The memorable scenes of loons in the 1981 movie ‘On Golden Pond’ were my first introduction to common loons, but it would be more than 30 years before I saw one in person.
While kayaking with my husband at a Northeast Washington lake five years ago, we could hear their legendary haunting and eerie call. A large male common loon then swam into view, and my fascination with loons began.
As a nature photographer, I was drawn to these unique, beautiful and interesting birds.
The striking appearance and haunting call of the loon are legendary. Their plumage has intricate patterns of black and white on their bodies; a dark multicolored collar, a head and partially striped neck that are iridescent when washed in sunlight.
And those piercing red eyes.
Loons breed throughout most of Canada and northern United States. They migrate to salt water or large fresh water large lakes and rivers in winter, returning to the same nesting and migration sites each year. Loons are monogamous, but will seek out a new mate if their mate doesn’t return in the spring. The lifespan of a healthy loon is up to 30 years.
Both male and female loons build their nest, incubate eggs, and care for young. Their tender devotion to their chicks is one of the most remarkable scenes I have witnessed in the natural world, and a trait that endears them to many. Chicks ride on their parents’ backs for the first couple of weeks after hatching.
In 2018, I was fortunate to witness this for the first time. The chick climbed onto the parent’s back using the tail like a ramp or going up under the parent’s wing. The little chick sat warm and safely protected, peering out from under the shelter of the wing, an image that remains forever etched in my mind.
I’ve since viewed and photographed newly hatched chicks on multiple occasions, and the experience always leaves me in awe.
Their diet consists of fish, crayfish and aquatic invertebrates such as dragonfly nymphs. Loons swim along the surface of the lake with their head and necks underwater scanning for fish, shooting like a torpedo underwater after their prey. The parents feed chicks until they migrate in the fall.
While I was once focused on “getting the shot,” the motivation behind my work has changed over time. I began researching the creatures I was photographing to learn more about them, and in the process have come to really care about what I photograph and the challenges they face. Advocacy and teaching others about the subjects in my images are now an important part of my work.
There is often a story behind the scenes I photograph. Such is the case with loons. It turns out that seeing loons is a special thing indeed. Loons once nested in Washington, California, Idaho and Oregon, but today they are only known to be nesting in Washington. Historically, there were 50 known nesting pairs in Washington state. That number is much smaller now. The majority of nesting loons are in Northeast Washington, with just 16-20 nesting pairs there.
A loon pair has a clutch of one or two eggs per year. Few loon chicks survive to the end of summer to migrate. In 2000, Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife listed them as a sensitive and threatened species. Factors affecting their recovery are predation by other animals and birds, habitat loss, lead and mercury poisoning, and human interference.
In 1980, there were just 104 bald eagle breeding pairs in the state, but by 2005 had recovered to 840, continuing to increase since that time to the point that they have been removed from both the federal and state endangered species lists.
As predators, eagles sometimes prey on both loon chicks and adults – a factor in building a sustainable loon population. Loons also ingest lead fishing tackle from broken fishing lines, resulting in lead poisoning. Regulations banning lead tackle at lakes where loons nest has helped, but non-nesting lakes that still allow lead tackle continue to affect mortality in transient or migrating loons.
Human interference is complex. Some loons are struck by boats or jet skis. At least nine waterfowl species eat fish in Eastern Washington, but there are a handful of people who object to loons eating fish, shooting them or intentionally destroying their nests.
Well-intentioned nature lovers and photographers also put them at risk by getting too close, driving loons from their nests or disrupting their nesting/chick raising in some way. Loons show distress by moving away from feeding chicks, leaving the nest, theatrical acrobatics in the water or alarm calls.
If your presence changes their behavior in any way, you are too close.
I have been fortunate to meet and learn from Dan and Ginger Poleschook, two volunteer researchers who have dedicated the last 25 years to Washington loon conservation work and advocacy, and have been instrumental in loon recovery.
Last summer, I joined them for loon banding at a remote Ferry County lake. Banding occurs late at night when all traces of light are gone – a necessity for successful loon capture.
To an outsider, it probably looked like a clandestine drug operation, but it was actually a team of experts from the Forest Service and Biodiversity Research Institute working together on behalf of the loons.
Loons were captured and brought back to a staging area on shore, where the team drew blood to measure heavy metal levels, collected feathers for genetic testing and measured, weighed and banded the loons. A large male was caught first, and then later the female with a chick.
While the female was processed, Ginger held the tiny days-old chick in her hands. The team repeated this process nearly every night, covering nine lakes in Eastern Washington. They were knowledgeable and efficient, with an infectious camaraderie and passion for loon conservation.
Though we wrapped up around 3 a.m., I was energized by this unforgettable experience. It gave me a greater awareness that there is often much happening behind the scenes to preserve the wildlife many of us treasure.
Because of their longevity and place in the food chain, common loons are widely recognized as an indicator species that reflect the health of the aquatic environment, which in turn impacts human health.
Ameritrade founder Joe Ricketts’ Conservation Foundation made a substantial donation to support loon conservation and relocation of the common loon to former nesting areas where they have been eliminated. Ricketts believes the loons on our lakes and streams are similar to the canary in a mine.
“If we’re polluting our lakes to the point where we’re killing the loons, it’s a wake up call to us as human beings that we’re causing more damage to our environment than we think we are – and we can’t see it except through a bird like the loon,” Ricketts said.
Loons are dependent on our choices for their continued survival. As Maya Angelou once said, “When we know better, we do better.” As much as I love photographing loons, their survival is more important than any experience I might have or image that I take.
This has translated to changes in how I observe and photograph loons – quietly observing loons from a distance to avoid disturbance, backing away if their behavior changes or they show signs of distress. I come back at another time if I see other people are already observing loons on a lake. The purchase of long lenses and cropping has helped to get “close-up” shots while maintaining a respectful distance.
I advocate for and educate others about loons when there is an opportunity. We’ve replaced fishing gear with nonleaded tackle, and make every attempt to remove lines that have become snagged. These small things make a difference.
The loons are returning to Northeast Washington and nesting season is upon us. Understandably so, many people love loons and their unforgettable haunting call. My hope is that in knowing the loon’s plight, we all do what we can to protect these magnificent birds, so that we can continue to enjoy them for generations to come.
The loons just might have a bigger role in our lives than we think. A win for the loons is a win for us all.
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