Monday, November 30, 2015

The Birds of Winter: Common Loon

I was starting to miss my weekly nature posts, so I decided to launch another blog series to help beat the winter doldrums. Every week I will feature a bird species that winters in the mid-South.

We tend to think of winter as a season of departures.

The departure of warmth.

The departure of green.

The departure of birds.

While it is certainly true that our favorite things about the warmer months have come to pass, there are still arrivals to look forward to.

Many species of birds make their winter homes in the mid-South, after breeding in the more northerly states, or even as high as the Arctic Circle.

Most of them have shed their breeding finery in exchange for drabber garb to help them blend into the winter landscape.

They spend their winter days simply searching for food and staying warm.

A Pine Siskin foraging
You won't usually hear them sing except on rare occasions, so they can be a little harder to find this time of year.

But getting outside and bird-watching is a great way to beat the winter blues (which I can attest to).

I thought I would begin with a water bird - my absolute favorite bird to see and hear on Center Hill Lake: the Common Loon.

We don't get large numbers of waterfowl at Center Hill. The waters are deep and the shoreline is rocky - not ideal habitat for dabbling birds that need shallow waters for feeding and foliage to hide in.

It is, however, the perfect habitat for divers; and Loons are masters of the underwater world.

Field of View
They are incredibly powerful and agile underwater in pursuit of fish, reaching great speeds as they chase them through the deep. They propel themselves with their large, webbed feet, and can make 180 degree turns in a fraction of a second while pursuing their quarry.

Their underwater eyesight is excellent, but only when the waters are clear. For this reason, loons are good indicators of water quality. (Although they will still inhabit muddier waters and eat mostly crustaceans, when necessary.)

They have been known to dive as deep as 200 feet, depending on water clarity.

A loon's legs are situated rather far back on its body, making them very clumsy on land. Luckily, they rarely come ashore, except to breed.

A young loon showing off his foot. Loons occasionally like to hold a foot out of the water. It is thought that this helps with thermoregulation. 
This also means they can't take off straight from a sitting position on the water. They have to get a running start before they can get airborne, which is the reason that loons stick to larger bodies of water.

(This is true of all birds categorized as "divers," and if you happen to see waterfowl getting a running start as they take off, you know you have a diver.)

They do occasionally get stranded during migration, if they happen to land on water without sufficient surface area. Loons will sometimes even get trapped on wet roads and highways because they appear as bodies of water from the air.

Their diet consists almost entirely of fish, with their primary targets being smaller species like perch and sunfish.

Cool Wildlife
Inside their bill are sharp, rear-facing "teeth" which help them to grip slippery fish. They usually swallow them underwater, but sometimes you sill see them chasing one another when they have landed a particularly nice catch.

Another interesting adaptation to their underwater lifestyle is the fact that they have solid bones rather than hollow ones, making them less buoyant and better at diving.

Common Loons breed in the far northern states and Canada, selecting crystal clear lakes with islands and hidden coves for their nest sites.

Tennessee's Watchable Wildlife

Their worldwide wintering range also includes parts of western Europe.

Their striking black and white breeding plumage provides a stunning contrast to their red eyes.

For their nests, they pile up plant matter and then one loon sits in it to form a depression and proceeds to build the material up around its body.

Maine Audubon
The female lays 1-3 eggs which hatch within 26-31 days.

You will often see the chicks hitching a ride on their parent's backs.

Flight School Photography
They are lovingly attended by their parents for 12 weeks, and then the juveniles are left to fend for themselves when the adults migrate South in the fall.

The young birds gather in flocks and then migrate together a few weeks later.

They will remain in their wintering grounds (the coasts, typically) for several years before returning north, and may not breed until they reach 6 years of age.

Their haunting calls are very familiar to those who live around lakes in the far north.

They are most famous for their yodel, which is a territorial call issued by the males, primarily during the breeding season. Each male's yodel is unique unto himself.

This is also where they get their common name ("crazy as a loon").

The tremelo is the most frequently heard call, and is used by both sexes to alert to something new or unfamiliar in their territory, or to announce their arrival.

The most common sound heard in winter is the wail. This call is what loons use to communicate their location to one another. It is one of the most haunting sounds in all of nature, and makes my spine tingle every time I hear it.

Every once in awhile, on those really still winter days, we can hear this call echoing from the lake at our park house. That is one of the things I will miss most when we move.

They are fairly large birds, measuring 32 inches long and weighing 9 pounds with a wingspan of 46 inches.

By the time they arrive at our lakes in the mid-South, they have exchanged their fancy livery for drab gray and white.

Their silhouettes, however, are still unmistakable, even from great distances.

They remind me of a plesiosaur, somewhat, especially when they dip their heads underwater to see what's below them.

They continue to haunt our local waters throughout the cold months, and eventually molt their winter plumage. We then have the privilege of viewing them in their breeding colors for a short while before they make the return journey North, usually sometime in April.

One last fun fact: each bird species has a specific term referring to when they group together (for instance, a gaggle of geese). Many of these terms are rather amusing.

A group of loons is known as a "cry," "loomery," "raft," "water dance" or my favorite, an "asylum".

If you would like to venture out in search of Common Loons this winter, check out large inland lakes or coastal waters.

You can also find local bird-watching groups on facebook to get tips on birding locations. or you could consider joining Ebird; a free, online community of bird-watchers where you can submit observations, view maps of bird sightings and even track birding forecasts.

So bundle up, grab those binoculars (or better yet, a spotting scope) and scan the water's horizon for their characteristic shape.

If nothing else, you may be fortunate enough to hear them wail.

It will make the bitter cold worth it, I promise.



  1. Birds or winter indeed. Can you believe it's December already.

    1. I know! I can hardly believe this year is almost over! Thanks for stopping by. :)

  2. What amazing photos! Thanks for sharing at My Flagstaff Home!


  3. So great that you are in a loon wintering area. Although I live pretty far north, they are not very common in my area and I have only seen one once.

  4. And now I need to add listening to loons yodel onto my to-do list! Beautiful birds. <3

  5. Oh wow....they are really beautiful! These are really great pictures. Thanks for sharing!

    Thanks for linking up with Green Thumb Thursday! I hope to see you back this week!