Tuesday 24 February 2009

A new way Gulls mess up my mind

The grandeur of Northern Gulls is mostly secluded from even the alert and willing observer by geographical constrains, in particular a lack of distributional overlap. Quite apart from their grace by plumage and motion which in themselves render these creatures an aura of magnificense, the intense scarcity of observation possibilities in a birder's life alone places Ross's and Ivory Gull firmly within the top ten of any birder's most desired species.

Those birds are indeed more than hard to come by.
The intrepit North American birder can either visit Alaska in late summer for Ross's and Newfoundland in winter for Ivory, or hope for an odd chance of seeing both birds as vagrants in the lower 48 at some stage in their life, however unlikely that may be.
European birders striving to catch a glimpse of either of these species face even tougher challenges: Ivory Gulls can be found breeding on the remote islands of Svalbard far to the North of northern Norway and may thus be seen during a visit to this (almost) remotest of Europe's corners, but there is no area where one may chance upon a Ross's with any rate of reliability. A few winters spent sea-watching on the Norwegian coast, on Iceland or the Shetland Island or along the harsh winter west coasts of the British Isles may lead to a certain probability for a vagrant record, but this is just about as good as it gets.

Then came this winter, and things changed.

First of all, this winter has seen a small influx of Ivory Gulls to northern Europe. Well, a handful (or slightly less) birds have been found scattered widely across the coasts of the continent, so an influx is a rather strong word, but due to the scarcity of records in other winters we'll just call this year's birds an influx and leave it at that.

Before you start wondering why I started this story in the first place, rest asured that I - of course - did not see any of those Ivory Gulls. In fact, I have not seen any Ivory Gulls at all, which is a shame. But this winter was so peculiar that I just have to point it out to North American readers who may not be aware of the implications it has on searching for the species.

So here we go ...

Despite the occurence of a few birds in the North of the continent, European birders were quite surprised when news came out from France of a bird found on the country's south-west coast, close to the border with Spain. Now, an Ivory Gull is an extremely unusual and rare bird even along the northern coast of France, but this far to the South, it is absolutely astounding. Here are some pictures of the bird.

But ... it even got better. A few days ago, a handful of Dutch birders sought shelter from the winter's miseries in their country and went to the arid landscapes of central Spain. And while scanning through the Mediterranean avian goodies of a lagoon complex south of Madrid, they chanced upon an adult ... now sit down, please ... Ross's Gull!

While the fact that this is only the third ever for Spain alone goes to show how unusual this record is, the additional facts that it is an adult bird and that it was found as far inland as a gull can go in Spain makes it just completely incredible.

Here is a video of the bird, which already is quite smething to see. But if you scroll down this gallery on surfbirds, you'll find a picture from February 21st 2009 of it swimming amongst a small group of Flamingoes, right below a picture of the Fench Ivory.

Have you ever seen a Ross's Gull together with Flamingos? I sure haven't. In fact, this is likely the most bizzare assembly of species I have ever seen on a single photograph.

Maybe I should sort of translate the whole incident to birding in North America, as most of my readers do the majority of their birding there and even though they are surely aware of Europe's geography, they might be less familiar with bird distributions on the East side of the Atlantic:

The magnitude of this incident is comparable to an Ivory Gull being found on the coasts of Georgia while an Alabama inland lake hosts a Ross's at the same time.

So there you have it. Kind of makes defining your target species for future birding trips a pretty difficult thing to do. But hey, we always knew gulls were full of surprises.


Nate said...

All I'm taking out of this story is that apparently people in southern France saw an Ivory Gull this year in the wrongest place possible, and I didn't, despite being in the exact right place at the exact right time.

Some folks have all the luck.

Patrick B. said...

Poor Nate...

I see Ross's Gulls and Flamingos in my dreams all the time. Pretty astonishing for sure.

In the US, we did have a Ross's in Kansas roughly the same time as the Ivory Gull in Massachusetts.

Clare said...

Just another Ivory Gull, see them all the time. Ross' Gull, yeah have that one too, at a nest, held one of their (dead) eggs.

Now flamingos... that would be something.

I jest (a little) of course. I know that my experience and home are not the norm. But hey, come and visit. Probably can't find you a Ross' Gull, but we've got a pretty good chance of seeing an Ivory Gull.

Laurent said...

well, now I am starting to think about moving back to France..........and sure enough, an Ivory Gull will show up in Sault Sainte Marie.......

Larry said...

Good to see you have returned to the blogging seen.I had faith and kept your link active.There is a young birder in CT who has been able to get many birders more interested in gulls.

I've never paid attention to Gulls before but was able to see my first Glaucous,Iceland, and Slaty-backed Gulls this year.

Here is the link to Nick's shorebirder blog:

Jochen said...

All I am taking out of it is that we have to question how we determine what is the "right place" to see a certain species.
I really think someone needs to check the feeders at Costa Rica's Rancho Naturalista for wintering McKay's Buntings. I'd volunteer, if someone's up for funding my trip.

I too felt sorry for the Loggerhead Kingbirds not finding the Ivory Gull. You might want to consider seeing someone who can listen professionally about your dreams though ;-)))
I read about the Kansas Ross's on surfbirds and actualy thought about this record when I wrote the post. However, and as incredible as this coincidence was, Kansas isn't Alabama and Massachusetts isn't Georgia. But then again, you make an excellent point that these birds are incredible whereever they turn up.

Yes, I knew it, I knew this post would provoque such a comment from you!! CHEERS !! :-)
And regarding flamingos at Arctic Bay, you know, once someone finds the McKay's buntings in Costa Rica, I'd say your chances are pretty good.
Visit you? I'd love to (who wouldn't?), and imagine what a great trip it would be in June to first fly to Churchill for the Ross's and then move on to Arctic Bay for some serious Ivory. But it seems a position as CEO of Microsoft is necessary to procure the finances for such a trip. Nevertheless, I have this plan ticking in the back of my mind, and maybe one day (when I've sold more copies of the book I haven't written yet than Rowling did), I'll watch Ravens on your veranda.

That's the problem. I am in Ann Arbor one winter and the next, WWCrossbills and a Varied Thrush show up. Our Snowy Owl trip however is something I'll remember for a long long tim. Excelent coffee!!

Thanks for keeping the faith. There will likely be long periods of not-blogging again, but I am not planning to stop completely, just interrupt. Thanks for the link, I'll have to update my link list anyway, so your hint is much appreciated! I frequently checked your blog even while I wasn't posting myself and must say it keeps getting better and better!!

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