The Common Loon
By Laurie Sheppard
Any visitor to Hagerman NWR in winter will find many species of birds feeding or floating on the water, either in the distance away from shore or in one of the many accessible inlets and shallow impoundment areas. One winter migrant, though, is easily found on Lake Texoma, but rarely seen within the refuge’s boundaries. That migrant is the Common Loon.
Common Loons are iconic birds of the northern lakes and forests. Images of a serene bird with its
black rounded head, black-and-white barred neck, and a black-and-white checkered back carrying a fluffy brown chick are especially captivating. The movie, On Golden Pond, celebrated these beautiful birds in their breeding season.
In winter, Common Loons look very different, but are still magnificent. They are large birds, measuring 28 to 32 inches in length with a wingspan of about 46 inches. Unlike most birds, they have solid bones and can weigh between 9 and 12 pounds. This adaptation makes them less buoyant, allowing them to hunt under water for the small fish, crustaceans, and other small creatures that make up their diet. Their legs are set far back on their bodies; their large, webbed feet act as efficient propellers, making them skilled swimmers. The wintering loons on Lake Texoma have a mostly gray-brown head and back with a bright white chin and chest. Males are generally larger than females in this species.
Most loons breed on secluded bodies of water north of the Canadian border, where they build their grassy nests on rocky lakeshores. Common Loons are thought to be monogamous, and although they do not spend the entire year together, a pair will return to the same nest site year after year. Males leave the wintering sites earlier and arrive at the breeding areas first. Like Bald Eagles, loons do not begin to breed for several years. Younger birds may not migrate north during their first couple of years, instead living and feeding offshore along the saltwater coasts of the United States. The loons that winter on Lake Texoma migrate along the Central Flyway and likely nest in Saskatchewan, Alberta, Northwest Territories, North and South Dakota, and Minnesota.
Common Loons have four different calls. The one many people are most familiar with is the “tremolo” – a short warbling call – which is actually an alarm call signaling a potential threat. Another is a type of yodel, made only by a male as a territorial proclamation. Each male has his own characteristic yodel, but if the male changes his territory, he will also change his yodel! The third call is a two-note wail and appears to be a contact and gathering call. Wintering birds are reported to be silent, but you will often hear the fourth call on Lake Texoma if a group is gathering and feeding together. It is a very short hoot, apparently used to help individuals locate each other. Late in spring, if any loons have delayed migrating, a lucky observer may hear the two-note call as well.
As spring nears, the loons begin to develop their breeding plumage. The first sign is the development of white spots mottling the backs of many of the loons. Later, you will see the black feathers on the head and neck begin to emerge, and the latest migrants will show almost full breeding plumage as they gather to fly north. Despite their weight, Common Loons are strong flyers, occasionally reaching speeds of up to 70 miles per hour. They are unable to easily lift off and need a long “runway” of water to achieve flight. Loons may become stranded when ice unexpectedly closes in or if they mistake a wet parking lot for a deeper body of water on which to rest during migration.
Common Loon and Fish
Common Loon Early Breeding Plumage
Common Loon, Early-Mid Plumage
Common Loon, Mid-Late Plumage
Common Loon Winter Plumage
Common Loon Winter Plumage
There are many marinas and parks around Lake Texoma and all of them are potential places to see wintering Common Loons. They typically are solitary hunters, but sometimes small groups will be seen sharing the same area. Occasionally, you will see loons near a fisherman, looking for an easy handout. Early in fall, the small fish seem to stay further out on the lake, making it harder to see any loons, but by late December, they are starting to visit the deeper inlets around the lake. During the Christmas Bird Count this winter, 37 Common Loons were counted. Closest to the refuge, loons are frequently seen at Little Mineral and Lighthouse Marinas, and occasionally at Highport Marina or Flowing Wells. At Eisenhower State Park, the area of the lighted fishing pier is often a great place to photograph loons later in the season. I usually see at least one loon (and sometimes several) every time I’m there. On the Oklahoma side of the lake, loons are often seen at the East and West Burns Run and Platter Flats campgrounds. Grandpappy Point is also a good spot to check for wintering loons.
