Common loon, uncommon man

ON THE BAY

February 20, 1993|By TOM HORTON

I have always thought that one of the most pleasurable uses of wealth, if I had it, would be patronage of the arts. So it was a rare opportunity when Paul Spitzer called in need of gas money.

You may not immediately spot the art in that, but Paul is the Chesapeake's foremost and only loon researcher. He also is that most endangered of all species, an independent Ph.D., attached to no institution, free as the ospreys and cranes and loons he has followed for more than 20 years.

Autumn was coming on, and with it legions of loons, winging through the bay region from northern breeding grounds to winter on the open Atlantic along the North Carolina coast. His grant money had fallen through. Paul had scrambled to secure a cheap dorm room at a friendly laboratory and the loan of a small boat for his vital fall field studies; but a few tanks of gas stood between him and his rendezvous with the loons.

To understand why I considered my help neither a loan nor a gift, but a chance to invest in something quite fine, you must know loons -- and Paul Spitzer.

Gavia immer, the common loon, is anything but common. The very name is botched, coming from the Scandinavian lumme, for clumsy, referring to the bird's near inability to walk on land.

Great Northern Diver, the British call the loon, and the French, plongeon, even more befits a creature that effortlessly reaches depths of 90 feet and outswims most fish. Recognizable from other waterfowl for the way it floats with decks nearly awash, this master diver can submerge in an eye flick, by expelling air from its body cavity. The loon "defies the best percussion-locked gun, for it is generally deep in the water before the shot reaches the spot where it has been," wrote the artist, John James Audubon, who had better luck blasting his specimens on the wing.

Not that the loon is a slouch in flight. Despite one of birddom's most complete adaptations to underwater -- its bones are solid and heavy -- the loon is a resolute long-distance traveler that can clock close to 70 mph with a tail wind. Measuring nearly a yard from tail to outstretched bill, the loon in full plumage is striking: red eyes set like jewels in a massive dark head; elegantly striped throat and breast, with intricate crosshatch patterns of white and dark the length of its back.

More than any other of the bay's waterfowl, loons have a presence, and a fascinating aloofness. Wrote the naturalist Louis Halle: "The pintail and mallard are responsive to man, willing to scramble for bread crumbs and reside in zoos. . . . I know of no inducements one can offer the loon, or even how one would enter into negotiations with it."

Then there is Paul Spitzer. These scattered images come to mind:

* The kid growing up in Connecticut next door to the big, welcoming household of a world-famous birder, Roger Tory Peterson.

* Paul as dinner guest, more than fashionably late, appearing neatly dressed except for bare feet and mud to his shins, flourishing with a grin his contribution to the meal, a fragrant wild magnolia blossom he spied in a swamp down the road.

* Languid September evenings watching Paul watching loons from the edges of Choptank creeks. The long rays of sun elicit lustrous greens and bronzes from one loon's coal-dark head. The loon submerges as easily as salt dissolving in water, leaving scarcely a seam in the placid cove; the creature emerges a hundred yards away wrestling in its bill a hogchoker, an oval, flounder-like fish, fully half a foot long.

No way even a loon can swallow that, Paul says. In your face, replies the loon, and rachets that hogchoker down its gullet until a bulge the size of a tennis ball protrudes from the glutton's thick neck.

The autumn light fades and a chill creeps off the water. "Time of the Creator," Paul murmurs in benediction. "Telling us: I have given you a year, now I'm taking it away, bit by bit; a contemplative time."

Science is that way for Paul: more than birds; more, even, than the complex webs of ecological relationships in which they live and prey. He once described his studies as, "an ongoing celebration."

Aesthetics aside, the science Paul's been doing on a shoestring these last few years is meaty, groundbreaking stuff. Loons have been studied and celebrated within the confines of the northern lakes where they breed and are easily observable; but little was known of the rest of their life cycle.

Even veteran birders are surprised to learn of the thousands of loons that Paul has documented using the bay and its rivers each fall and spring. Even more intriguing, given the solitudinous image we have of the loon, has been his observation of elaborate social behavior.

"There I floated, surrounded by echelon upon echelon, 360 degrees, of these fabulous Great Northern Divers . . . more than 600," he wrote of one October evening on the bay.

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