Before I was #7, before I was Seagull Steve, I was the Ventura County Kid. I began birding in Ventura, California, when I was 12 years old. My dad and I wandered into the Ventura Settling Ponds, and I saw a shitload of ducks that I'd never seen before...I was already bird-curious, so this was a tipping point...I had no chance, and it was too late to go back. I got a lot of life birds at the Ventura Settling Ponds back in those days and have seen a couple rarities there, so when Billy and I were down in Ventura for Thanksgiving with nothing better to do, we lurked into the ponds for a check up. No one thinks of this place as an amazing vague runt trap, but these are the sewage ponds of my heart.
This site is not quite as birdy as it used to be, in part because it used to have some additional ponds that were entirely removed. As we walked out, I lamented the loss of these ponds, which always used to have a flock of Bonaparte's Gulls...which are mellow, entertaining and elegant birds in and of themselves, but when you have Bonaparte's Gulls, there is always hope for rarities like Black-headed and Little Gulls. Bonaparte's Gulls were a thing of the past at this location though (and practically anywhere in the county, in numbers anyway), and so was almost all hope of ever getting Black-headed and Little Gulls again.
I pitifully bemoaned the loss of the Bonaparte's ponds to Billy as we walked out...and within 30 seconds, lo and behold, there was a flock of Bonaparte's feeding in front of us. Not 30 seconds after that, a small gull zipped by with a neat black cap and a giant black "M" across its wings...could it be? No...it was too good to be true...
I continued to watch the bird as it flew back and forth. Surely I was having a brain aneurysm and was hallucinating some field marks...no, they are real, this was no mutant Bonaparte's...maybe this is a young Black-legged Kittiwake then, because surely it can't be what I think it is...no...it is a juvenile Little Gull. What the fuck? Not only was this a self-found state bird, more importantly I knew it was the first Little Gull to be found in Ventura County since the 80's!
I couldn't believe it...a sweet sweet Ventura County bird, and a sweet sweet California bird...those milestones are not supposed to intersect anymore. It was also only the fourth Little Gull I'd seen anywhere...brilliant. Once my mind finally accepted what my eyes were seeing, my body was rocked with multiple birdgasms. I'm not afraid to admit it. This wasn't a crippler, not a facemelting bird, but it was absolutly stunning...once again, I was reminded of the true power The Economy of Style can unleash on a hapless birder.
Little Gull is a Bird Police review species in California; while there are a small handful of sites where they have shown up multiple times, in most of the state they are considered a MEGUH, at least on a county level. In Ventura County, this bird has long been thought of a major blocker...if you were not one of the few birders to see the first two birds back in the day, you were probably never going to see one in the county at all...they are just absurdly rare anywhere on the California Coast.
What are they doing in California at all? They aren't "Sibes" in the traditional sense; you won't find them along Russia's Bering Sea coastline, or in Japan for that matter. They have a tiny breeding population in North America, so there is a possibility that most (all?) of California's records are from misoriented migrants bravely barging their way east from the interior East Asian population.
Here is a first-cycle Bonaparte's Gull in comparison. Bonaparte's molt out of juvenile plumage very quickly, and by the time young birds reach California in fall almost all of them are well into their first pre-basic molt. The dark trailing edge of the underwing is not present on Little Gull in any plumage.
I found my hands were shaking as I went to text some local nerds about this bird. That's not hyperbole, that's just embarrassing. It's been some years since a rarity has so readily disabled me.
Luckily, the bird stayed put in the same pond for the entire day, and as far as I know everyone who looked for it that afternoon got good looks. Even Officer Searcy made it in time, all the way from Edwards Air Force Base. It was good to Share The Rare with old birder friends, and to find one of Ventura's top birds of the year during a brief incursion to my ancestral county...comparisons to Douglas MacArthur were made, and understandably so.
The Little Gull fueled up on hapless bait fish all afternoon. The next day, Thanksgiving, it had vanished, and many birders who ditched family to make the chase left empty-eyed and broken-hearted...their sacrifices and family betrayals were all in vain. Indeed, for the birders who were seeking the Little Gull as a substitute for friends and family, it was truly a tragic day...but to be fair, spending time with a vague runt Little Gull could be a lot more appealing than being trapped with ornery relatives.
What a bird! Hopefully it will not take another twenty-seven (27) (!) years for one to grace the shores of Ventura County again.