What’s a Pacific Loon doing this side of the Atlantic?

By Endre Harvold Kvangraven, PhD candidate, University of Stavanger

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It was mid-afternoon, December 11, 2021, when I figured I would get a short birding trip in before it got dark, and headed to Vistevika, an easily accessible bay with a sand beach in Randaberg just outside of Stavanger. The sky was overcast as I walked the gravel path along a rocky stretch of shore where Ruddy Turnstones were pecking for invertebrates. I soon spotted a Red-throated Loon in winter plumage out on the water, then a Common Loon, both diving for fish. Further into the bay, there would be Wigeon, Common Scoters, Long-tailed Ducks and more, but now, as I rounded the bend to Goavika, an unfamiliar loon came swimming in.

Past the rows of small boats docked in the shelter of the breakwater, the medium-sized, indeterminate loon swam into the harbour, looked around, dipped its face into the water, scouting around for prey beneath the light blue surface. It approached to a distance of fifteen metres or so, surprisingly close, when it vanished behind one of the docked boats. Stepping closer, I realized it had gone underwater, and a minute later it surfaced a hundred metres away, below the embankment on the opposite side.

A Pacific Loon on the water
A Pacific Loon. (c) Endre Harvold Kvangraven

I couldn’t quite place the bird, but thought it might be an Arctic Loon, maybe a juvenile. I was used to seeing Arctic Loons in summer plumage in Østmarka at the edge of Oslo, keeping their distance far out on secluded forest lakes, but had less experience with them in winter plumage. It seems that most of the Arctic Loons that breed in Norway migrate to Southern Europe for winter, but a fair number do remain in Norwegian waters. It swam out of Goavika into Vistevika proper, and I followed to the edge of the breakwater, taking a few more photos as it receded into the distance.

Going through the photos in the evening, I was still not sure what to make of the bird. Looking at field guide illustrations and images online, Arctic Loon seemed to be the only likely candidate, but it lacked the white ‘thigh patches’ diagnostic of that species. When I ran the photos through the Norwegian bird identification app Artsorakel (which is unreliable at the best of times but can offer useful suggestions), Arctic Loon got a high score on one photo but the results for the rest were wildly inconsistent.

A Pacific Loon swims towards the camera
A Pacific Loon. (c) Endre Harvold Kvangraven

Realizing that I couldn’t identify it, I shared the photos with the relevant bird identification group, “ID og fugl!” and it didn’t take long before Tor Olsen from the local Rarities Committee pointed out that the bird was indeed juvenile and that some of its features were consistent with Pacific Loon. He discovered the first Pacific Loon ever recorded in Norway off the coast of Lista in Agder county in 2015, so he should know. Since then, two more Pacific Loons have been recorded in Norway, both in Trøndelag, which would make “my” bird the fourth in Norway and the first in Rogaland county. Twenty or so individuals have been documented in Europe as a whole.

Andreas Gullberg created a series of photos arranged in sets of juvenile Arctic Loons, juvenile Pacific Loons, and my photos of “the Vistevika-loon”, and seeing the different birds side by side, it became clear that this was in fact a Pacific Loon. The main difference between Pacific Loons and Arctic Loons is that the former lack the white thigh patches. They’re also slightly smaller on average, with a smaller, more delicate bill and more rounded head and neck, and tend to show more contrast between the dark on the sides of the neck and the white in front. I noted the dark on top of the head extending to below the ear coverts, the darkish cheeks, the back of the head somewhat paler, and thought I could see faint suggestions of a dark throat strap, features that are characteristic though not diagnostic of Pacific Loon.

When I reported it to Artsobservasjoner, the Norwegian database of species observations, it was immediately accepted by the local Rarities Committee, and a good three months later, BirdLife Norway would confirm the record.

A Pacific Loon
A Pacific Loon. (c) Endre Harvold Kvangraven

Many went to Vistevika to look for the loon, but it seems to have vanished as quickly as it came. What’s a Pacific Loon doing this side of the Atlantic? Their nearest breeding range is in the vicinity of Baffin Island in the Canadian Arctic, and it seems more likely to have come from that side than from their even more distant range in far eastern Siberia. Either way, a Pacific Loon in Norway is thousands of miles from home. The beach in Vistevika is a place where dead Common Murres and other seabirds tend to wash up, and I wouldn’t be surprised if it was starving, desperate for food, which could explain its apparent fearlessness. A juvenile Pacific Loon that turned up at a lake in Switzerland in December 2015 (the first record for that country) attracted hundreds of birders only to die of starvation two weeks later, and who’s to say a similar fate couldn’t have befallen the Vistevika-loon. Then again, there are plenty of nooks and crannies along the coast of Rogaland where it could still be hiding out, diving for fish, preparing to fly back across the ocean, to places where it is more likely to encounter others of its kind.

Loons are the stuff of myth and legend, associated with distant and mysterious Arctic lakes. In popular culture, they’re mostly known for their eerie wailing calls, echoing the howling of wolves that, like loons, thrive in remote parts of Canada, Alaska and Siberia. Two species breed in Norway, the Arctic and the Red-throated, but in coastal Rogaland, Common Loons are conspicuous winter visitors from Iceland, and Yellow-billed Loons are known to pass through. Worldwide, there are five species, and now, with Pacific Loon, all of them have been recorded in Rogaland.

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