I’m generally not a twitcher. It’s only on very rare occasions that I chase rarities. I’m too much of a tightwad to travel too far unless the odds of seeing the target are really high, and I often have work or social obligations that prevent me from being too spontaneous.
A kelp gull—extremely rare in the U.S.—has been fairly regular two hours north of me (near Akron, Ohio; I’m in Marietta, Ohio), and I tried to deflect my eyes each time a report of it came across the Ohio-birds email list. It was seen primarily before first light and just at dusk, and I’m a working girl, so it would have to be on a free weekend if I were to chase it, and I didn’t have any of those leading into the 2015 holidays.
But I was free January 1, and I do enjoy starting each year as birdfully as possible. Most commonly, I undertake a Big Day, attempting to see as many species as I can on the first day of a new year. But for 2016, my Bird Watcher’s Digest colleague and birding pal Kyle Carlsen and I decided to do something different: A day of racking up rarities. For me, such a chase could be January 1, or not likely this winter.
We left at 5:30 a.m. on New Year’s Day with several targets. First on the list and closest, was the kelp gull. We arrived at Springfield Lake, natural glacial lake in a residential area, before sunrise, but there was only one birder present, scoping out the couple-hundred-or-so gulls on the lake. That didn’t bode well. He told us the kelp hadn’t roosted there on the last night of 2015, or at least no one had seen it that evening or on the first day of 2016. Bummer.
But there was an extra-dark gull out on the lake amid the ring-bills and handful of herrings. It was a lesser black-billed gull, my first lifer of the day! It’s a bit embarrassing that I hadn’t seen that species earlier in my several decades of birding. It’s a European species, but not all that rare along the East Coast and inland lakes and rivers.
We headed west to Medina, where a brambling had been a regular at a residential bird feeder on a relatively rural road for several weeks. It was easy to find the spot: About 30 people with scopes, binoculars, and cameras were lined up and staring at a house across the street. We joined the line, and stood, patiently and quietly, for about an hour. We enjoyed lots of finches and woodpeckers—all the usual suspects—and a leucistic junco. Its head was mostly white with a smattering of gray freckles. Cute!
Then someone said in a calm, clear, not-too-loud voice, “It’s in the tree in the back. Moving forward. There.” The crowd was silent for a few seconds as the brambling, a rare vagrant from Europe and East Asia, landed on the ground beneath the platform feeder, joining regulars. There were a few gasps and quiet but enthusiastic “Yippee!”s. I may have been among the guilty. It hopped to a branch beside the feeder, and generally behaved like a common yardbird for about five minutes before it took off and got lost in the trees and field behind the house. Then we birders made noise! We were all very happy as we walked down the hill to our vehicles, passing other birders on their way to take our place, hopes high. What a rewarding experience, and what a beautiful finch! I never dreamed I’d get that species on my North America list, even if it is in my field guide.
We headed north, to Cleveland and the shore of Lake Erie. Two rarities were reported at Wendy Park, where we found no birders, but saw thousands and thousands of gulls, mostly bonies, perched on the empty boat slips and swimming in the sheltered bay. Oh man. We needed to pick out two birds from thousands? But no birders present usually indicates no rarities. Maybe we were at the wrong space. We drove around a bit and found a full parking lot in an out-of-the-way corner of the park on a blustery, cold, gray, day. Bingo! This is where we want to be! We walked out to Whiskey Island, site of an old Coast Guard station, to find a throng of chilly birders, faces into the wind, staring at, honestly, 10,000 gulls. We’re supposed to find one black-headed gull and one little gull?
Both of these gulls are also Eurasian species. In Ohio, black-headed has turned up only at Lake Erie. More common than the kelp gull, it would still be a great addition to my list—as would little gull. True to its name, it is the smallest gull in the world. It ought to stand out from the crowd simply because of its diminutive size, but as an added ID bonus, its wings are very dark underneath. The black-headed looks a lot like Boneparte’s, but is bigger, has a red bill, and its primaries are dark underneath. So, I’d be looking for two birds with dark under-wings.
