Saturday, 15 April 2017

Yellow-billed Loon - A First for Atlantic Canada

Last weekend Ian Jones & Jeannine Winkel discovered a significant concentration of seabirds in Trepassey harbour. There were literally thousands of birds where normally there would be less than 100. The reason for this phenomena was easy to explain: pack ice.

Trepasssey is indicated by a black star:

An unprecedented movement of pack ice occurred over the preceding couple weeks associated with two massive low pressure systems. These weather systems pushed ice towards the Avalon at break-neck speed. On March 29th, Ed reported thick pack ice off the Northeastern tip of the Avalon. By the next day it was all the way down past Cape Spear and two days later it was well past Cape Race. Then the winds switched and all that pack ice South of the Avalon got driven up against the Southern coast of the Avalon: an event I certainly have never seen, and hasn't happened for decades!!



Watch the movement of the pack ice (date is indicated at top right of image):


Here's a photo from Portugal Cove South where sea ice hasn't been seen for decades:

A close up of Trepassey harbour shows why the pack ice never got into the inner part of harbour - there is a barachois and large headland (Powles Head) protecting the harbour.

As this ice invaded the Southern shore many of the thousands of seabirds in the area got trapped in Trepassey harbour with literally no where else to go.

Birders took in this phenomena and tallied record breaking numbers of birds including a whopping 589 Common Loons - a record likely to never be broken again in Newfoundland!

Many of us commented that with all these loons we should be seeing the other species as well: Red-throateds and a rare Pacific Loon known to be in the area. There were only 4 Red-throated Loons and the Pacific Loon was not to be found. We also dreamed of other rarities: Common Scoter... Arctic Loon... Eared Grebe... and Yellow-billed Loon flickered through our dreams.

After that initial weekend the excitement wore off for those who had already visited.
A few birders continued to visit early this week and continued to report hundreds of loons in the harbour. Peter Shelton made the trek down on Tuesday and enjoyed great looks at these loons. One stood out to him as being much paler than the rest with a large yellowish bill. He did a great job photographing the bird despite not realizing its significance. Responsibilities tied him down over the next couple days before he could review his photos on Thursday afternoon.

This is the email I got from him, what happened next is history:

Within 10 minutes I had my gear gathered up and had plans to meet Bruce Mactavish at his place before heading directly for Trepassey (a 2 hour drive). We did not feel confident it was still around as the sighting was 48 hours old, and we had assumed the sea ice had moved off. We made the gamble, knowing we'd have 1-2 hours of sunlight left to search for the loon.

Within 30 minutes of arriving we had the bird in our scopes and enjoyed an hour of watching this mega rarity for Eastern North America:
Bird is 4th from the left.

This was one of my top 5 most wanted for Newfoundland - but, like the rest on that list, it was a very unrealistic dream. It was also my 300th species of bird observed in Newfoundland!


Check out the eBird list for a description of the bird.


The next day a crowd of birders diligently searched through the loons without finding it. Unfortunately, the majority of the loons escaped the harbour sometime between sunset on Thursday and sunrise on Friday. The reason was obvious when we checked Powles Head: the sea ice had dissipated.

Powles Head:

Following are some of Peter's photos of this Yellow-billed Loon taken on April 11th, 2017:




An unprecedented sighting for Newfoundland. Hard to believe it really happened, and hard to believe it will again. We all wish that Friday had turned out differently.

Here's a map of North Americas sightings:
Clearly it is an exceptional bird in the Atlantic ocean, but for whatever reason there is a precedent of Yellow-billed Loons turning up at inland locations across North America. Only two previous records for this side of the Atlantic ocean - both from within the last 10 years....

1 comment:

  1. The bird was first seen by Julie Cappleman on Sunday, 9th through binoculars. But with choppy water and a fast moving flock, it could not be relocated - alas and alack!

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