Laura Erickson's For the Birds

Friday, January 16, 2015

Wild Gull Chase: No Show

My trusty Golden Guide, which made me lust to see an Ivory Gull.
On Friday, January 2, there was a post on the ABA Rare Bird Alert on Facebook that an adult Ivory Gull had been seen down in Quincy, Illinois, over 650 miles away. I had just had some basal cell carcinomas removed from my face and plastic surgery to close the wounds a few days before, and couldn’t go anywhere while the stitches were still in, and then wasn’t supposed to be spending time in the cold or sun for a few weeks. I consoled myself with the thought that it probably would have moved on by the next day anyway. But it didn’t. Hour after hour throughout the weekend, and then every day the following week, people added photos and jubilant posts to the rare bird alert. By Friday the ninth, my frustration level was at the boiling point.

Only two weeks earlier I’d chosen not to drive a mere 50 miles from New York City to see two potential lifers—Pink-footed and Barnacle Geese—and didn't feel the least bit cranky or deprived about them. What was the difference? 

I’d been fixated on the Ivory Gull since first looking through my field guides in 1974. The pristine whiteness of the plumage, contrasting beautifully with the black legs and feet, the dark eye ringed with red in breeding plumage, and the improbably yellow-tipped beak were cosmically appealing to my eyes. Most of these birds never move south of the Arctic Circle, yet one or two individuals may wander south to show up in the US like unexpected grace notes. Their mysterious habits and allure somehow filled me with a deep longing from the time I started birding. Seeing an Ivory Gull would be far, far from a mere entry on my lifelist. It would be experiencing genuine magic. And throughout the week, as I read Facebook posts by more and more people experiencing that magic, I was feeling increasingly trapped and frustrated.

Then on Friday afternoon, one of my birding acquaintances from the Twin Cities, Tony Lau, posted on the Minnesota birding page that he was interested in driving down to Quincy at about 5 o’clock the next morning, and wondered if anyone wanted to carpool. He was hoping to make the trip in one day. Even as I impulsively emailed him right back, my brain was calculating the 155 miles in my car to Otsego—I’d have to leave by 2:30 to get to his place in time for us to start out on the 532 mile trip to Quincy. Tony’s round trip would be 1064 miles—a long day not even counting birding time. And my trip would be 1374 miles. The longest “chase” I’ve ever made for a single rare bird before this was to East Grand Forks in 1988 to see a Brambling that had turned up at a feeder—that trip was about 265 miles each way, with four of us carpooling. I’d not have driven to Quincy, Illinois, to see a Brambling. But this—this was an Ivory Gull.

I have a personal rule about chasing rare birds—I hardly ever do it at all, but when I do, I need to be sure the experience of traveling and looking for the bird will be reasonably satisfying even if I don’t see it. It’s always a crapshoot—if you absolutely must see a particular bird, you’re wisest visiting a zoo or museum. The hope of seeing a new bird provides the motivation to get going, but if that hope morphs into need or expectation, you’re doomed. The delight of finding it is lost when you expect it, and the disappointment if you miss it is worse. Some birders do have a sense of entitlement about seeing every good bird, but most of us accept the risks of chasing like any good poker player. And if you like seeing all the other birds along the way, you win either way.

From the start, this particular chase looked like a good idea. Tony’s a nice guy, so I knew I’d be in good company, and since it was only the second week in January, I knew I’d be seeing plenty of new birds for my 2015 list, including some I’d not likely see for months in northern Minnesota. Because we came up with this plan late Friday afternoon, I didn’t have time to think much about it before heading to bed early, my alarm clock set for 2 am.
My drive to the Cities in the dark was uneventful, and utterly devoid of birdlife. When Tony and I got on the road just after 5, it was still too dark to see any birds until we’d reached the Iowa border. We saw a flock of Snow Buntings mixed with other birds—either longspurs or larks, but I didn’t get a long enough look to be sure. We saw lots and lots of Bald Eagles, and our first American Kestrel, too—we added another in Missouri. I was trying not to jinx us by checking Facebook on my phone, but when I finally checked the postings at mid-morning, the news wasn’t good—no one had found it yet, though at least 200 birders from all over the country were searching.

Eurasian Tree Sparrow
My first Illinois Eurasian Tree Sparrow!
We made it to Quincy around noon, and birded every spot we’d read about, checking Facebook every few minutes to see if anyone else had found it. At one spot by a marina on a small island where people were staring out so hopefully, we took a short walk to a brushy area where we saw White-throated, Fox, and Song Sparrows, along with several unexpected Eurasian Tree Sparrows. I was thrilled—that was the first time I'd ever seen them in Illinois. We kept scanning every gull, and going back to good spots, and checking Facebook in case anyone else had seen it, but no luck. Birders had seen the last of the Quincy, Illinois, Ivory Gull the day before. We had dinner before we cut out, and drove and drove and drove back to Tony’s place, getting there just after 2 am. I slept on his sofa and drove the rest of the way home Sunday morning, adding a pheasant and a couple of Rough-legged Hawks to my year list on the drive. 

In one day I’d more than doubled my 2015 list, added Eurasian Tree Sparrow to my Illinois list, and spent several hours in exactly the places where for over a week an Ivory Gull had flown and rested and fed. During those few hours, I may have been breathing in molecules of air that that Ivory Gull had breathed out. If I’m lucky, some day I’ll have another chance to chase another Ivory Gull. But I’m sure glad I at least tried to see this one.