Saturday, July 30, 2011

Gray-hooded Gull, aka Most Bizarre Birding Excursion Ever

Forget bucolic backdrops and a nice ride in the country for a spot of birding. Why do that when you can go see a super-rare bird . . . on the boardwalk at Coney Island, amid tattoos and thongs, beach umbrellas and giant pina coladas, and signs boasting "Live Freaks, Cold Beers"?

Gray-hooded Gull, Coney Island, NY, July 30, 2011

The Gray-headed Gull that has been hanging around Coney Island recently is a truly beautiful gull--with its icy, translucent eye and those red-licorice legs. When it flies, the bright flashes of white in its forewings make it stand out from the many Laughing Gulls that call Coney Island home. And this bird is sassy. I guess it would have to be gutsy to have somehow made its way here from South America. And now it has really made itself at home on the boardwalk. Twice we watched it chase a hapless Laughing Gull off the top of a lamp-post, and no other bird was getting near it once it perched on there.

Laughing Gull that was soon not laughing, as it was about to be evicted from its lamp-post
Patriotic Laughing Gull
I don't chase birds all that often, but when I do, I never expect that the bird will just fly right at me. Yet that's exactly what it did. Out of the flocks of Laughing Gulls swirling above the beach umbrellas and gold bikinis, the Gray-Hooded Gull peeled off and came and sat on the lamp-post we were standing next to. I was so shocked, I could hardly turn the camera on or remember how to use it. If anything, the bird seemed curious, although no doubt it was probably just calculating whether we had any french fries.

The fact that we were looking at such an extraordinary rarity (only one has ever been recorded in the United States before this) was made all the more surreal by the surroundings.

That's Frank Gallo getting some beautiful shots of the bird after it landed on the lamp-post.

It chose lucky lamp-post number 13 to perch on. Looks like it wasn't the first gull to have done so.
Flight shot showing the glowing white forewings (copyright Frank Gallo)

There are a lot of remarkable things about this bird, but for me it is those icy eyes. When the bird moved to perch on a roof next to other gulls, the lightness of its eyes was so distinctive.

Laughing Gull (in molt), Gray-hooded Gull, Great Black-backed Gull -- on the roof of the public toilet (really, this was the most pristine, scenic birdwatching experience ever)
Gray-hooded Gull on left, with Laughing Gulls

We celebrated with freshly squeezed lemonade.

Though it was hard to resist the tastefully presented pina coladas in naked-lady glasses.

Thank you, Coney Island, for your super-rare gull, your burlesque girls, guys with snakes wrapped around their necks, and girls with Amazon parrots on their shoulders.


  1. What a strange, strange day. Glad you guys saw the bird so well. There was certainly a disproportionate number of inappropriate bathing suits on that beach yesterday. Yikes.

  2. Nick, our favorite was the woman we saw for whom stiletto boots and a plaid miniskirt were apparently considered suitable beachwear. I clearly have to lift my fashion game.

  3. The bird and Coney Island would both be lifers for me. What a crazy place for a mega-rarity, wow!

  4. Great photos of a most interesting gull. But - what a place for a gull to visit!!

  5. lots of great shots. It is fun how gulls often sits on poles or lamps. :) Looks like a nice day.

    Thanks for giving me the name on the Bananaquit. :)

  6. Beautiful shots of the Gray-hooded Gull Vanessa! Those eyes really are something else! I have also never been to Coney Island. Speaking of rarities.

    Was there anyone else but you and your party taking photos of the birds? People there probably thought you were the strange ones ;-)

  7. NatureFootstep, you are very welcome. And Larry, there were a handful of birders there who'd come from all over the tristate area. Part of the fun was answering all the "What are you guys looking at?" questions. I love New Yorkers: Everyone we talked to ended up just as excited as we were about the bird!