'You Cannot Cue The Loons' — A Conversation With The Reporters And Photographer Behind The Story

Nov 17, 2020

Jesse Costa has captured photos from a crane 800 feet above Boston, in the middle of a blizzard, and while getting tear-gassed. But, he says that trying to photograph loons on a lake in the dark was the toughest assignment he’s ever had.

Costa, a WBUR photographer, along with WBUR environmental reporter Miriam Wasser and Maine Public Radio reporter Susan Sharon worked on and off for over a year gathering the sound and photos to tell the story of scientists making an extraordinary effort to re-introduce loons to Massachusetts.

For a behind-the-scenes look at the work it took to tell this story, I asked the team a few questions:

Jesse, one of your most cinematic shots shows the moment after a loon chick is released. But I understand there’s quite a story behind this photograph, and it started when the scientists tried to get the loon out of the rearing pen.

Jesse: So normally it takes about like 10, 15 minutes to get the chick out of the pen. What do you think, Miriam?

Miriam: Oh, yeah. The one I saw, it was like less than a minute, pretty quick.

Jesse: Well, this one took two hours to get out. One researcher literally had to get into a wetsuit and climb into the pen. They ripped off a whole section of material that lined the pen so they could use it to corral her into a corner.

A loon chick translocated from Flagstaff Lake spreads her wings and looks out onto Assawompset Pond in Massachusetts, her new home.
Credit Jesse Costa / WBUR

Credit Jesse Costa / WBUR

Jesse: And so finally they’ve got her, and then they’re getting ready to let her go. And the one thing that stuck in my mind is, “I haven’t got a real good photo of a release yet,” — nothing I was satisfied with, anyway. So I’m thinking to myself, “I need to get really close to this one because I just need to get something spectacular.”

I’m in the water already, they place her in, and she just floats a little bit. Then all of a sudden she looks at me, and she looks really pissed off.

Jesse: Look at that face! Then she just lunges right at me and grabs the lens hood of my camera and she won’t let go. So I stand up and I’m still shooting. There’s a frame where you can see my leg, and you can see the body of a loon hanging onto the lens until finally she let go. Then she bit me like two or three times in the leg, and then she finally started swimming away.

Credit Jesse Costa / WBUR
Composite of three images in succession of loon attack.
Credit Jesse Costa / WBUR
The loon chick hanging onto my camera lens after I'm standing up.
Credit Jesse Costa / WBUR

Miriam and Susan, you both accompanied the scientists on expeditions to capture loons, and it sounds like those trips had some pretty dramatic moments, too.

Miriam: Yeah, the thing I remember most is you have periods of total quiet, and then it’s like everything coming at once. You hear the loons in the distance making the wail call, the chick’s parents near the boat giving a wavering “tremolo” call because they’re alarmed, a little machine on the boat that emits loon calls and also someone in the boat making a whistling sound to try to attract the chicks.

There were a couple of moments where I had no idea what was coming from birds and what was coming from the boat. The feeling is like being in a domed theater. You just have sound coming at you from all angles. It’s totally disorienting.

Why do scientists have to capture the loons at night?

Miriam: Loons have really good eyesight and they’re pretty timid around boats and humans, as they should be. So you have to wait until it’s very, very dark so they can’t see the boat. And then there’s a spotlight on the boat that they use to locate the loons, but then also disorient them.

Susan: That’s also the reason they prefer to do it on a new moon and not a full moon, because if there’s any glimmer of light in the sky, the loons can see the silhouette of a person on the boat about to scoop them up with a net. And apparently the parents think that the loon spotlight is an intruding loon and will sometimes very aggressively go toward the boat to defend the chicks.

Chris Persico nets a loon chick from out of the water in the Sebago Lake Basin in Standish, Maine.
Credit Jesse Costa / WBUR

Jesse, how were you able to get pictures like that one above? It must have been really challenging to get photos with so little light.

Jesse: This was probably the most challenging assignment I have ever done, especially the captures, just because of the lack of light. The first trip up to Sebago was the only capture that I got images from, and I completely guessed what my exposures were going to be. There were no test shots to take, because as soon as it got dark out, the researchers were working and we all needed to be quiet. My exposures were pretty right on, which was fortunate.

While out on the boat, the scientists didn’t want me to shoot before they actually got the loon in the net, because the noise could potentially scare them away. So that was challenging — trying to get that whole sequence of searching with the spotlight. It took me, I think, two trips up to finally figure out that the only way that I was going to document this was with a long, two-second exposure — and that posed another problem, being on a boat that’s rocking up and down and everyone is moving around. But I got some pretty interesting results, that just have this sort of eerie, haunting quality.

