29 February bonus day Update

Survived two months on the road, but last two weeks have been much easier with Robyn on board. I’m actually writing this from Calgary airport during one of two layovers from Victoria, British Columbia (about as far west as you can get in North America without going to Alaska) to St John’s Newfoundland (the absolute furthest eastern protrusion of North America). I’ll overnight in Toronto.

Several hours ago Robyn and I left Victoria in separate gates – her flight was for San Francisco where-after she’ll head homewards to Sydney. It was great having her along for a representative mix of ‘big year’ birding. We chased and found four megas, and saw some pretty amazing places looking for all sorts of other birds, from northern California and adjacent Canada, to warm Florida to very cold Minnesota, back to Florida, across to Texas, then back to the northwest.

Continuing from my earlier posts, we arrived at the Victoria, BC airport Sunday afternoon at two-ish, giving us plenty of time to search for Robyn’s fourth ‘coded’ bird – Sky Lark, on the very grounds of the airport. Attempted introductions of this European species were made in many colonial lands, including Australia, where they thrive in areas of Victoria and Tasmania. The only place the introduction has persisted in North America is on Vancouver Island, and most famously in the peripheral fields within the Victoria airport complex. I tried to locate Sky Larks in early January at the airport while on the island for the vagrant Redwing. No dice then, but its now early Spring, and many sightings from the airport complex have recently appeared on eBird. We loaded the rental car and drove maybe two minutes to ‘the’ corner of the compound. As I opened the car door I could hear a Skylark in full song, presumably very high above. We got out of the car and listened to the most famous of avian songmasters, but couldn’t nail down where, overhead, it was singing from.  But it eventually descended and we saw it clearly interacting with another Skylark adjacent to a runway. Within minutes it made for the sky again, and we were thrilled to watch and listen as it ascended up, up, and up. Tick.

The next day (Monday) we drove up the east coast of Vancouver Island and added several good birds to my year-list that can otherwise be hard to find, including Eurasian Wigeon, Pacific Wren and Red-breasted Sap-sucker. So much more to report, but I’ll attach a few pix from the island.

What’s ahead? I’m hoping for a few more cold country birds in Newfoundland, but then will try and figure a way to a remote corner of the Florida Keys to see about a Curlew Sandpiper. Plus, believe it or not, that dastardly Black-faced Grassquit was seen again at Long Key State Park. Then I may do a couple of regional sweeps, including a return to northern California (I’d be doing that right now, except the weather forecasters have other ideas), and west Texas. Also need to do the Rosy-finch run in northern Arizona, and the Longspur run in Oklahoma. Looking forward to early April when my buddy Murray will be joining me for the notorious Chicken Run in Colorado, and a bit of migrant chasing at High Island Texas - just like in the Big Year movie! I just hope Murray can keep it under control and we don’t end up talking to Texas Rangers. I’ve seen the TV show - those guys know karate.

Images: Skylark, Greater and Lesser Scaups and other sea ducks in front of gulls in vista towards mainland Canada, Steller’s Jay, the ‘other’ American Dipper, and old growth cedar and spruce forest where we connected with Varied Thrush and Pacific Wren.

February 26 Update – Robyn’s mega-adventures

Writing from Denver Airport with long layover prior to ongoing leg to Seattle, for tomorrow’s pelagic out of Westport, Washington.

‘Z’. Upon arrival in San Francisco, and crazy-traffic late night drive west to Merced, in preparation for search for the Ruff the next morning, we formulated a change of plans for the coming days to see a Zenaida dove. Since my strategy remains ‘all about the rarities’, despite the danger that may represent re getting through the 668 non-coded birds that big year birders regard as ‘gimme’s’, we decided that if we got the Ruff next morning, we’d hop on a flight that avo all the way back to Miami (the furthest distance of any lower 48 flight out of Seattle?), for the future peace of mind. Problem is that there were no eBird reports of further Zenaida Dove sightings throughout the day – so we didn’t book any ongoing flights, while concentrating on the birds at hand. We slept in (to achieve 6 hours sleep) and arrived at the Merced Wetlands Reserve later than we should have, maybe an hour after sunrise. The eBird descriptions of where the Ruff was hanging out were gold. The bird was right where it was supposed to be, and Robyn scored her first US mega without even lifting her binoculars. One for one!

