By ABA Young Birder, Killian Sullivan
We live two hours from Cleveland which is a blessing and a curse. Lake Erie is visited by amazing birds, especially rarities that entice us to the make the journey – even if winters are frigid. Unsuccessful trips in December for Northern Saw-whet Owls and Black-headed Gulls emphasized the curse more than the blessings. When the state’s third Slaty-backed Gull (Code-3) was seen on the Cuyahoga River, we ignored our worries and decided to chase.
We arrived at Heritage Park early in the morning to find Cleveland’s famous recipe: cold, high winds, and a combination of rain, sleet, and snow. After an hour of sorting various gulls, my dad received an alert that the Slaty-backed Gull was roosting on coal piles near the Third Street Bridge. We ran to the car, hustled to the other side of the river, and arrived to see a dozen birders leaving the bridge. The gull had flown off thirty seconds prior to our arrival. More birders arrived as the witnesses left for the warmth of their cars and homes. Only one of the original viewers remained. An energetic birder spoke, “I’ve seen the bird, but I’m in it for the long haul. I’ve got seven hours and I’m going to get others on that gull!” I had never met the birder, but I recognized them instantly – it was the legend, Jen (JB) Brumfield.
A group of ten birders hunkered down on the bridge, hopeful that the Slaty-backed Gull would return. We stood shoulder-to-shoulder for two hours sharing stories that ranged from successful chases to painful dips to favorite birds and hotspots. The weather continued to get worst, but JB’s enthusiasm only grew. In fact, their energy was the only thing keeping me warm. Eventually, the bird was spotted downstream near Drydock Avenue flying back towards our bridge. We held our breath in anticipation, but the famed bird never arrived. After another hour of scanning thousands of gulls on coal piles, on the water, and in the skies, JB left for Drydock Avenue to expand the search. My dad and I used this as an opportunity to find a bathroom and seek warmth.
When we returned to the bridge twenty minutes later, we found a similar number of birders, but the faces had changed. We met a large Amish group, 2020 Lower-48 Big Year winner, Jeremy Dominguez, and Lorain County birder, Joshua Vardous. Once again, we scanned the area, but no one relocated the Slaty-backed Gull. Another hour later, JB texted Mr. Vardous who relayed the message, “A ship is coming in off the lake – it would be a good idea to meet at the Cleveland Fire Station and see what birds are in tow.” Unfamiliar with the area, Mr. Vardous suggested we follow his car to the station. When we arrived, JB was present, smiling, and reciting optimistic lines. After a brutally long day, I had an eerie feeling we were finally in the right spot at the right time.
I remember the moment. The ship plods through the water, with its engine and wake turning up shad for the gulls. As it approaches our view, Anthony Rodgers calls out an Iceland Gull – my first ever white-winged gull. I appreciate the lifer for a brief moment, then chaos. A gentleman comes running down the hill. He says something, but no one understands him. Has he seen the bird? Is he running to us for a better angle, should we be running to him? Then I hear JB’s voice, “There’s our bird! In the water! In the water!” Pandemonium. The bird takes off again before most of us, including myself, get eyes on it. There are a thousand birds in the air, mostly Ring-billed and Herring, but our celebrity bird is swirling in the masses. I start to panic – will I miss the bird again?! JB finds it in flight, grabs and drags me to the right angle, then calls out directions, “Above the O in the Rocket Mortgage sign!” I finally lock-on.
The bird is more impressive than I could have known from photographs. The Slaty-backed Gull soars across the sky, is backlit by skyscrapers, then silhouetted against the river. A large beast of a gull, with dark mantle, and an amazing trailing edge of bright white in the wings. I notice two impressive features – the string of pearls pattern in the primary feathers, and its thick, study neck. For two minutes, I help others – including my dad – find the bird as it circles the ship. The bird continues to dazzle before flying further to the north. As I pull the binoculars down from my face, I see the bird disappear into the buildings. In the aftermath, I look around to see faces full of smiles. There are adults high-fiving, fist-bumping, even hugging one another. Photographers are sharing back-of-the-camera images with each other. Strangers are no longer strangers. I am blown away by the bird, the people, and the moment. Cleveland does it right, and the curses just make the blessings sweeter. As the scene begins to settle, JB approaches me for one more congratulatory hug.
January 7th was an amazing day with JB, my birding hero. Brumfield’s kindness, enthusiasm, and love for birds were even greater than the myth I had imagined. I first learned of the Cleveland legend from my local mentors, Ben Warner and James Muller. So many of our discussions linked to JB’s expertise, passion, and humor. After these conversations, I would return home to research JB’s birding career. I learned that JB is Ohio’s only Young Birder of the Year – a program they inspired me to participate in. They traveled across the country to see birds, but also became an expert at their local patches – including a Big Year record in Cuyahoga County. Using these skills and ability to draw, Brumfield became a naturalist for Cleveland Metroparks, and in 2022, they received an ABA Lifetime Achievement Award.
All these accolades aside, JB is my hero because of what they do for others. Their enthusiasm and optimism are infectious. Their love for birds is immeasurable and only trumped by their love of helping others find birds. JB vowed to help me find the elusive Slaty-backed Gull and we celebrated together. Months later, Brumfield invited me on a Lake Erie pelagic because they knew I had never seen a Sabine’s Gull. Once again, we achieved pandemonium, but this time it was on a boat. After hours of sailing, a black-hooded gull with distinctive wings appeared on our port side. It was an adult Sabine’s Gull in mint breeding plumage. The boat turned into a party – I never knew birding could be so raucous!
The day I saw the Slaty-backed Gull was incredible, but the bird was not the only highlight. JB and their ability to will birds for others will always be my memory of that day. As we left the Cleveland Fire Station and ascended the hill together, a van of Amish birders appeared in the parking lot. The group exited the vehicle only to discover they were moments too late. My heart sunk for the crew, but before they could express their own disappointment, JB ran towards the van yelling, “Follow me! The bird flew north, and I have a feeling I know where it’s heading!” JB is ready to find that gull, again, for others.
Killian Sullivan is an 11-year-old birder who lives in Columbus, Ohio. His birding passion began with a Steller’s Jay in Lake Tahoe and has grown to nearly 500 species across North America. Birding complements his love for travel, adventure, and rock climbing. His favorite birding destinations are southeast Arizona, New Jersey’s Cape May; and any pelagic. He also loves the birding across the state of Ohio. At home, he loves watching and listening to his favorite bird, the Carolina Wren.