Loons and the ethics of bird photography.

Like many threatened animals, the Common Loon has been literally driven out of its home by humans and their development. While few would ever intentionally harm a threatened animal, (though some unfortunately do) we rarely consider the development of the earth and its effect on wildlife. In the case of Loons in Michigan and elsewhere, that is the ring of cottages, lake homes, marinas and other structures that replace the natural habitat favored by this shy bird. Waterfront activities and disturbances add to the toll with nest disturbance and interference of birds with chicks. The threats from personal watercraft and high speed boats, used inappropriately, are becoming legendary. We know that fisherman and canoeists can unwittingly disturb loons and even be responsible for nest abandonment and failure. The MLPA has been active is pointing out these problems, as noted in our publication, “Michigan’s Loons and Responsible Watercraft Use”.

Some who appreciate and enjoy wildlife are birders, whether casual or serious. It is a natural extension of birding and love of nature that leads some to photography. It is a non-consumptive activity that results in beautiful images of the subject. Who among us doesn’t enjoy a photograph of a Common Loon in its element?

Unfortunately, some photographers unwittingly add to the many stresses on loons. Recent images proudly posted on nature photography web sites provide ironic evidence of actual nest disturbance and clear, even if unintentional, harassment of nesting loons in Michigan.

Photographers and others should be aware that loons are a threatened species in Michigan, and as such are subject to the full protection of the law. It is illegal to harass loons at any time. While the loon is a curious bird that often investigates boaters and canoeists, there clearly is a limit to their tolerance, especially while nesting and with young chicks.

The loon will give clear signals of its disturbance. The most well known is the so called “Penguin Dance” whereby the loon will propel itself with all power onto it’s feet with great vigor. Water will be churning, and it will give the disturbed Tremolo call. This behavior should not be confused with the common and innocent wing flap, where the calmly feeding and preening bird becomes semi-erect and simply flaps it’s wings several times, without any evidence of disturbance or distress.

Another behavior that denotes disturbance, though subtler, is the nest hangover posture. The nesting bird will stretch the elongated neck low over the nest, while remaining alert to the apparent disturbance.

Clearly, these behaviors are protective and evolved because of natural predators. That they are displayed by loons threatened by humans, intentional or not, nonetheless indicates alarm and anyone observing such behaviors should immediately retreat from the area. It is possible that the birds will abandon the nest, or even more likely, leave it temporarily to assault the threat, leaving the nest vulnerable to opportunistic predators.

Ethical naturalists and photographers will respect the limits that the birds demand. Justification that the bird allowed the approach without abandoning the nest, even in the short term, belies the fact that the bird is presented with no choice. If it stays on the nest even while giving the evidence that it is distressed, it is not demonstrating tolerance to the approaching photographer.

In Michigan, and elsewhere, floating buoys that clearly mark the boundaries of the nesting area are frequently employed to protect nesting loons. These areas should not be entered. They are meant to provide cues to onlookers that this is a preserve; entering is likely to result in disturbance that could end in nest failure, and is illegal. With so few successfully breeding loons in Michigan, the loss of even one clutch is a significant blow to the species.

As stated by John Shaw, well- known nature photographer, “As you develop your knowledge, I trust you also will develop a wildlife ethic. In my opinion, no photograph is more important than the safety and welfare of the subject. Respect what you photograph. Don't expose a nest to the elements or keep the parents away from their young. Don't dig up plants to move them to another site. Don't destroy what you love."