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Dumpster Diving (or how I found one rare bird while looking for a completely different one)

January 29, 2008
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As birders, we often find ourselves in strange places we wouldn’t normally go. We merely seek to go where the birds are, and it seems that some tend to have a predisposition towards nasty places. After all, rotting food is easy food, and an easy meal is still a meal. Sewage treatment plants and landfills fit the bill adequately, especially for generalist feeders who have little issue dealing in human refuse; birds like vultures, crows, and gulls. We know of landfills that have taken this bird attraction and run with it. One only needs to take a look down Mexico way to see how the Brownsville, Texas, landfill and its famous Tamaulipas Crows has made a special name for itself in birding lore.

Here in North Carolina, we may not have special birds at the landfill, but there’s a certain dump in Raleigh that has always seemed to produce interesting gulls. In fact, on the day I did the Fall’s Lake bird count an Iceland Gull was found here, obviously the best bird on the count. I hadn’t been able to get back to it with all my dashing around the state, so it was a long shot that it still would be there today. But Lord, I was born a gamblin’ man.

If you’ve never gone birding at a landfill, I suggest you try. It’s a real trip. The North Wake County Sanitary Landfill is situated, oddly, right in the middle of a neighborhood. Likely the landfill was there first and good ole Spraleigh stretched out its residential pseudopods and pulled in that stinking, rotten vacuole like some sort of ‘roided up amoeba. The nearness of the houses probably has something to do with plans to cap and fill the dump in the early spring of this year. Even then, I suspect there are limits to what you can do with a mountain of garbage. One thing’s for sure, the gulls will probably head out.

After I waved my binoculars to the lady at the gatehouse I rounded the corner to find Mt. St Smellens rising 200 feet above me. The top covered in an icecap of what looked initially to be Ring-billed Gulls. Scoping confirmed this was the balance of the flock, along with a few Herring Gulls in various years. I also heard several Fish Crows, unusual this far inland in winter.


As I scanned the gull flock searching for that elusive Iceland I soon realized the problem with dump gulls. Whenever a bulldozer or dump truck gets near, they scatter. All 500 of them, screaming and yelling and swirling into the air to resettle in completely different spots, rendering my careful scrutiny up to that point absolutely flipping worthless. Oh well, it’s not like I’m knee deep in a piss-hole of fermenting garbage, right? Ooohhhhh….right.

It was here I made my first mistake. The landfill proper is surrounded by a well- maintained concrete road, but that’s not where the trucks were going. They went right up the side of the thing, deep into the belly of the beast. Why not follow, right? So up I went, pulled off after a little bit and got out of my car, into mud and muck and stench and found to my surprise, not many gulls. I did get fairly close to some vultures though, as they stood of to the side of the road, seemingly indifferent to the garbage trucks that rumble by. Having had more than enough, I headed back down.

Around the back of the dump, on the northward facing slope, I found my gulls. Mostly Ring-bills again but also a couple nice Lesser Black-backed Gulls along with the Herrings (such as the one to the right). I spent nearly 20 minutes on a single pale 1st year Herring that I was sure, sure was an Iceland Gull, only to find when I, you know, actually looked at a book that they call them white-winged gulls for a darn good reason. It most definitely was not, I hitched back down the slope defeated. My second mistake. I turned the corner towards the entry and realized that I should go back and hit that flock just one more time. That Iceland has to be in there somewhere. And I’m no quitter.

The amazing thing about gull flocks is no matter how many times you look through them you will nearly always find something new. They’re like those 3-D magic image posters that were popular 10 years ago. Just cross your eyes a little bit differently and it seems like some other little secret pops out of it. On about my fifth try through this large flock of gulls I indeed found something different. If you read my blog yesterday, or even scrolled down today you know what it was, a 1st year Glaucous Gull. A bird about as good as the the Iceland Gull I never found.

Good thing I checked that flock again. Now I don’t have to go back, thank god.

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2 Comments
  1. SNIDERMAN permalink
    January 29, 2008 9:57 am

    Great stuff, N8.

    I DO remember that the Fish Crows were there… just about all year years ago. Hard to forget that call.

  2. Island Rambles Blog permalink
    January 29, 2008 6:29 pm

    You have a fun blog…we have the Glaucous winged, Mews and Thayer’s gulls here and also some Hermanns out on the islets. Hermanns have a red beak. I wish you got closer to those vultures…I love vultures.Really interesting blog.cheers.

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