Birding Today: Loons can be seen in Oklahoma in winter

Red-throated Loon, winter plumage

Four out of five loons tend to spend some time in Oklahoma for the winter. The only one that we have never seen is the Arctic Loon, and it is doubtful that we ever will.

The least common of the four loons is the Red-throated Loon, which does not require pattering across the surface of the water to take flight. It can fly directly from land if necessary. These birds are usually seen along large estuaries and coastal shores from late autumn through early spring. During migration, they will stop on larger inland lakes during this time of year, and during this period they frequently mix with other species of loon. Their characteristic behavior is the “bill-up” posture and their slender shape will also draw one’s eye to them.

The Red-throated Loon was first reported to eBird on Lake Yahola in 2005 and will likely be seen right around winter.

Pacific Loons are found on their namesake ocean between October and May. In the winter, they will show up inland like the Great Plains, Rocky Mountains, or on the Atlantic coast.

Though both Pacific and Red-throated Loons are about the same in size, the Pacific is 30 percent heavier. This means that they need a running start for liftoff across nearly 40 yards of water. These rapid birds have cruising speeds of 37 mph.

The first Pacific Loon was reported to eBird at Lake Hefner in 1981, and can usually be found there. It was photographed mid-November 2019, earlier than usual at Lake Tenkiller.

The Yellow-billed Loon breeds well north of the Common Loon, but vagrants have been seen quite inland, as those that have seen it at Lakes Hefner, Yahola, Tenkiller, and Strayhorn Landing can testify. This species has not been thoroughly studied due to its remote breeding locations, so there is still a lot that remains unknown in its behavior. It usually winters on the southern Alaskan coast to about halfway down the Pacific coast.

The species was first located and reported to eBird in 1988 at Lake Yahola. It had been seen early this year at Lake Hefner during November.

The Common Loon is just that, having been seen nearly everywhere in our fair state.

In winter, they are plain gray above with white undersides. They are near the shoreline on most seacoasts and many inland lakes and reservoirs. They also require a lot of space for takeoffs relative to wind conditions to gain enough momentum to become airborne.

This loon has already been found in several locations in the state, which beats their earliest records for the season. The Common Loon was first seen in 1972 at Hagerman NWR. The oldest recorded bird was about 30 years of age, both banded and found again in Michigan. She may still be living.

As can be noted, as the years progress and we see warm temperatures through November and possibly later, the loons could easily come earlier and become more common in winter. Time will tell.

Deb Hirt is a wild bird rehabilitator and professional photographer living in Stillwater.

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