Red-throated loons ‘not often seen’ in Comox Valley

The red-throated loon is the smallest and lightest of the loon family, and is not often seen along the east coast of Vancouver Island.

RED-THROATED LOONS are rarely seen on the east coast of Vancouver Island.

RED-THROATED LOONS are rarely seen on the east coast of Vancouver Island.

There are five species of loon in the order known as Gaviiformes.

These include the common, yellow-billed, Pacific, Arctic and the less common red-throated.

The red-throated loon is a migratory, aquatic diving bird found in the northern hemisphere and is circumpolar in distribution. Breeding range for these loons usually extends from northern British Columbia to Alaska, and they winter from northern British Columbia down to Mexico; there is a known breeding colony in Haida Gwaii.

The red-throated loon is the smallest and lightest of the loon family, measuring only 24 to 27 inches in length and is not often seen along the east coast of Vancouver Island.

Adult summer plumage for these loons is dark grey seen from above the water, on closer examination the back is speckled with fine light grey markings; below the water the undersides of both winter and summer plumage is white.

The head is grey with a maroon-coloured throat patch and the back of the neck is finely striped with white. Juveniles’ colouration includes black and white speckled backs and wings with a light grey neck.

Like all loons, the red-throated loon has a sturdy flat body with a thick neck and prominent head. The legs are set way back on the body and three of their toes are webbed.

This species of loon has a slender, sharp straight bill, which is often carried at an up tilted angle; in summer the bill is black and changes to pale grey in the winter.

All loons have dense bones that help them submerge in the water. Large feet and powerful legs propel their streamlined bodies down into the water and they are known to dive to depths of 30 feet.

Powerful flyers, red-throated loons are easy to distinguish in flight, they drop their head and neck below their horizontal bodies, which gives them the profile of a hunchback.

During the winter, loons tend to be more aloof, foraging in small groups along the coastal areas; in summer they migrate to their breeding grounds where they frequent smaller ponds lakes and even rivers. They are able to use smaller bodies of water, as they are the only loon that does not need a “runway” of water to get airborne; they can manage to launch from land by pushing off from their breast and legs.

The menu for these loons includes fish especially herring, molluscs, crabs, frogs, insects, fish spawn and sometimes plant material. Fish will be speared usually after an underwater chase when they will dive using their wings and feet to assist them.

Mating rituals for these loons are very dramatic including racing side by side on their feet across the water or facing each other with their bodies out of the water balancing on their feet as the vocalize by “yodelling” to each other. Long-lived red-throated loons are monogamous mating for life and they return annually to their nest sites that are often just scraped out of shallow vegetation.

Two greenish brown speckled eggs are produced which blend in with the vegetation to help camouflage the eggs. Eggs are a favourite of the red and arctic foxes as well as gulls, and often a replacement clutch will be necessary.

Parents are very protective of the young chicks, but it is thought that unlike other loon species the young are not carried on the mother’s back.

Major threats to loons include oil spills or other water pollutants, habitat loss, entrapment in fishing nets when they dive and have been known to fall victim to coastal wind farm turbines.

If we can believe old folklore, loons were called rain birds. If the loons were flying inland, giving short cries, fair weather was predicted. Those flying out to sea giving out long wailing cries were harbingers of rain and stormy weather.

If this were true, MARS would not have been called to rescue a red-throated loon that headed inland to Gold River in a rain storm last week. It crash landed onto the roof of the community centre and then slid off and fell to the ground.

It made an attempt to become airborne but failed miserably; after a short period of time, it managed to regain strength and was returned and released by the water. Other than its pride, nothing seemed to be hurt!

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For updates on Semi and Petro, the latest eagle casualties, visit our website www.wingtips.org and link to our Facebook page.

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The Whistle Stop Pub in Courtenay is hosting a pub night fundraiser for MARS on Jan. 25. It should be a fun event that will hopefully raise some much-needed funds.

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To report injured wildlife, call 1-800-304-9968. For all other calls, ring 250-337-2021.

Sandy Fairfield is the educational co-ordinator for the Mountainaire Avian Rescue Society (MARS). The MARS column appears every second Friday.

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