Thursday, January 22, 2015

Post #2 - Kelp gull and some psychology of bird chasing/listing

A few days go I read an online report of a possible/probable Kelp gull in Pittsburgh. This is an incredible rare wanderer to the ABA area with only a handful of recognized sightings scattered around the country. Similar to Great Black-backed gull, Kelp gull can apparently be differentiated from the former by its smaller bill, greenish/yellow legs (versus pink), and darker mantle. I say apparently as I have no first-hand experience with Kelp gull and had to resort to the internet for this information. I am sure there are other field marks, but I just wanted to highlight what appear to be the most obvious for this discussion.

Kelp gull range

Kelp gull sightings in US/Mexico

When I first read the post about the gull, I was initially very excited. Here was the chance to add a fantastic bird to my Lower 48 list. By chase standards, the 600-mile, round-trip drive is significant but hardly insurmountable. Gas is very cheap at the moment, so finances surely wouldn't hold me up. I am unemployed after my big year, so time isn't really a huge constraint either. I figured I could leave Philly at 4am, reach the bird's area by 10am, bird until dark (if necessary), and be back in Philly by midnight. I've certainly pushed harder than this in the past. A specific non-stop, overnight drive from Hatteras, NC to Cape May, NJ for Whiskered tern (which I missed) springs to mind. I did that drive directly after stepping off of a 10-hour pelagic trip that ran from 7am-5pm. I literally got off the boat and drove right though the night on zero sleep. I finally slept for 2 hours in the Cape May Point State Park lot, birded until noon, then drove the remaining 2.5 hours back to Philly. Anyway, you get the idea. So, given the relative financial, temporal, and geographical accessibility of the very rare Kelp gull, why didn't I chase it?

The now infamous - and failed - Whiskered tern chase

I need here to say that I am sure I will chase at least some birds in the future. If a Hoopoe shows up in New England, you can bet I'll be the first one on the road. This species is so radically different from my local avifauna that I can justify the chase purely on aesthetic grounds. However, I cannot honestly say the same thing about the Kelp gull; it would be purely a tick on my list. The initial knee-jerk response to chase everything is from what I am working to wean myself. While I see the potential pitfalls of ranking rare species along a desirability curve, this is exactly what we do when we prioritize visiting rarities over our own resident birds. We must remember that birds are ultimately more than ticks on a list. Right now, I am more interested in enjoying and photographing my local birds with a minimum amount of time in the car and a minimum amount of gas burned. This is the first reason I let the Kelp gull go. 

The second reason is a bit more complex. My current perspective is undeniably shaped by the fact that I saw 617+1 species of birds on a bike last year, many of these very rare in North America. What made each of the species so special was how hard I had to work for them. To get Rufous-backed robin, I had to detour 300 miles over 3 days! I really, really earned earned that robin, and I can say, without hesitation, that I would not feel the same way about the Kelp gull were I to drive to tick it. I felt similarly when I let a Pink-footed goose go last week. That bird was only an hour's drive from me at that time! My perspective might change as I become further removed from the bike adventure, but right now using a car to tick birds is just too easy. I understand my perspective on this is incredibly unique. How any birder chooses to bird and/or list is completely up to him or her.

A Massachusetts birder recently explained to me, "I hate pelagic trips, but I go because I am afraid that if I don't go I am going to miss something really good." There seems to be this sometimes pervasive feeling that no one wants to be left out of seeing any rare bird. This feeling seems to manifest itself as these knee-jerk response to chase whatever rarities show up in a given area. I enjoy record keeping and listing as much as anyone, but what someone else puts onto his or her list should not change how I approach either my own birding or my own listing. If a person likes pelagic birds, then he/she should take pelagic trips. If not, he/she shouldn't feel left out for staying on shore. Part of the psychology is surely human nature as we are naturally prone to comparison and competition in such matters. If someone is doing a county or state big year, then he/she is wed to chasing everything; I understand it's the sometimes the nature of the beast. 

Again, let me here state that I am sure I will, in the near and distant futures, use cars for general birding and chasing selected rarities. However, my adventure last year has made me rethink how often and to what extremes I am willing to go with cars to see rare birds purely for the sake of my life list. 

Also, if you have a Facebook page and enjoyed my adventure last year, you might enjoy 'liking' Gary Prescott's "Biking Birder 2015" Facebook page. Gary is doing a bike big year around the UK. He hopes to find 300 species in his travels this year! It is also worth mentioning that there is a nationwide bike-birding competition in Sweden this year. The ~200 participants are participating at different levels/intensities, and the whole thing is designed more as a collaboration than a formal competition.


  1. I agree with your sentiment about it being harder to chase birds in a car, once you have committed to green birding. I hope your Biking for Birds year has convinced others to follow your lead in this.

  2. I remember when we did that run to try for the Whiskered Tern. That was a long ride. Was recounting this story when I went to see the one this year in Cape May.

  3. Terrific write-up Dorian. Glad you found the thread on the Swedish Birders Facebook page. You inspired a lot of folks with your Big Year. Look forward to your Linnaean Society talk.

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  5. I have passed up a handful of what would be state list birds for me in recent years out of the thought that I would rather find said species on my Own in due time. that's not to say I have passed all. This year alone I've added 4 species to a bloated state list that I only added 2 to last year and 3 the year before that. But 1 month in and these 4 birds just happened to well... Happen. There's nothing wrong with not chasing others reports. Or cherry picking the chases that means the most to you. Every birder is different and I think whatever happy medium you find works best for you.