It was 8:15 on a Saturday morning when Woody Goss’ phone rang.
Annoyed, he looked at the screen to find one of his group of birdwatchers puzzling over a small white seagull with distinctive black spots. The bird looked like a Ross’s gull, a very rare high-Arctic visitor that last stopped on Chicago’s beaches in 1978.
But can it be?
Goss – the “man-gull” among birds – had no doubts. He ran out of the house and drove from Lakeview to Rainbow Beach on the South Shore “faster than I can admit to a reporter.”
And there he was, 2,000 miles from his icy home.
“It’s about as good as it gets for me, not just as a birder, but in life,” Goss, 34, said.
According to John Bates, curator of birds at Chicago’s Field Museum, the bird that drew a crowd of up to 200 on Saturday and reappeared to the delight of spectators at nearby Steelworkers Park on Tuesday and Wednesday is indeed a long-awaited Ross’s Gull.
“It really is,” said Bates, who saw the bird foraging on the shores of Rainbow Beach on Saturday.
“Most of the time they’re just above the Arctic Circle, and occasionally they wander into the lower 48, but they often don’t stay there very long. So the idea that this bird allowed itself to be seen by so many people was really fun,” Bates said.
Larger than a crow, with a small black beak and a beautiful soft pink color on the breast and head during the breeding season, Ross’s gull usually prefers places like Siberia, northern Canada and the icy Arctic Ocean.
But every few years, for reasons unknown, one of these feisty little seabirds makes its way south to the United States, according to Bates. These visits can be very short. A Ross’s Gull was spotted on Montrose Beach about a dozen years ago. One person took a good photo, ornithologists say, and then the seagull disappeared.
The birding community gets quite excited when a Ross’s Gull stops by for a nice, leisurely visit, and the last time it happened in Cook County was in 1978.
A few years earlier, Ross’s gull appeared near Boston, drawing a crowd of up to 3,000, according to The New York Times.
“You never know where it’s going to be, and that’s why it has a sort of mythical reputation,” Goss said.
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This time, the legendary bird made its first appearance in Park 566, north of Metallurgical Park. Dan Lawrie, 68, of Hyde Park, was out on his usual birding trip there when he spotted an unusual bird out of the corner of his eye. He thought it might be a Bonaparte’s Gull or a Black-legged Kittiwake, but when he checked with his field guide, there was only one definition that made sense.
Laurie posted a photo of the bird on the Cook County Bird Chat, not even daring to say what he thought he had found, but the rest of the group confirmed his suspicions — and within an hour, about 100 people had arrived.
Among those who have seen the bird in recent days is John Viramontes, 71, a retired accountant who lives in the Belmont Craigin area. During a break in his search at Rainbow Beach yesterday, he pulled out a camera photo showing the distinctive m-shaped black spots along the upper wings of a young Ross’s gull; short black beak; graceful wedge tail.
Amanda Parrish, 37, a lab manager from Woodstock, managed to see the bird on Saturday despite being on crutches and with a broken ankle. She was back again Wednesday with friends from the McHenry County Audubon Society.
Also on stage was Greg Nise, web czar of the American Birding Association and longtime Chicago ornithologist.
Nise left his west suburban home while the bird was still in sight in Steelers Park in the South Chicago neighborhood, but by the time he arrived, it had flown north and disappeared.
“It’s a 45-year saga,” Ness said with a sigh. At the time of Ross’s gull sighting in 1978, he was only 15 years old, but he was on North Avenue Beach trying to get a look. The blizzard of 1978 began, but ornithologists stood their ground. Someone noticed a seagull, and Neise ran up. Two expert ornithologists said to him, “There it is,” and as soon as they said so, the bird rose and flew away.
“It hit my binoculars and flew off into the snowstorm and I never got a good look at it to identify it for myself,” Nise said.
Then, about 10 years ago, he tried again. He managed to see a Ross’s Gull in Cherry Creek, Colorado. He was far in the water, but then he began to fly towards him.
“He’s coming in, and as he’s getting close, my camera’s on the line — and he’s right in front of us,” Nise said.
Nise joined about 15 birders at Steelworkers Park, a trash-strewn field perched above the copper-green waters of Lake Michigan. The wind was blowing and fingers were stiff, but the mood was upbeat as ornithologists with powerful scopes on tripods peered down at the canal where the bird had been seen earlier in the day.
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The birds came from Ohio, Michigan and Minnesota.
“It’s a good day for driving anyway, and let’s keep our fingers crossed,” said Chris Knutson of Berrien County, Michigan, a 30-year-old bird trapper who made the hike with her husband, teacher Denis Fortin.
Darlene Friedman, a retired veterinarian who traveled from Detroit with a friend, said they missed the seagull by about 15 minutes.
Nise remained at Steelworkers Park Wednesday afternoon, holding a camera the size of his forearm and talking to fellow birder Tom Lally of Chicago. They looked up at the pale winter sky, surveyed the bright water, wondered where their goal was.
“It could have been sitting in a grassy field and just hanging out,” Nise said.
“It could have been a slip in ’92,” Lally mused.
The birds appeared. A male red-breasted merganser with a jade-green mohawk perched on a tiny patch of beach opposite the birds, as if patiently waiting for a close-up.
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A kestrel, America’s smallest falcon, was perched high in a tree with bright orange markings on full display. Using the scope of one of the ornithologists, you could even see the tiny legs of a mouse that the bird was holding in its claws.
Snow-white seagulls soared majestically overhead. Red-winged blackbirds screamed their electric “tsve-i-i-i-i-i-i-i”.
And still the birds were waiting.
Finally, around 6 p.m., with the sky over the lake turning a faint red and dusk just beginning to fall, Neise was ready to leave. In tribute to his earlier lack of luck with a Ross’s gull, he told the crowd of about 20 that the bird he had missed earlier in the day by about an hour was likely to show up 15 minutes after his departure.
When asked how he was feeling, he laughed and declared the defeat “normal”.
“Decades of frustration!” Ness said. “You just have to say, ‘Pull it on!’ I’ll take it.'”