Date: 9/5/17 9:32 am From: Jeremy Schwartz <jschwartz1124...> Subject: [Tweeters] A Lifer for a Lifetime (And Thanks!)
As we approach what is almost the week of the swallow-tail gull, I'd like
to offer my humble thanks for everyone who has kept up with posting about
the birds whereabouts, and to Ryan for finding the thing in the first place.
I saw it the first day at Carkeek, which also happened to be my 30th
birthday. I finally got around to writing a little something about the
experience, although it's definitely for more of a non-birder audience.
It started in the birder email list I subscribe to.
One post on the Washington (state) Tweeters listserv mentioned a
swallow-tailed gull spotted at a salt-water-adjacent park north of Seattle.
“A swallow-tailed gull?” I thought to myself. It was a bird I’d never heard
of, which is a pretty common occurrence for me, the novice birder that I am.
So at first, I thought it was just another unusual bird sighting for the
area. The email list is full of these of varying degrees of rarity. Some
posts are about birds rare for a specific region, some for a specific time
of year. Most describe bird sightings unusual for our local area. I see
them pretty regularly and take them as an opportunity to learn a new bird
name, but usually not much more than that.
But the swallow-tailed gull was different. Throughout the morning of
Thursday, Aug. 31, post after post about this gull began showing up on the
email list’s message center. Thirteen in the space of an hour or two. Then
more still. Birders were freaking out about this sighting. There was
something special about this gull. I had to find out more.
A quick Google search made my jaw drop: the swallow-tailed gull is native
to South America. It breeds on the Galapagos Islands and doesn’t usually
stray from the coasts of Chile and Peru.
“Holy shit,” I said to myself. This was a big deal.
The more I learned about this gull, the more astonished I became. Not only
is it gorgeous, with a black hood, striped bill and red eyes, it’s only
been seen two other times in the U.S. Both in California in the 80s. Yet
here it was, rubbing shoulders with Western gulls like it lived around the
block. And off the shore of a park only 30 minutes from my office.
By this time, it was about 2 in the afternoon. I must have gone back and
forth in my head a dozen times about dropping everything to go see this
thing and continuing my work day. I sat on it for about a half hour while I
continued on a high priority project I was working on. This bit of work was
a pretty big check in the “con” column of me going. I definitely needed to
But the thought of seeing this bird with my own eyes clung on. I realized I
could use this urge to my advantage. I cranked it up to 11 and burned
through the work I needed to get done. This, combined with some
not-so-gentle cajoling from my dear coworker, gave me the final push out
the door. Plus, it was my 30th birthday. I considered it a present to
I closed up shop at work and hustled down the the stairs to parking lot and
my car. All the while saying to myself that this was the right thing to do,
even if it meant leaving work early.
On the drive there, I flipped back and forth between maybe putting a little
too much pressure on the gas pedal to beat yellow traffic lights and
thinking to myself: if I get pulled over and miss this bird, I’d never
forgive myself. So I kept to my normal, safe-driving self.
Fortunately, traffic was pretty light for a Seattle-area Thursday
afternoon. The park itself was also easy to get to. Just 30 minutes later
and a total five turns, and I was in the parking lot.
With a parking spot found, I gathered my camera and binoculars from the
back of my car, changed into my hiking boots (which always live in the back
of my car) and started the short walk to the beach. The spot was easily
accessed via an elevated walkway over some train tracks that ran parallel
to the beach.
Once on this rise, I looked to the southwest along the water. There,
mingled together like the gulls they had their scopes pointed at, were
easily two dozen other birders. It was like a scene from a movie. A large
and motley group of birders all with scopes, binoculars and cameras trained
at a distant rare bird. Today’s quarry: the swallow-tailed gull.
I walked an unsteady 50 yards or so over soft sand to reach the group.
Though there were half as many spotting scopes as people, those who had
them were not shy about sharing. We were all there for the same reason,
Maybe 10 minutes after I arrived, I saw it. Though best visible through a
spotting scope because of how far off it was, I could still make out what
made this gull unique. the black hood. The gray/white patterns on its
wings. It’s slightly hooked bill, striped in white-ish gray.
“Holy cow,” I said out loud, keeping it G-rated because there were young
children present. I had done it, I realized. I had “twitched” (what birders
call dropping everything to go and see a rarity) for the very first time.
And on my 30th birthday, no less. This turned out to be one hell of a way
As I stood in the 4 p.m. sun, an insanely rare bird parked a few hundreds
yards offshore, something else struck me: This is one of the reasons I like
birding so much. The camaraderie, the community, the willingness to share
knowledge and resources with no thought of reward. So many birders making
sure anyone who showed up got a look through some scope, any scope. All
because they love birds, and love sharing them with as many people as
I can’t say I’ll ever be the type to twitch long distances in hopes of
logging another rarity. I heard of one person, for example, who came all
the up from Portland for this gull. That is a little too much for me.
But, being among that many excited people made me glad for the hobby I have
chosen. This day made me proud to call myself a birder.