Bird Lore: Red-throated Loon

The Red-throated Loon, smallest of the world’s loons, can be seen from time to time along the Edmonds waterfront. It frequents the Inland Marine Waters from fall to early spring, although it is more abundant on the outer coast. It is distinguished from other loons by its thin bill that usually tilts slightly upward, its long body that slopes to the rear, and its low profile on the water. In winter it also shows much more white on its face and neck than do the Pacific and Common Loons. One of the best places locally for seeing large numbers of this loon in winter is Deception Pass. Hundreds often gather there to feed in the tidal currents.

Fish comprise most of the diet of the Red-throated Loon, particularly cod and herring on salt water, and trout, salmon and char on fresh water. This species will also eat shrimp, crab, snails, mussels, aquatic insects, frogs, and leeches. On its breeding grounds it will consume plant material.

The Red-throated Loon breeds farther north than any other loon, reaching the northernmost coast of Greenland. Its breeding territory includes North America, Europe, and some parts of the far east of Asia. It breeds on inland waters, from small ponds to larger lakes, on the tundra and the edge of northern forests.

Courtship displays include both sexes rapidly dipping their bills in water, diving and swimming past each other. They also make fast rushes under water. One territorial display is called the penguin posture, because the birds extend their bodies and necks vertically and bow their heads and bills downward while treading water. Pairs may mate for life. The nest site often is used over multiple years and either is on shore or in shallow water. The nest is either a simple scrape on top of a hummock or is a heap of vegetation. The pair builds the nest together and produces one brood per year.

The female usually lays two eggs that are incubated by both adults for a period of 24-29 days. The young leave the nest and take to the water the day after hatching. Both parents feed the young, For the first few days they get insects and crustaceans. After the first few days, the adults forage far from their nest site, returning from distant lakes or the sea with fish for the young birds. Unlike other loons, the Red-throated Loon does not carry its young on its back. At about seven weeks of age the young can fly.

The Red-throated Loon migrates singly or in small groups along the coasts, usually a mile or two offshore. It is rarely seen inland in the U.S. except for migration stopovers on the Great Lakes. Collective nouns for groups of all loons include asylum, cry, raft, and water dance. Unlike other loons, the Red-throated Loon does not have to run on the water’s surface to take flight.

The North American Waterbird Conservation Plan lists the Red-throated Loon as a species of high concern. Its North American population is on the State of the Birds watch list, which means it is at risk of becoming threatened or endangered in the absence of conservation action. Population declines have been detected across its range, but reasons for the declines are not well understood. Known threats to this species include oil spills, habitat degradation, and entanglement in fishing nets.

You can here the flight call of the Red-throated Loon here:

— By Carol Riddell

Carol Riddell manages the bird education displays, on behalf of Pilchuck Audubon Society and Edmonds Parks & Recreation, at the Olympic Beach Visitor Station.

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