Sartorial perfection

It’s hard to imagine a more elegant get-up than an adult loon in breeding plumage:

But they don’t start out like that. The two young chicks below are just brown and fluffy, with quite modest beaks. The very first down is very dark, almost black.

The second down, which is lighter brown, comes in around week three. After a few weeks, you start to notice their white breasts:

and then serious grooming begins. There is a gland under the tail that produces an oil that they rub through their plumage with their heads to keep it waterproof:

They use their bill to organize their feathers into overlapping layers:

From around week 7, their juvenile plumage is beginning to push out the down:

They are still very much babies, with a conveyor belt of fish deliveries (two in this shot, and they brought the chick eight fish in thirty minutes):

and a close bond with their parents.

But gradually the down decreases, and by about week 9 the down has all gone, leaving a grey-brown juvenile plumage which will be their garb for the next two or more years :

And the wings are growing apace. Remember the baby, on August 4th?

Now a mere three weeks later look at these shoulder muscles:

this wingspan:

and these flight feathers:

It will be able to fly on its own in another two or three weeks, but not far.

And then, one day, like Hans Christian Anderson’s The Ugly Duckling, they will be all grown up.

Their wings will be streamlined and powerful:

Even from the back they are chic:

And as you get closer, just admire. Whether they’re seeking out fish:

approaching head on:


or at water level:

or just as a hint, a trace on the water:

PS The loons are so relaxed they swim under my kayak, but I am usually so mesmerised I don’t even reach for my camera. Here is my only vaguely successful attempt:

The legs are spread wide, and the bands show you the ankles. You can just see the eye too.

PPS Even as adults, their winter non-breeding plumage will remain somewhat subdued:

7 thoughts on “Sartorial perfection”

  1. Moira: these photos are incredibly beautiful! Especially the one under: ‘approaching head on.’ What a wonderful experience to be out in your kayak among them. Animals know when you are friendly & mean no harm. Coming back in a future life as a loon (not looney😳) might be a great option.


  2. Beautifully done! No one will ever get mixed up with loons an mergansers ever again! But there is one misconception that requires correction: the Loon Count has nothing to do with banding. On the third Saturday in July between 7 and 7:30 all loons are counted and the results tabulated by Maine Audubon. Banding is an advanced registration technique that requires trained biologists – and is usually apart of a research project.

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