News & Features

Common Loons in Washington

Common Loon (c) Jim Livaudais 2017

Sleek and stunning, Common Loons (Gavia immer) are a rare breeding bird in Washington, typically more common as a migrant or wintering species. Spring and summer are beautiful times to paddle lakes and ponds in Washington, and birdwatching from the water enriches that experience. Black head, white “necklace”, incomplete black-and-white neckband, and white-checkered black back define breeding Common Loon adults.  

Birders and biologists would like to learn more about Common Loon breeding in Washington.  eBird checklists with Common Loon sightings on freshwater lakes, ponds and wetlands, primarily April through September (overlapping breeding season), are most helpful, especially if you add behavior codes on pairing (P), courtship display (C), nest building (NB), adult feeding young out of the nest (FY), or young loons recently fledged, on or with the adults (FL).  Species comments with plumage descriptions (breeding, partial molts, downy) and media – photos and vocalization files – add interest to your checklist, inspire other birders, and provide great cues for verifying those records. And, if you’d like to share your loon observations directly with WDFW with greater detail, you can submit those here.

In the past, a number of lakes in Washington appear to have offered ideal conditions for loon nesting:  relatively undisturbed forest lakes about 50 acres in size, with deep inlets and bays, islands, logs, floating debris for nest sites, and with good water quality, adequate forage fish source, and seclusion from intense human activity.  Favorable conditions are harder to find these days.  eBird data within Washington during the breeding season over the last ten years show what birders have seen recently – zooming in on that map to the hotspot level helps you see the freshwater lakes and ponds where loons have been observed.  Other lakes and ponds would be good to search to detect new locations, especially west of the Cascades and near the Olympics – part of the historical breeding range.  In the late 1800’s, breeding Common Loons were a more regular occurrence both east and west of the Cascade crest on freshwater lakes, but have since declined.

Loons are very sensitive to human disturbance, especially while courting, nesting, and tending their young. Approaching loons may cause them to display aggressively, vocalize repeatedly, and become agitated – this can impact their ability and willingness to stay on a site or nest.  This can also take valuable time and energy away from feeding young.  Please stay a respectful distance away from loons during the breeding season and reduce your boat wake which can flood or disintegrate nests.  Several loon lakes are on public lands, but some may be on tribal or private lands.  If you wish to bird nonpublic lakes, please seek and get permission from the landowner or land manager, as appropriate for the site.  

For more information about loon conservation in Washington:

http://wdfw.wa.gov/conservation/loons/  and previous status report http://wdfw.wa.gov/publications/00341/ (February 2000, soon to be updated)

Current Washington state status is Sensitive.

Article by: Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW)