Mark Ellis examines the world more closely than most people. But it's not confined to his microscopes and lab equipment as a research chemical engineer at 3M. Instead, he heads outdoors where the tool that penetrates life is his camera lens, and he likes to train it on loons.
As a 12-year-old shutterbug, Ellis took nature pictures around his grandparents' cabin at a small lake in Crow Wing County just large enough to support one breeding pair of loons. Over time, he amassed wildlife, landscape and Northern Lights images.
He is now 61, and he's spent the last 10 years focused on the life of that single loon family near the cabin. From spring arrival through autumn departure, his weekly photos document the loons' growth, training and parental dedication. It's resulted in a bond so close 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 generally in the early morning, particularly if accented with mist. "I'm not a morning person, but … it's just magical when you're out with that light."
Early on, he'd paddle to the loons in a canoe to prevent commotion. But he later purchased a much larger camera lens, which further motivated him to avoid capsizing. So, he bought a used, 12-foot rowboat with a small motor. He found that loons are curious and will approach boats. The relationship began.
"If I go out in a canoe now, they're not comfortable with me," he said. "But that boat and me, they know."
Ellis said he's awestruck by the dedication of loon parents. A female will usually lay two eggs. Both parents contribute to training and protecting their young. Both feed the chicks up to the absolute moment of departure in fall. However, the chicks don't travel with their parents during migration. He explained that one parent will leave first while the other remains as the chicks continue to build flying strength for the trip, some believed to be as many as 1,200 miles. Research shows loon mates typically don't winter together even though they return to the same nesting grounds.
"They'll defend their babies to the last second with their own lives, but then leave them behind. That's amazing," he said.
Though much of what Ellis has observed is pure grandeur, he's also witnessed realities that are hard to take.
He's noticed how loons alert each other by calling out if an eagle is nearby. He told of watching one eagle dive toward a loon nest with a parent still sitting on it. If the parent wanted to save itself, it 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 zero hesitation as the eagle got closer and went into (its) dive… the loon flipped off the nest, went straight toward the eagle and they reared up face to face. That was enough to deter the eagle. It flew off."
Sometimes loons are a threat to themselves. Loons without a mate can become intruders in search of prime habitat. Ellis said that if an intruder finds chicks on a lake, it'll kill the chicks to claim the territory. If young are on a nest, the parents will leave their chicks in cover and both will go face the intruder. When Ellis has been there during these moments, they've often left the chicks with him. "So, I'm babysitting two tiny puffballs. They apparently trust me."
Intruders will also dance, splash and zoom to impress the resident female, and exhibit gestures of strength to her mate. In 2013, Ellis was indoors but heard a ruckus on the water, then in the woods. He discovered two loons fighting. They were grabbing each other by the beak and slapping the opponent with their wings. To avoid disturbing a natural occurrence, Ellis hid behind cover and captured photos before the loons chased each other from his sight. He eventually tried shouting at the birds but doubted he affected the circumstances.
He later found that if two male loons are in a fight, it won't stop until one backs down or the fight becomes fatal. Only one loon emerged.
"I could not believe that my beautiful, peaceful loons had that capability," he said. "But they're defending their home."
Ellis documents loon activity and shares his photos on his Facebook page as loon season progresses. True to the scientific side of his nature, he researches the loon behavior he's photographed for accuracy before posting it. As a result, he said many lake residents seem to have become attached to the loon families and help watch over them. If he misses a week of reports, he gets comments and messages asking how the loons are doing.
Ellis also sets out floating "loon alert" signs to prevent the tragic aftermath of loons hit by boats and Jet Skis. The lake association president has requested he continue that practice.
"If we can get people to just be a little more careful," Ellis said. "(Loons) have enough threats already."
Some of his own study is a reminder of the threats facing Minnesota's state bird. Ingesting a lead fishing sinker can kill a loon within weeks. Ellis also is read up on climate change forecasts. With lake temperatures rising, Minnesota may become too warm for loons by 2080.
Acclaimed Minnesota photographer Layne Kennedy said Ellis captured one image that Kennedy said is likely the best loon photo he's ever seen. (It's of a loon lifting off the water in flight.)
"I kind of like sharing the beauty as a way to have people feel a connection," Ellis said.
Scott Stowell is a freelance writer from Ely. He can be reached through writingoutfitter.com.
Mark Ellis' interest in nature conservation dovetails 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 of loon calendars he publishes to the National Loon Center in Crosslake, Minn.
For more information on his work, visit facebook.com/markellisphotography or markellis.com.