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Pacific Loon

Gavia pacifica

Length: 24 to 26 inches Wingspan: 44 to 48 inches Seasonality: Rare Visitor
ID Keys: (Breeding Plumage) Gray head, black and white strips on side of neck, black back with large white spots

Pacific Loon - Gavia pacificaThe Pacific Loon is almost exclusively found along the North American Pacific coast in the winter time, but in summer, can be found in northern Canada as far east as Hudson Bay and Baffin Island.  They are rarely found inland during migration, and are thus only very rare visitors to South Dakota.  They are very similar in overall appearance to the Arctic Loon, but the Arctic Loon is even more rare in the interior of the US, and has never been sighted in South Dakota.


Summer breeding habitat is primarily shallow lakes on the Arctic Tundra, as well as forested lakes in northern Canada and Alaska.  Winter habitat is primarily along the Pacific Ocean, sometimes well out to sea.


Primarily feeds on small fish if available, but will also consume crustaceans, mollusks, aquatic insects and their larvae, and occasionally plant material.


Forages by diving below the water's surface and propelling itself with its feet in search of prey.  They will often partially submerge their head below the surface in search of food items before initiating a dive.  Breeding pairs are thought to breed for life.


Non-breeder in South Dakota. On their breeding grounds in northern Canada and Alaska, Pacific Loons build a nest nest to a shoreline of a tundra or open boreal forest lake. The nest is a platform of varying thickness, from a simple shallow scrape with a sparse lining of vegetation, to a more robust nest platform constructed of wetland vegetation, roots, and mud. The female lays between 1-3 eggs, and both parents help to incubate them. The young hatch after about 24 days, and leave the nest after only a day or two. Pacific Loons can be extremely aggressive in defending the nest site and their young, and will even attack creatures much larger than themselves.


Generally silent during migration through the state.  On their breeding grounds Pacific Loons have a low croaking sound, and a wailing song.

1Click here to hear the wails of a Pacific Loon on its breeding grounds, recorded near Nome, Alaska.

2Click here to hear the low croaking of a Pacific Loon, recorded on the North Slope of Alaska.


Summers in northern Canada and Alaska.  Winters along the Pacific coast from Alaska down through Mexico. Given their preference for nesting along the coast, migrants through the interior of the US are thus rare.

Interactive eBird Map:

Click here to access an interactive eBird map of Pacific Loon sightings

Similar Species:

Pacific Loons are extremely rare visitors to South Dakota, with a handful of records. Nearly all of these records have been in the mid- to late-fall time period, and were birds in non-breeding plumage. Here are the other loon species that could potentially be confused with Pacific Loon:


Generally stable throughout its normal range, with some indications of increases in recent decades. They are found over a wide geographic area and are common in parts of their range. The IUCN considers the Pacific Loon to be a species of "Least Concern".

Further Information:

1) USGS Patuxent Bird Identification InfoCenter, Pacific Loon

2) Audubon Guide - Pacific Loon

3) Pacific Loon

Photo Information:

May 22nd, 2014 - Near Eagle River, Alaska - Terry Sohl

Audio File Credits:

1Patrik Aberg, XC406246. Accessible at

2Andrew Spencer, XC141729. Accessible at


Click on the map below for a higher-resolution view
Pacific Loon - Range Map
South Dakota Status: Rare migrant in the state, with only a handful of records.

Additional Pacific Loon Photos
Click for a higher-resolution version of these photos
Pacific Loon 2 - Gavia pacificaPacific Loon 3 - Gavia pacificaPacific Loon 4 - Gavia pacificaPacific Loon 5 - Gavia pacificaPacific Loon 6 - Gavia pacificaPacific Loon 7 - Gavia pacificaPacific Loon 8 - Gavia pacificaPacific Loon 1 - Gavia pacifica