RED-THROATED LOON(Gavia stellata)

The Red-throated Loon is a diving bird that measures around 64 cm (24 in.) long, which is a small size for a loon. It is widespread in the Arctic regions. The breeding adults have a red throat, a grey head and neck, charcoal back, tail and wings, and white under parts. The sides from the neck are finely striated charcoal on white. The eyes are red, and the bill is black in summer and grey in winter. The legs and feet are grey. Chicks are brown with brown eyes. Juveniles are a washed out version of the non-breeding adults.

Outside the breeding season, adults have a white throat and neck, a black crown, nape, and upper parts, which are speckled or finely striated with white. The bill is light grey. The whole body shape of this loon, including the bill, is well adapted to swimming and diving. The bird often holds its head with the bill tilted upward. The bones of this loon have a higher density, which allows the bird to partially sink itself when frightened.

The English name ‘Loon’ comes from Shetland ‘loom’ and refers to the bird’s poor ability to walk on the ground, due to its legs being positioned at the back of its body, which helps for swimming though. The Latin ‘Gavia’ has a complicated origin, as it originally was the name of a duck species, the ‘smew’. However loons are not related to ducks, even if they have webbed feet, but the name remained nevertheless. As for ‘stellata’, this Latin word means ‘with stars’, and it refers to the plumage of the non-breeding adult. To complicate things a bit more, this loon species is called ‘Red-throated Diver’ in Europe.

The call of the loons has been described as ‘demented’ (origin of the ‘crazy as a loon’ idiom and the adjective ‘loony’, which means ‘crazy’ or ‘lunatic’), or a ‘lament’ (‘loon’ might be derived from Old Norse ‘lómr’ which means ‘lament’). In Canada the dollar coin displays a Common Loon, and is thus called a ‘loonie’.

The Red-throated loon inhabits fresh water lakes that can be quite small, as it doesn’t need a long ‘take off strip’ of water to become airborne. It is found mainly in the coastal tundra in the summer. As opposed to other loons, it is able to fly directly from land. Another difference with other loons is that parents don’t carry their chicks on their backs. The main food source for the red-throated loon is fish, but it will also eat vegetation, insects and crustaceans, or amphibians.

Although the red-throated loon does not breed on PEI, it is fairly common in the spring, and common to very common in fall while on migration. As for summer and winter, there have only been occasional sightings of this bird on the island so far. Its overall breeding range is located in the northern part of Canada and the other circumpolar countries. It spends the winter along the coasts of North America, Europe and Asia.

Conservation: although the red-throated loon population has declined in some areas but increased in others, and thanks to its widespread range, it is not yet listed as a species of concern. However it is susceptible to habitat loss from coastal pollution and to entanglement in fishing nets.

Red-throated Loon with young - near Olfusa, Iceland - June 6, 2009 - David Karna
Red-throated Loon with young – near Olfusa, Iceland – June 6, 2009 – David Karna
Red-throated Loon, non-breeding adult - Keyport, NJ - Feb. 26, 2009 - Peter Massas
Red-throated Loon, non-breeding adult – Keyport, NJ – Feb. 26, 2009 – Peter Massas