Common Loon Common Loon
Today's News Report Your Sightings How to Use Journey North Search Journey North

Loon Migration Update: February 24, 2000

Today's Report Includes:

From Fresh Water Lakes to Salt Water Oceans

Wintering and Breeding Range of the
Common Loon
Gavia immer)
Map by D. Bojar
Macalester College

This is the time of year when loons are on their ocean wintering grounds. Ocean life is very different from the freshwater lakes where a loon hatches and begins life. Suddenly, loons are drinking saltwater and eating saltwater fish. When it rains, a loon can drink fresh rainwater dribbling along its beak. While it's raining, it may also drink from the water's surface before the lighter freshwater gets completely mixed in with the salty ocean. But if days pass without rain, the loon has no choice but to drink saltwater. If you drank just half a glass of saltwater, you'd very likely vomit. This would be a good thing, protecting your body tissues from the life-threatening danger of too much salt. The amount of salt in loon tissue is comparable to ours, even when loons live in the ocean. How does a loon survive the change? That's this week's:

Challenge Question # 1
"How do loons adapt to salt water?"

(To respond to this question, please follow the instructions below.)

A Testy Time for Loons
Common Loons, still on their wintering grounds, aren't flying yet. And some loons may not be able to fly at all! It's not because they're sick or injured or in other big trouble. The loons are simply molting, which means growing a whole new set of flight feathers before their migration back to their breeding grounds.

You may not have thought about it, but feathers get worn out, frayed and weakened. That's why loons grow new ones every year. These new feathers will carry them hundreds, or even thousands, of miles to their breeding grounds in a month or two, as well as back to the ocean again next fall.

Unlike eagles or hawks, which often fly about while missing two or three wing feathers, a loon wouldn't be able to fly while missing three wing feathers. This has as much to do with the size of loons' wings as the feathers themselves. Wing feathers are so light and buoyant that they float. For loons to dive and chase fish underwater without popping back up like corks, their wings are as small as possible. If a loon were to try to fly while missing three wing feathers, the surface area of its wing would be too small to hold up its body! As it is, to get up and stay up, loons must beat their wings fast and steady. They never soar or glide for even a moment!

That's not the only reason why this is a testy time for loons. It takes a lot of energy and body resources to grow feathers--especially a lot of large, stiff feathers all at once. Loons can become severely stressed if they are already weakened from disease, for example. Or, any toxic chemicals stored in their body fat can suddenly flood their system with toxins when the fat is used for feather growth. Such things can cause loons to die. A few times, a large loon die-off has occurred in the ocean. The timing is usually in February, right when loons are molting and most vulnerable.

Knowing what a testy time this is for loons, you'll see why folks are so thrilled to spot returning loons in the skies and lakes. Get prepared to join loon watchers with the activities below!

Calling All Keen Eyes

Photo: Woody Hagge
(Click to enlarge)

Before the loons start migrating, there's time to sharpen your observation skills. Although these birds are called Common Loons, they are not commonly seen by most people. Therefore, we have a challenging question to help you recognize a loon when you see one. All you need is a Field Guide to North American Birds and these tips: At first glance, many birds may appear the same. Look more closely and read the information carefully. To identify a bird correctly you must consider such things as size, shape, colors, markings, vocalization, the bird's location, and even its behavior!

Here's your challenge: Look closely at the face of the loon in the photo. Then see if you can answer this question:

Challenge Question #2
"At what time of year was this picture taken, and how do you know?"

There are 2 clues in the picture; can you name them both?

(To respond to this question, please follow the instructions below.)

What's New With Loons?
Loons have many friends where ever they live and nest. Last fall, many organizations came together for the yearly meeting of the North American Loon Fund. What news did they share? The state of Washington will soon decide whether to list the Common loon as a threatened species in their state, where the population remains steady at 10 nesting pairs. Montana is teaching people with a new brochure, "Responsible Watercraft Use and Montana's Loons," after jet skis caused the loss of the only loon nest in the Thompson River drainage. The Biodiversity Research Institute in Maine and the US Fish and Wildlife Service are teaming for a study to find out about the impacts of lead sinkers on loons. Loons can die from lead poisoning after swallowing lead fishing tackle. Wisconsin's Loonwatch is working on lakeshore zoning issues. They want to monitor the impact on loon breeding when human activities and recreational use take place on lakes where loons live. In the concerns talked about in this paragraph, what is common to them all?

Loon Legends and Lore

Photo: Woody Hagge

What do you notice about the loon in this photo? Do you wonder how it got that "necklace" of feathers? Why it has red eyes? You're not the only one who wonders! Storytellers have long created wonderful legends to explain these things and more. You're invited to write your own legends to explain some incredible-but-true facts about loons! Some of the facts appear in this report. For more loon facts and writing tips, don't miss:

Start Watching for Loons!
In many places, this is a good time to start watching for loons. Some other birds may look a LOT like loons, especially in poor light. How can you make sure you;re spotting a loon? Get help from Journey North's Loon ID Page!

Then go out to open lakes to look and listen for these swimming birds, and report your sightings to Journey North!

How to Respond to Today's Challenge Questions:
Please answer ONLY ONE question in each e-mail message!

1. Address an e-mail message to:

2. In the Subject Line of your message write: Challenge Question #1 (or #2)

3. In the body of your message, give your answer to ONE question.

The Next Loon Migration Update Will be Posted on March 9, 2000

Copyright 2000 Journey North. All Rights Reserved. Please send all questions, comments, and suggestions to our feedback form

Today's News Today's News Report Your Sightings How to Use Journey North Search Journey North