But this loon, or common loon as it’s officially called, seems to be unique.
What makes this loon’s travels loony, said birding experts, is that it hasn’t just taken a quick pit stop at the lake in suburbia but has stayed for more than a week. Usually, they may stop along the coastline, eat some fish and then continue north in search of a mate.
This one has stuck around Lake Zasada, a man-made pond with trees, a fountain and plenty of gawkers in the Fair Lakes area just off the Fairfax County Parkway not far from Interstate 66.
“If they’re flying overhead, sometimes they need to come down and rest,” said Matt Felperin, a roving naturalist in Virginia. What’s odd, he said, is that “most don’t come this far inland and take a stop.”
“This one is an anomaly. We may see them fly overhead, but they don’t tend to stop,” Felperin said.
The loon’s tale in Northern Virginia started in late April when it was spotted by a local birder.
Emily Johnson, who lives in Fairfax County, was among the first to spot the loon at the pond one afternoon when she and her fiance were walking their dog.
“When I saw it, I freaked out because I was like, ‘That’s a loon,’ ” Johnson said, “and their black head and white feathers are so distinctive.”
When she got home, she checked a birding identification app and posted her photos of the loon to Birding Virginia, a Facebook group of local birders.
Since then, posts and updates on the loon have taken off as many report on its every move, from eating a fish to preening its feathers. Birders said the loon got a little spooked when a goose and a green heron at different times flew low to check it out.
Another bird enthusiast, Cara Aldridge Young, calls the loon’s social media following “loonarazzi.” Others have dubbed it the “Lonely Loon of Lake Zasada.”
For birders, the loon’s arrival is a big win.
Known as the “great northern diver,” loons are an interesting species.
In the winter, they are mostly a plain gray color. But in their summer breeding months, their plumage changes into a unique pattern of black and white stripes on their backs and an iridescent mix of blue-black and green feathers on their necks. They have a black bill that’s sharp for helping them catch fish and red eyes to improve eyesight when diving down into deeper, dark waters.
It’s not uncommon in the winter to see them in the D.C. region, often near the Occoquan Bay in the Woodbridge area or along the Potomac River in the Mason Neck region.
Johnson compared seeing the loon in a suburban pond and enjoying it for more than a week to unexpectedly seeing a celebrity in the Washington region.
“It’s like seeing Brad Pitt walk down your street in Fairfax,” said Johnson, who works in parks and recreation in Northern Virginia. “That’s what it’s like seeing this loon here, especially because he’s stuck around for a bit and didn’t just fly off.”
Loons are water birds, but they are known to sometimes mistake parking lots for water and make crash landings. Their legs are awkwardly farther back on their bodies, making them good swimmers and divers, but they struggle to walk well on land, according to wildlife experts.
They’re also heavy and dense, which makes them better able to fight buoyancy in the water, but it can present a challenge in their flight takeoff. They need a long runway — usually at least a quarter-mile long.
“Loons are like sea planes,” Felperin said. “They’ll be flapping to take off and out of the water, but they need a while to get that lift.”
Some birders said they are worried the Fairfax pond simply isn’t that big or long enough for the loon to take flight. Plus, loons often “feel the urge to migrate north when there’s a good south wind” to push them along, Felperin said.
Still, birding experts said there’s no reason for humans to get their feathers ruffled.
They are fairly certain the loon is fine and simply taking a longer-than-normal vacation. It doesn’t appear to be injured, birders said, because it’s been seen swimming around, diving and eating fish in the pond. It’s simply resting.
There is a concern that if the loon rests too long in Fairfax, it will get to the breeding grounds too late and won’t have enough time for courtship and mating.
Some birders and wildlife experts have said they have seen the loon practicing to take flight, but Felperin said that “it’s not clearing the highway and the tree line.”
Aldridge Young said she thinks birders and locals have become interested in the loon, in part, because they are spending more time outside amid the coronavirus pandemic.
“The virus, in a way, has given people the opportunity to get outside in nature and explore more,” said Young, an editor for a pharmaceutical publication.
Johnson and other birders agree that while they have enjoyed watching the loon hang out at the Fairfax pond, they hope it finds the appropriate amount of space and catches just the right winds to take off and head north — and soon.
“It’s mixed emotions,” Johnson said. “I want him to be healthy and fly on, but it’s also been nice getting to watch him live his life while he’s here.”