Tuesday, November 6, 2018

Episode 445 (11-5-18): Loons Find Winter Harbor in the Chesapeake Region

Click to listen to episode (4:01).

Transcript of audio, notes on the audio, photos, and additional information follow below.

Except as otherwise noted, all Web addresses mentioned were functional as of 11-2-18.


From the Cumberland Gap to the Atlantic Ocean, this is Virginia Water Radio for the week of November 5, 2018.

SOUND – ~6 sec

This week, that mysterious sound opens a revision of a November 2011 episode about a bird known for its unmistakable wails and yodel-like calls.  Have a listen for about 15 seconds, and see if you can guess this bird. And here’s a hint: even though it doesn’t live on the moon, it’s still LOON-er.

SOUNDS - ~14 sec

If you guessed a Common Loon, you’re right!

The distinctive calls of loons are associated with lakes and other water bodies in Canada and the northern United States, where five species of loons breed.  Virginia’s coastal areas typically provide winter habitat for two species, the Common Loon and the Red-throated Loon.

According to the Chesapeake Bay Program, thousands of Common Loons coming from northern breeding areas arrive in the Chesapeake region by October or November.  As winter approaches, large flocks continue southward to North Carolina’s Outer Banks.  They’ll return in February and March on their migration back to their summer breeding areas.

Unfortunately for Chesapeake area humans hoping to hear loons, the birds aren’t as vocal in winter as they are in summer. But, according to Alice and Robert Lippson in their book, Life in the Chesapeake Bay, “occasionally on a quiet winter night one will hear [Common Loons’] primeval, tremulous yodel.”

Loons are known for their swimming and diving abilities, and they typically go on land only during breeding.   The Common Loon is seen by many as a symbol of wilderness, and the species has been widely studied for its response to water quality, including the effects of acidic precipitation, lead, mercury, and petroleum spills.

For an historic account of some of the Common Loon’s compelling characteristics, let’s turn to an excerpt from John James Audubon’s description of this bird—which he called the Great Northern Diver—in his early 19th Century work, Birds of America. Audubon wrote: “View it as it buoyantly swims over the heaving billows of the Atlantic, or as it glides along deeply immersed…on the placid lake…; calculate, if you can, the speed of its flight, as it shoots across the sky; mark the many plunges it performs in quest of its finny food, or in eluding its enemies; list to the loud and plaintive notes which it issues…and you will not count your labour lost….”

Thanks to Lang Elliott for permission to use this week’s sounds, from the Stokes Field Guide to Bird Songs.  And let’s give the last word to another cool sound from the Common Loon.

SOUND - ~ 6 sec


Virginia Water Radio is produced by the Virginia Water Resources Research Center, part of Virginia Tech’s College of Natural Resources and Environment.  For more Virginia water sounds, music, or information, visit us online at virginiawaterradio.org, or call the Water Center at (540) 231-5624.  Thanks to Stewart Scales for his banjo version of Cripple Creek to open and close this show.  In Blacksburg, I’m Alan Raflo, thanking you for listening, and wishing you health, wisdom, and good water.


This episode replaces Virginia Water Radio episode 88, 11-14-11, which has been archived.

The loon sounds were taken from the from “Common Loon” on the Stokes Field Guide to Bird Songs-Eastern Region CD set, by Lang Elliott with Donald and Lillian Stokes (Time Warner Audio Books, copyright 1997), used with permission of Lang Elliott, whose work is available online at the “Music of Nature” Web site, http://www.musicofnature.org/.  The Common Loon sound was also used in Episode 294, 12-14-15.  Another loon recording is available from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s National Digital Library, online at https://digitalmedia.fws.gov/digital/collection/audio/id/57/rec/1, or at http://www.fws.gov/video/sound.htm.

Click here if you’d like to hear the full version (1 min./11 sec.) of the “Cripple Creek” arrangement/performance by Stewart Scales that opens and closes this episode.   More information about Mr. Scales and the group New Standard, with which Mr. Scales plays, is available online at http://newstandardbluegrass.com.

