Great northern diver

Great northern diver

Great northern diver in winter plumage © Chris Gomersall/2020VISION

Great northern diver

Scientific name: Gavia immer
This hefty diving bird is a winter visitor to the UK, where it can be seen around the coast or occasionally on large inland lakes.

Species information


Length: around 80cm
Wingspan: 122-148cm

Conservation status

Classified in the UK as Amber under the Birds of Conservation Concern 4: the Red List for Birds (2015).

When to see

Most likely to be seen in winter, or on migration in autumn and spring.


The great northern diver is a large water bird, which is mostly a winter visitor to the UK. Great northern divers breed in Greenland, Iceland and North America, where they're called common loons. There have been occasional records of them breeding in Scotland, but these are very rare.

They breed on large woodland lakes or pools on tundra, with the male and female working together to build the nest on an island or shoreline. They're excellent swimmers, using their large feet to chase after small fish under the water.

Great northern divers usually spend the winter on the sea, favouring shallow areas close to shore. They can sometimes be seen migrating along the coast singly or in small flocks.

How to identify

Divers look a little bit like cormorants, swimming with their large bodies low in the water and their long neck held upright. The great northern diver is a hefty bird, with a thick neck and a large, heavy bill. They often look as if they have a big bump on the forehead.

In their winter plumage, adults have a plain black back, neck and head, with a white throat and belly, and a darker half-collar at the base of the neck. In their summer breeding plumage, they have a dark black head and neck with a black-and-white-striped patch on the side of the neck, and a black back with a white chequered pattern.


In winter, great northern divers can most often be found off the coast of Scotland, northern, eastern and south-west England, Wales, and Northern Ireland. They can sometimes be found on inland lakes and reservoirs.

Did you know?

Great northern divers have a haunting call that is often used in films and television shows to add a wild or spooky atmosphere to a scene. It's often used in locations where divers aren't even found!