For the past couple of months my wife and I were in Florida, soaking up sunshine and orange juice and good cheer. We walked a mile or two each day, swam around in the pool every afternoon, and worked at trying to learn the names of various trees and flowers and birds.
A few of the latter were familiar old friends. Ospreys, bald eagles, great blue herons, and loons are very much a part of our normal life in the northland. But over the years of spending a part of each winter down south we’ve learned that loons, in particular, behave differently in Florida than they do in Minnesota. For one thing, they lose their distinctive northern plumage and their checkers and spots and stripes turn to a dull gray. For another, they stop making their distinctive calls and pretty much seem to go mute. In short, their non-breeding habits insure that, like undercover spies, they blend into the background and become, essentially, anonymous.
Does Mother Nature reward such behavior? According to the fossil record, the answer is yes. Loons are thought to be among the oldest of all bird species, dating back over one hundred million years. And while there appears to be some disagreement among naturalists as to the normal lifespan of a Common Loon, the most optimistic peg it at 30 years.
For Minnesotans, our state bird occupies a special place of honor and delight. The fact that there is a current estimated population of 12,000 loons, or more than one for every official state lake, can’t help but make a bird-lover’s heart soar. And you can imagine the thrill my wife and I felt this morning when the first returning loon called from the lake. Hearing the tremolo call, we knew the circle of its ancient migration patterns remained unbroken, and that an old friend had come back to enrich the upcoming summer with its presence.