Saturday, October 30, 2010

A Million Dollar Bird - The Yellow-Billed Loon

This is the famous, Yellow-billed loon.

This is the same loon being camera shy.
This is a regular old, Common loon, so you can see the difference.

     Yesterday, I did something really ridiculous, but very gratifying. That combination is often the case for me. I have the most fun when whatever I'm doing involves a little risk. Out of the blue the night before, I got a phone call from a birding acquaintance. "What are you doing tomorrow?" He asked. A laundry list of boring stuff that I should do flew through my head like a flock of angry crows. But what I said was, "Evidently, I'm going to be hanging out with you!" He laughed, then invited me to go with him the next morning to see a rare bird. That always involves risk, because you never know if you'll see the bird or not. And, you could waste a lot of time and moolah on the quest.
    Birders call dropping everything to go after a rare bird "twitching." I don't know why it's called that. Perhaps because when you write a check or slide your credit card across a counter to pay for the crap-shoot you're about to embark on, it makes you twitch. It made me twitch when I said yes to an ocean- going boat trip ticket to the tune of forty bucks, I can tell you that. Keep in mind that it's the very end of October in Maine and the Atlantic ocean is most inhospitable. We weren't going on a sunbathing, endless buffet cruise to Aruba. Layers and layers of clothing were required, a double dose of the anti-emetic of your choice (I like Bonine), water, gloves, a hat, lip balm and a prayer book are prudent choices. It's advisable to take something to eat too, so that when you hurl overboard you've got a donation at the ready. There's little worse than tossing your cookies without the cookie. I have experience.
     The weather forecast was for a gray, cold day with sea swells around four feet. All in all, not too bad, or at least not as bad as it could be, even though 'swell' does rhyme with 'hell' for a reason. I packed a bag of general necessities and my bag of camera equipment which weighs roughly 500 pounds. Since I was going birding with a tribe of big shot birders, I had to take my binoculars, too. Normally, I just use my camera's long lens like a huge monocular when I want a close look at something. But, if I had gone on this trip without bi-noculars, I would have looked like a complete moron. So, I took them. I have powerful, but heavy binoculars which are made to sit on a table top, not hang around the neck. Real birders have shoulder harnesses for their 'binocs' which keeps them from swinging wildly, but I don't. They also have lightweight and expensive Swiss and German binoculars. When birders are together, in the down time between birds they compare equipment, "Bet you're glad you're dragging around those lead fifty-forties today, John!" Stuff like that. They also talk about rare birds they've seen and the money spent and hardships endured to see them. I have little to contribute to this, since I'm a birding hacker by comparison. I am completely out classed and out 'glassed' by them, and I know it. Additionally, between my enormous camera and lens and my clunky binoculars around my neck, I looked like a psychotic yoked oxen, so I kept out of the discussion. 
   The bird we were all hot to see, or more accurately, freezing our keesters to see, was a Yellow-billed Loon. It's also called the "White-billed Diver." It looks just like a Common loon, but with a pale, yellow bill; appearing comparativley white.  The largest of the loons or diver birds, it's a bit bigger than the Common loon by about two inches and has a slightly longer bill. They are birds of the Arctic circle only rarely descending to the lower forty-eight. In all of bird record keeping in the State Of Maine, there has only been one ever seen here before. To see the bird this time was a really big deal bringing out all of the birding top guns in northern New England that could afford it or were just plain crazy enough (that's my category) to make the trip. Ultimately, we would ride seven miles out to sea to see what we could see in the hopes of twitching the big bird.
     We left out of Portland Harbor aboard the Odyssey which is actually a whale watching tour service. The boat captain droned away on a scratchy P.A. system about various landmarks as we left the harbor. We did see a porpoise or two and tuna, but no whales. None of us cared about that, either as the "tuna" we were after, our "catch of the day," would be the bird. We did pass enormous flotillas of Common loons, more than I had ever heard of at one time, never mind to have seen. I counted well over two hundred, numerous of them in rafts of 30-40 birds at a time. A group of loons is called an "asylum." I don't think there is a term for a group of birders, but there should be.
     As we rolled further and further out to sea across lead colored water, even the birds got fewer and fewer. Thin jokes were handed around the group about all of us getting dipped. That's what birders say when you set out to twitch but turn up a loser. A few times, someone would yell, "Look! Look! Over there! Two o'clock off the bow!" and a wave of arms with binoculars would swing up like the legs of synchronized swimmers. But, nothing. I added up the costs of this birdless, cold, dismal trip: Ticket - $40, gas - $10, parking - $10, lunch - $5. Total: $65. I was beginning to mull over my sandwich. I was thinking how happy I was to have brought one because soon, I could boredom eat.
     Then, suddenly the captain backed off the boat throttle idling down the engine. "There! There it is, ladies and gentlemen, what you've all come to see! We're coming up on the Yellow-billed off the bow!" His excitement radiated through the lousy sound system. The mob of birders scrambled en masse to one side of the boat like roaches when the light goes on. Abundant oohing, ahhhing and pointing created a haze of happiness above the crowd; everybody was delighted. Even the other passengers - the non-birders were caught up in the glee fest. I forgot about my sandwich and started taking pictures, what I had come for even more than the bird.
     In the end, sharing a rare bird or any other once-in-a-lifetime experience is the greatest equalizer. If the bird had not been twitched, but missed, we would all have spent the same long, gray and expensive day, a day lost from work, a day not taking care of business at home. To have the supreme pleasure of something so rare, regardless of experience, wealth or even interest, is a glory shared with another nonetheless. There is nothing finer. After the fact, it was a million dollar bird.

