If there's one thing that I've heard about Big Years, it's that you have to chase rarities. That means that if someone sees a rare bird anywhere in the state, you have to drop everything and go try to see it. That's exactly what happened on Tuesday around lunchtime, when I checked my emails. Several posts had come up on the birding list servers that a Slaty Backed Gull had turned up in Ithaca, at a composting area near Cornell University. Gulls are often seen scavenging around dumps and composting areas, and this one had traveled from somewhere in Asia to do just that. Slaty Backs are one of the rarest gulls to be seen on the East Coast, so this was a great bird to see. I considered trying to get to Ithaca by dark, but it was already noon and it's about a 4 1/2 hour drive, so instead I finished up some business and left that evening. The next morning at 6:30 I was at Stewart Park, on the southern end of Cayuga Lake, one of the Finger Lakes. The gulls in the area like to sleep here, and then move out to the compost area to feed during the day. I spent a little time maneuvering to see the gulls, but then found the Slaty Back almost immediately. It has a darker back than the common Herring or Ring Billed Gulls, but not as dark as the Greater Black Backed gulls that were also present. Gulls can be especially hard to ID, and rare gulls don't always stand out in a crowd, but this one certainly did. I watched it lounge around on the ice for about and hour, and then watched it fly off. I went over to the compost area and there it was, squabbling with the other gulls for bits of food, and then resting on a nearby hillside. It was a lot of driving, but a very straight forward chase, and a terrific addition to my list!
I got back Wednesday night, and before going to bed I checked the lists again. This time the postings were even more remarkable: Scott's Oriole in Union Square Park! This is a first bird for NY State...normally it resides in the Southwest and Mexico. My heart was racing as I set my alarm for 5:30am... the next morning I picked up Peter Dorosh, top birder from Prospect Park, and we drove in to look for the bird. At around 7 the sky was lightening, and a number of birders from all over the city began to show up. The bird was seen within moments, and we watched as it flitted around the commuters, ate with the pigeons, perched on park benches, and ate a slice of orange we threw to it. It's a beautiful bird, and I encourage anyone with an interest to go and see it...it may be the only time you ever do!