Wail of the Loon: A Pleasant Wildlife Surprise in Banff National Park

A short tale of a sunrise spent in the Canadian Rockies alongside a pair of common loons.

It always seems to be that when you least expect something, it happens. That was the case for me when photographing in Banff National Park, Alberta this past summer.

I was ecstatic to be heading back to Banff for the fourth time in the past few years as the combination of wildlife and scenery is second to none. For months, I had mapped the locations I had wanted to photograph and where the wildlife would be hanging out around during late June, as spring started its transition into summer. One of the locations that made the top of my list almost immediately was Two Jack Lake. The views of Mount Rundle rising above the tranquil waters of the small lake located along the Minnewanka Loop instantly stood out as a “must-have” landscape photo, as it already had for thousands of other photographers who ventured here before.

I woke up at 4:00AM (that’s what you get for visiting a northern location right after the solstice) my second morning in the park to head out to the lake for a sunrise shoot. When I arrived there were only a couple of other hardy souls who managed to set their alarm clocks to such a ridiculous time. I found a location high above the lake and set up my tripod and camera during the last few minutes of the morning twilight hour:


As the sun began to rise over the mountains, I thought I could faintly here a long wail-like sound coming from the far end of the lake. It was too quiet to really hear it, so I shrugged it off as my imagination playing tricks on me.

The initial 30 minutes of the sunrise was not a thriller due to some rapidly moving clouds, so the two other men who seemed disappointed in not getting alpenglow, decided to pack up and leave, making me the sole photographer in the area. I headed down to the lake where I planned to take some more pictures as the sun began breaking through the clouds and creating some extremely dramatic light post-sunrise light. I was having a good enough time photographing the broken light across the landscape when I heard a sound I have been craving to experience for years.

Across the lake I could see two white dots floating near the opposite shore. It was a nesting pair of common loons and I did not have to get a close look to know that as they began to give off a high pitched wavering call that can only represent the northern woods.

For over 30 minutes this pair of common loons circled the lake, eventually coming within 25 yards of where I stood. They would shift between these high-pitched calls and a pattern of eerie wails that seemed to float in the air for an eternity. The calls alone are enough to send chills down your spine as their haunting tone has stirred the minds of past explorers and modern day campers alike. I was absolutely enthralled, as I never expected to first witness a morning duet of common loons on this trip, especially not in such a picturesque setting.


Common loons are migratory birds who spend the winters along the coasts of North America as well as lakes, rivers, and ponds further in the South. In spring, they migrate back up north, most likely to the same freshwater lake they were the year before to find their mate and build a nest. Throughout the summer, they will remain in one area, as they raise their chicks and hunt for small fish.

Common loons are a great indication of water quality as they generally only choose lakes with crystal clear water, which make it easier for the bird to find fish while diving. I figured since the lake was big enough and the loons seemed to have a nest in a small cove across the way, they would most likely be around for the coming days.

I returned four times throughout my time in Banff to find the loons yodeling and singing to each other as their sounds echoed across the water, woods, and mountains of the Canadian Rockies.


 


Published: February 3, 2017

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Chase Dekker

Monterey

Wildlife photographer and biologist currently based in my coastal hometown of Monterey, California. Always looking for the next wildlife adventure!