Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Ivory Gull for Thanksgiving week-end

Thanksgiving week-end means four days vacation time for me. I wanted to go somewhere. I had couple of invitations for the Thanksgiving, one in Ithaca and one in New Jersey. My New Jersey friend was quite insistent that I should come. I told her I will think about it. I wanted to go but was feeling too lazy to drive that far. Finally, I decided it was way too far to drive to New Jersey and instead would go to Niagara River to photograph Bonaparte’s Gulls. So by the time I decided this, Thanksgiving Day was almost getting to midday. Next day rain was in forecast, so postponed my Niagara visit to Saturday and Sunday, but I was still not sure if I really wanted to go.

Friday evening I read an e-mail on NYSbirds by Tom Fiore that there was an IVORY GULL seen at Cape May. This has been one of my dream birds. I had missed it by a few days in Amherst, Ontario, CA a few years ago. I had also looked for this bird on a voyage of Hurtigruten in the Norwegian Arctic Circle after IOC meeting in August 2006. This year late winter, in an awful snow storm, Ann Mitchell and I made it to Plymouth Mass, just to find out that the bird was seen by Jay McGowan earlier day around 3.25 pm and has not been seen since then. So when I saw Tom Fiore’s report, I told myself if the bird is still around on Saturday I will go. So I sent an e-mail to Bob Fogg to let me know if the bird was seen again on Saturday morning. Bob did not get my e-mail till Sunday late night. You can see slide show here.

Saturday morning just around 8.02, Tom Fiore again reported that the gull was seen in the morning. I looked at the weather report for New Jersey and Cape May. It was supposed to be nice and on Sunday around 60s. So thought I must go. I looked up driving directions. Google came up with 5 hr 21 minutes to my destination with 326 miles of drive. Then I thought, maybe I should call Ann if she was interested in joining too. Anyway decided to take showers first and see how I feel. While in shower, I decided it was too far to go to see just one bird and decided to drop the idea. As I came out of the bathroom, I straight headed to my day travel suitcase and dumped some basic stuff unconsciously. I realized my subconscious brain has made up that I am going. So in next thirty minutes, I did the dishes and tidied up the house a bit, collected all food material that I had for trip into the bag. Picked my camera and sound gear and by 9.39 AM I was out of my driveway and heading towards Cape May.
Initial drive around Binghamton was wet and windy. I listened to NPR news, Click and Clack Tappert brothers on Car Talk, who wanted to talk to Sal from Long Island again and again. On the way near the large dump, near Clark Summit I saw a raven floating in the air. I thought Raven was a great good omen. Further few miles down the road, I watched an adult Bald Eagle that enhanced my good luck I thought. I then listened to Wait Wait Don’t tell me show and by then I started losing NPR station and I was in religious belt of Pennsylvania by about noon. I decided to take a stop and pulled into Allentown rest stop. As I was about to enter ladies, I saw Ann Mitchell coming out of the ladies. So I waved out to her and told her that there is an IVORY GULL in Cape May and I was heading to see that bird and told her I was thinking of calling her in the morning but did not call. She was a little puzzled and asked me if she can leave her car at the rest stop overnight. I told her to go find out while I used the facilities. When I came out, she had already found out that she can park the car but at her own risk and she was ready to take the risk. We quickly moved her essentials such as binoculars and scope to my car on the other side of the rest house facility. Soon we were on our way to Cape May.
Somewhere in Philadelphia, I wanted to make sure the bird was still around, so I told Ann to call Tom Johnson to check if the bird was still in the same place. Tom assured us that the bird was still around and gave us the latest directions. We were hoping to catch the bird still in daylight.
We arrived at the spot around 3.20 PM to Bree-zee-lee marina, but were not very sure where to go. I saw a few cars coming out of marina that did not look like they belonged to someone who owned one of those boats in marina. So we figured this must be the place, so we drove into marina and sure enough there were tons of cars and people were looking around. As I pulled in, the gull in front of us was in fact IVORY GULL! I told Ann that is it! I quickly got my camera gear out and found my batteries were down  I knew I had another spare battery in my backpack, but was too anxious, fortunately I had my second camera too which had a battery that was charged, so I took a few pictures with it. My first picture was taken at 3.24 PM. Here is the chronology of Ivory Gull sightings:-
3.20 PM Nov 28 2009. We arrived at Bree zee lee (sounded like a warbler call, Ivory-billed Gull-Warbler?). We find the bird quickly. The bird was very active and continuously flying at fairly fast pace. It flew between the boats towards the road and then back to Cape May Harbor side and then occasionally dip into water to pick up something. Many birders were twisting their necks around to follow the bird’s movement. Bird photographers including me, we would swing our heavy camera back and forth and try to take pictures only to find that the bird is out of the frame or is too close to us and can’t even focus. At times he was just barely eight or ten feet above our head. Occasionally he would disappear between boats; he had a few spots which he visited often. Just around sunset he landed and spent some time somewhere away from us. So everyone headed towards the spot. But soon he was up and continued his flight. I wondered if this is what they did in their native land. It was so cold in their native land that they have to move continuously to keep themselves warm. He seemed to do his flights fairly effortlessly. As the sun started to hit horizon, all the gulls and the moon looked gorgeous. They all seem to have a bright fiery orange underside. Sometimes he looked bluish with water’s reflection other times he was bright orange. Later from others photo I concluded that he was picking some dead fish in the harbor.

