Sunday, March 18, 2018

Ross's Rage

16 years ago I picked up a bird book and started looking at birds. Fall after fall I biked to Pt. Edward for hopes of a glimpse of a Sabine's Gull or Jaeger. But there is one ringed beauty that it rules them all and that is the legendary Ross's Gull. Discovered in 1905 by a Russian traveling judge, it is named after legendary arctic explorer James Ross. As far as I know the only place to reliably see them aside from the remote high arctic breeding grounds in eastern Siberia and Nunavut is Barrow, Alaska where they fly past in large numbers in fall. Here is a little excerpt from a study 6 years ago:

"The gulls ranged widely after breeding. One, an adult female tracked by satellite, flew to Wrangel Island, in the East Siberian Sea, and back over 27 days in June and July 2012, a round trip of 7,023 kilometers (4,364 miles). The gull wandered more than 40,000 kilometers (24,855 miles) in a year yet never went south of 50°N."


Never in my 16 years of birding have I had a shot at one...until now. Ironically, the career that pulled me away from birding including the 1-year birding drought of 2014-2015, has brought me within 150 miles of one of a Ross's. In my 2.5 years of teaching in England I've not gone on a single twitch even though this place is the world capital of twitching. Check out this:

Twitchers in action (not sure about where this is from)
With one month left until my resignation date, I started paying more attention to the ebird alerts which I had ignored for most of my time here due to all-consuming work. However, on Sunday night, I saw an email the word Ross's Gull. It turned out it was found on Wednesday but nobody ebirded it until the Sunday so it was too late! The weekend was done and I was back to work.

I considered the possibility of contracting acute twitcheritis but my personal professional work ethic would not allow it. I would just have to suck it up and hope for it to stay until the weekend. Each day I  tortured myself with stupidly perfect photos of a PERFECT Ross's Gull as it perched in front of a Visitors' Centre. On Wednesday, a blizzard hit the whole country and our building had to shut at 1:30 due to a gas failure! However, it was a 3 hour drive so it would be dark when I got there. So close! Then at 6 pm the boss sent out a memo that we would have a snow day on Thursday. HALLELUJIAH! A miracle. I booked the car at enterprise and was there to pick it up at 8am. The gull was seen Wednesday night so I had high hopes. From 11:30 'til sunset I waited at the Visitors' Centre for the bird. Thank God I was indoors because the conditions were arctic: howling gales and -10C. Birds were literally dropping dead. This gull had icicles hanging off its front end:

Earlier, a crow had walked up to a roosting black-headed gull and pecked it to death. Some of the birds huddled in front of the VC door to escape the fierce wind. Birds were clearly being displaced from other areas as there was a flow species flying overhead and briefly stopping by: Black-tailed and Bar-tailed Godwit, Fieldfare, Lapwings, Golden Plovers, Ruff, Snipe and many gulls.

I chanced upon a Jack Snipe in the scope which fluttered in place for a perfect view of this secretive species. Jack Snipe is a shorter-billed, more fluttery and spastic counterpart of Common and merely winters in Britain. It helped kill the time.

Under the boardwalk, a stout Water Rail spear-fished tiny minnows in the gaps of among the ice and reeds.

As it got dark, a last, desperate attempt at Weymouth Bay only served to freeze my hands completely through my gloves. I could barely identify a black-headed through the thick sideways snowfall. A more real concern was how I was going to make it back to work the next day. I had opted for the rental car vs train because I'd head about trains getting cancelled and leaving you stranded at the other end - I did not want this to happen to me. However, it almost did. The snow was coming down so hard it had the whole southwest in a "red alert" which is the highest weather alert, according to the radio, and poses "danger to life." My front-wheel drive C4 cactus with all-seasons was NOT up for the challenge! Just after 6, the highway was shut down and a barricade put in place, and the officer told me to wait until it gets cleared by the ploughs. So I parked in front of the on-ramp and tuckered in for the night, hoping to make it into work the next day. An ambulance and police car drove over the barricade, then returned 30 minutes later - not a good sign! Earlier I'd seen a car flipped on its side (that morning when conditions were less bad!) - also not good!

At 12:30 I woke up and noticed the barrier had been cleared (the sign and lights had blown away) but the road was salted, so I cautiously proceeded. Having stopped for a one-hour nap, I got home at 7:30, showered, returned the car and was at work by 8:09. Phew! Fortunately, years 7-10 lessons were cancelled for the day so I got to catch up on work!

I had accepted that this bird was definitely gone with the storm when unexpectedly on Saturday evening it Lazarussed itself up. DESTINY - I called Ramata and we made our game plan. There were more obstacles. For one, the train said it would take over 8 hours so that was out. Second, Sunday is the worst day to rent a car - Enterprise was closed, Sixt opened late. Our cunning plan was to train to Gatwick airport, where rental places have long hours. Our usual places had hiked their rates or were sold out (due to the weekend). So we went with a sketchier place called Thrifty's which was off terminal so required a walk. The train to the airport was cancelled due to engineering works so it was a journey by bus just go get there, followed by a walk off the terminal. The decisive moment was when I had to produce two pieces of mail (I shit you not) as proof of address PLUS one had to be a bank statement maximum 8 weeks old. Well, I had one on my phone but it was 4 months old. Our strategy was to act all super friendly and bubbly and make some jokes then confidently present our paperwork/my bank statement on my phone (which was quite small on the screen) to show we were all prepared and organised, although I think my hand was trembling a little with nerves. I was really worried they would screw us over but she glanced at the phone for only a couple seconds and then we were good to go. The key is CONFIDENCE. Plus, they upgraded us to an Mini Sport which is a hell of a car!! Too bad there were like 100 speed cameras which restricted the Minis performance.

With 45 minutes to the destination, we got an alert that the Ross's was spotted at the VC. We got there as fast as we could but alas it was gone, so we had to wait and just be optimistic. It was a beautiful day with Mediterranean Gulls sparkling in the midday sun - a far cry from Thursday's arctic blizzard.

Suddenly, all the birders got alerts that it was spotted at a nearby wetland (Lodmoor) and we all bolted for our cars like LeMans drivers and emptied the parking lot with screeching tires.

Amidst the confusion, I started following the wrong silver cars. They seemed in quite a hurry, but it was not to see a gull but to drop off their recycling at the recycling depot. I foolishly tailed them into a trap - we were stuck in a one-way situation behind all these people dropping off their garbage. I rolled partly onto the curb to get around these jokers and back onto the correct road. Then we ran across the road (the wrong way) and I slipped on some algae, nearly smashing my lens. Finally, we found all the birders and secured crippling views of a PERFECT Ross's Gull. It was beautiful and pure white like an angel. Thank God, because soon a peregrine sent the whole flock into flight and we never saw it again. "I think it's been spotted at the recycling depot" heckled one birder, which produced a burst of laughter from all present. Being the butt-end of his joke was a price I was more than willing to pay.

With returning the car, the rail replacement bus, etc. it took us 6 hours to get back to my place. It was midnight and we were thoroughly exhausted from the twitch but it will rank among my most epic bird chases of all time (a true authentic twitch on British soil) fraught with logistical challenges including the very forces of nature itself.

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