Chronicle of a Common Loon’s Rest Stop at Busch Conservation Area

April 25, 2013

In this edition I’ll review a series of events and a minor catastrophe that occurred this week following the visit to Busch Conservation Area by a waterbird that is rarely seen in Missouri—the Common Loon. Before I get started, I’m going to qualify this post by saying that I was never able to make a great image of the loon during those four days, but it was such a unique opportunity that I’m sharing the story and the “cleanest dirty shirt” from the hamper of lackluster images that resulted from my encounter with the northern waterbird.

The common loon is a large waterbird which breeds and summers in the northern U.S. and Canada. Loons are mostly known for their lonely call, which you have probably heard in movies, if not in real life. Excellent divers, loons are a fishing bird and they rarely spend time on dry ground except when nesting. Although some loons travel through Missouri on their migration route, they are a rare site as they sometimes stop for a few days to rest and forage, as this one did. Most people find loons stunning with their brilliant pattern of white on black, red eyes and dagger bill. This one was no exception.

Day 1:  I had just returned home from work on a rainy evening and I got a call from my friend Shane who gave me a heads-up that he had spotted a loon on Lake 27 at Busch Conservation Area where we work. We decided that the rare stop-over in Missouri was due to the nasty weather we had been having for days and that maybe the loon would stick around until the first sunny day. I looked out the window to see that the most recent storm was clearing so I thanked Shane for the info and made plans to check the loon out the next morning before work.

Day 2:  I was up at 4:00 a.m. and checked outside to find intense fog and lingering rain. I knew I wouldn’t be able to get a decent image of the loon so I went back to bed with plans to at least take a look at the bird before work. Upon arrival at the lake at about 7:30, I immediately saw the loon in the middle of Lake 27 and began watching it from my truck. Although it was still a dreary morning with light rain and heavy clouds, I decided to poke my camera out the window of the truck to get a grab shot of the unique bird in case it decided to depart before the weather cleared. I rested my 500 mm lens and camera on a bean bag that I keep in the truck for the rare occasion that I decide to shoot from the window—something I hate to do and preach against at workshops because it seems like a lazy way to photograph wildlife and rarely produces top-quality images.

I watched the bird for a few minutes and then turned to grab my binoculars when I heard a sound, kind of a “swish” noise. I turned back around to grab my camera and it was gone! The entire rig had fallen out the window, bean bag and all. After sharing a few expletives with the turkeys and squirrels around the lake, I opened the door to find my Canon 1D Mark IV completely sheared away from the huge lens. Half of my 1.4 TC II tele-extender was still connected to the camera and the other half to the lens. I gathered the pieces, loaded them in the truck and said good bye to the loon which was still feeding, oblivious to my problems.

Day 3:  After shipping my camera and lens to the Canon Repair Center in Virginia, I made arrangements to borrow a Canon 7D from a friend and returned to the lake with my Canon 300/4 L lens. I knew it would take a lot of luck to get within range of the loon with the short lens but I had to try. It was another dreary morning with heavy clouds and this time it was sleeting! I set up my hide in an area where I’d seen the bird fishing near the bank and waited for daylight. I began my stand at 4:55 a.m. and watched the loon feed near the middle of the lake until about 7:45. About that time I lost sight of the bird for several minutes and kept glassing back and forth across the lake, searching for movement. All of the sudden the loon’s black head popped up about 30 meters to my left and it stared right at me! I didn’t move until it dived again and a trained my lens at a spot right in front of me about 25 meters out. About 45 seconds later, the loon’s head appeared again right in my viewfinder! I did my best to maintain my composure and began capturing images but the light was awful. As soon as the loon heard the shutter click I was busted and it dived again. The next time I saw the huge waterbird, an adult in spring plumage, it was about 100 meters away. I checked my LCD and found several sharp images but they were all very flat due to the lack of light. Photographing a loon is very much like photographing a common merganser. They have a dark head and a dark eye so you need a swath of sunlight to wash over them at just the right angle to get a great shot.

