Last weekend, Dave and I went birding at 4 locations searching for waterfowl . One of our locations was Manasquan Inlet, where there was an abundance of loons. Naturally, I just assumed they were all Common Loons, checked out a few, and kept looking for different species. However, when I got home that evening I learned that a Pacific Loon was there when we were. What a bummer! I was annoyed at myself because we could have potentially seen it, but didn’t look hard enough. But it just wasn’t meant to be that day.
Pacific Loons are one of the most abundant North American loons. However, they are considered are rarity in New Jersey because…well…a Pacific Loon should be on the Pacific Coast. This particular loon has been observed all week by numerous birders so I was hoping it would still be there by the time we could go back.
On Sunday February 3, we spent an hour watching at Manasquan Inlet. There were significantly less loons this time…only about 9 compared to about 30 last week. But nobody seemed to have the dusky black chinstrap that distinguishes the nonbreeding Pacific Loon from the nonbreeding Common Loon. We did see a lot of bird around though…Red-breasted Mergansers, Long-tailed Ducks, Ring-billed Gulls, a female Common Goldeneye, a Double-crested Cormorant, Ruddy Ducks, and Boat-tailed Grackles. There was even a Harbor Seal hanging around. But after an hour, still no Pacific Loon.
We were watching the seal for awhile, but we had other plans in the afternoon so we decided it was time to go. Sometimes you find the rare bird you’re chasing and sometimes you don’t. On they way back to the car we scanned a few loons that were congregating. Dave noticed one seemed a little smaller/thinner than the others. As we approached it dived underwater, and after a few seconds it popped up in front of us. The Pacific Loon! We could see the black chinstrap clearly. We informed some other birders who were around and we all watched the Pacific Loon for a few minutes. So cool! What an elegant and beautiful bird.
The Pacific Loon and Common Loon in nonbreeding plumage look pretty similar at a glance. However, the Pacific has the black chinstrap, shorter neck, and is slightly smaller (the chinstrap may sometimes not be visible).The Common has a larger, flatter bill and a “collar” around the neck that the Pacific lacks.
Mission accomplished! The rare NJ Pacific Loon is our 3rd life list bird of 2019.