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This Australian flew 10,000 miles to see America's Trash Birds

Laughing seagulls on a municipal landfill in Texas.
Photo: Vince Smith (Flickr)

20-year-old Tasmanian George Vaughan had three main goals for his trip to the United States last month: See a Metallica Visit Niagara Falls and visit a landfill site in the south of Alabama. The landfill, he hoped, would help him to realize a dream he had had for six years: to laugh a seagull, a "seagull" that would be distracting to an average American beach visitor.

For the first time, I learned of Vaughan's search through his posts on eBird, a database of citizen scientists using birdwatchers to record their sightings. His bird report on America had me immediately excited. Most of the logs contain sparse notes, just a few sentences describing rarer birds so other users know that the poster is not lying. But that's how Vaughan described a bunch of seagulls on a boardwalk:

Screenshot: eBird

By comparison, here what I usually laugh for, the black-headed gulls that the Brooklyners almost always see are on a dumpster Summer Out:

Screenshot: eBird

The young Australians' contributions describe the most ignored birds in North America in well-written, excited prose that echoes the "evocative" sounds of the Canada goose and the "complacency" form of "the Mockingbirds and the beauty of the turkey vulture that praised Vaughan as "more graceful aéronauts" than hawks.

However, none of these birds could match his love of seagulls – even ring-gulls and seagulls, creatures that connect most Americans with CostCo parking and landfills. Here's his description of some of herring gulls he saw in Coney Island:

An entry from one of Vaughan's eBird Lists.
Screenshot: George Vaughan (eBird)

I'll notice that even some experienced American birdwatchers avoid the seagulls – they all look pretty similar and each can go through several different plumage patterns before it can ripen. They are really hard to identify – there are whole books that want to tell them apart.

But Vaughan noticed things I had never done, and I was involved in his lists. I followed his holiday through eBird and wondered what he would see next. His enthusiasm for birds that I see every day became a regular pleasure – it was a pleasure I remember when I first car show as a car loving child or when I first saw a flock of one of my favorite birds on a trip saw Minnesota. I wanted to know more about the man behind these lists.

I turned to Vaughan and he agreed to answer some questions about his visit to America and his love of seagulls on Skype. Vaughan is a young-looking student with disheveled hair and glasses. He says he studies ancient Greek history and language as well as, surprisingly, creative writing. He writes, writes short and long stories for fun and does not use social media. Vaughan leads his early interest in ornithology and wildlife until he watches David Attenborough.

He says he saw 13 new gull species when he visited the US

This interview was edited and condensed for clarity.

How was it when you first landed in the US?

George Vaughan: It was remarkable. For the transition from LA to New York, we were only briefly there. I thought it was too early to get one of the seagulls, and I'm sitting on the planet looking out, and this big seagull is having really even wing beats, compared to the Australian gulls. There are banks, and I think, oh yes, that's a herring gull. There's a real romance with herring gull, because it's a species that we should have had a hundred times in Australia, but it never came here. Another seagull with stiffer wing beats is coming over, I think, that will be a western gull, and that's it. I thought, oh my god.

Funny enough, when we arrived in New York, it took awhile to find gulls, because we stayed right next door to Grand Central Station and a skyscraper would impale any kind of overflight. We went to the park next to the United Nations building and looked at the Hudson River, where there was a big ball with ring beaks and big black seagulls with some herring gulls. It was truly remarkable to see a large black backless gull. [ Ed Note: The large black black-backed gull is the largest seagull in the world with a wing span that is larger than that of a red-tailed bus. They are relatively common in New York . One of my first memories of David Attenborough was that a large black seagull settled on whole puffins. They did not look that big, though they are really massive creatures.

An entry from one of Vaughan's eBird Lists.
Screenshot: George Vaughan (eBird)

When did you do that? Do you like seagulls and why do you like them?

Vaughan: You can trace it back to a certain moment. In 2013, I reviewed the most important Australian bird books by Pizzey and Knight. There are only three species of seagulls in Australia – the common-looking Herring Gull, the Giant-billed Gull, and the Kelp Gull, which one will eventually come across in America. But if you look at the laughing seagull, this absolutely beautiful bird with a black hood and a white eye ring – there is no such thing in Australia. All our seagulls have a white head. The color combination really resonated with me. From then on, I became addicted to seagulls.

I like them so much because they are a real challenge. My other great passion for bird watching is the shorebirds. Editor's note: This is another group of birds that are known to be difficult to distinguish. ] There is something about these bird species that overlooks them. You have to check each one of them. It really keeps you busy. In addition, I love the color of the seagulls. There is only something about this very simple black, white and gray. It's just the right ratio of color.

What do your friends or family members think about your seagull obsession?

Vaughan: You treat it with The kind of balance between intrigue, respect and discomfort ensures that it deserves it.

And they are not all gulls, right?

As much as I'm a seagull fan, I really enjoy all the birds. There is a real romance for the regularly occurring American species. One of the most notable for me was seeing my first turkey vulture, which I never knew how beautiful they look. You are such an effortless creature, it is remarkable. I was stunned because we were in Nashville just recently, we were in Jack White's recording facility right now and I'm looking at the sky and you know right away that it's a vulture. It was really rewarding.

A screenshot from one of Vaughan's eBird Lists
Screenshot: George Vaughan (eBird)

Why are you investing so much time and effort in your eBird Lists? They are really well written, and I and some of my bird friends really felt their excitement through them.

It's great that it happened that way. One of the things I really hoped was that [readers] could feel like they were with me, and their faces were covered with snow at Niagara Falls. For me, it is also one of the things to encapsulate the bird specifically. One of my greatest inspirations in writing and reading birds over birds is of course John James Audubon. Note: Audubon is perhaps the most famous ornithologist and namesake of the National Audubon Society, who illustrated The Birds of America. His paintings and writings can be found here. ] He has summarized the essence of every bird he has written about in a way he wrote about science and art. I really wanted to bring together the same combination of science and art to really convey the excitement and hopefully get more people excited about it.

Many Americans would probably call seagulls "garbage birds" if they are so common. What would you say about that?

Vaughan: I would say it's all very good to forego them and just overlook them, but just look a little closer and have a little more time. It really is very therapeutic, so you can just take something that is absolutely everywhere, and spend a little time looking at it and really absorbing the individual characteristics of each bird. You can enjoy it very much. I think people who give up gulls will miss that.

It seems that Vaughan is an expert with some niche interests, but he is not: he is just a 20-year-old dedicated to nature. When I came back to look at some of his lists from Tasmania, he sometimes skipped that flair, but his entries were often as thoughtful or specific as describing native birds.

Reading his lists has changed me a bit – Last weekend, I saw a group of gulls stalking and lounging across a pier when a rare gull species I had never seen before floated above them. I would never have noticed, if not Vaughan's lists.

But in the end, Vaughan's keen eye for seagulls had less impact on me than his serious veneration of the birds. In the endless flood of malice and cynicism that is often found online these days, it felt really good to read someone who did not deal with all that. Vaughan only likes seagulls and he likes them very much. You may like things, even weird, ordinary things.

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