Sunday, November 27, 2011

Monroe Co.'s 1st Pacific Loon! - 25-26 Nov 2011

Having just returned to Wyandotte from birding the Lake Erie shoreline in southern Monroe Co. I checked my e-mail and found a rare bird alert from Caleb Putnam indicating that Skye Haas had found a juvenile Pacific Loon (Gavia pacifica) at Wm. C. Sterling State Park in Monroe Co., MI.  The bird was swimming with a Common Loon (Gavia immer) in the 1st lagoon to the right as you enter the park from Dixie Hwy, and was visible from the small parking lot next to the bike path.  Back to the car...

Robin and I arrived at Sterling St. Park shortly after 2 pm and found Allen Chartier, Scott Jennex, Todd Palgut, Sean Bachmann and Tex Wells scoping the Pacific Loon.  Both the Pacific and Common Loons were at the south end of the lagoon near the walking bridge and swimming among a large raft of Red-breasted Mergansers.  The loons had just been in the SW corner of the lagoon, next to the parking lot, where everyone had great looks.  If we waited long enough, they'd be swimming back.  The birds seemed to be cruising and diving the lagoon in a somewhat circular pattern, moving from one end to the other over the course of 20 - 30 minutes.

Sure enough, after a short time, they began moving toward us.  I grabbed the digiscoping equipment and prepared to photograph them as they approached.  It was relatively clear, but the sun was in the SE, so the birds would be severely backlit unless they moved to the extreme north end of the lagoon.  For several minutes they passed in front of us, diving every 20 - 30 seconds, so it was a challenge to follow them through the scope, focus, and get the camera stable enough to photograph them.  I managed a few keeper images of both birds from about 100 ft away, but had hoped to get them in better lighting.  As they moved to the east side of the lagoon I spent a few minutes trying to digiscope the 100's of Bonaparte's Gulls that were flocking along the shoreline.

Shortly after 3 pm the rest of the crowd left, so I walked south along the west side of the lagoon, hoping to get images w/ the sun behind me.  Unfortunately, both birds flew to the south and seemed to disappear from view for the next half hour or so.  Robin and drove over to the east side of the lagoon to look for them, but couldn't relocate them.  As we were driving back toward the boat launch I spotted the Pacific Loon along the far west shoreline.  I stopped, grabbed the scope and ran down to the shoreline.  The bird was too far away to digiscope, so I scoped it for several minutes, and paused long enough to grab a few flight shots of the Bonaparte's Gulls that were working the shoreline.

The Pacific Loon then took flight toward the south end of the lagoon.  I managed a couple of flight shots from 150 ft away, and produced this composite image showing its profile.  Satisfied for now, we headed home.

I wanted better photos, so Robin and I headed back to Sterling State Park early Saturday morning.  As she took off for a run, I spent some time talking w/ Jim Koppen and Larry Urbanski, who were also looking for the loon.  After 20 minutes or so of watching both birds swimming in front of the fishing dock along the south end of the lagoon, they started moving toward us. 

The sun was in the East this morning, and it was slightly overcast, so lighting was slightly worse than yesterday.  The increased winds weren't helping, either, but both birds approached close to shore and afforded wonderful views through the scope.

I spent time digiscoping both the Pacific Loon and Common Loon as fast as I could.  I then got on my belly to photograph both birds w/ the 300/2.8 VRII so that I could make some visual comparisons (see below). 

The birds moved off toward the middle of the lagoon, so we drove back toward the south end of the lagoon.  I had hoped to get them in better light as they made their circuit, so I was disappointed when they remained at the north end of the lagoon for the next 45 minutes.  I could only sit in the brush and scope them from a 1/4 mile away while Cathy Carroll, Rodney Laura, and Jim Fowler viewed them from a few feet away.

The large raft of Red-breasted Mergansers that had been near the north end of the lagoon then took flight and headed my way.  They landed just a few feet away, and allowed me to get some pics w/ the 300/2.8 VRII.  The Bonaparte's Gulls soon followed, and I spent some time photographing them as they foraged about 30 feet out from shore.

I'd been sitting on a large piece of canvas that was on the shoreline, and was startled when a field mouse started squirming underneath my hand.  I turned to see it scamper over my hand and run into the brush.
With no evidence that the loons were going to move from their location, I checked my camera and found that I had only a couple of frames left.  I had no other SD cards in my vest, so I realized that it was useless to stick around.  We headed back to the north side of the lagoon where I took my last few pics of the loon as it began to swim along the west shoreline (back to the south...).  Time to head home.  It was 10:30 am.

Pacific (G. pacifica) vs. Common (G. immer) Loons

With both birds spending much of their time together, it was a wonderful opportunity to compare and contrast their forms.  The backlit conditions with which I did much of my photographing actually helped to enhance their differences.

At 25-26" the Pacific Loon is smaller than the Common Loon (32").  This is evident when you see both birds together. In the image above the Pacific Loon is on the left, while the Common Loon is on the right.  Note also that the bill on the Pacific Loon is smaller, slimmer and straight, while the Common Loon has a much larger, heavier-looking bill. The Pacific Loon has a thinner neck, and a smooth, rounded head while the Common Loon shows a thicker neck and a squared head with almost a flat top.  While watching the two birds swim it is also important to note that the Pacific Loon tends to ride high on the water, while the Common swims very low to the water.  Both birds appear to be juveniles based on the white edgings to the back feathers, giving them a somewhat checkerboard or scalloped appearance.

In these two images we see the differences in their relative buoyancy.  Note that the Pacific Loon has a necklace at the base of the neck, and contrasting white throat w/ gray nape and finely streaked sides.  The Common Loon shows a broken neck band and a smudgy white throat.

Hopefully I can get back down there this week to get some pics w/ the sun at my back...


Cathy Carroll said...

Really great photos, Jerry.

Dawn Fine said...

Great photos and comparisons Jerry. Silly mouse :)

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