To see additional photographs of the Yellow-billed loon and other birds and Maine scenic landscapes from the same trip, click HERE. Thanks for looking.


  1. You are such a great story teller! Is that where the term "loony bin" comes from then? An asylum of loons? Interesting! And congrats on seeing it!

  2. Great story! Great bird. Great photos. Thank you, Robin. Carol in Town Hill

  3. Not as good as being there in the flesh but you caught
    The air of excitement ANSI feel too like I've shared
    Something rare. It was nice to have met you today. AnnieO

  4. Congratulations Robin, Work got in the way or I would have been on the boat too. Oh well, how about sending me a shot for next months CACC newsletter. What a rare opportunity, and some great shots toooooo.

  5. Many thanks to all of you for reading and enjoying and taking the time to say so. I deeply appreciate it. Jim, will send photo for CACC newsletter!

  6. Great photos. I have only a Canon IXUS 980 IS perpetually on my belt to catch visitors from outer space and the rather occasional volcanic eruption in the center of Helsinki so there is something lacking in quality, especially when I sneeze in the middle of a click. So my quality is somewhat lacking. I envy you.
    Jan Sand
    October 31,

  7. Great image, Jan of you taking photos of lava in Helsinki! Thank you.

  8. Annie O, it was great to meet you, too and thanks again for introducing yourself ANNNNNNNNNd coming all the way from Ellsworth. Wow! Jo was very pleased to have so many come for her reading and book signing. And, A Spicing Of Birds is a splendid book, indeed.

  9. Nice, Robin. Though at the start you sounded a bit like Ishmael heading out on the Pequod and looking for the monster white whale rather than the loony white bill. Lucky for you it all came together in the end. Nice pix and a good telling of the tale to get them.
    Token Tarheel

  10. Now that was funny, Token T. I think a good story is one where the writer implies that the reader is being taken somewhere other than where they may actually wind up. I'm pleased I pulled that off (apparently!)I also think that birders generally do regard those expeditions in the way that Ishmael did, too.

  11. wow...
    That's just a sweet photo.
    did you make up "an asylum of Loons" ??
    if you did I'm going to have to nominate you for something.
    I'll think of what later.


  12. No, Mike, I didn't make that up. A group of loons is also called a "Cry" and a "Dance On The Water," but neither of those monikers fit my story line. I will gladly accept nomination for anything, though, good or bad. What have I got to lose????? Dignity? HA!

  13. I didn't know the term, "asylum of loons," but now I wonder if the pejorative, "loony-bin" is an outgrowth of that. I like "exaltation of larks" and "murder of crows," too.

    And I love this piece, Robyn! As usual you've managed to tell a funny story while giving me information I didn't have before. Quite a feat. And well-written to boot, not to mention descriptive--I was ready to run for the Dramamine! So thanks for that.

    Rated. D
    Yarn Over
    October 31

  14. Thanks. Loved your post about the yellow billed loon. Was there only one of them or a whole flock? Craig Williams

  15. Wonderful post, Robin. I so much enjoyed reading it, and happy for you for the big pay-off of actually seeing and photographing the yellow-billed loon! Great photos, too!

  16. Thanks, Hilke. I know you know those feelings, too!

  17. Wow Robin, you are such a great story teller I felt like I was with you! I know how much you love birds, and this was so special!! If all of your readers saw you as Pippi Longstockings last night, they'd KNOW you are a loon! But a very, very lovable one, not to mention talented, heavy binoculars and all! Great outfit- if there were prizes you would have won, hands down!
    Love, Ms. Boo

  18. Just returned from Myrtle Beach's warm water and when I looked at your beautiful Yellow-billed loon photos you have captured how frigid the Maine water looks...How do you do it? Thermal wear and electric socks and gloves? "Twitching," loons, asylum,...need I say more?

  19. I too enjoyed meeting you last weekend. It's wonderful to connect with another someone who enjoys what nature has to offer as much as I do. I know I mentioned how much I enjoy your writing but I also should have told you how wonderful your photos are as well.
    They are a perfect compliment to each other. You have special gifts. I'm so glad you are willing to share. AnnieO

  20. "Psychotic Yoked Oxen." You nailed that one!

  21. You certainly have a gift for words to go along with your extraordinary photography!! Another delightful post, Robin. ~karen

  22. KaHolly, thank you so much for that. I'm glad you enjoyed the story and pictures, too.

  23. I enjoyed the anticipation of this twitch and delighted to see you were sucessful. Super images Robin. FAB.

  24. Just getting caught up on my birding. Your writing gas gotten SO smooth and seamless.....I'm sure everyone feels like I do which is that you are simply having a conversation with us about your newest adventure