Yellow-billed Loon Gavia adamsii Scientific name definitions

Brian D. Uher-Koch, Michael R. North, and Joel A. Schmutz
Version: 1.0 — Published March 4, 2020

Conservation and Management

Effects of Human Activity

Sensitivity to Disturbance at Nest and Roost Sites

Often sensitive to disturbance, but some pairs habituate to frequent disturbance (Johnson et al. 2019, MRN). Sometimes will stop incubating when humans are within a kilometer of a nest. Sources of disturbance that displace incubating adults can lead to decreases in nest survival (14).

Shooting and Trapping

Occasionally taken by Indigenous communities for food (19, 63), dog food (35), bags and ornaments (22, 132, 25), or other reasons (151, 93).

Pesticides and Other Contaminants/Toxics

Thirty eggs in northern Alaska evaluated for contaminants. No significant PCB exposure, in contrast to Red-throated Loon eggs from the same area that had significant PCB exposure (184). The leading hypothesis for the difference between species is that Red-throated Loons overwinter in river mouths in East Asia, whereas Yellow-billed Loons overwinter in the same region, though significantly farther offshore and thus the contaminant load is more dilute. A single Yellow-billed Loon egg collected in the Northwest Territories had lower levels of DDE and PCB exposure compared to other loon species (185).

In Alaska, blood mercury concentrations are within background levels suggesting that Yellow-billed Loons are not exposed during breeding (28). Some individuals (7%) wintering farther west in East Asia exhibit elevated concentrations of mercury in feathers and eggs. Mercury concentrations in feathers of Yellow-billed Loons has been increasing from the 1920s to the present and are now at a level where there may be demographic effects from mercury toxicity for some individuals (28). Probable contamination at military installations near breeding sites (e.g., 186).

Ingestion of Plastics, Lead, etc.

No information.

Collisions with Stationary/Moving Structures or Objects

Collisions not reported but a variety of species, including loons, deviate from their flight path when gas-flaring events occur to release excessive gas pressure that needs to be flared off (187), which is a frequent occurrence in northern Alaska where there is much petroleum development. Loons are highly sensitive to offshore wind farms (188).

Fishing Nets

Frequently drown in commercial, native subsistence and fishery research nets and traps (32, 112, 91, 18, 19, 96, 189).

Degradation of Habitat: Breeding and Wintering

Limited degradation of breeding habitat. A potential source of breeding habitat loss is the continued expansion of the oil and gas industry. Over 90% of Yellow-billed Loons breeding in northern Alaska occur within the National Petroleum Reserve–Alaska, where oil and gas development is likely to increase (83). Lakes near rivers, especially on river deltas, subject to breaching by rivers due to permafrost decay (3, 5) which could be caused by vegetation disruption by oil field exploration and development. Winter and migration habitat degraded by oil spills (e.g., 190) and possibly other marine pollution, military contaminants, and overfishing. Originally, 87 were thought killed in the Exxon Valdez oil spill (190, 79), but most were later discovered to be Common Loons and only 5 Yellow-billed Loons were actually confirmed killed (J. Barr, personal communication, cited in Fair [191]). Climate change will likely alter the Arctic tundra habitats used by the Yellow-billed Loon during breeding, and the coastal marine ecosystems used during winter, but to date little is known about how habitat change will influence this species.

Human/Research Impacts

Previously frequently collected by ornithologists (e.g., 22, 112, 161, 23, 18, 53). Disturbances at nests and brood-rearing sites can expose chicks and eggs to predators (165). Sources of disturbance that displace incubating adult loons (e.g., nest visits) can lead to decreases in nest survival and captures of nesting loons reduces nest success (14). No evidence of displacement from preferred habitats and established territories through disturbance has been found in analyses of 14 years of aerial surveys on the Colville River Delta (15).


Conservation Status

The Yellow-billed Loon is protected under Migratory Bird Treaty Act. If fully implemented, the habitat protection provisions of the migratory bird treaty with Russia could benefit loons on both sides of the Bering and Chukchi seas. Designated as a candidate species for listing under the U.S. Endangered Species Act (ESA) in 2009 due to small population size, bycatch mortality, geographically restricted breeding areas, and vulnerability to human impact. Found warranted, but precluded by higher priority species (192). The species was re-evaluated in 2014 and found not in danger of extinction (an endangered species), nor likely to become endangered in the foreseeable future (a threatened species;193). Russia is the only nation that includes the Yellow-billed Loon on an endangered or sensitive species list. Considered a Bird of Conservation Concern in the United States, and is a Species of Greatest Conservation Need by the State of Alaska (194). The Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada lists the Yellow-billed Loon as a species “Not at Risk,” although the status report submitted to the Committee recommended that it be listed as “Vulnerable” ( 88).

Measures Proposed and Taken

In 2004, an initial conservation plan for the Yellow-billed Loon was developed (162). In 2006, a conservation agreement was implemented for the Yellow-billed Loon in northern and western Alaska (195). The agreement implemented the following strategies:

  • Specific actions to protect Yellow-billed Loons and their breeding habitats in Alaska from potential impacts of land uses and management activities, including oil and gas development
  • Inventory and monitor breeding populations in Alaska
  • Reduce the impact of subsistence activities in Alaska (including fishing and hunting)
  • Conduct biological research including response to management actions

In 2009, a Spotlight Species Action Plan was completed by the U.S Fish and Wildlife Service, which identified actions to reduce potential stressors, such as harvest and development, on Yellow-billed Loon populations (196).

The National Petroleum Reserve–Alaska, managed by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM), covers a large area of northern Alaska and encompasses the majority of Yellow-billed Loon breeding habitat in Alaska during summer (84). Given the relative scarcity of Yellow-billed Loons and recent ESA attention, the BLM has imposed “Special Conditions” specifically for this species: “Condition 1) Aerial surveys shall be conducted by the lessee for at least 3 years before authorization of construction of facilities proposed for development which are within 1 mile [1.6 km] of a lake 25 acres [10.1 ha] or larger in size. These surveys along shorelines of large lakes shall be conducted following accepted BLM protocol during nesting in late June and during brood rearing in late August. Condition 2) Should Yellow-billed Loons be present, the design and location of facilities must be such that disturbance is minimized. The default standard mitigation is a 1-mile [1.6 km] buffer around all recorded nest sites and a minimum 1,625-ft [495 m] buffer around the remainder of the shoreline." Development will generally be prohibited within buffers unless no other option exists.” (197 ).

Effectiveness of Measures

Populations in western and northern Alaska are currently stable or slightly increasing although it is unknown if this is related to conservation measures. Established territories on Colville River Delta have persisted despite new oilfield development, and appear to have been adequately protected by mitigation measures in the USFWS/BLM Conservation Agreement (Johnson et al. 2019).

Recommended Citation

Uher-Koch, B. D., M. R. North, and J. A. Schmutz (2020). Yellow-billed Loon (Gavia adamsii), version 1.0. In Birds of the World (S. M. Billerman, Editor). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, NY, USA. https://doi.org/10.2173/bow.yebloo.01