Elegant and graceful with a distinct call that many birders associate with summer, the common loon is a relatively delicate species that requires pristine nesting habitat and exacting environmental conditions to thrive. Because of this, these birds can be one of the earliest indicators of environmental health.
Common Loon, Great Northern Loon, Great Northern Diver
- Bill: Thick, straight, black
- Size: 30-35 inches long with 55-inch wingspan, low swimming profile
- Colors: Black, white, red, iridescent, brown
- Markings: Genders are similar with a black head and neck that can show an iridescent sheen in good light and a wedge-shaped collar of vertical black and white stripes. The breast and abdomen are white, and the back is checkered black and white with finer markings on the flanks and rear. In winter, the plumage is brownish and more mottled with more white on the face and neck.
Fish, invertebrates, crustaceans, aquatic insects
Habitat and Migration:
Common loons can be common sights in both the treeless tundra and boreal forest regions of Canada where large, deep, open bodies of water are found, with their summer range extending from Alaska to the edge of the continental United States. In winter, they migrate to both the Atlantic and Pacific coasts as far south as Mexico, though they can also be found on large inland lakes. These birds inhabit similar habitats in northeastern Europe, particularly Iceland and Scandinavia.
The mournful call of the common loon has a yodeling, warbling quality and a rising pitch. These calls carry great distances across water and have become common summer sounds in the birds' breeding range.
These birds are slow and awkward on land and may seem unable to walk at all, but on the water they are powerful swimmers that can dive up to 200 feet deep for a full minute while they hunt. They sleep on the water and need long stretches of open water to run across to gain enough momentum to take flight.
Common loons are monogamous birds that may reuse the same nest from year to year. A mated pair shares incubation duties for 26-30 days, and after the precocial young hatch, they leave the nest right away and ride on their parents' backs for swimming and diving. Both parents will care for the young birds for 70-80 days, and only a single brood of 1-4 eggs is raised each breeding season.
Attracting Common Loons:
These are not backyard birds and can be difficult to see in the wild because of their shy, skittish nature. They may abandon their nests if spooked and because of this, many common loon nesting areas are protected. Birders looking to see common loons should have a powerful spotting scope available and watch for these birds floating on deep water some distance from shore.