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news from the north

Right after dusk, the pair of loons on our lake began wailing and caterwauling: not the mellow, slightly melancholy "coul-ee" song that we're used to hearing at night but an agitated, hiccuppy cry that seemed to grow more intense as it continued.  The ruckus must have gone on for more than ten minutes, then the birds calmed down -- at least for a while.  During the night, their edgy cries erupted into the new-moon darkness several times, echoing through the open windows of the cabin and permeating my sleep and dreams with vague feelilng of danger that dissipated only with the heart-beat sing-song of robins at dawn.

The loons must have hatched out a chick.  With the drought and the low water levels in the lake, the mated pair not only have to contend with eagles and marsh hawks and ospreys during the day, but with skunks and coons and foxes and coyotes at night.  Their nesting site was once an island surrounded by shallow water: now it's high and dry and easily accessible to ground predators.  Loons on our lake have never had much success at raising chicks -- one in five survives to migrate in the fall -- but with these drought conditions I wonder how even the parents can make a go of it in the fish-less, weed-clogged remains of our lake.

Other birds seem to be flourishing in the dry conditions.  Hooded mergansers and precisely-patterned wood ducks have paraded their double-digit broods along the shore the past few evenings, the tiny chicks swimming in such tight formation behind the mother that they appear to be held in place by metal bearings.  Canada geese goslings are already more than half the size of their parents.  The geese are the champion breeders on the lake with at least four pair shepherding their broods through the shallows every evening.

In the nest behind our shed, the robins have fledged.  The first chick fell out of the nest almost a week ago, virtually tailless and with white down still evident among the developing pin and breast feathers.  For six or seven hours the baby bird sat in front of the wood pile, hunched and round, a grumpy or perhaps forlorn expression on its face.  The parents ignored it and went ahead feeding the remaining two nestlings.  When I check the wood pile just before dusk, the baby bird was gone.

The second robin nestling fared better.  It first emerged from the nest four days ago -- or at least that was the first time I saw it -- standing on the branch that supported the now undersized nest.  The young bird was nearly full grown and feathered, pumping its wings with hesitant and uncoordinated motions.  I wondered if the muscles responded instinctually or if the fledgling was imitating the rhythms of its parents.  The wind that day roared off the lake, and right as the little guy raised both wings to the air, a gust took hold and lifted the nearly-weightless body into the air.  The wings faltered at first -- like a panicked swimmer -- but then the muscles found their rhythm and the bird its confidence in flight.

The third nestling robin proved most problematic for the parents.  That young bird remained in the nest for four days after the other two had abandoned their childhood of security.  By that time, the baby was nearly as large as the parents, spilling out from the nest on all sides, still shrilling demanding food from the long-suffering parents.  Finally, in desperation, the adult robins refused to return to the nest.  Their overgrown baby watched as its parents picked ticks out of the grass next to the cabin, the baby bird squawking every time they swallowed instead of flying up to feed their child.  When the bird realized that the parents would not return, without missing a beat it spread its wings and swooped down to join the adults.

As big as an adult but with a buffy breast instead of the familiar russet of a mature robin, the fledgling followed its parents as they hunted, still demanding to be fed.  Several times an adult bird would face the demanding child and appear to demonstrate the technique used to capture insects.  The young bird refused to imitate the adult feeding, responding to their demonstration with open mouth begging and shrill squeaks.

This went on for hours and, unfortunately, I can't report the final outcome.  As I watched the robins' family trials, I caught the motion of something black out of the corner of my eye.  At first I thought it was one of my dogs but then I realized that the black thing was several times larger than any dog.  A big black bear ambled past my window -- not five feet from my chair -- and I had an unobstructed view of the fat on its rump rippling with every step: no missed meals for this big girl.  She was heading toward the front of the cabin and when I looked toward the lake I realized that she was not alone: a slightly smaller bear, probably last year's cub, stood on its hind legs beneath our hummingbird feeder, the cylinder tipped sideways so that the sticky sugar water dribbled out of the feeding holes on the side.  The cub's long gray tongue lapped eagerly, seemingly oblivious to the hummingbird that squeaked and darted back and forth in front of  the bear's buffy brown snout.