The Road Trip

Throughout the return trip on Sunday evening from the Gulf Stream, the plotters were active.  Doug’s Naturescape web bulletin headline “Chaos in Coney Island!” had more than wetted their appetites, it had boiled them into a “foaming mouth” frenzy! Once we hit cell phone coverage about an hour out and knew the gull had still been seen as late as 4:00 PM, we were high fiving each other. By the time we docked in Hatteras the fix was in. There would be a road trip to New York City. John Belushi and his character of “Bluto” Blutarsky flashed through my mind. Ken suggested an AC/DC song as our official song. However, we agreed to roll the dice and delay departing till after Monday’s final pelagic trip.

The Chasers

Ken Petersen

Ken Petersen, a mild mannered Apple I-Phone programmer from Santa Cruz, California.  He is understated and chooses his words carefully.  Ken also has a serious case of “seabirditis”.  I noticed him on last Saturday’s Condor Express adventure out of Santa Barbara and now here he was on back-to back-to back pelagic trips in North Carolina the following week!  Turns out that’s not the whole of it!  He’d already joined Brian Patteson on 11 previous pelagic trips THIS year!  He’ll also be on the four Debbie Shearwater pelagic trips out of Fort Bragg, CA that I’ll be on later this month. To say that Ken lives for seabirds, particularly rare ones, is an understatement. His top “most wanted” target in the Atlantic is Bermuda Petrel….or Black-bellied Storm-Petrel….or some Antartic bird that’s never been seen in the north Atlantic before.  Need I say more?.

Doug Koch

Doug was born and raised in Chicago.  He’s colorful and seems to have a zest for life. He began working at Arlington Race Track when he was young.  Now he owns Berkshire Studs in upstate New York and breeds thoroughbred racehorses (he currently owns 51) Horses are in his blood, but he spends a whole lot of his extra hours thinking about seabirds. Doug’s been on six trips out of Hatteras with Brian Patteson already this year.  Last November, he also visited Bermuda to learn about the Bermuda Petrel recovery program and of course see Bermuda Petrel on the wing.

Chris “The Hitman” Hitt

Chris loves to chase rarities, particularly mega. He is a student of the “Big Year”.  I’ve given him this nickname not just as aplay on words but also for the way he attacked his “Lower 48 Big Year” last year.  He bombarded me with a flood of detailed questions. Why I did this and why I didn’t  do that? But he was also a great source of information which will be helpful in the five months ahead.

“Bland” Liz Southworth

I’d seriously mislabeled this lady the first day. On the Saturday boat trip, Liz seemed rather subdued, not talking much and taking several naps. Perhaps it was the incredibly hot weather. However, Sunday morning when some of us first began talking about the gull, I noticed an almost deranged twinkle in Bland Liz’s eye at the mere mention of a “chase” road trip for a mega rarity. I quickly realized this crazy birder lady was anything but bland.  Besides her politics were left of Ted Kazinsky. It would certainly liven up the road trip if she came.

The Chased

Gray-hooded Gull – Coney Island, New York

The surprise visitor to Brooklyn’s original beach front neighborhood is a Gray-hooded Gull. It was first found on July 24 by Sara Burch and Jacob McCartney and later photographed near W. 11th Street on Coney Island Beach, New York. However, it was only reported on eBird. The bird was relocated on the afternoon of 29 July in the same location between Nathan’s Famous and the Ferris wheel and hit the listserves.  This is only the second record for North America. The only accepted record of Gray-hooded Gull in the ABA Area is an adult from Apalachicola, Florida on 26 December 1998, coincidentally seen by all the soon to be famous 1998 “Big Year” competitors. The Gray-hooded Gull is a resident of Africa and both coasts of South America north to Ecuador.  However, the species has wandered. There is a report from the Faulkland Islands, a report from Panama and one from the Galapagos Islands.  While in South Africa, I was told that the African subspecies moves from the Natal region north along the Atlantic and Indian Ocean coasts. Vagrants in the Old World have been recorded from Spain and to the northern Red Sea.

The Road Trip

The third and final day at sea turned up some huge flocks of Corey’s and Great Shearwaters along with another Manx Shearwater, several Band-rumped Storm-Petrels and a Leatherback Sea Turtle.

Leatherback (Photo by Doug Koch)

Mixed Shearwater Feeding Frenzy (Photo by John Vanderpoel)

However, despite the best efforts of Brian Patteson, Kate Sutherland, Bob Fogg and all of the birders on the boat, we struck out on any “dark petrels” which were most everyone’s targets.  Our “megararity” fix would have to wait till Tuesday in the Big Apple.

We left at 6:00 PM Monday evening after showers. Unfortunately Bland Liz and the Hitman couldn’t join us on the road trip so it was just the three of us.  We each had a car.  Ken dropped his off at the Norfolk airport and then piled into Doug’s Ford Escape. So two cars sped north to Washington Dulles. Unfortunately, I drove alone and was getting pretty tired.  Friday nights three hours of sleep in my car was taking it’s toll.  Finally we made it to Dulles only to realize that Dollar Car Rental’s lot had closed at 1:00 AM and the gate was shut.  I parked my vechicle in the Enterprise parking lot next door and would have to deal with it via cellphone the next morning.

