Sunday, 16 April 2017

THE GRAND PRIZE OF LOONS


It was 3:30 p.m. on the Thursday before the three day Easter holiday when my cell phone rang.  It was Alvan Buckley. He said “I just forwarded you a photo of a loon that Peter Shelton saw at Trepassey”. Sitting in front of my office computer I saw the email arriving and opened it while Alvan was still on the phone.  My finger already hovering over the ‘reject button’ moved back when the picture appeared. A clear, up cut, pointed yellow bill was an obvious foot in the door for building a case for Yellow-billed Loon.
Peter Shelton's photo of an interesting loon at Trepassey, NF on 11 April 2017. It looks rather obvious for a Yellow-billed Loon when you know it is one, but when you are trying to rationalize why this Common Loon looks like a Yellow-billed Loon things get fuzzy.
Alvan asked if I was going for it?  I said no.  I still had not digested the picture and besides I already had plans to be birding Trepassey in the morning. The record was also 48 hours old.  Over the next ten minutes I continued looking at the picture.  The bill was so good.  Clear yellow to the tip and finely pointed and a little upturned.  It had none of the dusky lines along culmen ridge or other areas of the bill typically present on even the whitest washed out examples of spring/summer sub-adult Common Loons.  How could it look any better for a YBLO?  However, I was long ago convinced there was no way a Yellow-billed Loon was ever going to occur in Newfoundland waters.  I had to see why this bird looked so close to a YBLO.  There was not much daylight left and I did have some social plans for the evening but I called Alvan back saying that I was going for it, do you want to come? Yes was his answer. We met at my house at 4 pm and began the 1hour 45 minute drive from St. John’s to Trepassey
Visibility was excellent over Trepassey Bay when we arrived.  We found the mother lode of loons over by the old fish plant site.  But they were nearly all asleep. This was not something we were prepared for.  The few hundred loons trapped by ice for the last week had sought refuge in open water of the inner parts of Trepassey harbour.  With little feeding opportunity the loons had taken on a semi-hibernation mode and were sleeping away the day to conserve energy. Tufted Ducks do the same thing to get them through the coldest parts of the winter in St. John’s by sleeping for days and days.
Using details from Peter’s photo we could eliminate many loons by the amount of white checkering in the back and others were just too dark on the neck.  We’d hover over particular birds of interest, sometimes whistling hoping it would raise its head. Meanwhile, Paul Linegar arrived on the scene to help with the searching.  After an hour looking at several flocks of sleeping loons I decided to move to the location of the old fish plant and scan the ice choked entrance of the harbour.
There were far fewer loons here but at least they had their necks up because they were actively fishing.  Far in the distance I was monitoring ten loons swimming in a line and actively diving. Between the ice pans I kept getting the vibes that one of them was browner and maybe holding its head up higher. The birds were gradually working toward me but still hundreds of meters away. Eventually through the shimmering air the brownish loon indeed had the clear yellow bill we were looking for. I knew I was looking at a YELLOW-BILLED LOON for a full minute before jumping into the car and racing like a madman to get Alvan and Paul. We got back on the bird immediately. They were now only a couple hundred meters away and getting closer. The bird was too far away to pick out naked eye and hardly noticeably through the camera lens but through the scope easy to view.
It was browner.  The bill was amazing. Except for some darkness right around the immediate base of the bill next to the feathers, the bill was clear unmarked yellow.  It was a pale yellow becoming a little more intense at the tip. The bill was held up much like the character of a Red-throated Loon.  The bird was easy to pick out from the other loons but the browner body.  The pale on the side of the head and neck was much more extensive than the COLOs. The hind neck was a darker brown with a fairly distinct even line of contrast with the paler sides.  When viewed from the back it was like a paint roller had been run up of the back of the neck creating an evenly width swath.  When facing away you could see the pale of both sides of the neck at the same time. This is unlike the COLOs which when viewed from the back were all dark. (I know there are endless variations among one year old COLOs in spring and summer. I think these were all adult Common Loons that it was with.)  The pale face was so extensive that when it went to sleep holding its head over it back there were still plenty of pale face exposed making it easy to pick out on this feature alone. The head was also noticeably large compared to the COLOs, it was not so easy to detect the large body size while sitting low in the slightly rough water. 
We watched the bird for 30 minutes as darkness set in and the Yellow-billed Loon went to sleep. We left feeling elated that we had seen the impossible - a genuine YELLOW-BILLED LOON in Newfoundland.   We were looking forward to more views and some good photos in the morning.
Tomorrow came and so did a dozen eager loons lookers. But over night the band of pack ice trapping the loons in Trepassey Bay had loosened up considerably and was drifting back to the open sea. A third of the 300 or loons present on Thursday were gone at dawn on Friday. The beautiful rare loon was among those that departed…
Where did this loon spend the winter? The white spots coming in on the flanks indicated it was an adult. Maybe it will return to Newfoundland waters next winter.  We will never look at loons the same way from this point on. 
Full frame with a 840 mm lens and the loons are still far away. The Yellow-billed Loon is 4th from the left.  Note istlooks browner among these Common Loons.

Major cropping reveals the clear yellow slightly upturned bill and extensively pale face.

More hints at the pale face and yellow bill.

Beside the yellow bill the large head size compared to the Common Loons is apparent here.

Compare the large pale face and bill colour and shape with the Common Loons.



From behind the pale face can be seen on both sides of the head unlike the Common Loons present.


The large blocky head of the Yellow-billed Loon makes the Common Loons look wimpy by
structural comparison .

In a couple months the Yellow-billed Loon should look like this one on a lake in front of a remote mining camp in Nunavut on 5 Sept 2012.  A Yellow-billed Loon is a very special bird no matter where you see it in North America.

ADDENDUM
Here is an improved version of Peter Shelton's Yellow-billed Loon from 11 April 2017 at Trepassey, Newfoundland.  There is no arguing with that bill.







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