Wiggle Waggle Loon

The loon was wagging its tail.

Such a happy creature, I thought. Then I returned to my senses. Loons are not puppies, whose joyful exuberance might be measured in tail rotations per minute.  Could the tail swish be aimed at keeping insects away? Not likely. Conditions were breezy on Farm Lake, just windy enough to keep flies and mosquitoes at bay. Surely, the loons enjoyed the same benefit of that day’s Algonquin weather.  My kayaking partner and I headed for a closer look.

As we approached, the wagging continued. Six or eight shakes, then a pause, followed by another series of rapid flapping.  The flag-like end of the bird’s tail seemed improbably large. I peered through the camcorder’s viewfinder and bumped up the zoom. The camera jiggled from the kayak’s unsteady movement, but the loon’s details came into view.  That’s when I realized my mistake.

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Please Pass the Fish

Loons are world-class divers.

But not the young ones; at least not for several weeks. On a recent Algonquin paddling trip, I noticed Common Loon parents diving for fish and then surfacing to pass the goodies to their chicks. The fluffy-feathered kids appeared to be good swimmers and sometimes they disappeared momentarily under the water. So why weren’t they foraging their own food?

The answer, it turns out, is in those fluffy feathers.

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Loon Echo

So many loons!

Not on the lake below our home; no loons grace Lake Allegan. But on a recent paddling trip in Canada, we were treated to near-constant loon company. I’ve always understood loons to be shy, so I was not expecting to see so many of them at such close range. The loons did not turn away as we paddled nearby. Sometimes, they even approached us, stopping just a few yards from our kayaks. Apparently, these Ontario loons see a lot of paddlers. Or, they simply share in the Canadian reputation for being extra friendly.

I saw some touching loon behavior—adults feeding their young, including one moment when a parent appeared to be teaching the child a food-finding skill. I also saw some comical loon behavior known as the foot waggle. I’ll share those moments in future blog posts.

My favorite loon encounter was the evening we were treated to a loon symphony.
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The Incredible Articulating Pinky

Can you say ‘zygodactyl’ three times, fast?

You learn the most interesting things when your bedtime reading is the Peterson Reference Guide to Woodpeckers. My most recent discovery is about woodpecker feet. I already knew that most woodpeckers have zygodactyl feet: Two toes face forward. Two toes face backward. That toe arrangement gives them superior grip strength when clinging to a tree trunk. Their massive claws help, too.

What I did not know is that the multi-talented woodpecker has articulating pinkies.
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Life in a Snaggy Wood

Snaggy—that’s a technical term I just made up to describe our wooded backyard.

Our little forest has a lovely sprinkling of snags, the forestry term for standing dead and dying trees. I became a snag advocate (a snagvocate?) soon after moving into our home in the woods. In defense of the dead tree, I’ve convinced Bert that we should remove dead wood only as needed to keep our view of the lake below, and to protect the house from hazard in a storm. Otherwise, we leave the dead trees alone.

And oh, the rewards for benign neglect!
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Bon Appetit!

What’s on the Menu?

This past spring, I watched Hairy Woodpecker parents feed their nestlings. They would fly to the door of the tree cavity, poke their heads and torsos inside, and shake. All I could see was tail feathers bobbing rapidly as the parents pushed and the babies pulled to swallow the regurgitated food. After a couple of weeks, though, the tail movement stopped, even though the parents were still flying to the tree cavity every hour or so.

I worried: Had mom and dad stopped feeding the kids?
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Drum Beat of the Northern Flicker

We hear a lot of woodpecker drumming in our woods, and it’s not always clear who is doing the percussion work. But when I hear a deep, resonant drumroll, I immediately look to what I’ve come to call the timpani tree. It’s a magnet for northern flickers. Or, perhaps this instrument serves the same flicker over and again. My reading tells me that flickers are territorial, and they may drum to send a warning to interlopers.

For at least three years, flicker drumming has led me to this tree. Well, ‘tree’ may be a bit of a misstatement, because it’s really a remnant of a long-dead tree; one of the many snags that grace our property.

This snag is well suited to its percussive task. You don’t have to look very closely to see that it’s hollow, and the tree wall is quite thin. The result is a particularly resonant sound under the staccato strike of the flicker’s bill.

Speaking of staccato strikes, there’s something peculiar about the flickers’ drum beats on this tree.

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Father’s Day in the Forest

Some of the neighborhood birds are pretty impressive fathers.

Some of our neighborhood creature-dads play an important role in child-rearing. Others, not so much. It’s Father’s Day, so I thought I would pay tribute to the feathered fathers whose parenting roles I’ve been privileged to observe.

Which treetop dads help out with the parenting? And which forest fellows leave the child-rearing to mom?

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From Creature Tales to Children’s Books

I can write 500 words in my sleep.

Or, so I thought.

I write about business finance, and I’ve produced thousands of pages of course material, journal articles, and books. Naturally, I assumed writing a 32-page, 500-word picture book would be both fun and easy. The stories unfolding out my window practically tell themselves, like the bad-boy nestling story in this post’s video clip.

Turning these stories into children’s literature should have been a walk in the park. Or in my case, a walk in the woods.

I could not have been more mistaken.

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A Nestling Discovers Raindrops

Prepare to say awwwwww.

Not the doctor-looking-at-your-tonsils aww, but the one you bring out when you see something impossibly cute. Or the aww that means something has tickled your sense of wonder. I was struck by a little of both on a day of nonstop gloom, cold, and drizzle. It was a June day masquerading as early April.

But as you’ll see, what I saw in the trees made me grateful for the day’s miserable weather.

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