Inspired by the Ross’s Gull currently causing panic in upstate New York, here’s a bit about why this particular species embodies all there is about seeing something magical.
When I was young, long before my teens, the only bird magazine anyone could get over the counter in the UK was the Encyclopedia of Birds; essentially a month-by-month collectable fieldguide, rather than an attractive coffee-table magazine. Each month, the column written by well-known British ornithologist John Gooders was always a treat to read, and a refreshing intro to the trite fieldguide text which followed. To a young impressionable mind, his column always conjured up evocative images of birds and birdwatching both in the UK and abroad.
One particular story always sticks in my mind.
In one particular column, Gooders wrote of the day he had declined a trip to accompany some friends to see an Ivory Gull at Tyneside in the north-east of England. He explained how he had regretted not joining them on that trip after they made an unexpected discovery. They had failed to see the Ivory Gull, but while searching through the endless flocks of gulls, they had found an even rarer and much more mythical species – a Ross’s Gull. Back in the 70s, this gull from the desolate Arctic was much sought after by the British twitching fraternity. Ross’s Gull, as well as other charismatic Arctic species, have always held a special appeal for birders because their occurrences in the UK are less predictable than vagrants from European or Siberian latitudes.
Ross’s Gull was discovered and named after the Arctic and Antarctic explorer, Admiral Sir James Ross. For many years, the breeding grounds of this mysterious gull remained unknown. They were finally discovered nesting in the Kolyma River area in north-eastern Siberia.
Ross’s Gulls however, were a Will-O-the-Wisp, an almost surreal phantom that remained the ultimate prize among the high Arctic denizens that reached our shores.
From the moment I read his story, I longed for the day when I would see a Ross’s Gull; However, being eleven years old, that day seemed all too far away.
Fast forward three years. One February day in 1983, while out birding at my local reservoir, I met another young ‘local-patcher’ named Barry Worsick. We talked, and, after exchanging phone numbers, he invited me out on a car trip the next time “something good” turned up. By sheer coincidence, the phone rang that very same night. Barry’s voice on the other end hinted that “something good” had turned up. He asked, “Do you wanna go see a Ross’s Gull at Filey Brigg tomorrow?” Did I want to go and see a Ross’s Gull at Filey Brigg?! Does the Pope go to mass?!!
My mum agreed to cough up my part of the petrol money which at nearly $4 a gallon puts excessive birding out of reach of the average, destitute fourteen-year-old British lister.
She didn’t seem too worried that I was going to be picked up by a carload of adult men she had never met – at two in the morning – and taken to a place she never knew existed to see a bird she had never heard of. I guess things were different back then!
The night was restless; the excitement of chasing a bird I had only dreamed of was not conducive to sleep. At 4am, a beep of the horn announced my ride was here and I was bundled into the backseat of driver Chris Fogg’s, Datsun Cherry. With Barry in front, I was sandwiched in between Dave “Jacko” Jackson and John Gilligan. I was regaled by tales of recent birds they had seen I had never heard of; Little Bunting at Heswall, Green Heron at Thorngumblad, Little Whimbrel at Sker Point and the infamous “Felixstowe” Stint. As we journeyed through the rolling hills of the Yorkshire Dales in the early hours of 17th February 1983, the collective enthusiasm was heady and pervasive. I didn’t know it then, but I would spend many enjoyable years travelling with these guys! We arrived at the site just before sunrise. In the pre-dawn gloom, suspicious looking figures were milling about and searching around in their cars for tripods and telescopes. It seemed to me to be an almost clandestine operation. Anywhere else, at an hour that Wee Willie Winkie would eschew, these suspicious looking figures would undoubtedly have had their collars felt by the long arm of the law.
Filey Brigg is a steep, rocky promontory jutting out a half-mile into the North Sea. This area has long been popular with birders for migrants and the rocks below are a favorite high-tide roost for gulls, terns and shorebirds.
Looking down from the top of the Brigg out over Filey Bay, I saw that a veritable football crowd had assembled down on the rocks. I had never seen so many tripods and telescopes! Having executed the steep descent to the base of the Brigg, we skirted over the slippery rocks to take up our position strung out in a line along the water’s edge. Considering the amount of people present it was deathly quiet – the tension of anticipation was thick.
Suddenly, to my left came a muffled, but excited shout, “There it is!!”
A tremor of panic swept through the crowd; the dead came to life, people slipped, tripods clattered to the ground and people gravitated towards the source of the outburst.
“Where? Where? Where is it? For God’s sake, someone give directions, !*&!!@*56!! DIRECTIONS!!”, screamed one birder.
“O.K! See those gulls out there…”
“ Gulls, there are bloody hundreds of gulls out there, which ones?!”
“ Alright, forget that then.. Umm! See the yacht club in the distance, its flying left, just…going.. past..it ..now!”
“Got it!, Got it!! Got it!!! What a crippler!”
Obscured by the line of birders enjoying the bird to my left, I just caught a glimpse of a wedge-shaped tail vanishing into the early morning mist and was overcome by panic and frustration. Then someone proclaimed, “Here it comes again!”
This time I was ready and quickly got on the bird as it approached. It was so close that I could hardly keep my bins steady as a mixture of relief and elation washed over me. At last, here it was – my first Ross’s Gull. It was a small, dainty gull, with pointy, tern-like wings and that characteristic, cuneate shaped tail. For the next glorious hour, the Ross’s Gull paraded up and down the long line of admirers. An adult in winter plumage, it was a text-book individual. The black, stubby bill and subtle, pink flush on the underparts stood out well against the cold, grey February sky. As it flew in our direction, the birder who was standing next to me, pulled out a stale piece of bread and deftly flicked it out over the water. Simultaneously, the Ross’s Gull (which was no more than arms reach away) dropped and alighted on the water right in front of me! As it picked at the morsel of food, I couldn’t help feeling ashamed; surely this bird-among-birds deserved to be feeding on the equivalent of caviar rather than a day-old piece of Warburton’s Toastie!
Fully satisfied, we left the bird in peace and explored the rest of the Brigg.
Although their appearances in the UK have increased since the late 80s, Ross’s Gulls remain highly prized. I have seen three other Ross’s Gulls since; in 1988, a bald-looking first-winter lingered on a river estuary on the south-coast of England; in 1991, a pink-flushed adult lingered on the wind-lashed coast at Fleetwood, Lancashire; and in 2008 while visiting my folks, I connected with a spring bird at Lytham, again in Lancashire.
Strange to think that, as a teenager I could never have predicted such an occurrence so close to my childhood home. That the unthinkable can happen is a testament to the excitement of birding. Even today, when a Ross’s Gull is sighted, it brings back all of the fond memories of that exciting day, and of the acquaintances that were forged. Every time I am fortunate enough to connect with a Ross’s Gull, John Gooders’ story always comes to mind.
I hope that by now he has seen many Ross’s Gulls. If not, perhaps he could gain some solace in knowing that I am seeing them, in part, through his eyes.