At 8AM we were still confident that Zenaida Dove sightings would begin to filter through on my hourly eBird email updates, so we birded the reserve, adding an enormous Great Horned Owl, and a new duck – Cinnamon Teal. Nice. We then went to a nearby general birding area, but didn’t find much action, though California Quail was a nice addition – they aren’t as easy to find in California as they are on the Aussie islands where they thrive. Then early enough to beat the traffic, we drove to a marina in the San Francisco area to try for Black Rail – the tiny black rail that nobody sees, but lucky folks get to hear. Big Year rules clearly allow for ‘heard only’ for any bird species, a rule that stemmed from concerns of people getting too aggressive in pursuit of Black Rail and Yellow Rail sightings. We reached the wetland reserve on the southern rim of the SF bay, and immediately saw some new birds for my list – American Avocets and Glaucus-winged Gull. We walked up and down the elevated steel boardwalk where recent calling BRs had been heard. Nothing. We then went to a smaller and less-glamorous looking boardwalk and viewing platform surrounded by the same ‘cat-tail’ rushes. Not a peep. Busy train-traffic caused annoyance while were we’re in the wetlands, but we didn’t complain when during an extended blast of a passing train’s horn we had the unmistakable response call of a Black Rail, within three metres of our feet, maybe even closer. Hanging around, we didn’t get an encore from the BR, but several Ridgeway’s Rails called periodically (a recent split from Clapper Rail, and a good one to get out of the way), plus a single calling Sora – a common rail that I’ve seen already this year. I checked my email – it was 4PM (maybe 8PM in Florida?) and a single report of Zenaida Dove sighting – with observation time of 8AM! Bloody ‘ell.

With the good news/bad news belated report of Zenaida, I got on line and found that we could still get to Miami that night, leaving our hearts in San Francisco at 9PM and arriving in Miami early enough to score a 5 hour sleep and still get to the morning’s gig at Long Key, 2.5 hour’s drive in pre-traffic conditions. And that’s what happened. Sort of – we got to the site about an hour later than intended. It’s a State Park, and admission had to be paid. The fellow taking the fee said the bird was seen a half hour earlier. We sped, we parked, I ran. The dove had been seen along track where I’d misidentified it as a Mourning Dove a week before it was noticed and identified (buggah! This was the first Code 5 of the year for North America, and I #@!&ed it up) for an extended period, but had disappeared in the thick scrub between trail and shoreline a few minutes before. The guys were very casual, but Robyn and I set up watch on either end of the scrub to cut off any escape. After most of the 15-odd birders impatiently left, I asked the remaining folks what they thought about a more active plan, where I make my way along the shoreline for a peak into the dense bush stuff from fresh angle. Nobody seemed perturbed, and rules don’t always apply in big year attack plans. The dove was resting in plain sight near the shore, and both Robyn and I had great (GREAT) views. Photo attached of the bird and the site. That made Robyn’s mega chase week ‘TWO for two’. We booked flights for Lubbock Texas with vision of a hat trick.

Arriving 11PM in Lubbock we were struck by how nice the tired people at the airport, car rental office, and hotel were. This was to be a recurring reality in this Texas panhandle boom-town that was built on long-gone oil and still-performing cotton. We were in town for the Common Crane – Eurasian and northern European equivalent of our (our?) Sandhill Crane. Researcher Justin Bosler noticed three Common Cranes in the mix of the 30,000 Sandhills that were currently in the region, and part of his PhD study. Where he saw the birds initially is off limits to anyone but himself, but he predicted and later confirmed, that they leave the wetland study site for accessible rural roads surrounding massive farmlands. We were on the job on time, in cold windy conditions while thousands of cranes flew overhead to settle in various locations, mostly too far on the horizon to be sure where. There were three other vehicles with birders doing the rounds, so we exchanged phone numbers and chased around the landscape independently, scoping through groups of cranes numbering in hundreds and thousands. Although one birder in each group eventually reported to ‘probably’ seeing one, I’m not so sure. Robyn and I saw the sun rise and set, with no cranes with the distinct black throat and other plumage details we sought. I found that in-flight birds were easiest to scan, and even with binocs, distant groups could easily be looked at if they were down-sun. I reckon I looked at many thousands of necks and bums during the day, but no bingo! moments. One problem during the day was the constant attack of the flocks by Coyotes.

