Saturday, January 30, 2016

Loon-y Tunes

Bill Williams National Wildlife Refuge

Sometimes.  Just sometimes this birding epic can be a little too much. On a gamble(or was it twitching?), we did something crazy. Four and half hours later, we found ourselves along the Colorado River and in the infamous Lake Havasu area. I had never been there before and it was the last area of Arizona that I needed to explore.  The purpose of our exhausting mission?  Loons.  Lots and lots of loons. And a certain wintering Goldeneye.

People will say that we are crazy, but I am on a quest to add state birds to the Arizona list this month.  We weren't just chasing a rare Yellow-billed Loon; we were chasing a large group of waterbirds that are normally rare for much of Arizona except for the Havasu area. They have been waiting for me to add them to my state list:) This is a very long trek for many Arizona birders. Therefore it's one of the least visited birding regions in the state. Well that is until the rarest loon in the world, the Yellow-billed Loon(Diver), decided to stop in Arizona. Their population is about 10000 worldwide and very little is known about this species of loon since they breed up in the icy regions of the far North. It is listed as an endangered bird due to habitat loss, oil spills and over fishing.

Hattie points us to our FOY American Robin! 
For this trek, 3 humans and a dog explored bird spaces along the beautiful Colorado River. The journey turned out to be very rewarding.  We didn't have just one loon; we had an epic 4 species of loon!!! I should have titled this post "Your One Stop Shopping Center" because we added Herring Gull, Red-necked Grebe, Yellow-billed, Red-necked, Pacific and Common Loons, and Barrow's Goldeneyes.  Two birds would be lifers.  And 4 birds would be added to my state list!  That is a VERY good day.

Ring-billed Gull
With my parks pass, we were able to get into Katherine's Landing for "free".  It costs 20 dollars for people without the pass!!!  As Tracy Morgan would say, "That's crazy!"  I became excited when I saw water.  And lots of it.  There was a network of piers in the area and it was COLD!  So we ventured onto moving piers.

Cold and windy, I make a fake smile.  I'm freezing!

We called out birds left and right. "Clark's Grebe! Wood Duck! Golden Eagles having!" But where was that Yellow-billed Loon?

Searching for that Yellow-billed Loon at Katherine Landing
As we scanned the waters, the wind kept the piers moving.  Normally I am one to stomach the bouncy waves but I think with me focusing on far away birds in a scope and a moving pier, I became a bit queasy.

Top from left to right: Yellow-billed Loon(wiki), Pacific Loon; Bottom left to right Red-throated Loon, Common Loon  
Loons are amazing.  They also make incredible vocalizations.  ID'ing a Loon in breeding plumage is easy.  It's when they are in their winter forms that can challenge even the best of birders.  Loons love deep waters and most often are seen from the distance if you are on land.  But apparently waving a white shirt in the air will attract these birds......hmmm.  Something to try next time.

Many times a scope is necessary and even then it can be difficult. Such was the case with the Yellow-billed Loon.  It hung out further away due to the human traffic.  Here is the image I was able to capture(below).  

When I visit Alaska and Canada, I hope to get better photos of this bird one day. The bill is large and upright making it stand out!

You can note the size differences.  In the photo, the YBLO hangs out with a Common Loon.  It's more upright and larger making the COLO look like it's "slouching" in the water.
 Thankfully, the other loons(in the montage above) were seen from vantage points where I could get nice photos. The Pacific Loon was sick and unfortunately didn't live long after that photo was taken. I was just a newbie, but after that sad incident, I programmed our Wildlife Rescue program into my phone. Today the bird's body can be found at the University of Arizona for study. The Red-throated Loon has a spotty back and is lighter gray overall in its winter plumage.  It was seen from a pier in California.  My Common Loon shot was taken in Mexico just feet from the shore! But of all the loons, the Yellow-billed is the rarest of the 5 loons in the world.  

 I think my love for loons began as a child on the lakes of Minnesota where we'd vacation often.  Their calls were the most haunting and beautiful sounds I have ever heard.  My number one favorite movie of all time is "On Golden Pond".  This movie heavily uses the Common Loon as a metaphor for life and relationships. And once a year, I revisit this incredible movie about this aging journey we all must make.

A rare Herring Gull-gulls are fun to ID! Really!!

