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.
What I’d taken for a wagging tail was actually the loon’s foot. That peculiar movement, I have since learned, has a name: the foot waggle. When I found that information online, a childhood memory waggled my brain and made me laugh out loud. You see, my mother always gave the same reply to the what’s-for-dinner question: a wiggle waggle for a duck’s swallow-wallow. Her own childhood included frequent lakeside camping in New Jersey. Was loon-watching her inspiration?
Speaking of childhood, many friends know that I am learning how to write children’s books, with a focus on wildlife. I’m building quite a collection of books for inspiration, and one of my favorites is Loon, written by Susan Vande Griek and illustrated by Karen Reczuch. It’s a beautiful picture book to enjoy with pre-readers or early readers. I recommend it to anyone who relishes the thought of sparking a child’s curiosity about birds and birdwatching.
But back to the foot waggle, which we saw often during our six-day paddle, even when waves and windy conditions made paddling pretty hard work. Ornithologists call it a ‘comfort’ move, but what I find most fascinating is where the loon parks that foot after a few wags. Watch the video and you’ll see what I mean. Please bear with me on the poor-quality film, a product of challenging light and a very shaky kayak.
Watching the loon’s foot waggle leaves me with two questions:
How on Earth do these birds swim, especially through waves and currents, paddling with just one foot?
And did anyone else’s mom describe dinner in terms of wiggle waggles and ducks’ swallow-wallows?