by Lynn Barber
It does not surprise me that almost every time that I do a big year, loons are important. As a rather goofy teenage birder in Wisconsin loon country, my father took to calling me Loony Lynnie. I didn’t mind; it seemed to fit and I really liked loons. In those days, they all were Common Loons.
Time passed with many more Common Loons. In 2003, my first attempt at a Texas big year, I saw my first Common Loons in February, but had to wait until late November for a Pacific Loon. The highlight, however, came on December 31. I had been wandering around looking for birds in the Texas Panhandle, finding nothing new. Then my cell phone rang. It was Eric Carpenter who was in the process of setting a new Texas record for a big year. He was standing at the edge of a lake in central Texas that I had never heard of, looking at a Red-throated Loon. He had run out of birds to find for the year, and volunteered to stay at the spot until I made the 4-plus hour trip from the Panhandle to the lake. When I got there, I learned that he had been able to stay on the loon for almost the whole time, only losing track of it for one unnerving span of time. There it was, seen through his scope, between its dives, almost delivered to me on a platter.
My next Texas big year in 2005 was a bit more relaxed on loons, with the Common Loon being found the first day of January, the Pacific Loon on February 4 and the Red-throated Loon on March 19, all three being seen in north-central Texas, in or not far from Fort Worth where I lived.
For my ABA big year in 2008, I was definitely hoping for more than three loon species. Of course I expected the Common Loon to be the first one, but to the astonishment of me and the small group of birders doing a big day on January 1, the Common Loon was the first bird of the year, flying across the highway in the predawn light, seen in the headlight beam just ahead of our car as we drove over a long bridge along the coast north of Rockport, Texas! On January 19, on my first west coast trip of the year to California I saw my first Pacific Loon. My first Red-throated Loon of the year, in winter plumage, was seen on a pelagic trip off of North Carolina on February 16 all the way across the country, but a much prettier breeding plumaged Red-throated Loon was seen near Nome, Alaska.
The other two loons for 2008 were also seen in Alaska, with Arctic Loon being found on a lake on Adak Island in late May and four rare Yellow-billed Loons being seen flying by close off the coast of Gambell, St. Lawrence Island in early June (between big years, in February of 2010, I was delighted to be able to drive up to Oklahoma City to see an immature Yellow-billed Loon that had been reported).
Now I am nearing the end of my South Dakota big year. The colder winters here, with most lakes being frozen over, means that I was not able to find a Common Loon until late March, on the Missouri River in south-central South Dakota. That was it for loon species until mid-October when a report came in of a Red-throated Loon on Lake Alice in northeastern South Dakota. I made the 400-mile plus trip from Rapid City to the lake to see if I could find the loon. All I could see on the wind-tossed lake were a couple of Common Loons, and many distant ducks, geese and gulls. I spent the next day rechecking that lake and scanning numerous other large lakes in the region without success. In late October, a Pacific Loon and then a Red-throated Loon were reported on Shadehill Reservoir up near the North Dakota border in the center of the state. At the same time a White-winged Scoter was reported down where I had seen my first Common Loon of the year. I went first for the scoter (unsuccessfully) and then headed back northwest to try for the loons. Arriving at the reservoir in the late afternoon, I scanned the fairly calm lake and finally found two Common Loons and a single Red-throated Loon. The Pacific Loon had apparently departed.
So far, that’s it for loons this year, so far. There has been another recent Pacific Loon sighting, but my schedule has not allowed me to travel there (yet). I’m still hoping -- anything’s still possible with about 55 days left -- for another loon species to appear this year in South Dakota.
My sister never called me “loony” – she called me “Lucky Lynnie”. I’m hoping that holds true for at least one more loon species for the year.