Some Loon

Pacific Loon (Gavia pacifica)

It’s easy to identify a loon. They’re big and they sit low in the water. And they have that formidable dagger-like beak. But to progress from “That’s a loon!” to “What kind of loon is it?” is another story. I spent a good many minutes reading the various online authorities. In breeding plumage the ID is easy. But in winter the Common Loon and the Pacific Loon are practically twins. I’m putting my two cents on the Pacific here based mainly on the way that the blurry brown from the top of the head spreads softly over and around the eye (photo right). The Common is said to have a clear white crescent over the eye. But that isn’t a hard and fast signal. I have to serve my winter loon IDs with a grain of salt. I may well have identified this exact bird as a Common Loon when I saw it last year.

If a Pacific Loon it is, it came here on a migration from Alaska or northern Canada, where it breeds and nests in the Arctic and subarctic tundra and taiga regions in ponds like these:

Aerial view of Yukon-Kuskotwim Delta, one of the Pacific Loon breeding areas (Wikipedia photo)

Large numbers of them spend the winter in waters around Mexico, which makes a lot of sense when you come from the Arctic. They’re said to be the most abundant loon in North America, often migrating in spectacular daytime flocks, but this one appeared to be solo, similar to other loons I’ve seen here over the years. They also breed in Siberia and central Asia, and some of them cross the ocean west or east for the winter. They’re mainly fish eaters, but will eat whatever other protein is available, and they’re keen observers of marine life. Their red eyes give them a clear view under water. Where there’s a school of smelts or other small fish, loons are likely to gather by the hundreds. They’re great divers; they can stay under for five minutes, which is amazing for a bird. Their legs attach far back on their bodies, almost useless on land, but very effective under water like propellers on a submarine. After this one started its dive, I walked briskly along the shore in the direction it was heading, hoping to film it again when it came up. I seriously underestimated its underwater speed. It surfaced a good 50 yards ahead of where I expected it, and I gave up the chase, having only some snapshots and the few seconds of video you see above.

Pacific Loon (Gavia pacifica)

More about them: Wikipedia Cornell Audubon

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