I rarely chase birds that are more than a 30-minute drive from my home. I don’t like driving on the highway or in traffic, and I always worry that bird will have left by the time I get to the spot or that no one else will be there to point the way if the bird is in a place I am not familiar with (the main reason I never did see a Boreal Owl last winter). It would have to be a really good bird for me to make the effort, such as the Whimbrel Deb and I went to see at Presqu’ile Provincial Park three years ago….but then, Presqu’ile is renowned birding location in its own right, and we were planning to go there anyway.
The Ross’s Gull is another such bird. A species of the remote Arctic wilderness, it inhabits the pack ice and tundra of Greenland, Siberia, and the North American High Arctic. In Canada, only a handful of breeding locations are known from Churchill, Manitoba and Queen’s Channel in Nunavut, and only a few birds nest at each site. To add to its mystique, this species migrates north in the fall, spending its winters on the Arctic pack ice where it feeds on fish and crustaceans found in the open water of the Arctic Ocean. It was unknown in the continental United States until 1975 when a single bird was discovered in Newburyport, Massachusetts, but sightings now occur almost every year, each vagrant individual drawing birders from hundreds of kilometers away. The Ross’s Gull isn’t just a rarity; it’s a MEGA-rarity.
On November 9, 2013, an adult Ross’s Gull in winter plumage was discovered on the Richelieu River in Chambly, Quebec, about a 2.5 hour drive from Ottawa. It spent the following week dividing its time between the river and a local sewage treatment plant, developing a predictable routine of flying up to the marina on the Richelieu River around mid-day and flying back to the lagoon in mid-afternoon. I didn’t think much of this bird until Chris Lewis emailed me and a few others on Friday night to ask if we wanted to join her the following day on a road trip to Chambly.
After some deliberation I said yes. It seemed like a rather easy bird to find, and I was up for the excitement of a road trip and my first ever real “twitch” – British birding parlance meaning the act of traveling a great distance on short notice to spot a rare bird. Bev McBride also opted to come, and along the way we spotted a couple of large flocks (at least a couple of thousand) Snow Geese out near Casselman and Lancaster, as well as my first Rough-legged Hawk of the fall before we even left Ontario. The agricultural fields of Quebec were barren; except for a few Red-tailed Hawks and the waterfowl on the St. Lawrence River we saw hardly any birds.
At the marina we met two of Chris’s friends from upstate New York who had already checked the river to no avail. From there we drove over to the sewage treatment plant, which is NOT open to birders, although we were allowed to view the first cell of the lagoons from an observation area just off of Industriel Blvd. Several Bonaparte’s and Ring-billed Gulls were feeding in the cell along with a couple of mallards; however, a number of gulls kept flying out from the cells that we couldn’t see, and after about 15 minutes a birder said he has just seen the Ross’s Gull flying north, presumably back to the marina.
The five of us left the treatment plant and headed back up to the Richelieu River. Chris parked at the fort and were able to pick out the Ross’s Gull floating on the water several meters beyond the sandbar, pecking at the water’s surface. There was barely any pink on its breast; however, when it bobbed forward we could see a deeper shade of pink beneath its tail. We were only able to view it for about 10 or 15 minutes before it flew straight toward the birders standing at the marina and kept flying south.
We all rushed back to the sewage treatment plant and found the Ross’s Gull in the first cell this time, and were able to get some excellent views through the scope. The Ross’s Gull is a dainty bird, rather cute for a gull, with a tiny black bill, soft gray and white plumage and of course, the rosy pink underparts. Breeding adults have a black collar; this bird did not have one. The Ross’s Gull is unique among gulls in that it has a wedge-shaped tail, much like a raven’s, though I never saw this feature as it is only visible in flight. We watched it for a good 20 minutes as it continued to peck at invisible bugs on the water’s surface (it was about 13°C and we’d already seen quite a few small flies buzzing about that day), feeding with the Bonaparte’s and Ring-billed Gulls as the sun sank lower in the sky behind the lagoons.
The Ross’s Gull is bird #295 on my life list, and an incredible one to have. It ranks high among most birders’ “most wanted” lists, and few birders get the chance to see it unless they are willing to travel to its breeding grounds in Churchill, Manitoba in the summer or a rare vagrant happens to show up in their neighbourhood. I am thankful that Chris invited me and Bev to join her on the trip to Chambly, and that we were able to see the gull and get some great looks at it! It was a grand adventure, and one I’ll remember for many years to come.