At 6:45 a.m. on the morning of August 31st, the following post appeared on “Tweeters” – the main birder communication site in Washington: “There’s a Swallow Tailed Gull at Carkeek Park now w(ith) California Gulls!!!” I was in my pajamas in Bellevue figuring out details for the remainder of the day that was going to include some dog sitting, checking out the mail at my condo in Edmonds and more steps to get rid of way too much stuff filling a storage unit. The post was from Ryan Merrill. Had it been from anyone else, I would have dismissed it as a joke, a mistake, a very late April Fools prank, but this was from Ryan – as good as there is and as caring and sharing as there is. Follow Rule 1 — GO NOW!!!!!!!
I was dressed and out the door within 5 minutes – out into the drizzle and hoping that the traffic would not be too bad and of course that the gull would remain. Oddly I had just read something about Swallow Tailed Gulls a few days earlier when I was online looking up info about Swallow Tailed Kites and Google had pulled up the Gull before I finished entering the full inquiry. Wait – had I misread the post – was it a Swallow Tailed Kite – still extraordinary and cause for a mad dash – but at least more plausible than a Swallow Tailed Gull which belongs in the Galapagos?
Clearly this was going to be an incredible day – there was NO TRAFFIC – almost as rare in Seattle as – well as a Swallow Tailed Gull. I called Edmonds birding friends Steve Pink, Ann Marie Wood and Jon Houghton and broke the news to them. None of them had seen Ryan’s post. All would join later. I was at Carkeek Park by 7:30 and down on the beach across the railroad track I could see 4 birders looking at a flock of gulls gathered on the beach. They were not disinterestedly just looking about. They were looking at the gulls and I was then sure they were also looking at THE GULL. And one of them was Ryan Merrill. I joined them as fast as I could and as I approached they smiled and invited me to look into the scope and at – yes the Swallow Tailed Gull. WOW!! And that was a word that would be repeated many times over the next two hours as others would join the group. There it was – a beautiful unbelievable Swallow Tailed Gull in a group of 100+ other gulls. It was in adult plumage – dark head, white tipped dark bill, red around the eye – black and white patterned wings, white spot at the base of the bill, and of course – a swallow tail. Way beyond WOW!!!
And unlike many other such finds where the quarry is hidden in a tree or brush or a moving throng of birds, this guy in addition to being the rarest of rare birds and gorgeous was also cooperative beyond belief. With all those other gulls, this one remained in front with almost continuously unobstructed views and even though in respect to others that would follow us, we remained back some distance not to disturb the flock and cause it to leave, we were close enough for photos and this was going to be a big one for me. Snap – and with that singular movement I had a photo of my 400th species in Washington – and what a bird for such an honor.
There have been only two records of this species in North America – ever – before today. Both in California – one in the 1980’s and one in the 1990’s. Probably at that moment I was one of fewer than ten people who had ever seen this bird in the ABA area. That number would change over and over throughout the day, but it was a joyous moment. I actually gave Ryan a big hug – grateful and thankful and ecstatic.
Swallow Tailed Gull – Carkeek Park – 7:35 A.M. – Thursday August 31, 2017 – Photographed Species #400 in Washington
Ok – I had seen the bird. I had gotten the picture. The adrenalin was flowing but maybe now I could relax and try to comprehend this extraordinary occurrence. The Swallow Tailed Gull is an equatorial seabird endemic to the Galapagos Islands. When it is not breeding it is totally pelagic, migrating eastward to the coasts of Ecuador and Peru. The Galapagos are 3,850 miles from Seattle. What was this bird doing here? Another amazing fact. This gull is nocturnal – with eyes that enable it to see squid and such on the ocean and to hunt and feed at night. It is the only gull in the world that does so.
The gull remained in plain sight – I took more photos and more and more birders arrived. I hoped the gull might fly a bit and reveal its striking wing pattern and that swallow tail – not fly away – but enough for a peek. Others were hoping for the same as now many scopes, binoculars and cameras were trained on the bird. It continued to drizzle and the light was terrible but any photos of this mega-rarity were treasures. Then it lifted its wings just for a moment and I was lucky to have my camera on it. Snap, snap – I had the wing pattern.
Swallow Tailed Gull – Wing Pattern
The wing pattern was reminiscent of those of a Sabine’s Gull, another pelagic gull with a dark head. Very striking and immediately identifiable when seen even at a distance.
