Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Not Your Grandmother's Loons

The classic, black and white Common Loon is a regular on calendars, wall paper borders, coffee mugs and any chachkee for the tourist trade in North America where there is a body of water. The haunting yodel, which only males produce, can be heard across lakes and ocean coves through out the summer. For some, the shrieking tremolo is frightening and sends shivers up the spine. For others, it's a familiar comfort, the sound of lakeside camping and fishing trips with your dad. Maybe that's why images of Common Loons sell so well. But, they aren't the only loons in town.There are five kinds of loons, Arctic, Pacific, Yellow-billed, Common and Red-throated.

A Common Loon eating a crab, non-breeding plumage.

Red-throated loons, non-breeding plumage.
Red-throated Loons, or Red-throated Divers are the most widely distributed of all the loon family. They are common on the cove where I live in the winter months. I saw five of them two days ago. I sat on the end of my pier for more than an hour to get these photographs. The sun was shining and it was just under 50 degrees. But, the wind kicked up coming off the water and it was COLD! Nonetheless, I had to sit very still for long enough that they forgot I was there. I looked like just part of the peir to them after a while. Each time I needed to move, to blow my nose or something, I had to wait until they dived. While they were under, I met my movement needs, being careful not to clunk on the deck. That would have vibrated down through the pilings into the water. Once, they resurfaced very close to me, so I could get these photographs.

"Is this my good side?"

Red-throated Loons are migratory. They breed and summer in the  arctic circle. Monogamous, they form long term pair bonds which can last a couple of decades. That's a better marriage record than most humans I know! Both sexes build a mud and stick nest on the ground and care for the eggs and young. Though the Red-throated loon is the smallest of all the loons, their young are ready to hit the water in a couple of days. This differs from Common Loons whose babies ride on their backs for a few weeks. All loons are water birds only coming on land to build nests and lay eggs. The legs of the Red-throated loon are set so far back on its body that it can not walk on land. Like all loons, they dive for fish, mollusks, amphibians and crustaceans. Into the 1800's, the Red-throated loon was used to predict the weather. When the "Rain Goose" flew inland and it's cry was short, the weather would be good. When it flew out to sea with a long, wailing cry the weather would be bad. Loons are protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918 and some international treaties as well. Nonetheless, their populations are declining in some places. They have natural predators, but it's thought that fishing nets, habitat destruction and oil spills are the biggest threats to loons.

Thanks to Wikipedia for this information. Click here for more information about loons.

  • Barr, J. F., C. Eberl, and J. W. McIntyre. 2000. Red-throated Loon (Gavia stellata). In The Birds of North America, No. 513 (A. Poole and F. Gill, eds.). The Birds of North America, Inc., Philadelphia, PA.


  1. Well I know you're a loon, but not a common loon, so which variety are you?!

  2. If I told you the answer to that, I'd have to kill you. As well you know. :)

  3. great post with beautiful pictures. I am non-professional birder, my mom had taught me everything I knew about birding and have always had a soft spot for the loons. We had a camp up North, Cold Stream and toward evening you could hear the sound of the loons. It's a beautiful sound, can seem lonesome but there is also something haunting about it too. The picture of the Red-Throated Loon that you are showing is that common only for salt water, as I've never seen that particular loon?

  4. Your photos and blog entry have instilled in me more respect for Loons...I will NEVER say "Looney Tunes" again when referring to someone's goofy behavior!

  5. Thanks for that, JJ. It's always great to get compliments. The Red-throateds are an ocean goer in as much as they mate, lay eggs and raise young around the arctic circle. Here, we only have them during the winter. This is south for them. They have migrated here. Here, the ocean is open water all winter, so they can eat. I'm sure for them it's like a trip to the Bahamas! I've only seen them in non-breeding plumage.

  6. All of us loons could use a little more respect.