Despite miles of gull-attracting coastline, despite a bevy of knowledgeable, experienced birdwatchers, and despite reports from other states (including Wisconsin), a Slaty-backed Gull had never been recorded in Massachusetts. Not one.
And then, at the end of last year, three were spotted: one near Eastham, on Cape Cod, and two in Gloucester, at the Jodrey Fish Pier and at Niles Pond. Two of the gulls, at the fish pier and on Cape Cod, were seen on the same day: 23 December 2007. But only one counted as the state record -- and only by a matter of minutes.
The record bird was spotted by none other than David Allen Sibley, the talented writer and illustrator of our new column, "ID Toolkit." (He's writing about ID'ing treetop warblers in our April 2008 issue.) The gull on Cape Cod was found by none other than Wayne Petersen, an editor of the Massachusetts Breeding Bird Atlas, the chair of the Massachusetts Avian Records Committee, and the director of the state's Important Bird Areas program.
As you can read in the Goucester Daily Times, Petersen and a colleague spotted the gull during a Christmas Bird Count, tracked it for three-quarters of an hour before concluding that it was, indeed, a Slaty-backed (Sibley watched his gull for half an hour), and then tried to call teammates.
In vain. Petersen's cell phone was dead.
When his colleague began making calls, he learned from another birder that he was too late for a state record. Sibley had already posted his sighting.