To refresh your memory, here is the photo from April’s Bird Quiz. The bird was seen in California during the month of April. Don’t read any further if you want one last chance to identify this bird.
Several friends recently shared a Facebook video that’s gone viral, showing some waterfowl surfing. The caption refers to them as ducks, but if you look carefully, you can easily make out their markings. They’re not ducks. They’re Canada Geese. See for yourself:
This mistake got me to thinking. Birders know there are many kinds of waterfowl, but many people seem to think that if it’s a floating bird, it must be a duck. Hence today’s quiz. This bird obviously lives in the water, but is it a duck?
What else could it be? A lot of things! A quick run through the field guide turns up a huge list of aquatic birds—geese, swans, and ducks, loons, grebes, cormorants, coots, and phalaropes. Add gulls, terns, and other seabirds such as albatrosses, petrels, and shearwaters. Or how about Alcids (often chubby little seabirds such as puffins, murres, auklets, etc.) Finally, there are the waders—herons, sandpipers, cranes, etc. At least we can be sure this isn’t a pelican! With so many choices, we need a way to narrow things down to a list we can manage!
Well, the bird isn’t a duck, but it resembles a duck, much more than a gull, puffin, egret, or sandpiper. So which of the above families are duck-like? Loons and grebes are often confused with ducks. And cormorants have long beaks and live in the water. Coots are duck-like, but they’re black with white beaks—this is clearly not a coot! Let’s start with the loons, grebes, and cormorants and see if we can find a match. If not, we can look further—perhaps at some of the seabirds.
Now, what other field marks can we see? The gray beak is not only narrow, but pointed, perhaps for grabbing fish. It lacks a cormorant’s hook at the end (right)—cross off the cormorants.
At this time of year, the bird is likely not in its breeding plumage; no help there. The dorsal surface of the bird is drab brown, with a darkish patch behind the eye. There is white running from the bill under the head to the base of the neck. There are a few markings—we can see white speckles on the back and the tops of the wings, and brown barring on the flanks. The eye is dark.
The bird’s body is streamlined, long and narrow; it might be good at swimming underwater. Finally, for the bird to have propelled itself that far out of the water, the legs must be far toward the rear and the feet are likely webbed.
Now let’s look at the field guide. I’m using the new edition of the Sibley Guide to the Birds (a book I recommend, by the way). I appreciate the feature that lets me compare all the loons and grebes on one page, at the beginning of that section. We can quickly eliminate those loons having heavy bills, and the grebes with distinctive markings. That leaves us with six birds, three loons and three grebes: Red-throated Loon, Pacific Loon, Arctic Loon, Least Grebe, Eared Grebe, and Red-necked Grebe.
A quick look at the range map eliminates the Arctic Loon—I was in California, not northern Alaska. We can also cross off the Least Grebe—those live in southern Texas. We’re down to four choices.
Red-necked Grebes have a distinctive vertical white bar defining their heads. Our bird has a diffused white patch instead. Eared Grebes (in their non-breeding duds) also have a white bar, but it’s fuzzier. Could this be an Eared Grebe? Ah, look at the eye color. Eared Grebes have (rather scary) glowing red eyes (right). Our bird has black eyes. It’s not a grebe.
So, is it a Pacific Loon or a Red-throated Loon? The Pacific Loon has quite a bit of contrast—more black-and-white instead of gray-brown, with crisp borders. Its beak is bi-colored, too, with a dark top and white bottom. Sibley points out that most non-breeding birds have a dark “chinstrap.” Looking at the illustrations of the Red-throated Loon, we see that it has a white face and white speckling on the back. Hah!
Here are a few more shots of this bird. The first shows how it would look simply floating along:
Now the loon has rolled over, preening, so you can see its webbed feet, located so far to the rear that the birds can only land and take off on water.
And here’s another individual that had already molted for summer (and found a mate):