“Crazy as a Loon.” What is that all about? The idiomatic phrase is readily found in literature (egads even in “Peyton Place”) and in general parlance. Undoubtedly the phrase derives from the loon’s unmistakable wild call – compared to a madman’s ravings. Which might suggest that the bird got its name from lunatic. But the origin of that is from the Latin luna – moon – and the notion that people acted crazy under the influence of the full moon. Actually the Loon got its name from lom – a Swedish word for someone who is clumsy – think “lummox. ” The Loon is a brilliant swimmer and diver and in England Loons are called Divers. Out of the water, however, it stumbles unbalanced on feet made for paddling and not for standing – a lummox for sure.
Combine stumbling behavior and eerie calls and I definitely understand “crazy”. Maybe that adds a layer of appeal but moreso – especially in breeding plumage – their appeal to me is their striking beauty. Yesterday, however, I was driven by a different appeal – the appeal of getting a photo of one of only a dozen species I have seen in Washington that I had not photographed and definitely one that I never expected to remove from that list. Pursuit of that quest was initiated by a Tweeters post by Joshua Glant, a talented young birder in the area, who was participating in his first Christmas Bird Count (“CBC”). He was in Neah Bay, aka the “Land of Rarities” and he reported that Brad Waggoner, a VERY talented not all that young birder had found an Arctic Loon.
I had seen my first, last and only Arctic Loon at Port Gamble on October 22, 1973. That was barely a month after I had moved to Seattle. More than 44 years had passed and now there was a chance of seeing one. There were three problems. (1) Neah Bay is about 3 hours away. (2) It was not clear that there was a real photo opportunity as the bird seemed to be distant and maybe even heading further away. (3) I was very tired – a month plus of imperfect sleep. Was there really enough energy to even make a try.
As it turned out number (3) determined the matter. Another troubled night and I was up before 4:00 – unable to return to sleep. Being “crazier than a loon” I figured, what the heck – follow Rule 1 – go now. If there was no energy to carry through, I would just pull over somewhere and … sleep? I knew the drill – catch an early ferry in Edmonds – just over a mile from home. Slog through the only route to get to Neah Bay. Hope that storms had not closed roads and also hope not to get stuck behind one of those logging trucks on the very curvy roads past Port Angeles. Get to Neah Bay and begin scanning the water. Hope it was still there.
The bird had been seen from the Ba’adeh Village Loop – just east of town. It was also reported later from “The Wedge” an area even further east – in the strait itself. I had no idea how to get there. I hit the restrooms in town (thank you, thank you for being there) and scanned the main bay/harbor. Lots of loons but all were either Common Loons or Red Throated Loons. They are all great birds, but I needed the one with the white flank patch – the Arctic Loon.
Red Throated Loon in the Harbor
There are not great observation spots at Ba’adeh Village but I tried them all. Not long after starting my scans I saw one loon in flight that seemed to fit the bill. Smaller than a Common Loon – was it a Red Throated Loon? Especially in flight they seem to have very slender necks and this one was chunkier. Was it a Pacific Loon or was that really a white patch on its flank – making it the prized Arctic Loon? Although I was convinced that flank patch was real, the view was through the scope and far too brief before it disappeared heading west. Definitely no picture – so the real objective was not met anyhow. Just not sufficient data to be sure – so I determined not to count it. I saw two Pacific Loons – definitely no flank patches – more Common Loons and Red Throated Loons and that was all.
Common Loon (in the Harbor)
I spent the next several hours trying to figure out how to get to The Wedge (and not doing so) returning to the town and scanning the harbor and bay from numerous vantage points and then visiting other spots in the area looking for Pine Grosbeaks, which had also been reported on the CBC. I found no Pine Grosbeaks and my best bird was a Ruffed Grouse that I flushed coming down from Bahokas Peak. I had seen one there in years past but more often find Sooty Grouse.
I had one more card to play. I had not yet visited the jetty and to scan the bay from there. It was now after noon. Somehow I was still awake. Maybe it was the caffeine from the coffee and my Mountain Dew. The area at the base of the jetty and along Boom Road to get there had been incredible birding spots in the past. Rarities seen have included Rustic Bunting, Horned Puffin, Red Phalaropes, and Dusky Capped Flycatcher – an unbelievable list. Was there one more in the offing?
