One of the best parts of birding is the chase. When a rare or unusual species shows up in an unexpected place, the traveling nature enthusiast is handed an excuse for a spontaneous adventure. Who wouldn’t want to dash off and take a chance to see something they’ve never seen before? The only question, as far as I’m concerned, is where to go and what to look for. Some folks don’t hesitate to hurdle continents in pursuit of vagrants, while others are content to stick to their own county or state. I’ve seen my chase radius gradually expand over the years, which led to me planning a January trip into Canada for a bird. A Northern Hawk Owl, one of my lifelong most wanted species, was spending the winter just outside of Quebec City. That’s not so far, right?
The days leading up to my excursion saw a change of pace, with portfolio panels and city-wide exam schedules taking the place of instruction. I kept an eye out for Hawk Owl reports, which were frustratingly absent beyond Monday. I knew that these raptors are fairly site-faithful each season, so preparations continued as planned. On Thursday morning, however, I received a fateful text from Brendan.
“Soooooo Ross`s Gull”
Suddenly, everything was different. The Ross’s Gull is one of the single most longed-for and sought-after birds on the continent. Indeed, this is internationally desirable quarry. These long-winged, wedge-tailed, pink-tinted gulls breed only in the highest of the high Arctic and winter at sea on drift ice. Apart from a former nesting population of a few pairs at Churchill, Manitoba, there are still only a handful of scattered records in North America away from Alaska. The word “mythical” is used in reference to this mega-rarity shockingly often considering that it’s a living, breathing creature. This species universally requires high placement on every serious birder’s dream target list. Someone, somehow, had seen one somewhere in New York.
Priority one for the collective birding community was obtaining more information, and the details slowly started to trickle in. A young individual had been photographed and videoed at Tupper Lake in the Adirondacks. It was revealed that the observation was less than a day old, and the tense excitement was palpable even through the internet. When the bird was refound and access to the private property viewing location was granted, the New York listserv imploded. It continued to delight observers throughout the day and showed again on Friday. Many birders had the opportunity to view the gull at close range, and the results were nothing short of breathtaking.
I realized I would need to alter my travel plans. Misgivings about how to prioritize and adjust were quickly brushed aside when I remembered that it’s a goddamned Ross’s Gull. The Hawk Owl could wait until after I’d made a stop to look for this little celebrity. Brendan, a longtime larophile, was even more eager than most to see what he referred to as a “legendary bird.” He bit the bullet and decided to accompany me north, even if it meant a train ride back downstate when all was said and done. I was elated to have a travel companion for at least the first leg of my trip, and we had a grand old time on our drive up to the Red Top Inn in Tupper Lake.
After a good night’s sleep, we were only a short jaunt down the road from the spot where the legend had come to life. We were greeted at the threshold of the house by the homeowner, Jack Delehanty, who originally found the bird. Jack is exactly the sort of person you’d expect to live in the Adirondacks: amiable and knowledgeable about nature, looking more than a little like Mark Hamill’s current portrayal of Luke Skywalker. We signed the registry he was keeping for his amusement and followed him out to the deck overlooking a stunning backyard. Tracks in the snow led out to some scraps of fish on the surface of the frozen lake, originally discarded by a construction worker who did some ice fishing on the side. Jack and his family had noticed the strange little seabird when it arrived to pick eggs from the walleye carcass, and had thankfully sent word out to get a confirmed ID. At the moment, the breakfast offering was unattended. We set up alongside the other early risers and waited.
I was not surprised to see how many familiar faces turned up to look for the reported rarity. The Feustels, Mike Z., and a crew of Cornellians led by Andrew Dreelin all came down to Jack’s deck to have a look. There was even a Barred Owl roosting above the driveway that provided some welcome distraction while we waited. Brendan and I began our stakeout at 7:30, but as the day wore on our optimism started to fade. News circulated that the bird had last been seen around 2:30 the previous afternoon, and some of us began to fear the worst. I was getting anxious. This is NOT a bird I wanted to miss, but if it wasn’t around to be seen…how long could I stare out across the ice in vain when I was still several hours from a perfectly good Hawk Owl?
