No. 17: Birds and the Slam Dunk Twitch

by Frank Izaguirre

Species: Heermann’s Gull, Larus heermanni

Question: What’s your best ever slam dunk twitch?

It’s the thrill of the chase, the agony of uncertainty, the ecstasy of finally getting the bird after so much heartache and physical exertion… that’s what makes chasing rarities so addictive, right?

Sure, kinda, maybe, but… it’s nice when the bird’s just right there too. Here’s an entry for the slam dunk twitch chronicles, the ones where you barely have to get out of the car to enjoy that high-quality tick.

Before pandemic times, my wife, Adrienne, and I were in the habit of driving down to Miami from Pittsburgh once or sometimes twice a year to visit my parents. It’s a long drive, but the great advantage was we could stop for good birds on the way down (and then there are usually more good birds in South Florida). So it was in December 2019, which was actually our most recent trip down: an immature Heermann’s Gull had been bouncing up and down the Atlantic Coast, but had seemed to settle in at a beachfront park in Lake Worth.

Now, the tricky thing with these twitches while en route to visit parents is that they usually can’t take too long, not just because we’re on the road and already kinda tired but because sometimes we can’t be late for dinner! That was more or less the situation on this particular day: would the gull be waiting for us? Heermann’s is of course a straightforward bird on the West Coast, but it’s a phenomenal bird for Florida, so we sure hoped it would play nice.

You know when you take that first step out of a car as the driver after being on the road for hours, like the moment you put your left foot down and feel just a tiny bit wobbly while the right foot is still in the car? Nothing serious like you’re going to fall or something, but just the slightly disorienting split second of having a foot on the ground again while your head crests over the roof of the car and the top of the open car door?

Yeah, that was the moment when I saw a dark bird coasting on the ocean breeze a fair bit out and said to Adi, “$%&@, I think that’s it.”

And it was. The bird dove back down to where we couldn’t see it from the parking lot, and even strangely disappeared for a tense minute, but soon enough we were able to see that gorgeous chocolate brown Heermann’s performing aerial acrobatics and then chilling out on the sand.

The Heermann’s Gull, playing with a mysterious object from the sea, which it released and then caught in mid-air several times when we first encountered it.

Just look at that gorgeous chocolate plumage.

Our feathered beauty, the motive of our time-strained detour, resting calmly on the beach.

I got great photos, both in flight and on the ground, and we were on time for dinner. The Heermann’s Gull is my best slam dunk twitch. What’s yours?