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Speaking of Nature

Speaking of Nature: Breakfast with a loon

  • An immature common loon struggles to subdue a crab in its beak.  Just a moment later, the crab was swallowed whole.<br/>(Bill Danielson photo)

    An immature common loon struggles to subdue a crab in its beak. Just a moment later, the crab was swallowed whole.
    (Bill Danielson photo) Purchase photo reprints »

  • Every once in a while the young loon would rear back and flap its wings to get all of its feathers back in the right place.<br/>(BIll Danielson photo)

    Every once in a while the young loon would rear back and flap its wings to get all of its feathers back in the right place.
    (BIll Danielson photo) Purchase photo reprints »

  • An immature common loon struggles to subdue a crab in its beak.  Just a moment later, the crab was swallowed whole.<br/>(Bill Danielson photo)
  • Every once in a while the young loon would rear back and flap its wings to get all of its feathers back in the right place.<br/>(BIll Danielson photo)

My eyes just sort of opened. No alarm had rung, nor had there been any unfamiliar creaking in the rented house, I simply woke up. I fumbled for my watch and noted (with great satisfaction) that it was 4:55 a.m. My beautiful wife was still sound asleep, so I didn’t exactly spring up from the covers, but my mind was awake, alert, and excited. It was Day 12 of my Martha’s Vineyard expedition and I was going to the beach!

There was no need to make coffee, nor was there any time. The sun wasn’t up yet, but it was on its way and it wasn’t going to wait. You don’t really appreciate how quickly the Earth is turning until you are confronted with that narrow window of opportunity that is presented by the sun close to the horizon. The conditions were perfect, I had time and I had to get a move on.

So I jumped into the car and headed down the little sandy road listening to the long grasses scrape along the undercarriage. A quick left got me out to the paved road and then a short jaunt down the hill brought me to Lobsterville Beach (I’m not kidding, that was the name).

This narrow strip of sand lies on the northern side of the island and you could easily look across Vineyard Sound and see Cape Cod. There was a parking area for residents and I was temporarily a member of this elite group thanks to my rental agreement. So I pulled into the empty lot, cut the engine and stepped out into “the wild.”

At high tide, Lobsterville Beach is probably 25 feet wide. Made mostly of sand with a few softball-sized cobblestones mixed in, it is a wonderful place to sit and take photos during the midday hours because the sun is at your back. In the early morning, however, the sun rises and hits you right in the face, which is ideal for sunrise photos, but somewhat less ideal for bird photography unless you really love silhouettes.

The sun peeked over the horizon at 5:53 and I started snapping photos. I fidgeted with different combinations of aperture and shutter speed as I searched for the perfect image. Then I intentionally threw strange combinations together in an attempt to get interesting artsy shots. I played around for about 20 minutes before I realized that I wasn’t alone.

A bold herring gull had landed on the beach and was looking at me with tremendous hope in its eyes. Did I have anything delicious? Why, yes I did. I had surreptitiously swept some leftover french fries and onion rings from lunch the previous day and I unwrapped the grease-stained bundle to produce manna from heaven. The gull was all too happy to accept the offering.

Then I noticed something really interesting. Just off the shoreline an immature common loon was slowly paddling its way along. There was no way the bird hadn’t noticed me so the only explanation was that humans were so commonplace on the beach that they had simply become a part of the landscape. The loon didn’t seem to really care that I was there and I was all too happy to accept the offering!

I switched lenses on my camera and started taking photos as quickly as possible. Loons within 50 feet are not something that I am accustomed to and I didn’t want to miss out. But there are lots of things to distract the eye when looking through the viewfinder of a modern camera. All manner of numbers glow around the border of the actual image and sometimes they can hypnotize you. This is usually temporary, but if the object of your interest is only there for a short while, you can miss key details.

My momentary hypnosis passed as soon as the shutter speed-aperture problem was resolved. Then I was able watch the bird rather than just look at it. What was it doing so close? It was fishing! But what could possibly interest such a large bird in only two feet of water? Though I didn’t realize it at the time, I already knew the answer to that question.

On a previous visit, Susan and I decided to go for a swim and we discovered that that was easier said than done. Completely obscured at high tide, but completely exposed at low tide, was the heavy carpet of cobblestones that ran the length of the beach. Imagine untold numbers of slippery shot-put-sized stones and you’ve got the idea. Walking on such a surface proved treacherous and painful and when I finally got out into the knee-deep water, I realized something else: the rocks were filled with small crabs (one even skittered over the top of my foot).

Gazing through the viewfinder, I could see that the loon was very interested in what was under the water. The bird spent a great deal of time with its face under the surface and I could swear that I even saw the youngster blowing bubbles from time to time. Then it would make a quick dive and surface with something in its beak.

Sometimes the loon was looking the wrong way, other times the light was wrong, but I eventually managed to snap a photo just as the bird lifted its trophy above the water. I was surprised when I recognized the unmistakable outline of a crab and that is when all the pieces of the puzzle suddenly popped into place. I knew loons liked fish, but I had never seen a loon hunting crabs before.

I snapped photos until there was no question that I had captured the scene and then I decided to press my luck. I got up off the stone surf wall I was sitting on and I started walking toward the water. The young loon didn’t bat an eyelash. Whenever the bird made a dive, I took several large steps. Every time the bird surfaced, it looked at me and then just kept on fishing. This was going to work out nicely.

The bird turned and started paddling to my right, which was going to place it directly between the sun and me. This would have been disastrous, so I decided to start walking down the beach. Every time the bird made a dive ,I would run up ahead of where I thought it might surface. Then I would snap photos as the bird paddled closer and closer. At one point, the loon was so close to me that I had to dial my lens down from 500mm to 300mm just so the entire bird was in the frame.

It was just after sunrise. The sun was shining in my face, the cool breeze coming off the water carried the lugubrious note of a bell buoy and my bare feet soaked up the feeling of the cool, coarse sand. I was out for a morning walk on a deserted beach with an immature loon that was paralleling the shore only 25 feet away and my camera was working perfectly. The gods had smiled upon me once again!

In fact, I got so caught up in the moment that when the loon finally turned and headed out away from the shore I realized that I had left my camera bag filled with about $1,000 worth of equipment sitting on a rock. I had walked so far that I couldn’t even see the bag, so I hustled back as quickly as I could and was relieved to find it waiting for me. It’s a good thing gulls don’t like photography!

So, still basking in the glow of the sunrise and my incredible good luck, I slipped on my flip-flops and got into the car. I had accomplished a full day’s work and it was only 6:47 a.m.! But I wasn’t done. Instead of going home, I turned left and headed for a spot called the West Basin. What did I find there? You’ll have to tune in next week to find out!

Bill Danielson has worked as a naturalist for 16 years. In that time, he has been a national park ranger, a wildlife biologist and a field researcher. He currently works as a high school chemistry and biology teacher. To contact Bill, or to learn more about his writing, visit www.speakingofnature.com

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