I hemmed, I hawed, and the others kept convincing me to stay a little longer. I agonized over the ticking clock, and eventually decided to cut my losses. After nearly 3 hours standing post, I said my farewells and departed for Canada. I could still make it to the Hawk Owl before nightfall, and I would plan to swing by Tupper Lake one last time on the way home. I stared wistfully at the expanse of ice as I made my way north across the Route 30 bridge. I was moving on and well on my way. I say this because I know I did not deserve what happened next.
More than an hour north of the lake, I came back into a patch of cell reception and my phone went wild. I knew before I even checked the voicemail and texts from Brendan that the gull had been rediscovered. There was no way I’d reach Quebec before dark if I turned back now, but there was no way I wasn’t turning back. The Hawk Owl would have to wait until morning, and I raced towards Tupper Lake hoping that the bird would stay put. It was a nerve wracking hour before I made it back, but when I crossed over the bridge again I spotted a collection of stopped cars and a throng of birders moving down the roadside. I parked, hopped out, and jogged towards the crowd. Above their heads I could see a lone black and white bird floating on the breeze. A gull. The gull.
The Ross’s Gull is a species of superlatives. There was a lifetime of hype and high expectations leading up to this moment, and it absolutely exceeded them. The little bird delivered in a big way. Gulls are pretty gifted flyers in general, but the grace with which this creature harnessed the wind was on an entirely different level. A twitch of a wing, and it would sail smoothly and swiftly halfway across the lake. It would power strongly back to the near shore, approaching closely before turning to face the wind and hanging motionless in the sky. Masterful. The gull spread its strikingly patterned wings wide and fanned its diamond-shaped tail as it lit daintily on the ice a stone’s throw away.
At close range, this bird was a total stunner. Bold patches of black against a base of gray and white made for a pretty sharp outfit. Could I see the faintest hint of a pink blush on the underparts? Just barely, at certain angles, in certain light, if I believed hard enough. Plain and simple, it was a good-looking critter. Pretty adorable, too, with its smokey eyes and dove-like face.
Brendan had already gone, trading the train for a ride home with the Feustels, but I let him know I’d gotten the bird and thanked him profusely for his help. Taylor was among the new arrivals I recognized. He turned to tell me how lucky I was, as the bird had been sitting far away across a channel of open water before flying closer just as I was pulling up. I’m not sure he realized how awed his expression looked, eyes wider than I’d ever seen them, dazzled by the majestic mega-rarity before us. The gull eventually lifted off, tilted into a gust, and rocketed across the lake to land on the far side of the water. Beaming, I returned to my car and set off for the north once more.
A few more birds of note appeared before the day was through, including ravens and crows feeding on fishing refuse on the icy lake. I also stopped to check out a Northern Shrike teed up in a tree on the outskirts of town. The avian diversity in upstate New York may not be as dramatic as some other locations, but the quality of the species present is wonderful.
The drive seemed to go by much more quickly with the magic of the Ross’s Gull fueling me. I crossed through some gorgeous boreal forest and mountain habitat, making it to the Canadian border in great time. The patrol agent I spoke to grilled me extensively, and he had a lot of questions about what I’d been doing up here in the winter. I had to dig out my camera and show him photos of my prize before he let me pass by. The rest of the journey went by without much trouble, and although Quebec proved confusing I eventually managed to navigate the twisting exit ramps and French road signs to find a motel. I settled into a king size bed for a hard-won rest, knowing that the adventure was far from over but it was already a success. I don’t think I’m premature in calling my encounter with this mystical traveler one of the highlights of my birding career. The legends are true, the Ross’s Gull is a fantastic, impressive lifeform, and I was fortunate to be graced by its presence. I am a happy naturalist.
Year List Update, January 28 – 127 Species (+ Common Raven, Barred Owl, Ross’s Gull, Northern Shrike)