This may sound crazy to the rest of Montana, but Missoula is no place for loons.
So what’s a bird of that feather doing dipping and diving along the south bank of the Clark Fork River the past couple of days, upstream and down from the Higgins Avenue Bridge?
“It’s unusual, very unusual, to see a loon on a smaller river like the Clark Fork,” said Donna Love, the “Loon Lady” of Seeley Lake. “They’re seen on the Columbia River, they’re seen on the Missouri, on the wide, slow-moving rivers that are more like lakes.”
Let’s call this loon Lulu, though it could just as easily be a Lou.
A lulu of sorts erupted Monday among birders and loon experts as to whether she’s a juvenile common loon, as you see and hear on western Montana lakes, or a Pacific loon, which hangs out far to the north but can occasionally be seen migrating through here.
For much of Monday Lulu bobbed peacefully on the still waters across the river from the turbulent Brennan’s Wave, where two true loonies of the human species were river surfing on the 32-degree day. She didn’t surface for long, diving under the water for the loon’s trademark food hunt, then popping up again minutes later far down or up the river.
“The cool thing is watching it from up on the bridge,” said Will Sebern, whose post of Lulu on his SandWill Crane Photography Facebook page attracted lots of attention. “The angle you get from the bike path, you can’t really see it underwater. Up on the bridge you get to see it swimming around. They really stretch out when they dive, almost like an arrow swimming through the river.”
Such a bird’s-eye view isn’t usually available on the lakes where loons normally hang out, making their haunting, comforting calls that sound like summer. Lulu kept a winter silence on Monday.
Love, an award-winning children’s book author, published her first book, “Loons, Diving Birds of the North” in 2003. She’s been involved with the Seeley Lake loon count for years as a member of the Montana Loon Society for years and currently serves as its secretary.
“I believe it’s a juvenile common loon, with brown eyes, not red eyes, and juvenile plumage, and it doesn’t know it’s not supposed to land on rivers,” Love said.
She said the eyes of a common loon don’t turn their distinctive red until they’re 3 years old.
It seems late in the year to be leaving the frozen country, though loon migrations aren’t triggered so much by the calendar as they are by freezing lakes. Iced-over water can be the death of a loon.
They do need to get to the ocean by January, when they start to lose their flight feathers for a couple of months, Love said.
“They can still swim and dive and catch fish but that’s a very stressful time for loons,” she said, adding that Lulu needs a full quarter of a mile to gain elevation when she takes flight.
The latest in the year Love has seen an adult male on Seeley Lake is Labor Day. The latest she’s seen any loon was when two juveniles that had hatched earlier in the year disappeared on Nov. 7.
On Saturday, Jim Greaves, a wildlife photographer and consultant in Thompson Falls, posted a sighting of a common loon near his home on the national birding site, ebird.org.
“Same juvenile seen for several weeks; forages in central-west and north side of lake,” Greaves commented.
Sebern spotted and recorded a loon on the lower Bitterroot River last Jan. 8. He’s a devotee of ebirds.org, which among other things maps recorded sightings of many kinds of birds. In October there were nearly two dozen recordings of a Pacific loon in the Fort Missoula area of the Bitterroot.
Sebern’s convinced that Lulu is a Pacific loon, and a variety of postings on Montana Birding's Facebook page bore that out.
So did Chris Hammond, a wildlife biologist for Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks in Kalispell.
“I do believe the bird on the Clark Fork River is indeed a Pacific loon,” Hammond said in an email to the Missoulian. “Common loons have a clear z-notch pattern on their necks ... The pattern on the neck of the juvenile Pacific loon closely resembles the plumage of an adult Pacific loon which is straight where the darker feathers meet the lighter feathers.”
Sebern was walking home from watching football at the Top Hat shortly after 2 p.m. Sunday when he first spotted Lulu below the Higgins bridge.
“You usually see a bunch of mallards and sometimes mergansers there,” he said. “I’d seen some mallards while I was walking to the Top Hat earlier but walking back the sun was kind of behind it and it dove. Mallards don’t dive.”
A photographer of birds, though he’s not in the commercial end of it, Sebern ran home to get his camera. The loon was still there when he got back, paddling around and diving. It surfaced long enough to allow him a broadside picture to post to his SandWill Crane Photography page.
His friend, Corey DeStein of Missoula, is a bird hobbyist who has done his loon homework. DeStein agreed with Hammond that Lulu is a Pacific loon. She's smaller than your average mallard and the border on her neck is well-defined, he pointed out.
"They're becoming slightly more common on the western side of the state during migration,” he said. “It’s not something that’s guaranteed, but they do pass through, usually in October through December.”
“It’s a great find to see one, but it’s not that rare,” agreed Sebern. “It just feels good to see a cool bird like that right here in Missoula.”