Red-throated LoonGavia stellata

adult, breeding
Jari Peltomaki/VIREO
immature (1st year)
Herbert Clarke/VIREO
adult, nonbreeding
Richard Crossley/VIREO
adult, breeding
Arthur Morris/VIREO

Family

Description

The smallest of its family, the Red-throated also breeds farther north than any other loon, reaching the northernmost coast of Greenland. It may nest at very small ponds, doing much of its feeding at larger lakes or coastal waters a few miles away. This species takes flight from the water more readily than other loons, often taking off without a running start; unlike the others, it is also able to take off from land.

Habitat

Coastal waters, bays, estuaries; in summer, tundra lakes. Breeding habitat includes small ponds as well as larger lakes, mostly on tundra but sometimes within edge of northern forest. Mainly on ocean in winter (a few on large lakes); often in shallower water than other loons, as in protected bays, large estuaries.

Feeding Diet

Mostly fish. Includes cod and herring on salt water, and trout, salmon, and char on fresh water. Also shrimps, crabs, snails, mussels, aquatic insects, leeches, and frogs. In early spring in high arctic, may feed on plant material also. Young are fed mainly insects and crustaceans for first few days.

Feeding Behavior

Loons do their foraging by diving from the surface and swimming underwater. They often swim along the surface with their heads partly submerged, peering about underwater, watching for prey before they dive. They are propelled mainly by their feet, but may sometimes use their wings also when turning or in bursts of speed. Loons find their food by sight.

Nesting

May mate for life. Courtship displays include both birds rapidly dipping bills in water, diving and swimming past each other, making fast rushes underwater. Both members of pair defend nesting territory against intruding loons. Nest: Site, often re-used from year to year, is on shore or in shallow water. Apparently both sexes help build nest. Nest is a heap of vegetation, or sometimes simple scrape on top of hummock; nest material may be added after incubation begins. Eggs: Usually 2, sometimes 1, rarely 3. Olive with blackish-brown spots. Incubation by both sexes (though female may do more), 24-29 days. Young: Leave nest and take to water about 1 day after hatching. Both parents feed young, rarely carry young on their backs. Young can fly at about 7 weeks. 1 brood per year.

Eggs

Usually 2, sometimes 1, rarely 3. Olive with blackish-brown spots. Incubation by both sexes (though female may do more), 24-29 days. Young: Leave nest and take to water about 1 day after hatching. Both parents feed young, rarely carry young on their backs. Young can fly at about 7 weeks. 1 brood per year.

Young

Leave nest and take to water about 1 day after hatching. Both parents feed young, rarely carry young on their backs. Young can fly at about 7 weeks. 1 brood per year.

Conservation

Populations probably stable, but vulnerable to development in high arctic and to pollution in coastal wintering areas.

Range

Usually migrates singly, sometimes in small groups. Generally migrates along coast, a mile or two offshore. Rarely seen on inland waters south of Canada except on Great Lakes, where large numbers may stop on migration.

Listen

courtship duet
mournful notes

Similar Species

adult, breeding

Yellow-billed Loon

A big dagger-billed diving bird of wilderness waters. Closely related to Common Loon but even larger (the largest member of the family) and more northerly. Summers on high Arctic tundra, winters off wild northern shores, and occurs only in very small numbers south of Canada. Its great size, remote range, and general rarity give the Yellow-billed Loon an aura of mystery for many birders.

adult, breeding

Arctic Loon

The Old World counterpart to our Pacific Loon, entering North America mainly as an uncommon summer resident in far western Alaska. The two are very similar, and until recently they were combined as one species under the name "Arctic Loon." The true Arctic Loon (of the form found in eastern Siberia and western Alaska) is larger than the Pacific Loon, but its habits are similar.

adult, breeding

Common Loon

A long-bodied, low-slung diver. Many people consider the loon a symbol of wilderness; its rich yodeling and moaning calls, heard by day or night, are characteristic sounds of early summer in the north woods. In winter, silent and more subtly marked, Common Loons inhabit coastal waters and large southern lakes. In such places they are solitary while feeding, but may gather in loose flocks at night.

adult, breeding

Pacific Loon

This loon is hardly "Pacific" in summer -- its breeding range extends across northern Canada as far east as Hudson Bay and Baffin Island. However, the great majority of these birds head west to the Pacific Coast to spend the winter.

adult

Clark's Grebe

Described to science in 1858, Clark's Grebe was soon dismissed as a mere variant of Western Grebe, and thereafter was ignored for over a century. Studies in the 1970s and 1980s showed that Western and Clark's, though extremely similar, are actually two distinct species. Minor differences in face pattern, bill color, and voice seem to be enough to prevent the two from interbreeding most of the time, even where they nest in mixed colonies. Apparent hybrids have been found, but they are a minority of the population.

adult, breeding

Western Grebe

Western Grebes are highly gregarious at all seasons, nesting in colonies and wintering in flocks. Their thin, reedy calls are characteristic sounds of western marshes in summer.

adult, breeding

Red-necked Grebe

A large grebe of northern marshes and coasts. Not especially wary when not molested by humans; nests on park lakes in some cities, such as Anchorage, Alaska. Colorful, noisy, and conspicuous on its nesting territory, it seems a different bird in winter, when it is gray and silent, a solitary bird of offshore waters. Rather clumsy in takeoff, and not often seen flying except in migration.

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