Loons of North America (5 Species to Know)

Loons are beautiful and majestic birds that spend almost their entire lives on the water. There are five species of loons in North America and some of them overlap in range and general appearance. Knowing where to find them and what to look for in terms of identification can be incredibly helpful in knowing which of the five species you are looking at in the field.

Arctic Loon

Arctic Loon – Photo by Francesco Veronesi
Identification

In breeding plumage, Arctic Loons have black wings, a gray back of the neck and head, and a white underside. They have white markings on their wings, white vertical striping on the base of the neck and reddish purple coloration on the front of their neck. In nonbreeding plumage they are grayish brown on the top and white on the underside.

Range

Arctic Loons live throughout Europe and on the Eastern coasts of Asia. In North America, these birds can be found in Western Alaska and occasionally show up on the West coast of the United States, but these are rare occasions.

Diet and Foraging Habits

The diet of Arctic Loons vary depending on the season. In winter they eat mostly small fish, but in summer they eat more in addition to fish including crustaceans, insects, and aquatic invertebrates.

Where to Find This Bird

In North America, the only place to even somewhat have a chance to find this European Species is in Western Alaska along the coast line. Otherwise, chasing rare reports of this species along the Pacific coast of the United States is probably the best way to add this bird to your life list.

Common Loon

Common Loon – Photo by Alan SChmierer
Identification

In breeding plumage, Common Loons have a black back, wings, neck, and head with white checkerboard markings on the wings, and a white “necklace” marking. The black on the head and neck is iridescent and can show a green sheen in the right lighting. Common Loons have a white underside and some thin black striping on the neck going down the sides. In nonbreeding plumage, this species is dark gray brown on the back, wings, and top of the head. They also have white on the throat and underside. The species still displays the white necklace marking even in nonbreeding plumage.

Range

Common Loons are extremely wide spread throughout North America. In winter, they can be found wintering along the ocean coastlines of both the Atlantic and the Pacific. They winter as far south as Mexico and as far north as the Aleutian Islands. In spring, the birds wintering in the Southern parts of the continent move north into the Northern United States and most of Canada where they spend the summer.

Diet and Foraging Habits

Common Loons feed primarily on fish but will also eat crustaceans and aquatic invertebrates. They are extremely good at diving for food and can stay underwater for considerable amounts of time. While some species are ambush predators such as herons, Loons are active hunters as they are very agile swimmers.

Where to Find This Bird

As their name would suggest, Common Loons are in fact common in most parts of the United States and Canada at least for some portion of the year. During winter, this species can be seen on the ocean coastlines, while in spring they tend to appear on inland lakes and ponds. During their breeding season, look for Common Loons in deep, clear lakes in the boreal forests where they prefer plenty of plant cover along the shores.

Pacific Loon

Pacific Loon – Photo by Alaska Region U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service
Identification

Pacific Loons are chunky birds with rather complex patterning when in breeding plumage. They have brownish black backs and wings with large white square-shaped markings along with white spots. They have a grayish head with a purplish front of the neck and white and black vertical stripes on the side of the neck. The underside of this species is white. In nonbreeding plumage, Pacific Loons are brownish gray with a white underside.

Range

The aptly named Pacific Loon winters all along the Pacific coast of the United States from Mexico to Alaska. In spring, they move to their breeding grounds in Northern Canada, Alaska, and Eastern Asia.

Diet and Foraging Habits

The vast majority of the Pacific Loon’s diet is comprised of fish. They will also eat crustaceans and aquatic invertebrates.

Where to Find This Bird

Look for Pacific Loons on the coastlines of the Pacific Ocean where they prefer areas with sandy bottoms as opposed to rocky bottoms. During breeding season, this species can be found in tundra ponds and lakes.

Red-throated Loon

Red-throated Loon – Photo by Alaska Region U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service
Identification

In breeding plumage, Red-throated Loons have a grayish brown back and wings. Most of their head and neck is gray with white striping on the back of the neck going up to the top of the head. They have a deep red colored throat which is where they get their name from. In nonbreeding plumage, Red-throated Loons have a white throat and underside. They also have a dark brownish gray back and head with white speckles.

Range

Red-throated Loons winter on the coasts of the United States and Canada. They don’t typically make it too far into Mexico or the Gulf Coast but will winter as far north as Southern Alaska. In spring, they move north across the continent making appearances in large bodies of water such as the Great Lakes. They breed in Northern and Western Canada, Greenland, Alaska, and Eastern Asia.

Diet and Foraging Habits

Red-throated Loons eat a wide variety of fish and invertebrates including squid, crustaceans, aquatic insects, and marine worms. Like other loon species, these birds dive for their food and actively hunt small creatures below the surface.

Yellow-billed Loon

Yellow-billed Loon – Photo by Bureau of Land Management Alaska
Identification

In breeding plumage, Yellow-billed Loons have a black back, wings, and head, with white square markings on the back and wings. They have a white “necklace” marking, a pure white underside, and a large pale yellow bill. Nonbreeding plumage birds look extremely dull in comparison with a white underside and a grayish brown back, wings, and top of the head.

Range

Yellow-billed Loons winter along the Southwestern coasts of Alaska, the Western coast of Canada, and the Northwestern coast of the United States. In summer, they make their way to the Northern shores of Alaska and the high arctic of Northern Canada. Yellow-billed Loons do have a habit of showing up seemingly randomly in the continental United States where they are a rare visitor.

Diet and Foraging Habits

Yellow-billed Loons feed on fish, crustaceans, and insects when they are available in the warmer months. They find food by diving for it. Often times they can be seen dipping their head in clear water to look for food that they can catch.

Where to Find This Bird

Yellow-billed Loons can be found along coastal shores in winter and lakes on the tundra in summer. They don’t often spend time in the center of deep lakes but rather in more shallow areas.

Summary

Loons are fascinating divers that provide nice variety among other water-dwelling birds. Knowing the species that are expected in your state and region can be instrumental in identifying which one you’re looking at in the field. Hopefully, this article has helped to answer some questions about the loons of North America.

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