Yellow-billed Loon (Gavia adamsii) in New York

Although Yellow-billed Loon (Gavia adamsii) is an extremely rare visitor to Eastern and Central North America, several recent records from the Great Lakes region suggest that a tiny wintering population may exist. The first unambiguous New York state record involves a first-winter bird that frequented Oswego harbor from 21st December 1997 to at least the 6th January 1998 (Phillips, 1998). There is one prior record - a severely decomposed carcass found on a beach in eastern Long Island sometime in the early 1930's (Zimmer, 1947), of which only the lower mandible has been preserved [AMNH# 4005]. As there is no positive evidence that the Long Island bird was alive when it entered New York waters, it seems inappropriate, in my view, to consider it the first acceptable record of a rarity of this magnitude.

During January 1999, an adult basic Yellow-billed Loon was discovered in the spill-way (West Canada Creek) leading from Hinckley Reservoir on the border of Oneida and Herkimier Counties north of Utica, NY. The confined location and continued presence of the bird has allowed many area birders to get unique views of this exciting visitor from the extreme High-Arctic.


Here are a series of photographs of the Hinckley Dam bird taken on Saturday 23rd January 1999. The bird was feeding along the river and was perhaps 100m from the road. Because of heavy pedestrian traffic it avoided the area of the bridge from which other have obtained increadibly close looks. During our visit, the bird kept to the edge of the ice, presumably finding fish close to the banks. We saw it catch and swallow a 6-7 inch long piklet and later another unidentified fish. It was very attentive to the noise from excited birders and suprisingly heavy road traffic. [All images are copyright © of Angus Wilson]


Figure 1. Side-profile showing yellow bill, strong neck patterning and indistinct checkering on mantle. The base of the culmen (above the nostril) is dark but becomes unmarked towards the tip. This individual is somewhat atypical in the sharpness of the division between dark hindneck and white foreneck. The ear coverts are dark. The head and neck seemed as dark as the mantle. In most Common Loons (G. immer), the head and neck look darker than the mantle. Finally there was a distinct pale stripe separating the dark hindneck from the broad neck collar.


Figure 2. View of the front of the neck showing incomplete collar, 'chinstrap' and slightly peeked forehead. Although the majority of the bill was yellow (bordering on ivory at the tip) there was a distinct bluish cast to the base of the bill.


Figure 3. Another side view. Notice characteristic knob on forecrown, and weak checker pattern on mantle (pale fringes on the scapulars and mantle feathering).


Figure 4. Head-on view. Body partially submerged. The breadth of this bird is visible here. I was reminded of some great battleship.


Figure 5. Another side view and again body partially submerged. The dark red eye was offset by pale 'eyebrows'.


Figure 6. Slightly out of focus picture but shows the foreneck pattern.


Figure 7. Side view showing the 'chinstrap' and weak checkering on mantle. Notice the straight edge to the upper mandible and distinct curve (gonydeal angle) to the lower mandible. The bill is held slightly above the horizontal in this picture but otherwise was generally held much like Common Loon (G. immer).


References:

Mark Beaman and Steve Madge (1998) The Handbook of Bird Identification: for Europe and the Western Palearctic. Princeton University Press.

Gerard Phillips (1998) Yellow-billed Loon in Oswego Harbor: second state record. First live sighting! The Kingbird 48(2): 98-102.

Zimmer, J.T. (1947) Yellow-billed Loon on Long Island, New York. Auk 64: 145-146.


Page and photos copyright of Angus Wilson© 1998 All rights reserved.
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