Swallow-tailed gull (Morgan Edwards)

Swallow-tailed gull (Morgan Edwards)

This very rare bird in Edmonds is 4,000 miles from home

The swallow-tailed gull, from the Galapagos Islands, has been seen in the U.S. only three times.

EDMONDS — It has all the appearances of Hollywood paparazzi — clusters of people with cameras with long lenses mounted on tripods, others using binoculars, and some just waiting in anticipation.

All this has been happening on beaches from Seattle to Edmonds to Everett, not in search of a movie star, but a swallow-tailed gull, a bird nearly 4,000 miles from its home in the Galapagos Islands off the coast of South America.

News of local sightings quickly spread among the birding world, earning a “rare” designation on the American Birding Association blog.

“There have been people here from all over the country — California, the East Coast,” said Winston Rockwell, of Everett. “People made flights out here just to see that bird.”

It’s only the third time the gull has been spotted in America. The others were in California’s Monterey County in 1985 and Marin County in 1996.

And it’s the first time the bird ever been seen in Washington.

Rockwell was among the lucky ones, photographing the gull Sept. 5, just days after its initial Aug. 31 sighting at Seattle’s Carkeek Park.

Sightings are posted through various birder online networks. Once, he missed it by about an hour.

Rockwell finally caught up with the bird at Point Wells, between Woodway and Richmond Beach.

“It’s a big deal because it is so rare and so far from its normal range,” he said.

The swallow-tailed gull is the only gull in the world that feeds at night, when squid are closer to the surface. The gulls fly for miles, catch their meals at night, and plop down on the water to rest, Rockwell said.

Many have had similar hit-or-miss experiences trying to find the bird, with reports of the gull near the Edmonds breakwater and the Everett Marina.

“Then it disappeared and it was back to Point Wells,” Rockwell said.

For several days this week, there have been no sightings.

“It’s somewhere, but not around here,” said Morgan Edwards, a “pretty serious” amateur bird photographer who lives near Fall City in King County. He took hundreds of photos of the gull.

“It could be in Vancouver, Canada, or Vancouver, Washington,” he said.

Bird watchers call a first-time sighting of a species a life bird, Edwards explained. He prefers the term “mega rare bird.”

It would be interesting to see the travails the bird went through to get up here, he said.

“Maybe it’s a wanderer looking for new territory,” Edwards said. “It’s an adventure. It’s like Marco Polo.”

Rockwell has a theory, too: “I’m almost convinced his internal GPS got messed up.”

Susie Schaefer, of the Pilchuck Audubon Society, said she might be the only person who hasn’t seen the rare gull.

Not all the surprises have involved finding the bird.

One group of bird enthusiasts was walking down a trail on the way to a beach south of Edmonds when they encountered nudists enjoying a sunny day.

“They must have been shocked with people with spotting scopes and binoculars and cameras coming at them,” Schaefer said.

Schaefer said she hopes the gull will make an encore appearance in the area. It would add extra excitement to this weekend’s annual Puget Sound Bird Fest in Edmonds.

She might get her wish.

Thursday morning, a Sammamish man reported that he was “75 percent sure” he saw the swallow-tailed gull during an Edmonds-Kingston ferry crossing.

Sharon Salyer: 425-339-3486; salyer@heraldnet.com.

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