Loon on Lake Bracken

by Terry Hogan

I was visiting my mother, who lives at Lake Bracken. It was in late October. Waking about dawn in my old attic bedroom, I half heard the cry of a loon. Deep within my mind, logic told me that it must be a relic of a dream, recently interrupted by wakening. But there it was again. I got dressed as quickly as possible. My mother’s first comment was "Did you hear it?"

Loons on Lake Bracken are not common. In fact loons on Lake Bracken are very uncommon. When they do drop in, it is during their migration in the spring and fall. But they don’t drop in often. The call of a loon is haunting and if you haven’t heard it, you have missed one of nature’s saddest sounds. It is said that Indians claimed it was the wail of a dead warrior, trapped on earth. Perhaps only slightly less sad is the reality that it is the call of the loon. The call can vary and ornithologists tell us that it serves various purposes, one of which is to communicate its whereabouts to its mate.

Being part Irish, and therefore forlorn by nature, I’m of the belief that this poor loon was calling out repeatedly in the hopes of finding its mate. There was no return call. The call was unanswered in the Illinois morn. No distant loon call answered. No reassurance was provided. The loon had lost its mate.

I don’t know if the pair got separated during migration south, or if the mate fell victim to a predator, human or otherwise. But this lone loon stopped at Lake Bracken on its way south, issuing its plaintive call into the morning sky. Waiting for a reply that did not come. The mournful, haunting call of the loon was all the more so given the silence that followed. Only the call of a train approaching the Saluda crossing answered.

The loon stayed at Lake Bracken longer than I did. My mother continued to hear the loon’s solo plaintive call for a week or more. She would infrequently see the black and white visitor swimming by her home. But the loon remained alone.

When I was learning to be a biologist about four decades ago, it was popular to warn young students not to anthropomorphize animals- giving human emotions to animals. At that time, it was more popular to think of animals as biological machines that operate on a stimulus-response relationship. Care for young was not a function of "care" or "love" etc., but merely a successful evolutionary invention that promoted the survival of the species.

Bah humbug. As they say, "that dog won’t hunt." At least it won’t on an early morning, listening to the unanswered mournful call of a loon.

The world is too full of random acts of violence, cruelty, and personal hardships that defy reason. Nature is "red in tooth and claw". And that is too often the reality we must face- bad things happen to good people.

But I hope that this Lake Bracken loon’s call was rewarded with a response. I hope that the mate showed up, embarrassed, explaining that it inadvertently veered right at Oquawka, and was well into Iowa before it figured out the error. It finally swallowed its pride and asked a flock of noisy mallards for directions.