Rare bird lands on Texas dump

Yellow-legged gull, not often seen in U.S., draws birders to landfill

May 02, 2004|By Lianne Hart | Lianne Hart,LOS ANGELES TIMES

CORPUS CHRISTI, Texas - Larus michahellis is a large, yellow-legged seagull, a European scavenger rarely seen in the United States. And like gulls the world over, this bird likes to dine at garbage dumps, dive-bombing for its meals in giant heaps of trash.

That might be why a yellow-legged gull that veered wildly off course last winter and landed on the Gulf Coast ended up feeding at the J.C. Elliott landfill, a 92-foot-high pile of refuse on the outskirts of town.

The gull's first-ever appearance in Texas has caused quite a stir in birding circles, and an unexpected rise in tourism at the city garbage dump.

Among the latest to make the pilgrimage were 16 bird enthusiasts, most of them from California, who were touring southern Texas birding sites recently. On a gorgeous day when others might have headed to the beach, this group stood atop a mountain of buried waste and scanned the bird-filled skies for a glimpse of the celebrity gull. Hats were positioned against errant bird droppings. Plastic bags rolled like tumbleweeds across the dirt, and a steady breeze helped disperse the smell of rotting garbage.

It was a vacation stop not everyone would get excited about, said Nancy Flagg, a pediatrician from Los Angeles. "When I tell people I'm going birding, there's a long pause while they look at you like they feel sorry for you," she said. "But it's exhilarating to see a bird in a setting it's not supposed to be in. That really gets you going."

Spotting the foreign gull is no easy task. For starters, the bird is less than a year old - still too young to have developed its yellow legs. And with more than an estimated 60,000 native Texas seagulls crowding the skies above the trash here each day, it takes a sharp eye to find the wayward European.

Still, since the bird was first spotted in January, nearly 300 people from as far away as South Africa have dropped by for a look.

Landfill manager Tony Benavides isn't sure why, but he is a genial host, offering to drive visitors to prime viewing spots and supplying them with bright orange safety vests. "Whatever rocks your boat," he says, shrugging.

In three years, this landfill is scheduled to close, and a new one will open farther inland, Benavides said. "I get paid to bury garbage, but I worry about those birds. They don't know anything but this landfill for food," he said. "I worry they'll go hungry."

By the looks of the fat, aggressive gulls, that hardly seems possible. A 250-square-foot heap of freshly hauled trash is a scene from a Hitchcock movie, a blur of white feathers and beaks swarming the leftovers of 280,000 residents.

Not far from this superior dining spot, a local bird lover named Willie Sekula first came across the yellow-legged gull during a nature outing. At the time, he wasn't sure what he was looking at, but knew the bird was special.

"I could tell it wasn't from here, so I started taking a lot of pictures," he said. "I showed them to a friend who's a birder, and he got all excited." The photos were sent to bird experts, who identified the gull and speculated that a hurricane or storm had carried it to Texas from as far away as the Azores or the Madeira islands.

Only a handful of yellow-legged gulls have ever been spotted in the United States, Sekula said, and those landed on the East Coast.

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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