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.