VOLANT Pa – The Volant Strip Grasslands and the Lawrence County Black Swamp is a birder’s paradise. I could be in the middle of an open field, walk a short distance and you’re surrounded by trees. Be sure not to go too far or you’ll get wet feet from the scattered bodies of water that are tucked away behind the rolling hills.
The variety of habitats and their close proximity attract a wide diversity of bird species, particularly waterfowl. You could argue that the series of small ponds attract community of birds. As the Tweetspeak class discovered, these patches are home to Canada Geese. They are also a rest stop for some Tundra Swan migrating north to the upper parts of Canada and Alaska. Cornell Lab of Ornithology All About Birds provides a distribution map to show the range of the swans. The weather conditions were perfect for seeing all kinds of waterfowl. Some other species we saw were:
- Canada Geese
- Northern Pintail
- Green-winged Teal
- American Coot
With the range of bird species spotted the class asked the question, “Where are the Loons?”
To answer this question we must first consult our field guides. According to the Sibley Field Guide to Birds of Eastern North America, here are the species of loons you can find on our continent.
- Common Loon
- Yellow-billed Loon
- Pacific Loon
- Red-Throated Loon
As its name indicates the Pacific Loon is only found on the west coast of the U.S. The Yellow-billed is a year-round resident of the Pacific Northwest, along the coast of Canada and Alaska. Like the Pacific and the Yellow-billed, the Red-Throated Loon is a year-round resident of the west coast, however, it is also a year-round resident of the eastern part of the country, along the Atlantic Shoreline. It is rarely spotted inland and migrates briefly over the great lakes. In all reality if you were to spot a loon in western Pennsylvania it is more than likely going to be a Common Loon. The Common Loon is a year-round resident along the east and west coast of North America, particularly the southeastern states of North America.
Although the Common Loon does not reside in our area it does migrate across the entire country. These Loons migrate through Pennsylvania to Canada where they spend their summers. Since we know that there is a possibility of loons being in the Volant Strip Grasslands and Black Swamp of western PA we can use data from eBird that has been imported by citizen scientists. This data shows us that from 2000 to 2016 a Common Loon has been spotted in this area in the first week of May. There were eleven people who went birding in the Volant Strip Grasslands and Black Swamp on this week. Out of these eleven people, 9.09% of them have spotted a loon here. What we can conclude from this information is that it is possible to see a loon in our area, but rather unlikely.
The odds of me spotting a loon may not be in my favor, but I remain hopeful. If the Tundra Swans can stop in the Black Swamp so can the loons. The Black Swamp is a great place for migrating birds to make a much needed stop. Like the swans, loons could use the Black Swamp as:
- Resting place during their long journey
- An opportunity to replenish on food
- A safe haven from bad weather
Any of these reasons could explain why we spotted the Tundra Swan. It was amazing to see a rare species for our area like the swan, but it was not as satisfying as seeing a loon. I have always heard about the haunting call of a loon. After researching loons a litter further I have heard recordings of this call and it makes me want to pursue them farther. Now that I am a more experienced birder I know where and what to look for.
Loons like the water. Their legs are very far back on their body, so they do not move on land well. I would begin my search in the northeastern part of the country where they are more commonly spotted. From here I would concentrate my search to lakes and coastal areas. The Audubon Society Guide to North American Birds says that loons are attracted to lakes in coniferous forest zones.
Some key identifying features are:
- Black head
- Long neck in comparison to its body
- White and black wings on neck
- White spotting on wings and back
- Narrow bill
I may not be able to spot a loon locally, but maybe this is a good excuse to take a road trip Main to complete my search.