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It’s Complicated.

Whether we realize it or not, we birders develop relationships with the birds we seek. Sometimes it can be a species, or it can be a family or whole group of families.

Take for example the person who loves to spend frozen hours working through a massive collection of loafing gulls, but cannot abide “warbler neck”, or is bored by sparrows. Or my friend Andy, who, every time we spend frozen hours working through massive collections of loafing gulls says, “I hate this”. Until we find a good bird. Which doesn’t happen often enough for either of us.

Or, as I mentioned, a particular species (even in a particular place). For example: my relationship with Glossy Ibis in Illinois. I have seen many Plegadis ibis in Illinois. I probably have seen a Glossy at some point, but most of the dark ibis I’ve seen in my home state have been immature birds that are not identifiable to species. I have yet to identify a Glossy Ibis in Illinois. The birding gods are having their fun denying me.

But I have a special relationship with one species. One species that I have studied, perhaps more than any other. A species I have seen. A species I may have seen many more times than I know I have seen it. A species that has caused me to stay awake nights thinking about it. Where it might occur, and how—if it should show up—I might be able to identify it.

That species is Slaty-backed Gull. SBGU. I see that four-letter word come across my smart phone’s RBA, and I’m immediately filled with elation and dread. Excitement and angst.

Let’s start at the beginning shall we? My first real exposure to the hall of funhouse mirrors that is SBGU, was in December of 2007. I did a 250-mile twitch to see the second Illinois record of Slaty-backed Gull. An adult that was found near St. Louis (I live near Chicago). We arrived to find a group of birders looking at the bird!! We got scopes on it, and sure enough: there was a large, dark-mantled gull with bright pink legs standing out on the ice:

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We were all very excited, high-fiving each other …

But then I started to study the bird as it moved around. When it flew, it was immediately apparent that it was not a SBGU, but rather a somewhat large, pale-headed Lesser Black-backed Gull with pink legs:

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Many birders that morning, and later that day had seen the dark-backed gull with pink legs on the ice, ticked off SBGU, and left. I soon became the most hated birder of that winter. Because there really was a Slaty-back there … but there was also a somewhat large, rather pale-headed Lesser Black-backed Gull with pink legs there too. Now, a good dozen or more birders didn’t know which one they’d seen. And the real SBGU was never seen again (and I didn’t see it).

A year later, December 2008, I found a bird at my local beach that stayed for a few days. I got to know it, and called it Ol’ Duck Butt. This bird confused me. I spent 5 days studying it, and took over 500 pictures of it, and it still confuses me. When I found it, my immediate reaction was whoa!  This bird was not at all like the Herring Gulls nearby … and what was also odd, was that it didn’t associate with them. It religiously associated with the Ring-billed Gulls. After weeks of investigation and discussing Ol’ Duck Butt with birders that have experience in these matters—some of which said things like, “this is almost certainly a Slaty-backed Gull” or, “this is definitely not a Slaty-backed Gull”—I let it be as an enigma.

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In hind-sight, and with more experience under my belt, I now agree with the people who thought “no way”. But I’m still not sure what it was. Yes, HERG is the easy answer (isn’t it always?). But this bird was different in ways that are not easy to nail down.

My next experience came in December of 2010. This was a straightforward, mean-spirited smiting by the birding gods. A beautiful adult SBGU was reported by a very reliable birder, in Indiana, just yards from the Illinois state line. The bird was found on a Friday afternoon, and the twitchers were out in force on Saturday morning. Except me. My wife had recently lost her father to cancer, it was just a day or two after a very solemn Christmas, and we had plans for brunch that day. Taking off to chase a rare bird would be terrible form.

The twitchers found the bird, sitting way out on the ice in Indiana, but Amar Ayyash coaxed the gulls in with a little bread, and this beauty came in and gave everyone a thrill:

Adult Slaty-backed Gull. Calumet Park, Chicago IL; 30 December 2010 ©Amar Ayyash

The upshot was that this all happened first thing in the morning, and I could have gone to get that bird and been back home before my lovely wife even got out of bed. I eventually did see that bird, but at a great distance. And not in Illinois (yeah, I know … but it would have been very nice to get it on the only state list I keep up with).

Then in June of 2011, at the very end of a Big Day run our team found this bird:

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I took about 100 pictures of it, we studied it for about 40 minutes, and then ran out of daylight. It was never relocated. As far as identification conundrums, this may be one of the best I’ve ever been involved in. For weeks, pages of forum posts, emails on ID Frontiers, Facebook posts and several other online forums were chattering about this bird. I wrote a 16-page documentation of it, with lots of pictures and illustrations, and comments from experts who had chimed in. As far as I know, it is still being discussed, or has been tabled by the local ornithological records committee. This one, I am certain is a Slaty-back. But it’s really not up to me, is it?

Last fall, while on St. Paul Island, Alaska, I found a bird that may have been a nice, crisp first-cycle Slaty-backed Gull. I would have filled a 32GB flash card full of pictures of it. But, this was the only picture I was able to get:

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Unidentified gull. September 28, 2013. St. Paul, Alaska. ©Greg Neise

Was it a SBGU? Or was it a really fresh, rather dark Glaucous-winged Gull? I’ll never know.

