A Mid-summer Arctic Midnight with Yellow-billed Loons

by Bryce W. Robinson

For those that forget, it never gets dark in the arctic during summer. The result is a night full of spectacular light for photography, if the skies are clear.

A few days ago, my friend Heather found a pair of Yellow-billed Loons thirty miles south of Prudhoe Bay. I have been hoping for this particular loon ever since I arrived on the tundra, while keeping in mind that it was likely I would never see one. They prefer areas farther west, with more lakes and less oil workers. Like minds, I guess.

Lucky me, to have a friend like Heather, checking areas that I’ve been unable to make it to lately. I only have a week left here, so the loon’s timeliness cannot be overstated. My friends and I made some time last night to make a trip to the loons, hoping they stayed put for the day. In my mind, if I came away empty handed, the midnight sun would provide great photo opportunities with other birds as well.

Too bad the night was full of dramatic rain clouds, letting the sunlight through only in pieces. Too bad for photography, but not for my spirit. It was a perfect night, with near perfect temperatures, and loads of mosquitoes.

Anyway, the photography for the evening was a bust, but the loons were at the pond waiting for us! I’m not sure how to communicate my experience with the birds. Life birds, as birders term the first sight of a bird in their lifetime, can be the most incredible experience, but some leave you wanting. Some birds, for whatever reason, have been a bit anti-climactic for me. Not the Yellow-billed Loon. Perhaps the scenery contributed to the experience, but I must say that my first Yellow-billed Loons exceeded expectations.

The Yellow-billed Loon is in my top ten for the best life bird experiences I’ve had over my years of birding. The night smelled of tundra wildflowers and arctic rain. I laid myself on the edge of the pond for a spell of time, and filmed the birds. Today, my body itches from the hoards of mosquitoes that had their feast on my blood, but the experience was worth the itch. The birds forgot me, and soon drifted close, acting naturally, and providing me not only with some footage, but with a feeling of peace and joy in experiencing an emblematic life of the Arctic Coastal Plain.

Although the light was poor, I am very happy with the footage. I film these birds to share with those who love them as much as myself, but really I film them selfishly, to capture the moment so that I can watch them in years to come, and revisit the feeling of laying on the edge of a tundra pond, watching a pair of Yellow-billed Loons conduct their business.