We really enjoyed another night in Lubbock, and got a welcome relief on the job in the farmlands (45 minutes from hotel) with much warmer (maybe -5C) and calmer wind conditions. The wind was a big problem the previous morning due to scope vibration. The birds also seemingly enjoyed the conditions, spreading further and wider, therefore causing a lot of angst for Robyn and I, as we needed to leave the site for airport no later than 10:30, and by 9 we hadn’t found the ‘mother lode’ of Sandhill Cranes that we needed (the only two previous sightings had the Commons in group of 15,000 and 5,000 cranes). We scanned several groups of up to 2,000 cranes, but no Commons. I could see that a fair number of cranes were landing way off yonder, in the middle of an area surrounded very widely by a rectangle of roads that didn’t get close enough to see them, scope or otherwise. Even though the panhandle is flat, flat, flat, there are some slight undulations in this area, and the mystery flock was apparently in a depression.

Seeing as the time was winding down on us, I could see one group of feeding cranes that I’d already scanned, but no ‘mother lode’. I went up to the top of the mound and re-scanned the swelling group. Over a five minute period I scanned left to right, right to left, but didn’t see any tell-tale black necks among the masses. The challenge was all the more difficult as the birds were feeding – apparently eating planted seeds in the ploughed field, and with heads down, it would only be front row birds likely to be picked from the crowd. But by scanning through the groups enough times, the odds of seeing the right raised head might get to better than even odds. On one scan I noticed a rabbit warren mound in the foreground with two Burrowing Owls standing near burrows. Tick!.  But no lost Eurasian cranes. We agreed it was time to split, but the ole ‘just one more try’ edict applied as always, and halfway from this one last left to right scan I softly said to Robyn: “I think I’ve got it”. Then a little louder: “I’ve got it. I’ve got it!”. We both took turns looking at the Common Crane through the scope, while I pointed the camera in the right direction shot numerous exposures with the hope I could later pick the bird out of the images. Wonderful feeling. High fives and a hunched over slink back to the car, and unopposed travel to the main roads. Whooo-hoooo! On to Washington for the pelagic. Maybe.

Top image is Robyn leading the charge on Zaneida Dove, then the star itself, then the Common Crane with head down in front and centre. 

22 Feb update

Robyn and I are on board second leg (in Chicago) of Duluth to San Francisco flight. We will drive two hours east from San Fran to Merced County to look for the Ruff that has been there for a couple of weeks, and to bird the Bay area for a couple of days.

We had an enjoyable but exhausting Saturday and Sunday birding northern Minnesota. This was with John Richardson, who I met twice before when looking for and at the Ivory Gull in Duluth in previous weeks. He was an enthusiastic and personable local birder who seemed to know a lot about regional birds. I asked him if he'd like to help me find a couple of my targeted birds - especially Great Grey Owl. It turned out he was in the process of setting up a bird guiding business, so it worked out perfectly for both he and I. When he informed me that he’s just starting out with his own bird guiding business, there was no choice – and it proved a good choice. John is a great birder (he’s an ex-pom, so that figures), knows the region, and has an instantly likeable personality. We went in my rental SUV to the far reaches of northern Minnesota for 14 hours the first day and 12 the next. Although we never crossed paths with a Great Grey Owl, we did see a Northern Hawk Owl, a Snowy Owl, Sharp-tailed Grouse, and a bunch of other cold-north specialty birds. The landscape and the people are truly not far removed from the characterisations of ‘Fargo’ the movie, which was shot in the region, and meant to depict the region. Most folks seem almost over-the-top nice, sure enough do often say “Shuuuure”, “ohhh yeah”, and “youbetcha” in at least a third of their sentences. We drove past Judy Garland’s home town, and near Bob Dylan’s. We pulled off the main highways at many small towns to cruise up and down residential neighborhoods (and yeah, looked for wood-chippers coughing out red spray) looking and listening for Bohemian Waxwings – and eventually found flock of forty chowing into the frozen hanging fruit of a crab-apple tree. Whew. Beautiful birds that don’t differ much from the far more common and accessible Cedar Waxwings, that similarly look as if they were molded from plastic and expertly air-brush painted. I’ll try to attach an image.

