Each cold season I look forward to seeing our winter visitors, always hoping for something new—or at least something I haven’t seen in a while. This year I was not disappointed.
I was privileged to see a red- throated loon. This petite loon breeds in the circumpolar regions of the world, as well as along the coasts of eastern and western Canada . It winters along both coasts of the United States.
My first sighting of a red- throated loon occurred several years ago. I was with a fellow birder; he had located the bird in the waters off Mount Desert Island with his spotting scope. Still, the view was distant and shaky — not the best sighting I’ve ever had.
Recently, though, I had a “National Geographic”-caliber view of this loon as it swam and dove off Willard Beach in South Portland.
The day was bright but cold, with a strong breeze; a storm system had just moved through the day before. A quick scan of the ocean showed a conspicuous absence of the usual suspects: common eiders and red-breasted mergansers. The latter are winter visitors which I had begun noticing in the area a few weeks before. However, I spotted a light gray loon-like bird sitting, as loons particularly do, low in the water. I knew immediately, even without binoculars, this was not a common loon — the profile was all wrong. It was smaller and lighter in color, not as heavy looking as our common loons.
Viewing it through binoculars, I could see its winter plumage pattern clearly. It lacked the hint of a common loon’s “necklace” and was overall very light in appearance; all other loons in winter plumage are generally darker. As well, its bill was short, more slender and more pointed, with a slight dainty upturn, than a common loon’s.
I had fantastic views of the bird as it surfaced after each dive; it may have been hunting small fish. I hoped some day I’d see this loon in breeding plumage, which is markedly different from that of other loons. Its light smoky-gray head is set off by a deep chestnut patch on its throat; there is fine black and white striping on the back of its neck, shading into almost uniform gray-brown hued wings and back — this loon lacks the black and white “checkerboard” pattern that is so distinctive in common loons and the other loons as well.
In fact, this loon differs from other loons in every respect, according to “The Birds of North America” species account. Unlike the other loons, which need to run along the water for at least 100 meters before taking off, this loon needs very little distance, and can even take off from land.
It also lacks the familiar territorial “yodel” given by the other male loons, such as the common loon; instead a mated pair engages in duets, utilizing a few different calls. According to the BNA, this loon has nine different vocalizations, compared to the four types of calls other loons use.
Researchers have termed one of these calls the “Plesiosaur call,” which has been described as “hideous and far carrying,” sounding like a “rolling growl.” This is a sharp contrast to the hauntingly beautiful cries of other loons.
Red-throated loons differ from other loons in the care of their brood, as well. They may leave the natal area and travel several miles to obtain food for their young, and they do not carry their young on their backs as do other loons.
After reading about this intriguing loon, I hope to have many other opportunities to observe wintering individuals along our coast.