Thursday, April 20, 2017

Ross's Gull, Avian Heroin

I've been waiting to write this post for months...this thing is so big, it's a daunting thing to even think about writing. This is about the best bird I have ever seen. Until I saw this bird, I never knew you could see a bird and say, "That bird. That bird there. That is the best one." Learning that I really could say this now was no small revelation. How can one do such a bird justice? I don't think I can...but I will try.

It all began on a Thursday in January. Now, this Thursday was not like any other day...a massive series of storms had just finished pummeling northern California, and I had decided that I would take the day off to do my Five Mile Challenge (5MC). The 5MC had been going well enough...I had clearly already beaten Flycatcher Jen by a wide margin, and I had just gotten my 86th species for the day. I had consciously decided to take a break from compulsively checking Sialia (which collects all of northern California's many birding listservs in one place) for breaking news of rarities that day...after all, I had shit to do. What in the holy fuck could possibly make me abandon the 5MC, something I had been waiting to do for weeks? Of course, the one day I decided to ignore the local birding scene would turn out to be a day most unlike any other.

At 2:30 PM, as I was scanning through shorebird flocks at the Albany Mudflats, I got a text that struck me down with such force that I had to spit out some teeth after I read it. Here is the actual screenshot from Samantha's phone.

Of course, I knew that the 5MC was over at that point. This bird could not wait, would not wait. Even with some traffic, I could still make it to Princeton Harbor in an hour and a half and have some time in the area before sunset. I didn't think the bird would be there of luck could not be that good...but not going for the bird was completely unacceptable.

Why would this be unacceptable? Ross's Gull is one of the best birds you can find in the United States...well, the North American continent...ok the Northern Hemisphere. They are not a well-known bird, and the only reliable/accessible place to see them in North America is Barrow, Alaska, in fall. Due to the extremely remote nature of Barrow, basically it costs thousands of dollars to look for a Ross's Gull...and there is no guarantee you will see one. Can you imagine spending the money to get to Barrow, freezing your ass off and not seeing this incredible gull? This archetype of Good Birds? They were formerly reliable in Churchill, Manitoba, but not in many years...if you want to have a reasonable chance of seeing a Ross's Gull, you are going to be somewhere above the Arctic Circle.

Of course, they do come south. Many U.S. states have records...but there is no pattern really, except they come in winter and are most likely in higher latitudes. They do not occur in the Lower 48 every year, and most years none are found at all. In November of 2006, one showed up at the Salton Sea, flabbergasting all California birders. I did not chase it (I lived way up in Humboldt County at the time), something I never regretted, as the bird disappeared the day after it was found and I would have surely missed it after making the 14 hour drive. Those who searched for the bird and missed it do not even try to hide the fact that this dip severely traumatized them, and scarred them forever. If only...

I managed to beat traffic and make good time to the harbor...but 10 minutes out, the inevitable happened...the report came out that the bird had flown south and disappeared. I showed up at the harbor anyways, not knowing what else to do...this was all just so typical. I did have a plan though...refresh Sialia every freaking minute. It's not much of a plan, but it is better than no plan at all...and it worked. The bird had been refound! But the message was short and vague...something about a parking lot...well where the fuck is that? The only parking lot I could think of was an incredibly unsuitable place for a Ross's Gull...but next to the unlikely parking lot out on Highway 1 there was indeed a huge throng of birders, and I managed to score an unbelievably good parking spot within sprinting distance. And just beyond them sat The Bird, The Holy Grail of Vagrants, the Ross's Gull.

Unbelievable. Just unbelievable. It was pink, it was blue, it was gray, it was white, it was some intangible color in between. It's head was round and friendly with a little tiny nub of a resembled some kind of mystical plover more than a gull, sitting absurdly in a small pothole. Best of all, it was right there in front of me. Why did it decide to sit in this weird, rutted parking lot where no waterbird would ever want to alight in? The harbor was a much more suitable place. Was it fucked up? Or just totally unaccustomed to the area?

The bird sat there for a number of minutes, just absolutely melting my face off even though it was doing nothing at all. I got the distinct feeling that my entire birding life had been leading up to this moment. This bird was too good to be real...everything they say about this bird is true.

Suddenly, it took wing, crossed the highway and flew out over the ocean. I thought that would be the last I would see of it, but as it turned into a speck in the distance, I saw the bird come down to the water. It landed right next to a surfer, so it was easy to keep track of.

Here is the Ross's Gull in the lineup with some grom. I scoped the bird for a lengthy amount of time...this may be the last Ross's Gull I will ever see, so I am going to stare at it for as long as possible, poor looks and all. It was hard to see much on the bird at this distance, except that it was not bothered at all to be sitting 20 feet away from some surfers, who were puzzled to see this little blue/white/pink/gray thing aggressively ignoring them. Mercifully, the bird took off again, and flew right back to the parking lot! YESSSSSSSSSS!!!!!!!!!!

Unreal. I could not have asked for better looks at the bird. The gull darted back and forth across Highway 1, perilously low and close to traffic, just over the heads of the assembled group of drooling birders. It was stressful to watch, actually. At that point I realized that the bird was probably quite healthy, it just didn't have any clue about how to navigate in a world shaped by man. It had probably never seen anything like "civilization" before...this is a true arctic species, after all...most Ross's Gulls probably never even venture south of the Arctic Circle. It also didn't behave like it expected to have any predators around, which was also disconcerting.

The bird landed extremely close by, so I happily unleashed a torrent of crushes. As the sun sank behind the sea, the bird continued to periodically pick up, fly around the neighborhood (deftly avoiding the many powerlines in its path), landing back in the parking lot and even the bike path across the highway. The bird left my brain drowning in gallons of adrenaline, serotonin, dopamine...I had been drugged! I left the Ross's Gull that evening in a waking dream. This was true, pure, uncut avian heroin that I just had, and I still wonder if seeing any bird will match that special high.

The gull would remain in the area for several more days, happily feeding on the abundant earthworms that were present. Rumours of the bird being weak and sickly were circulated by jealous birders who were unable or unwilling to make the effort to come see it; in reality, the bird energetically frolicked in its little rain puddles to gobble the abundant earthworms, which it slaughtered without pause and without mercy. Part of me wanted it to leave for its own good though...I got the distinct feeling while watching the bird that death by car or death by raptor could be in its future if it did not leave.

Of course, you all know how the story ends...I'm just glad that I wasn't there to see it. Peregrines eat birds all the time, this is perfectly normal and the way it should be...but I would be lying if I said I wasn't bummed. After all, this was the best bird I have ever seen. At least it left this world honorably.

The Ross's Gull came to us from some distant and unknowable place; cold, barren, unforgiving, and likely seen by few men. It was a true bird from the north, and few others of its kind will ever make such a brave foray below The Circle. It flew far, and foraged fiercely. Melted faces as best it could. We shall never see its like again.

And now its watch has ended.


  1. It doesn't hurt that this is an adorable bird.

  2. Good God Damn! I need a cigarette after that post... Best account of The Bird that I've read yet. Glad you got it and thanks for sharing.

  3. They seem to have a penchant for dying spectacularly. Are there not like Gyrfalcons and stuff in their home range that they learn to watch out for? At least this one met its end in a more respectable fashion than the one in Flint, MI a few months ago.

    1. J/K the Flint bird was an Ivory Gull.

  4. Yessssss. And you won the 5MC for the cherry on top of the delicious ross's. Birding hero you are.

  5. I thoroughly enjoyed your enthusiasm for this bird. I am glad you waited until you settled down to write the post. Worth the wait.