Chrissy Guarino is a birder’s birder. In using that term I mean that not only does she have the requisite skills in terms of identifying avians but that she also brings a certain joy to birding that sometimes is in short supply on those long hard slogs that may or may not have a really cool bird at the end. This is the second time she has contributed her writings for Welcome Wednesday and this time, instead of having a bird in the hand, she drove a great distance to try and track down the elusive Ross’s Gull that has been seen off and on at Niagara Falls, New York. Enjoy!
I usually don’t chase birds unless they’re fairly close (two hours drive or less) and I have a pretty good shot at getting them. I recently chased the Scott’s Oriole in Union Square Park for the following reasons: it was close (New York City is two hours from me), some friends were going and offered to drive, it was a New York State first, and I thought it was a life bird! Well, the only part that turned out to not be a good reason was the last part – I had actually seen one in Arizona, but I forgot. This oriole was perhaps the easiest rarity I’ve chased. It was in a tiny city park and it was depending on a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker to drill wells in some Holly Trees so it could eat the sap. The bird was found within five minutes of me arriving at the park, we got excellent looks, those who wanted pictures took them, and we were off to see the Townsend’s Solitaire a little ways out on Long Island. Perfect!
The Ross’s Gull that turned up in Niagara Falls was another story. Of course, it’s a Ross’s Gull, so exceptions must be made. When a Ross’s Gull turned up near Newburyport, Massachusetts in the 1970’s it was the “Bird of the Century”. The Niagara Falls bird is one of the few eastern US sightings since that time, and many people were itching to see it. Some people had already gotten great looks and photos but the bird was difficult to track down. The weather in the Niagara Falls region had been abysmal just days earlier and the river was far icier than it should have been, and conditions for feeding gulls were changing daily, if not hourly.
It was six hours away, not a guaranteed tick, and I was having a hard time finding people to go with me to help defray expenses. Finally a birder from Long Island decided to go up with me (he had dipped on the bird a few days earlier and wanted another shot). It was Friday morning and some bad weather was heading in. Originally we were planning to leave after my workday and arrive in Niagara Falls around 10 PM. As luck would have it, I had a snow day (excellent perk of being a teacher) and we were off mid morning. We hit a few miles of abysmal road conditions, with multiple cars off in roadside ditches but I just took it slow and we made it up to the Falls in seven plus hours. Not bad. We had a leisurely dinner, found some dirt-cheap hotel rooms (no one goes to western New York in the winter unless absolutely necessary) and rested up for our big day.
We were on Goat Island (a good viewing spot for the bird) before daybreak on Saturday. I think we were the first birders on the island. A car-full from Michigan arrived shortly after. The only report we had from the previous day was that two people had looked in the afternoon unsuccessfully. Later we would learn that someone had seen it Friday morning and that the weather had prevented others from looking. Shortly after dawn birders began streaming out of the various parking lots, frantically asking others if the bird had been seen and exchanging cell numbers like mad.
Birders were spread out all over tiny Goat Island, desperately searching for the beautiful adult Ross’s Gull and the hours ticked by with no success. Every time someone’s cell phone rang, people would become hopeful, eavesdropping on conversations, hoping to hear that the bird had been located, poised to pick up their scopes and run or drive to the magic spot. Moments later, they would realize the call wasn’t what they’d hoped, and they’d turn dejectedly back to their scopes and the fruitless scans of thousands of gulls.
My chase partner and I walked up and down that island countless times, looking at every gull and blob of ice, trying to see the tiny black bill and thin black crescent behind the eye of the Ross’s Gull. Even my two life birds (Little Gull and Thayer’s Gull) of the day weren’t enough to cheer me up. By 4 PM we were ready to pack it in and head back downstate. We slowly packed our things in the car and went to get a bite to eat before getting on our way. While at a pizza joint waiting for our food, my phone rang and it was one of the birders from Michigan. I panicked and ran to the vestibule so I could hear him clearly. With dark approaching I wanted to hear every word in case he had the bird. Heart pounding, I listened to what he had to say. But alas, all he wanted was directions to the Black-headed Gull that was being seen nearby. I sighed and went back to my mediocre meal, ready to leave that place.
No one saw the Ross’s Gull that day, and many of the birders stayed over another night to continue the search. I wish them luck, but I am done with that bird. I doubt I’ll be able to get the time to go back for it if it is found again. My chase partner and I tried to keep our spirits up on the long drive home and talk turned to our many exciting birding adventures. We shared stories of the great places we’ve been and the many places we plan to go and that made the drive go quickly. In the end, I’m glad I tried for that bird, and having missed it, well, that’s just the way it goes. Maybe the next Ross’s Gull will turn up within the next 25 or so years and I look forward to chasing that one too.
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Chrissy – Wonderful recounting of your chase, though I wish the target bird made an appearance. I really enjoyed reading your post since I spent that day on Goat Island, too. Hearing several, “This is my 4th Ross’s chase and I’ve never found it” comments reinforced that this is not an easy bird in the Lower 48. That, and the 9 gull species that I did see, made me feel a little better, it was only my first chase. Can’t wait for the next one!