Mark Ellis takes a closer look at the world than most people. But that’s not limited to his microscopes and lab equipment as a research chemical engineer at 3M. Instead, he’s heading outside where the life-penetrating tool is his camera lens, and he enjoys training it on loons.
As a 12-year-old, Ellis took photos of the wilderness around his grandparents’ cabin in a small lake in Crow Wing County just large enough to accommodate a breeding pair of loons. Over time, he has amassed images of wildlife, landscapes and the Northern Lights.
He is now 61 years old and has spent the past 10 years focusing on the life of this family of single loons near the cabin. From the onset of spring to the onset of fall, her weekly photos document the growth, training and parental dedication of loons. This has resulted in such a close bond that they sometimes rely on him as a surrogate parent.
Ellis said he rises just before sunrise because the best lighting on the lake is usually early in the morning, especially if accentuated by haze. “I’m not a morning person, but… it’s just magical when you’re outside with that light.”
At first he paddled towards the loons in a canoe to avoid the commotion. But later he bought a much larger camera lens, which further motivated him to avoid capsizing. So he bought a used 12-foot rowboat with a small engine. He found that the loons were curious and approached the boats. The relationship has started.
“If I go canoeing now, they’re not comfortable with me,” he said. “But this boat and I, they know.”
Ellis said he was amazed by the dedication of the loons parents. A female usually lays two eggs. Both parents contribute to the training and protection of their young. Both feed the chicks until the absolute time of departure in the fall. However, the chicks do not travel with their parents during migration. He explained that one parent will leave first while the other will stay while the chicks continue to build their flight strength for the trip, some of which can reach 1,200 miles. Research shows that fellow loons generally do not overwinter together even if they return to the same nesting sites.
“They will defend their babies until the last second with their own life and then leave them behind. It’s amazing,” he said.
While much of what Ellis observed was sheer greatness, he also witnessed realities that were difficult to bear.
He noticed how loons alert each other by calling if an eagle is nearby. He said he saw an eagle plunge towards a loon’s nest with a parent still sitting on it. If the parent wanted to save himself, he could simply dive into the water. But this one didn’t.
Ellis said loons can use their beaks as a weapon and spear eagles in the chest. This eagle and loon came within 6 feet.
“With no hesitation as the eagle approached and went into (its) dive… the loon knocked over the nest, headed straight for the eagle and they stood up face to face. It was enough to deter the eagle. It has flown away. “
Sometimes loons are a threat to themselves. Loons without a partner can become intruders in search of prime habitat. Ellis said if an intruder finds chicks on a lake, he will kill the chicks to claim the territory. If the young are on a nest, the parents will leave their chicks under cover and both will face the intruder. When Ellis was there during these times, they often left the chicks with him. “So I keep two tiny puffballs. Apparently they trust me.”
Intruders will also dance, splash, and zoom in to impress the resident female and show forceful gestures to her mate. In 2013, Ellis was inside but heard a commotion on the water, then in the woods. He discovered two loons fighting. They grabbed each other by the beak and hit the opponent with their wings. To avoid disrupting a natural event, Ellis hid behind a blanket and took photos before the loons chased their sight. He eventually tried to yell at the birds, but doubted he had affected the circumstances.
He later found out that if two male loons fight each other, it won’t stop until either one backs down or the fight becomes fatal. Only one loonie emerged.
“I couldn’t believe my beautiful, peaceful loons had this ability,” he said. “But they are defending their home.”
Ellis documents loon activity and shares his photos on his Facebook page as the loon season progresses. True to the scientific side of his nature, he seeks the accuracy of the loonie’s behavior that he photographed before publishing it. As a result, he said many lake residents appear to have attached themselves to the families of the dives and helping to look after them. If he misses a week of reports, he gets comments and messages asking how the loons are doing.
Ellis is also installing floating “loonie alert” signs to avoid the tragic consequences of loons hit by boats and jet skis. The president of the lake association asked that he continue this practice.
“If we can get people to be a little bit more careful,” Ellis said. “(Loons) have enough threats already.”
Some of his own studies are reminiscent of threats to the Minnesota state bird. Ingesting a fishing sinker can kill a loonie in a matter of weeks. Ellis is also briefed on climate change forecasts. With rising lake temperatures, Minnesota could become too hot for diving by 2080.
Famous Minnesota photographer Layne Kennedy said Ellis captured an image that Kennedy says is possibly the best photo of a loon he has ever seen. (It’s a loonie taking off from the water in flight.)
“I kind of like to share beauty as a way to make people feel a connection,” Ellis said.
Scott Stowell is a freelance writer from Ely. He can be contacted through writingoutfitter.com.
Mark Ellis’ interest in nature conservation goes hand in hand with his scientific profession. He recently received an award for sustainability from the American Institute of Chemical Engineers, an international organization. He also donates the proceeds from the dive schedules he publishes to the National Loon Center in Cross Lake, Minn.
For more information on his work, visit facebook.com/markellisphotography Where markellis.com.