Red-Throated Loon

Gavia stellata

Red-Throated Loon - Breeding Plumage
Red-Throated Loon - Breeding Plumage. Jason Crotty

The smallest but most widespread of the loons, the red-throated loon is one of the northernmost aquatic birds in the world.

Common Name: Red-Throated Loon, Red-Throated Diver, Pegging-Awl Loon, Cape Drake, Cape Racer, Sprat Loon, Spratoon, Little Loon

Scientific Name: Gavia stellata

Scientific Family: Gaviidae


  • Bill: Long, stout, very slightly upcurved along its length, grayish-black
  • Size: 24-27 inches long with 42-45-inch wingspan, round head, flat chest, long neck
  • Colors: Gray, black, white, brick red
  • Markings: Genders are similar, though males tend to be slightly larger and heavier than females. In breeding plumage, the head is solid gray and the long neck has fine, vertical black and white streaking on the hindneck and a bold brick red patch on the throat. The breast and underparts are white, though some light gray mottling may show on the flanks. The back and wings are dark with very slight gray mottling. In winter, non-breeding plumage, these loons have a white face, throat and underparts, a dark hindneck, white speckling on a black back and a paler bill. Throughout the year, the eyes are red and the legs and feet are dark.

    Juveniles are similar to winter plumage adults but show more gray on the sides of the throat and a much paler bill.

Foods: Fish, insects, amphibians, crustaceans, mollusks (See: Piscivorous)

Habitat and Migration:

These northern loons have a circumpolar range and are found on tiny, relatively shallow ponds, lakes, pools and bogs during the summer breeding season, while in winter they prefer shallow coastal waters such as harbors, bays and estuaries, though they will also venture out to sea.

Their breeding range includes Arctic areas of both North America and Eurasia, including Iceland and Scandinavia. In winter, they are found along the oceanic coasts of Europe as far south as Spain and into the Mediterranean Sea and Caspian Sea, and in Asia wintering red-throated loons may be seen along the coasts of Japan, the Korean Peninsula and as far south as northern China.

In North America, the winter range extends south to the northern Baja Peninsula on the Pacific coast and to South Carolina on the Atlantic coast.

Vagrant sightings are rare but have occasionally be recorded inland, particularly during migration, and these loons are rarely recorded much further south than expected, including in northern Africa, central Mexico and Mongolia.


These birds have a deep voice that includes a somewhat musical croaking duet, wailing calls, a throaty quack and deep growling or grunting vocalizations. Young loons also have begging calls they use to get adults' attention.


Red-throated loons are generally solitary but may form flocks during migration or in suitable areas during winter. Their flight path is straight and direct with deep wing beats, and they show a distinctive humped or hunched profile in flight with both their feet and necks drooping, though they often move their necks up and down while flying.

These birds are awkward and clumsy on land, but are agile divers that may descend up to 90 feet deep in pursuit of prey. They often hold their bills slightly pointed up, and they can take off directly from the surface of the water or from land if necessary, without a "runway" stretch to build up to flight speed.


These loons are monogamous and form long-term bonds that may indicate mating for life. Courtship displays include dipping the bill into water as well as short rushing dances and diving near potential mates. After mating, both partners work together to build a shallow scrape nest or low mound of grass, moss, wet vegetation and mud, and it may be lined with finer materials or a few feathers. There are 1-3 oval-shaped eggs per brood, and they range from olive-green to deep tan and are splotched or slightly speckled with darker shades.

Both parents share incubation duties for 25-28 days, and the precocial chicks leave the nest within a day of hatching. They are able to feed themselves but the parent birds will supply easy food and ongoing guidance, and if the chicks are threatened, the parents may perform distraction displays to dissuade predators.

The young birds take their first flight when they are 50-60 days old. Because of the long care period, a mated pair will only raise one brood per year, though if the nest fails early in the season, they may begin a new brood at a new nesting site.

Attracting Red-Throated Loons:

These are not backyard birds but may appear in unexpected areas with suitable open water, particularly during migration. Habitat preservation and healthy aquatic prey populations are essential to make red-throated loons feel comfortable.


While these loons are not considered threatened or endangered, certain populations are declining as Arctic regions are under development for industrial use and local threat classifications may vary. Oil spills and pollution that leads to toxic biomagnification are also a threat to red-throated loons, and gill nets and irresponsible fishing techniques can take a heavy toll on these loons, particularly in their winter range.

Similar Birds:

  • Black-Throated Loon (Gavia arctica)
  • Pacific Loon (Gavia pacifica)
  • Red-Necked Grebe (Podiceps grisegena)

Photo – Red-Throated Loon – Breeding Plumage © Jason Crotty
Photo – Red-Throated Loon – Non-Breeding Plumage © Don Henise