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Adventures with loons captivate Sanbornton Central students

First grader Caleigh Laughy tucks back her “wings” and takes a turn trying to walk like a loon on land after a presentation by “The Loon Lady,” Sue Rockwood, and her husband John, “The Loon Man,” at Sanbornton Central School. (Donna Rhodes) (click for larger version)
April 27, 2011
SANBORNTON — Students at Sanbornton Central School were treated to a visit by some special visitors last Friday who shared an amazing story and slideshow of their adventures with a loon family and their chick, who came to be known as Grapenut.

In 2006, John Rockwood was laid off from his job in the changing world of high technology, and as he sought a new career, he took time out to relax with his kayak on Lake Massabesic, near his home in Auburn one day. While paddling the lake, he came across a lone four-day-old loon chick, making him curious as to where its parents had gone. Taking a break beside the Grape Islands on Massabesic, he was contemplating who he could call about the abandoned chick when he felt a tap on his elbow. The loon chick had come to visit.

Eventually, mom and dad loon came back, but they too came to acknowledge Rockwood as a "babysitter" for their little one, whom he dubbed "Grapenut," for the islands and the "nutty" behavior of the young bird. From there, he began a summer of amazing encounters with the loons, which he was able to capture through photography.

"He was showing his photos and telling his story of he and Grapenut to groups around the area, and everyone kept asking, 'When are you gonna write the book?' so finally he did," said his wife. Sue Rockwood, now known as the "Loon Lady."

The couple now travel the state, helping educate others about loons.

John and Sue Rockwood of Auburn were at Sanbornton Central School last week sharing John’s photography and adventures with loons on Lake Massabesic. His new book, “Adventures with Grapenut,” is filled with his intimate photographic encounters with a family of loons and their chick he dubbed Grapenut, who grew to think of Rockwood as his friend. (Donna Rhodes) (click for larger version)
Sue is a retired reading specialist who worked with children for years, and has become a partner for her husband, "The Loon Man," telling the tale of Grapenut and educating people about the habits of the beautiful birds who inhabit its lakes.

"You just never know what you're going to see when you're out paddling on a lake," she told the first grade students at SCS.

To demonstrate her point, she and John brought along a collection of his photos, many capturing moments rarely seen in the life of a loon.

Before the show began, Sue instructed the classes to keep their eyes and ears open for different facts about loons. Holding a stuffed toy loon with dangling legs, she told them they were likely to discover what was wrong with that particular toy by the end of the presentation.

In time, the students learned that loons are very territorial and seldom visit with other loons, although John did capture a rare photo of three loons "visiting" on Lake Massabesic one day.

They also discovered such interesting facts as loons winter on the ocean where the waters don't freeze, grow rapidly when they are young, have such heavy bones that they need to run across the water before they can take flight and have been clocked by airplane pilots at 80 miles per hour when they do take to the air.

They also enjoyed hearing about the game Grapenut played with John on his visits. The young loon would lie flat among the lily pads, then jump up and flap his wings whenever John approached.

"It seemed to be his favorite thing to do when he saw John coming; hide among the lilies and try to surprise him," said Sue. "It was their special game."

In the end, one young girl was able to reveal the problem with the stuffed loon the Rockwells displayed.

"His legs aren't close enough to the back of him," she said.

Sue commended her for her observations, and said she was correct. Loons' legs are situated far to the back of their torso, allowing them strength and speed when they swim underwater to catch fish.

"This makes it very, very hard for them to walk on land, however," said the "Loon Lady."

To prove her point, she had the children try to walk like a loon. Tucking their "wings" and crouching low, the students giggled their way across the gym floor as they all took turns imitating the loons.

"It's my first time walking like a loon, and it was really the hardest thing to do," said one student named Grace.

The Rockwoods are working on a second book of John's photography, and have been hailed by the Loon Center for the unusual moments he has captured with his camera. The next book, titled, "Extraordinary Encounters," will chronicle other loons John has come to know, like Broken Bill, Ice

Loon and Fat Chick.

"They seem to have adopted him, and feel very comfortable with his presence," said Sue.

The presentation for Sanbornton Central School was arranged by SCS school nurse Cheryl Woundy, who had stumbled upon a Web site for the "Loon Man."

"It just seemed like such a terrific thing to bring to the students here at Sanbornton, where Earth Day was coming and we have loons right in our own backyard here on Lake Winnisquam," she said.

Students in Grades one through five spent days leading up to the Rockwoods' arrival drawing loons and learning about them, as well.

Copies of "Adventures with Grapenut" are available at the Loon Center in Meredith, the Audubon Center in Concord and through the Rockwoods' Web site, www.theloonmannh.net. At the site, people can also view some of his spectacular photography and find a schedule of their upcoming presentations on loons throughout New Hampshire and Massachusetts in the months ahead.

North Country Environmental
Martin Lord Osman
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