Nature Alert: Lingering Loons

With most of the deciduous trees in the Valley sporting their fall colors and the days getting darker, I find myself in wonderment when creatures that to me reflect summer still abound. Some weeks ago, I saw such a being out on the coast and, after some beta gleaning, I am confident you can too. 

The natural phenomenon to be alerted by this go around? Common Loons, aka Gavia Immer in scientific mumble jumble. These diving birds make their home in open waters throughout the northernmost portions of this country, and in Oregon often frequent our coastal rivers mouths, where they feast on fish such as perch and smelt. 

Loons are great at what they do, but get their name by what they’re not so good at, spending any amount of time doing anything out of the water. They move awkwardly on land due to their webbed feet and legs that are positioned far back on their body and have trouble taking off for flight due to their heavy bones. But seen on the surface of the water, their silhouette is one of grace. They are at most three feet long and have a distinctively sharp black bill. During breeding season, their head and neck are black with a white collar, their eyes are red, and they sport a black and white checkerboard pattern on their wings.

Breeding generally occurs between March and October, but on the Oregon Coast, the birds are most abundant between September and July. So while our wintery months may bring more frequent sightings, the summer and its’ shoulder seasons are the best times to see loons in their utmost glory. 

One sure spot to try is the south jetty at the mouth of the Yaquina River. There are several pull-outs that parallel this rip-rap feat of engineering. Try parking at one near the rock fingers that lie perpendicular to the jetty. While loons are often solitary, five were seen together in this area, all in breeding colors, alternating between diving, preening, and charmingly hooting at one another. Other coastal places for loon-centric birding include Devil’s Lake in Lincoln City, Siletz Bay National Wildlife Refuge, and Alsea Bay in Waldport. 

While loons do appear in the Valley, they are extremely rare. Within the Willamette Valley National Wildlife Refuge Complex, including Finley, Ankeny, and Baskett Slough Refuges, they have been recorded less than five times. So, if you do make a sighting here, refrain from the compulsion to get real loony yourself and try informing the friendly folks at the Finley visitor center.

By Ari Blatt