Monday, January 26, 2009

The Craziest Chase Ever

I am a person who loves lists. One of my favorite movies is High Fidelity. I could totally see myself sitting around the record store with John Cusack and Jack Black, discussing "top five films" or "top five breakups". This penchant for lists fits right into birding. Besides my life list and all of my year and state lists, I have always maintained a top ten most wanted bird list in my head. For a very long time Ivory Gull topped that list. It was a bird I had little hope of seeing, as it spends its life beyond the Arctic Circle. Martin was also wanting to see this bird badly. We had even toyed with doing a cruise out of Spitsbergen Norway, which isn't exactly a cheap little weekend get away.

Last weekend I read that an Ivory Gull had turned up in Gloucester, MA, an hour north of Boston. My heart skipped a beat, but figured that it would be a one day wonder and knowing that getting to Boston on short notice probably would not be doable. Then the bird did something surprising, it stayed. Martin and I started wishfully talking about going up for it. Then we became a bit more serious. I found that I could get a frequent flyer ticket and the fare on these flights was more than reasonable for Martin. We decided it would save us a bundle, compared to doing that cruise. We booked the flights for Friday night and started checking the Mass Birds list server every 15 minutes to see if it was still there.

We were stunned when a second Ivory Gull turned up in Plymouth, MA a couple of days later. This was too good to be true! We still were nervous, but kept telling ourselves that even if we didn't get one of the Ivory Gulls, there were other interesting birds in the area. I could get a couple of other life birds. It seemed like Friday evening would never arrive. The Gloucester Gull disappeared on Thursday, making us feel even more tense, but the Plymouth bird continued.

Our flights were on Northwest, connecting through Memphis. We had a fairly tight connection, but I felt like it wouldn't be a problem. Friday afternoon I checked the flight status and was a little bit disturbed to see that the flight from Memphis to Boston was delayed due to the flight crew being late, but I figured they had plenty of time to get the crew together. We got on our flight with no problems and arrived in Memphis. We went to gate and saw that the flight was even further delayed. We ate dinner and came back, only to see that it had been pushed back another 2 hours. We would not arrive in Boston until well after 1AM. At that point we started discussing whether it would even go. The desk agent made an announcement that passengers could change to the flight at 9AM in the morning and get a voucher for a hotel and meals. This pretty much confirmed to us that we were not going to get to Boston that night.

I went up to talk to the agent, who seemed overwhelmed. I asked her a couple of questions about the flight in the morning and discovered that we wouldn't get in until 1PM, not giving us much time, considering we were returning Sunday at 3PM. The flight then was cancelled, so we had no choice, at least that is what we thought. I then overheard an impatient business man make different arrangements, flying to Newark that night, then on to Boston earlier in the morning, getting in at 10AM. That was better, so we asked if we could do the same. We were confirmed and ran to the gate for the flight to Newark, which also was delayed!

As we were waiting for the flight, we got to talking about possibly getting a rental car when we arrived in Newark and just driving. A young couple from Austin overheard us and said they would like to share the car with us. I made some calls, got a car and we were ready to roll! We made arrangements to skip the Newark to Boston portion of the flights and got on board. We arrived in Newark at 1AM and took off for Boston.

We drove through part of New Jersey, into New York, past Manhattan, then through Connecticut, Rhode Island and into Massachusettes. I can't tell you a thing about any of these states, other than they seemed more wooded than I expected. We arrived in Boston, dropped off our new friends Angel and Craig. We back tracked to Plymouth, after getting lost in downtown Boston, arriving at dawn. There were already a few birders gathered.

It was very cold and there was a foot of snow on the ground. Even though the parking lot had been cleared it was a bit icey and slippery. I was not really dressed for cold. I had expected to spend the night in a hotel and dress for the weather then. I drug a sweater out of my suitcase and put it on under my parka, but I still only had sneakers and jeans on. We shuffled around waiting for the gull, as more birders arrived. I was feeling a bit nauseous, thinking that horrible drive had been for nothing, then someone shouted "There it is!"

The gull looked like an angel. It's a slight bird, pure white with black eyes. It lit on the railing of the jetty, quite nearby. I could see that the bill was a bluish green with a yellow tip. It was the most beautiful gull I had ever seen. It took a few turns around the parking lot, thrilling us all. Finally it lit next to a chicken carcass that someone had put out for it. Ivory Gulls normally feed on carrion, so this was a perfect meal for it. Other larger gulls had been picking at the carcass, but this little guy drove them off and started gorging. The sound of camera's clicking was never ending. It was so worth the trip.

We tore ourselves away after an hour or so and headed north to Gloucester to bird with two local birders. That part of the trip was also very successful. I got two more life birds, Dovekie and Black Guillemot. I also added Common Eider and Razorbill to my ABA list. I totally enjoyed the day and the next morning. Gloucester is a beautiful town.

Our return home was as uneventful as could be. We got home last night at about 10PM, tired and still glowing. Now, I have to figure out how to see my newest most wanted bird, Ross's Gull! video