Tuesday, May 04, 2010

Cool bird!

Yesterday afternoon I received a call from birding buddy Doug Willis. His voice was slightly muffled in a way I have come to recognize as Doug talking on the phone while staring intently through a spotting scope. "I have a Pacific Loon in full breeding plumage at Smithville." A little over an hour later, I was standing in the warm sunshine by the old oak tree at Shelter 9, Crow's Creek picnic arm, Smithville Lake, watching the handsome black, white, and silver bird preen, stretch, and flap its wings.

I took a few embarrassingly fuzzy pictures by holding my Nikon DSLR camera up to my spotting scope to document the bird—only the fourth Missouri spring record. The images resemble those of the Loch Ness Monster, which is how all of my Pacific Loon digiscoping attempts over the years have turned out. Click here to see a picture from the Web that shows what the bird should have looked like under perfect photo conditions.

Pacific Loon, Smithville Lake, 3 May 2010.
Found by Doug Willis.
The Pacific Loon stretches its wing.
Since the 1990s, Pacific Loons have become a rare but regular visitor to Smithville Lake during fall migration, but Doug's May 3 sighting is a first for this location. Other spring Missouri sightings have come from southwestern Missouri: two reports from Table Rock Lake and one at Fellow's Lake in Springfield.

Seeing one in full breeding plumage is a particularly special treat, since they are usually in drabber gray-and-white dress during the fall migration. Pacific Loons breed in the northern reaches of Canada and usually winter in the Pacific Ocean. Some birds migrate straight south from Canada, which brings them through the Midwest. It stands to reason that those birds would make the return trip straight north from the Gulf of Mexico, or wherever they end up after passing through the Midwest—but either it doesn't happen very often or many birders are too busy watching the warblers and shorebirds that highlight spring migration to keep a close eye on reservoirs. (I suspect it's a combination of both.)

Later in the day Monday, Linda Williams reported as many as five Common Loons in the Pacific Loon's company. Apparently this bird was moving with a migrating group of this more common species, which nests as close as Minnesota.

Thanks to Doug for keeping me on speed dial in spite of the recent distractions (family, running, etc.) that have kept me from birding as much as I would like. What a cool bird!

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