Words On Birds by Steve Grinley

Local Club Travels Far for Rare Gull
November 23, 2013
By Steve Grinley

     If you visit the Mass Audubon Joppa Flats Education Center in Newburyport, there is a story board about the bird that put Newburyport on the map of great places to go birding. If you push a button, a national news NBC broadcast by Richard Hunt comes on the screen and describes the fervor over the Ross’ Gull that was found in and around Newburyport Harbor in the winter of 1975. Hundreds of birders from all over the country came to see this small, rare gull from Siberia and the Arctic. 

     I was lucky enough to see that bird, as it did stay for several months. But birders who started birding in the past couple of decades would need to go to northern Alaska in autumn to try to catch a glimpse of this bird in migration. So when word went out two weeks ago that a Ross’ Gull was found near Montreal, interest stirred anew.

     I was scheduled to lead a “Chasing Rarities” trip last Saturday for the Brookline Bird Club as part of a Big Year for their 100th year celebration. Though this big year (highest number of species) was concentrating on the Massachusetts list, it also included club trips outside of the state. Since there weren’t any rarities reported to chase in the state, I decided to take my trip to Montreal, where many could see a “life bird.”

     Five of us left Cambridge at 6:30 am and met five others at the Park & Ride in Salem, New Hampshire. Our plan was to try to be in Chambly, Quebec around 1 pm, spend a few hours with the bird if we were lucky enough to see it, and drive home the same evening. We were all prepared to stay overnight, if necessary, if we didn’t see the bird on Saturday. The bird had been seen every day since the prior Saturday when it was first discovered. It was found in the river near Fort Chambly and was seen early morning and late in the afternoons there. Its midday haunt wasn’t discovered until a few days later when it was found in the ponds of a nearby waste water treatment facility. Reports from other birders who had gone to see it were tales of freezing cold and windy conditions. 

     Last Saturday, the temperatures had moderated. Our long five to six hour drive was uneventful with just roadside crows, ravens and blue jays adding to the scenic drive through New Hampshire and Vermont. I did catch a glimpse of an adult bald eagle perched next to a river along Route 89 in Vermont. The weather started out overcast, but the sun came out half way there and temperatures were close to fifty with no wind by the time we arrived in Canada.

    We went straight to the treatment plant and joined about thirty or more other birds. Most were locals, but we recognized a few Massachusetts birders with them. The gull was seen about 15 minutes before we arrived, but it preferred to stay in the third pond where it was mostly out of sight. The only vantage point open to the public gave a clear view of the first pond, where lots of Bonaparte’s and ring-billed gulls were feeding, but not of the other three ponds where gulls were flying in and out..

     Patience prevailed, however, as the bird was spotted flying around the third pond, lifting only briefly above the embankment for a few to catch a glimpse. Then it was seen leaving the pond, taking to the air and heading in the direction of the river. Some had good looks, but those of us at the further end of the long line of birders didn’t hear that the bird was in the air and missed it almost completely.

     Our Montreal friends, Francois and Leah, took us over to the Marina near the fort, a ten minute drive, for a view of the river. It wasn’t long before the bird was spotted quite far out in the river, near a few ring-billed gulls. It flew short distances a couple of times, but then it rose up and flew directly toward us. The pink hue on the breast was remarkable as the sun shone on it during its approach. It put down in the water just a couple of hundred yards out, and we all had excellent scope views! After about twenty minutes the gull lifted off again, this time flying almost directly over us, providing us all close diagnostic views of every field mark.

     Back to the treatment plant we went, this time the bird had landed in the first pond and everyone had excellent close views in binoculars and scopes. The bird was studied for almost an hour, accompanied by the clicking of cameras like the paparazzi capturing a movie star. I even got a short video on my iPhone, through my scope, of this handsome gull feeding on the water. Just awesome!

     We finally left this rare visitor and headed out to return home that evening. The Ross’ gull was a life bird for eight of the ten participants on our trip. It was likely a new bird for most of the people who have gone to see. We traveled 600 miles in 15 1/2 hours and it was well worth the trip. It is truly a rarity for the Club, which had probably only recorded that one other Ross’ gull in Newburyport in 1975.

Steve Grinley
Bird Watcher’s Supply & Gift
Route 1 Traffic Circle
194 Route 1
Newburyport, MA 01950
Celebrating 2
4 years of service to the birding community! 
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