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VOLANT, Pa.-Without binoculars while attempting to identify water birds, Loons are especially difficult to distinguish apart from Ducks, Grebes and Geese. Although they are all water birds, these species are classified separately according to scientists. Specifically, Loons have a certain behavior type that can be identified even without proper equipment.

One behavior type that Loons are associated with is their distinct sounding communication calls. Although the Loons do not have one call for every circumstance, these birds loudly project four separate calls that can be distinguished apart from each other. The four calls include the Wail, Tremolo, Yodel and Hoot. The Wail is a social interaction call between mates and can be used at night to find their specific match. Wail is a smooth, high pitched call. The Tremolo call is used in emergency situations; it can either be used for alarming family members or in search of a another Loon. This call sounds like a “crazy laugh” and is quite loud. The Wail call is sometimes used in response to a Tremolo call. Another call used by family members is the Hoot, with more of a “hooo” sound, this is meant for family members to locate each other. The last call is unique only to a male Loot called the Yodel. Primarily a defense mechanism, the Yodel calls to another male Loot that has entered its territory. The reason for being unique is that every male Loot has a Yodel that can be identified to an individual. Meaning that every Male Loot has a different sounding Yodel. According to the Canadian Lakes Loon survey, “Loons are most vocal between mid-May to mid-June.”

Even with binoculars, Loons can be a task to tell apart. Flying smoothly in the air is not their specialty even though they can reach speeds of up to 70 mph. So how can they obtain food so easily? One particular characteristic that separates them from some other water birds is their ability to dive under water. Unlike birds that predominantly fly for food, Loons have more dense bones in their body so it’s easier for them to dive. Most other birds have hollow like structured bones making it easier to fly due to the weight difference. Having heavier bones means heavier body and in return making it easy to dive underwater. It’s not just their weight that plays a role in their dive, large webbed feet contribute greatly to its downward propulsion movement. Unless a Loon needs to make a sharp turn to catch prey, their wings will be held tight against their body for improved aerodynamics. To first find the food, they must stick their head and neck into the water to locate prey. Once it has a target insight, it will quickly dive underwater and can last up to a minute without emerging to the surface. A minute does not seem like a long period of time, but they can travel down almost 80 yards in depth. Loons are predators while diving. Their typical diet consists of small fish, frogs, snails and salamanders. Adult loons are more capable of catching bigger fish like perch and catfish.  

Photo by Michael Despines

Taking off in the water is not an easy task for any bird, but it is especially difficult for Loons considering their body weight and an average wingspan of on-
ly 50 inches. Some water birds can fly straight off the water with little effort. Just like Canadian Geese, Loons need double or triple the distance to produce lift with a running start. If the wind is right, it can take them up to 100 yards to take flight. Another benefit of their large webbed feet, these birds push against the water for increased speed.

With Loons behaviors are defined, let’s take a look at the different types and their colors. Spending most of its time in Canada but migrates to the United States is the Common Loon. During summer, a Common Loon will have a white breast, spotted black and white back, a black head and a black bill. During migration, adults will have gray backs, bills and head with a white neck; similar to juveniles. Smallest of them all is the Red-throated Loon. Their colors consist of spotted black and white backs and a grayish front that partially runs up its torso. And of course adults have a red throat. A Black-throated Loon will have solid black head, and striped black and white lines that are random across their body, almost like a Zebra. The most common Loon around North America is the Pacific Loon. Spending most of it’s time on the Pacific ocean, these Loons will arrive on land in arctic tundras for it’s breeding season. Similar to Black-throated loons, their backs have black and white stripes going across. These have red eyes, and dark gray throats with a gray head. Last but not least is the Yellow-billed Loon; their colors consist of spotted black and white backs, dark red eyes and a yellow bill. Around their neck is a white band with vertical black stripes going all around.

Yellow-billed Loon/ Photo by Gerrit Vyn

Red-throated Loon/ Photo by Gregg Thompson

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Now that Loons are easy to identify, we can be confident in our bird identification to make sure we are correct. If you’re not sure if it’s a Loon, don’t blink because it may dive out of your sight!

 

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