Wild Profile: Meet the red-throated loon

A red-throated loon floating on a quiet lake By Wolfgang Kruck/Shutterstock

If you’re asking, “What the heck is a red-throated loon?” you’re probably not alone. This smaller, paler diving bird is a cousin of the Canadian-famous common loon. But the red-throated loon is far less known, and definitely less photographed. One reason? Red-throats breed in the north. The only time a cottager is likely to spot one is when the birds journey south in the fall, stopping along the way at large water bodies including the Great Lakes.

Like other loons, the red-throated loon is a strong swimmer but terrible at walking on land. This is because its legs are positioned far back on its body. No matter—fish-eating loons were designed to dive for their dinner. Or, in the red-throat’s case fly, then dive. They often locate prey while flying—sometimes in flocks. Then, they drop rapidly into the water when they spot a school of fish. Red-throated loons have thin, dagger-like bills (all the better for spearing a meal).

Red-throated loons are more masterful fliers than their common cousins. At least, they’re better at getting airborne. Other loons need a long runway of water to “patter” along before they can take off; red-throats can spring into the sky. This means that they can use small tundra and taiga lakes, or even ponds, for nesting.

Just like the common loon, a red-throated loon loses its red eyes and breeding colours—a rust-coloured neck patch—in the winter. Their generic greyness makes nonbreeding common loons and nonbreeding red-throated loons tricky to tell apart during the cold season. Look closely: a common loon still has a mostly-dark face and neck, with only a blaze of white down the front. A red-throat has more white on its face and neck, with a more black-and-white speckled back. The latter is smaller, with a sinewy neck, a slighter build, and pointier wings.

Cottage Q&A: Why are these loons gathering in groups?

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