As I rounded the corner onto the jetty itself I saw first a parked car and then a birder with scope – a familiar one. As I drove past Sarah Peden, she said: “You may want to get your camera and your scope.” “Why is that?” I asked. “There’s an Arctic Loon here.” Was it really going to be that easy? YES!! YES!! YES!! I ignored the scope but was immediately ready with the camera. I grabbed a quick look through Sarah’s scope more to pinpoint the location than to actually get a view and then took a picture. Now no matter what else, and as it turned out there was a lot “else”, I would have that never expected, long awaited photo of an Arctic Loon – in Washington. If that had been the only photo, it would have been a great day, but there would be many more. Sarah said earlier it had been very close but it was now further out – just in front of Boom Road 200+ yards away. After a few more record shots I walked the Beach and got within less than 40 yards and in much better if not great light got very nice photos.
The bird seemed very comfortable in this location and over the next 45+ minutes we watched the Arctic Loon forage and feed continuously including coming back towards us on the jetty. The energy boost was palpable and significant. There is a “low” from missing a chased bird but it is far less than the “high” that comes with finding one – some more than others and this one was way up on my “want” list. With a very limited data base – one observation – I had not expected the white flank field mark to be so obvious. I had also not expected to see an Arctic Loon as close to breeding plumage. The neck markings indicated either molting away from breeding plumage or molting towards it. A distant photo may not have shown the neck stripes but my good fortune captured them – a bonus.
I would like to think that I would have found the Arctic Loon at that spot on my own. The field marks and view were very clear and especially if it had swum back towards the jetty as it did, it would have been hard (and inexcusable) to miss. But that is a question I don’t have to answer. Sarah is an outstanding birder and it was wonderful to have her on the bird – a Christmas gift a week early. Thank you Sarah!!
Had I not gotten the Arctic Loon photo it would probably would have been appropriate to say I had been “crazy as a loon”. There is another crazy animal idiom though that now seemed a better fit – “crazy as a fox” . The meaning of that one is “seemingly foolish but actually very shrewd”. Probably a little bit of both – comes with the territory. The adrenaline hit lasted just long enough to get back to the ferry. I dozed on the crossing and then slept very well last night. Definitely would rather be thought of as “foxy” as opposed to “loony”.
Having seen Common, Pacific, Red Throated and Arctic Loons at Neah Bay, I wondered if the Yellow Billed Loon that had been reported there earlier had been seen again. Sarah said “no” and that the report may not have been accepted as well. I knew that Bruce LaBar’s Sequim CBC boat was out that day. It always finds Yellow Billed Loons. I expected that some of the folks who had done the Neah Bay CBC the preceding day and had seen the Arctic Loon might be on that trip. It turned out that Charlie and Linnaea Wright were the only ones who were and indeed they had seen a Yellow Billed Loon – giving them all five loons in a two day period. Bruce speculated that they may be the only two people who had ever seen all five loon species in a two day period. Quite an accomplishment.
But…I got thinking about that. On my visit to Nome, Alaska in June last year, I knew I had seen Yellow Billed, Red Throated and Pacific Loons and that we had missed an Arctic Loon that was seen by others. I could not recall if we had seen a Common Loon and did not even know if they are found there. I checked my records and found no Common Loon. Great shots of the others though.
Yellow Billed Loon in Nome
Red Throated Loon in Nome
Pacific Loon in Nome
And I found that although uncommon, there are Common Loons in Nome (is it called the Uncommon Loon there?), so yes there was the chance for all five loons in one day. But chances don’t count; only experiences do and yep I found that someone else had the experience of seeing all five loons in Nome on the same day. On June 5th last year, Liam Singh, a young birder I know from Victoria, B.C. had all five. Oh yeah – pretty great Liam – but I bet that Charlie and Linnaea probably are the only ones who have all five species in two days IN WASHINGTON!!
Those really are awesome accomplishments – and fabulous birds. I will settle for a photo of an Arctic Loon in Washington – happily…