Yellow-billed Loon: What's with the neck?

Loons and gulls… those are what keep me sane during the winter season.  Lake Hefner, one of the Oklahoma City municipal reservoirs, is only a few miles from my house and a great place for birding.  During the winter we often get ~6 Common Loons and — really exciting for me — Thayer’s, Herring, Glaucous and Lesser Black-backed Gulls (in addition to the Ring-billed Gulls).

I have spent many, many winter afternoons driving around the lake looking for the gulls and loons to photograph.  This year, however, the loons left during our bad winter weather in late December and the “special” gulls have been very difficult to find.

Yellow-billed Loon, 06 Feb 2010

I was so excited then to be at the lake late Saturday afternoon, just before sunset, and find a Yellow-billed Loon. This is a rarity for Oklahoma.

I saw my first Yellow-billed Loon last winter and experienced birders told me it was a once-in-10-years sighting. So, a repeat sighting this year when there are no other loons around was completely unexpected!

Yellow-billed Loon, 23 Jan 2009

Notice the neck on the loon I photographed this year and compare it with the loon from 2009. What’s with the plummage on the neck?  Both birds are immatures and the white, clean neck is typical plummage. This year’s bird has considerable darkening and even a really dark patch.   I’d very much like to hear from people more familiar with Yellow-billed Loons and learn about this variation.

Anyone know what’s with the neck?!

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