Clint McCoy, Canton, NY
The Writing Contest for Young and Adult Writers
Runner Up in Category: Nature Writing
All the members of our family laugh when we remember the encouraging words of Erin's husband Michael, a Long Islander by birth for whom his first evenings at the lake seemed a little too quiet for good sleeping. He had walked the three flights of stairs to the dock below and, with rod in hand, passed the time while breakfast was being prepared by trying to coax a hungry fish from the weeds beyond the submerged tentacles of the white birch that the'98 Ice Storm had placed full in the water.
We all heard the loon's wings rapidly beating air and water, the big black bird with white accents working feverishly to put some air between itself and the surface calm. Its runway crossed in front of Mike. We all stopped what we were doing to listen, anticipating the lift-off followed by the wuff-wuff-wuff of wing beats cutting the air. The feather-pounding acceleration was unmistakable as wing tips and feet slapped water. As the loon ran on the surface she pushed herself to gain speed enough for lift off, an anticipatory moment. That's when we heard Mike shouting his encouragement from the dock, an edge of panic in his voice: "Pull up! Pull up!"
The common loons that make their home on this lake are only modestly habituated to human beings. They usually dive under water before a boat approaches too closely. My kayaking wife and a teenaged neighbor who accompanied her were scared speechless by a protective parent bird that surprised them by rising up out of the water, wing flapping, thrusting her chest out, bent on protecting her chick from the humans who were coming too close. She yodeled a complaint, then noisily escorted their sleek boats out of the area, diving under them again and again, surfacing every so often to complain, plunging yet again gracefully under them.
It was a warm, windless day when one wacky bird surfaced in the calm water ten feet off the boat's stern where Barb stood fishing. We had just stopped the boat at the edge of a shoal, and put the trolling motor down. Popping to the surface, the bird quietly took in its surroundings.
"This is our spot!" Barb said quite matter-of-factly to the bird. Its human interpretation skills not highly honed, the loon ignored her. "We were here first." I said. A staccato hoot may have drawn more attention. With impunity the big red-eyed bird ducked below the surface, propelling itself towards its evening meal.
Part of the fun of loon watching is trying to anticipate where a dived bird will come up. We had only moments to wait before this bird surfaced just off the bow, about double the length of my fishing rod from the boat. But it did not come up alone. It had a Northern Pike of twenty inches crosswise in its bill. Twenty inches is not a large pike, but it is an enormous amount of fish for a loon to ingest!
Barbara and I halted our casting out of reverence, both for this bird's immense appetite and for its awesome skill. Beyond that, we were surprised since the bird took the fish from right under our boat. Now it appeared to be considering the pike as a food unit. It tenderized its intended meal by dropping it crosswise in the water and then, before the fish could propel itself forward, pounding its side with its powerful beak. I wondered whether this pike was, Christ-like, paying the penalty for the sins of all its toothy cousins that had snatched from the water's surface unsuspecting loon babies that had ventured beyond their parents' backs.
In a pattern repeated again and again, the loon dropped the pike, pummeled its sides, picked it up, dropped it again, pummeled it more, picked it up, held on to it for awhile, dropped it again until the toothy gator, near death and too much in shock to move, hung limp from its center in the big bird's beak.
"I think that loon is getting ready to swallow that pike," Barbara said, marveling at the bird's aspiration. I thought the loon was in fantasyland, its eyes too big for its stomach. There was no way there was enough room inside that bird for a fish that big.
In Loon Magic Tom Klein describes the intertwined skeletons of a loon and a large trout that were once found together, the loon having choked on its own greed. I feared that if this bird really considered eating this pike, the loon was asking for similar trouble. And if it was going to choke, no one was in a position to offer it the Heimlich maneuver. "That bird can't eat that fish," I said to Barb with certainty.
But no sooner had I uttered the words, than the overzealous hooter flipped twenty inches of pike into the air and, not unlike a chef would throw a pizza and land it dead center, still spinning, on the tip of his fingers, this bird flipped the fish skyward, then took it head first in its mouth. It swallowed the first ten inches, the fish's body now perpendicular to the water, the fish looking deep into the belly of the bird, the fish's forked tail pointing towards the faint moon hovering in the sky's pale blue.
We were speechless. No large fish on the end of our line could have given us any more joy, could have made us smile more widely, could have intrigued our sensibilities. This gluttonous bird seemed to have gotten itself into a ridiculous predicament, and we were spectators to the show. This was the proverbial crash of a tree falling in the forest with no one to hear it fall. But we had snuck into the woods!
The two of us, on the pedestrian mission of anticipating a little fun at fishes' expense, were witnessing something magnificent, a once in a life - No -- once in a million life times event. In an almost comical way it appeared to us this greedy loon, with nearly a foot of fish still protruding from its schnozz, stretched its neck taut. The neck of the bird was involuntarily made rigid by the backbone of the fish. This loon, whether it knew it or not, was in a life and death struggle.
"Where is your gag reflex?" I said out loud, the bird now facing away from us, seemingly lost in its own world of trouble.
I never had time to think about whether one might save a loon from its own greed the way you might save a pelican that took into its deep bill a fish that was attached to a fisherman's line. Our daughter Erin had experienced the pelican predicament when she, early in her teens, had hooked a yellow snapper while fishing from the Naples pier in southwestern Florida. "Reel faster," her mom and younger brother pleaded, "reel faster." The Brown Pelicans had spotted the struggling fish on the end of her line, dozens of feet below the pier from which they pitched shrimp-adorned hooks.
