Untitled photo

When I awoke in the dark, I could see the stars.

That’s always exciting as it promises a morning with beautiful golden light for photography. The day before, at almost exactly 12:30 in the afternoon, my wife and myself had been outside when the loons on the opposite shore of the small lake began calling excitedly. We looked over and saw two loons on the lake. On a large lake there may be multiple pairs of nesting loons as well as individual loons (called floaters). But on a tiny lake the territorial pair can control the area and will not allow any other loons or waterfowl. So, for us seeing two loons can only mean one of two things- either there is an intruder loon on the lake and a loon fight is about to begin, or the chick has hatched a full day earlier than we thought possible and both loons are off the nest. We knew within a day or two when the loons had nested and doing the math told us tomorrow should be the earliest day possible.

We walked down to the lake. Is it? We both strained our eyes and peered. “I think I see a tiny black fuzzball between them!” My wife had hurried to get the binoculars and then, with the added magnification, we were sure. A small fuzzy bundle that had been an egg just a day before when I managed for the first time to photograph the trading off of nest duty was now a peeping, swimming, just-born loon chick.

I had left the family alone for the first day and evening. But this morning I thought I’d paddle out in my canoe and see if they were comfortable enough with me to get some photos of the chick. I pushed myself in the red canoe away from the dock just as the sun was hitting the tops of the trees on the opposite side of the lake. I could see the two loons out on the lake. They were not feeding the chick yet; in fact, they weren’t even very close together? A few years back the loons had lost their chick on the very first night. The second loon hadn’t left the nest because the second egg hadn’t hatched and as the sun was going down the first parent started feeding the chick by itself. That meant it had to leave a tiny loudly-peeping chick on the surface alone while it dove for small minnows. I had thought that was a very bad idea as it was happening and darkness fell. In the morning there was no loon chick. Snapping turtles or a large bass being the likely culprits. I hoped something like that hadn’t happened last night.

As I started to slowly paddle across the dead-calm lake one of the loons began to swim directly at me. This is unusual. I stopped paddling. My canoe glided to a slow halt. The loon kept coming. The sunlight reflecting off the trees gave an unreal color to the scene as the loon approached. I picked up the camera and took a few photos. Despite the reflected light in the water it was still rather dark and my attempts to hand-hold the big lens were less than stellar.

The loon came about 15 feet from my canoe and swam past me as though I wasn’t even there. It continued on. I stayed where I was as I now suspected the loons had already fed the chick this morning and this loon was getting set up for a take-off run. Perhaps I could get a photo of that if I stayed right where I was?

But then it started calling behind me. An alarm hoot. An agitated hoot. A trouble-is-afoot hoot. I thought to myself, “You just swam past me and now you think I’m a threat?” Despite spending countless hours in my canoe photographing loons I’m still often confused as to what they’re doing. But then the answer appeared as a swift-moving intruder loon came angling in from my left to right like an angrily-thrown rock and almost landed directly on the lake loon.

They swiftly swam together and began to move in unison toward my canoe. An uninformed observer would likely think they were friends and enjoying a lovely swim together. But I knew better, I’ve seen this situation many times before. As they reached my canoe, by some unknown cue they both dove in unison. In loon fights, from what I can tell, the worst of the battle takes place under the water. I waited and watched for when and where they would surface again. When they did surface it was more toward the middle of the lake. There was much wing flapping and they lifted their bodies almost out of the water completely. I pulled up my camera and focused. That’s when I realized that there were somehow THREE loons in this battle. This whole time I suspected the loon chick was with the first loon that was still in the nursery area (loons will pick a safe area to spend the first days with their chick and won’t wander far from it).

That couldn’t mean...I whirled and squinted....

There it was. Barely visible from this distance. A tiny peeping-with-unhappiness black blob of loon chick alone on the water. Day-old loon chicks can’t dive, can’t fly, and can't swim very fast. Without a parent beside them they are about as defenseless as any creature in nature can be. But there it was, floating alone on the surface of a lake with snapping turtles and bass below. I hadn’t seen or heard any this morning yet, but an eagle would find this a ridiculously easy target. Sadly, other loons will also kill a loon chick in an attempt to take over a prized lake. This chick was in imminent danger from above and below.

For some reason the second parent thought this attack warranted leaving the chick to help with the fight. The only time I’ve seen this in the past the chick was considerably older and the parent stashed it in the weeds along the shore to silently await the outcome of the fight. Never before have I seen them leave a day-old chick just floating by itself in the middle of the lake.

The three loons postured and circled. Then they dove. It was just myself and the still-peeping chick on the surface both wondering what was going on in the depths of the lake. 10 seconds passed. 20 seconds. 30 seconds…

Then, like an IBM missile launched from a nuclear sub, a loon came out of the water and began a take-off run. Not surfaced and then began a take-off run. This loon was already moving forward at a surprising pace as it surfaced. It was getting the heck out of Dodge. It became airborne about the time the other two loons surfaced. We all watched as the third loon began to circle the small lake to get enough altitude to clear the trees.

Then the two loons began swimming back toward the chick. Way too slowly in my mind. “Hurry!”, I thought to myself. But eventually they were reunited. I paddled a bit closer.

During all of this a cloud bank had floated in and blocked the sun. No more beautiful light to photograph with. I wouldn’t get any outstanding loon photo this morning, but I still wanted to get a photo of the chick if I could.

The chick had retreated to safety under the wing of one of its parents. I took a few photos and drifted off some distance away. Soon they began to feed the chick. One loon would dive and try to find something small enough for the chick to swallow. Often what it brought it gave to the parent with the chick who would then attempt to make smaller pieces out of it with its beak. Once an appropriate size, it would twist its head around and feed it to the chick. With the poor lighting I gave up on photography and began my paddle back to the dock.

The loon chick had survived this morning’s encounter. It has a long way to go. At this size it will be in constant danger from below. That’s one of the reasons it will spend much of its time on one of the parents’ backs. There will be almost daily eagle attacks for several weeks. It will need to learn to dive as soon as possible. At first it will only be able to bobble under for a few seconds at a time and surface in the same spot it went under. The eagles will attempt to time their attacks to arrive just as the chick is surfacing. As it gets older it will be able to stay under for longer and longer and surface in an entirely different place. Eventually, if it’s lucky and smart, it will get big enough to dive long enough that the eagles will consider their odds of getting the chick to not be worth their efforts and will move on.

Some loon chicks will reach adulthood. Many will not. I know folks will say it’s the circle of life if the eagles or bass or turtles get the chick. It’s nature. I think it’s emotionally safer to take that sort of stand-off attitude rather than invest any of your hope into one tiny chick’s survival.

But I have to tell you I’m rooting for the loon chick. I’m hoping it somehow makes it through all the danger to take wing some fall day, circle the small lake three times to clear the trees, and fly off.

Even at my age, there is still some child-like part of myself that can’t help rooting for the loon chick. I hope I always will. And I can’t understand folks that wouldn’t. I think some small, defenseless part of them must have been left alone on the surface of some metaphorical lake...

And didn’t make it.

Powered by SmugMug Owner Log In