DISTRIBUTION

Common Loons occur across Alaska, Canada, and the northern tier of the United States, but the common loon is not as common in the Western States as the name implies. Breeding pairs are found in only four states west of the Mississippi River, including Wyoming, Montana, Idaho, and Washington. In Wyoming, common loons nest in the far western corner of the state. In Idaho, they nest in lakes near the Canadian border. In Washington State, common loons nest in the far northwestern corner of the state near Puget Sound on the western side of the coastal range, and a few nest in eastern part of the state.

In Montana, breeding loons are found primarily in northwestern Montana west of the Continental Divide and north of Missoula.
The highest concentrations of nesting loons are found in the Clearwater drainage east of Missoula and the Tobacco-Stillwater drainage stretching from north of Kalispell to Eureka. Loons are also found in Glacier National Park. For more specific viewing information contact the Seeley Lake Ranger Station at (406) 677-2233, the Murphy Lake Ranger Station at (406) 882-4451 or Montana Fish Wildlife and Parks at (406) 752-5501.

Loons also migrate through Montana in route to Canadian lakes and can be observed on large reservoirs and lakes in many parts of the state during the spring and fall seasons. Some examples of migratory stop-over sites include Pablo National Wildlife Refuge and Flathead Lake in northwestern Montana, Clark Canyon and Canyon Ferry Reservoirs in southwestern and central Montana, and Fort Peck Reservoir in northeastern Montana. Migrating loons are also occasionally sighted on large rivers such as the Missouri and Yellowstone.

Migrating Common Loon on Eureka Reservoir near Choteau, MT.

Photo Credit: Dave Hanna

Common loons migrate in loosely formed groups of a few birds that don’t consistently fly near each other. A group of loons is called a raft of loons. During migration, common loons have stop over points where they “raft-up” together and are often seen in groups resting and feeding on lakes or on large, slow moving rivers.

POPULATION

Montana has the largest population of common loons west of the Mississippi River with approximately 200 birds. These include about 65 nesting pairs (130 birds), an average of 40 chicks hatched in summer, and a few bachelor birds.

Montana’s Nesting Loons

Common loons return to Montana in late April to early May. Male and female loons wear the same plumage, so from a distance it is difficult to tell a male loon from a female loon. However, the male loon is slightly larger with a slightly larger bill. In addition, a male loon has a pronounced bump on its forehead. A female loon is slightly smaller and has a more sloping forehead. Can you tell which is which in this photograph?

Loon pairs do not mate for life. However, they have a strong fidelity to a lake, so they usually return to the same lake they nested on the previous year and often have the same mate. If one or the other does not return to the lake in spring, they will pick another mate, which may be a younger bird that has reached maturity.

By mid-May, most loon pairs have chosen a mate and a nest site. Of the 65 pairs in Montana that attempt to nest, only 25-30 pairs successfully hatch and raise 1-2 chicks each year. Nests are usually on small islands in marshy areas such as bays, coves, inlets or backwaters. The loons’ nesting season in May and June is the most CRITICAL TIME. Loons aren’t like ducks and geese that have large broods. Loons only lay 2 eggs, which both parents take turns incubating for 28-29 days.

Loon Chicks

Loon chicks can swim on the first day of life. Once in the water, one adult cares for the first chick hatched while the other loon continues to incubate the second egg for one more day.
After the chicks hatch, the adults leave the nest and care for the chicks in the water. During this time, the loon family mostly stays in their nursery area. The chicks ride on their parents’ backs when they are cold or tired.
Loon parents feed their chicks tiny fish, insects, and other small water creatures, such as crayfish. Sometimes a loon chick gets offered a treat while riding on the other parent’s back.
Loon chicks grow fast. Soon their charcoal black downy feathers change to thicker set of fluffy brown feathers.
By mid-summer, loon chicks have changed again, this time to a set of gray feathers. They also grow their flight feathers. By this time a loon chick can catch its own food, but the parents will still occasionally feed the chick.

MIGRATION

Montana’s loons migrate to the west coast in late August through October. While loons have been seen in Montana in early November, most migrate in September and October. Prior to migration, an adult loon begins its color change to its gray winter phase. This color change begins near its bill. However, the complete color change occures on the ocean, so a Montana loon sporting a full set of gray plumage is usually a fledged chick almost ready to migrate.
When the chicks are old enough to feed themselves, the parents don’t have to remain near the chicks all the time. Adult loons even sometimes begin their migration before their chicks.

Before the chick migrates it must learn how to fly. First it practices take off and landings.  To become airborne a loon runs across the surface of the water flapping its wings.  Its water runway might be up to a quarter of a mile long.

Its wings grow stronger and stronger.
Soon the chick is ready to migrate to the Pacific Ocean. It may migrate with its parents or it may migrate with other loons traveling through.
On the ocean, loons raft-up with other loons and spend their time feeding and resting.
An adult common loon on its winter home continues its color change to gray.
At the coast, an adult loon will shed its worn out flight feathers. Over the winter it will regrow flight feathers. Growing flight feathers takes a lot of energy, so this is one of a loon’s most stressful times. However, even though the loon can’t fly during this time, it can still dive and feed while the feathers regrow. Then the spring solstice signals changes and soon the adult loon will once again migrate inland to Montana.

However, a loon chick remains on the ocean for three years. In the third winter of its life it will molt to its first set of adult breeding plummage and return to its natal lake. Only about 1 in 5 chicks (about 20%) survive its first three years of life to return to Montana.

A young Montana loon usually doesn’t take a mate until its fifth to seventh year of life. Until then, it will be a lone young adult that sometimes hangs out with other loons on foraging lakes.
When the chick has matured into a fully grown adult loon, it finds a mate and a territory, and will take its place in the Montana breeding cycle.

Get In Touch

P.O. Box 2386 Missoula, MT 59806

Common Loon Images Provided by:

@Daniel Poleschook, Jr. and Virginia R. Poleschook
www.loonconservation.org
509.939.2748
daniel.poleschook@gmail.com