A Cruel Reminder

Loons are always with me. With its fires, mudslides, and Mediterranean climate, southern California could hardly be more different from northern Wisconsin, but the loons winter here. I see them at Newport Pier, a bustling wharf that juts out into the Pacific and draws scads of Vietnamese anglers…..and me. The chattering fishermen are after pacific mackerel, which feed beneath the wharf in great whirling clouds. I am looking for pelagic birds that might fly by, like red-footed boobies, pomarine jaegers, and common murres. But I always see loons too. In fact, common, pacific, and red-throated loons all occur along the coast of southern California in good numbers.

My first sighting this morning was auspicious; I spotted a fast-flying parasitic jaeger as I reached the end of the pier. Small pods of common dolphins surfaced at intervals as they too pursued mackerel, exciting the gulls and pelicans near them. Great rafts of western and Clark’s grebes stretched out north and south of the pier. Experience told me that these circumstances were likely to produce a rare bird sighting.

As I completed my initial scan of the water adjacent to the pier, I saw a common loon with a buoy near it — at least, the odd dayglow-pink item near the loon registered as a buoy on my first glance at it through my spotting scope. (A photo taken with my phone through the scope appears above.) As I studied the loon and pink item further, I realized it was a bobber connected to one of the legs, because it followed along a foot behind and bobbed up and down rhythmically as the bird swam slowly along the surface. I groaned. Even in winter, apparently, loons face fishing entanglements.

My relaxing birding trip at an end, I watched the loon for an hour to learn how it was coping with the fishing gear. Fortunately, it swam southward during this period, which, bit by bit,  brought it closer to the pier. Despite the cheerful fishermen whose casts and puttering about blocked my view at intervals, the loon was simple to track. Early on, another common loon approached and preened within a few meters. The entangled loon remained alert but showed no other obvious response. Similarly, it ignored a smaller pacific loon that came near while diving. A second common loon came over and showed a hint of social behavior, such as we see in the breeding season. For a third time, the loon with the bobber made no response. The bird did not even react noticeably when a juvenile western gull flew over, settled beside it, and began to pick at the bobber. At all times, the entangled loon sat high in the water; it never dove, preened, or even gave a wing flap.

The lack of social interaction, disinclination to dive or exhibit other normal loon behaviors, and posture of the loon in the water speak volumes about its condition. These signs indicate that it has probably been dragging the unwanted bobber for some days and is severely impacted. Fortunately, bald eagles, the loons’ nemesis during summer, are rare in southern California, so the loon is not likely to succumb to predation. But its inability to dive means it has already begun to lose weight and become weak. It will surely starve if the bobber is not detached soon. I will visit the pier tomorrow to see if I can relocate the bird. If so, and if its status appears unchanged, I will see if I can put together a capture team. With great luck, we might free the doomed bird.