Grays Harbor Birds — Common Loon

Size: 32 inches

General Description: The Common Loon is a large, water bird with a heavy body, a big bill that is held straight out and varies in color by season and age, a thick neck, and usually has a protruding forehead. In breeding plumage, March through October, both male and female have dark heads with red eyes, a dark bill, a white and black collar, white breasts, and black backs with white checkering. Adults in non-breeding plumage and juvenile birds are brownish-gray with white throats and mostly paler colors around the eyes. They are considered widespread and common in North America. Their famous haunting, yodeling cry can be heard day or night, even when they are flying.

Habitat: During the breeding season Common Loons are found on large, northern, fresh-water lakes, both wooded and secluded. They need plenty of room for takeoff, and a good supply of small fish. In winter, they prefer salt water and shallow areas close to shore, but can also be found overwintering on fresh-water lakes.

Behavior: Though solitary while on their feeding territories, Common Loons congregate at night in loose groups on the water or while in flight. They may swim with their faces under water looking for prey before diving, and when swimming under water use only their feet for propulsion. Breeding displays include bill dipping, splash-diving, and “penguin-dancing,” a vertical position with outspread wings. The yodel call signifies territorial ownership.

Diet: Their diet consists mostly of small fish up to about 10 inches and swallowed underwater, but they also take crustaceans, mollusks, leeches, and frogs, with the occasional aquatic plant, and those are usually brought to the surface and consumed. The young are fed small fish, some plant material, and aquatic invertebrates, but as the chicks develop fish become the major prey item.

Nesting: Both the male and female build a nest either on or very near shallow water. It consists of aquatic vegetation, twigs, and grasses formed into a mat that is partially hidden. It is often reused from year to year, and is a work in progress throughout nesting season. Common Loons also use man-made, floating platforms, like a raft. Both parents incubate two eggs for 26 to 31 days. The young are able to leave the nest, swim, and dive underwater within 2 to 3 days, but both parents continue feeding and caring for them until they are ready to go off on their own at about 75 to 80 days.

Migration Status: Common Loons generally migrate singly or in small flocks, just offshore, low over the water. They winter south to northern Mexico, or the entire coastline of the United States. Fall migration is late August to late November, and spring is late April to early May.

Conservation Staus: There are no real data for the numbers of Common Loons through recent history; though the nesting numbers in Washington seem to be increasing, it may be because of increased sampling efforts over the last 20 years. It is listed as a “species at risk” by the Gap Analysis Project because it is potentially threatened by so many things, such as pesticides, mercury contamination, lead poisoning, oil spills, and nest destruction and abandonment due to boats and personal water craft/jet skis. Common Loons do not breed until they are 5 to 7 years old, sometimes older, and the delayed breeding results in low productivity, making it harder to rebound from declines. Fortunately they are a much-loved bird and have aroused extensive public concern and action across the continent; many who live on or frequent popular lakes are very aware of nesting areas, and are working to protect them by “adopting” a nest and keeping close watch on the area throughout the nesting season.

When and Where to Find in Grays Harbor: Common Loons can be found in quiet areas around the harbor, especialy in the fall and winter. Non-breeding adults can often be seen in the shallows just off the many sand bars and quiet areas off the jetties. But they can even be seen in the summer off the coast.

Dianna Moore | Grays Harbor Audubon