Monday, February 18, 2008

wild gull chase

I've been following the reports of the slaty backed gull in Gloucester since December, longing to see it or at least to have the time to look for it. So finally it's a holiday that we at Gray Cubicle World actually get and I don't have any family obligations... OK, cut to the chase...

I searched all over Cape Ann and didn't find it but I had a lot of fun trying.

At Jodrey State Fish Pier I found 5 Iceland gulls, one glaucous gull, the usual herring and great black back gulls, a couple of common loons, red breasted mergansers, common goldeneye, common eiders, a talkative fisherman, two very friendly dogs, several birders looking for the slaty back, and even, very briefly, the sun peeking out from the thick gray sky. None of the birders were saying anything, just scanning the birds in the harbor and on top of the roofs for the slaty back. The talktative fisherman and his extremely friendly dog broke the ice with one couple who were staring through their scopes at one of the Iceland gulls. He was going on about whether the male or the female is prettier among birds and such. He even asked the male birder if the female birder was his wife and declared her prettier. She had an Australian accent. They weren't married. I watched and listened in awe as the fisherman broke all the rules of not only good old New England reserve but also the Massachusetts birders' unspoken code of only speaking to people they know. Anyway, I took the opportunity to point out more of the Iceland gulls and a loon. Somebody sitting in a car asked me about the eiders, which were very close to shore and climbing around on rocks.

At 3:00 PM, the male of the scope pair announced to the Aussie woman and the world in general: "It's 3:00, the slaty back has just landed at Niles Pond." I asked him "Are you psychic or did you just get a message from someone?" "I've been searching for this gull for a month. It's my Moby Dick. I know its habits." "That makes you Ahab. You're doomed."

I kept telling myself and anyone within ear shot that I just knew the slaty back was on that roof across the harbor, but I stared and scanned methodically examining every gull I could get in focus and only ended up cursing my inadequate binoculars and lack of scope. Ahab and the Aussie left for Niles Pond. We wished each other luck. I stuck around the pier checking out each new gull arriving with a fishing boat or moving from the roof to the harbor. I watched the eiders clamber around on the rocks looking ridiculous. They are not exactly built for land. Finally, I too left for Niles Pond.

I drove all over the place looking in coves and inlets, nooks and crannies, and everywhere along the way. I drove the circle around eastern point several times. At Niles Pond I scanned a flock of gulls roosting on the ice. There was so much fog coming up from the melting ice that the gulls looked like they were in a steam bath. There were a couple of mute swans in open water just beyond where the gulls were. They looked surreal. With each pass around the circle, the pond got foggier. The gulls got noisier. I drove around some more and then walked down the little foot path to a spot where you can see the pond from a different angle just before trespassing on private property. Couldn't see any better from there. Eventually, I realized it was only going to get foggier and darker. No slaty back for me today.

On the way home I spotted a used book store that I'd never seen before in Essex. I pulled into the parking lot and walked up to the door. The sign says they close at 5:00. My watch says it's 5:08. Sigh. No used books for me today.

By the time I got as far as Georgetown, it had started raining again. It rained the rest of the way to North Andover.