As winter days give way to spring, northern Michigan cottage owners often relish the return of the loons. Revered for their eerie, echoing calls and striking coloration, the quintessential bird of the north is, for many, a symbol of all things wild.
Common loons are listed as a threatened species in Michigan. The state is the southern-most boundary of their summer range, which extends north into the boreal forests of Canada. Once found across the state, today they are seen mostly in less-settled areas. Loons breed almost entirely in the Upper Peninsula and northern Lower Peninsula.
Approximately 500 to 775 breeding pairs can be found in Michigan, according to the Michigan Breeding Bird Atlas. Flying in from wintering grounds all along the Atlantic Coast, they arrive as the ice melts on northern lakes.
“I once had six loons sitting all around my kayak. They made all kinds of racket.”
— Tom Haxby
“I love their call, and they are so iconic to the North Country,” offers Tom Haxby, a Kingsley-based nature photographer who had the unique opportunity to document a loon family over the past two summers. “They are a little on the fragile side and want to be away from people, but they are a unique part of our world.”
Haxby is an Ohio native. He came to Michigan 12 years ago for a forestry position with the Michigan Department of Natural Resources. He is retired and now spends his time photographing nature. Two summers ago, he discovered a small lake where loons nest. He set about documenting their life from the confines of a kayak.
A member of the North American Nature Photographer’s Association, Haxby adhered to its code of ethics. He shot with a long lens and kept his distance. It was not a simple task, he said, but the 3,000-member organization stresses field photographers should not disturb wildlife or interfere with their lives.
A nesting pair typically lays one to two eggs per season. Their nests are built at water’s edge on islands and floating bog mats.
— Tom Haxby
It took two seasons for Haxby to get the photographs he sought. He wrote of his experiences on his blog (tomhaxbyphotos.blogspot.com). The loons bred unsuccessfully the first year, he said. A nesting pair typically lays one to two eggs per season. Their nests are built at water’s edge on islands and floating bog mats. Their eggs are otherwise vulnerable to predation by raccoons. The chicks are vulnerable to predation by turtles, predatory fish and hawks and eagles. Only one in four survives on average, according to the Michigan DNR.
“I watched the chick go from fuzz ball to more loon-like by the end of the season,” Haxby said. “It was cool. Most people want to feel a connection with nature. That’s why I am very protective and very conscientious around them.
“A couple of times, I sat there (in my kayak) and they swam within 20 feet of me to check me out. … I once had six loons sitting all around my kayak. They made all kinds of racket.”
Haxby’s affinity for nature photography began as a 12-year-old boy after his grandfather bought him a 35-mm camera. His first “really good photograph” was of an Isle Royale National Park sunrise. Nature photography, he suggested, fits him like a glove.
“I see something new every day. Every sunrise is different. Sometimes, I am the only one who gets to see it. I like to share what I find with other people.”
— Tom Haxby
“Having been a natural resource manager for most of my life, it is what I know. I’m more comfortable on the trail or in a kayak than in a room full of people,” Haxby said. “I see something new every day. Every sunrise is different. Sometimes, I am the only one who gets to see it. I like to share what I find with other people.”
In this issue of BLUE, we provide an intimate look at the world of loons, a view many never see. As the loons return to Michigan this spring, enjoy them from afar and recognize their special place in nature.
Howard Meyerson is an award-winning writer and managing editor of Michigan BLUE Magazine.