Two of the area’s best gull-watchers were there, and they’d been enjoying these rarities—and helping other birders see them—for several days. I asked Chuck Sluzarckyk how it would be possible to pick out these two. “You’ll know. You’ll see them,” he said with a confidence I found mystifying.
We waited. We watched. I studied bonies like I had never studied bonies before. I shivered. We all shivered. Soon, someone yelled “There! The little! Flying left!” And so it was: a small gull with very dark under-wings. I was thrilled that, indeed, I did see it. I did recognize it. Three lifers in one day! That hasn’t happened to me in North America in a very long time.
Now what about the black-headed? It wasn’t long before someone—maybe it was Jen Brumfield—shouted: “Over there, flying toward us! Above the red sign! Headed right at us!” Oh yeah! Another darker-winged-than-bonie gull, sticking out like a sore thumb. Kyle was farther out on the windy abutment and even saw its red bill as it buzzed the point. I was content with the darker under-wings—not as dark as the little, but clearly different from the bonies. Four!
We decided to swing by nearby Burke Airport, where snowy owls had been reported. Even before we got out of the car, a familiar birder told us one was visible from inside the terminal. So we birded in heated comfort through a window. Right in front of us (well, 100 yards or so away), perched like a sentinel was a snowy owl. To its left, a harrier skimmed the grassy islands between runways. And that dark shape waaay over there turned into a peregrine! None of the three was a lifer for us, but still great birds for a new year list. Greater black-backed gulls flew along the breakwater behind the airport.
We continued east along the lakeshore to Sim’s Park in Euclid, hoping for the female king eider (a queen eider, then?) that had been far off shore for several days. King eider is an Arctic species that winters along the East Coast, and is a very rare visitor to Ohio. Sim’s Park appears to be a former mansion turned into a public space, with a grassy yard around it, on the bank above Lake Erie.
Score! The female king eider is much less spectacular than the beautiful, funky-billed male, but it still counts on my list! It was so blustery, though, and the murky surf was rough, so the distant duck appeared and disappeared behind waves, and occasionally dove. It was near a flock of goldeneyes, and was easy to pick out, although the viewing conditions were far from ideal.
Then I saw the three black scoters nearby! Two more lifers at this stop! Black scoter is another not-so-rare species I should have picked up somewhere, sometime, but never did. Shrug. I was up to six lifers! No doubt, this has been my birdiest New Year’s Day in 30-some years of birding.
But we weren’t done yet. A long-tailed duck had been reported at The Wilds, spitting distance from our direct route home. The Wilds is a vast reclaimed strip mine area, owned by Columbus Zoo, and used as a rare and endangered wildlife breeding center. Long-tailed duck might turn up on the banks of the Ohio River close to home in the winter, but we can’t count on it, so it seemed like a good idea to swing by. We went to where it was reported, and there it was. Piece of cake. Kyle also noticed a greater white-fronted goose among a flock of Canadas on the far hillside. Good eye, Kyle! Neither of these birds were lifers for either of us, but both were great additions to our year lists.
Dusk was falling fast. As we headed out, we spotted nine swans on a lake below the ridge-top road. Four were big; five were much smaller; two of each were pale; the remainder were dark. Trumpeters (resident at The Wilds) and tundras! Tundra swan, my seventh lifer! Again, it’s a species that should have been on my list decades ago, but wasn’t. It is now.
In one day, I tallied 45 species. Kyle had 47. Our lists did not include Carolina chickadee or song sparrow, but did include seven species I had never seen before, plus several others I may not see again for a very long time.
What a day. What a great start to a new year. What a great hobby.
About the Author
Dawn Hewitt is the managing editor for Bird Watcher's Digest and Watching Backyard Birds. She has been watching birds since 1978, and wrote a weekly birding column for The Herald Times, a daily newspaper in Bloomington, Indiana, for 11 years.