Yellow-billed Loon: The Canyonero of divers

Yellow-billed Loon in San Diego

It’s not rare for birds that breed in the high Arctic to show up in Southern California. It happens by the thousands every year. Dunlin and Ruddy Turnstones, Sanderlings and Western Sandpipers, Red-throated Loons and Peregrine Falcons and many more species are all Arctic breeders that are common in Los Angeles in the winter. That said, it has been a notable winter in Southern California for Arctic vagrants. The most famous has been the Snowy Owl, which is still roosting on residential rooftops in Orange County. But there has also been a Snow Bunting in Oceanside, and a pair of King Eiders at the Ventura County pier. I didn’t see either of those two, but I did take a trip to San Diego to catch an additional Arctic rarity.

A couple of days before Christmas, a Yellow-billed Loon showed up in Mission Bay in San Diego. I didn’t learn about it until we were away in New Mexico. For whatever reason, I’m still reluctant to drive more than an hour, especially if it requires leaving L.A. County, just to see a bird. But there are only scattered reports of this species south of Monterey. eBird shows 3 different sightings in L.A. (1977, 2010, 2013), one in Orange County, and this first-ever San Diego bird. The Audubon Field Guide says that “its great size, remote range, and general rarity give the Yellow-billed Loon an aura of mystery for many birders.” Since it appeared that this bird had settled in to a spot, I decided to make the drive down.

The size difference compared to Common Loon was apparent

I pulled up to the parking lot at Quivira Basin at 8:25am, and had the giant loon in my binoculars within 5 minutes. The bird was farther away than I’d wish, and never came close. Another birder graciously let me peer through his scope at it. It’s bigger size was apparent with the naked eye, especially when it was near a Common Loon.  I came back early in the afternoon to see if it was swimming closer to shore, and it wasn’t. 

After the loon, I toured a couple of spots to see what other good birds I could see. My first stop was a residential neighborhood where a population of Burrowing Parakeets has taken up residence sometime during the pandemic. They are large parakeets that are native to Argentina, with some spillover in Chile and Uruguay. As the name suggests, they nest in burrows in cliffs. The highest count I noticed in eBird was 50 birds. There’s been talk that some birds seem to be trying to make nesting cavities in palm trees. For now, this seems like a non-breeding population. They were easy to find. I drove up to a spot in eBird where they’re regularly reported, got out of my car, and there were 18 of them in the trees directly above me. A couple of them flew down to check me out. And then they moved across the street to a yard where someone has set up feeders. Fun sighting, even if they don’t “count.”

From there, I headed to the south end of San Diego bay. There’s been a Little Stint wintering there for a few years. I struck out. You really need a scope at this spot, and I don’t own one. The odd highlight here was a Golden-crowned Sparrow. That’s not because it’s rare. Instead, it’s because it turned into a lifer for someone else. The dude with the scope at the loon spot at the beginning of the day mentioned he needed Golden-crowned for his already-substantial life list. As I was entering a note in my eBird checklist, on the hopes he might get an alert, he walked up. We promptly re-found it.

That basically did it for my quick day-trip. There weren’t any other potential lifers or California lifers in town. There was the possibility of bumbling into a pair of escapee American Flamingos that are seen around the bay occasionally. I checked a couple of spots, but didn’t see them. The rain was coming, so I headed back to Quivira Basin to check on the loon. From there, I drove back to Los Angeles.