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Loon Fever

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February 24, 2012 by Joseph C. Neal

Loons migrate through Northwest Arkansas during spring and fall. But Common Loons, scientific name Gavia immer, are never common. A productive November day is 10, and in winter, a single bird or two. It was a big deal when a single loon wintered on Lake Fayetteville last year. I’ve seen zero on Beaver Lake this winter.

Tenkiller Ferry Lake, Okla., is in the Ozarks, an impoundment of the Illinois River that rises near Fayetteville. It does not have this problem. Common Loons are common at Tenkiller. I expect to see 100 a day without special effort. Common Loons are joined by much lower numbers of Pacific Loons, Red-throated Loons, and the occasional Yellow-billed Loon. Distance wise, it’s like a run up to Beaver dam.

Tenkiller’s winter birding fun-o-meter is activated in big open spots like Snake Creek Park. Fifty Common Loons parade on Feb. 1, but a single bird far away on the other side swims with its neck extended and bill sometimes pointed up, rather than on the level. It could be a Red-throated or even a Yellow-billed Loon. It is almost a half-mile away. My operational rule of thumb is that the further away the bird, the more likely it is a loon of the heart’s desire. Even through my spotting scope all I can make out for sure is a promising blob.

Now a few days later, I’m back at Snake Creek, and lo, out there in a raft of water birds are Common Loons, a single Red-throated Loon with neck and face white, and a Pacific Loon. While not Virgin Marys, these unusual-for-the-Ozarks loons constitute physical embodiment of miraculous, at least in our local birder’s paradise. Then I find that mystery loon – the far-away white blob with atypical neck posture. It’s diving for fish among more typical Common Loons in the shallows around the marina. Up close, it sure looks like a Common Loon, but it swims like a Yellow-billed, or something, with the bill sometimes up-tilted. By the sacred Law of Parsimony, it is time to end the mystery and accept the bird’s identity as a Common Loon.

What does this mean? First, let’s do the math. Several trips to Tenkiller, 170 miles each and at the government rate of 55.5 cents per mile, 94 dollars and change a trip. Loon fever is expensive! But loon fever is not ultimately about money. Mystery puts energy in the tank.

I suppose, whatever else is going on here, the more we look at birds close up, the more we realize they are individuals, with much individual variation — something not so apparent when they are very far away and viewed briefly with no thought that they, too, are individuals. It’s a Common Loon with an uncommon look and an uncommon behavior. In short, it has personality. Doesn’t this sound vaguely familiar?

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