Image: Richard Ditch, 2008 [larger view].
Date Time Original: 2008:05:23 06:41:10
Exposure Time: 1/350
Rick Wright, Managing Director of WINGS Birding Tours Worldwide, writes:
Here’s a long, lean bird floating low in the water. All waterfowl — in the strict sense: ducks, geese, swans — are obviously more buoyant, and with the exception of the larger mergansers, obviously shorter-bodied. The contenders? Grebes, loons, cormorants.
Adult cormorants are either blackish or strikingly black-and-white; young birds can be paler, but I can’t think of any species at any age as pale as this bird. Cormorants are also notably longer-tailed, while on our mystery bird the tail is invisible beneath the folded wingtips. The neck is too thick, the head too large, and that amazing bill too thick and sharp for a cormorant, too.
The back three quarters or so of this bird — low-riding, silvery, tailless — would be all right for a grebe, but again, that thick neck, big head, and powerful bill just don’t fit any member of that relatively svelte bunch of pinheaded birds.
Everything fits, though, for a loon. Of the five extant species, we can quickly rule out Red-throated simply on this bird’s massive aspect. The paleness of the head and neck are quite unlike Common Loon, which even in its dullest plumage shows a dark crown, nape, and at least partial neck bands. This bird is also far too pale, too thick-necked, and too huge-billed for either of the black-throated species. We’re left with Yellow-billed Loon, or White-billed Diver as its known in much of its range — and it’s probably time to look at that bill.
This is a beak of epic proportion, with a ridiculously sharp gonydeal angle making the bird look as if it were smiling (perhaps it is). The gape extends way back on the “face” to under the eye. And the culmen — the ridge of the upper mandible — is dull yellowish-white, quite unlike the dark culmen of a Common Loon.
Not that many years ago, Yellow-billed Loon was a high Arctic specialty. With more people looking, and better information available on the species’ identification, Yellow-billeds are being found in winter at low densities throughout North America. At a distance, the pale head and neck and huge bill, shown so well in this photo, are the first tip-off.
Review all mystery birds to date.