Bird enthusiasts near and far were treated to a visit last week from an elusive gull that appeared Thursday in a Pillar Point Harbor parking lot — far from its breeding grounds in the high Arctic.
Known as the Ross’s gull, this special bird is often at the top of the “must see” list for many in the know. Sightings are infrequent and that rarity adds to its allure.
Typically, Ross’s gulls don’t venture too far from their icy tundra of a habitat in the most unpopulated northern reaches of the high latitudes, experts say. Sometimes the bird will venture as far south as Alaska for the winter and while sightings have been reported in Canada and sometimes on the East Coast of the United States, it’s really unusual to see one come as far south as California.
In fact, last week’s sighting was only the second ever reported in the state. The gull was also spotted at Salton Sea in 2006.
The bird is smaller than many other gulls — lending it a sort of delicate presence that is only enhanced by its blush pink chest and necklace-like markings around its neck. To the untrained eye, the bird could be mistaken as a pigeon, save for its webbed feet, perhaps.
The bird has enjoyed celebratory status since the mid-1970s. It was considered one of the first rare birds discovered when it was found in Massachusetts in 1975, said local birding expert Alvaro Jaramillo.
“At that time they considered it the bird of the century,” he said.
In the Coastside’s first appearance, discoverer Don Pendleton spotted it just before 2 p.m. on Thursday near the RV lot by Pillar Point Harbor. Pendleton had a hunch that he had landed on something special. He called up fellow bird enthusiast and El Granada resident Donna Pomeroy and she rushed over.
Together, the pair identified the bird as the elusive gull. Pomeroy took photos to make sure the sighting would be documented and they each called and sent out messages to more of their bird-loving friends.
“I had to stop myself from shaking the camera because I was so excited,” said Pomeroy. She has been an active bird-watcher since 1978 and studied ornithology in college. “I started texting and calling everyone I knew.”
Word got out quickly and soon dozens of birders rushed to the scene. They poured in from all around the Bay Area and beyond — even creating a bit of a traffic snarl on Highway 1 near Surfer’s Beach.
“It was sort of like a bunch of old friends getting together,” described birder Ted Gilliland of the scene. Gilliland learned about the sighting from a bird-watchers listserv on Thursday and decided to make the trek out from Davis.
“There’s a lot of pretty remarkable creatures out there, and some you have to be very fortunate to see,” said Gilliland. “The opportunity to get to see one down here is really quite special.”
No one knows for sure why the Ross’s gull came to Half Moon Bay. Some experts suspect that the recent storms might have blown the bird off course. Jaramillo, an internationally known avian expert, says he believes the weather is irrelevant. “They winter in the Bering Sea,” said Jaramillo. “(The Ross’s gull has) already been through storms.”
Instead, Jaramillo suspects that there might be something missing in the gull’s environment. Maybe it’s in search of more ice, or wonders where the polar bears went, Jaramillo suggests.
“It could be looking for different kinds of situations,” he said. “Something that was previously much more reliable.”
A few remarked that the gull appeared weak and hungry as it was harassed by crows. It seemed oblivious to the crowds of adoring fans — humans who watched the bird’s every move in awe.
Fellow bird-watcher Gary Deghi was working at his home office in Ocean Colony when he got the call from Pendleton.
“When he told me there was a Ross’s gull I basically panicked,” said Deghi, a wildlife biologist and vice president of an environmental consulting group in San Rafael. “I grabbed my shoes and socks and didn’t even bother to put them on.”
That sentiment was shared by Marcel Holyoak, a University of California, Davis, ecology professor who lives in Los Gatos. When Holyoak first heard the news that this particular gull had been spotted in Half Moon Bay he said he was beside himself with excitement. Holyoak has spent a decent portion of his life chasing after reported sightings of the Ross’s gull only to miss it by hours or, in one case, seconds.
On Thursday, Holyoak knew it would be dark by the time he could make it to the Coastside so he stayed tuned the next morning — hoping there would be another sighting on Friday. He gave his wife the heads-up that he may be ducking out at a moment’s notice and, sure enough, as he was fixing his children breakfast he got word that the Ross’s gull had reappeared. True to his word, Holyoak dashed out, leaving his coffee on the kitchen table.
Pomeroy estimates that maybe 500 people got to see the gull between Thursday and Saturday, when the bird seemed to alternate between the harbor area and the airport. A few birders even flew in from out of state, Pomeroy said. There was at least one from Texas and another from Florida.
Unfortunately, all did not end well for the adventuresome avian. To the dismay of many, the Ross’s gull was killed around 2 p.m. Saturday by a pair of peregrine falcons that scooped up their exotic prey mid-flight near the Three-Zero Cafe. It was a situation local bird-watcher and Coastside Land Trust Executive Director Jo Chamberlain referred to as a “tragic comedy.”
Some of the bird’s adoring fans theorized that it might have been weakened from hunger. That would have left the gull vulnerable to birds of prey. Its bright white color and solitary nature didn’t help either, birders noted.
Jennifer Rycenga, president of the Sequoia Audubon Society said, while many birders can accept the peregrine falcons’ actions as representing the natural cycle of life, the fact that it was such a rare bird made it a little hard to stomach.
“I still felt a little tug of the heart,” Rycenga said.
Rycenga noted that peregrine falcons themselves were once put in great danger by the use of DDT in the 1950s and ’60s and that up until 25 years ago it was still quite rare to see them.
With a range of different habitats offered in a small area and large sections of open space, Rycenga says it’s not too unusual to spot unique or vagrant birds on the Coastside.
Rycenga says she hopes to see the excitement surrounding the Ross’s gull as a gateway of sorts to getting even more people involved in bird-watching. She hopes that could encourage more citizen science that could ultimately lead to combating larger issues such as global climate change.
“This appearance of the Ross’s gull shouldn’t be merely a legend of birdwatchers,” Rycenga said.