The hooking of pelicans by fisherman occurred often enough that there was a large sign near the end of the pier that gave instructions about what to do. I was not with the kids when it happened, so they depended on their mom's considerable wit and resourcefulness. My own theory is that it was Barbara's attractiveness that contributed to the day having been saved, but we'll get to that soon enough.
The way Barb told it, there was a large net on the end of a long rope near the sign. The pelican-freeing instructions dictated that one had to lower the net with the rope until the bird could be retrieved in the net, and then elevated to the level of the pier. Once you had the big brown bird at arm's length and at your own eye level, you were instructed to wrap the pelican in a towel, and then take the bird to the office of the civil authorities named on the sign, who would help extract fish and hook from the bird.
Barbara tried to imagine a towel-wrapped pelican in the back seat of Grandpa's Oldsmobile, borrowed for the day. "I don't think so," were the words that came to mind. But even as the words were forming behind her silent lips, no one had yet gotten so far as to lower the net towards the bird. Erin held her rod high in the air as she had been taught when fighting fish, keeping it from breaking on the pier railing, leveraging the bird's beak. She was fighting with the big bird for the fish that was rightfully hers. She must have thought it was a bad dream. Perhaps she wanted to cut the line, and simply let the pelican have the fish and whatever indigestion the hook in its lip might give.
Fortunately for all, there was a little old Italian man who spent much of his waking life on the pier, adorned in nothing more than a blaze orange Speedo, a fishing rod and filet knife his only accoutrements. He saw the woman and her two children in distress, and came to their rescue -- a knight in, well not exactly, shining armor. He must have waited daily for this to happen. He didn't even need a pick-up line. The unsuspecting pelicans provided the introduction and conversation that could segue into other subjects, and who knew what relationships could develop as a result of his saving damsels in distress?
Barb could tell he had done this a few times as, without much effort, he lowered the net, acquired the bird, raised it to the pier, took the pelican under one arm and, with both hands free, pried opened its bill. Whereupon young Erin's brother Paul reached in and took out the fish, removed the hook and pitched the poor snapper back into the Gulf so many feet below.
The little Italian man put the pelican down and, without such much of a thank you or a curse, the bird took off, determined to find an easier meal. Barb flashed the man a smile and offered a profound thank you. One of the kids had to go to the bathroom, and that provided a comfortable exit.
Could it be that birds, involved in predicaments as a result of human encounters, learn nothing from them? There is no doubt that pelican had been netted, hoisted, disabused of fish, and released before. Perhaps the Speedo man and the bird were actually working in tandem, the bird creating outstanding pick-up opportunities while the little Italian guy provided the bird with fish later on.
In the case of the hungry loon and its large meal-in-process, I was guessing that swimming around with ten inches of fish still sticking out of her mouth was a new experience for this bird. In fact, for the briefest instant I thought this loon had a moment of self-doubt, an internal insight about the price it might be paying for its gluttony. I thought I glimpsed a "What have I gotten myself into?" kind of look on its otherwise impassive face.
This is priceless, I thought to myself. Not only do we have the amazing moment of having a loon not more than ten feet from the boat, but we are seeing this loon do something that we could never have hoped ever to have seen in a lifetime. Moreover, it would be difficult even to encounter a human being doing something this stupid! The very pain of its rapacity was being brought home to this bird that has bitten off more than it could chew, even while it sought to complete its fish-catching, fish-tenderizing, fish-swallowing task in full view of a mesmerized if small audience, the very thing loons assiduously avoid.
This loon, however, was up to the task. It may have suffered from gastroenteritis that evening, but it was determined to move that fish from the outside in. It seems comical to say that a loon "craned" its neck, when it actually stretched its own fool loon head stem as far as it could possibly stretch, its beak reaching heavenward, the fish's tail silhouetted against the azure sky. Twisting its head back and forth, much the way you would twist a rubber sleeve in order to encourage it to accommodate a pipe around which you wanted to fit it, the loon moved its head and neck this way and that, at the same time fervently paddling, with an energy and uplift that brought its chest a bit out of the water while its tail sank down. It was not unlike the way a small motor boat's stern will press more deeply into the water, its bow rising up, before it is able to plane out. And all the while, with its pectorals elevated by the increased speed and effort, the bird moved its shoulders from one side to the other, straining its neck skyward, its beak elevated trying to get the fish, with its oily skin, to slide on down.
Then, like an ocean liner in peril whose bow had already sunk below the surface, its stern standing on end, the pike slid from sight and became part of the bird itself. In an instant, we went from credulity to normalcy; watching a loon with a large fish jam-cramped into its stomach, swim slowly into the sunset, as though nothing unusual had happened. The loon, a candidate for a part in an old Alka-Seltzer commercial, could have hooted, "I can't believe I ate the whole thing."
Now in the quiet of the evening, the loon looked back at us for a moment and, without so much as a sound, swam away into deeper water, into the wide-open space at the lake's center. It had reacquired the dignity it had lost as it struggled to ingest the pike. It seemed filled with contentment, even if it was swimming towards an acid reflux moment for having indulged too much.
Like many of us who gluttonously overindulge ourselves, the loon went forward without a second thought. We shook our heads in disbelief, picked up our fishing rods and cast to the edge of the shoal.
We caught no pike.