Red-throated loons are easy to find, unless you need one. When my wife, Sandi, and I led a Maine Audubon field trip to the Schoodic Point area a couple of weeks ago, I had two goals in mind: One, to find a lot of wintering sea ducks, and two, avoid embarrassment.
The Penobscot Valley Chapter offers winter birding trips each year. On two trips last year, several participants were interested in seeing a red-throated loon, which would be a new bird for them.
“No problem,” I said. On any full day of birding along the Maine coast in winter, you’re bound to see one. They’re uncommon, but not rare. Naturally, the moment the words left my lips, we were jinxed for the rest of the day. We even found a rare Pacific loon last year, but no red-throated.
Common loons are, well, common in Maine. When our fresh waters freeze up in winter, most just head east to the ocean. Many people don’t realize that we have two other kinds of loons that slip into Maine. The Pacific loon is a rare visitor from the west coast. I’ve seen one in York this winter and one has also been reported off Quoddy Head State Park in Lubec. The red-throated loon, however, can generally be found anywhere along the Maine coast in winter.
The red-throated loon is the smallest member of the loon family, which also includes arctic and yellow-billed loons. These latter two are primarily confined to northwestern Canada and Alaska, but the red-throated loon breeds all across the top of the continent. It nests in the shallow ponds, bogs, and wetlands of the subarctic tundra.
Red-throated loons are unique in several ways. The other loon species nest on larger bodies of water containing an ample food supply. The red-throated loon’s preference for small shallow wetlands means that it often has to forage on distant ponds and fly food back to the nestlings. Its legs are not as far back on the body, making it capable of taking flight without having to run along the surface as other loons do. It can even take off from land. Red-throated loons are the only species that do not carry their chicks on their backs. They are the only species where males and females yodel together. Common loon females may make some hoot noises to keep the family together, but only the males make that long tremolo so familiar to Mainers.
When I’m trying to pick out a red-throated loon from the scores of common loons seen everywhere along the coast in winter, I rely primarily on one field mark: the red-throated loon looks “snaky.” It is a smaller, skinnier bird than the other loons. It has a smaller bill, usually tilted upward. It sits low in the water. The skinny neck and upturned bill give the appearance of a snake rising out of the water. I admit, “snaky” is not a scientific term, nor have I ever seen the word used in a guide book. But it works for me.
To confirm my identification, I check a few other field marks. In general, red-throated loons are uniformly pale gray. The throat is white in winter, smoothly transitioning to gray on the back of the neck. The common loon throat is also white, but there is a sharper contrast between front and back, and the throat usually shows a diamond-shaped wedge pattern that becomes conspicuous in summer. As spring approaches, the red throat of the red-throated loon may begin to reappear, but the bird usually heads north before we can see it in full breeding plumage.
Red-throated loons don’t appreciate rough water. They tend to appear in harbors, bays and coves, often close to shore. It makes them easier to find.
I am pleased to say that our Audubon field trip on Feb. 23 enjoyed sightings of many wintering sea ducks, including common eiders, buffleheads, long-tailed ducks, red-breasted mergansers, black guillemots, common goldeneyes and harlequin ducks. We found plenty of horned grebes and a few red-necked grebes. We watched surf, black, and white-winged scoters. We even enjoyed two snowy owls and five bald eagles. We were surprised to find at least five Iceland gulls in the harbor at Winter Harbor. Predictably, common loons filled the binoculars at every turn. For four hours, not one of them was a red-throated loon.
And then, lo, there it was — fishing and preening in Prospect Harbor. Success. It was hard to mistake. It was snaky.
Bob Duchesne serves as a Maine Audubon trustee and vice president of its Penobscot Valley Chapter. Bob developed the Maine Birding Trail, with information at www.mainebirdingtrail.com. Bob can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.