Sunday, February 3, 2008

Pretty in Pink

Has your heart ever skipped a beat? More than one? Chest tighten, involuntarily stopped breathing?

I had one of "those" moments this weekend. I'm certain it had nothing to do with the Superbowl, or Molly Ringwald. And I don't think health related. No, this was gull induced.

It started early in the week, when the first teasers crossed the email lists: a Ross's Gull reported at Niagara Falls. Over the next couple of days details and pictures surfaced. My favorite report was a father out with his 10-month-old son. He found and photographed the bird as it loosely affiliated itself with a group of Ring-billed Gulls in a parking lot on Goat Island State Park. Something to think about that next time you're ignoring the Ring-billeds in the mall parking lot, yes? The real kicker in his story was he was only out to give his wife some time to work at home, not to specifically chase the bird.

OK, I wanted to post an image, but I have no desire to get sued
over stealing copyrighted work. Any tips on where to find
images that are free to use? Other than, "Take it yourself, doofus!"?

This is a bird that migrates south to get to the Bering Sea, so a "Lower 48" sighting is something remarkable. Accordingly, by Wednesday I shifted my thinking from, "Wish I could go" to "If it's still regularly found, I'll think about it." Thursday I went as far as proposing the idea to my wife, the birding-husband equivalent of, "Can I go out and play?" And I got the hoped for response, "It's may I, and yes, if you've finished your chores."

In spite of the ice and snow that hit the region on Friday, one report came in with a positive sighting. So, Saturday morning, pre-dawn, I was heading down the icy path that used to be our road towards the Interstate, coffee and satellite radio keeping me company. I reached Goat Island by 9:30 and immediately swapped cell phone numbers with the first birder I found -- gotta get on that phone tree - then parked in the now famous parking lot. No gulls there, so I layered up, grabbed the scope, and joined the growing number of birders facing the Niagara River.

Only one bird greeting me upon arriving at the upstream
parking lot, a not-so-friendly exotic (but not Ross's
Gull exotic) goose. And not even a Ross's Goose.

I won't keep you in suspense. I didn't see the bird. In spite of hundreds of eyes concentrated in the area just above the falls, as well as searchers up and downstream, no one did. But for a paralysis-inducing moment I thought I had it.

Goat Island is just over a half mile long and about a thousand feet wide, oriented east-west in the New York side of the river. It was easy to walk from one end to the other, periodically scoping the river from various vantages. This was the area the gull had been seen foraging on previous days. Also, lots of other interesting birds to observe: Little, Glaucous, Lesser Black-backed, and two representatives of the Iceland Gull complex (Kumlien's and Thayer's).

Waterfowl and gulls, that's what Niagara is all
about in the winter. And ice. Lots and lots of ice.

The Friday morning report, the last positive report, was from the west side, so that's where I spent much of my time. The bird had been resting on the "shelf" above the island. Because no one knew what "the shelf" meant, people were looking everywhere, shelf-like or not. Midday I was re-scoping the large floe of ice for anything resembling a small gull. Lots of Herring and Ring-billeds quickly evaluated and ignored, an immature Great Black-backed eating something hidden behind a chunk of ice. I watched, morbidly wondering if it would eventually lift a tern-sized gull carcass. I never did see what it was picking at, I continued panning. Then I saw something different in this field of white, gray, and black: pink. Rosy pink, much like . . . the breast of a Ross's Gull. Right?

There are gulls in them thar hills!
Just not the one I was hoping for.

I locked the scope head, not breathing, the pink was on a gull that was mostly hidden behind yet another chunk of ice. Under my breath, "Holy man*, am I looking at what I think I'm looking at?" After a few moments the gull turned its head. Hmmm, a yellow bill, not dark, but with a black band. Eventually the bird waddled into view, clinching the identification. I had been staring at the pinkish breast of a gull, all right. An adult Ring-billed Gull. Son of a . . . I started to breathe again.

On an adult gull, that ringed bill is a dead give away.
But a Ring-billed with a pink breast? What's up with that?

Yeah. Not common, but not unheard of: Ring-billeds can show a pinkish hue to what is normally pure white plumage. Other gulls (Franklin's, for example) and terns (Elegant, for example) are known to have this affliction. Part of my mind, the part that wasn't blacked out from lack of oxygen, the part that asks the scientific "why" and "how" questioned, "How the in the world* can that happen," and "Why, God, why??"

Answers would wait for later. I still had ice to scope.

To be continued . . . .

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