Last week Wednesday was a not-so-fun day. With reports of a Black-tailed Gull in Ashtabula, Ohio, we opted to head off in the dark.
Trust me. It was totally worth it. The Black-tailed Gull is normally found in East Asia. Japan, Korea and the like. That makes it a Code 4 rarity for those of you familiar with the codes established by the American Birding Association. One was only three hours away and well worth it if it can be found.
That is a big "if"....
That is a big "if"....
Arrival in Ashtabula was shortly after sunrise. 8:30am maybe? After checking the Harbor from various locations known to local birders as the Cement Bridge, the Museum, and the Park, minutes turned to hours and by 3pm, defeat had been conceded. Damn it. Dinner at the Great Lakes Brewing Company in Cleveland helped to sooth aching morale as did the drinks at the Fort Street Brewery back in Michigan. (It was the tapping of Doug's 500th species of beer. We would not have missed that for the world!)
But as the Thanksgiving weekend moved along, reports of the gull in Ohio still came in. Granted, it was tough, but people were getting it. One common theme emerged - be on the Cement Bridge at DAWN for a gull fly-by.
So on Sunday, my alarm went off at 2:30am. With iPhone in hand, I pondered the evidence. A three-hour drive in the dark. Black-tailed Gull. Possible rain. Black-tailed Gull. 3 hours drive to get back home. Black-tailed Gull. Loss of sleep. Black-tailed Gull.
By 6:00am, I was in Ashtabula having some quick eats at Mcdonald's. By 6:30am, I was at the cement bridge. Shortly thereafter I was joined by Heather, a birder from Columbus.
By 7:15am, there was enough light to start really looking around. In ones and twos, soon to be tens and twenties and fifties, gull swarms moved off the waterfront and headed upriver. Overhead. To the right of us. To the left. Lots of sky to cover. When the sky was empty of gulls, it was worth it to check the water and land below us again. With the sun rising behind a thick wall of clouds, lighting was a nightmare - everything was so dark. As others rolled into the parking lot, more eyes contributed to the cause.
At one point, I noticed a peculiar white blob near a train. In the dim light, I came to the conclusion it was not a garbage bag (trust me - it can happen). I had Heather come back over (she had a bigger scope which would gather more light) and double check. As I peered through her scope, the bag turned its head and looked my way. Snowy Owl. Sweet. You can see it (sort of...) in the picture below. Using iPhone software, I figured this gem was about 700 yards away.
(For the record, it is turning out to be a super year for Snowy Owls. Reports are just pouring in from all the place. Snowy Owls - coming to a field near you. Or a house, light pole, tractor, barn, rocky berm, or anything else they care to stand on...)
Cool as it was, I didn't drive back to Ashtabula to see a Snowy Owl. After gawking for a few minutes, conversation went back to the gull. With already hundreds of gulls past us, many were starting to wonder if we missed it. From there, the plan would have been to exchange phone numbers, spread out and find the bird.
Of course, having spent almost all day on Wednesday with that plan, I decided that the incoming flock of gulls needed to be checked.
One bird at a time. No. No. Nope. Maybe? No. Not that one. Or that one. Ooooh. Black back. Black upper wings. White trailing edge. As it banked and sallied back and forth, the black tail was obvious. A BLACK TAIL!!!
"I got it!!!" was all I could muster. From that moment, all eyes where looking off into the distance as I called out marks on the horizon. "Moving left. I have a utility tower. It is moving left. It just dodged right but is back left and heading away. I have treetops. It just crossed a green house with white trim. It...just disappeared up the river........"
Unfortunately, not everybody got it.
Sadly, I never had a chance for a photo of any kind. To get a feel for this bird, go here, here and here. That tail. Awesome. These pics, by the way, are of the Ohio bird, not just any Black-tailed Gull.
With the key bird in the bag, and a bonus bird to boot, I opted to put in a half-effort to find the bird upriver. A couple from California missed the gull by about 30 seconds (really) but they were especially interested in seeing the Owl. After showing them what I believe is Ohio's first Snowy Owl for the 2011-12 season, I set a course for home. Rain was imminent so I didn't feel the need to linger.
Long drives after a successful chase are always shorter. By 1:10pm, I was hope. By 1:11pm, I was in bed. By 1:12pm, I was sleeping. Naps can be so good sometimes.
The Black-tailed Gull is my 656th bird (lifetime). It also happened to be my 239th bird for Ohio. The Snowy Owl was my 238th bird for the state.
#657? Who knows. Anything goes at this point!