 As we were getting ready to leave, we heard a loud blood curdling scream.  I thought, oh oh.  Magill has gone off the deep end!  As I spun around, I was happy to see that she hadn't fallen into the cold waters but was horrified to see that her million dollar scope was sinking into the dark waters!  She was able to recover the scope before it completely submerged into the depths of the unknown. It was like that first ding on your newly purchased car:(

Common Goldeneye
It was also time to claim the Barrow's Goldeneyes that are typically found in Northern Arizona this time of year.  What's interesting about these birds is that they look similar to the Common Goldeneyes except that they have a white mark on their face in the shape of a semicolon instead of a white dot.

Barrow's Goldeneye-drake
These birds can be tricky as they can blend into large rafts of Common Goldeneyes. And they often seem to hang out further away from the place you're standing:)  My first view with them was with Magill through her still wet scope.  Thankfully it all still worked.  Then I noticed there was a pair near one side of a stretch of land with water on both sides.  Since it was a life bird, I went down the walkway to get pics of the bathing birds.

Magill pointed out to me there differences between the female Common and Barrow's Goldeneyes.  I think I got this one right.  The bill on the female Barrow's Goldeneye is completely orange.

After this trek, it was time to call it quits.  There are no big years left.  There just is.  And that's a good place to be. It's time to educate younger birders and give back to a community who has given me so much.  As for the loons?  They're currently still hanging out:)  Good birding!


  1. The first time I heard a loon in Wisconsin, well you know...

    I'd hoped to camp near Havasu a couple weeks ago, but alas, plans change, and all I saw were a bunch of coots.

    You did good, except for the scope swim.

  2. Great pictures of the goldeneyes! They are beautiful birds.

  3. That is a great post - wonderful set of birds. Why do you describe the area as infamous?

    Cheers - Stewart M - Melbourne

    1.'s the place where spring breakers go and get crazy. And where RV'ers go to retire with other retired people. One big eternal party in the middle of nowhere:)

  4. Wonderful post and photos Chris - you've been looking for Divers (loons too!!) :) You saw a superb variety of birds and loons. Glad your friend rescued her 'scope!

  5. That looks like it was a lot of fun. Thanks for sharing your great photos!

  6. Crazy good--err, Loomny good--birds. That Is the most accommodating Barrow's Goldeneye I've ever seen on the blogosphere! Cheers!

  7. That was a great if loony trip Chris. I didn't know the story of the movie "On Golden Pond" but now I'll look out for it on TV next time around. A number of those shots of goldeneyes are quite special especially since the only goldeneyes I come across won't stay anywhere near for pictures.

    Glad to hear the scope wasn't wrecked.

  8. Nice photos and story as always. I've always avoided the Havasu area due to it being the "constant party zone" (especially during Spring Break), but maybe I'll have to reconsider now that I've seen the birding possibilities!

  9. This was kind of a loony post, but I loved everything about it! We saw the movie and a community theater production of the play, both well before we ever actually saw (and heard) a live loon. I was so excited to actually spot them (cue Kathryn Hepburn imitation).
    Thank you for your willingness to educate younger birders (and older ones, virtually!)

  10. What a wonderful day! I saw Yellow-billed Loons on the north of Siberia last year, and saw a couple displaying to each other - just magic at the end of a long day!

  11. A great post, Chris! What an excellent trip that was! I've not heard loons (or divers, as we call them over here)very often but their sound is certainly a haunting one!

  12. The call of the loon is a precious childhood memory for me, glad you saw the rare ones. Never seen the movie On Golden Pond but I think I should, thanks for the recommendation.

  13. Thankfully the scope wasn't destroyed! Wonderful trip. I love the loon's call and have only seen a few in real life, but I can surely see your excitement over finding the rare one! Sad about the bird loss, but thankfully it is being studied. You all look s COLD! :-) This weather has been a preview for us...we are definitely moving to Oregon and will be gone before next winter here. Our son-in-law was just there, and said it was REALLY cold! :-) I will miss a lot about living here, but I am excited about this new chapter in all our lives, and this new adventure.

    1. Oh it was cold alright:) I am so excited for you guys. Oregon is going to be great. Which town will you be living in? New experiences. New photos. It's going to be a blast!

  14. Chris, you don't know how I wish I could have been on this trip with you! What fun! What great birds! what beautiful scenery! I am so glad you were able to go and have so much fun. I am glad Magill's scope still worked as well!


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