As it is, we’ve changed our plans around so that after tomorrow’s twitch (Tuesday) for the Ruff, we’ll bird northern California only til Wednesday night (we’ll try to hear a calling Black Rail), and get to Lubbock Texas Thursday for a shot at the Common Crane Friday morning. Then we fly back to the Northeast to Seattle, Washington, and make the two hour drive to Westport on the Coast in preparation for Saturday’s pelagic. Is that smart? I don’t know. But this is the third rescheduled date, and its presence on each occasion on my itinerary has definitely cost me a couple of rarities, so I don’t want to miss it and later hear of tube-nose rarities.

Speaking of west coast pelagic trips, I’ve talked my way onto a full tour of birders on a repositioning trip for massive luxury cruise boat from So Cal (San Diego) to Vancouver in late April. They are led by legendary pelagic birder Paul Lehrer and more often than not turn up crazy shit like Hawaiian Petrel and several other Pterodromas that I can’t think of the names right now, for the only records each year. So it’s a big win.

I’ve got a lot of other stuff I could talk about, but the Bud Light has kicked in, getting drowsy and bored, so may end this post, and try and import some images of pretty birds later. Best regards everybody. I feel much better knowing you lot are ‘rooting’ for me. Getting a bit bummed out from time to time, and that helps a lot. I’m making voice recordings a couple of times each day with tonnes of anecdotal stuff for future inclusion in some sort of publication. It just seems a bit hard to type that stuff up – but will give you more next time. Cheers

Images are Yellow-crowned Night Heron Long Key Florida; Monk Parrot, Miami, Florida; Spot-breasted Oriole, north of Miami, Florida; Evening Grossbeak, Northern Hawk Owl, and Southern Hawkeye, all from frozen north of Minnesota.

Frustrated update – 15 February (and continuing to 22 Feb)

Written on 15th ish:

The East Coast winter pelagic trips out of Hatteras are largely about seeing a Great Skua. Brian Patteson’s trips to Gulf Stream are famous for lots of tube-noses in Spring to late Summer, and I’ll be on as many of those as I can I’m currently signed up for six. Also ten west coast trips. I wanted to make the late Summer early Fall trips off California with Debbi Shearwater, but for some reason  she has delayed her trip dates for more than three months since I first approached her, and I can’t wait any longer to make bookings with the opposition. So I’ve done that now.

So how did I go on my first American pelagic? Well, I didn’t get sick – that’s always a plus. But of course my preventative measures didn’t help my mental acuity in any way. We started out looking good – there were Razor-bills and a couple of Dovkies. Eventually we saw one, then another Northern Fulmars. There was no swearing this time.

It was very very cold, and I’ll admit to hanging out in the enclosed cabin with the masses from time to time. The last time was when we were just 6 miles from dock, late in the afternoon. Brian Patteson, the captain and bird expert called out on intercom from his elevated ‘bridge’ “Great Skua – everybody get on deck!”. All of us, got onto the deck in the right place looking the right direction. I saw nothing. There were no exclamations of ‘there it is!’, and Brian declared that it must have landed.

I’m currently on a flight from Norfolk Virginia, after the three-hour drive that it takes to get from or to Hatteras launching site, to Miami. I’m going to put tomorrow into trying for the Black-faced Grassquit on Long Key, then pick up Robyn from Miami Airport when she arrives in early evening. She and I will then do a couple of days cleaning up southern Florida winter birds, the off to Duluth for two days of guided owl-search. After that we go to Newfoundland for a few days, then all the way back across the continent to Vancouver Island for the Skylark and various northern birds, including owls. Hopefully we’ll then have a couple of days near San Francisco to try for the Ruff that’s been there for a couple of weeks.

