There are five loon species in the Gaviidae family, all of which breed in North America. The Common Loon (Gavia immer), also known as the Great Northern Diver, is the best-known species and the one that American birdwatchers are most likely to spot. These diving waterbirds occupy both fresh and saltwater environments where they hunt fish and other aquatic animals.
This article will dive into all things to do with Common Loon migration, so let's get into it, do loons migrate?
All Common Loons are migratory, although they fly varying distances depending on where they breed and overwinter. Some individuals make long-distance migrations of over 3000 miles while others fly only short distances from the coast to nearby lakes. Loons breed in the spring and summer at fiercely guarded nesting sites on clear freshwater lakes.
Most breed in Canada and Alaska, although some birds breed in the north of the lower 48 states. When their lakes begin to freeze over, loons head south to spend the winter in coastal waters all around the United States.
All Common Loons are migratory
In the spring and summer, Common Loons develop beautiful dark plumage with a checkered black and white back, black collar, and iridescent black head. Even their eye color changes to a deep red in anticipation of the breeding season. In the non-breeding overwintering grounds, these birds are seen in much paler plumage, with grey upper parts and a white belly and throat.
Loons are better designed for life in water than in the air. They are very fast in flight, although it takes considerable energy to remain airborne because of their heavy bodies and small wings. As a result, migrating loons flap their wings constantly at up to 2.8 flaps per second, which can be exhausting just to watch!
This article covers the migratory behavior of the Common Loon, a wonderful waterbird with a hauntingly beautiful call.
Common Loon taking off for flight from the water
Common loons can be seen in any of the lower 48 states while on migration to and from their coastal overwintering grounds. They can turn up off the coasts of every state, in the waters of the Pacific and Atlantic oceans, and the Gulf of Mexico.
Most loons migrate out of the United States in Spring, although some birds also breed in the far north in states like:
A pair of Common Loons swimming in the water together
Common Loons migrate long distances by flying rapidly during daylight hours. They are known to use favorable winds to help them on their journey, and they may also use updraughts to help them gain elevation.
Loons usually fly below 300 feet (91 m) when migrating over water. They fly much higher when crossing over land, however, sometimes reaching heights of over 8860 feet (2700 m) above sea level.
Common Loons begin their fall migration between late August and November, depending on how far north they spent the summer. They usually arrive at their overwintering grounds by November and remain there until the following spring.
They begin their return to their summer breeding grounds in the months between March and June, with a definite peak in April and May. Loons do not waste any time in heading to their breeding grounds, often arriving before all of the ice has melted on the lake.
Loon with chick on the back
Loons nest in lakes and ponds because these freshwater environments provide a safe and sheltered environment to build their nests and raise their young. These breeding sites in the far north freeze over in the winter, making it impossible for the birds to survive there year-round. Loons migrate to coastal areas where the water does not freeze and where they can hunt fish.
Common Loons can travel over 600 miles (960 km) in a single day and migrate a total distance of over 3200 miles (5150 km). They migrate less than 100 miles (160 km) from their breeding grounds to their overwintering grounds in some areas, however.
A pair of Common Loons at sunrise
Loons migrate to freshwater lakes and rivers to breed. Most loons migrate to coastal waters when these environments begin to freeze over, although some prefer to overwinter on inland water bodies at lower latitudes in the United States.
Loon migration can last a single day or take several weeks, depending on how far the birds must travel. These birds are capable of surprisingly fast level flight, although they often stop when migrating long distances.
Common Loon rising out of the water
Common Loons may travel nonstop in some areas where the distance is relatively short. Researchers in the Northeastern United States found that the birds traveled non-stop between their breeding lakes and the coast. Loons that migrate longer distances do not fly nonstop but make several stops along the way. They are also known to use staging areas where hundreds of birds congregate together.
Loons are strong fliers, capable of speeds up to 70 miles per hour (112 km/h). These diving birds cannot simply take off from the water, however, because they need a long ‘run up’ and air movement from the opposite direction to give them the lift they need to get airborne.
Sadly, some loons get trapped on small waterbodies when they can’t get into the air. Some birds even mistakenly land on shining wet asphalt, leaving them stranded.
Common Loon in winter plumage
Loons do not usually migrate in flocks or with their young or breeding partners. They generally fly alone or in small groups. Long-distance migrants often congregate in large numbers at staging areas, however. They stop at these lakes and bays to rest and refuel before completing their journey.
All adult Common Loons are migratory, although subadults are known to stay in their wintering grounds for an entire year.
Common Loon sat on the nest
Common Loons spend the winter along the Atlantic, Pacific, and Gulf of Mexico coasts. Their overwintering habitat consists of inshore and offshore areas up to about 90 miles (150 km) from the land. Common Loons also overwinter on large rivers and inland lakes in the southern United States.
Summer is the breeding season for Common Loons, a time when adults head north to lakes and rivers in the north of the USA, Canada, and Alaska to breed. They typically nest in larger freshwater lakes with plenty of islands, coves, and bays. Loons prefer lakes with minimal human disturbance and clear water to see and hunt their fish prey.
Common Loon calling out in early morning on Wilson Lake, Ontario, Canada
Loons are known to visit the same areas in winter each year. Some adults have turned up in the same overwintering area for at least 16 years in a row! Loons often return to the same lake to breed, especially if they have successfully nested there in the previous year.
Common loons are fiercely territorial over their limited breeding sites, which is why they cannot always return to the same spot to nest.
In fact, these birds often engage in vicious fights if they fail to find an unoccupied territory to nest in. They can inflict serious damage with their sturdy, sharp bills, and these fights often end in death.
A family of Common Loons
Loons migrate during the day. They usually begin their flights in the morning, particularly if flying a long distance.
Loons spend the night on the water. They sleep by turning back their heads and tucking their bills into their shoulder to relax their neck. Loons do not sleep all night, instead taking a series of naps that average about 24 minutes long.
Common Loons occur right around the coast of North America, from Alaska in the northwest to Newfoundland in the east. They also visit the other side of the Atlantic, off the coast of western and Northern Europe. They breed inland in the Northern United States, Canada, and Alaska, as well as in Greenland.
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