Calls of the wild spark much contemplation

“So, I’m up here in the north woods, just staring at a lake, wondering just exactly how much they think a man can take.” — John Prine

I was sitting, relaxing when a cool breeze fluffed the curtain at the window as it rolled in through the mesh screen. It wasn’t long afterward that I heard rain lightly patting on the concrete below.

Darkness had fallen. The swirling breeze felt refreshing as the temperature and humidity had both been high during the day.

Off far in the distance, I heard the long, faint wail of a loon. It was sending out a contact call through the raindrops to find out where other loons might be.

I had been hearing the unison-type of laughing calls of a loon pair during nighttime and daytime, echoing in eerie report off the waters of the lake.

But over the past couple of weeks, there has been this plaintive and mournful wail — seemingly from a lone individual — growing in consistency.

Without lending too many human qualities to this wild and beautiful creature, the calls have sounded stone-dead lonesome, as though this bird is missing a mate, its chicks or perhaps may be sensing the end of a season, perhaps its own.

I don’t know if I’ve ever heard anything sound that forsaken and forlorn, not even Hank Williams.

Hear that lonesome whip-poor-will, he sounds too blue to cry…

After I listened to the long wailing sound a couple more times, the rain picked up in intensity and drowned out the sound of the loon.

This made the moment and the circumstance seem even more raw and sad.

Over the past few days, I saw a couple of things that I have never seen before, both on the same woods ride.

I was dirt-road driving through a cutover area when I saw a doe, with a beautiful brown summer coat, standing out amid the gray and rusted slash. She stood still and looked at me, in the familiar way.

But then I noticed a flycatcher of some kind — I think it was an eastern phoebe — land on the back of the deer. She moved and began walking and the bird stayed put.

Similar scenes are common in video from sub-Saharan Africa, with oxpeckers on the backs of rhinos or zebras, but I have never seen this with a deer.

In Africa, the birds riding on animals are eating bugs and blood, warning the larger animals of approaching danger by making a hissing noise.

I suspect the flycatcher I saw was helping the doe find a bit of respite from biting mosquitoes and deer flies, which were all around outside my vehicle.

After a few seconds, the flycatcher flew to a branch on a nearby sugarplum bush. It was something cool to experience.

A few hours later, I saw what looked to be a robin-sized bird with a white breast perched on a rock in the middle of the road. The bird was facing me and there was something about it that seemed strange.

The bird’s blue-bedraggled appearance and its location in the middle of a dirt road threw me off at first. A couple more looks, and I realized this was a young belted kingfisher. These birds are typically found near water where they feed on fish, snails, frogs, crayfish, insects and other creatures.

This place was nowhere near water. It was a mixed woodland with aspen and a few balsam firs growing close to the road.

I got out of my vehicle and approached to take a few quick pictures. When the bird moved toward the edge of the road, I could see that while it had its pretty deep blue feathers, it was unable to fly yet.

The bird kind of half-hopped along with its wings spread open, making a typical rattling kingfisher sound from its opened, sharp-looking bill. I talked softly to the bird and it stopped moving away.

A hole in the side of the dirt embankment revealed what the bird was doing here. The adult kingfishers — mostly the adult male — had excavated a nesting burrow into the sand. Sometimes kingfisher burrows can extend back more than 10 feet.

I then noticed that another young kingfisher, about the same size as the one in front of me, had been flattened in the road by a passing car. I tried to imagine how someone could see a bird in the roadway and then drive right over it.

I told myself they must not have seen it.

There was no sign of the adult birds around. I assumed they had gone to retrieve food for the young, but they may have also been inside the burrow. Kingfishers typically have between five and eight chicks.

Either way, I wasn’t going to stick my hand into that burrow.

After a couple more minutes, I left the chick along the roadside, up against the bank of the dirt road. I knew it was important to leave nature to itself.

I guess there was a third thing I saw recently that I haven’t seen outside of a wildlife show on television. I saw a red-tailed hawk try to lift a rather large rabbit into the sky from alongside the edge of a two-track road.

The bird was able to take off with the rabbit, but it wasn’t easy.

Back at home, the day after the rainstorm, I was watching out the window screen to see what I could see and hear.

A hermit thrush uncharacteristically perched on the wire for the cable television hook-up, just a few feet outside my window. Teetering back and forth, it soon flew off.

A northern flicker — which is a woodpecker that is often seen on the ground eating ants — was putting its bill into a crack along the driveway blacktop. The bird moved closer toward an ant hill near the edge of the front lawn.

I was hoping the bird would eat all the ants in that thriving colony, which was making the soil loose and sandy in the yard. Another hop or two forward and a small falcon called a merlin appeared out of nowhere, trying to capture the flicker in its talons.

The flicker let out a loud screeching sound as it flew out of the grasp of the falcon into the safety of some dense cedar trees off the edge of the driveway. The merlin disappeared in the opposite direction.

Back to the rainy night, the sound came again from over the waters of the lake – the eerie, heartbroken wail of the loon. Still alone, still unknown, maybe lost its home?

I shut the window and I could still hear the wail resonating from the lake, shaking all kinds of things loose inside of me.

I wanted to say, “I hear you. Now what?”

Then I thought maybe that was all he wanted was someone to hear him and know he was out there somewhere in the mist and the rain, keeping on.

Comforted by that notion, I got up and left the room, dragging down the hallway toward the top of the stairs. The early morning sky was dark.

I had no place I had to be but where I was.

Right here, keeping on.

Editor’s note: John Pepin is the deputy public information officer for the Michigan Department of Natural Resources. Outdoors North is a weekly column produced by the Michigan Department of Natural Resources on a wide range of topics important to those who enjoy and appreciate Michigan’s world-class natural resources of the Upper Peninsula. Send correspondence to pepinj@michigan.gov or 1990 U.S. 41 South, Marquette, MI 49855.


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