Here’s current update Friday avo 19th Feb on flight from Miami to Duluth Minnesota

I put in a big day looking for the Grassquit on Long Key. The two reports of the bird were both very sketchy – as is the norm for rarity reports here. One of the unfortunate differences between Australian and US birding is that because there are (at least) 20 times as many birders here, there isn’t any centralised, inclusive online community. So, for example, if I want to find a Boreal Chickadee (a cold country bird that should be easier in the winter), where do I start looking? Basically there isn’t a starting point. Can’t find most recently reported individuals, unless I go state to state through the discussion groups, do a search, and get lucky. So far I ain’t getting too lucky that way. So, its not really a whinge, but I must say, the enormity of the hobby over here has its advantages and disadvantages for twitchers. Well, maybe we should call it a whinge. The paucity of info for the Grassquit was very frustrating! Compare that (two tiny statements more or less “Black-faced Grassquit at Long Key State Park”) to the stuff on Aussie discussion groups re, say, Oriental Honey-buzzard.

OK, after that wasted 8 hours of walking in search of a bird that I don’t think was there, I picked up Robyn at Miami International, and we got to bed just short of midnight. Wednesday morning we began my second day of guided birding for the year – again with likeable Larry Manfreddi, who as expected has nice little special spots for key Florida species. We chased four or five of these, and did find: White-winged Parrot (and untickable close relative Yellow-chevroned Parrot), Nanday Parakeet, Red-whiskered Bul-bul (noticeably different ssp than the birds in my front yard in Ourimbah), and Mangrove Cuckoo (suwwweeeete!). Also saw new birds for my list in Egyptian Goose. A good night’s sleep, with Robyn surprisingly adapting to time-zone changes seemingly instantaneously, and we set out to settle score with a bird I’d missed back in early January, and the day before with Larry – Spot-breasted Oriole. SBOR is an introduced species from nearby Bahamas, and looks very similar to native Orioles. We got to ‘the’ place for the species – Markham Park, not far out of Miami, where most people saw it when chasing the vagrant Western Spindalis that I saw in early January. The Spindalis, also from Bahamas – but a natural vagrant was twitched by a kazillion US birders from about Christmas until it disappeared a few weeks ago. The park is very popular with punters, and seems to be a contstant buzz of activity. Robyn and I were on the job at 7:30ish, and before too long I heard a SBOR in a dense stretch of foliage along the busy access road. Immediately after that a seemingly continuous series of loud maintenance vehicles passed by, while a trainee helicopter pilot buzzed around overhead. I lost the bird. I hung around for maybe ten minutes, but no more singing. Robyn agreed to wait and see/hear what happened, while I went off for a hike/wade through recently inundated well vegetated area nearby where the birds have been seen in the past. When I returned empty handed about 20 minutes later, Robyn was in a lather, waving me over. A pair of the ‘feral’ Orioles had popped up onto a bare branch minutes after I’d split, and had been there, seemingly waiting my return ever since. As soon as I saw the birds they jumped and flew over to the flooded orchard-like area I’d just left. Fortunately the stopped for a brief period along the way, one posing nicely for distant snaps. Whew!

Next day (today, Friday), we got to a neighbourhood south of Miami that sometimes yields White-crowned Pigeons. We got into position well before sunrise, after 45 minutes of surprisingly early, but typical Miami (and anywhere/everywhere-USA!) bumper to bumper.  We never connected with our pigeon, and in fact didn’t see anything of interest. So off to airport and now on four-hour first leg of our trip to Duluth, Minnesota. Excited about our prospects tomorrow for a bunch of boreal and cold COLD country birds. Watch this space. 

