After a pit stop at Dunkin' Donuts to take on/drain off various liquids, we headed east along Lake Erie, all the way to Ashtabula (which, by the way is pronounced Ash-tah-BYEW-lah, not Ash-TAB-you-lah). Our target bird was the black-tailed gull, a vagrant from Asia that had been hanging out around the town's harbor since November. Scores of birders from all over have been there to see it. I'm not really a chaser, but the allure of a truly rare vagrant just an hour away from a virtually guaranteed snowy owl was too much to resist.
We followed the excellent directions on Jen Brumfield's website to the various Ashtabula haunts of the black-tailed gull and we found gulls—about 50,000 of them! At the Lakeshore Park overlook we encountered three fellow birders also seeking the black-tailed gull. No one had seen it yet on this sunny, cold, calm Sunday afternoon, but we had high hopes. We spent the next few hours scanning the gull flocks, hoping to see a single bird with the key combination of field marks that would make it the black-tailed gull. It was exactly like searching for a needle in a haystack of needles.
Jen's recommendation was to bop from spot to spot hoping to see the gull. So we drove back and forth, spending time at the overlook and the cement bridge. Multiple times we'd see a gull with a black terminal tail band, or one with a seemingly dark back. No dice on the ice. We never did see it.
So we did what any relatively normal (and not completely obsessed) bird watchers would do, we went looking for more snowy owls. Two of the guys at the overlook had spotted one from the concrete bridge, sitting on a giant coal pile, earlier in the day. We headed back that way. While Daniel and I braved the increasingly breezy afternoon chill, the gals sat in the comfort of the Zickmobile, heater on. We looked for the gull in the marina, facing away from the lake, while the gals gazed lazily out toward the coal and rock piles and the lake beyond. I thought they were probably napping.
I was wrong.
"We need the scope over here, guys! NOW! Hurry! And you're going to want to see this!" they exclaimed, as they climbed out of the toasty car and pulled their Elmer Fudd hats on.
"What do you have?" I asked.
"Come see for yourself!" they blurted.
This was when they started dancing what could only be described as a jig that was equal parts joyous and taunting.
They had found our second snowy owl of the day. On top of one of the hundred-foot-tall piles of gravel. Plain as day.
I was happy to see the owl and dutifully put the spotting scope on it. But I felt a bit silly that I hadn't seen it when I got out of the car. Oh well.
Here is the distant look we got through the scope. The owl was probably about 1/3 of a mile away. And here's a cropped view, below.
I took some documentary photos and we decided to compare these with the view of the second owl over by the bridge. So back we went. We found the two Maryland birders there, confirmed that none of us had seen the gull, and told them about the other snowy owl. They immediately got excited and went to see it—stoked at having their OWN two-snowy-owl day (which was old news to us veterans at this point). I asked them to call me when they found it, and showed them my photo of where it was. Twenty minutes later they called to confirm that their owl (owl #3) was sitting on top of the gravel pile where we'd left it. Owl #2 was on the ground about 300 yards in front of us at this point, so we KNEW these were two different birds, and we had also just confirmed our first-ever THREE-SNOWY-OWL day!
Now that's an awesome day of birding! Gull schmull! I got to see my spark bird, one of the least-encountered owl species in North America, right in my home state, not once, not twice, but THREE times in a single day!