Thursday, January 9, 2014

Bird to look for #1: Common Loon

I plan for this to be the inaugural entry into a series of "Bird to look for" posts.  Each will describe a bird species (or set of similar species) that can be found in the city, either in residential habitats or on our urban bodies of water, with aid of binoculars.


Loons are large swimming birds, larger than a Mallard.  They can regularly be found in the winter months on Lake Pontchartrain, but are unlikely to be found anywhere else near the city.

Loons are heavy  bodied.  They sit low in the water; nevertheless, their size will be evident.  We have them (approximately) from November through April.  Loons have heavy spear-shaped beaks, that are held horizontal.  The only species in our area that is a real candidate for being confused with a loon is the Double-crested Cormorant, which is about the same size.  However, cormorants out on the Lake will differ in looking thinner- and longer-necked, holding their beaks at a slight (but noticeable) upward angle, and having a less fearsome beak- with a tip that is slightly bulbous and hooked.  The beak will not look largely pale, as they do in loons. Loons also have a crisp pattern on the head and neck:  dark above, light underneath (chin and throat) that is less contrasty (is that a word?) and more blurred in cormorants (in some cormorants, the neck is fully black).  In April, however, some loons will begin to acquire their breeding plumage before they leave- more extensively dark on the head and neck, but also checkered with white on the back (unlike cormorants).

The best way to find loons is simply to stop at several spots on the lakefront and scan the water with binoculars.  Sometimes they are very close to shore, other times farther out.  They dive after fish, so often disappear underwater and reappear.  While on the surface they often bend their neck and stick just their face in, apparently scanning for fish.  Cormorants do not generally do this.

When I take my classes to the UNO lakefront in winter, a loon is visible probably half the time. Sometimes they seem to have a special affinity for the area near the Industrial Canal (Ted Hickey Bridge).  The Mandeville Lakefront is also a good area, probably best by the breakwaters at the east end. They do not normally form flocks, but a dozen or  more may loosely congregate in a small area with good fishing.

A birder on the Lake Erie shore once boasted to me that he could draw in some loons that were out on the water by using a hand motion.  He proceeded to hold his arm out from his hip (upper arm tight against body, lower arm held straight out sideways,open palm facing toward the birds).  He slowly waved his hand up and down, and the three loons swam right toward us!  I have tried it many times since, and had it work some times- but not others.  If you are close enough for a loon to notice, give it a try!

None of the other loon species occur in Louisiana except as "accidentals"- if you see a loon, you may assume it to be a Common.

Good birding,


For a copy of Birding Made Easy-New Orleans, email me at, or look for it at area book stores.  It is now available at
Uptown:  Garden District Book Shop, Maple Street Book Shop, Octavia Books
French Quarter and Marigny:  Peach Records, Fauborg Marigny Art Books Music, Librairie Book Shop, Beckham's Bookshop, Arcadian Books and Prints, the Crabnet
Mid City:  City Park Botanical Garden, Community Book Center
Metairie:  Double M Feed on W. Esplanade
Harahan:  Double M Feed on Jefferson Hwy
North Shore:  Mandeville Chiropractic

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