Red-throated Loons

Having encountered my first red-throated loons along the coast of South Carolina yesterday, I thought it might be a good time to review the nature of this bird.  This smallest member of the loon family breeds across northern Alaska, Canada and Greenland, nesting in tundra ponds and wetlands.  In winter, it is found on coastal marine waters from Alaska to the Baja and from Newfoundland to Georgia.

Red-throated loons are monogamous and both parents take part in nest building and in caring for the young.  Two eggs are generally laid in a mound of vegetation that is placed onshore or directly in shallow water; hatchlings are fed aquatic insects while the adults feed on a wide variety of fish and crustaceans.  Unlike their cousins, these smaller, thinner loons do not transport young on their backs and are able to take off from land or the water surface without a running start.

While the adults lose their distinctive red and gray markings in the non-breeding season, wintering birds are identified by the white and gray pattern on their head and neck, by their slight build and by their habit of holding both their head and bill in an upturned position (in the manner of much larger cormorants).  Indeed, it was this latter behavior that first caught my attention; as veteran birders know, common species are often quickly identified by their silhouette and mannerisms and any unusual appearance or behavior demands closer inspection.