Great Northern Diver, or Loon [Common] (above, top), and Red-throated Loon (above, bottom).  Both images of paintings originally published between 1827 and 1838 by John James Audubon in Birds of America (plates 306 and 202, respectively), as reprinted in 1985 by Abbeville Press, New York.   Photos taken November 5, 2018, from the reprint copy (no. 6 of 350 copies printed in 1985) owned by Special Collections of Virginia Tech Libraries.  Virginia Water Radio thanks Special Collections for permission to photograph their copy and for their assistance.  Information about Birds of America is available from the National Audubon Society,
online at http://www.audubon.org/birds-of-america.

Common Loon on nest.  Photo from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s National Digital Library, online at https://digitalmedia.fws.gov/digital/collection/natdiglib/id/6145/rec/6.

Common Loon in non-breeding plumage. Image from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s National Digital Library, online at https://digitalmedia.fws.gov/digital/collection/natdiglib/id/28845/rec/19.


The scientific names of two loon species found commonly around the Chesapeake Bay in winter are as follows:
Common Loon – Gavia immer;
Red-throated Loon – Gavia stellata.

Following is some information on reproduction and feeding by these two species, excerpted from the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, “Fish and Wildlife Information Service,” online at http://vafwis.org/fwis/booklet.html?&bova=040001&Menu=_.Taxonomy&version=17836 (Common Loon) and http://vafwis.org/fwis/booklet.html?&bova=040003&Menu=_.Taxonomy&version=17836 (Red-throated Loon).

Common Loon

Reproduction: Breeding season is mid-May to early July, with one reproductive period per year and normally two young.  Nests usually on an island less than one hectare in size or on the mainland, near a lake, pond or marsh; the nest is generally within a few feet of water’s edge and with a direct underwater escape route.

Feeding: Dives to catch (not pierce) fish and other aquatic animals; feeds in deeper portions of lakes, ponds, marshes and ocean.

Red-throated Loon

Reproduction: Breeding season is mid-May to mid-July depending upon latitude, with one reproductive period per year and normally two young; however, if the first clutch is lost, there may be a replacement clutch.  Nests on lakes, ponds, marshes, and bogs, near the water’s edge, on sites typically of one to five hectares.   An important factor in nesting distribution is that the nest site have at least two square kilometers of shallow water coastline.  Generally only one nesting pair is found on a given water body unless the water body is large.

Feeding: Dives for prey in aquatic environments; during breeding season prefers to feed in shoreline zones, usually in water less than one meter deep; also feeds in the ocean.


Used for Audio

Audubon Guide to North American Birds, “Common Loon,” online at https://www.audubon.org/field-guide/bird/common-loon.

John James Audubon, “Great Northern Diver, or Loon [Common],” Plate 306, from Birds of America, accessed from The Audubon Society, online at https://www.audubon.org/birds-of-america/great-northern-diver-or-loon. The Red-throated Diver [Red-throated Loon] entry, Plate 202, is online at https://www.audubon.org/birds-of-america/red-throated-diver.

Mary Reid Barrow, “Crazy as a loon” isn't a fair saying for these winter visitors to the Chesapeake Bay, Virginian-Pilot, 1/26/18.

Chesapeake Bay Program, “Common Loon,” https://www.chesapeakebay.net/S=0/fieldguide/critter/common_loon.

Cornell University Lab of Ornithology, “All About Birds,” online at http://www.allaboutbirds.org. The Common Loon entry is at https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Common_Loon/; the Red-throated Loon entry is at https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Red-throated_Loon.

Cornell University Lab of Ornithology and American Ornithologists’ Union, “Birds of North America Online,” online at http://bna.birds.cornell.edu/bna (subscription required).

Alice Jane Lippson and Robert L. Lippson, Life in the Chesapeake Bay, Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, Md., 2006.

Minneapolis [Minn.] Star-Tribune, Nature Notes: Loon is true symbol of Minnesota's lake wilderness, 4/2/15.

Kathy Reshetiloff, Listen for the haunting call of loons on Bay’s frigid winter waters, Bay Journal, 1/8/18.

Kathy Reshetiloff, Chesapeake’s winter visitors include a couple of loons, Bay Journal, 12/8/14.

Chandler S. Robbins et al., A Guide to Field Identification of Birds of North America, by St. Martin’s Press, New York, N.Y., 2001.

Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, “Fish and Wildlife Information Service,” online at http://vafwis.org/fwis/?Title=VaFWIS+Species+Information+By+Name&vUT=Visitor.  Species information for loons known in Virginia is available at this link.

