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Loons: just passing through


One May afternoon, I happened to be working in the yard when I thought I heard the mournful call of a loon. I was almost done with my work, and when I was finished, I headed down to Walker Lake with a pair of binoculars to see if I could find what had made that noise. After a little bit of searching, I could see a pair of birds a little larger than the common mergansers that frequent the lake. From a distance, they have the silhouette of a merganser, but larger and darker. However, once you hear one of these waterfowl call, you will likely recognize the unmistakable yodel of a common loon.

This winter-plumage loon has just started its molt into its breeding plumage, as evidenced by the checkerboard pattern on the wings. This individual was at the coast, off Montauk, NY, during mid-March. The common loon is also known as the great northern diver; they and can dive to depths in excess of 150 feet in search of fish and crustaceans. 

Loons can be found in our region from April to May, but one year I did see one on the Delaware River as late as mid-June. An immature bald eagle tried to snatch the loon from the water, and every time the eagle would get close, the loon would vocalize before diving under water. The two-year-old eagle attempted about a half dozen times, each time perching on a nearby tree between attempts. It was amusing to watch.

The common loon has a breeding plumage that looks like a checkerboard pattern across its breast and wings. With its black head, black and white neck banding and red eyes, it is a striking bird once close enough to discern its features. However, they do not have this plumage year-round; their winter (non-breeding) plumage is duller, grey, with white under the throat that extends down the breast. Most of the wintering populations of loons will be south or along the coast at our higher latitudes. Like most aquatic birds, they need open water to forage. In the loon’s case, their fare is fish; they are very powerful swimmers once underwater.

Loons are listed by the NYSDEC as a species of special concern; they prefer quiet, uninhabited lakes for breeding, and development is putting pressure on these breeding habitats. Also, about 30% of the observed mortality of loons in NY State is due to lead poisoning from lead fishing sinkers. Sinkers made of alternative alloys are available, and NY has banned lead sinkers from certain upstate lakes in an effort to reduce the threat.

More information about loons can be found at NYSDEC’s web site: www.dec.ny.gov/animals/7074.html.


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