When I woke up on August 31st, 2017, I was prepared for the day to be quite ordinary. It was the second day of my senior year of high school, and I fully expected to spend it discussing class rules and catching up with friends and their summer activities. But as I turned off my alarm and checked my phone for early-morning notifications, I was soon to discover that August 31st, 2017 was to be one of the most exciting days of my birding career.
Rather than Snapchat notifications from my East Coast friends three hours ahead, I was greeted by a text from local superstar-birder Ryan Merrill, with a slightly grainy photo of a flock of gulls on an algae-strewn beach. The location was Carkeek Park, in north Seattle. It took a moment for my mind to wake up and recognize the black-headed species at the center… a SWALLOW-TAILED GULL.
That woke me up faster than a strong cup of coffee! Swallow-tailed Gulls are a mythical bird in North America, having only been reported twice before from the continent in recorded history. Swallow-tailed Gulls are a distinctive, gorgeous, sexilicious gull that breeds only in the Galapagos and ranges down along the Humboldt Current until central Chile, far out at sea. The species holds the distinction of being the world’s only nocturnal gull. How cool is that!? Everything about them, from their red orbital ring, to their sleek black head, to their distinctive light-tipped, sickle-like black bill, to their licorice-red legs, to even the thin white brace that separates their ashy-gray mantle from their wing, oozes incredible aesthetic appeal.
I knew immediately that this gull was my biggest priority of my day. School could kiss my rump, I thought – it was only the second day, after all, and senioritis was quickly settling in. However, my parents initially were not entirely having the idea of skipping class for a bird, even one so rare and spectacular as this. I reluctantly agreed to chase the bird after school, and grimly settled into what I felt would be an excruciating day. My first period class of photography was spent idling in a pile of sweat, wondering who was watching the gull, what it was doing, and why it was even there in the first place, 3,700 miles from its normal range. I began to worry that the gull flock would scatter as the tide rose in the afternoon, and that sealed the deal for me… I had to leave, immediately.
Second period was my “off-period”, and as soon as Photography ended, I was running home and calling my mom to get a ride. I reasoned that Spanish was worth missing, but I needed to be back to catch Calculus. A few minutes later, I had loaded my gear in the car, and we were off!
Seattle was quite gray and misty that morning. An aura of excitement hung in the air, getting stronger with each passing moment as we hurried through Seattle, held up briefly by several gut-wrenching traffic jams. When I arrived at Carkeek Park, however, I realized I needn’t have worried: about 20 birders were lined up along the beach, all with scopes trained on the gull. And there it was!
The Swallow-tailed Gull was every bit as breathtaking as I hoped it would be. As it preened and waddled around among a horde of California Gulls, it showed off that distinctive, attractive head, the white brace on the wing, the legs… the whole bit! Funnily enough, the one part I did not quite see was the swallow tail itself. But who am I to complain?
After about 25 minutes of soaking in the moment, a train passed on the tracks beside the beach, and the gulls began to scatter. As the Swallow-tail vanished into the fog, I knew that this was my cue to race back to school. Victory had been achieved! I got back just a few minutes late for Calculus, but I excused it as a doctor’s appointment without incident, and that was it. I had successfully skipped school for a Code 5 rarity.
As it turns out, I needn’t have been concerned about the gull vanishing: it came back to the beach and continued to perform for a growing crowd of birders until sunset! As a nocturnal gull that primarily feeds on squid, birders knew that the gull would hunt at night and find a different roost for the next morning. It was a stressful day for visiting birders, unsure if anyone would refind the bird. Sure enough, at 4 PM the gull was finally relocated at another beach farther north. One sunset performance later, the gull vanished into the night, and hasn’t been seen again since. I hope that changes, there are still a lot of people flying in to look!
The leading theory for why this gull was anywhere near the Emerald City is related to meteorological phenomena, as is the case for many rarities. In the El Niño event of 2015-16, it is quite likely that seabirds from the Galapagos dispersed from their core range in search of better feeding opportunities. After roaming the North Pacific for a long while, the gull would have entered Puget Sound, a good feeding area for squid. While Swallow-tailed Gulls are normally quite a pelagic species anywhere outside of the Galapagos, they do come to shore when engaging in breeding behavior – and indeed, the Seattle gull was performing foot-staring behavior that indicated breeding urges. This theory seems quite sound, but it doesn’t explain why there are two Nazca Boobies in Alaska, another Galapagos breeder, as well as a Brown Booby of similar provenance. Why are tropical seabirds dispersing in the North Pacific? What is going on? We don’t know! Part of the fun and challenge of studying birds is having these sorts of surprises – mysteries that we have yet to resolve. All we can do is enjoy the bizarre occurrences that come our way, and try to figure out a pattern so we can find even more bizarre occurrences in the future.
I will certainly always treasure this bizarre occurrence – an incredibly cool bird, and the rarest I’ve ever seen. My first personally seen first state record, and my first Code 5, all in my home county! The Swallow-tailed Gull, and so many other stories like it, motivate me to get out birding as often as I can to see what I can find. Will I find the next Code 5 rarity in North America? Will I spot the next Swallow-tailed Gull? Maybe it’ll be you!