April 2023
Bird of the Month
Ryan Crouse

Common Loon, part 1

Rare bird alert! Those words will get the attention of any dedicated field birder. It means that a rare species has been observed in a given area. It also means that anyone who is motivated enough has the chance to see a bird that otherwise requires a significant amount of effort both in time and money.

While I generally stick to our local birds, I will periodically highlight recent rarities to our region.

One such came several weeks ago. It was the morning after a decent snow in the area. At the shop I found an email from a local veterinarian’s office that included a picture of a very out-of-place bird, out of place because we generally don’t get this species in our region, but also because the picture was of the individual sitting in one of their sinks.

They were seeking advice on how to proceed with caring for the bird and for any other info we might be able to offer. I quickly gave Mile-Hi Animal Hospital a call to offer any assistance I could. It turns out that they had a very irritable common loon on their hands, which they feared had a leg injury.

Photo by Braeden Crouse

The story goes that an employee of the hospital, Suzi, was on her way to work and spotted the distressed bird sitting on the side of a rural highway. She had actually seen the bird the night before, but only realized that in hindsight. It was so obscured by the previous evening’s snowstorm that she didn’t recognize it as a living creature. She quickly wrapped the beleaguered bird in a blanket and placed him in the back of her pickup.

Luckily, loons typically thrive on ice-cold lakes as far north as Canada’s Baffin Island. The average annual temperature there is 18°F, so the cold wasn’t the problem. The very real danger for this bird was that it was vulnerable to predation but any number of animals, unable to access its normal diet of aquatic animals, and unable to remedy these issues on its own. After talking with Eric, the owner of our shop, we determined that it didn’t likely have a leg injury. In truth, loon legs are designed only for swimming and almost completely useless on land. In general, loons spend most of their lives on water, where they are incredibly adept swimmers and deadly hunters.

What we could determine with some certainty was that in the storm the loon had been blown off course and become disoriented in the featureless conditions. It spotted the black country highway contrasting against the white landscape and mistook it for a river, where it then sought refuge. On impacting the ground it became instantly stranded, miles from a safe harbor. I’ve seen loons take off on several occasions, and they require long runways of water that they slowly ascend from. Imagine an old video of a Clipper flying boat lumbering off the water; it’s a very similar scene. This bird simply didn’t have the environment to create the lift it needed.

We were all relieved that the bird was likely fine, as it was very alert and quite aggressive. Any effort to touch or evaluate it was met with perturbed vocalizations and lightning jabs from its sharp beak. Now what? After some back and forth we decided that the great folks at Mile-Hi would bring the bird to us and we would in turn transport and release it at Willow Lake. Suzi arrived a short time later, pet carrier in tow. Inside was a clearly agitated loon, who was ready for a swim and a meal. It also had the distinct odor of fish, and not necessarily fresh fish. There was no mistaking what this bird chose to dine on. My son Braeden, who happened to be hanging around the store that day, was delighted to be able to observe this remarkable bird, up close and personal! While his ten-year-old curiosity warranted multiple peeks inside the carrier, we were careful not to unnecessarily stress the hungry bird.

Will the bird survive? Will we be able to avoid its lance-like bill? Will it stink it up my truck on the way to Willow Lake? Be sure to check out next month’s installment, in which I’ll answer these exciting questions and more! Till then, happy birding!

Online Extra: 2023 Birding Challenge

This past month I added several species to my 2023 Jay’s Bird Barn Birding Challenge list. These include the Chihuahuan meadowlark, horned lark, bald eagle, an unexpected golden-crowned sparrow, Abert’s Towhee, common loon, ring-necked duck and hermit thrush.

My year count now stands at 79 species!

The first signs of spring migration are happening as I write this, so right now is a great time to find birds that you have limited opportunity to observe. Some may be hurriedly passing through as they make their way north to breed. Species such as Wilson’s warbler, rufous hummingbird and lazuli bunting will provide us a short window for spotting them, so pay attention. Getting out and participating is a must. Start studying up on migratory warblers in our region. Also, gull and wading-bird identification skills will be useful in the coming months. Get out there and beat me!

The Prescott Audubon Society is an official chapter of the National Audubon Society. Check it out online at PrescottAudubon.org.