At this point in the road trip both Doug and I were totally shot.  Way too old for AC/DC at 2:00 AM in the morning,  we both needed sleep, so Ken stepped up to the plate to drive Doug’s SUV.  Half an hour later I was awoken from a light slumber in downtown Washington. The dark shadow of the Department of Interior building was on my right and we soon were wandering lost through Georgetown.  We pulled over to the curb, I dug out “Leslie” my GPS.  She’d get us back onto I-495 (unless my son Scott had changed her back into a Mandarin speaking voice computer).  Leslie did her magic and soon we were rolling north through Maryland on I-95.  Ken kept it going till the Delaware border where I took over around 3:45 AM and drove the Jersey Turnpike.  I wasn’t that well rested, but felt could enough to contribute again.  Doug, who is familiar with New York City, finished off the last hour of driving and delivered us safely to Coney Island.  It was a surreal feeling to be in DC at 2:00 AM and then watch the Statue of Liberty as we crossed the Verrazano Narrows Bridge.

It was only 6:00 AM when we climbed out of the Escape at Coney Island. There was Nathan’s Famous.  Ken had wondered whether there would be any other birders on the boardwalk yet.  I said not likely and was quickly proved wrong. Two birders from Maryland were already on the scene, however the gull wasn’t there.  A local birder (who had missed seeing it yesterday morning when the gull hadn’t arrived till 1:30 PM) took our phone number, told us to go get breakfast and promised he’d give us a ring if the bird showed up.  We gladly accepted his offer. The food was okay though it certainly wouldn’t be in the “ABA Birder’s Guide to Restaurants” that Doug was considering writing.  Just as we finished the last bite, Doug’s cell rang at 7:45 AM. The Gray-hooded Gull was back.

New York City Experience

The whole thing was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. You couldn’t help but take it all in.  Here were the smells, sights and sounds of Coney Island. Two old guys on their morning walk, shirtless and in an animated discussion peppered with colorful adjectives. A Puerto Rican beauty laying on her towel, yelling at two Puerto Rican guys smoking cigarettes had me flashing on West Side Story.  Tourists, locals and oh by the way twenty birders with their cameras pointed at a Laughing Gull size gull.

Cameras in action on Coney Island. Doug Koch is in white. (Photo by John Vanderpoel)

In typical New York fashion, two photographers had approached too close and were greeted by another NY Birder. “Hey get the f**ck back, you’ll scare the damn bird!” Why had I waited so long to return to New York City? And the Gray-hooded Gull wasn’t too shabby itself.

Gray-hooded Gull with Sun Bather in Background (Photo by John Vanderpoel)

Red bill. Red legs with a light Gray hood contrasting with a darker collar, and a bold wing pattern made it even more memorable.

Gray-hooded Gull at Coney Island (Photo by John Vanderpoel)

After the excitement we headed out to Jamaica Bay. There were lots of shorebirds and Ken located the Hudsonian Godwit we’d heard about.  The temperature had now climbed into the 90’s so we deferred a hot dog at Nathan’s for lunch at Vincent’s Clam Bar & Italian Restaurant in Howard Beach.  Highly recommended by Doug, all I can add is “wow”.  In the heart of John Gotti’s neighborhood, the food was delicious and the atmosphere was authentic.  An autographed photo of “Tony Soprano” on the wall added to the whole mind blowing experience for the day.

Doug drove us first to JFK where Ken departed and next dropped me off at Laguardia Airport.  I was bumped off the first flight, but got on the 5:20 PM flight direct back to Denver.  It was one heck of a road trip.  Hope there will be others this year, but this was unique.

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7 Responses to The Road Trip

  1. Jim Vanderpoel says:

    Great story!

  2. Neil Whiting says:

    Great blog. It takes a fair amount of work, and great photography, to do this.
    I just missed you by a day in Anchorage.
    Thank you for allowing us to follow this Big Year.

  3. David White says:

    CONGRADULATIONS!! This was one trip you’ll never forget!!! Once again, Great Photos!!! All that effort is paying off! Dave

  4. John Vanderpoel says:

    Thanks, Neil. I appreciate the kind words.

  5. Doug Koch says:

    Turned a lot of my birding friends on to your blog, especially the chase story, and they all thought it was great and hilarious! I think you will have a lot of new followers. Good luck, keep going, and I will see you in Hyannis in three weeks.

  6. Liz Southworth says:

    Hi John,
    I’m sorry I missed the road trip as it would have been most entertaining! Happily, I did get the G-h Gull later on 8/2 but there were loads of beach-goers by then.

    Keep the Big Year momentum going!!! Did I hear Doug mention Hyannis?

    “Bland” Liz

  7. John Vanderpoel says:


    Glad you got the gull! Yep, I’ll be on the Aug 27/28 overnight to Hydrographer Canyon. You should join us.


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