The Count Spikes
Seven years ago on March 11th, I saw a loon on the stretch of the Susquehanna River not far from the busy downtown of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. Strange, I thought, is it off-track, lost, injured? Loons are shy and solitary divers who pick lakes surrounded by woodland, and while the Susquehanna is a waterway on their migration route, the miles through central Pennsylvania struck me as too polluted, too populated. But that 2013 loon liked it long enough to make the news and delay arrival in the north woods. An admirer gave it a Twitter account. Everyone talked about it. On some unknown morning, the loon left on a long low takeoff, the river a forgiving runway for a bird burdened with the solid bones grown for dives and hunting the depths.
For years I didn’t see another one. Every March, I watched with my amateur eyes and my halfhearted bird count. I wrote off the 2013 loon as an outlier.
On March 11th, 2020, the World Health Organization declared the COVID-19 pandemic. In April, most of everything closed. The old wide roads in and out of the city felt abandoned as I walked them, masked and with my dog on a handy six-foot leash for judging social distancing. But no one was out at dawn. So I didn’t have to worry but I did anyway. We walked down the middle of three-lane state routes like a pair from the apocalypse.
On April 9th, I saw a loon again, after seven years. For the first time in many days, I forgot about the pandemic, the virus, the uncertainty and magnitude of the expanding red dots on outbreak maps. I watched it fishing below the now silent four lanes of the Harvey Taylor bridge, big and strange and black and white. It dove out of sight every few minutes—loons have back legs set in the perfect spot for propulsion, but in the worst spot for walking. They can barely navigate on land, which is why you don’t see cute photos of them waddling. I waited for it to surface, trying to estimate how far it would dive, how fast. The whole world was estimating speed and trajectory. Sometimes it popped up far out in the middle of the river. Other times it reappeared close enough so I could see it had caught a spindly crayfish. Over and over—dive and a crayfish. A cold water feast in a time of covid. I feasted too, my eyes finally off a screen, off the bold headlines of panic, on to this moment of predicting what was present.
On April 11th, the loon count spiked along with the gloomy one month mark of the pandemic and all the counts that came with it. Now there were three loons keeping their distance from each other, treading currents in the shadow of the bridge. Three in a region where we rarely saw one. Birders arrived with binoculars, tripods, and cameras heavy with long lenses. Through bandanas and ski masks, we whispered loon to each other. Such a soft word, no venom of “v.”
I read up on the collective nouns for loons: a water dance of loons, a raft of loons, a cry of loons, and the one that I thought was the best, an asylum of loons. I read more, and found competing theories about the origins of their name—one side argued that it is the lunatic tenor of their call and song, unlike anything else in the bird world. That’s why I liked asylum of loons, even though neither term is appropriate today. The other side argued that it is for the clownish way they wobble on land. The Iroquois people took it all in. They heard the cry, saw the strange walk, and also noted the red eye. They thought it was a witch and that was that. They never ate loon meat. Today, it’s illegal to hunt loons, and you wouldn’t want to eat their flesh anyway. Near the top of the food chain, they live laced with lead and mercury, fallout from our own insane lust for progress.
The writer Annie Dillard, who won the Pulitzer Prize for writing about the water and woodlands of Tinker’s Creek in Virginia, said, “Truth interests me less than contact.” What even is contact these days, I wonder, as I stay away from everyone but wish for every living thing to come closer (how I would love to touch a loon’s feather, to slide against a snake’s warm skin, to jostle against shoulders in a crowd of strangers who smile). Sometimes I get tunnel vision for the biological truth, and so I spend hours researching an answer to my big question: Why is the loon black and white? I keep thinking of other dappled animals, like fawns, whose coloring is for protection. Turns out I’m asking the wrong question. The right question is, Why is the loon all white underneath? So that the things it is hunting have a harder time distinguishing it from the surface of the water. The coloring of the loon doesn’t protect it from predators. It makes it a predator.
I watch the loons through the end of April, buoyed by what I can observe, what feels like contact in this new contactless world—their routine and their feathers like harlequin tile and the sharp dark beauty of their heads, all mask and no mask. Then the waters rise with days of rain, and the usual detritus clogs the river—branches, plastic, and spinning chunks of Styrofoam like iceberg props in a movie studio. The only birds I see are seagulls and grackles, all nimble enough to perch on what floats and cavalier in what they eat. On Mayday I hear a loon, briefly, from one of the islands. I stop and wait, hoping it calls again, but it does not. Then something launches from the flooded island brush and kicks up water as it tries to lift off. It could be a loon, or a cormorant. I choose loon. It flies low for so long, the effort seems hopeless. Then speed and skill and instinct overcome gravity, for the moment. It ascends and rockets north, around the bend toward the water gap in the mountain, and then it is gone.