Tailgating with Birders (Splendid Camaraderie and a No-Show Gull )

January 14, 2015

We arrived at Quinnsippi Island at dawn, expecting to be the first ones, but found a trio of weary travelers already surveying the frozen backwater of the Mississippi River. “Where you guys from?” I asked, as I extricated my stiff body from my 4Runner. “Don’t laugh,” one of them responded, “We are from Fayetteville, Arkansas.” I wasn’t about to laugh, as I and a couple of my friends, Brenda and Bill, had driven a moderate distance ourselves, mostly in the dark, from Union, Missouri to Quincy, Illinois, just to see a little gull, an ivory gull to be exact, that had wandered far from its home in the high arctic.

All week, I had been receiving emails and text messages, each a little different but with the same general question:  “Have you seen the gull?” No further explanation was necessary, as it was assumed that anybody with a connection to birds would be aware of the wandering, ivory gull to which they were referring. It had set up housekeeping for the past week on a Mississippi River island at Quincy. My response throughout the week was always the same:  “I’d love to see the gull but I don’t care for crowds!”

By Friday, the news about the gull had reached a crescendo, or gone viral as they say these days, and I reluctantly reviewed the ivory gull’s range on Cornell’s website, “All About Birds.” As I looked at the map and read more about the tough little bird, I became more and more intrigued. I thought it might be uplifting to see and photograph such a rare creature in the midwest, even as part of a throng of passionate birdwatchers. By Friday evening, I gave in to my curiosity and called a couple of friends to ask if they might join me for a roadtrip north to see our visitor from the land of pack ice. Both Brenda and Bill got on board without hesitation, understanding the value of such an opportunity much more quickly than I had after a week of stewing.

We departed Union at 4:30 a.m. and it was nearly dawn when we stopped in Hannibal for a coffee break. “You’re going to look at a bird?” the inquisitive clerk at the cash register exclaimed with the slightest inflection of a question. “Yep, we’re going to look at a gull on Quinnsippi Island,” I replied, mispronouncing Quinnsippi, yet again. After correcting me, she walked to the next register and shared her findings with her coworker, Carla, as I remember. “They’ve been driving all morning to look at a bird!” Just when I thought we were really becoming the butt of some morning fun, they both explained how cool it was for us to take such a roadtrip just to see a bird. They seemed truly interested in our endeavor—but maybe they were just indulging us!

By mid-morning, we established our stand at the perfect location for viewing the gull, according to previous reports. The line of cars had been pretty steady since our arrival and I estimated the crowd to be near 100 people. By 11:00 a.m. we hadn’t seen the ivory gull, or any gulls for that matter, but a funny thing was happening to this burgeoning hermit; I was enjoying the heck out of myself.

I was surrounded by a diverse group of bird lovers from New Mexico, Wisconsin, Texas, Arkansas, Ohio, Kansas, Tennessee, Pennsylvania, Iowa, and of course Illinois and Missouri. We talked and laughed about our experiences, vacations, careers, equipment, and yes, even birds. I realized I was at the best tailgate party I’d ever attended, even accounting for the conspicuous absence of brats and beer. My new birding friends, and a few I already knew, were so gracious and engaging I almost forgot about the ivory gull, still AWOL from the marina, by the way.

By noon, our stomachs were growling so we decided to give up on the absentee gull and head for lunch in Quincy. We said our good-byes to new and old friends and wished them good luck with an afternoon sighting. The dashboard GPS guided us to a place with “Wok” in the name and we enjoyed a spicy lunch of stir-fried surprises. We couldn’t stop talking about what a great morning it had been, in spite of the 8-degree start and our failure to see the ivory gull.

As we headed home, I thought about how much I had enjoyed myself in the middle of a crowd of birdwatchers. I realized it was because we all had a reason to be there; it wasn’t just another awkward, social event. Camaraderie and conversation flowed oh, so freely. If we would have seen the pilgrim, ivory gull, it would have only been icing on the cake.

On our ride home, I asked Bill and Brenda if they would like to make a detour to Clarksville, Missouri, to check out the bald eagles. Their response was as expected, and an hour later we had each established a precarious perch among the rocks and ice below Lock and Dam 24. We only had an hour of sun left so I tried to make the best of it, capturing a few eagles in flight in the lovely, waning light. I’ve featured my favorite of the series in this edition.

Thanks for looking,


Email me at:  NatureFrames@Rocketmail.Com



6 comments on “Tailgating with Birders (Splendid Camaraderie and a No-Show Gull )”

  1. Danny, what a great re-cap of the days events! I had a wonderful time as well and look forward to our next excursion of “bird-watch” tailgating! I can’t stop thinking about the fun day we had together with birders we knew and birders we met! I love the eagle shot! Looking at the image, I can picture us all standing there on the icy river’s edge, enjoying the last bit of sunlight from a spectacular road trip, . Thanks, DB!

  2. VOTTEYPIC this is! Took me quite a while to lower my eyes and read the text, which, also, I enjoyed 😀

  3. Great story Danny, about the Ivory Gull. Too bad that you didn’t get the opportunity to see one, but the photo shoot of the majestic Eagle, is fantastic. It reminds me of my old Navel Air squadron, VP-16 ( Eagle’s.) We wore a patch on our Flight jackets, of a Eagle holding a Fish Bowl in one Talon, while reaching down in the bowl, to grab a Submarine with the other. Thank’s for sharing, and the found memories.


    • Thanks Art and happy to hear I evoked some military memories for you. I have a few of those myself.

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