Sunday, December 22, 2013

The Anxiety of Waiting to see a Great Rarity

On December 15th, 2013, I had a few hours in the morning to bird, and also a few hours in the early afternoon if I wanted to.  When I woke up, I was deciding between going to the well known Glendale Recharge Ponds or the lesser known Thunderbird Viewing Blinds Park.  The latter is an overlook of a lake known as Arrowhead Lake in the Arrowhead Lakes Community in northern Glendale.  I decided on the Glendale Recharge Ponds, but for some reason, I had this very strange feeling that I needed to go to the Viewing Blinds Park.  The tiny park overlooks the lake, which annually hosts great waterfowl numbers, primarily Common Mergansers, which may have over a thousand individuals.  But for some reason, I decided to be lazy and not check the park.

 I was taking pictures with my family for our annual Christmas card.  We waited till later in the day to do so.  After the pictures, I was going to attend the Phoenix Suns game with my sister Tiffany.  Right before we were about to leave for the Suns game, word came into the Birding Listserv from fellow birder Chris Benish, titled, "Interesting Gull Taxon in the Phoenix Area".  I quickly opened the email and Chris sure enough said that this gull was being seen at none other than...the Thunderbird Viewing Blinds Park.  I was beating the crap out of myself, and I was nearly dead when Chris said the gull looked like it was very likely a first-cycle Lesser Black-backed Gull (rare in Arizona, and a lifer for Tommy).  Joe Neely, the finder of the bird, had yet to get a diagnostic wing spread photo of the bird, which left Benish's impression as a "possible" Lesser Black-backed Gull.  As Tiffany and I went to the Suns game, I was going through my mind that I had to work two back-to-back double shifts at work with no daylight in sight, and then the following Wednesday, I knew I had to work from 6 to 3:15.  I thought, "if this bird is a Lesser Black-backed Gull, gosh it's gonna be a long wait, if the bird sticks around".  While the Suns game versus the Golden State Warriors resulted in a thrilling 106-102 Phoenix Suns victory, it helped to take my mind off of the mystery gull for some time.

My mind didn't have much of a break though, as I was barely into my long twelve hour shift on Monday when Chris Benish got the photos he needed from Joe Neely and announced to the Listserv that the gull was indeed a Lesser Black-backed Gull.  I was fuming mad and I wanted to leave work the second I found out about the gull.  Birders were going to see the bird in high numbers, and were reporting to the Listserv positive results.  Nothing seemed so positive to me, cause I wasn't looking at it!!!!  I probably sound like a freak, perhaps I am, but gulls are freaking awesome and I love to see the nice rare ones that cause stirs and take an eternity to correctly identify.  And not to mention, the Thunderbird Viewing Blinds Park is a small park, with only four parking spaces.  Two of the parking spaces are handicapped spots.  I wondered how on earth people were gonna approach seeing this bird.  Perhaps there would be a fight over the parking spots.  With how trapped I felt at work, maybe I would yell at a poor birder over a spot.  Or I could park a short distance of the park to the south and walk north a few hundred feet.  Hmmm?  As 12 hours of anger went by slowly at work, positive reports came into the Listserv about the gull and that the gull had settled down with the huge Common Merganser flock at dusk.  I wanted the gull bad, and I was contemplating whether or not to call in sick for work the next day so I could secure the nice rarity for my life list at a Phoenix and Maricopa County location.  A rare bird is something I have never called into work for prior to this tempting situation.  I have integrity as a person most of the time to respect my fellow co-workers at work and have never wanted to adjust someone else's day or ruin the schedule so I could see a rare bird.  But I had never done so before, so would one time really hurt?

Tuesday, December 17th would've been the worst day of the year to pull the old sick call-in to work.  It was our day for the holiday meal, which our department (food service at hospital) was providing three free meals to the entire hospital.  We were probably feeding more people than the number of Common Mergansers at Arrowhead Lake.  I set my alarm clock early to wake up and call in, and when I woke up and was about ready to call in I just.....couldn't.  The gull was haunting me, but I felt it would be more awesome seeing it if I didn't cheat to get ahead.  I went into work with the same results as Monday:  I was extremely angry and short-tempered for 12 hours, gull reports came in, and it came down to Wednesday.  I talked with Mark Ochs on the phone, who went to see the gull also.  When Mark was there, he was joined by Chris Benish, Moe Bertrand, Joe Neely, and others.  Joe found the star on Friday, and was there ever since.  He told Mark that about 20 birders came and looked at the Gull.  I was hoping it would wait "only" less than 24 hours for me, so I could see it.  With a bird, sometimes 24 hours is nothing if it intends to stick around, or it can take only seconds to miss a bird, if it gets that horrible notion to suddenly fly off.  Now that our holiday meal was over, I wasn't so guilty feeling about the idea of calling in on Wednesday.  I was looking for any excuse to call in.  As work got over with after 7 P.M. on Tuesday, I noticed my license plate had been stolen off of the back of my truck when I walked out to the parking lot.  Someone had traded theirs for mine.  I was angry at first, but I thought, "Hey, I could have a good excuse to call in".  Of course, I was mainly thinking about the gull.  After talking to a police officer, he gave me a form to carry around for not having a license plate.  I was going to fix the problem the next day at the Motor Vehicle Division (MVD), and it was going through my mind I should call in.  Now the Thunderbird Viewing Blinds Park is located on 59th Avenue, just north of the 101, and the MVD is located on 59th and Bell!  They were only a few miles north-and-south of each other.  As I was about to call in once again....I just....couldn't.  The gull would have to wait after work, and after the MVD.  I still didn't think my situation (license plate, and maybe the gull) weren't worth calling into work.  My truck was without a license plate though, which is a very uncomfortable feeling when driving on the road or parking in a parking lot.

