Ross's gull
It was 8:15 on a Saturday morning when Woody Goss' phone started buzzing.

Annoyed, he checked the screen to find that one of his birding groups was puzzling over a small white gull with distinctive black markings. The bird looked like a Ross's gull—a very rare visitor from the high Arctic that last stopped for an extended visit at Chicago-area beaches in 1978.

But could it be?

Goss—a "gull person" among birders—had no doubt. He ran out of the house and drove from Lakeview to Rainbow Beach on the South Side "faster than I'll admit to a reporter."

And there it was, 2,000 miles from its icy home.

"This is about as good as it gets for me, not just as a birder, but in life," said Goss, 34.

The bird that drew crowds of up to 200 people Saturday, and reappeared to the delight of onlookers at nearby Steelworkers Park on Tuesday and Wednesday, is indeed the long-awaited Ross's gull, according to John Bates, curator of birds at Chicago's Field Museum.

"It's absolutely happening," said Bates, who saw the bird foraging on the shoreline at Rainbow Beach on Saturday.

"Most of the time they're only above the Arctic Circle, and occasionally they wander down into the lower 48, but they often don't stay around very long. So the idea that this bird allowed itself to be seen by so many people was really fun," Bates said.

Bigger than a crow, with a small black beak and a lovely wash of soft pink across its breast and head during breeding season, the Ross's gull typically prefers places such as Siberia, northern Canada and the icy Arctic Ocean.

But every few years, for reasons that are not clearly understood, one of these hearty little seabirds will venture south to the United States, according to Bates. These visits can be very brief. About a dozen years ago, a Ross's gull was spotted at Montrose Beach. One person took a good photo, birders said, and then the gull was gone.

What really gets the birding community excited is when a Ross's gull stops in for a nice leisurely visit, and the last time that happened in Cook County was 1978.

A few years earlier, a Ross's gull appeared near Boston, drawing crowds of up to 3,000, according to The New York Times.

"You never know where it's going to be, and because of that, it has this kind of mythical reputation," Goss said.

This time, the storied bird made its initial appearance at Park 566, just north of Steelworkers Park. Dan Lory, 68, of Hyde Park, was doing his customary bird walk there when he spotted an unusual bird out of the corner of his eye. He thought it might be a Bonaparte's gull or a black-legged Kittiwake, but when he consulted his field guide there was only one identification that really made sense.

Lory posted a photo of the bird on Cook County Bird Chat, not even daring to say what he thought he had found, but the rest of the group confirmed his suspicion—and within an hour close to 100 people had arrived on the scene.

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