Late in the afternoon on Day 3 the sky finally cleared and I began to worry that the loon would start heading north before I got another chance to capture its image. After work, I returned to the lake and hiked through the woods to the far side where the loon was feeding. I approached the bird only when it dived for fish so it never knew I was coming. When I finally settled into my hide, the loon fed nearby all afternoon but it never came within range for a great shot even though the light was perfect. What I needed was a tele-extender and mine was in several pieces. I packed up and headed home with a stop along the way to a pro camera store to purchase a Canon 1.4 TC III Tele-extender. I would be prepared on the following morning, a Saturday.

Day 4:  I arrived at the lake at 5:00 a.m. and this time brought my turkey chair so I would be comfortable for a long stay with the loon. It was a perfect morning with a clear sky and plumes of steam rising off of the lake. The water’s surface was as placid as a table top and the beautiful loon was feeding and making its lonely call right out in the middle of the lake. I made my hide in deep cover with the sun to my back and waited for first light. I was giddy with anticipation because I finally had all the equipment I needed and conditions were perfect. I was confident that the loon would soon be feeding at my location based on past observations.

As the sun cast a slight glow on the lake the loon continued to call along with at least three different turkey gobblers. I watched through the lens as it began to approach my location, hoping it wouldn’t get too close as it was a little early for a shot. Suddenly, the huge bird turned into the slight breeze and began a take-off run, which typically requires at least 30 meters of runway (waterway) for this species. Finally, it took flight and began making circuits around the lake gaining altitude and speed with each completion. I could hear the wind whistling over its plumage as it passed my location two times. On the third circuit, it cleared the tree line and disappeared over the horizon in the direction of the nearby Missouri River. This all happened very fast as loons have been clocked in flight at 70 mph!

IMG_6870 A nice image of a pied-billed grebe, minutes before the loon’s departure.

I could have waited the rest of the morning for the loon to come back, but I knew it would be to no avail. The loon had been waiting the stormy weather out on Lake 27 for three days and it needed no more of a cue for departure than a bluebird morning. As dejected as I felt for not getting a shot of the stunning bird on that perfect morning, my heart was filled with joy for the loon as I listened to it trill, even after it disappeared over the treeline. I wished it well on its northward journey in search of the perfect pothole and the perfect mate. Soon, a photographer in Minnesota or even Canada might be capturing images of the same bird with sweet little babies riding along on its back.

Thanks for looking,

DB

Common Loon:  Canon 7D; Canon 300/4 L lens; 1/400 sec @ f/4.0; Exposure Comp +1 for the bright lake; ISO 400; RAW Capture; Converted and processed in Adobe Lightroom and Canon DPP

Pied-billed Grebe: Canon 7D; Canon 300/4 L Lens with Canon 1.4 TC III Tele-extender; 1/160 sec @ f/5.6; ISO 400; RAW Capture; Converted and processed in Canon DPP

8 comments on “Chronicle of a Common Loon’s Rest Stop at Busch Conservation Area”

  1. This was a particularly good account of the travails a wildlife photographer undergoes. However, I must mention that your “dirty hamper” is far cleaner than most of ours (especially when we only have little bridge cameras) and we are very happy to see your alleged C-grade images. I really enjoyed the tale of the loon and the loony photographer who preached against shooting through the window and lost a teleconverter by not practising what he preached! I didn’t know that Loons are passage migrants…thanks for “catching” one for us.

    • Thank you Deepa; I always look forward to your replies, often sprinkled with some thoughtful “gems.” Have a great weekend. I might just have to take a hike or something. I’m not sure what I’ll do with myself. Lens on the way home though!

  2. What a fantasitc story! Thanks Danny.

    mike

    ________________________________

  3. Thanks for sharing your loony tune story, Danny, and teaching me a little about loons. I would love to see one with its babies on its back. (Can you get that image for me, please?) “Ack!” about your camera mishap – hope all ends well with that! Can’t wait to share this story with the kids!

  4. Hi Danny, I am sorry for your mishap, and I know that you REALLY are sorry as well. WE all make mistakes, some a little more costly than others. I loved the shot of the Loon though. I have never seen one up close. They are very beautiful. Thanks for sharing, and the story. I hope that the cost of repairs to your camera, are not too much. Have a good wet and soggy weekend.

    Art


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