Grays Harbor Birds — Red-Throated Loon

Size: 25 inches

General Description: The Red-throated Loon is the smallest and slimmest of the loons, and may often be confused with a Cormorant when seen flying. It has a small head and a thin, upward-pointing bill. It is the only loon capable of taking flight from land. The male in breeding plumage is elegantly attired in dove gray with white pin-stripes and a burgundy-colored throat. His head is gray with a dark bill and red eyes, his back a brownish-black with some spotting and the back of the head to the base of the neck has the pin-stripes. In non-breeding plumage, the throat and face are white, with the white surrounding the front of the eyes. Immature birds are more like the non-breeding adults, but with grayer necks.

Habitat: Red-throated Loons nest in small ponds on the tundra, near large lakes or on the coast. When not on breeding territory, they are found in quiet bays and shallow or protected water, and may be seen in small groups.

Behavior: Not only are Red-throated Loons able to take flight from land, they can also take off from the water without a running start, allowing them to use smaller bodies of water for nesting territories. They are the only loon that forages away from the nesting pond during breeding season. When they return from foraging, they fly to the pond, never the nest area.

Diet: The year-round diet of these loons is mostly saltwater fish, but they also eat crustaceans, mollusks, frogs, and other aquatic creatures.

Nesting: Red-throated Loons breed farther north than any other loon and engage in elaborate displays, bill-dipping and splash-diving, followed by fast underwater rushing. They build a saucer or scrape of a nest on muddy ground within a foot of water, or a platform of mud and aquatic vegetation, and line it with finer grasses and some feathers. Both parents incubate two eggs 24 to 29 days. The young leave the nest within a day of hatching, and both parents continue to tend and feed the young. (Who can forget the sight of a young loon riding on its parents back?) Fledging is from 49 to 51 days.

Migration Status: These loons are medium-distance migrants; they fly south along the coast, rarely more than a mile offshore, and often winter only as far south as the middle of the coast of Mexico. Many birds don’t even fly that far, preferring to remain in the Pacific Northwest.

Conservation Status: The population of Red-throated Loons in Alaska has declined 53 percent in the last 20 years. Oil spills and habitat loss are major threats, significant risk factors because such areas are slow to rebound. They use marine waters year round, which makes them vulnerable to pollution of any kind year round.

When and Where to Find in Grays Harbor: The fall migration is in late September and October, but non-breeders are found here year-round. They can most often be seen in our estuaries, the mouths of our rivers, and inside the jetties in calmer waters. I know of at least two birds hanging around inside the old jetty off the Oyehut Game Range in Ocean Shores right now.

Dianna Moore | Grays Harbor Audubon