to Identify Loons and Their Calls
of a Feather
in breeding plumage
Photo Woody Hagge
are unique and beautiful birds, yet sometimes they are tricky to identify.
They hold their bodies lower in the water than most ducks, but one
group of ducks—mergansers—swims low and are even shaped
like loons. Cormorants also have a similar profile in the water, especially
compared with Red-throated Loons, which hold their bills upward in
a similar fashion.
Loon breeding plumage is spectacular. But immature loons and birds in fall/winter
plumage look like a completely different species. And to top it off, there
are actually five species of loons, four in North America. Students along
the Pacific coast may be able to see three or even four different kinds
of wintering or migrant loons at the same time!
Tunes: Four Vocalizations
(see our Loon Dictionary)
are fascinating! In The Common Loon; Spirit of Northern Lakes,
author Judith McIntyre describes them: "The loon's hoots
"are short, single notes given among individuals in close proximity
to one another. They are a form of contact call because they permit individuals
to keep in touch with each other. Loons hoot during ritualized social gatherings
and on the fall staging grounds. Hoots are also used by one loon as it approaches
a group or enters the territory of another loon."
serve as mechanisms to reduce distance between loons. Loons move more toward
each other when they are wailing, and if one loon wails, its mate approaches
and may also begin to wail. Wails seem to be the loon version
of 'come here' and 'here I am.'"
Report the first Loon you see this spring
to Journey North!
Dr. McIntyre refers to W. E. Barklow's description of tremolos,
or laugh calls, "as alarm calls, given during threatening situations.
This means it is most often given when people approach nest or chicks. It
is no wonder tremolos are more often identified as "loon" than
other calls are; people frequently, albeit unintentionally, intrude on loon
"Yodels are male calls, perhaps the counterpart to
male song in most other bird species."
recordings courtesy of Lang
Elliott Nature Sound Studio