Mark Burton shines a spotlight across the water as Chris Persico uses a pair of binoculars to find loon chicks on Rangeley Lake in Maine.
Credit Jesse Costa / WBUR

I understand it was pretty cold out there — that must have made the job difficult.

Susan: It can be so cold they’ll tell you to bring your winter boots and your parka and your mittens in August. And even though it might seem like a beautiful summer day down at your house, when you get to far western Maine, some of these lakes are pretty remote. And when the sun goes down, it is freezing out there, especially with the wind. And you’re sitting in the boat, so God forbid you wore your sandals or something — you better bring warm socks because it gets wet in the boat.

And if it takes two or three hours and you’re going up and down the lake with the wind blowing, it’s absolutely freezing. And then if you come up empty handed, you’re especially miserable because you didn’t get a loon and you froze and you couldn’t pee and all that.

Miriam: I remember one particular night on Rangeley Lake. Jesse’s doing the still photography, I’m doing the sound stuff, but I’m also trying to take videos on my phone for social media. And my fingers were frozen and I was trying to hold my phone and poking at it like a monster. And I couldn’t feel my hands at all.

Following an examination of a six-week-old loon chick in a parking lot in Yarmouth, Maine, WBUR reporter Miriam Wasser records audio while Mark Burton holds the chick to be transported to Massachusetts.
Credit Jesse Costa / WBUR

Miriam and Susan, some of the sound in the story was really haunting and beautiful. Was it especially difficult to capture sound on these expeditions?

Susan: To me it all boils down to: you cannot cue the loons. It’s like trying to get a cow to moo. You know, when you’re in a barn and you’re doing a dairy farm story, they don’t moo! And same with the loons — it’s just hit or miss. The first two times I went, I don’t think I got very good sound. But the third time it just happened all of a sudden. And I had to tell people “I’m sorry to be rude, but you need to shut up while I try to get the loons,” you know? And then you don’t know how long they’re going to call for, which call they’re going to do. But it’s really magical when it happens. It’s just magic.

Miriam: I was a little frustrated with getting sound of the feeding because I really wanted the sound of the loon diving under for the fish. I tried this over and over and over again. But they’re so small and quiet and quick that it doesn’t even register on the mic. So I ended up only having fish getting poured through the PVC pipe instead.

Is there anything else that didn’t make it into the story that was especially weird or interesting?

Miriam: After they capture the loon, they put it in this special container and take it to be examined by a vet. And they always meet them in the parking lot of a highway rest stop. So it’ll be like midnight and you’re all standing around in this Park and Ride while all these cars are going by, and the vet opens the back of his trunk and someone sits there with the loon and they do all of these examinations. It’s all very matter of fact. And just a very sharp contrast from where you just were.

Tristan Burgess, wildlife veterinarian at Acadia Wildlife Services, examines the wing of a loon chick.
Credit Jesse Costa / WBUR
Chris Persico cradles the head of a loon chick to steady the bird during an examination.
Credit Jesse Costa / WBUR

You’ve all spent a lot of time with loons over the past couple months. How has working on this story affected you, personally?

Miriam: Going into this story, I had no idea that loons once existed in Massachusetts. In fact, I think the only things I knew about loons was that they’re in Maine, they’re black and white, and they make a beautiful sound. I love doing environmental stories like this because not only is it emotionally healthy to do a positive story from time to time, but it’s really fun to learn as much as you can about a topic and then impress (or bore) your friends and family with your newfound knowledge.

Jesse: I lived in Maine for 14 years and I never once saw a loon. And to be able to get that close and to be that intimate with them was amazing! I just have a much greater appreciation for them now. The first chick I saw captured, it was about nine weeks old, and I just couldn’t believe how large and how beautiful it was. Even just as a chick, without the adult plumage, it was remarkable!

Susan: I think that nature is just so mysterious and so wondrous and to get to be a fly on the wall and watch humans try to help a wildlife species like this that’s under so many threats from humans — like lead fishing tackle, and shoreline development and water quality — to see that human beings can help this wildlife species that they contributed to the loss of, it’s just really amazing.

WBUR photographer Jesse Costa (second to right) heads out with the team for a loon capture on Woodbury Pond in Litchfield, Maine.
Credit Miriam Wasser / WBUR

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.