Sabine’s Gull Wing Pattern
My friend Steve Pink had made it and immediately got on the bird – a life bird – as it was for everyone who saw it. Where was Ann Marie? Steve told me she had a fall yesterday and was not able to walk out to the beach but she had made it to the walkway over the train tracks and had a distant view from there – she had a lifer too!! Jon Houghton came. He had seen this species in the Galapagos but was thrilled to have it closer to home. More and more people came – people I knew and people I had never seen before. Older birders, younger birders, experts and beginners. This was an event – everyone was happy. Very happy.
By 10:00 more than 60 people had come and seen this bird. Birders had come by ferry and from the north and east and south and west. Many more would come. Over and over again, I heard WOW!! The tide was coming in and the birds were huddling together a bit closer to us. Trains had come by and we wondered if they would flush the flock. They did not. An Osprey flew overhead – no effect. Maybe an Eagle or a Peregrine would have been different. A Green Heron flew over – an uncommon species but not rare. Hopes continued for a flight – to see the wings and the swallow tail. Around 10:30 it happened, the tide had come in sufficiently to cause the flock to take off. Fortunately I was ready – snap, snap, snap and I had the gull in flight – what a beauty.
Swallow Tailed Gull in Flight
The gulls flew out into Puget Sound – still visible but not good views. I think more than 75 birders had already come and seen this bird – testimony to the rarity of this sighting and to the enormity of the birding community. I left but tracked the reports that have continued throughout the day as the gull remained in the area and even returned to the shore. My friend Melissa Hafting came down from Vancouver B.C. Russ Koppendreyer had come from Longview. Birders came from Yakima. More and more reports came in. I bet that more than 150 people have seen this bird today… maybe 200. I expect that there will be birders from all over the country that will visit in the next days as long as the bird remains in the area – and that is a good possibility. It is that rare – that extraordinary. We are all indebted to Ryan for finding and identifying the Swallow Tailed Gull and getting the word out so quickly. It is not the first time he has played this role and assuredly will not be the last – but this will be a very hard act to follow. WOW!!!
And thus another of my “arbitrary” goals for the year has been met. Earlier there had been the first goal – 100 species seen in one day. Then the second – my 200th species in Kittitas County. And then the third – my 300th species in Washington for the year and now my fourth – my 400th photographed species in Washington. In Arizona I had already reached my 6th goal with the picture of my 600th species in the ABA area. And this bird – totally unexpected – gets me within striking distance of my 5th goal – 500 species in the ABA area for the year – 7 more to go and that should be doable. It also gets me closer to goal #7 – my 700th ABA Life bird. Closer but probably not close enough. Although who knows – maybe Ryan will turn up some more mega-rarities. If so – I will go for them as soon as I can.
Postscript: The gull was seen almost continuously on the water and then back on shore for the remainder of August 31 until dark. Being nocturnal, did it head off then for some feeding activity? Early the next morning, Ryan was back at Carkeek Park – joined by others and the gull was not seen. It is now 4:00 PM and I have not seen any reports of its presence. Did it disappear as mysteriously as it arrived? After feeding at night did it join up with another flock of roosting gulls elsewhere in Puget Sound? Will it be found again?
Post-Postscript: It was found again. After hours of searching by many at Carkeek Park and elsewhere, the Swallow Tailed Gull was relocated north at a hard to access spot near Richmond Beach. Getting there involved some work and some challenges with “private” property, but many got to see this continuing rarity. Included in the long list of viewers were Mike and MerryLynn Denny who had made the long trip from their beloved Walla Walla valley (proof positive of how special this bird was) spent four hours at Carkeek Park and then got it when it was relocated later. I am sure others will travel and not see this bird – part of the deal with rare bird chases, but I was especially happy they saw it as they have contributed so much to my birding enjoyment – and to the enjoyment of others.
Post-Post-Postscript: This amazing visitor remained in the area until at least September 8th. It was seen as far north as Everett and also at my my hometown of Edmonds. There is no way to know the exact number of people who observed this beauty but more than 400 reports were filed on EBird and there very well could have been 1000 observations. All of the Big Year birders made the trip as did many who had done Big Years in 2016. Truly an extraordinary event.