Nick Leadley is Rangeley’s resident nature and wildlife photographer. Best known for his Main Street gallery, Nick is also the editor of Gavia: Tales from Loon Country. This beautiful book features Nick’s stunning photography and explores the relationship between loons and humans. I asked Nick to share some tips on the best techniques and places for photographing loons. Here is an edited transcript of our conversation.
First, tell me about yourself and your business.
I’ve been a photographer for over 25 years. I started working at newspapers, where I spent over a decade, and then switched to nature and wildlife photography, which I’ve done for about 15 years. My gallery in Rangeley is now in its sixth year. That has grown every season. I also do guided trips for people who want to reach certain locations or learn how to use their cameras. I offer specialized loon photography trips for individuals and small groups by canoe or kayak.
What attracted you to loons?
I clearly remember the moment I became hooked on loons. My father, brothers, and I were at Grants Kennebago Camps. I was sitting in front of our cabin one evening and I heard the wail call of a loon. I’ve been fascinated ever since.
I think I’m attracted to how uniquely adapted they are to their environment – to being on and under the water. They also exhibit interesting behaviors. They have a very social nature and spend time socializing with each other. Early or late in the day, you’ll often see them gather in groups. Sometimes loons from another lake or pond will stop by for a visit. They’ll gather, swim in circles, dip their bills, and hunt together. Sometimes it goes on for 10 to 15 minutes. No one knows why they do this.
What’s the most interesting thing you’ve seen a loon do?
Fights between males can be dramatic. A few years ago, I was watching two loon pairs on Saddleback Lake. They had gone through their social greetings and were swimming together when, out of the blue, one of the males started a fight. Most of it took place underwater. There was water flying everywhere. The females were doing their loud tremolo (alarm) call. It was amazing.
There was another moment, also on Saddleback Lake, when I watched a pair swimming about 10 feet apart. Their heads were turned toward each other, and they were making gentle hoot calls, and I could tell they were communicating but had no idea what they were saying. It was fascinating.
You’ve mentioned a few types of loon calls. Would you explain them?
Loons have four calls. The wail is the best-known call. It’s the one you hear at 2 a.m. It’s the long, drawn out, ghostly call. Both males and females make it, and they use it to communicate over long distances.
The tremolo is their alarm call. It’s four or five rapid notes that almost sound like a laugh. They do it when someone gets too close, or perhaps when an eagle flies overhead. It’s the only call they give in flight.
The yodel is a territorial call only used by males. Usually they do it when another male gets too close. It sounds like “hee-ah-hee, hee-ah-hee.”
The hoot is a gentle call they do while swimming in a pair.
Tell me about your guided loon trips. What do you teach your guests?
There are three things I try to impart on my guests. First, the technical aspects of photographing loons. For instance, their black and white coloring requires a bit of technique to capture correctly. Second, I teach loon behaviors and facts. Third, I teach how to approach loons in a respectful manner and gauge the birds’ reactions.
Certain behaviors tell us the birds don’t want us there – like the tremolo, or swimming with their neck extended, looking around quickly. They may also do repeated escape dives, which are long duration dives. Males will even yodel and do what I call “dance,” which is standing up in the water with their wings extended, slapping the water with their feet. It’s important not to overcrowd these birds, so I teach people to recognize and respect their behaviors. I tell people not to pursue loons that are doing repeated dives. It’s a waste of time and it stresses the birds.
I like using the kayak to photograph loons because it’s relatively unobtrusive. A good technique is to get upwind of the birds, stop paddling, and let the wind slowly move you toward them. Without paddle movements, they seem more comfortable.
What’s the thing about loons that most surprises your guests?
Many people are amazed by their size, especially the males, and by how long it takes them to become airborne. They’re heavy birds, which helps them dive, but it takes a while for them to take off. Biologists have told me that an adult males in New England can weight up to 20 pounds. By comparison, most bald eagles weigh 7-14 pounds. According to biologists, New England loons tend to be the heaviest in the country, possibly due to their short migration distances.
Loons are also great parents. Males and females share in the incubation and raising of young. Loon chicks are quite precocial and can swim within an hour of hatching. Usually within 24 hours, the adults will abandon nest sites and spend the rest of the season on the water. They find a nursery cove where they raise the chicks until they can travel around the lake. They’re well known for “back riding”, which is when chicks ride on their parents’ backs. They do this to help the chicks rest and stay warmth, and for protection. After about eight weeks, the young can fend for themselves.
Where is your favorite place to watch loons near Rangeley?
I like the smaller ponds where you don’t have to spend as much time searching for the loons. I have also gotten to know certain pairs that are more tolerant than others.
Tell me about your book, Gavia: Tales from Loon Country.
I’d been toying with the idea of publishing a book for a while and was trying to figure out what I could do that would be different from other loon factoid books. I decide to collect stories about the relationship between loons and people. It became a labor of love. I spent six months photographing loons almost daily, capturing over 5,000 images. I collected very heartfelt stories from people all over the world about their interactions and connections with loons – about awaiting their return in spring, untangling them from fishing lines, mourning the loss of a child with them. It was a wonderful experience.
Where can people find more information about your trips and loon photography?
There are more photography tips, trip information, and photographs on my website, TouchTheWildPhotos.com.