Gullover’s Travels

J Swift

Chapter 1  
This has been an insane year for wayward gulls in the US – maybe El Nino – or maybe more and more birders are picking through thousands of gulls with an eye for vagrant ring-ins.  In any event, I’m on a gull spree as I write this instalment, on flight from Dallas to Boston. I arrived in Dallas last night after scoring the White-throated Thrush in Lower Rio Grand Valley, my 10th rarity from the region this year. This morning’s straightforward search for the Little Gull (world’s smallest Gull species that is apparently common in northern Europe), at a lake out of Dallas proved to be anything but. It had been sighted several times in the past week, mixing with very similar and only slightly larger Bonaparte’s Gulls. I was at the suggested stakeout position about midway along the zz shoreline of the 5-mile long by 1-mile wide lake at first light scoping the entire lake. The only small gulls I could see were a half-dozen or so flying and diving way over on other side far side of the 5-mile long reservoir. I could barely make the out in the low light and distance, but threw the scope in the car and gave myself maybe 5 minutes to get to the other side for a closer look. It was a nightmare! The nice lakeside frontage road was short-lived, and I had to veer wide and take a whole bunch of increasingly large and busy highways, arriving at where I wanted to be about 20 minutes later. In traffic at one stage I saw a group of about a dozen small gulls flying overhead – and away from the lake. When I got to a reasonable vantage point and set up the scope, I was disappointed to find no small gulls anywhere on the lake’s surface. I watched a much larger Ring-billed Gull loaf along the far edge – in the area that I’d necessarily detoured around in traffic. I watched as it landed right near the edge of the lake. Wait a minute, it didn’t land, it just disappeared below the water’s edge. A spillway! Gulls love spillways, maybe I’m still in business.

It took me another 20 minutes to get to a parking area dedicated to people walking over to the spillway and onto adjacent raised levy. So after parking my Chevy (Impala – my favourite US car) at the levy (which technically was dry), I walked up to the perfect vantage point to see what was below the spillway. Gull bonanza! There were two good size groups of resting birds – one comprised of large gulls, mostly Ring-billed, the other being a group of 15 or so small gulls. That was the good news. The bad news was that I couldn’t figure out if one of them was a Little Gull – the majority, were certain to be Bonaparte’s. The only really good test for Littles in winter is to see the underwing, which is darkly pigmented – I believe it’s the only Gull that wears such extensive dark underwing markings. But these birds were not going to be flying any time soon. The whole group of gulls were no more than 50 metres away – but very substantial fencing with ‘No Entry to Spillway’ signs were very clearly positioned. I could see the two birders walking away from their lookout position – in separate directions. The gal coming my way responded to my question with ‘yeah, that guy pointed it out for me’. ‘That guy’ was hoofing off in the other direction, so I jogged up and caught up. ‘That lady reckon’s you picked the Little – is that true?’. “Yeah, it’s the furthest bird on the right”. ‘Oh, OK, thanks’. When I looked to the far right of the group of small gulls, sure enough, now that it had been pointed out, that bird did have a slightly darker crown, and was a little bit smaller. Not sure how I missed it before, but who cares. Eventually the whole group made a bit of a jump and reposition flight, and I could see, and photograph, the tell-tale dark wings of my target bird. Tick.

Back in the car it was decision time. Keeping in mind my weekend pelagic trip out of Hatteras, I had to choose, first of all, between chasing the Fieldfare in a remote part of Newfoundland, or having a crack at both the Kelp Gull in Ohio and the tentative Yellow-legged Gull two hours west of Boston, Massachusetts. Checking the flights, it would have worked brilliantly to go to Ohio this avo and Mass after that. But the Ohio bird (Kelp Gull) wasn’t reported yesterday. To not be reported on a Sunday wasn’t a good sign. And whilest the YL Gull wasn’t reported Saturday, it was reported Monday. Literally 30 seconds after I booked and paid for the flight to Boston that I’m on now, a morning sighting of the Ohio Kelp Gull came through on my hourly eBird rarities update email (yeah, I get 24 updates a day). Bloody ‘ell. Although its working against the grain with respect to times of days the birds show, and flight schedules and geography, I’ve now booked my flights from Boston to Akron Ohio, then Friday to Norfolk Virginia, from which the three hour drive to Hatteras gets me to bed a bit late on a pre-pelagic night, but gotta go with what I gotta go with.

