• Loon and baby on lake

All bird photographers want that perfect shot, and sometimes they’ll go to great lengths to get it (read Audubon magazine’s feature). The problem comes when that pursuit jeopardizes the welfare and safety of the birds themselves.

LoonWatch wants to make sure our contest photos are taken in an ethical way. While that might sound easy, it’s often a challenge to distinguish a photo that’s been taken responsibly from one that hasn’t.

The guiding principle: Place the welfare and safety of the loons and their habitats above all else and avoid disturbing them in any way. Here are some tips to help you do that.

  • LoonWatch’s general rule of thumb for good loon etiquette is to keep a distance of two hundred feet from loons and loon chicks.
  • Carefully watch the bird’s behavior. You will quickly learn to recognize signs of nervousness, and when you see those signs, you should slowly back off. A long lens will often get you that great shot without getting close to your subject. If you see a loon display these behaviors, you need to back off:
    • If you approach a loon too closely, the loon may raise its head and look toward you.
    • Another behavior nervous loons display is the tremolo or wail vocalization.
    • An extreme reaction to a human that is much too close is the penguin dance.
  • Never flush birds (that is, disturb them and make them fly or swim)—either your subject or other birds near your subject. In breeding season, it can interfere with reproduction.
  • Be particularly careful when photographing nests. Be sure not to keep the parents away from the nest during incubation or when they’re feeding their chicks. A bird’s greatest defense against nest predation is camouflage, so never remove anything near the nest in an effort to get a better shot.
    • If you approach a loon nest, at first, the loon may raise its head in an alerted position to better view the disturbance.
    • A loon’s first defense is to remain inconspicuous. If you continue to approach the nest, the loon will put its head down to the water and flatten its body in a hang-over posture to try to hide from view. If the loon is startled, it will flush abruptly and may kick the eggs out of the nest.
    • A loon that is in the water and near the nest will often remain low in the water with only the head and sometimes part of the back above the water’s surface. It is trying to look small and out of view while it keeps on an eye on your activities near the nest.
  • Never get too close to a loon family with chicks. If you separate a loon parent from its chicks, this could be fatal for the chicks, especially when they are very young.