Yellow-billed Loon and Common Mew Gull – Race Point, Cape Cod

Alex LamoreauxBirding, Chase, RaritiesLeave a Comment

Atlantic Brant flying over the dunes at Race Point, Cape Cod (Photo by Alex Lamoreaux)

Atlantic Brant flying over the dunes at Race Point, Cape Cod (Photo by Alex Lamoreaux)

On February 27th, Steve Arena discovered the first Massachusetts record of Yellow-billed Loon at the infamous Race Point at the tip of Cape Cod. This huge loon species is a hard bird to see almost anywhere in the Lower 48, only found occasionally along the coast of the Pacific Northwest. This first-winter immature is only the second record along the East Coast, and has been showing off nicely every day since it was first found. In addition to the loon, Dick Viet also turned up another very rare bird on March 13th – a Common Mew Gull! The lure of two major nemesis birds was too strong to keep my friends and me away from a quick weekend trip up the coast….

Early Saturday morning we hiked out to Race Point, and almost immediately stumbled into the Common Mew Gull foraging with a large flock of Ring-billed Gulls and Red-breasted Mergansers! We had all seen American Mew Gull on the West Coast before, but the lighter-mantled Common (or European) subspecies was a lifer and being able to view it alongside Ring-billed, Iceland, and even an early Laughing Gull was fascinating – and also one of the most frustrating things I’ve done in a while. It was shocking how well the Mew Gull could hide among the other gulls, being almost the same size and color as a Ring-billed but with wingtip patterns very similar to an adult Iceland Gull. It’s overall shape and size were like a slimmer-winged Ring-bill, with a more pin-headed look similar to a Bonaparte’s Gull.

After the Common Mew Gull drifted off, we started wandering down the beach towards the Lighthouse area and scanned the ocean for the Yellow-billed Loon. Common and Red-throated Loons were plentiful out in the surf, but we readily picked out the massive size and pale-tan color of the Yellow-billed once it bobbed up into view. Although it stayed fairly distant, we had great views of it through scopes while it floated eastward along the beach. It was great to watch the loon stretch out its massive feet, and shake its head (and humongous bill).

First-winted Yellow-billed Loon along Race Point - with a similar structure to a large Common Loon, but with an even larger bill and overall sandy coloration. (Photo by Alex Lamoreaux)

First-winter Yellow-billed Loon along Race Point – with a similar structure to a large Common Loon, but with an even larger bill and overall sandy coloration. (Photo by Alex Lamoreaux)

Aside from the rarities, the birding was incredible at the point with Razorbills, seaducks, loons, and gulls streaming past while Humpback and Northern Right Whales surfaced only a few hundred meters off the beach. In the dunes we watched an adult Common Raven chasing and attacking an immature raven, and there was a lightly-marked Snowy Owl tucked up in a patch of beach-grass on a distant dune.

Humpback Whale and gulls (Photo by Alex Lamoreaux)

Humpback Whale and gulls (Photo by Alex Lamoreaux)