In July 2010, retired educator Bob Kutter saw a tiny loon swimming all alone near his home on Big Birch Lake near Grey Eagle. He did what any responsible lake resident would do–he got out his binoculars and looked around for Mom Loon. He spotted her (or possibly him–with loons it’s hard to tell) a half mile away. He and his wife, Nancy, got in their boat, scooped up the little bird in a fishing net, and restored it to the parents, both of whom appeared and swam toward the distress signals their baby sent out. A week later, there was a baby loon riding on a parent’s back. By September a young loon could be seen swimming near the Kutters’ dock.
Bob chalked his experience down to just one more nature story, an interesting item to mention in his column in the Big Birch Lake Association Newsletter. But the following April, with the story of the little loon still swimming around in his mind, he decided to write a children’s book called The Littlest Loon.
Loons usually lay two eggs early in June. Bob thinks that a predator may have gotten the Little Loon’s siblings, so Mom Loon tried just one more, which would account for his size in comparison to his cousins. Another lake resident once saw the chick, brought it ashore, and tried feeding it worms, not knowing that loons live strictly on a diet of fish, crayfish, and insects. The DNR told the man to let nature take its course, but fortunately Bob hadn’t heard this advice when he went to the rescue.
At a presentation at the Grey Eagle Library in May, Bob explained that it took two years from inception to final printing of The Littlest Loon, years in which he worked on layout; precise word usage; choosing a local publisher, since commercial publishers offer no choice of artist; working with Sunray Printing Solutions, Inc. of St. Cloud; and selecting the perfect artist.
He found her in Sauk Centre native Debra Johnson, also a retired educator, a lake neighbor with only a little academic background in art but a great talent, especially in interpreting nature. She chose pastels, the first time she had worked in this medium, spending a great deal of time looking at photographs, Bob’s and others, and, of course, observing loons and learning their lore. It took many tries to get the changing colors of the lake water just right. Her sensitive drawings perfectly interpret the story, right down to the birds’ subtle coloring and the couple who rescue the Little Loon, who look remarkably like Bob and Nancy.
As a board member of the Big Birch Lake Association , Bob has learned a great deal of loon lore over the years. He explains that it really is possible to tell males from females, although at a distance it’s hard, unless you have some basis for comparison. Males tend to be larger than females and have a “blocky,”or slightly flattened head.
They can do prodigious feats of strength–swimming at 30 miles per hour, diving to 150 feet below the surface and staying there for three minutes, under the ice if necessary, and flying at 75 to 110 miles per hour. Bob likes to see youngsters’ astonished expressions when he says, “If you’re riding down the freeway at 70, a loon is going to pass you.” When territorial rights are involved, they can actually kill a rival with their sharp beaks, and they can injure humans as well. They usually mate for life, and their lifespan can be 30 years. Currently eight to 10 pairs inhabit Big Birch Lake, where they have their basic requirements, including clean water and a good supply of fish.
Most of the distinctive calls that enliven Minnesota nights have real meaning to other loons. They might mean “Come here,” “Where are you?” “I’m OK,” or “Warning.” Their familiar tremolo call has led to the expression “crazy as a loon.” Most of these calls are directed at their young and can be heard several miles away. Adults rarely talk to each other except when they get together in the middle of the lake every summer.
“They are party animals,” Bob says. “They have a social event, where they dive, splash and communicate.”
They are born swimming–no living in their parents’ nest for young loons, which are about the size of a tennis ball at birth and weigh a few ounces–but it takes a few months to master diving. Loons’ powerful, strategically placed legs make walking on land difficult. Unlike most birds, they have solid bones. Built-in nose plugs and an extra set of eyelids also help in their underwater adventures. We don’t know why they have red eyes, but we do know the advantage of their eyes’ turning black when they dive underwater–so fish can’t spot them. Every loon in America heads for Milwaukee when migration begins, checks out Lake Michigan, and then it’s on to Florida, where they enjoy a three-year vacation before returning home. The Kutters hope to see the Little Loon in their waters next year.
The Littlest Loon, which Bob calls “a story of survival and perseverance,” has been so successful that it is now in its second printing. It is available at Chris’s Grocery, Grey Eagle; Unique Boutique, Melrose; on Amazon.com; and at Bob’s home.