The call of the loon is a quintessential, goose bump-generating element of our summer cottage experience, be it a nocturnal chorus at three a.m. or random calls and singsongs throughout the day. While canoeing and kayaking we often spot, off in the distance, dark birds with long slender beaks floating low in the water one moment, the next moment diving under the water and reappearing in a different place. But wait, if you have not heard a loon call and the bird is too distant to see any colouration, it might be a loon or it might be a merganser. Time to pull out the camera, preferably with a zoom, and start taking pictures so you can discern its distinctive markings to aid in its identification.
Both loons and mergansers have webbed feet that are placed well back near the rear of their bodies for swimming. This placement of their legs and feet makes walking on land difficult. Both are strong swimmers and divers and require a ‘running start’ across the water surface before taking flight.
Loons make up the family Gaviidae. We have just one species of loon at the lake, the common loon; others fly and swim elsewhere in Canada. The common loon can measure up to 80 centimetres in length and weigh up to 4.1 kilograms. Loons have pointed, dagger-like bills. They live on the water and build floating reed nests to protect their eggs from predation, and so the adults don’t need to walk far. They aggressively protect their territory, both from other loons as well as other waterfowl, beavers, raccoons and even snapping turtles. They dive both to hunt for small fish and to avoid danger and can remain underwater for more than five minutes. Chicks are able to swim within days of hatching and learn to dive within weeks. The adult male and female are similar in appearance with a black head and neck; red eyes; a white-banded neck ring; white chest, belly and under wings; black flanks and white spotted back; and, black feet.
This side view shows the distinctive black and white markings and red eye of common loons.
Young chicks will often hitch a ride on the back of a parent.
Mergansers are members of the family Anatidae which includes ducks, swans and geese. We have seen three species at the cottage. The common merganser can measure up to 65 centimetres in length and weigh in as the largest at 1.5 kilograms. The red-breasted merganser is next in size, up to 60 centimetres long and weighing up to 1 kilogram. The hooded merganser is the smallest of the mergansers of White Lake, with a length of 45 centimetres and weight of 0.6 kilograms. The edges of merganser bills are serrated, aiding in the catching of small fish. They also eat crustaceans and molluscs. The colouration is distinctive between adult males and females in all three merganser species.
The common merganser male has a dark green head and white chest while the female has a brown head with a crest, a white patch under the beak and a white chest.
The red-breasted merganser female has a brown head with a crest while the male (not pictured) has a dark green head with a ‘punk-like’ crest, red eyes and a white collar.
The hooded mergansers have long crests, the male’s is black and white while the female’s is chestnut red.
Good sources of additional information about loons and mergansers include Chris Earley’s book Waterfowl of Eastern North America, the Sibley Field Guide to Birds of Eastern North America, Jeffery Domm’s Lorimer Field Guide to 225 Ontario Birds and www.allaboutbirds.org.