My wife and I went out for lunch today, as we often do. Our destination was Smokin’ Buns BBQ in Jacksonville, Arkansas—forty-five minutes east of our house. It happened to be Valentine’s Day, but that wasn’t the reason for our excursion. (We have plans for the weekend.) But still, we knew what day it was and we were together. My wife dressed courageously in white and pink—daring the BBQ sauce to do it’s worst. I, in honor of the day, put on my church jeans and a nice(r) shirt.
We were settled in the restaurant, waiting for our food when my phone buzzed with a message from a birding friend. “There’s an Iceland Gull on the lock wall at Dardanelle Dam.” Figures. I was planning on heading to the dam tomorrow to look for gulls.
Iceland Gull is a rare bird in Arkansas. Only ten or twelve have ever been found in the state. It wouldn’t be a lifer for me—I’ve seen one three times before—but it would be my first in a long time and I’ve never gotten a photograph. In addition, it would be my 297th species in Arkansas, and I’ve made it one of my goals for 2024 to get to 300 in the state.
But I was out to lunch with my wife on Valentine’s Day, and an hour-and-a-half away from the bird, which was 45 minutes west of our house. I didn’t even mention the bird to my wife and settled in for a nice meal and pleasant conversation.
Eight minutes after the first message, two more came through from fellow birders informing the group that they were on the way.
Six minutes later, more detailed information came through about where, exactly the gull was at the moment and exactly where I should go to see it.
I turned off my phone.
We finished our meal—the ribs were a little dry, but the brisket was delicious, as was my wife’s pulled pork. And we loved the sauce—the “original” flavor.
The meal wasn’t the only thing we’d planned. We drove through traffic and construction zones through downtown Little Rock to visit a store we both like. We leisurely shopped, discussed our options, talked with the salesman, and picked what we wanted. I still hadn’t mentioned the bird. It was Valentine’s Day, after all.
The third stop we’d planned was at an antique store between Little Rock and home. As we got into the car, I casually asked my wife if she still wanted to go. She said, “There isn’t anything I’m really looking for right now. I can go or not go. It doesn’t matter to me.” And I could tell by the tone of her voice that she meant exactly that.
So I said, “Well … There’s an Iceland Gull in Dardanelle. If you want to go antiquing, that’s what we’ll do. But if you don’t, then I’m going to drop you at home and head there.”
It’s at times like this that I’m reminded once again that I married the right woman. She said, “That’s fine. Let’s head home.” I turned my phone back on and, while I drove, dictated a message for her to send to the bird group (in my name), asking if the bird was still there.
There’s a certain amount of competition between birders, but we work hard to see that everyone sees the bird. I immediately got two messages and a phone call saying that the Iceland Gull was on the lock wall, sleeping.
And then came the suspense. Every birder has chased a rare bird only to have it take off minutes before he gets there. I obeyed the traffic laws (in spirit anyway), avoided running anyone off the road, and ignored the fact that I was low on gas.
I pulled up to the dam at 3:35 and saw four of my birding friends looking through their spotting scopes, always a good sign. I jumped out of my car and asked for a quick look through one of their scopes. (It isn’t beyond the bounds of possibility for a bird to take off and disappear at the very last moment.) I saw the Iceland Gull and identified it to my satisfaction, and then went back to my car and got my own scope and camera.
The Iceland Gull is the one on the right with it’s wings spread. Most gulls, like the Ring-billed Gulls in the background and the Herring Gull on the left, have black on the wing-tips. The Iceland does not. This particular bird is in its first-year plumage.
This is one of the reasons why birding is such a fun hobby. February birding can be dull. The winter birds have been around for several months, and spring migration hasn’t started yet. Yet suddenly somebody finds something good, and I’m off on an adventure.
And, to make it all even better, it was a sunny day with shirt-sleeve temperatures. I had a wonderful time with my wife, a delicious meal, a rare bird, and an hour’s enjoyable conversation with friends. Two guys who worked on the lock came by to see what we were looking at. They stuck around and regaled us with stories about floods, inept towboat captains, and Arkansas River navigation history.
The gull was still there when I left just before sundown. I remembered to stop for gas at the first station I passed. I drove home content, walked in and hugged my wife, and watched as she demonstrated the new waffle-maker she bought with her Christmas money.
So on top of everything else, I soon get waffles!
I got that going for me, which is nice.