Friday, April 15, 2022

700 Quest! Part II: 700 Quest!

Click here for Part 1 of 700 Quest!

I came home from Texas with 699 ABA birds and with no idea how long I'd have to wait for 700. What could it be? Would I make a trip to Canadian breeding grounds to finally connect with a Connecticut Warbler? Could I talk my wife into taking our son on a one-in-a-lifetime vacation to Oklahoma to see a Lesser Prairie-chicken? When and how??

The answer, it turns out, was six days.

On the afternoon of Thursday February 17, a text message from my ol buddy and Maine Audubon colleague Doug Hitchcox popped up in the group thread. He asked a simple question, about whether I'd ever seen a Common Gull. No, I replied, I had only seen a Short-billed Gull, the American species that was recently recognized after splitting Mew Gull into Short-billed and Common. Oh, he replied, well a Common was just seen in Washington County, Maine. Eyeball emojis followed. If I could connect, it'd be 700.

My god. Despite the fact that this bird was just a few hours' drive away, I was on the fence. I'd have to take a day off work, and I'd just cashed in some "Can you please take care of our son while I go chase birds" chips the week before with my Texas trip. Looking back through the text messages I wasn't sure I could or should go. I had plenty of excuses: the weather was going to be crummy; the bird probably wouldn't stick around; it was too far; maybe waiting another day until the weekend was a better idea. Etc.

But this is why Doug is the best. Doug was the first birding friend I ever made - the only other person under the age of 50 at Evergreen Cemetery when I met him by the ponds in 2008. We bonded immediately and began chasing birds together - first to Massachusetts for an Ivory Gull, and later to Florida, Texas, and all across Maine. In that time I've watched him grow from a bird (and beer) obsessed kid to a bird-obsessed professional, one of the best and most respected and without a doubt the most beloved birder in Maine. 

Plus he's dedicated to chasing birds, and as a result is just two birds away from hitting 400 in the state, an incredible milestone only achieved by one or two people in history. Much of that success, I think, is because Doug has a simple but effective rule for chasing: go, and go now. Don't wait around. Don't wait for a better or more convenient day. Go get the bird as soon as you can.

And that's what he did to me. From our texts: "But would it return there in the rain?" I asked, cowardly. "I don't know. Gulls will keep foraging in the rain." He replied. "Hahaha I don't know either. I'd love to get 700 with you but everything else about this bites," I said, stupidly, using a term from, what, 1992? "Let's just go for it." He said, smartly. "fuck ok" I capitulated. It was on.

We met at the wretched hour of 4:30AM at an unremarkable park-n-ride near Gray, Maine and headed north. The bird had been spotted in Eastport, the absolute furthest eastern town - Downeastern, really - on Maine's map. We set off in the rain and drive into the dawn, quickly and painlessly making our way to the spot where the bird had been seen the day before.

The weather was not helpful. It was howling wind, like a can't-open-my-eyes-or-the-car-door type wind. Rain was pelting us sideways. Gulls were swirling all around us, riding the wind in huge messy flocks, mostly distant and out of view. For a bird like a Common Gull, which looks remarkably like a Ring-billed Gull, picking it out of a flock like that -- if it even was still around -- would have been impossible. 

(I should say that a species is a species is a species, but Common Gull isn't exactly the most exciting bird there is as far as 700s go. It is a recently split, and looks for all the world like a stunted Ring-bill, which is perhaps the boringest bird on the planet with all due respect. Some friends urged my not to go after a Common Gull for 700 because it's so lame. But it's a species, and a cool vagrant, and a perfect representation of life on Earth! Let's go!)

Doug and I scanned the small flock of Ring-billed on the grassy lawn where the bird had been seen the day before but didn't see anything. We weren't sure what to do, but then a car parked a ways up ahead of us turned around and drove down towards us. It was a birder. "You're the Birdist, right?" the driver said. "Do you see it? It's that one right there, right?" He pointed to a bird we must have scanned over towards the back of the flock, and we took a closer look. Sure enough. Common Gull, ABA 700.

We watched the bird for as long as we could tolerate the wind and rain. I got some terrible pictures, and Doug (as always) got some better ones, found here. We did it.

The birder in the car was none other than Seymore Gulls, aka PDXbirder, the birder, artist, and field guide author from Portland, Oregon. He was in town to see the Steller's Sea Eagle, which was still present off and on in the Boothbay area. But the eagle was unreliable and a Common Gull was probably less likely to show up in Oregon, so he bombed up from the Midcoast even earlier than we had. 

And thank goodness for it. 700! It felt good. A relief, mostly, that I didn't have to be nagged by getting to this big number, or felt obligated to spend time and money chasing some bird that I didn't really care about, and could focus my attention on birding in places I really want to. Mission accomplished, and now time to start some new missions.

We bid farewell to the bird and kept going. Seymore wanted to try to find a Spruce Grouse and I'm always down for that, so we checked Boot Head Preserve but came up very empty (raven, BCCH, and HERG and that's it). Seymore headed south to find the eagle (successfully!), and Doug and I checked around a bit. 

We found ourselves at Quoddy Head State Park, a Maine landmark that I'd somehow never visited before. It's the easternmost point of land in the US, and just a gorgeous spot. The birding was OK, but the scenery was amazing -- the waves were huge and dramatic. It was a nice moment for me, and reminded me of just what I love the most about birding. It's not necessarily the birds themselves, it's the places they take me. Just a week before I was standing on the banks of the Rio Grande among palms and mesquite near the southernmost point in Texas, and here I was a week later breathing the salt air looking across a wintery bay towards Canada. Birding is an adventure, from number one through number 700 and beyond. I can't wait to keep going.


Seymore Gulls said...

O what a crazy day that was! So happy to be there for it!

John Callender said...

eBird shows you with 739 for the U.S. Are you counting it as 700 by limiting to the traditional ABA area, with Hawaii excluded?

Just curious. Congratulations!

Nick said...

Hi John. Yes, when I started birding, ABA Area meant "US and Canada excluding Hawaii," and so my earliest frame of reference for the number 700 was that region. It still is, though I welcome Hawaii into the ABA and loved my time birding there! I think some people refer to the old area as ABA Continental...

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