Great Northern?

Molly McGinnis

February, 2004 issue of Signals from TARSUS

Gavia immer, Great Northern Diver (Britain); Common Loon (North America)
(Colymbus Immer in Dick's bird book – which must have been a very old-fashioned one as the name Colymbus was replaced by Urinator in the 1800's (we can forgive Ransome for skipping this one), then in 1931 by Gavia!

Could there be a Great Northern nesting in the British Isles? Could there have been one where Dick found it? Yes! Great Northern Divers have nested in Scotland in recent years – one pair was confirmed in 1970 and another in 1996. There are no "confirmed sightings" listed before that. Dick's birds, with its identity confirmed by his photos, would indeed have made ornithological history! (There had undoubtedly been an occasional GN nesting unnoticed in Scotland before such records became of interest.)

In North America the Great Northern Diver is the "Common" Loon and has cult status. It's the state bird of Minnesota (where 12,000 pairs nest) and there are state and national loon societies (try a Google search on "NALF"). [In Canada, the Common Loon is the national bird and appears on the Canadian dollar - ed.] You'll hear the eerie laughing or yodeling territorial warning call any time "nature sounds" are played, whether as music or TV backgrounds. Gavia immer nests on freshwater lakes across the northern United states and Canada and must have expanded east little by little, establishing nesting through Iceland (500 miles from Scotland), to the Faeroes, (200 miles) and finally perhaps to Scotland. This probably happened in recent geological times, because Gavia immer looks the same on both sides of the Atlantic, suggesting that the European birds haven't had time to evolve away from the North American group. It could have been a few million years ago (Loons are one of the most ancient birds – there were loonlike birds 8 million years ago) when the Atlantic land masses hadn't drifted apart so much.

A few thousand Divers, three species (GN, Red-throated and Black-throated – G. immer, stellata and arctica respectively) winter on the seas around the British Isles (and as far south as Spain) and Dick and Ransome would have seen them, but all species look alike in dull winter plumage (immer means burnt ashes). As spring approaches, Divers molt to handsome breeding plumage and head north. Almost all of these Great Northerns – about 600 pairs – nest in Iceland. A few pairs nest regularly in the Faeroes, between Iceland and Scotland. The other two species often nest in Northern Scotland and the Laird was quite right to suspect that Dick's enthusiasm had run away with him when Dick said he'd seen nesting Great Northerns. There are not very many GNs even in winter in Europe – probably under two thousand.

East or west, waters like Dick's loch have everything loons need to nest and raise young – a safe island with a good haul-out and quiet water with lots of small fish and invertebrates, where the parents can fish for the chicks and teach them to catch their own fish. But populations are declining everywhere and one frightening reason is that acid rain is sterilizing these "nursery ponds" and they are very slow to recover even where acid rain is coming under control. Loons are slow breeders and raise, on average, only one chick every other year even when conditions are good. While loons may return to lakes where they've failed to raise chicks because of people and boat disturbance, or egg predation by raccoons and gulls attracted by summer communities' garbage dumps, the fishless ponds are slow to recover and loons may leave them permanently. Sadly, the worst hit areas include Scotland and Northeastern North America. The few loons that think of nesting in Scotland may never return not because of egg collectors but because dirty power plants have ruined their lochs.

Great Northern is an exciting book to a biologist. It shows the beginnings of a biology we now take for granted, a public rather than a private biology whose concern is for conservation, preservation, and observation of species. There are three important biological threads, expertly interwoven. We're shown the damage the old style shoot-em-first museum collectors and "vanity biologists" and especially egg collectors can do (for a blood-curdling read go to But the rising New Biology gives us the new order: Dick, focusing on intelligent observation and concerned for conservation and preservation, is victor and hero. The more academic biology is set against a background of economic biology: a major cash crop of the islanders, driving the unique way of life to a large extent, is renting the hunting of "their" highly managed herds of Red Deer (Americans would call them Elk).

Especially for Californians

The California coast has some of the best loon watching anywhere. Though Common Loons quit nesting in California about 1900, they winter along our coast and into Baja and sometimes change into breeding plumage before they leave. Monterey Bay is famous for loon-watching and we've seen Gavia immer and other species in Humboldt Bay, Mendocino, Tomales Bay, Berkeley Marina, Elkhorn Slough Reserve (Moss Landing) and down the coast in San Pedro and San Diego Bays. has a nice writeup and pictures.

Was Ransome's Diver Real? - S & M McGinnis

Ransome hints that there is a secret location where there really was a diver nesting. Was there? We think yes, given that we haven't found a record of any trips to Iceland or the Faeroes. As biologists we look at
  1. He drew and described neck markings that would only be seen in the breeding and nesting season.
  2. The call "like wild laughter, as if the two great birds were sharing some fantastic joke" is a territorial warning, only heard in breeding season.
  3. "...moving in an odd way, as if it could not get properly up on its legs." GNs only go onto land in breeding season! The intimate descriptions of land behaviour are very convincing.
Yes, it all could have been from books and native tales but these two biologists are convinced that he's reporting, not transcribing! Ransome certainly must have observed Divers on a breeding pond – the behaviour is just too closely described. Some of the other observations would be applicable to other species but 1, 2, 3 only apply to Great Northerns.

We'd love to hear from any members who have better biographical information than we came up with. Was Ransome ever in the Faeroes or Iceland in summer? Are there descriptions of nesting Arctic (Black-throated) or Red-Throated divers in his journals or letters?

How Did the Divers Get There? - S & M McGinnis

Titty's story is as good as any (p. 183). The males get to the breeding ponds first so it could as well have been the female that got lost or hurt so that when they finally took flight again they were attracted to a loch or pond some hundreds of miles east and south of their normal breeding grounds. We think these Divers must have wintered far away–off Spain or even the Azores where they are very occasionally seen–to be so late and tired.

Are there any sailor members who can tell us which way the winds would be blowing as the Divers make their way toward the breeding grounds in early summer? From the Atlantic coast of Spain they'd travel about 1200 miles north and 600 east, probably fishing their way up the coasts and making the last few flights in an easterly direction.

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