Common loons are one of Maine’s most charismatic wildlife species. Loons are a symbol of the wild beauty and mystique of the Pemaquid Peninsula, so much so that PWA’s logo was designed to feature them. PWA’s work to protect water quality helps to protect loon populations. How? By helping to provide loons with what they need to survive and thrive.
- What loons need to thrive
- How PWA’s work protects loons
- 6 Ways to be loon-friendly
- Annual loon count
- Facts about loons
- Listen to loon calls
- Good fishing habitat. Loons are visual predators, so they must have clear, clean, swimmable water to successfully locate and capture their food.
- Abundant food. Loons primarily eat fish, so they must have abundant and healthy fish to eat.
- Safe nesting habitat. Loons need shoreline habitat to nest, so protecting loon nesting sites is essential to keeping loons coming back year after year.
- Controlling stormwater runoff, which is a major cause of diminished water quality from siltation and nutrient loading. See PWA’s LakeSmart Program.
- Preventing the spread of invasive aquatic plants, which can be a major problem for loon habitat and food supply. Plant infestations that clog the water can make it difficult or impossible for a loon to swim and dive. Plant infestations also can choke the water of oxygen, which is harmful to fish populations. See PWA’s Courtesy Boat Inspection Program.
- Protecting nesting areas. PWA has developed signage (see right) that is placed on private property at select locations around the ponds in the watershed to remind boaters to observe No Wake regulations as a way of preventing nest disturbance and shoreline erosion.
- Educating about preventing and reducing toxins in loon habitats.
- Reducing the incidence of lead poisoning. The number one cause of death of adult loons in Maine and throughout New England is lead poisoning from the ingestion of lead sinkers and lead-headed jigs. See PWA’s Lead Tackle Exchange Program.
- Reducing pondwater acidification. Pond water that is highly acidic can negatively impact loon health and reproductive success. In very simple terms, surface waters become acidic due to a chemical reaction that results when the water uptakes carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. PWA encourages people to take actions to reduce carbon emissions and thereby lessen the acidification problem.
- Reducing pondwater mercury levels. Pond water that is contaminated with mercury also can negatively impact loon health and reproductive success. PWA helps spread the word about opportunities for people to support mercury-reduction bills at both state and federal levels.
- Educating about responsible development of the lakeshore, especially near loon nesting sites. Loons are known to return to traditional nest sites year after year, so buildings and boat ramps on islands and shorelines near traditional loon nesting sites can cause loons to abandon nest sites.
- Get the Lead Out. Bring your lead tackle in to the PWA office and replace it with non-toxic alternatives, and encourage other anglers to do the same!
- Prevent Entanglement: Totally remove fishing line from the water and dispose of it in a trash receptacle.
- Do Not Disturb: Obey no-wake law while boating within 200 feet of shore in order to prevent nest disturbance.
- Again, Do Not Disturb: If you see a loon, keep your distance and watch with binoculars.
- Protect Loon Habitat: Take care of the pond’s water and shoreline by being LakeSmart.
- Discourage Loon Egg Predation: Predation is a major cause of nest failure. Raccoons, skunks, American crows, common ravens, and herring gulls are major predators of loon eggs and chicks. These scavengers have increased in number due to plentiful human garbage, so the key is to stop adding to the problem: Secure garbage cans, do your part to collect lakeshore litter, and keep pet food out of reach of wildlife.
The Maine Audubon Society began its annual Loon Count in 1983. Eight ponds on the Pemaquid Peninsula are among those surveyed in the statewide count: Biscay, Boyd, Duckpuddle, Little, McCurdy, Paradise (Muddy), Pemaquid, and Muscongus (Webber).
Each year, the third Saturday of July is set aside for the count, and it always takes place from 7:00 to 7:30 a.m. that day. Counters volunteer to survey their pond — usually the one on which they live or have a boat, kayak, or canoe — and then report the results. Each counter is equipped with a map of the pond on which the counter marks time and location of sightings and whether an adult or chick has been seen. If a loon is sighted while in flight, that is also recorded.
For more information or to volunteer to help with the count, email the regional coordinator, Susan Gallo at Maine Audubon.
The trend in the loon population in Maine is shown on the chart to the right. For detailed results from past counts, visit The Maine Loon Project web site.
North America is home to five species of loons: the red-throated loon, Pacific loon, Arctic loon, yellow-billed loon, and common loon. The common loon is found throughout Maine and is the one we see on the ponds of the Pemaquid Peninsula.
Fun facts about the common loon
2 to 3 ft (66 to 91 cm)
6.5 to 12 lbs (3 to 5 kg)
Primarily a piscivorous (fish-eating) carnivore. Loons like fish – panfish, perch, ciscoes, suckers, trout, bullheads, smelt, and minnows. They also may eat frogs, leeches, crayfish, mollusks, salamanders, amphipods, and insects but are likely to do so only when fish are not available.
Average life span in the wild:
Adult loons rarely are eaten by other animals (except bald eagles), but their young can fall prey to skunks, raccoons, foxes, snapping turtles, and large predatory fish such as northern pike.
How did the loon get its name?
The tremolo call of the common loon sounds like wild laughter, giving rise to the expression “crazy as a loon.” Interestingly, however, the word “loony” is not related to the word “loon”. “Loony” comes from “lunatic”, a word that comes from “lunar”, because long ago some people believed that a full moon made people go crazy. Despite calls that make it sound maniacal, the word “loon” actually comes from a Shetland Islands word “loom”, which comes from the Icelandic word “lomr” and the Swedish word “lom”, which both refer to someone who is lame or clumsy. Loons were called this because of how awkward and clumsy they appear on land.
