A tale of two loons

Bruce Mactavish telegram@thetelegram.com
Published on January 4, 2014

During the Boxing Day bird count, Ken Knowles, Jared Clarke and I were checking out the south side of St. John’s harbour when we came across a surprise by the Prosser’s Rock boat basin just inside the harbour mouth. It was a loon. St. John’s harbour is an unusual location for a loon, and this was not your bog standard common loon but the uncommon red-throated loon.

Red-throated loons migrate through coastal Newfoundland during October. A few linger into winter at choice locations on the southern Avalon Peninsula, especially at Biscay Bay and off Trepassey beach. Here, sandy bottoms are home to one of its favourite foods, the sand lance, a long, thin, silvery fish similar in appearance to the caplin.

Even during October, migrating red-throated loons rarely stop around St. John’s because of the deep coastal waters with hard rocky bottoms. So a red-throated loon was an unexpected sight in St. John’s harbour on Boxing Day for a couple of reasons: the late date and habitat.

Another unusual feature about this red-throated loon sighting is how close it was to shore. What an excellent photo opportunity, we all decided. The cameras came out and immediately started clicking away. People driving by in their cars saw us taking pictures and stopped to take their own pictures. Next thing you know, there was a small traffic snarl up in the Southside Road! The loon got a little unnerved by all the attention and swam farther from shore and beyond the reach of cameras.

The next morning I returned to the location looking for the red-throated loon, fully expecting it to have returned to the open ocean. But it was still there and, surprisingly, it had been joined by a common loon. Common loons, just like the name suggests, are quite common year round on the Avalon Peninsula. However, I could not recall having ever seen one inside The Narrows of St. John’s harbour. The bustling city harbour is not a home for loons, rather shy and retiring by nature.

The two loons acknowledged one another’s presence by swimming by each other, but that was their only interaction. Loons work independently, especially in the winter, and prefer to fish alone. The two loons went about diving and working at their own pace over the area between Prosser’s Rock boat basin and The Battery. It was an excellent opportunity to compare the two species of loon in their winter plumage. At relatively close range they are quite different looking birds. These differences are less obvious when far out on the ocean bobbing around in the big waves.

The red-throated loon is an elegant, slender, almost petite bird compared to the heavy set common loon. It has a thin upturned bill that it holds high with an air of dignity. The bigger common loon has a strong dagger-shaped bill made for catching a wide variety of fish. Red-throated loons are paler grey and show more white on the neck than the common loon. These differences are obvious at close range, but quickly lose their impact at longer ranges. The default loon in Newfoundland is always the common loon.

These loons, of course, are in winter plumage. Summer plumage loons are a whole different kettle of fish. I think we all know the breeding dress of the common loon. Photographs of common loons are frequently published in books and brochures. You may know them from the pond up by the cabin in the summer.

The checkered black and white plumage is a world of difference from the breeding plumage of the red-throated loon. Red-throated loons nest in the Arctic, so we do not often see them in their fine breeding plumage in Newfoundland waters. They turn a silvery grey and with a ruby-red throat patch, a truly fine bird to see.

Red-throated loons nest on small shallow ponds in the Arctic where other loons cannot go. Loons need some runway space to gain enough speed as they patter over the water to get airborne. The smaller red-throated loon can do this from smaller water bodies than the other loons. They also eat more than just fish, and will eat small invertebrate life.

The St. John’s red-throated loon remained several days, allowing local birders some of their best looks ever at the species. The common loon went back out to sea after just two days.

St. John’s harbour is richer in fish and marine life than one might think. Great cormorants are a regular part of the harbour winter scene. They can eat anything and everything with scales and fins. They target hard-to-reach fish like sculpins and eelpouts hiding among the rocks and kelp. Black guillemots are also routine in St. John’s harbour during the winter eating small fish and crustaceans.

St. John’s Christmas bird count

The results of the Boxing Day bird count held in St. John’s tell the story of the winter ahead.

Birdfeeders are not attracting many birds. There is still plenty of seed in the woods for most birds, though flickers are present at most birdfeeders. The cold weather sent many of the ducks south. Overall bird numbers were low and the total of 60 species was the lowest in many years. There will be lots to talk about in the months to come.

Keep those birdfeeders full. Happy New Year.

Bruce Mactavish is an environmental

consultant and avid birdwatcher. He can be reached at wingingitone@yahoo.ca, or by phone at 722-0088.