Chapter 2

Boston airport is like all the big airports. Same with the car hire centre that is reached by shuttle. I drove the two and a bit hours from Bwoston to Deerfield and got to bed at a reasonable hour with hopes of seeing the ‘tentative’ Yellow-legged Gull – another European vagrant. So with that lump in my throat, along with the before-mentioned feeling in the gut that I should have gone to Ohio first, I hoped to score ‘the’ gull at first light, even though all reports to date had been late afternoon. I made it to the designated stakeout just above the spillway/’fish chute’ and below the Turners Falls bridge that spans the 50m wide Connecticut River in Turners Falls, Massachusetts, I parked, got out of the car, and could see a mass of gulls on the opposite snow and ice covered river bank, no more than 150m from me. I put the scope on the tripod, took a final nervous gulp of Redbull no-sugar, and closed the car door. Turning to start walking through the 10cm deep snow in lightly snowing conditions , I could see that the entire group of maybe 200 gulls had taken flight. And not because of my movements, the entire area was crazy with traffic, cars and joggers. I couldn’t believe it – really? 30 seconds too late? I quickly set the camera ISO to 3200 and went click, click, click, but knew it would be a long day. And it was. The birds spiralled up and away, and on my looking at the images, it was hard to even tell they were gulls. An hour later I decided to drive around the region both downstream and upstream to sneak peaks at the river wherever access was. I didn’t see a single gull that way. Around noon a few gulls began to appear, usually landing on floating chunks of river ice, travelling faster than you’d think, til their rides inevitably did the big dipper at the fish chute. The gulls seemed to be having fun – I thought about the Madagascar Penguins as they floated by, and once or twice waved and gave the ‘Just smile and wave boys… Smile and wave…’.

These were mostly Herring Gulls, which in current plumage look a bit like Yellow-legged, except that they have pinkish legs, and have varying degrees of streaking on head and neck. The photos of the YL showed entirely clean white areas, and upper colouration was a very slightly darker mid-range (for gulls) grey. The fun-riders kept arriving during the early afternoon, and starting about 2PM first one, then several, and eventually about a dozen knock-out gorgeous Greater Black-backed Gulls joined the Herrings and Ring-billeds. No likely suspects as I kept scoping the group of birds that was now accumulating over on the other bank where my morning welcome party had baled early on me. There was a bit of a rise on river’s edge of accumulated ice, then the birds were just behind that, in a depression that made it hard to see the legs of many. Round about 3:30 my eye caught a fresh bird. Mid-grey like the Herrings, but totally white head and neck – no doubt about it. And when I scanned left and right, I began to believe the wings and mantle were just a bit darker than the Herrings. “See it yet?”. Crikey, the two birders scared the b’jesus out of me – I had no idea they were approaching. ‘Well, I have a candidate’. “A candidate! Where? Where?” as they set up their scopes and began scanning. I got them onto the bird and I think the three of us we incrementally ratcheted up confidence in the bird. Bright yellow bill, red gonydeal spot looked good, colouration – maybe good, but really only barely darker than the herrings, white head –excellent. But one problem remained, we couldn’t see the legs due to positioning of big chunks of ice and snow behind which it stood. It took about a half hour, but it did eventually jump over the little ridge, revealing big, flat, webbed, glorious yellow feet and legs. Boom! 

Two hours back to Boston for a cozy night in a three star, and I’m now on first leg of trip to Akron to see a man about a Kelp Gull. Hey wait a minute? Kelp Gull in Ohio? That’s even more  (much more) unlikely than a Yellow-legged Gull in Massachussets – the difference being that there are no hypothetical hybridisations that would create a Kelpie. So if I do get lucky in the Buckeye State, it won’t need any thumbs’ up from the local ABA chapter. It was seen yesterday morning at first light (and all of the sightings of this bird to date have been pre 7:30AM, so I’m optimistic about tomorrow early – but will case out the joint this avie at 2:30ish.

