Wednesday, January 7, 2015


I really don't have words for this experience yet, but I had to get something into writing before it slipped away. Sooooo....

Last Friday, Jen and I were up at her grandparents' lake place in Skagit County, Washington, enjoying time with family and the serenity of the quiet, snowy scene. We don't have cell service up there (something I'm used to as an AT&T customer), so the only access to the outside world comes from periodic checks of the phone via their WiFi.

A glaring message interrupted the peaceful scene: an Ivory Gull in Illinois?

Surely not.

I checked back frequently and before long there were pictures of an adult Ivory. I calculated the distance from Wheaton to Quincy, which is about 4 1/2 hours one way. Not too bad for such an insanely rare bird. But there was a problem. I was still in Washington, and would be for another two days.

Those two days were marked by a feverish and borderline obsessive checking of the ABA Rare on Facebook. The bird was seen Saturday morning, and at lunch, and till dusk. I awoke Sunday reports confirming that it had come back - it was seen all day again, and all of a sudden we were in the air on our way to Chicagoland. 

Andrew and I had been coordinating a trip down together, since Monday was his first chance to chase it. We figured an early start would be best - a plan that Midway had no intention of accommodating. Our plane landed at 8:20, right on schedule. But for all the openings at the airport, there was another plane in our spot. So, we waited on the tarmac for over a half hour till things got squared away and made it inside a little before 9, only to find that the waiting game had just begun. And we should have known better - we've had to wait for up to two hours for our luggage before at Midway. I tried to keep that in perspective, but it didn't help the hour and a half we had to wait this time.

This put us home about 11pm Sunday night. We mustered the energy to unpack a few things, and as Jen prepared to go back to work the next morning, I made sure my birding gear and attire were ready to go. We got to bed about midnight.

But I couldn't sleep.

Flashes of a white gull shot through my mind. Lingering thoughts from vacation circled round and round. And when the alarm went off just a few hours later, my sleep app confirmed that I had slept a total of about one hour, if that. Woo hoo. 

And the next cheery sight was this, Chicago's sarcastic "welcome back:"

To the average, normal person, the only logical choice would have been to go back to bed. Instead, I popped right up as if I had just woken up from a tight eight hours of blissful rest. My first, and potentially last, opportunity to see an Ivory Gull was all the adrenaline I needed.

We met at Starbucks and were on the road by 4:30, a grand total of eight hours after we had landed. The ride down wasn't too bad. I-55 was cleaned up from the previous day's snow, and obviously traffic was no hassle at that hour. Over two hours into the drive, the moon was still shining brightly too our right, while a brilliant pinkish sunrise began to emerge to our left.

Finally it was light outside. And if you've ever been on a long drive with a county lister, you know there's more going on than getting from point A to point B. Put two of them side by side in a car, and you have yourself some endless entertainment. Driving through counties that neither Andrew nor I had frequented before - especially in the winter months - we called out every crow and red-tail and dove, adding county ticks all along the way. By the end of the round trip, we had each added about 40 county birds.

In addition to bolstering lists, this activity is an excellent way to pass the time quickly. Before we knew it, it was about 9 and we were pulling in to Quincy, desperately longing for what turned out to be a rather elusive gas station. A quick pit stop there slowed us down just enough to scour a flock of House Sparrows and pick up a Eurasian Tree Sparrow, then we headed down to the river.

As planned, we met up there with Aaron Boone, who had arrived just a couple minutes ahead of us. We scanned together from near The Pier restaurant, and after not seeing much other than Ring-bills, we decided to split up and cover a larger territory. Aaron went north, we went down to the dam.

Not too long after we began scanning over the dam, Andrew's phone rang. It was Aaron. He had the bird, sitting on a dock.


I reached for the keys and we scurried over the icy parking lot into the car. We were only about a minute away, but the drive felt like an eternity.

We passed the restaurant, then came around the corner of the next building, and the next moment I will never forget. We both let out a yelp of astonishment - there it was!!! The most brilliant white one could imagine, sitting right out in plain sight on the dock. Surely it was supposed to be more difficult than this!

We parked near Aaron and soaked in some crippling scope views of the bird only 30-40 yards away for about 15 minutes. We watched it cough up a little pellet-like thing, which we retrieved later. It took to flight and headed north. We followed it in scopes and binoculars pretty much the entire time, watching it cross the bridges, circle, and eventually head back. It meandered back behind the island out in the river, and by this time a rather substantial group of birders had accumulated. The gull could be seen flying behind the island, would occasionally fly out above it or to the north a little ways, then go back. Eventually it found an odd little perch atop a building, and we commented that it didn't look much different than an all white Rock Pigeon from that distance. The words felt blasphemous.

It didn't seem like the bird was going to come closer, and in the meantime we had talked ourselves into and out of leaving about a dozen times. Right as we were about to take off, it rounded the northern bend of the island and began flying right at us. It passed, then joined a group of Ring-bills by the restaurant. The next 30-45 minutes was spent soaking it in again. It bathed, it preened, it even nodded off for a few brief moments, as if it had utterly no clue just how rare it was. And, for a bird so far out of range, it looked remarkably healthy.

Like I said at the beginning, it's tough to come up with words for something like this. For the bird itself, immaculate and pristine came to mind most frequently, and the stark contrast of the white against any background below the horizon made a lasting impression on me as well. But as of right now I can't sum up the whole experience very well. I mean, so far in 2015, this many Ivory Gulls have been seen in the entire world:

"Rare" doesn't even begin to describe it, with Illinois' last record coming from 1992. It was one of those species I had just resigned myself to never seeing. I think it will take quite a while for it to sink in that I actually have.

While I wait for it to sink in, I'll gawk over these photos and remind myself that I did indeed see an Ivory Gull:

Hocking something up:

Andrew bagged it up and we'll just wait to see what the Field Museum folks have to say about it!

Taking flight:

The reflection:

Bathing and preening:

Eye contact!

A little shut eye:

Side by side with the common folk:

Probably my favorite shot:

Ivory Gull
Quincy, Adams Co, IL
January 5, 2015

I've already seen my bird of the year. I really don't care what else happens bird-wise in 2015.  :)