Richard Simonsen’s photographic quest began as a challenge from a friend who happens to be a well-known professional nature photographer: capture an amazing underwater picture of a common loon.
The 2011 Audubon Magazine Photo Awards winners.] Simonsen, a 66-year-old dentist and amateur photographer, took the dare, borrowing waterproof equipment and spending weekend after weekend one summer on Moose Lake in northeastern Minnesota. What finally resulted was a frozen-in-time moment of a loon grabbing its next meal, a picture that earned Simonsen first place in the Amateur category of the Birds and Their Habitat section of the third annual Audubon Magazine Photography Awards.
His capture came, by his own account, from a combination of perseverance and a little luck. The year was 1997. Back then Simonsen still shot with a film camera, a Nikon, the exact body of which has been lost to memory. He’d already accomplished his stated goal for the summer—to photograph a loon chick feeding on its parent’s back—when his photog buddy raised the stakes. “So I borrowed an underwater housing. Then I put on a flash and just started shooting,” he says. “Unfortunately you can only get one shot at a time [using this type of equipment underwater], but that just made me take pictures over and over and over again.”
Simonsen focused on a single loon family—mom, dad, two chicks—following them around, getting up close and personal in their feeding area. By the time summer greens gave way to autumn reds, Simonsen says the loons were so accustomed to his presence that they almost seemed tamed. “It was just so special,” he says. “I could still be doing that”—spending time among loons, that is, not shooting underwater. In fact, he hasn’t done it again in the decade-plus since he took his winning photo. “It was so much effort. I ruined a flash because I had it in a baggie and it would leak,” he remembers. “It’s very difficult to hold that equipment under the water.”
He says he loves his winning image, though, mostly because it captures an intimate moment few people see firsthand. “The picture shows the power of [loons],” he says. “They stick their heads under water, and if they see a fish, they get it.”
Their majestic behavior has always drawn Simonsen to loons. And it’s what sent him back to Moose Lake the following spring in 1998 for a loon reunion. He found his adult pair again by identifying their markings and discovered that they’d hatched a single chick.
Yet “the story of those birds ends rather tragically,” he says. The male was killed by a boat, leaving the female to fend for herself and her newborn. As can happen with loons, other adult males of the species attacked the chick over and over. “It was just lying there helpless,” Simonsen says. “We sort of nursed it back to health and tried to put it back with the mother once it was strong again. The next day it was just unconscious under the water.”
Simonsen wouldn’t give up, however. After he and a friend conferred with several loon experts about how to save the chick, they relocated it to another loon family with young. “We let the chick go. He swam over to the [three] and they seemed to accept him,” Simonsen says. “The image I’m left with is the two adults swimming off with two chicks instead of one.”
He pauses, never knowing for sure what happened to that young loon—but hoping for the best. “It was quite an adventure up there on Moose Lake."