The Loon Whisperer of White Bear Lake

by | Jul 2024

Baby on Board

Photo: Ellen Maas

The Minnesota state bird is Ellen Maas’ lifelong passion.

Loons have been a part of Ellen Maas’ life for as long as she can remember. The retired Washington County District Court judge grew up on White Bear Lake in Birchwood Village and now owns a home just around the bend from her parents’ place. And despite a familial love for Minnesota’s state bird, it wasn’t until adulthood that she witnessed a loon
on White Bear Lake.

“As a child, I don’t recall loons on the lake,” Maas says. But in 2011, she spotted not only one family of loons, but two. Ever since, the loons have had a presence on the lake.

These days, she is considered (informally) the leader of the White Bear Lake Loon Whisperers. Working closely with the Minnesota DNR, Maas and her husband, Len Pratt, have placed artificial nests on the lake to attract nesting loons. Most mornings, they depart at dawn to check on the nests. “It’s our time together,” Maas says. “We get out on the boat with our coffee and check the loons.”

Photographer Ellen Maas

Photos: Chris Emeott

Maas has seen White Bear Lake’s residents take steps to protect the beloved bird. “There is a community investment in the loons on the lake,” Maas says. Water skiers now avoid the loon nesting areas, and jet skiers respect the shorelines that are home to the lake’s three artificial nests. The caution is important to the species’ survival. “It’s happening more and more that we see only one chick surviving,” Maas says. Even so, as loons return to their nests year after year, the lake’s loon population is holding steady.

In the early mornings, Maas takes advantage of the calm waters and photographs the loons. She has garnered local and national recognition for her photos, culminating in the selection of her photograph Baby on Board at the 2023 Minnesota State Fair.

It was with her mother’s encouragement that she entered an image in the state fair’s photography contest. The photo, depicting an adult loon with a chick settled on its back, was framed for the event. Maas’ mother kissed the frame for good luck before it was sent off. “My mom loved loons and was my number one fan,” Maas says. Unfortunately, her mother passed away only five days after sending the photo, which made it into the highly competitive show. Maas now considers the image a nod to her mother’s love and support, and it continues to receive awards nationally.

Ellen Maas

The latest recognition was actually in this magazine; the photo took first place in the wildlife category of the 2023 Lens on the Lake photo contest.

“[The loons’] story is getting told all over the country,” Maas says.

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