Loons are large, bulky waterbirds with a distinct dagger-like bill, short neck, and long wings. Their feet are set well back on their body for maximum propulsion underwater, but make for poor mobility on land.

Most people know the ethereal call of the loons, often heard on small lakes and in quiet bays.

Around Mayne we can observe three species in winter: the Common Loon, the Pacific Loon and the Red-throated Loon. All three display the typical grayish and white pattern of winter loons, which makes identification more difficult.

Red- throated loon. Photo: Mark Nenadov

Loons eat mainly fish of many varieties and sizes up to 25 cm in length. Loons ingest small pebbles into their gizzards to help them grind up and pass through fish bones and crustacean shells. They dive for their prey and can be seen dipping their bill and eyes under the surface to see potential prey. They then dive, which from the surface is a plunge. The larger species can attain depths of 75 m. They capture their prey by sight, so they have acute underwater vision. The loons’ bones are denser than most birds to help with their diving efficiency. They also have thick plumage that keeps them waterproof.

Common Loon in winter plumage. Photo: Ellen and Tony

Active Pass is the best place to see large numbers of loons feeding. The Pacific Loon is the most common and the Common and Red-throated are less common and less likely to be in feeding groups. Bennett Bay and Piggott Bay areas are good for seeing Common Loons, while Red-throated Loons can be seen also in Bennett Bay and offshore from Georgina Point.

The Pacific Loon is the most abundant loon in North America and is strictly marine during the winter. In breeding plumage, Pacific Loons are easily recognized by their distinctive silvery-grey head and hind neck, black throat, and vertical black-and-white stripes on the sides of their neck. In winter their plumage is drabber, with a solid black back, dark grey head, and a white throat. Large numbers of this loon can be seen in Active Pass during the changing tides. You will see them lined up along tidal currents and eddies diving along these water features. They feed entirely on fish. Observations from Georgina Point during feeding tides indicate that the loons move at the edge of the main currents and dive up current going with the flow.

Pacific Loon in breeding plumage. Photo: Tom Wilberding

The Pacific Loon has a complete molt of its flight feathers in late winter and before flying to breeding areas. During this time, it is flightless and most vulnerable in its ability to avoid shipping and oil spills. In our area, Pacific Loons move to the Georgina Shoals during molt. The internationally designated Active Pass Important Bird Area is in place partly for the number of Pacific Loons that come to this pass and especially for wintering molt cycle that occurs here.

Pacific Loon, winter plumage
Pacific Loon in winter plumage. Photo: C.V. Vick

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