For More Information about Loons or Other Birds

BirdNote®, a daily broadcast/podcast on birds, online at http://birdnote.org/.

Cornell University Lab of Ornithology, “E-bird,” online at https://ebird.org/home.  This program was featured in Virginia Water Radio Episode 440, 10-1-18.

Cornell University Lab of Ornithology, “Merlin Photo ID.”  The application for mobile devices allows users to submit a bird photograph to get identification of the bird.  Information is available online at http://merlin.allaboutbirds.org/.

Virginia Society of Ornithology, online at http://www.virginiabirds.org/.  The Society is non-profit organization dedicated to the study, conservation, and enjoyment of birds in the Commonwealth.

Xeno-canto Foundation Web site, online at http://www.xeno-canto.org/.  The site provides bird songs from around the world.


All Water Radio episodes are listed by category at the Index link above (http://www.virginiawaterradio.org/p/index.html).  See particularly the “Birds” subject category.

Following are links to some previous episodes on birds found in Virginia in winter.
Episode 90, 11/28/11 – on Tundra Swans.
Episode 138, 11/26/12 – on Snow Geese.
Episode 150, 2/25/13 – on winter birds generally.
Episode 197, 1/20/14 – on Canvasback ducks.
Episode 294, 12/14/15 – on the Audubon Society’s Christmas Bird Count.
Episode 303, 2/15/16 – on Common Goldeneye ducks.


2010 Science SOLs

Grades K-6 Earth Patterns, Cycles, and Change Theme
2.7 – Weather and seasonal changes affecting plants and animals.
3.8 – Basic patterns and cycles in nature.

Grades K-6 Earth Resources Theme
4.9 – Va. natural resources, including watersheds, water resources, and organisms.
6.9 – public policy decisions related to the environment (including resource management and conservation, land use decision, hazard mitigation, cost/benefit assessments).

Grades K-6 Life Processes Theme
2.4 – life cycles.
3.4 – behavioral and physiological adaptations.

Grades K-6 Living Systems Theme
2.5 – living things as part of a system, including habitats.
3.5 – food webs.
3.6 – ecosystems, communities, populations, shared resources.
4.5 – ecosystem interactions and human influences on ecosystem.

Life Science Course
LS.8 – community and population interactions, including food webs, niches, symbiotic relationships.
LS.9 – adaptations for particular ecosystems’ biotic and abiotic factors, including characteristics of land, marine, and freshwater environments.
LS.10 – changes over time in ecosystems, communities, and populations, and factors affecting those changes, including climate changes and catastrophic disturbances.
LS.11 – relationships between ecosystem dynamics and human activity.

Earth Science Course
ES.8 – influences by geologic processes and the activities of humans on freshwater resources, including identification of groundwater and major watershed systems in Virginia.
ES.10 – ocean processes, interactions, and policies affecting coastal zones, including Chesapeake Bay.

Biology Course
BIO.1 – current applications to reinforce science concepts.
BIO.8 – dynamic equilibria and interactions within populations, communities, and ecosystems; including nutrient cycling, succession, effects of natural events and human activities, and analysis of the flora, fauna, and microorganisms of Virginia ecosystems.

Virginia’s SOLs are available from the Virginia Department of Education, online at http://www.doe.virginia.gov/testing/.

Following are links to Water Radio episodes (various topics) designed especially for certain K-12 grade levels.
Episode 250 (1-26-15) – on boiling, for kindergarten through 3rd grade.
Episode 255 (3-2-15) – on density, for 5th and 6th grade.
Episode 282 (9-21-15) – on living vs. non-living, for kindergarten.
Episode 309 (3-28-16) – on temperature regulation in animals, for kindergarten through 12th grade.
Episode 332 (9-12-16) – on dissolved gases, especially dissolved oxygen in aquatic habitats, for 5th grade.
Episode 403 (1-15-18) – on freezing and ice, for kindergarten through 3rd grade.
Episode 404 (1-22-18) – on ice on ponds and lakes, for 4th through 8th grade.
Episode 406 (2-5-18) – on ice on rivers, for middle school.
Episode 407 (2-12-19) – on snow chemistry and physics, for high school.