4.37 PM. Sun is almost on the horizon, he disappeared for a few minutes. So I looked around and took some pictures of birders against the setting sun. But soon he appeared again. The sky had become pinkish now and Ivory Gull’s underside reflected pink from the plumage.
4.40 PM was my last shot of the bird.
By then Ann seemed to have frozen as the wind was still fierce, though it was supposed to have become calm by around 1.00 PM. I was totally unaware of my surrounding and cold etc. as I was too focused on the Ivory Gull. We decided to call it a day and go look for place to stay overnight, though I wanted to stay to know where he roosted.
We checked couple of known less expensive motels but they were closed for the season. Finally on the beach road we found a motel, which was open for next two days. We checked in and found some food for in a nearby diner and retired to the motel. We watched some silly movie called Foot Loose and went to sleep with a plan to get up early before sunrise.
When we woke on Sunday morning it was still dark outside. We decided to stop for some coffee and food before we headed to marina. We reached it around 7.30 AM. Chronology for Nov 29 2009.
7.30 AM Sunday 29 Nov 2009: We arrived at Bree-zee-lee marina. Everyone was milling around and there was no Ivory Gull in sight, but someone said that they had seen one at 7.00 AM in the morning. So we felt good and hoped for its return, while we had our coffee.
7.35 AM: The bird made its appearance. Followed its earlier day’s pattern of flight and then landed on one of the marina fences.
7.40 AM: On the marina fence. It was surveying the surroundings. I decided to walk on one of the floating docks to get a closer look and photograph. By then many others also had thought the same. So a dozen photographers and scope owners were walking on one of the docks closest to where the bird was with their heavy equipment and their movements made the dock shake violently. So when you took a shot of the bird, you get a nice blur of a bird. After sometime shaking reduced as the bird settled long time enough on the pole and so the photographers also got settled down after initial flurry of shots. Bird sat and preened. I actually saw it collect secretions and apply somewhere to the front which I could not see. But I did get a couple of shots that show exposed preen glands region.
7.46 AM: Bird is on the wing again. Several times landed on water and kept flying around into sun and over the water.
8.10 AM: Bird landed again close to where it was earlier. As photographers inched towards it, bird moved to a next pole at 8.10.59 AM. It sat there till 8.16 AM, while it watched us and surroundings.
8.16:59 AM: It was disturbed by people, or may be at the same time there was crow that was harassing the Great Blue Heron sitting on one of the fence posts further down disturbed the gull too. So the bird landed further away from us. The crow flew around the bird annoying it for a few minutes and the crow was gone.
8.30 AM: The bird was flying again and I got some blurry flight shots. Several times it was so close to us that I could not even focus and was too fast. In the mean time a Bufflehead and a Double-crested Cormorant distracted us to take their pictures while they were enjoying their bath and swim.
8.43.02 AM: It landed on the deck we were, behind us. The bird came to the same spot twice for no apparent reasons. To me it looked like one of the birder or a photographer was sneakily offering it something, but I may be wrong. At 8.43.26 AM it was gone.
8.45:17 AM: It was back to it s first spot close to where we were standing. It now did seem like that the bird did have some favorite locations where it returned often. It sat and watched and moved around its head a whole lot.
8.50:11 AM: I have picture taken at this time where it looks like bird shook his wet head and the water droplets are falling off his head!

Then he continued looking around facing this way and that way.
8.53:25 AM: He does that again. He shakes his head off of water!
8.56.00 AM: He is still in the same location.
I decided to try another dock from where I could get a better frontal view, though bird seemed to be further away from that spot. So we drive to other side of the marina and walk to the deck closest we could reach him. The deck is shaking madly as we walk on it.
9.04.40 AM: He shifts to another pole facing away from us. Turns around and sits for some more time watching boats and people from all directions turning his head around.
9.09.50 AM: He flew from his spot and headed straight to us.
9.09.59 Am: He lands on a pole just 12 feet away from us. I am so excited and I try to photograph him and catch half his body in my camera frame when he lands.
He sat and studied his surrounding, looked towards us, looked down and sideways. I keep shooting him trying to bracket my exposures while slightly changing focusing every time I shot. I also shot with my D50 using a 100mm macro lens. In about just 34 seconds, I took thirty one shots of him.
9.10.34 AM: He took off and went around looking for some food.
9.18.44 AM: I take a picture of him sitting on a pole towards north side. He had been there for a few minutes earlier as I spent some time watching him through Ann’s scope.
By then Ann was ready to head elsewhere and she wanted to head to car. If I had chance I could have spent full time enjoying this rare bird. I told her I will wait there till 9.30 AM.
While I was watching the IVORY GULL, when the bird was out of site or sitting at some locations for long durations, I chatted with other photographers and birders. I met Bob Fogg and he told me that he did not receive my mail. I also met Ned Brinkley, Renee Davis and many other people from different parts of the country. Some of the photographers had British accent, I wonder if they came from UK.
Later, we went to Cape May Hawk Watch platform and other locations to see birds. But nothing compared to the IVORY GULL! After a Pizza at Mario’s we headed home. I dropped off Ann at Allentown and we were happy to know that her car was still there. Except for a small delay of about 10 miles where there was a traffic jam due to an accident near Binghamton, I smoothly returned home.
We also saw some interesting insects. We had a Monarch, Painted Lady, Common Buckeye and a pair of Colias species. We also saw two Common Green Darners, one Darner sp. and an Autumn Meadowhawk.

Just after I hit I-81 from I-476 near Clarks Summit, a large owl flew over the road. I did not see any visible ears, so I presume it was probably a Barred Owl!
Thanks to Tom Fiore for keeping track of rare birds around New York and posting to NYSbirds and thanks to Tom for keeping us updated about the gulls movement!

There was some kind of soul touching spiritual satisfaction when the bird landed right in front of us and sat on for 34 sec on a pole 12 feet away from us!

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