It’s one of my favorite times of the year when the trees almost quiver with anticipation, waiting to expose their delicate leaves to the spring and begin their creation of a new canopy. Living through a New Hampshire winter was different from what I had experienced previously in Massachusetts. Spring always takes its time in New England with the occasional threat of snow well after the equinox has marked the calendar. From where I’m now sitting, it’s probably 5-10 degrees warmer an hour and a half south where my parents live than it is here. A cursory glance at the thermometer reveals it to be 60 degrees. In Massachusetts, it’s nearly 70 degrees.
Regrettably, I’ve been spending even more time indoors not because I’m scared of being exposed to the elements, but instead because I recently started a part-time job that involves a commute from the camp to the seacoast. I won’t mention where or what store it is, but I will say that it is retail and it helps make ends meet for now. In the late afternoon on Saturday, as I was leaving work, I pulled off my required uniform, revealing the peach camp shirt underneath and drove with the windows down for the first time this year. It was about 70 degrees out and the car was hot and clammy as the trapped air was released out the driver’s side window.
As I drove, I looked for the spots of meager habitat you find in a concrete wasteland, where the only signs of life are the former drivers, now pedestrians, scampering to get into another indoor space and gulls wheeling about overhead, waiting for a careless consumer to deposit some French fries or chicken nuggets on the tarmac below. Between the groves of Phragmites and cattails, there were low spots where spring peepers (Pseudacris cruicifer) sang fervently, announcing to all who were aware that it was warm enough for them to make their vernal debut. Those new wet spots were either the result of a passing rainstorm or the slow dripping of melting snow and ice in shady locales throughout the region. As they drip and shrink in size, they become a new source of moisture on the landscape: meltwater.
Meltwater has become the new sign that spring is underway and that the progress toward green growth and warmer days is upon us. On Monday morning, Harper escorted me around the yard sniffing at the trunks of trees merrily and clanking along the metal docks to smell the moisture in the air. I marveled at the trickling stream that had worked its way through the side yard and into the lake. Since writing about lake drawdowns a few weeks ago, the water has risen slowly and is almost lapping at the banks. It has a while to go before it rises to meet the highest part of the bank, but I imagine it will be full by the time May rolls around.
After running some errands, I returned to find a lone loon close to shore. It had something in its beak and was earnestly stabbing it at the water’s surface. I grabbed my camera and snapped some fast photos. As I alternated between the camera’s viewfinder and the scene in front of me, the identity of the loon’s quarry became apparent. It was a flat-sided fish, silvery in color with hard scales lining the sides. A double dorsal fin was barely apparent, but the rounded shape and silver color meant it was only one kind of fish; a white perch (Morone americana). A member of the temperate bass family, it is closely related to the popular striped bass (M. saxatilis) of coastal rivers and surf fisherman, and the European sea bass (Dicentrarchus labrax), a popular seafood dish off the coast of the British Isles and Europe. They differ from yellow perch (Perca flavascens) by their coloration, lack of bars on their sides, and rounded profile. While they are related to stripers, they are more akin to “panfish” like rock bass (Ambloplites rupestris), crappies (Poxomis spp.), and horned pout (Ameiurus nebulosus) and can be caught on small minnows and grubs, as well as artificial lures like spinners, spoons, and jigs. By contrast, the loon used a far more ancient tool for catching its fishy dinner: it’s dagger-like beak.
Loons are sight hunters and catch their food by diving underwater and paddling with their large, webbed feet. Over the winter, I had the pleasure of reading a book called Loons: Song of the Wild edited by Michael Dregni who included a blend of scientific information, folklore and mythology, and natural history writings about the loons of the world. One thing that I learned from it is that the loon’s red eyes might aid it in finding food underwater. If you’re a predator and your target can see your eyes, it’s likely you’ll go hungry that day, but if you can hide them and find a way to break up your outline, your prey is less likely to see you and escape before you strike. Why would this matter underwater?
Colored light varies in terms of wave length with red and yellow being shorter than blue and purple. As you descend in the water column, certain colors become harder to see and since loons keep their eyes open (albeit covered by their clear nictitating membranes), the further they dive, the less likely a fish or crawdad is to see their eyes and know that an attack is immanent. Eyes aren’t the only tools that loons use though. The bird I was watching through the camera used their beak like a pick to subdue the fish before swallowing it down its gullet whole. No matter how many times I see it, the ease that waterbirds show at being able to swallow oblong fish without too much trouble is incredible to watch.
In the coming days, as this lone loon and another pair cruise the lake, I’ll be trying to distinguish between their different calls to see if I can recognize who is calling who. Maybe, with luck, the performance will be photographed and I can share my findings with my audience. Only time will tell, but I look forward to it nonetheless.