The Common Loon

There is one sound that is associated with the outdoors like no other. That sound is the call of the Common Loon. If you have ever spent time near a lake then you know what that call is. The Loon’s call is both haunting and mysterious as it breaks the silence of a summer’s night and is a sound that will be remembered for the rest of your life.

seeing the common loon in the wild
The Common Loon is also known as the Great Northern Loon and inhabits lakes from Canada to Great Britain.

The Common Loon also known as the Great Northern Loon spends its summers on lakes in Northern Canada, Iceland, Greenland and across to Great Britain. Loons range is size from 24” to an incredible 40” in length, although 32” is the average length. They usually weigh between 3 and 18 lbs with 9lbs being the average weight. The wingspan of these birds is often 4 ½’ to 5’ and they can fly at speeds of up to 75mph (120km/h).

Loons feed by diving to catch fish. The common loon is an excellent diver reaching depths of 200’ and is able to stay under water for at least 3 minutes. Loons catch their food by quietly floating on the waters surface and then quickly diving down to catch a fish when one swims by. Loons will eat sunfish, perch, trout, small pike and bass over the summer. During the cooler months while wintering on the sea coast or in the southern United States and in Africa, loons will eat herring, flounders, and other rock fish.

Adult loons have black heads with red eyes. The beak is also black and shaped similarly to a duck’s beak tapering to a sharp point. The belly feathers are white and their back and wing feathers are black with small white dots. When not breeding, loons turn a brown colour with small white dots. The young are small with light brown feathers. Loons are not hunted for food as they are very greasy, and with such majesty, really who would want to?

Loons nest along the waters edge, usually on islands where they will be safe from predators. Loons are excellent swimmers and divers but their ability to walk on land is limited. The rear placement of their legs makes for excellent propulsion while swimming, but much clumsiness while walking on land. (The name “loon” actually comes from the Scandinavian word for “lame”). Male and female loons help to build their nest and take turns sitting on the eggs. Usually one to three eggs are laid in the spring and early summer months. While adult loons have very few natural enemies, the eggs and young can become prey for fish, turtles, snakes, raccoons, skunks, and mink to name a few.

birdwatching loons
Loons have an eerie call that is both haunting and memorable. Some say the call is soothing others say it is frightening as it echoes across a lake at night.

Once the young are hatched, they ride on their mother’s backs in the water while she looks for food. Boaters must exercise caution not to create waves around loons as the babies can be knocked off causing them to drown. Boaters should also exercise caution around known nesting areas so that wakes from boats do not wash into nests.

Loons take flight by running across the water to gain the momentum needed for lift off. Once in the air they are capable flyers able to travel hundreds of miles. Loons land on water by gliding on their bellies to break momentum and slow down.

Loons are central characters in many folk-tales. Native-American tales feature the loon as a character in stories by the Chippewa and Micmac peoples. Some believe that the loon was a messenger, while others believe its calls were a sign of coming rain. The loon is the provincial bird of Ontario and the state bird of Minnesota. The common loon is so recognized by Canadians that it is featured on their $1 coin which is affectionately known as “the loonie”.

Next time you are out on the water, keep an eye out for the loon and once evening is upon you, be sure to listen for its haunting and beautiful call echoing across the lake.

Copyright 2019 Mike Wilson