Scientific name and classification:
The common loon’s scientific name is Gavia immer. It belongs to the genus Gavia (which comes from “gull” in Latin — no one knows why Johann Forster, who accompanied Captain Cook on his voyage and named the loon, named it for a gull) and the species immer (which comes from “diver” in Latin [immer is related to “immerse.”]).
Their closest living relatives are penguins and a group of birds called the “tube-nosed swimmers” (including albatrosses, petrels, and shearwaters).
Summer: Alaska, Canada, and northern U.S. Winter: Great Lakes, Atlantic, Pacific, and Gulf coasts, larger rivers and reservoirs in the south. Common loons return to inland Maine right after ice out, usually in April. From September through November, they will migrate to their coastal wintering grounds. Juvenile loons will wait about 7 years before they return to freshwater to breed. The very large loons in Maine do not migrate far and primarily over-winter in the Gulf of Maine.
Do males and females have the same plumage?
Yes, male and female loons look alike, although males are generally about 20% larger than females. In summer, they have a black head and neck with white bands on the neck; their black back has white spots. In winter, they turn dark gray with a white throat and breast.
Adult loons return to the same breeding grounds year after year and spend about a month establishing their territories and bonding with their mate. Loons were believed to mate for life until research showed that they will sometimes switch mates after a failed nesting attempt or when one of the pair is challenged in the breeding territory. On average, a mated pair of loons stays together for 7 years before switching mates.
They nest lakeside during May and June and incubate their eggs (usually 2 per clutch) for 27 to 30 days. A loon egg is big — about the size of one and a half tennis balls (about 3.5 inches by 2.2 inches).
In general, chicks hatch in June or July. Hatchlings leave the nest on their first day and are able to fly in about 11 weeks. However, chicks usually are carried on their parents’ backs for the first few weeks after hatching primarily to keep them warm and away from underwater predators.
Why do loons have red eyes?
This is a really good question, and surprisingly, there is no clear and definitive answer. We do know that the red is the color of the loon’s iris. A common misperception is that the red color is in the retina and helps loons see underwater.
Dr. Judith McIntyre, who wrote the book Common Loon: Spirit of Northern Lakes, believes that loon eyes are brilliant red probably to be attractive to the opposite sex and to be seen across a lake by other loons — it probably helps them to defend their territories the way the red epaulets help red-winged blackbirds defend their territories. During winter, when loons are not involved with mating or territorial activities, their eyes lose much of the color and become a dull reddish-brown.
Another hypothesis is that the red may provide camouflage underwater and help loons be better predators. As Susan Gallo of Maine Audubon explains it, red wavelengths of light are absorbed first because they are the longest, so red is the first color to “disappear” as a loon dives deeper under water. The bright red loon eye may lose its color and appear camouflaged just under the water’s surface, compared to other colors that might stand out in even deeper water.
Air sacs and diving
Bird lungs are flat and close to their back ribs. When they breathe in, air goes through the lungs into huge air sacs that are balloon-like stretchy membranes that go into many areas of the body. When a loon fills the air sacs with air, its body becomes much less dense, and more buoyant, allowing it to swim high in the water. As it forces air out of the sacs, its body becomes more and more dense, and it sinks lower and lower into the water.
Loons can dive more than 200 ft (61 m) below the surface of the water in search of food; however, because they need light to see their prey, they likely don’t often dive this deep.
Does a loon paddle underwater with its wings?
No,a loon’s wings are held tightly against the body while underwater, and loons do not “fly” underwater like penguins. The loon’s large webbed feet provide propulsion and steering underwater.
Are loons good fliers?
Yes. They are strong fliers and can fly up to 90 miles per hour, cruising typically around 70 mph. To stay aloft on its relatively small wings, loons must beat their wings fast and steady and virtually never soar or glide even for a moment.
Built for the water:
Due to its heavy body, loons are unable to take off and fly directly from land. Also, its legs are placed far back on its body, making this bird a powerful swimmer but very awkward on land. Hence, the common loon rarely comes onto land except during nest building, copulation and incubating duties.
Why do loons need to run for take off?
Loons have nearly solid bones, whereas most other birds have hollow bones. Although their weight is helpful in swimming and diving, it makes it hard for them to take off and fly. For this reason they need to run on the water, somewhat like an airplane taking off on a runway.
Loons typically need ponds larger than 9 to 10 acres in size because it’s hard for them to take off on smaller bodies of water. A loon must run across the surface of the water for up to a quarter of a mile before the frantic beating of its wings can lift it aloft. Landing is tough for loons, too. Their feet cannot be brought forward enough to be used as landing skis, as other web-footed birds do. Loons usually just hit the water — often hard and without much gracefulness.
Perhaps one of the most fascinating things about loons is their haunting and variable voice. Loons are most vocal from mid-May to mid-June.
They have four distinct calls that they use to communicate with their families and other loons: the tremolo, wail, yodel and hoot.
The tremolo is also known as the “crazy laugh”. It is used to signal alarm, and sometimes at night to vocally advertise and defend its territory. A slightly modified version of the tremolo is sometimes given by flying loons.
The wail call sounds much like a wolf’s howl. It is used frequently during social interactions between loons and may be used to regain contact with a mate during night chorusing and in answering other loon tremolos.
The yodel is given only by the male. It is a long, rising call with repetitive notes and can last up to six seconds. It is used by the male to defend his territory and can be stimulated by another male entering a loon’s territory. Studies of recordings have shown that the yodel is different for each loon and can be used to identify individual loons.
The hoot is a one-note call that sounds more like “hot.” It is mainly used by family members to locate each other and check on their well-being.