Archive for Aquatic birds

Common Loon 12/27/17

Common Loons are heavy birds with large spear-shaped bills, able to dive up to 200 feet underwater. They prey mostly on fish but also catch mollusks and crustaceans, usually swallowing them whole on the way back to the surface. Their legs are positioned so far back on their body for underwater swimming that they are ungainly, almost helpless on land having to slide on their bellies pushed by their hind feet, and they need considerable runway on water for take-off. They breed across the northern boreal forest lakes and tundra ponds and winter on the Pacific, Atlantic and Gulf coasts as well as the Great Lakes.

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Black Guillemot 11/27/17


You don’t see these little seabirds very often but they do breed as far south as midcoast Maine, and being short distance migrants you’ll occasionally find them coming a little farther south in winter. They are one of the Alcids (Auks) and are closely related to puffins, murres, razorbills and dovekies. In summer breeding plumage they are velvety black all over except for large white wing patches and brilliant red legs and feet. This one is molting into the gray-above and white-below winter colors. In the UK they are called Tysties. Every year I seem to find one at some point at Rye Harbor, where I came across this one over the weekend.

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Red-throated Loon adult nonbreeding 11/9/17

Yesterday I posted a juvenile Red-throated Loon, but pulling in to the parking lot at Seapoint today, this adult was dead ahead. There are a lot of them about at this time of year so if you’re not familiar with them, this is an excellent opportunity to find one. Unlike the drab gray throat, face, and neck of the juvenile, winter adults have white faces, throats, necks and undersides, with a speckled back and a thin pointy upturned bill.

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Red-throated Loon juvenile 11/8/17

Red-throated Loons are both smaller and sleeker than their Common Loon cousins. They ride lower in the water and have thinner bills with a slight upturned and more pointy appearance. This one’s a juvenile told by its overall dull gray head and neck, winter adults have bright white throats, necks, and undersides with dark gray caps. The red throat is seen in both sexes but only in the breeding season. I see many RTLs at this time of year, and this year they seem especially abundant, but as winter progresses they seem to disappear. The only hypothesis I’ve come up with is that the places I tend to see them also happen to be frequented by Snowy Owls in recent years later in the winter and perhaps they become prey.

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Common Loon molting 4/16/17

Many Common Loons along the coasts are molting into breeding plumage right now, shedding the dark gray above and white below of winter plumage for a more formal black tuxedo with white spotted wings. This one is only half there but well on its way, see those drab gray feathers just where the spotted black ones are beginning on the back? That’s the old making way for the new. The head and neck will also turn black with a barred white collar. It won’t be long before this one takes to the sky, returning to its inland territory, a freshwater lake or pond where it bred with its mate last year. Sexes are similar.

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Black Guillemot 4/2/17

Black Guillemots are alcids, related to puffins and razorbills but not grebes or loons, and definitely not ducks. In summer they’re a silky black all over except for a big white patch in the wing. They breed on rocky cliffs, and if you happen to see them flying, you can’t miss their bright red feet, and if you happen to see them open their mouths you’ll can’t miss their bright red throats. In winter they’re more white than black. I found this one at Rye Harbor, a nice surprise—the last few years they’ve been scarce on account of the resident Snowy Owl.

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Red-throated Loon 3/22/17

Even in a twilight silhouette it’s possible to tell a Red-throated Loon from a Common Loon. They ride lower in the water, are smaller and more slender, and their bills are much thinner and more pointed with a slight upward tilt. They are circumpolar Arctic breeders and in New England we only get to see them in winter when they migrate as far south as Florida. They aren’t all that rare in winter but are still much less frequently seen than their Common Loon cousins.

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