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Great Lakes Article:

Rare bird has people flocking to Chequamegon Bay
First sighting of Ross Gull in Wisconsin


By STEVE TOMASKO

Article courtesy of Ashland Daily Press
December 11, 2001

ASHLAND Last Thursday a routine waterfowl survey in Chequamegon Bay turned into "among the most exciting" of 30 years of bird observations, Dick Verch said.

What Northland College biology professor Verch, and his co-horts, Travis Mahan and Tracy Heckler, saw that morning was far from routine a Ross's gull, a bird normally not found south of the Arctic circle.

Mahan detected a different looking gull flying over the bay. As Heckler and Verch focused binoculars in the direction of the bird, they noted a small gull with gray underwings and what appeared to be a pinkish tinge to the underside of the body.

The three talked about what they might be seeing and it became apparent that for the first time in 16 years they weren't going to complete the last four census stations of the survey route.

They packed up the telescope and moved to the head of the bay where the unusual gull appeared to have headed.

In a short time they had located the small gull continued to observe the it feed, preen, sleep and fly short distances for two hours. By then they felt confident enough to say they were likely looking at an adult winter-plumaged Ross's Gull.

Ross's gull is a species of the far north that usually (except for a small colony near Churchill, Manitoba) breeds along remote stretches of northern Siberia and spends its winters in the ice pack of the Arctic Ocean.

At 7 p.m. Thursday, Verch posted a notice on the "WisBirdNet," a computer list of Wisconsin birders. By 7:30 a.m. Friday, birders from Appleton, Wausau, Duluth, as well as several local people were gathered at the head of the bay.

By Saturday, people had driven and flown from as far away as Missouri and Pennsylvania to see if they could get a glimpse of the bird, Verch said.

Unlike many bird chases, Verch said, this one had a happy ending for most people that visited the site on over the weekend. The gull stuck around and carried out its activities near enough so that all pertinent field marks could be readily seen.

"Wisconsin 's first Ross's gull was officially recorded!," he said.

Why would people come so far so fast to see a bird?

Verch said there are probably at least three reasons.

Passion.

Serious birders are passionate about seeing something they've never seen before, just for the thrill.

Competition.

There is a sub-set of birders who strive to achieve the longest "life lists," a listing of bird species they've seen.

Rarity.

For many people, Verch said, there is simply the joy of seeing something so unusual, so rare.

It's hard to say how or why the Ross's gull ended up in Chequamegon Bay. The night before the sighting, there were some very strong winds, which could have blown the bird off-course. However, Verch said the bird could very well have been there days before as well.

There have been two sightings of Ross's gull in Minnesota, so birders predicted it was just a matter of time before one ended up in Wisconsin.

No one saw the gull on Sunday or Monday, Verch said, and most of the birders had again scattered to the four winds waiting for the next rare sighting.

"After birding the Chequamegon Bay area for 30 years this ranks among the most exciting of my observations," Verch said. "What else could a birder ask for, except possibly for the bird to stick around for another week and participate (by being one of the countees) in the Ashland Christmas Count?"


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