by Stan Tekiela
July 9, 2004
Photo by Stan Tekiela©
As a wildlife photographer I am in the field observing and photographing all aspects of nature anywhere from 3 to 5 days a week. It doesn’t matter what the subject. From crawling insects to drop dead gorgeous orchids, from tiny hummingbirds to gigantic moose, nothing escapes my watchful camera and lens.
With this much time spent in the field I observe some of the most unusual animal behaviors. Witnessing these behaviors is always a thrill for me and I find that I am continually amazed by nature.
For example, I have been documenting and photographing "a year in the life" of a pair of Common Loons (Gavia immer). About once every two weeks I spend several hours in the morning and again in the evening with a pair of loons that have two young chicks. I have captured many intimate moments of the adults feeding the young or the young riding on the parent’s backs. Through my many hours with these loons I have documented all sorts of interesting behaviors such as group fishing techniques, defending territories, how they need to run across the surface of the water to take off, or how they skid on their bellies on the surface of the water while landing, and one behavior that I really wasn’t prepared for—assaulting.
I think its common knowledge that loons tend to be highly territorial. From my observations I would agree, but they are not territorial in the way you might think. Adult loons regularly gather in groups of up to 10 individuals. They seem to enjoy each others company and they often hunt for fish together.
However, you don’t want to be another species of water bird on the same lake as the loon. I first witnessed a female Wood Duck landing near the shore of my loon’s lake. Right away both parents submerged and moments later popped up just a few feet from the duck. Each parent lunged for the duck, just as the woodie took flight. I remember at the time thinking to myself, that seems unusual, what threat would a female Wood Duck have to these enormous birds.
Within an hour an adult Western Grebe landed on the lake near some Bullrush. I immediately maneuvered the boat closer to the grebe for a better look and maybe some pictures. But I wasn’t the only one moving in to get closer to the grebe. One of the adult loons also moved in, but not to get a better look. Before I knew it, a full blown fight broke out between one of the loons and the much smaller grebe. Through my lens I could see water splashing everywhere, beaks and feet flailing about in every direction.
Within another moment, the second loon came racing past my boat running on the surface of the water with its wings propelling him along just like oars on a boat. The second loon joined in on the brawl. The grebe was not only out numbered he was half the size of the loons. I thought to myself, this is not going to be pretty, and sure enough it wasn’t. Within 30 seconds the loons had bitten and kicked the grebe so many times the grebe lay nearly lifeless on the surface of the water. Unable to control myself I shouted out loud, "they have killed that grebe".
Satisfied that the grebe was no longer a threat, the loons strutted about, stretched their wings and called excitedly back and forth to each other before they swam back to the other side of the lake to join their young. The grebe, which lay fatally wounded, slowly righted himself but was obviously not doing well. I could see a large laceration on the side of its head and it was bleeding. I could tell by the off-balanced floating position, the grebe had a significant head injury. I thought, "What should I do"?
As a wildlife photographer and naturalist I have a duty to not interfere with nature. I am there as an observer and biologist. I knew that to step in during the assault would have been wrong, but now that the loons were gone and the grebe was clearly in jeopardy I should take action. I waited about 10 minutes, watching and photographing the grebe as it swam in circles and was clearly not doing well. Finally the decision was made to get closer to the grebe.
As the boat moved up to the grebe, it was obvious what to do. I scooped up the grebe in a large plastic bin and secured the lid. This grebe needed some medical attention quick. I phoned the Wildlife Rehab Clinic and let them know I was coming in with a Western Grebe and it had a head injury.
Upon arrival at the clinic the staff admitted they don’t see very many Western Grebes, let alone one that was assaulted by a pair of loons. I was able to show the doctor the images of the assault on the back of my digital camera, and filled in the details with my own observations.
The laceration on the grebes head wouldn’t be a problem to heal, but the doctor suspected something worse, and sure enough the x-ray revealed a skull fracture. The recovery time for this kind of injury would be long but the prognosis looks good. We hope to return the grebe to the wild by the end of summer and you can bet that I will be there to witness and photograph the event. Until next time…
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