on this frozen lake will remain a mystery, though loons sometimes mistake an expansive surface, like a field, or snowy lake, for open water; even a winding road for a river. Perhaps he was forced down by another bird. We’ll never know how it started, but we revel in the happy ending.