The Edge of the Wood

by John Messeder, Nemophilist & Ecological Storyteller

They may not speak our language

Common Loon on its nestI’ve lived many places and left bits of me in several of them. One of my favorite memories is swimming with the loons on hot summer midnights in Maine.

Common Loons have existed unchanged since the first ones flew over the planet and under its water. According to the fossil record, they existed as a distinct species more than 30 million years ago, and with that kind of seniority, they think they own wherever they land.

They are an interesting bird, known to “fly” underwater, but incapable of walking on land owing to their feet being placed too far back under their otherwise streamlined body, like a jet plane with only back wheels. Their distinctive black and white garb and deep red eyes suggest vampires escaped from a “Twilight” movie. Their laugh echoes across northern lakes like Montana wolves calling to the full moon, from first open water in Spring until ice closes over the surface in Fall. City folks on vacation have been known to ask game wardens about keeping the confounded yodelers quiet, in deference to late-sleeping humans.

The lake in which I swam was home each year to three pair of the ancient birds — and the local game warden’s single engine float plane.

As I’ve often said about various species, just because they don’t speak our language doesn’t mean they don’t understand, or can’t be understood. Loons, and many other birds, have distinctive language. Long before humans could hear the plane coming back from a day’s wardening, the loons could announce its impending arrival. Dozens of single-engine aircraft would pass over on a day, but that one, they knew, was going to land on their water, and it was clear they didn’t like it.

Loons are social critters, but they favor a bit of space between neighbors. Although the three families often spent days together, their nests were spread out along the shore of the 500-acre pond. In spring, they carried their young on their backs or, in times of perceived threat, hidden under their wings. (I don’t know whether the Mr. or Ms. did the carrying. To any but other loons, the difference is virtually imperceptible.)

So there I am floating under the stars when from the middle of the lake comes the distinctive yodel.

“Nest Number One,” the sentry cried on a particularly auspicious night.

Almost immediately came the response from atop the beaver hut in the back cove: “Nest Number One Here!”

Again the sentry calls, “Nest Number Two.”


The sentry probably called them by name, but I didn’t know the language that well.

From somewhere near the island nearly a half-mile down the lake came the return yodel: “Number Two present and accounted for.”

A third time, the sentry called out.

“Nest Number Three,” the call echoed off the shores.


“Nest Number Three!” A little more urgency this time.

The midnight quiet was deafening.

A third time, the Sentry called out, and a third time there came no reply.

The Sentry issued another call into the night air, clearly agitated but slightly softer, as though fearful of what he would learn.

“Number Two, call Number Three, please,” the guardian queried.

“Number Three, are you there?” the urgent relayed poll bounced around the shores.

Finally, almost sleepily, the third loon (I’d wager his name was Alvin?) responded from somewhere deep in the marshes of the area known as Dead Stream.

A short, grumpy tremolo floated across the glassine water as the sentry settled back to await the next bed check.

I bet there was some lively conversation at the breakfast gathering come morning


  1. Bill Serfass

    July 17, 2016 at 09:58

    Hi John, you just reminded me of a Boy Scout 50 miler we did several years ago in the lake region of the Adirondacks. We spent our entire time in our canoes or portaging between the lakes. Until this time in my life I had never heard the loons! Thanks for bringing back some pleasant and muscle aching memories!

  2. My pleasure, sir.

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