Loon-acy

In early July, I took a break from the moving/packing/cleaning routine that has occupied much of this year to meet up again with Lang Elliot for some sound recording in northern Nevada, Montana, and Wyoming.  I’ll present many of those recordings over the next few months, but now I wanted to present what was, for me, one of the highlights of the trip – the opportunity to record Common Loons.

There are a few iconic sounds that stir the wild soul; for me, the most stirring are the mournful howl of wolves and the yodels and tremolos of loons.  Growing up in the Great Basin, I had little opportunity to hear either, so they’ve both represented the wild, the unattainable, the “out there.”

In the gap between Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks runs a little dirt road called the Ashton-Flagg Ranch Road that crosses the north end of the Tetons.  Lang had tried twice to get in there, but was stymied by snow.  When we arrived in July, the snow had just cleared and the road was open, although we were warned several times about how rough the road was.  Lang was thoroughly convinced that his Subaru Forester could go literally anywhere, so chose to ignore the warnings.  I had learned over the past few months that Lang had an incredible ability to find good recording spots, so I apologized to my ancient CR-V (with it’s new tires after rough roads in the Jarbidge, but that’s another story), and followed his dust into the mountains.

We ended up at a lovely little spot, and set up camp on a flat bench about 100 feet from Loon Lake.  Lang originally wanted to record at a nearby marshier lake, but the thickness of the vegetation and warnings from some fisherman about a sow grizzly in the area convinced him that that might not be the best idea.  We saw a pair of loons on Loon Lake, which thrilled me even though it was past breeding season and it was possible they might not be calling much.  There were also spotty thunderstorms in the area, which made leaving a microphone out overnight questionable.  But at sunset, the clouds pulled away, so I decided to leave a mic right next to the lake, while having another mic recording from the car.

As the light faded, the mosquitoes came out in force.  Serious, thick, very hungry clouds of mosquitoes.  Getting the gear set up and dinner cooked was quite a challenge while being eaten alive.  As I was setting up the mic down by the lake, a curious loon came over to check me out, and I really enjoyed watching it in the late evening light.

Common loon in the evening light, Loon Lake, Wyoming.
Common loon in the evening light, Loon Lake, Wyoming.

When I crawled in the CR-V camper with Shadow, a cloud of mosquitoes came with us.  It was a hot night and the combination of the heat and whining mosquitoes did not lend itself to pleasant sleep.  But the night was full of lovely sounds, with snipe and loons calling on the lake, and ruffed grouse drumming somewhere in the woods.  Just after midnight, one of the loons let out a series of wails, their haunting sounds reverberating over the lake.   Later it’s mate responded with tremolos.

The black heads, the white in the wings
that haunting call, the loons
echoing down the lake
a Doppler chorus,
wondrous game
Marco
Polo
That call across the water
across the years, so special
so distinctive, our bird, with those red eyes
and that haunting call
July 26, 2008
Squam Lake, NH
https://www.loon.org/

The mic set up by the lake did a wonderful job of capturing the loon calls:

The long, sleepless, buggy night came to an end with distant sounds of sandhill cranes, robins, chipping sparrows and ruby-crowned kinglets.

The heat and the bugs dissuaded us from hanging around, so after breakfast we packed up and headed in the direction of the Medicine Bow mountains in southern Wyoming.  The trip over the rest of the Ashton-Flagg Ranch Road was beautiful, and they had recently improved it (as in, bladed out the ruts), so we had no problem in our little SUVs.

Wyoming beargrass
Wyoming beargrass

We were both coated with days worth of dirt, sweat, and bug dope, so we opted for a motel that night in Riverton.  As I pulled up in front of my room and opened the back window to my CR-V, a cloud of mosquitoes flew out, a sad reminder that I had not imagined that hot and buggy night.

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