For the Birds Radio Program: Ross's Gull
One of the biggest thrills I’ve had as a birder started by getting an evening phone call from a listener in Washburn, Wisconsin, about a Ross’s Gull in Ashland. Duck Verch, biology professor at Northland College, was out with a class when a student noticed one gull looked different from the rest. It was tiny–noticeably shammer than the Bonaparte’s Gulls it was with–and careful study showed a long, wedge-shaped tail, tiny stubby beak, and pale pink wash. There was also something hard to define but clearly different about this bird–the delicate way it moved–what birders call its jizz. Yes, this was a Ross’s Gull, a rare Siberian species never before seen in Wisconsin. I wanted to leave first thing in the morning, but I was scheduled to interview Dave Barry, one of the few people on the planet who could delay my start. But the moment we hung up, I was off with my dog Photon in hopes of seeing what will probably be my last lifer of 2001.
The first Ross’s Gull ever recorded in the United States turned up in Newburyport, Massachusetts, in 1975, and hundreds of birders throughout North America and Europe flocked there to see it, making headlines all over the country. 1975 was the year I started birding, and not only was I not yet aware of how to find rarities, I was still finding plenty of lifers right in my own backyard. After all, that was the year I first added robins and blue jays and chickadees and crows to my lifelist. Why in the world would I consider traveling to Massachusetts for a Ross’s Gull a year before I even saw a Ring-billed Gull?
But when I looked at pictures of the Ross’s Gull I got a powerful yearning to see one. The first one in Minnesota turned up at the Agassiz National Wildlife Refuge in the spring of 1984. That bird hung around from April 4 through the 14th, but at the time I had a two-year-old son and a 4-month old baby daughter, so my rarity-chasing days were on hold. The only other Ross’s Gull recorded in Minnesota was found in April 1992, at Goose Lake in Pennington county, but that bird didn’t stick around long enough to chase.
Ross’s Gulls are common nowhere on the planet, but they did become regular for a time up in Churchill, Manitoba, a regular destination for birders since Ross’s Gulls were first discovered breeding there in 1980. For several years they were predictable if not common, but in the past few years their numbers have dwindled. They’re even rare in Siberia, where the breeding grounds weren’t discovered until 1905. British author Michael Densley wrote a book about his experiences studying Ross’s Gull, including time spent alone in the Siberian Arctic, titled In Search of Ross’s Gull. ‘=
Fortunately for Wisconsin birders, the bird in Ashland was far easier to see and enjoy than most of Densley’s subjects, When I arrived at 2 pm, there were several other birders arriving, including my friend Fred Lesher, from Lacrosse. We went down to Fish Creek and searched through the Ring-billed and Bonaparte’s Gulls for one who looked different, and voila! As exciting as it was to have a lifer-the 423rd new bird for me in 2001–the bird’s sheer beauty far outstripped its numerical value. Here on the Great Lakes, where gulls are everywhere, this creature seemed from a different world–ethereal and graceful as a fairy princess.
It may be a while before I see another lifer so close to home. But this lovely vision made an unexpected and lovely final chapter to a year of birding that began in Costa Rica and continued into Florida, California, Alaska, and Trinidad. I can’t afford another year like this one for a long time, but memories of this one, from tropical start to a close-to-home finish , will be with me as long as I live, giving my heart a glow as rosy as the feathers of this beautiful visitor from afar.