Which brings me to today. Last week, Amar (yeah, that guy again) found a beautiful adult Slaty-backed Gull not far from my home. Like the 2010 bird, it was discovered on a Friday. But this time I jumped! My buddy Jeff and I were off and twitching. Bad traffic kept us from getting to this bird as quickly as we might have liked. As we were driving, we saw reports that it was being seen as we were in-route. We arrived shortly after the bird had departed.

That was Valentine’s Day. My wife had been working in Milwaukee, and her drive home Friday night was brutal. She was late. The restaurant we wanted to go to that evening couldn’t fit us in. Neither could our plan B restaurant choice. We tried to order a gourmet pizza, but that restaurant was too overloaded. They weren’t delivering. It was now too late to do anything. We decided to have a nice brunch together the next morning instead.

As with the 2010 bird, I had made plans for Saturday that did not involve birding, and my marriage might have suffered if I had dropped everything to chase this bird. And quite frankly, I really would have rather spent that morning in her company than chasing another ghost. But it wasn’t a ghost, and oh! … was it seen Saturday. Beautifully. Up close. By some 200 people. I watched the reports and photos flood in.

Slaty-backed Gull. Lake County Fairgrounds parking lot. February 14, 2011. ©Amar Ayyash

This SBGU was found about 15 miles from a birding event in northeastern Illinois called the “Gull Frolic”. Frolickers left the event to go see it, and returned for a lunch of “Seagull Stew” and pizza. Then miraculously, the bird flew the 15 miles from the garbage dump where it had been hanging out, to display itself in the marina at the Gull Frolic!

It was not seen Sunday. I know, because I went up there and looked. It was looked-for on Monday, but did not show. There were no reports of it on Tuesday. On Wednesday, we decided to go try again. On the 45 minute drive up, someone reported that the bird had returned! Oh, wait … no, they claimed a second, different Slaty-backed Gull had shown up at the dump!!!

We arrived to find several other birders. But no SBGU. One of the people who saw and photographed the bird that morning was still there, so I asked if I could see the pictures…

…it was a Great-black-backed X Herring Gull hybrid. The birding gods laughed and laughed while I did a tiny, frustrated little dance. My relationship with my most sought-after bird in Illinois continues. But it’s complicated.

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Greg Neise

Greg Neise

Web Development at American Birding Association
Greg Neise developed his interests in birds, photography and conservation as a youngster growing up in Chicago, across the street from Lincoln Park Zoo. At the age of 13, he worked alongside Dr. William S. Beecher, then Director of the Chicago Academy of Sciences and a pioneering ornithologist, and learned to photograph wildlife, an interest that developed into a career supplying images for magazines, newspapers, institutions and books, including National Geographic (print, web and television), Chicago Tribune, Chicago Sun-Times, Boston Globe, Nature, Lincoln Park Zoo, Miami Zoo, Jacksonville Zoo, The Field Museum and a host of others. He has served as President of the Rainforest Conservation Fund, a volunteer organization dedicated to preserving the world's tropical rainforests. Greg is a web developer for the ABA, and of course, a fanatical birder.
Greg Neise

Latest posts by Greg Neise (see all)

  • Kestrel

    I appreciate your post. First, I feel that I must declare (why, I am not sure yet, I am still sorting out why I must distinguish this fact) that I am not a twitcher. In fact, although I have been a birding naturalist for 20 years, I only recently even heard of this term. That is not what I wanted to comment on. I really appreciate your idea of us having relationships with the birds we seek. We do. Also, your story of the Glossy Ibis in Illinois resonates. I have worked, birded, and guided in Yosemite NP for 13 years and have yet to see a GGOW, even after sitting still for hours in a meadow. I know that I will and it will be spectacular. Lastly, I love the details. I look for details. I see details, like the black spots on the back of the Lincoln’s Sparrow in my yard, who is one of my special birds. It’s as if he hangs with me during winter waiting to return to the high elevation meadows just like I am. My point is that I appreciate looking for the details, being wrong, sorting it out, and ultimately learning from the birds. I often notice that the best bird trips are the ones where one gets away. There is always one puzzle, one mystery, one question unanswered that keeps us coming back for more. Thanks for sharing.

  • Mary

    Maybe if your wife reads this post, she might take pity on you and give you a little present next time one shows up nearby. And then … then … she can sit back and let you owe her big time!

  • Ted Floyd

    Re: “…but Amar Ayyash coaxed the gulls in with a little bread.”

    Just idle speculation on my part, but I’m thinking maybe, just maybe, the adjective “little” doesn’t accurately describe the amount of bread involved. (Boulder County, Colorado, bread-makers, bread-eaters, and other sundry bread-lovers are still coming to terms with Ayyash’s legendary 2013 visit to the county.)

  • Greg Neise

    So that $#@@!!! SBGU showed up again (!!!) this week. We went tearing up there the next day, and sat waiting and waiting and waiting … no show. We’ll see what happens in the days ahead. I have a feeling that it’s not finished taunting me.

    • Mary

      Oh, come on! We’re all pulling for you now! Go find that bird!

    • Pat O’Donnell

      Wonderful post! “SBGU” sounds like a very appropriate code in this case. No more mister nice guy with this bird and those snickering feathered deities! How about scheduling a faux brunch and heading to the marina instead? Your wife would be in on it of course but don’t let the gulls find out!

  • Amar Ayyash

    Illinois Slaty-backeds are so overrated.

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