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Wish You Were Here: Listening To Loons In Maine

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Writer Roxana Robinson's most recent novel, Cost, is set in Maine.

Mount Desert Island, off the coast of northern Maine, is known for dramatic scenery. Most of the island is Acadia National Park: steep forests, plunging down to a cobalt sea. Cadillac Mountain, the tallest peak, is the first place where light touches the American continent, each morning at dawn. Trails follow the windswept ridges; they wind along the smooth pink granite bluffs, rising from the deep, icy water, along the wild swirl of the great tides.

I love all this, but I don't come here for drama. I like more intimate encounters with nature. Our house is on a small saltwater cove, along the sound. The ocean is far away. Tides rise and fall, but our water is flat and glassy. The cove is silent, ringed by white pines, salt grass and bayberry.

Our house is up among the trees. From my desk I watch the cove. Sometimes a coyote or a fox, trotting along the shore. Sometimes a stalking great blue heron, or a swooping kingfisher. Recently we've had a pair of loons, which is a great honor: Loons are royalty.

Loons are beautiful, distinctive and self-assured. Male and female are identical, large, with brilliant coloring. The back is black and white, checkered. The breast is snowy white, and at the throat is a wide black choker. The head is black, and the eyes, the jewel-like eyes, are a glowing ruby red. The loon is like a magical bird, conjured up by a spell.

Loons are powerful swimmers and extraordinary divers. They're also good parents, and kind of adorable. When their two chicks hatch, the parents carry them around on their backs, fuzzy nestlings, peacefully adrift on the glassy water.

When our loons' chicks were nearly full size, the family came down to our cove. In the afternoons I saw them drifting on the green water. One preened and groomed, twisting her long supple neck, stretching her wings, showing that astonishing white chest. I watched with binoculars; sometimes I crept through the trees, though I didn't want to scare them. Each sighting is like a gift, and I watched with my breath held. Still, watching is not the most exciting thing.

Loons are never alone; they are always in pairs or fours, and when they're on the move, they call back and forth. If a visit from loons is like a visit from royalty, hearing the call is like receiving a blessing.

There is nothing like the sound of a loon. It's the cry of the soul, a long melodic drift, haunting, mysterious, rising into the darkness.

In the afternoons they call briefly, to keep in touch. Even that is exciting, but it's at night when the great songs are sung. Then the loons open their throats to the dark sky and the bright stars.

I lie in bed, the windows wide open, and listen to those gorgeous dreaming cries, that sweet opening into another world, and there's nowhere on the planet I'd rather be.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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