Arctic Loon-acy

When the news broke in January of 2012 that birders at the Morro Bay Birding Festival had discovered an Arctic Loon in San Simeon, we knew we had to go for it – it was just too good a bird to miss. So we started planning. We would leave before dawn, travel light, and take in a bunch of other spots on the way back… Which is how it happened that three of us convened at 4 am on a Sunday morning, stuffed a bunch of scopes and other gear into the back of an SUV and took off. Staying awake on the way there wasn’t hard; we were excited, hopes were running high (this was a life bird for two of us) and conversation was spirited.

Arctic Loon, basic plumage

Arctic Loon in basic plumage

When we got to the spot at 8:15 am, two of California’s best-known birders greeted us warmly: “What took you so long?!” Finding the bird was so easy it was almost an anticlimax: there it was, fishing in the same small lagoon at the mouth of San Simeon Creek where it had been observed for several days, rubbing shoulders with the gulls, coots, cormorants and grebes. This Arctic Loon was not at all shy, swimming about and preening unconcernedly while allowing close approach of multiple birders with their scopes, tripods and cameras with big lenses. We got stunning looks and took tons of pictures, some of which even came out!

Blinking Arctic Loon

Blinking Arctic Loon

These shots were all taken with a Nikon CoolPix P300 camera, attached with a Vortex PS100 adaptor and a Kowa TSN-DA-10 adaptor to a Kowa TSN-883 spotting scope equipped with a 20-60x zoom eyepiece. That’s it. Just point and shoot. The loon did make things challenging occasionally by diving – loon watching is frequently an intermittant occupation. With the bird as close as this, sometimes it was hard to actually keep it in frame, but who’s complaining?! And of course sometimes there’s a bit of luck involved, as when the camera just happens to catch the bird blinking the nictitating membrane after coming up from a dive. The only difficulty here was in picking which of the hundred photographs to use for this post!

Yellow-billed Magpie

Yellow-billed Magpie

You would think it would be all downhill from there, but in fact, this was a fabulous whirlwind birding trip as the hits just kept coming. Chestnut-backed Chickadee – probably a dirt-bird to the locals, but we don’t get to see those very often in Orange County. On the day, we had 4 of the world’s 5 species of loon, tracked down all three scoters and 6 of the 7 grebe species for the continent. Tracking inland from there and making our way back south, we saw a pair of Golden Eagles and a brilliant male Lapland Longspur in the company of about a hundred Horned Larks. We also got a good look at one of California’s two endemic bird species: Yellow-billed Magpies. This provided a showcase for what digiscoping can do by way of photo-documentation. This magpie was easily 75 yards distant and crawling through obscuring grass on a hillside beneath live oaks, yet the camera still did a passable job with it. In the end though, the best bird of the day was still that magnificent loon.

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