Common Loon—The Story of the Shot

By Joe Van Os on Jun 27, 2013

I don’t know when it happened. Photos of common loons (great northern divers) created on foggy mornings on “wilderness” lakes are certainly aesthetically appealing. But somewhere along the line, those images of loons in northern habitats became synonymous with misty mornings. As a downside, shooting loons in morning fog virtually always means getting out of bed at an extremely early hour and entering a cold and clammy environment some time before sunrise. Often those first-light-in-the-field physical sensations can seem anything but aesthetic. Hurray for hot coffee!

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These days, when I get the itch to photograph between tours, I like to shoot close to home. Since John Shaw and I live relatively near each other in the Pacific Northwest, we decided to do a “busman’s holiday” and shoot loons for a week. These days I like to select one subject—be it loons, old barns in the Palouse, or yellow-headed blackbirds in Washington’s Potholes—and work them well, as if I had a documentary assignment. Invariably, other subjects “get in the way” and always make a shoot more enjoyable and varied.

Up at 4AM and shooting by 5, John and I took a small aluminum boat with an electric trolling motor to carefully position ourselves in the marshy periphery of the boreal forest lake to be reasonably close to the loons. The loons were nesting on a small floating vegetated island attached to “land” by fibrous roots. Loon nests are always positioned immediately on the lake/pond/tarn shoreline as their physiology has evolved for deep diving—their legs are positioned too far back on their bodies for them to walk on land. They cannot nest where there is tidal action.

When we first photographed this particular pair, one of their two eggs had recently hatched and they continued to take turns to incubate the other egg and brood the hatched chick under their wings. Normally, the second chick hatches about a day later. Four days of constant incubation passed and the second egg did not hatch. Most of the time the female now stayed on the nest while the male brought food to the chick. He would call, the chick’s head would pop out from under her wing, and, after feeding (leeches, dragonfly nymphs and other invertebrates) the chick would be back in its warm under-wing sanctuary.

By the fifth day after the first hatching, the loons were out on the lake foraging with the chick. Much of the time the chick would ride on their backs—most of the time staying with the male. Occasionally the female would return to the nest and incubate the remaining egg for a short time. It was not possible the egg was viable at this point since they had left it unattended for lengthy periods of time while foraging, and it was long past the normal time when this egg should have hatched. But she persisted.

This image was made on “Day 7.” It was early morning and the female was out on the lake tending to the chick. During a few very touching moments the male returned to the nest. From several feet away he softly called to the egg, beckoning it to join him in the water. It was amazing to me that he had such a strong concept of a second chick, even though the egg had not hatched and did not supply any living stimulus for him to continue in his attempts to coax it into the water.

The hand-held shot was made with a Canon 1Dx with a 24-105mm zoom at 105mm, ISO 800, 1/400 at f/9. Aside from minor dust spotting, this image has not been cleaned up or altered other than being converted, to my liking, from a RAW file. In the image, the bird is to the right of the nest, calling to the egg and swimming in slow small circles. When the egg finally disappeared, the pair abandoned the nest and remained out on the open lake with their chick.