Documenting the Birding Adventures of Scott Whittle
Monday, December 15, 2008
The Buffalo Shuffle
Just before we left for San Francisco, an American Avocet turned up on Grand Island near Buffalo. There was no way to make it up there before our trip, but I kept my fingers crossed that the bird might stick around. That coupled with the Mew Gull sighting at Niagara falls gave me high hopes that the following weekend might be a good one.
The bird stuck, and so on Thursday I used my miles to book a flight to Buffalo on Saturday, the day after my return from California. I was encouraged to see the bird reported seen for the fifth day in a row on Friday, and was starting to think Saturday would be a quick and easy pick up. I was hoping that the Mew Gull might be refound as well, since there would be a good number of birders out on the Niagara River on the weekend. I was up before 5am on Saturday for my 6:40 flight, and it was a quick trip from the Buffalo airport to the island, so I was in the spot before 9am. I found the areas where the bird had been sighted right away, and started to search. And search. And search. No bird. There had been a cold snap the night before, and the water the bird had been feeding on was mostly frozen. Undeterred, I started to spread out my search area, and ultimately walked most of the shoreline along the south tip of the island. Aside from a Bald Eagle flyover, and some very skittish ducks, I came up empty-handed.
A gull was still possible, so I went over to the Falls and met up with Willie and Betsy and some of their friends, who were all scoping the thousands of gulls above the falls. We had a great time picking through the birds, and as per usual I learned a lot just being with these birders. About an hour in a darker-mantled bird was spotted...maybe a Lesser Black Backed Gull, but the tertial crescent was too wide. The bird was standing in a flock, but we were able to maneuver around for a look at it's legs...pink! Excitement was starting to mount as the possiblity of a Slaty Backed Gull became more real. We stayed with the bird for about an hour, and I had my camera ready when the entire riverfull of birds lifted off at once. I got off mabye a dozen photos before the possible Slaty was lost in the thousands of airborne birds, and then I just stood back and marvelled at the spectacle...possibly more birds in the air than I have ever seen at once. When we went through the photos, there were a couple of good wing shots, and there was the famous "string-of-pearls" pattern on the wing...it was a Slaty! This was actually my second of the year, after the gull that showed up at the Cornell compost piles, which is remarkable for the New York area.
I flew back that night to participate in the Captree Christmas Count. We had a great time scouring that region of Long Island for birds in teams, and then had the traditional dinner where all the numbers were tallied. I love Christmas Counts and will be on a couple more before the year is over. At dinner I checked my email and my fears were realized when the Avocet was re-reported, in the exact spot I had looked. After some hemming and hawing, talking to Willie, and checking and re-checking the weather reports, I used my last "silver bullet" and booked a frequent flyer flight to Buffalo for Monday.
It was deja vu as I got up at 5 and headed to the same parking spot at the airport. A quick flight, car rental, and I was back again at Grand Island before 9. This time instead of a cold breeze there was a warm (for Buffalo!) wind and light rain. The ice was gone, but when I first got there and scoped I didn't see the bird. Dreading the possibility of an extravagant double-miss, I walked down to the brushy water's edge, and woosh!, up flew the Avocet. It had been standing right by the sidewalk. I got a few shots and watched it circle back and land by an old barge. There were a lot of weeds and bushes there, so I took advantage of the cover and made an old-fashioned photo stalk...it was successful, and I managed to get lots of shots of the bird from about thirty feet before stealthily retreating to my car. It was a pleasure to call and book an earlier flight back to New York, to wait for the next rarity to show itself.
My name is Scott Whittle and I'm a professional photographer (www.scottwhittle.com). I have an MFA in Photography from the School of Visual Arts in New York City. I started birding as a teenager, and then dropped it for many years. I started to bird again in 2007, and have been birding since then in Brooklyn, NY and Cape May, NJ.