I was getting my hair cut when Seth re-found the Gray-hooded Gull, Chroicocephalus cirrocephalus, Saturday early afternoon. I read the news on my iphone, sighed, and said to Diana, who had just finished washing my hair, “There’s a good bird at Coney Island. A Gray-hooded Gull. Usually seen in South America or Africa.” Diana, who is young and for some reason interested in my birding activities, said, “Really? I never see any good birds around here, just pigeons.”
I laughed. Because, that is the beautiful irony of birding, that magical creatures are found in the most unlikely places. An Ash-throated Flycatcher in a vacant lot by a subway station. A Hooded Crow in a bustling Staten Island park. And now, the second sighting of Gray-hooded Gull in the United States, flying and foraging in the midst of that classic Brooklyn boardwalk/beach scene, Coney Island. Not far, mileage-wise, from Forest Hills, Queens.
On a sunny, beautiful, hot Saturday afternoon, it took more than a few minutes to drive to Coney Island and find parking. I didn’t feel the anxiety I sometimes feel when I’m chasing a bird, the suspense of whether it will still be there or whether I will hear those dreaded words, “It was just here 5 minutes ago.” The bird had been seen, the bird was seen the day before, it had been seen six days ago at noon. That gull was not going anywhere else today. I walked down the boardwalk, past couples dancing to a live band, past guys lounging on the rail, past families dripping water munching on French fries and tacos, to the recommended spot, between Nathan’s and the Wonder Wheel.
There was a small knot of birders, recognizable by their field marks—binoculars, scopes, the fact that they were not wearing bathing suits, to the left of the bathing pavilion. Not all looking at the same spot, which meant they did not have the bird. One of them pointed to a flock of gulls further down. Too far to view without a scope and I had left mine in the car, so I walked on. I stopped to look at the Laughing Gulls flying in large circles over the beach. And, immediately, I spotted a gull that was different.
The head was gray. Not the splotchy gray of a first summer Laughing Gull, a lovely smooth gray hood distinctly delineated from the white body. And the wings! The upper wings were a work of art, a black-and-white pattern in decorative geometry.
If I were reporting on this bird for an ornithological magazine, this is what I would write, “ The upper wings had a prominent white leading edge, the white being most extensive on the middle primaries and primary coverts. The wing tip was mostly a large black triangle, which extended up both the leading and trailing edge. …A large white and short rectangular subterminal mirror was present on each of the two outermost primaries.” [quoted from The Gray-hooded Gull in North America: First Documented Record, by Douglas B. McNair, North American Birds, vol. 53 (1999), issue 3] I am very bad at observing these details, so thank you, Douglas McNair. I prefer to observe the larger picture, the gull as art soaring over my head, over the Wonder Wheel, and back to the beach, with a grace that cannot be conveyed in a photograph.
I was 99% sure I had The Bird. Looking back at the birders, I saw they were also observing it (confirmation!) as it flew out of sight. Back with the members of my tribe, engaging in the obligatory congrats and “what a great bird” comments, one of the birders kindly pointed out to me that the bird was still in the vicinity. In fact, it was perched on a utility pole, right above my head! Which was quite fortunate, since I was so busy looking at it the first time, I had forgotten I had a camera.
Perched, I could observe it’s pale eye (“The orbital ring was carmine, the iris pale yellowish-white, the pupil dark” McNair), red legs, and red bill. The first two features, as well as the uniform gray hood, were useful in distinguishing it from the Laughing Gulls , which became necessary when it flew over to perch with them on the roof of the bathing pavilion.
We soon had non-birders, including the local police, observing the bird with us, picking it out of the flock by finding the gull with the headlights, the two white windows that appeared when it flew overhead.
For those of you not familiar with the history of how this gull was found: the original finders, who had only been birding for a year, sent the sighting to ebird as a Black-headed Gull. Doug, the ebird arbiter for the area, asked for a photo. Black-headed Gull in mid-summer is noteworthy and unusual. He looked at the photo and, I imagine, said, “That ain’t no Black-headed Gull!” Several days had elapsed, and most of us thought the bird had moved on, but Shane, the Brooklyn bird whisperer, re-found the bird late Friday afternoon. It then appeared that the bird would be a 3-observer wonder, as it flew off before many other birders could see it, the beach was closed for fireworks, and a thunderstorm drenched the 5-minutes too late birders. But, no no no, it looks like this gull will be with us for a while. Who’s to say how long? The Gray-hooded Gull ain’t talking, just flying and foraging, just like it’s supposed to be doing.