Birds of North Carolina:
their Distribution and Abundance
Pacific Loon - Gavia pacifica
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General Comments This Arctic breeding species winters essentially along the Pacific coast. For unknown reasons, the inshore ocean off Figure Eight Island and Wrightsville Beach, both in New Hanover, is "the" place to find a Pacific Loon in the state. Birders who carefully scrutinize the loons along the coast in this region can sometimes be rewarded with a sighting of this species, though it normally takes a good scope and glassy ocean conditions -- at best just one or two days a week in winter -- to be sure it is a Pacific. Because loons tend to dive often, and seldom come within 200 yards of the beach, obtaining recognizable photos of the species is challenging! Away from this small area, it is a difficult-to-find species along the inshore ocean. There are only a few records from brackish or fresh water in the state.
Breeding Status Nonbreeder
NC BRC List Definitive
State Status
U.S. Status
State Rank S1N
Global Rank G5
Coastal Plain Winter visitor along the coast, and a winter resident (a handful of birds only) in a local area; many dozen records, greatly increasing in recent decades. Very rare along the coast north of New Hanover, but locally rare, wintering annually, along the coast of that county; however, no records yet for adjacent Brunswick. Several records from just inside inlets, but no records from fresh water areas in the province. Mainly mid-Nov to late Mar; a few summer records. Singles seen in flight from Cape Hatteras Point (Dare) on 23 Apr and 26 May 2021 were notably late. Peak counts: 4, Figure Eight Island, 26 Dec 2002; 4, Wrightsville Beach, 4 Jan 2003; 4, Wrightsville Beach, 21 Dec 2013.
Piedmont Casual. Six records: one at L. Tahoma (McDowell) on 6 May 2007, in alternate plumage [Chat 71:84 link]; one at Lake Townsend (Guilford) from 18 Nov - 3 Dec 2008 [Chat 73:12 link], 73:56); one at Kerr Lake (Vance) from 22-25 Nov 2018 [Chat 83:29 link] and again on 19 Dec 2018 [Chat 83:61 link]; one at Kerr Lake 2 Jan 2020 [Chat 84:65 link], likely the same bird as the winter before; two on Lake Townsend on 1 Dec 2022 [Chat 87:39 link]; and one photographed on Lake Lure (Rutherford) on 22 Nov 2023 [Chat 88:12 link]. Despite the very thorough coverage of lakes in the Triangle region, especially Falls and Jordan lakes, there is still no record from this region; nor is there a record from Lake Norman, despite its huge size and fairly thorough coverage.
Mountains Accidental. A single record: one photographed at Lake Julian (Buncombe) on 5-6 Jan 2012* [Chat 76:53 link].
Finding Tips To look for this species, you must be prepared to carefully scrutinize loons on the ocean, with a scope. You will need rather calm seas, and preferably the sun at your back. This is a difficult species to identify, not only from Common and Red-throated loons, but also from the closely-related Arctic Loon. Thus, be extremely careful before you report a Pacific Loon. The best area to look is from Wrightsville Beach, especially from a pier (such as Johnnie Mercer's); unfortunately, Figure Eight Island is privately owned and is therefore difficult to access.
* to **
Attribution LeGrand[2024-02-10], LeGrand[2023-08-10], LeGrand[2023-05-17]
NC Map
Map depicts all counties with a report (transient or resident) for the species.
Click on county for list of all known species.