Birders enjoy searching for “accidentals”– species found outside of their normal geographic ranges. I chase them too, but only if they are within a reasonable distance from home.
So why do we do this? Because it is fun, interesting and novel to find them. Searching for them takes us to unusual places that often feature other natural and cultural wonders as well. Witness our last two attempts to find accidental gulls.
One began on an overcast fall day in Puget Sound country. Although we departed from Seattle in the early afternoon, it already resembled evening! According to E-Bird posts, people had been seeing a Slaty-backed Gull, an accidental gull normally found in the Bering Sea that was found in Tacoma’s industrial waterfront. Its range is described in the National Geographic Birds of North America guide as “…very rare in winter south through the Pacific States.” The place where this bird had been found was Gog-le-hi-te Wetlands.
My wife Lori, who only recently started appreciating gulls, joined me on this quest. As a former EPA Superfund Director, she was familiar with Gog-le-hi-te. This 12-acre restored wetland on the Puyallup River Delta is a former city landfill. It now hosts more than 100 species of birds along with as an array of mammals, fish, reptiles and amphibians. Gog-le-hi-te derives from the Puyallup Tribe; it means “Where the land and waters meet.”
On our drive to this site, the clouds formed a menacing stew to the southwest. We headed into the industrial port of Tacoma, a world where semi-trucks and other heavy equipment are the norm and birders in Subaru’s are not.
After route finding through various wood products and shipping container storing sites, we found the subtly marked empty small parking area for Gog-le-hi-te Wetlands. A police car stopped by to investigate us and our vehicle. Then a recently-scarred young woman with jagged missing teeth walked over to ask us what we were doing. When we told her what we were up to, she replied “Oh, birds? There are lots of them down there.” (pointing to the river).
In this setting we felt slightly on guard, the sounds and sights of industry all around, yet grateful that nature in any form still exists here.
We saw a Mallards and American Wigeon on the large pond in the wetlands along with an assortment of Glaucous-winged and Glaucous-winged/Western Hybrid gulls on their way to the Puyallup River.
We finally scanned the shipping containers — the place where the last sighting of a Slaty-backed Gull had occurred several days before. We sorted through myriad gulls on the multi-colored, and multi-layered containers but alas, no Slaty-backed Gulls.
Meanwhile the rain intensified, the daylight diminished and the wind picked up. At 3:30 PM it looked like sunset. We called it a day (night?). Yes, we came up empty this time on our search for an accidental, but outings like these make life interesting.
This brings me back to our second gull search to another odd place between the Renton, Washington airport and a huge Boeing plant. Sandwiched between them is the mouth of the Cedar River as it enters Lake Washington. A long green corridor with a 17 -mile bicycle walking trail extending along the river creates a riparian habitat zone that often draws rare birds to this area. Remarkably, salmon still spawn here as evidenced by the one I saw one wriggling upstream. Gulls and other birds gather to feed on their carcasses.
We were searching for a Sabine’s Gull, a common migrant off the west coast that is seldom seen on the mainland where we were looking for it.
There were at least 100 gulls of multiple species to sort through, but the petite Sabine’s Gull stood out clearly in contrast to the hulking Glaucous-winged Gulls around it. It was a “life” bird for us.
What a fine way in which to spend a part of a day!
The entire experience was free of charges except for the price of gas and the initial investment in a car and optics. You can attend movies, plays, sporting events and the like, pay tens to hundreds of dollars to do so, and have very mixed experiences. When you go out in nature – even restored nature in places like these – you almost never have a bad day. In our consumer-oriented, human-centered society, it may come as a surprise that the best show on earth is free. The ticket price is a little time, your senses engaged, patience, and a pair of binoculars.