Common Loons do not currently have a special conservation status globally. They have disappeared from certain locations and are considered locally threatened in some northern states. Acid rain may be responsible for reducing their food supplies in the north and human disturbance on lakes has disrupted historic nesting sites. Climate change is also projected to impact their breeding range. The population appears stable, possibly because their breeding grounds are so widespread.
Photos by Laurie Sheppard
Upcoming Hunt Information, Closures and Applications
Feral Hog Hunt
March 4–6, 2022, Mar 18–20, 2022
Areas Closed: Big Mineral, Sandy, Godwin, Goode, Meyers, and SE Harris Creek.
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Did you know that all bugs are insects, but not all insects are bugs? The "true bugs" the insect order Hemiptera is one of the most diverse groups of insects, with over 85,000 known species. They range from the tiny garden enemies, the aphids--to the giant predators, the giant water bugs--- to insects of our nightmares, the bed bugs. Come learn about the diversity and ecology of Hemiptera and their roles in natural ecosystems!
Puddles' Craft Corner
The Singers in the Trees!
By Cindy Steele, Master Naturalist
Welcome back to Puddles’ Craft Corner. It’s February! You might be noticing those bright red songbirds sitting in your trees or hanging around your bird feeders. Winter is a good time to notice these beautiful singing birds since they aren’t hidden by the leaves that are usually on the trees. You've heard of cardinals because they are mascots for a lot of sports teams, but maybe you don't know much about them. Are they always red? Where do they live? This lesson will teach you lots of interesting facts about cardinals' habitat, diet, and life cycle and...
Birding with Jack
Updated, Weekly Census Results
By Master Naturalist Jack Chiles, Mike Petrick and
Dr. Wayne Meyer (Pictured Right)
Each Tuesday a team of experienced birders, including Master Naturalist Jack Chiles, traverse 35 miles of refuge roads and hiking trails, documenting every bird they encounter. This Bird Census is reported to The Cornell Lab of Ornithology for use in research, and each week we will bring you a link to their actual bird count, and a summary of their adventures.
Census Notes, January 25th, 2022:
It was a chilly day, but a good day for the bird census. Birds were active and we saw a lot of birds on Raasch Trail. Sparrows were plentiful there. Later, as we ventured down Wildlife Drive we found a small flock of white geese at the entrance to Plover Pad and they were still there at the end of the census. In Muleshoe Marsh we came upon a good find, a pair of Red-breasted Mergansers. They were very busy diving. They would pop up and almost immediately dive again. It would have been easy to miss them. Hundreds of gulls were sitting on the sandbars near Tern Pad. Among the gulls we found 2 Lesser Black-backed Gulls and 10 Herring Gulls mixed in with the Ring-billed Gulls. Lucy was present early on, sitting on her favorite perch. There was a large number of Long-billed Dowitchers in Steedman Marsh and we counted 83. We found a Greater Roadrunner on Short Road, a bird that can be difficult to find in the winter. We saw...
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Did you know that you can support the Friends of Hagerman while shopping on Amazon? If you shop on Amazon using this Amazon Smile link, the Friends will receive 0.5% of eligible purchases. Simply go to smile.amazon.com and sign in with your Amazon account. Under "Your Account" select "Change your Amazon Smile Charity" and enter "Friends of Hagerman" in the charity search box. Once your results appear, select the Friends of Hagerman National Wildlife Refuge Foundation. Every time you make a purchase on Amazon Smile, the Friends will get a donation. Thanks for helping us make Hagerman a great wildlife refuge!
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To Our Contributors:
Master Naturalist Laurie Sheppard, Master Naturalist Jack Chiles, Master Naturalist Cindy Steele
Refuge Manager: Kathy Whaley
Deputy Refuge Manager: Paul Balkenbush
Visitor Services Manager: Spencer BeardEditor: Patricia Crain
Friends of Hagerman NWR Foundation
6465 Refuge Road, Sherman, TX 75092