Common Loon

The common loon is more than a bird in Minnesota — and it is more than the official “state bird.” It is a symbol of pristine Iron Trail lakes, sparkling blue waters and forested Northwoods environments that provide us with both solitude and inspiration. With an estimated adult population of 12,000 loons, Minnesota has the largest number of these birds in the contiguous 48 states.

The common loon regularly nests in the state, but on rare occasions red-throated, Pacific and yellow-billed loons have all been seen. If you see one of these rare loons you are encouraged to report them to the Minnesota Ornithologists Union (MOU) rare bird alert.

Loons prefer clear lakes with plenty of small fish and a quiet bay with undeveloped shoreline for nesting. Lakes with high use of motorboats and personal watercraft can cause too much disturbance for loons to nest successfully. Adults or their chicks are sometimes run over by careless or irresponsible operators of boats or personal watercraft.

Loons may nest on lakes as small as 15 acres, but they usually nest on larger lakes. While nesting, they are territorial and will chase away other loons. A will defend an area up to 100 acres on larger lakes. Loons without chicks may visit lakes as small groups in mid to late summer.

Loons return from their wintering grounds in late March to late April, depending on when the lake ice breaks up. While some winter in the Gulf of Mexico along the Florida panhandle, others winter of the coast of North Carolina. Upon arriving in Minnesota, loons may stay in the open water of rivers until the lakes open up.

Nesting begins in May and most chicks hatch in early June. Loons nest are usually located at the water’s edge on an island or point of land in a fairly wind-sheltered location. One or two eggs are usually laid. Late clutches and re-nesting efforts may cause some chicks to hatch in July. One of the most enjoyable sights on Iron Trail lakes is watching a pair of adult loons fishing and passing small minnows to their chicks. The chick frequently rides on the back of a parent — apparently to conserve body heat and to avoid being eaten by large pike or bass.

The best way to see loons is to explore a lake by canoe, boat or pontoon. Staying at a lakeshore campground or resort may provide opportunities to see loons during the day and hear their haunting calls at night.

When viewing loons, don’t approach nests too closely. The adult may leave the nest and expose the eggs to predators like crows or gulls. If you approach a loon to closely on the water, especially if it is caring for a chick, it will rise up out of the water and patter across the surface with its feet in what is called the “penquin dance.” If you cause a loon to do a penquin dance, you are disturbing it and should leave the area immediately. You could also cause parent loons to become separated from their chicks, exposing them to extended chilling in cold water and an increased chance of predation by large fish. By keeping your distance and using binoculars, you can enjoy loons without disturbing them. We invite you to pack your camera and binoculars, and discover why the Iron Trail is “A Great Way to Getaway!”

Top Loon Facts:

  • The loon population on Lake Vermilion has risen from 166 in 1983 to 256 in 2000.
  • Loons dive up to 200 feet and stay down five to ten minutes in search of small fish.
  • These birds are powerful flyers, reaching speeds up to 80 mph.
  • Loons may grow to 25″ tall, weighing eight to 10 pounds with a five-foot wingspan.
  • The red pigment in loon’s eyes filters light, enabling them to see well underwater.
  • Unlike many birds and waterfowl species, male and female loons look identical.
  • Loons return to the same territory year after year.
  • Loons may live to be more than 20 years old.
  • It is thought that the majority of loons in Lake Vermilion migrate to the Gulf of Mexico.
  • Loons can adapt from fresh to salt water because of special glands near their eyes that excrete sale, allowing them to live in salt water for long periods.
  • Loons prefer nesting on islands and small weedy outcroppings near the water.
  • Female loons lay one or two olive green eggs in mid-May. They rarely lay three eggs.
  • Pollution and human harassment may make a loon abandon its nest.
  • Chicks, which can be seen, riding on their parent’s back, are vulnerable to northern pike, muskie, eagles, otters and snapping turtles.

    Visit loon photographer Gregory Nelson to see his fabulous photos and hear the different voices of the loon.