January 1, 2017 - Back in 2016 (last week) Chris planned to make a stop in Chicago in the hopes of finding what he believed was an urban...

A Christmas Gift from the Gull Messiah

January 1, 2017 -

Back in 2016 (last week) Chris planned to make a stop in Chicago in the hopes of finding what he believed was an urban legend. He knew he would need the help of a local legend.

A Christmas Gift from the Gull Messiah
by Christopher Collins

Frankly, I'm not a "gull person". On multiple occasions I have lost the feeling in my fingers searching through seemingly identical gray-and-white lakefront scavengers for field marks such as:

- Different colored legs
- No black on the wings
- Red bill
- Black bill
- A dot(!) on the bill
- Eye color (seriously?)

One that has confused me, and nearly caused me to give up on gulls altogether, is the Thayer's Gull. A highly variable, glorified Iceland Gull. I have tried to see one with Chuck at the Scranton Flats, Jen at Wendy Park, Eric in Dayton, and even made a drive to Findlay to try to scope one out in that glacial hell they call "The Reservoir". No luck.

Should I just forget about it and hope the ABA lumps it together with Iceland? Should I write it off as a practical joke played on newer birders? Time to go where the gulls are and the Gull Messiah. To Illinois to see Amar Ayyash!

That one was easy to pick out - Lesser Black-backed Gull
I met Amar at North Point Marina near the Wisconsin border. After stepping in snow up to my knees I made my way to the waterfront to meet the man I have followed, a bit in awe, on Facebook. Though his posts always made me wonder if he was just a perpetrator of the Thayer’s myth. We walked to the marina and there I saw my worst nightmare. Hundreds and hundreds of yellow-billed ice-dwelling bullies. 800+ Herring Gulls. Amongst these cloned-stamped gulls was supposedly the bird I was after. An easy to identify Lesser Black-backed Gull stood out amongst them yet provided little solace.

Here is a video of the scene - a bit noisy, as it was REALLY windy

North Point Marina Gulls from Christopher Collins on Vimeo.

We needed them closer and in the air. A few well-thrown slices of whole-grain bread sent the gulls flying, circling the edge of the ice in search of a few easy bites. Within seconds, Amar said, “There’s a Thayer’s.” I pointed my camera in the direction he was pointing and fired off a few quick shots hoping I was shooting the gull he was pointing at. I showed him my LCD screen and he said, “Yep. That’s it.” OK! Mission accomplished. Now it was time to learn exactly what it was that I was seeing. Having a bird pointed out to you and having no idea why it’s different seems a sorry way to get a lifer.

Amar "shuffling the deck"
Over the next hour we discussed the field marks to look for in flight and on the ground. What an amazing opportunity to actually study the gulls. These were not 100 yard scope views. They were 30 foot naked eye and bin views. The gulls sometimes flying right in front of us - too close to photograph. When you are at the lake and you are watching distant birds, they all seem to look the same to the untrained eye. At this distance the differences were obvious. The heavily streaked head, the pale gray underside of the primaries, and the slightly smaller, more delicate build of the bird overall. They were so close you could see the eye color!

My Christmas Present from Amar
As the wind picked up and the temperature started dropping we made our way back to the cars. I can’t express how grateful I am to have had the opportunity to see these not-as-ugly-as-herring-gull gulls up close. And to have the chance to meet and learn from Amar. He changed my view of gull watching and has motivated me to get out there and learn more. Thanks for the Christmas Gift, Amar! Bird On!

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