When I got to work that morning on Wednesday, December 18th, I told my boss Jennifer about my situation.  She was very angry about my plate being stolen, and I asked her if I could get out 30 minutes early to have more time before the awful MVD would crowd up.  She said she would help me out, and I was happy about that.  I was angry I didn't call in when I saw how low the census was at the hospital and how it wouldn't be too hard to replace my shift.  But I didn't want to be selfish and it seemed to be very likely that the gull would stick around, especially when an early morning report came in from Magill Weber saying that the gull was present early.  I was trying to decide if I was going to the Gull spot first or the MVD first.  It would be the much more responsible thing to do to go the the MVD first and get my situation worked out, as I was a crime victim.  An hour or so later, Jennifer came up to me and said a beautiful phrase, "Tommy, I can get you out of here at noonish!!"  I quickly nodded yes and was very grateful.  And noon came around fast, I was buzzing out the door at work with all of my birding gear, which I hid in my office.  Because the two locations I needed to go to were so close to each other, I went to see the gull really "quick".  As I arrived at the Viewing Blinds Park less than twenty minutes after leaving work, I ran up to cement blinds at the Lake as fast as I could.  A few birders were there and said it had been awhile since they saw the Gull.  Joe Neely was there and quickly said, "Oh, it's out there, it just hasn't flown up for awhile".  As I scanned the massive Common Merganser flock, I quickly found the gull, and set everyone and their scopes up to see the gull.  Even though this is a distant picture, I did have great scope views!  Can you spy the gull?

If you spied the gull, well done!  Here is a better, but still distant picture.  

While I was looking at the Gull, I had the privilege of meeting fellow birder Justin Hopkins, and I also ran into my good friends Susan Fishburn and Babs Buck.  We got to study the gull well through the scopes, and we also got to see it's key identification characteristics in flight.  A first cycle Lesser Black-backed Gull will have an all dark black bill, dark wings, a smudge around it's eye, and a broad and black tail band on a whitish tail.  It looks a little similar to a young Herring Gull, but has darkness where a Herring Gull would have light.  The underwing of a Lesser Black-backed Gull is dark, and so are it's inner primaries and greater coverts.  I quickly went to the MVD after I looked at the gull for awhile, and it was only $5.00 to replace everything with a new license plate and tags!  

After taking care of the license plate situation, I immediately went back to see more of the gull.  It was there when I went back, and was flying around more, but was more distant from the viewing blinds.  Justin Hopkins was still there, and we decided to walk over to a bridge that goes near the eastern side of the lake.  We were hoping to get a better view of the gull from here, because it was regularly coming over to this immediate area.  Our plan paid off, and the gull flew over us.

While the pictures aren't anywhere near the best, they still show the birds key field marks.  Things then went from good to bad.  The gull started to fly up very high and was circling over the area.  It then flew off into the distance and surrounding mountains.  

The gull was soon a speck in the sky.

Justin and I were hoping the gull would come back.  As we made our way over to the Viewing Blinds Park, we ran into Kurt Radamaker, and he saw the gull a few times before it flew off.  He thought it flew off for good, and it seemed to be the case.  Joe then said he never saw the gull do that and that it usually spent the later parts of the day floating on the lake with the mergansers.  After Justin and Joe left, Kurt and I waited until dark at Arrowhead Lake, and the Lesser Black-backed Gull never made another appearance.  And it would be the last anyone saw of the bird.  

In my case, when the Gull flew off, it was 3:15 P.M.  If I was to get out of work when I asked to (30 minutes early), I would've barely seen the gull or would've missed it by a heartbreaking few minutes.  If I would've had to wait to get out of work, I probably would've gone to the MVD first, and would have definitely missed the gull.  It was a miracle I was able to see this thing, and it's awesome to accomplish things without cheating in order to get them.  Luckily, I saw this bird just in time.

In the Lesser Black-backed Gull's case, this bird was a great bird, but wasn't an emergency.  The Lesser Black-backed Gull is from Europe, and has recently expanding it's range as a visitor to North America drastically in the winter.  It's present in the east in good numbers annually, and is becoming more annual in the west.  For Arizona, this Gull was found for the first time at Maricopa County's Lower River Road Ponds in 2006.  Since then, this is Maricopa's second, but four other Lesser Black-backed Gulls have been found in Arizona other than this record and the first at Lake Havasu, Katherine's Landing, and Alamo Lake.  This was the 6th bird in seven years, which tells me there will be more records.  With that being said, I was very glad to get it now.  It was a very awesome addition to my life lists!!  When and where will the next record be for Lesser Black-backed Gull?  I have my prediction.


  1. Wow great catch! I have really enjoyed reading your blog since finding it and you have some amazing photos! I was hoping to contact you about that if you can get back to me I would love to chat.

  2. Great story Tommy and nice work, as always. I was bummed to miss this bird but, in a similar way was hung up with work and living on the wrong side of town. There'll be next winter though, if not sooner...