ABA Photo Quiz

ABA Online Bird Photo Quiz 81


Bird Photo

What an interesting view! This month's quiz bird has a fairly long neck; long, thin, and pointed wings; and a very short tail with the bird's feet extending well beyond the tail's tip. These features allow quick elimination of most bird species and should head us toward two groups, the loons and the grebes. Other waterbird groups have members with short tails, but most of those also have short necks (e.g., tubenoses). The overall plumage pattern eliminates the two smallest grebe species. All other grebe species are ruled out by our bird's lack of any white secondaries. Additionally, Red-necked Grebe would not be quite this starkly white-and-black below and neither Western Grebe nor Clark's Grebe sports anything like this bird's neck pattern, so on to the loons.

Once among the Gaviidae, our eyes might quickly latch onto the vent strap – a thin, but obvious, dark line crossing the body between the feet. This is a feature well-known in separating Arctic from Pacific loons, with presence indicating Pacific. (A quick aside: vent straps are useful in some other groups, such as the Solitary Vireos and the Black-throated Green Warbler complex.)

Well, that was easy!

Not so fast. Just because an individual bird sports a feature that separates two similar species of a group (such as the aforementioned Pacific and Arctic loons), does not mean that is provides an identity character that rules out all other species. This is a point that lures many a birder down the primrose ID path! Yes, our quiz bird has a vent strap, but let's check to see that the bird actually falls in the Pacific/Arctic camp rather than elsewhere among the loons. The first feature that we might check as confirmatory is the neck pattern. Our bird does exhibit what might be termed a chin strap, but that chunk of dark on the neck is much too wide and obvious for the chin strap of a Pacific Loon. Additionally, that patch of dark is too low on the neck; the chin is higher on the neck, about where the width of the head narrows at the base. Adults of both Pacific and Arctic loons in basic plumage don't show any such dark patch on the neck, but juveniles can be heavily marked here. However, in those heavily-marked juveniles, at least of Pacific Loon, the dark coloration on the neck extends farther up the neck toward the head (as in http://www.flickr.com/photos/tony_leukering/1994650566/in/set-72157603872602322/).

Having to decide among the other three of the world's five loon species, we might let our eyes travel past the vent strap to the bird's feet. Seeing them, one might think of Little Red Riding Hood: "My, what big feet you have!" They are big – and a very useful feature in flying-loon ID. The two medium-sized loons (Arctic and Pacific) have intermediate-sized feet and can confuse the issue, but we've already ruled those two species out. Thus, with such huge feet, we can also rule out Red-throated. Of course, we could have ruled that one out on the same neck-pattern features for which we ruled out both adult and juvenile Pacific (and Arctic) loons, but I thought that I'd take the opportunity to stress the usefulness of foot size in identifying flying loons. There, is that enough emphasis?

We are left with the two large loon species, at which point, the identification should become fairly automatic. Yellow-billed Loon is never, in basic plumage (!), as dark on the head and neck as is our quiz bird. I took this picture of a Common Loon flying over the Seawatch site (http://www.njaudubon.org/SectionCapeMayBirdObservatory/MigrationMonitoringProjects/Seawatch.aspx) at Avalon, Cape May Co., NJ, on 2 November 2008.


The following people (listed by submission date beginning with the earliest) submitted correct answers for the December Bird Photo Quiz—Common Loon:

  1. Jeremy Kimm, Victoria, BC
  2. logan Kahle, san francisco, CA
  3. Mayn Hipp, Riverside, CT
  4. Urs Geiser, Woodridge, Illinois
  5. Kevin Jacobson, Hamilton, GA
  6. Lance Verderame, Livingston Manor, New York
  7. Stephanie Moore, Seattle, WA
  8. Steve Arlow, Rochford, Essex, England
  9. John Hammond, Durham, North Carolina
  10. Franny & Chris, New York
  11. Nathan Swick, Chapel Hill, NC
  12. Chris Warren, San Marcos, TX
  13. Lauren Bryde, East Northport, NY
  14. Wes Serafin, Orland Pk,Il 60462
  15. Daroczi J. Szilard, Tg.-Mures, Romania
  16. Gyekeny Gertrud, Targu Mures, Romania
  17. Ben Loehnen, New York, NY
  18. Mitch Hurt, Livingston, MT
  19. Patty McKelvey, Sheffield Village, OH
  20. Wil Domke, Miami, FL
  21. Thomas Hopkins, St. Petersburg, Florida
  22. Raymond VanBuskirk, Albuquerque, New Mexico
  23. Aaron Bilyeu, Placerville, CA
  24. Kevin Kerr, Guelph, ON
  25. Russell Cannings, Penticton, BC
  26. Rob Lane, Charleston, SC
  27. Michael S. Levy, Centereach, N.Y.
  28. Alan Dupuis, Cambridge, NY
  29. Andre Moncrieff, Berrien Springs
  30. Georgia Conti, Patzcuaro, Michoacan
  31. Margie Bennett, East Northport, New York
  32. Marschal Fazio, Glendale, CA
  33. Stephen Joly, Kamloops, BC
  34. Evan Houston, Seattle, WA
  35. Mark Rosenstein, Cambridge, MA
  36. Steve Hampton, Davis, CA
  37. Alexander Watson, Austin, MN
  38. Heather Lumpkin, Madison, WI
  39. Jim Mountjoy, Galesburg, IL
  40. Ann Gibson, Winfield, BC
  41. Barb Robertson, Ottawa, Ont., Canada
  42. Rob Young, Alexandria,VA
  43. Paul Glass, South Boston, VA
  44. George Cresswell, Colorado Springs, CO
  45. Graham Etherington, Norwich, England
  46. Elaine Long, East Brunswick, NJ
  47. L. Long, Chandler, AZ
  48. Ben Di Labio, Carp, ONT
  49. Jonah Joffe, Wynnewood, PA
  50. Stephen Chang, New York, NY
  51. Netanel Paley, Bergenfield, NJ
  52. Paul Levesque, Vancouver, BC
  53. Claude Auchu, La Pocatière, Québec
  54. Ron Pozzi, Granite Bay, CA
  55. Josh Obrecht, Ames, IA
  56. Greg Zupansic, Eugene, Oregon
  57. Mary Walsh, Valencia, CA
  58. Harmony Coriddi, Marion, New York
  59. Jon Leland, Seattle, WA
  60. Cinda Crosley, Pflugerville, TX
  61. Matthew Schneider, Silverton, Oregon
  62. Ethan Kistler, Cape Town, South Africa
  63. Ed Harper, Carmichael, CA
  64. Lucie Bruce, Houston, TX
  65. Jennifer Day, Woodridge, IL
  66. ken young, buhl, Idaho

How Did You Compare?

As stated in the quiz rules, answers must consist simply of the Common or English name exactly as it appears in the ABA Checklist.

The following list shows the number of submissions for each species guessed.

Red-throated Loon
Common Loon
Pacific Loon
Arctic Loon
Yellow-billed Loon
Common Merganser
Common Murre
Northern Gannet
Blue-footed Booby
Great Auk
Laysan Albatross
Red-necked Grebe


The photo and answer for this quiz were supplied by Tony Leukering.