My adventures in the woods, streams, rivers, fields, and lakes of Michigan

Red-throated Loon, Gavia stellata

Note: this post, while published, is a work in progress, as are all posts in this series, My Photo Life List. My goal is to photograph every species of bird that is seen on a regular basis here in Michigan, working from a list compiled by the Michigan chapter of the Audubon Society. This will be a lifelong project, that I began in January of 2013, and as I shoot better photos of this, or any other species, I will update the post for that species with better photos when I can. While this series is not intended to be a field guide per se, my minimum standard for the photos in this series is that one has to be able to make a positive identification of the species in my photos. The information posted here is from either my observations or the Wikipedia, the online free encyclopedia, however, I have personally shot all the photos appearing in this series.

Red-throated Loon, Gavia stellata

This is another species that I will probably never be able to post photos of in their breeding plumage. They are loons that breed primarily in the Arctic. In breeding plumage, the adult has a dark grey head and neck (with narrow black and white stripes on the back of the neck), a triangular red throat patch, white underparts and a dark grey-brown mantle. It is the only loon with an all-dark back in breeding plumage. The non-breeding plumage is more drab with the chin, neck and much of the face white, the top of the head and back of the neck grey, and considerable white speckling on the dark mantle.

The Red-throated Loon is a migratory aquatic bird found in the northern hemisphere. It breeds primarily in Arctic regions, and winters in northern coastal waters. It is the most widely distributed member of the loon or diver family. Ranging from 55–67 centimeters (22–26 in) in length, the Red-throated Loon is the smallest and lightest of the world’s loons. In winter, it is a nondescript bird, greyish above fading to white below. During the breeding season, it acquires the distinctive reddish throat patch which is the basis for its common name. Fish form the bulk of its diet, though amphibians, invertebrates and plant material are sometimes eaten as well. A monogamous species, the Red-throated Loon forms long-term pair bonds. Both members of the pair help to build the nest, incubate the eggs (generally two per clutch) and feed the hatched young.

The Red-throated Loon has a large global population and a significant global range, though some populations are declining. Oil spills, habitat degradation, pollution and fishing nets are among the major threats this species faces. Natural predators—including various gull species, and both Red and Arctic Foxes, will take eggs and young.

Like the other members of its genus, the Red-throated Loon is well-adapted to its aquatic environment: its dense bones help it to submerge, its legs, in their set-back position, provide excellent propulsion and its body is long and streamlined. Even its sharply pointed bill may help its underwater streamlining. Its feet are large, its front three toes are fully webbed, and its tarsus is flattened, which reduces drag and allows the leg to move easily through the water.

Because its feet are located so far back on its body, the Red-throated Loon is quite clumsy walking on land; however, it can use its feet to shove itself forward on its breast. Young use this method of covering ground when moving from their breeding pools to larger bodies of water, including rivers and the sea. It is the only species of loon able to take off directly from land. If frightened, it may submerge until only its head or bill shows above the surface of the water.

Like all members of its family, the Red-throated Loon is primarily a fish-eater, though it sometimes feeds on molluscs, crustaceans, frogs, aquatic invertebrates, insects, fish spawn or even plant material. It seizes rather than spears its prey, which is generally captured underwater. Though it normally dives and swims using only its feet for propulsion, it may use its wings as well if it needs to turn or accelerate quickly. Pursuit dives range from 2–9 m (6.6–30 ft) in depth, with an average underwater time of about a minute.

The Red-throated Loon is a monogamous species which forms long-term pair bonds. Both sexes build the nest, which is a shallow scrape (or occasionally a platform of mud and vegetation) lined with vegetation and sometimes a few feathers, and placed within a half-meter (18 in) of the edge of a small pond. The female lays two eggs (though clutches of 1–3 have been recorded); they are incubated for 24–29 days, primarily by the female. The eggs, which are greenish or olive-brownish spotted with black. Incubation is begun as soon as the first egg is laid, so they hatch asynchronously. If a clutch is lost (to predation or flooding, for example) before the young hatch, the Red-throated Loon usually lays a second clutch, generally in a new nest. The young birds are precocial upon hatching: downy and mobile with open eyes. Both parents feed them small aquatic invertebrates initially, then small fish for 38–48 days. Parents will perform distraction displays to lure predators away from the nest and young. Ornithologists disagree as to whether adults carry young on their backs while swimming with some maintaining that they do and others the opposite.

On to my photos:

Red-throated Loon

Red-throated Loon

Red-throated Loon taking off

Red-throated Loon taking off

Red-throated Loon in flight

Red-throated Loon in flight

Red-throated Loon in flight

Red-throated Loon in flight

Red-throated Loon in flight

Red-throated Loon in flight

Red-throated Loon in flight

Red-throated Loon in flight

Red-throated Loon in flight

Red-throated Loon in flight

Red-throated Loon in flight

Red-throated Loon in flight

This is number 72 in my photo life list, only 278 to go!

That’s it for this one, thanks for stopping by!

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10 responses

  1. Nice shots of something rarely seen!

    March 31, 2013 at 8:10 am

    • The credit all goes to the loon. It was in a spot where it was really too far away for good photos, and no way for me to get closer. It saw me, and did a fly by for me at about the perfect height and distance.

      March 31, 2013 at 9:10 am

  2. I’ve yet to see one of these. Such a wonderful find!

    March 31, 2013 at 10:17 am

    • Thank you! Can you believe I was standing in the middle of a small city when I took those?

      March 31, 2013 at 10:23 am

      • Nope..don’t believe it. I think you’re making it up. 🙂

        March 31, 2013 at 10:32 am

  3. Pingback: Grand Haven, Michigan, urban birding | Quiet Solo Pursuits

  4. A bit short in the red throated department, I thought but great pictures.

    March 31, 2013 at 6:09 pm

    • Thanks, I would have to take a very long road trip, over 1,000 miles, to catch them with their breeding plumage which gives them their name.

      March 31, 2013 at 6:16 pm

  5. Excellent shots of this bird!

    I was lucky to see one last autumn at a nearby reservoir- they’re fairly rare in central Ohio.

    March 31, 2013 at 6:14 pm

    • Thanks Tracy! Since they are rather rare here, I can imagine that they are very rare in Ohio. I cheated, and used a website that is tied to ebirds to inform me of this one’s presence. It’s sort of like playing hide and seek, I know that a species of bird has been seen in a certain area, then I go there and attempt to track it down on my own. I’m liking this birding business.

      March 31, 2013 at 6:22 pm