Who the hell set my alarm for 3 AM?
Right. That was me.
Four hours later I was in Ephrata, Washington, doubting my sanity.
There were two cars in our caravan. Five demented birders. We had about twelve hours of driving from Seattle, Washington to Palmer Lake near Loomis, Washington and back. Where is Loomis? That’s what most people say.
A steel gray morning broke as we climbed onto the Waterville plateau, out of channels of basaltic flows that blanketed out over 4 millions years ago. When lava began to periodically sweep over the landscape millions of years before this, it was lush and wet, a polar opposite of the now arid high desert.
The sun wasn’t yet strong enough to budge the hard frost, an elegant tinsel about the trees lining the few farm houses dotting vast fields of cultivation. Agriculture reigns throughout this part of Washington like many others. We power through it and the small towns heading north. Bridgeport, Omak, Okanogan, Riverside, and finally, after almost five hours, Tonasket. Turn off to the Loomis-Oroville highway things start feeling rustic, exhilaratingly obscure.
If I’d told you we made a 10 hour drive to see one bird, would you think me crazy? Not just any bird, but a gull that without careful observation, most wouldn’t notice as particularly striking in basic (non-breeding) plumage. What about the dozens of other birders clustered around Lake Palmer squinting across the water, shivering and straining through scopes? My non-birder friends would hardly be surprised, but that doesn’t mean they get it. Yet, across the water was a gull that inspired this frenzy of driving. With a vague hue of pink, like the pale sunrise hours before, there sat a Ross’s Gull (Rhodostethia rosea), Washington’s second.
This bird is not only rare here, it is a sought after species in normal range. This is a truly unique and superbly adapted species, exciting enough to see in its own landscape, let alone Washington. If you want to see a Ross’s Gull, typically you head to Barrow, Alaska in October for migration, or to Siberian or Northern Canadian marshy tundra during the breeding season. If you are truly demented, you could peruse the edge of arctic ice flows during winter. Spending one day with hours of driving across Washington and back, with the strong possibility of dipping on the gull, was odd. Yet, here we all were, some of the hundreds who visited the lake tucked away in the precipitous mountains of north central Washington, thousands of miles away from this bird’s home.
Named for James Clark Ross, an English naval officer who explored the arctic and the antarctic, the Ross’s Gull is monotypic (but certainly not unique in being named after a dead white man). Sole membership to the genus seems immediately appropriate when one is adorned in striking alternate (breeding) plumage. Despite their beauty, there is no accurate count of populations I’ve ever heard, or extensive information on their natural history. Territory on the edge tends to restricts our knowledge base. Their summer diet revolves around insects, abundant for the punctuated profusion of arctic summer. Winter is spent scraping by on algae and likely whatever else is found.
At first the atmosphere was reserved. When we arrived around 9 AM, they’d seen the bird. The deer carcass sustaining the gull’s vagrancy was still iced over; it had flown. Only certain portions of the lake were accessible or visible and there was concern that it would settle in an obscured corner. Thankfully, we didn’t have to drive the frigid lake shore for hours. The chase was fruitful.
A chase was exactly what this was. We saw the bird, watched it for about an hour, and then left. In many ways I was happy to leave. This didn’t feel organic or entirely enjoyable. Thirty birders huddled around watching one bird. Seeing it was a pleasure, how it flew and jumped above the drift ice in foraging behavior that seemed particular to a bird that winters on the edge of arctic ice. We had diagnostic views of dark underwings, a pinkish wash, a wedge shaped tail, and a small dark bill, but it never came close.
Yet something wasn’t right. Without sounding like a hermit or agoraphobic, I don’t relish this aspect of birding. Too many people vying for room, vying for attention to their ego. A crowd is still a crowd, even looking at a cool, rare bird. I didn’t need to hear the woman shouting out every little detail about the gull, as if she was announcing a horse race. I didn’t need to hear the pretentious discussions of binoculars, cameras, and trips. Too much showing off, too little reserve, appreciation, time spent learning, and ultimately, respect. Call me negative but this wasn’t what I looked for in a community. The numerous pleasurable people I spoke with were overshadowed by this miasma of obsession. I was reminded why I don’t always chase rare birds, despite admittance of enjoying adding them to my life list.
What was the point of driving all this distance, using these resources, to see a bird almost certainly destined for death far from home? This little gull had probably gotten lost, arriving here in attempts to find food. As I’ve grown older, this internal battle has raged, largely because I know the value of birding isn’t housed in vagrant species. Yet a part of me is still giddy in the chase or discovery. Some aspects of it warrant intellectual pondering, postulating on the why and how. Yet, the most benficial part of traveling to a remote locale for birding is that it can have a positive economic impact on the communities visited. Very simply, more habitat will be saved if a community sees gain in catering to nature oriented visitors. This works well around the world, a strong basis for local driven conservation efforts.
Passing through Loomis I considered all this. We’d seen other captivating things this day but had to rush by. Two ram Bighorn Sheep, crossed the road in front of us and stood veiled behind bare Douglas maples eying us from mere feet away. A deer kill, I’d guess from a Cougar (they tend to return to a kill and eat, incapable of devouring in the manner of wolves), was covered in Black-billed Magpie, Common Ravens, a young Golden Eagle, and two adult Bald Eagles. I counted a dozen Rough-legged Hawks between Palmer Lake and Seattle, wintering from the north.
The day ended with a beautiful sunset over Cle Elum and the eastern Cascades. I felt justified in having taken this trip but I still felt uneasy about aspects of it. How much of birding recklessly ignores impact in favor of valorous exploits? Does this make our pastime, in extremes or not, any better than something sneered at as explicitly impactful like say, snowmobiling? Did anyone learn anything in seeing the Ross’s Gull or did they just get their check mark?