Our friend Julian lives beside the water in the Cove, and we were excited when he told us there were Great Northern Divers in the bay. During the recent storms he saw a large number of them – fourteen or fifteen – huddled together for shelter close by the shore. He called this gathering a ‘Raft’: In fact the collective noun is usually said to be Asylum, Cry or (more attractive) Water-dance. We saw them too, but distantly through our spotting scope up in Nead an Iolair, although we came across them close to when we were walking by the shore in Ahakista on the Sheep’s Head. Here they were mixed up with Cormorants (collective noun Flight of…) and Shags (Hangout of…) – but their markings were distinctive enough for us to be sure.
In Canada the same birds are known as Loons. Believe it or not, the International Ornithological Committee met especially to consider the problem of the differing names in America and Europe and proposed a compromise: the Great Northern Loon. I like the term Loon: supposedly this name comes about because the bird has large webbed feet set well to the back to assist diving but is clumsy on land. In Icelandic the word for ‘lame’ is lúinn, and in Swedish it is lam – this could well have been an influence. The Canadian Loon is featured on the one dollar coin – which is therefore know as a ‘loonie’ – the two dollar coin is a ‘toonie’.
When Finola and I were on a road trip up to the north of British Columbia (through spectacular scenery) we stopped by a lake and we could see diving birds a considerable distance away. Finola told me they were Loons and I said I really wanted to have a good look at them. She immediately put her hands up to her mouth and produced the distinctive wavering call:
I couldn’t believe it when a few seconds later a Loon surfaced right beside us! I was full of admiration (as always) for Finola’s many talents…
An endearing habit of the adult bird is that it carries its chick on its back until it can swim on its own.
I can’t find any Irish legends mentioning Loons, Great Northern Divers or any other variants, but there are plenty of Canadian ones among the First Nation cultures. There the Loon is invariably a ‘good guy’, and even helps Raven the Creator to make the world, and to bring Sun, Moon and Water to it. It has various names in these tales, including Big Loon, Black-billed Loon, Call-up-a-storm, Ember-goose, Greenhead, Guinea Duck, Imber Diver, Ring-necked Loon, and Walloon. We also have a very fine carved Loon on our living room wall, from Finola’s First Nation art collection.
I call Loon the Sentinel because he seems to stay just outside our Cove, swimming and diving across the entrance – keeping it safe for us. When our spring comes (and we can begin to feel the sun getting stronger already) he will be off to colder climes to breed.