Is it just me, or are there more loons on Lake Gaston this winter than usual? This morning, I saw at least 20 of them swimming in Songbird Creek. They are so much fun to watch, the way they loudly splash about, stick their heads under water, and then dive deep to emerge elsewhere several seconds later!
A rookie loon enthusiast, l was surprised to discover the ones I see on the lake lack the distinctive, striking black and white markings typically associated with them, so I decided to learn more about them.
The species of loon we see on Lake Gaston is the common loon (Gavia immer). A migratory bird, it winters in North Carolina, arriving from the north in October, and heads back to its breeding grounds in March.
2 different sets of plumage
In winter, common loons take on a drab, gray appearance. They have dark feathers on their back, the top of their head, and back of their neck. The belly, front of the neck, and chin area are white.
During breeding season, however, their plumage is quite impressive! From March to October, common loons don an iridescent greenish-black neck and head, a white-striped necklace, and a black and white checkerboard back. Their dramatic, ruby-red eye, present year-round, is also much more conspicuous against the backdrop of their breeding plumage. Their red eyes are thought to attract mates and may help their underwater vision.
Loons in flight
The Maine Audubon Society explains the unusual way loons fly by saying, “Unlike most birds, loons have solid rather than hollow bones, making them heavy for their size. In flight, the loon’s relatively small wings and tail give it a pointed and hump-backed appearance.” A publication produced by the organization entitled “Maine’s Common Loon” explains the difficulty loons have taking off by stating, “This high ratio of body weight to wing size makes it difficult for loons to take flight, and they must strenuously flap their wings while running across a quarter mile or more of open water to become airborne.”
This is why they are not typically found on lakes less than 10 acres in size. Once in flight, loons are powerful fliers and can reach speeds of 90 miles per hour!
While this extra weight makes flying more difficult, it makes diving for food easier. According to this publication, “Loons are exceptional divers, and spend much of their time catching fish. Most feeding dives are relatively shallow and last about a minute. Loons may be able to dive to 200 feet, but this is probably not that common.”
So how do loons dive so deep? “Before a long dive, loons reduce their buoyancy by compressing feathers and exhaling to direct the flow of oxygen-rich blood to vital organs,” the publication explains. To view a pdf file of the document, go to www.maineaudubon.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/06/Loon-Guide.pdf.
Other Interesting Facts About Loons
• Loons may look like waterfowl, but they belong to an entirely different family. Ducks, geese, and swans are members of the Antidae family while loons are the sole members of the Gavidae clan.
• The common loon is one of two species in North Carolina this time year, the other being the red-throated loon (which is more typically found on the coast).
• Loons are sometimes mistaken for other diving birds such as cormorants, mergansers, and grebes. While they all float low in the water, the loon has a heavier profile and holds its straight, thick bill in a horizontal position.
• Loons have long, flexible necks and powerful webbed feet that allow them to maneuver underwater with ease. They find their prey by sight, so water quality is very important.
• Adult loons will eat about two pounds of fish a day, and a family of four will consume a little over 900 pounds of fish during the five- to six-month breeding season.
• Loons are named because of the awkward way they walk on land because of the way their feet are set far back on their body. According to Wikipedia, “The North American name loon likely comes from either the Old English word lumme, meaning lummox or awkward person, or the Scandinavian word lum meaning lame or clumsy.”
• Common loons are best known for their four different types of calls. There’s the tremolo, a wavering call given when they are alarmed or to announce their presence; the yodel, the male loon’s territorial claim; the wail, a haunting call loons give back and forth to figure out each other’s location; and the hoot, a soft short call they give to keep in contact with each other.
Maybe someday I’ll be lucky enough to see common loons in the splendor of their breeding plumage and hear their variety of calls. Right now, though, I’m focusing not going “loony” by focusing on the joys of nature.