Today I shall weave a tale of dispair. A tale of jealousy. Of hopelessness. Of anger, fear, aggressioon….the dark side are they. Once you start down the dark path, forever will it dominate your…..ahem. Let me start from the beginning.
It was the year 2010. One Seagull Steve was living in San Francisco, on a birding hiatus. He had not birded in months, due to constantly being drunk on strange and exotic birds from across the map earlier in the year. Since then, he revelled in his nonbirding nature. Instead of prowling the disgusting shores of Lake Merced for vagrant warblers, he had spent the fall in a haze of scumbaggery and debauchery in seedy bars and filthy apartments across San Francisco.
But all of that changed. Despite avoiding all rare bird alerts and birding email lists, he woke up one morning to find out that none other than an Ivory Gull had made its way to Arroyo Grande, California. He blinked. And then his heart stopped.
Ivory Gulls, for the unfamiliar, are the cream of the birding crop as far as North American birds go. Ivory Gulls have it all…they are freakishly pure looking (adults are all white, white a tasteful gray and yellow bill), they are incredibly rare in the Lower 48, and they are hard to find even where they normally occur, which happens to be in the high, high arctic. If you do find one, you may often see them feasting upon the blood of unlucky marine mammals, probably within a distance of 20 feet. They are quite, as they say, confiding. If you go to places like Point Barrow, Alaska, in the late fall, or coastal Newfoundland in the dead of winter, you might have a chance to see them, but nothing is guaranteed. In short, if you see one, you will not forget it.
An Ivory Gull had only once before been seen in California before, and Seagull was not yet of vagrant-chasing age when that happened (nor did he have a driver’s license). As he snapped out of his initial sock, he let the old bird juices flow back into his brain. The gears began to turn. After taking in the staggering significance of this bird being in California, it dawned on him that he could actually look at with his own eyes. He began his plan…”It was already seen this morning…I have tickets to see Billy Bragg tomorrow night…if it sticks tomorrow, I’ll go the next day”.
And so it happened, two days later, at 6:00 AM he found himself in the car with the birder called Handsome Dan, careening down Highway 101. They made it to the beach after 4 hours, where a large crowd of birders was assembled next to a dry and crusty sea lion carcass. This had been the bird’s favorite place to eat, and the internet was awash with disgustingly good pictures of this incredibly approachable bird. “It was just here”, said a smug birder. “Just hang out and it will be back”.
The bird that changed everything. Photo by Brad Schram.
And so we waited. And waited. And waited. Hours passed, but they seemed like days. We walked up the beach and down the beach, to and from the carcass. We waited until the sun set. And then it rained on us. A lot. Seagull’s heart filled with darkness. Dan could no longer form coherent sentences, instead mumbling about treachery, failure, and something called “catatonic depression”.
They were wrecked. Dan was inconsolable. “I’ve never felt this empty in my life”, he said between sobs. “I don’t remember what happiness is like”. To try to cheer him up, Seagull told him they could spend the night in town and try again in the morning.
So they called all of their area friends and family, trying to find some couches to crash on for the night. This was a mistake. Friends openly mocked Seagull and Dan, and called them failures. Dan’s uncle went so far as to disown him over the phone, and his cousin pretended not to know him. “Hang in their buddy”, Seagull told him. “We can get a motel. We don’t want to owe anything to any of these awful people anyway. These are the same sort of bastards that have tried to destroy birders for hundreds of years. They laughed at Audubon and said Peterson was a fraud, but look at them now”. Seagull’s words had no effect though…he could see the light in Dan’s eyes was already gone.
Ivory Gulls are addicted to blood. Too bad Seagull and Dan didn’t see this. Photo by Mike Stensvold.
After their failure in San Luis Obispo, they lurked back to Arroyo Grande in the rain. They arrived at a motel near the beach. As Seagull was about to enter the lobby a small, concerned-looking man dashed outside and went across the street. A number of police cruisers were assembled in the parking lot there, lights flashing. On the ground was a bedraggled, very aggravated shirtless man who appeared to be getting repeatedly tasered as he lay face down in a puddle. The cops kind of stood there awkwardly around him, knowing they had an audience and were seemingly confused about what to do next. The guy in the puddle was clearly a major aficionado of some sort of methanphetamine, but he probably did not require tasing while lying in a puddle. During a rainstorm. With the motel manager nowhere to be found, Seagull and Dan retreated to a nearby liquor store, where they were treated to the spectacle of a middle age man getting extremely agitated about his large stack of pornography not being rung up properly.
These were dark times indeed. Finally they found a motel with an acceptable veneer of normalcy, and called it a night.
A siege of the now-infamous sea lion carcass the next morning produced nothing. It was time to accept defeat.
To grasp the depth of their failure, you must be a full-blown bird addict. An Ivory Gull is a bird that may never show up in California in their lifetimes, and Seagull and Dan knew they would never have the means to casually drop a couple thousand bucks to go find an Ivory Gull where they actually belong. Who wants to go to Newfoundland in January anyways? This may have been there one and only chance.
On the sad return trip to San Francisco, they managed to lock down a Nelson’s Sparrow in Morro Bay, but they knew, deep in their hate-filled hearts, that things would never be the same…
Tennessee Williams once said something along the lines of “Success and failure are equally disastrous”…but you and I know better.