Chapter 3

Reading more comments on the North American Gulls Facebook page about the gull at Turner’s Falls that I saw yesterday, the outlook for acceptance of Yellow-leg is not looking good. One expert claims the wings are too short, the head too rounded and the body not chunky enough, and points at some sort of hybrid as more likely. Wish he’d been a couple of days quicker with that advice. I read that in Detroit airport on layover enroute to Akron Ohio from Boston. Adding to the knot in my stomach was the fact that there were no eBird entries for the Kelp Gull early morning – which is when it had faithfully put in an appearance up until today. There were delays at the destination airport when the sky-bridge couldn’t be deployed, and we couldn’t walk the 50 metres to the gate until someone plowed a path in the three-inch snow-cover. Sounds like the emerging Australian way. So I was on the job at 2:30 at Springfield lake, hoping for an afternoon sighting. There were probably 100 gulls loafing around during my first hour of search, whereafter dribs and drabs arrived with the passing quarter-hours. Around 4 a couple of birders arrived, one of whom Ben Morrison was the local birder who first discovered and reported the wayward southern hemisphere Kelp Gull. As gulls flew in to hunker down for the night out in the middle of the lake, several dark-backed gulls teased us, only to eventually present as Greater Black-backed Gulls (maybe six) and one Lesser Black-backed. I also found a single Glaucous Gull among the Herrings and Ring-billeds, an almost all-white young bird. As the light faded, Ben and the other fellow, who was in from Minnesota and had missed the bird each of his morning and avo attempts over the last couple of days, concentrated on the icy shelf on the south side of the lake where about half the growing numbers (up to maybe 500 by then) of gulls were roosting. Resuming this report, its now Friday 2PM at Akron airport – my flight to Nofolk VA goes at 3:15. A ‘black-backed’ type gull flew into my scope view that looked a bit smaller than the four or five Great Black-backed Gulls that were doing the rounds. I didn’t get a concentrated look at the underwing primary windows (small white patch comprised of sub-terminal white band on one, two or three of the outer/near outer primaries – Greater has two or three such primaries, Kelp only one). I watched it for maybe five minutes before the candidate gull flapped its wings. Nailed it! Everything about the bird was right, the single white spot appearing on wing-tip when it flapped being the clincher. Being a common Aussie bird didn't hurt any. I jogged over to the guys, who started walking towards me when they saw my state. Together we watched and eventually we all saw the tell-tale wing-tip setup on this bird. Ben gave it the official thumbs up, though I wanted to get a discernible photograph of the bird, and would (and did) give it a good try next/this morning. I left my stuff in the room, bundled up my usual three to four layers for crazy-cold (two pairs long-johns, trousers then outer ski-pants; even crazier for upper body, with two down coats) and got to Springfield Lake too early. Watched a collection of segments of Carol Burnett Show featuring Tim Conway. Man he was funny. At earliest light, still dark I walked out for a quick scan. Couldn’t believe my ice-curse was still running – seemingly the entire lake had frozen overnight. Crazy. Birders started arriving just on 7AM, and within 15 minutes we had the minimum light needed to form a line of six or so scopes pointing at the one small area of unfrozen water, seemingly on the far side – but in reality only two-thirds of the way across. Short story is that for two hours I froze and saw no candidates.  Back to hotel for a snooze and here I am.

Below in order are images of the Little Gull from Dallas, the ‘Yellow-legged Gull’ from western Massachusetts, and a sort of image of the Kelp Gull from Springfield Ohio.

February 8 Update – things are looking up for the good guys

I got to sleep after 2AM last night and treated myself to a sleep in – 6 hours later. It was seen yesterday on and off, right up to 5PM, so feeling like a dead cert. Big mistake! I got to the stakeout for the White-throated Thrush after 9, to learn that it was there and active up til 8AM, at which time a member of the paparazzi, walked past barrier tapes put up by the Estero Llanos Grande State Park rangers, and, as the story went, the Thrush split in alarm. I waited intently until noon, then one, then two. No show. Crowd interest had waned and I was alone for most of the day. Then I heard a woman just 30 metres behind me “There it is!”. I turned to see Mary Gustavson, Sth Texas birding legend, who seems to be a mega-magnet wherever she wanders – twice before I’ve seen the magic. I didn’t even know she was around. Spooky. And yeah, ‘there it was’. There it WAS! Wow I’ll never stop loving that moment. So I took in the experience for maybe 10 minutes while it foraged on berries in the tree – not down low as previously, before it took off. I got some intel about a Common Parauque (a nightjar) roosting nearby, so I booked an ongoing flight to Dallas for 6PM (I’m at McAllen Airport now), so as to chase the Little Gull tomorrow morning, and did an hour of very enjoyable birding, adding maybe 12 species to my list. I’ve attached an image of the Thrush (Code 4) below, and a couple of other things I saw (Long-billed Thrasher, Local turtles and Sora). Whoo-hoo!