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Thursday, January 5, 2012

A Tale of Two Loons

We saw our first birds at Oregon Inlet early in the morning. Just as the sun rose over the eastern horizon, gulls kited over the old Bonner Bridge, and pelicans soared low over the cresting waves. Upon reaching the Pea Island side of the bridge, I noticed a cormorant standing tall upon a bundle of pylons next to a couple of Great Black-backed Gulls. It looked large and beefy, almost as large as the gulls themselves, and I thought, just maybe… but we didn’t have time to check it out, as our North Pond count awaited.

After counting our area, we returned to Oregon Inlet to check out what birds we could find. My mystery cormorant had vacated his pylon, though his black-backed compatriots remained. No matter, we had to check out the jetty to see what the cold winter winds had brought. Just past the first bend in the jetty, James noticed a small flock of Red-breasted Mergansers dancing among the waves that crashed upon the rocks, including this nice male individual, whose bright red bill positively glowed in the early afternoon sun.

Zoom in and you can totally see the serrations on its bill!

As we continued our way down the jetty, we couldn’t find any of our hoped-for sea-ducks, scoters, eiders… heck, not even a Purple Sandpiper or two. What we did find, however, were birds streaming past at an astonishing rate. Almost all of the birds consisted of Northern Gannets flying low and occasionally picking off a fish that strayed to close to the surface, or north-bound Red-throated Loons flying with those clumsy wing-beats of theirs. Throughout the day, we’d seen both these birds in good numbers, but only at the end of the Oregon Inlet jetty, jutting out into the tumultuous Atlantic Ocean, could we get close to them.

The loons flew much closer in than last year, when my lifer was almost 300 ft out!

As if that weren’t enough, several Gannets appeared to be feeding right on the shore not a hundred yards away. James raced down to photograph them, but I stayed behind to continue the sea-watch, and just as it seemed I’d made a mistake not following my brother, a small flock of four Red Knots flew in from the south, planting themselves right in front of me at the base of the jetty. The birds were much closer than the one I’d seen just a half-year ago on Ocracoke, but far from their namesake plumage, each knot wore a winter coat of drab gray feathers. While I may have had my fun, James apparently had even more fun as the stiff sea-winds made it difficult for the Gannets to fly quickly as they hunted, and several kited slowly just in front of him – not bad for seeing a pelagic bird from land!

The last time I saw Gannets this close up, I was on a cruise in the North Sea
and one flew right outside my window!

On the way back, the birds came more slowly than they had before, with more mergansers loafing in the surf, and several gulls floating overhead. But when we reached the beach, we noticed something different among the now-ubiquitous mergansers – they’d been joined by several Horned Grebes, who apparently enjoyed swimming among the rolling waves. They’d dive and resurface just in front of us, apparently indifferent to the humans gawking at them from shore. As with the mergansers, we never get looks this good in the Piedmont, so I really enjoyed the experience while I could!

Why must diving birds be so aggravating to photograph?

Upon reaching the parking lot again, our car-mate Patsy noticed that the mystery cormorant had rejoined the Great Black-backed Gulls on top of the pylons. The sun lay just to the birds left, leaving him fairly back-lit, which made it hard to discern many details. Still, just by the silhouette, I was pretty sure… so I called Norm over to confirm it. He had trouble too. There was white under the chin, but not that much white… then Kyle and Brian pulled up to see what was going on. They, too, thought the proportions looked beefy but… Then I remembered. It’s so simple; I can’t believe I didn’t think about it before. The Double-crested Cormorants that abound in the inlet all have orange skin over their lores, but no other species of cormorant around here should show that. Neither did this guy, and the combination of the large size (almost as big as the Great Black-backeds!) plus that white stubble under his chin solidified it – we were looking at a Great Cormorant, a pretty good bird as south as we were, and a lifer for me!

Pretty sure I did a little jig after seeing this bird.

Content with my lifer, we piled back into the car and headed for Bodie Lighthouse, to check out all those ducks you saw last post. While we were waiting for that supposedly “sure-fire” Virginia Rail to show its face, I got a text from Brian. “Pacific Loon at the jetty.” Aw, crap, what to do, what to do… leave one potential lifer for a definite one? We decided to cut our losses and head back for the jetty, but just as we were leaving the parking lot at Bodie Light, I got a second text: “Loon hasn’t been seen for 5 minutes. We’re checking if maybe it moved up the jetty.” It was getting nail-biting. We pulled up to the jetty, and just as I stepped foot on the rocks, I got a third text: “It’s back!!!” All right! James and I raced down to the end where we could see a mass of birders apparently following the bird as it moved. Finally we caught up to them, and then… success!

Photographing this thing was easier said than done!

The bird preferred to feed in the extremely rough waters just to the left of the jetty, apparently caused by the incoming tide. It actually spent most of it’s time underwater – every once in a while, you’d hear “It’s up!” and everybody would train their cameras and binoculars towards the swells to catch a glimpse, but after catching a quick breath, the look would dive again and hunt for food. The whole routine got almost comical after a while. “It’s up! Wait, no, down again…” “There it is! Nope, dove…” “There! Aaand back down…” Eventually I succeeded on training my scope on the bird. It seemed good to me – thick, dark coloration on the nape and neck, and what seemed to be a chinstrap. Everybody seemed to be in good spirits after seeing the bird.

And why shouldn't they be?

That is, until we got to the countdown and started reviewing the pictures. Several of North Carolina’s top birders took a look at the shots and started picking apart the details. The bill was held at a slight upward angle – Pacific Loon doesn’t do that, its bill is straight. The light and dark areas on the bird aren’t demarcated enough, there’s no remnant vertical streaking on the neck, the chin-strap isn’t well defined… in the end, after much discussion, pretty much everybody decided this was an odd, young Red-throated Loon. It’s too bad, I would have liked to’ve gotten a second lifer out of my Outer Banks excursion. Oh well. At least I got awesome looks at a Red-throated Loon!

Our eastern North Carolina excursion isn’t over just yet! Check back next Monday for Part V of our adventure: How Otterly Delightful!

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