When an old birding buddy called after a couple decades of non-communication, he asked, apologetic for sounding so ignorant, where the heck the Adirondacks were, certain, of course, that they were somewhere in New York.

          “I mean I know they’re in New York but, like, I have no idea exactly where but I imagine, like,  somewhere near Buffalo or Syracuse or one of those places upstate obviously way north of Albany and the Catskills and the Finger Lakes and all those places what’s the nearest big city anyway?”

          So I told him Montreal and he immediately went ballistic, hyperventilating and spitting into his cell phone as he blurted out, “Montreal, holy {expletive deleted} did you go up there to chase that Ross’s gull everybody saw and photographed a few weeks ago that bird winters in the Arctic up near Barrow Alaska and probably breeds at the North Pole and sure enough one shows up just outside of Montreal and everybody and their brother gets a dynamite photo of it swimming around in a {expletive deleted} sewer treatment pond with a bunch of Bonies {Bonaparte’s gulls} I’ll flip out if you didn’t chase that bird you chased didn’t you?”

          I told him yes, I chased the bird, and he immediately asked if I had an easy time getting a look at it, as everybody under the sun seemed to have, judging by the innumerable terrific photos posted on the internet.

          Well, I said, not really, going on to explain that after having a new muffler/tailpipe assembly installed in my car and then, when the service station owner told me I shouldn’t drive the car because my timing belt and water pump were about the break and, well, it took me three days to get to Montreal.  When I finally picked up my car, I went on, and started for Montreal the ABS light on the dash went on and as my wife read the implications of that in the owner’s manual the AIRBAG light on the dash went on.  So we pulled off the Northway and into the Hanneford’s supermarket parking lot and the car stalled and wouldn’t start.  So we got towed back to the service station for a mere one hundred-sixty dollars and spent the better part of the day waiting to discover we needed a new alternator but that the mechanic happened to have a used one, which he gave me, installation included.  Thank the Universe for small favors.     

          So when a friend emailed me that night and said he was going to chase the gull tomorrow and would we like to drive up with him we jumped on the opportunity, enormously relieved to make the journey in someone else’s car.

          So off we went a little before first light in a late model Toyota Camry and arrived in Chambly, a suburb of Montreal, around eight o’clock, by which time fifteen or so other birders had already arrived, most of them speaking French.  It was twenty-five degrees Fahrenheit with a steady ten mile per hour wind, and although bundled up generously against the cold we all felt quite chilled, standing essentially still all morning.  By noon another twenty or so birders, perhaps a third of them speaking English, showed up, including ten people I knew, and we looked like a phalanx of  deliriously optimistic astronomers standing in broad daylight beside our spotting scopes, waiting for the stars to come out.

          At one point, after talking to a couple of friends who showed up to see the bird, I turned to go and talk to someone else, only to almost trip because I thought I must have positioned my foot next to a boulder or some other intractable obstruction—but upon looking down at my feet I discovered I had sunk about six inches into the mud, and when I finally pried my boots out  of the mud and walked a few steps it seemed as though the gravitational attraction of Earth had suddenly escalated, doubtless in response to the absence of the Ross’s gull.  I felt as though I were trudging laboriously underwater, laboring with exaggerated effort to lift my mud-encrusted feet and put one in front of the other with something resembling normalcy.

          After kicking a boulder while muttering obscenities under my breath I finally resorted to using a stick to dislodge the mud from my boots, and when I felt capable of walking fairly normally on the surface of the Earth, I wondered aloud to my wife and friend if perhaps we should try one of the other locations where people had seen the bird during the past week, noting that the Marina and the Richelieu Rapids and the river basin were all within a few miles of where we stood.

 We drove over to the basin and scanned a hundred or so gulls, figured we had probably made a mistake by leaving the sewer treatment plant and started to head back when my friend’s cell phone rang with a call from two guys from New York City who had the bird at the Marina, about a mile from where we stood.

          We drove quickly to the Marina and saw our acquaintances hunched over their spotting scopes, which they immediately offered to let us look through.  Although a half mile away we saw immediately how different the Ross’s gull looked than the thirty or so Bonaparte’s gulls surrounding it, and we noted instantly how differently it moved, at times almost seeming to dance on the water, and we saw the diagnostic pink wash on its belly and chest.  Perfect sunlight illuminated the bird, and although we would have much preferred a closer look we felt enormously lucky and profoundly satisfied for having seen it at all, a Life Bird for my wife and I.

          Suddenly, like the Paparazzi descending on a movie star, fifteen cars screeched to halt in the parking lot of the Marina, and a dizzying concatenation of crazed birders, their tripod legs clanging into each other like foils at a chaotic free-for-all fencing tournament.  After a few minutes everybody got to see the bird, at which point we noticed another bunch of birders on the far side of the Basin, much closer to the Ross’s than us but obviously not seeing it.  So we called them, told them where to look and then jumped into our cars and went the two miles or so to the other side of the Basin, where we saw the bird at a distance of about seventy-five yards, so intensely backlit by the setting sun that we couldn’t see any color at all on it, but got great looks at its tiny bill and diagnostic profile.

          As thirty or so of us looked at the Ross’s gull the clouds around the sun went from deep yellow to pale tangerine to pink, as would, I couldn’t help but think, all the gulls swimming and feeding with the Ross’s.

          “Awesome you can’t complain about a look like that even if at the end of the day all the gulls turned pink I’d take a look like that any day none of my birding buddies ever saw a Ross’s.”  

          We took it.



Pat Pollock
01/15/2014 8:52am

Hi John & "Pat" - I was waiting throughout your story to hear Pat's name, but no ... I wish I'd been there. What a wonderful story - you've got lots of friends who turn up in the nick of time. Hope to see you in Central Park one of these days (we actually had a Snowy Owl in Man-hattan @ Randall's Island but it had left before I had a chance to see it. Best, Pat

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    Besotted by the grace and beauty of birds, I can't help but watch, paint and write about them.


    January 2014