By Hilary Corrigan
Triplicate staff writer
To the untrained eye, the gray and white feathered visitor is just another common western gull.
But a Klamath birder suspected otherwise after spotting the slaty-backed gull in Smith River late last month. He called former wildlife biologist Alan Barron, a longtime birder who has scanned the skies in Del Norte County for more than 20 years.
The crazy white eyes and gray bandit mask-like markings, along with the white-lined wingtip, called a string of pearls, confirmed the gull's true identity.
Barron posted photos on the Internet. Within days, about 70 people had driven from Humboldt County and Coos Bay, Medford and Ashland, Ore., to catch a glimpse.
"It's so rare," Barron said, noting that the visit marked the gull's first recorded stop in Del Norte County. "Miraculously, as we're all staring at it on the last day, a second one showed up."
The Siberian bird's range includes the eastern edge of Asia, along with western Alaska. They usually spend winters in southeast Asia.
Humboldt State University wildlife biologist Rick Golightly figures the Smith River gull's visit stemmed from a navigational error.
"If a bird makes a wrong turn between Alaska and Russia, they end up on the wrong side of the ocean," Golightly said.
The scientist prefers analyzing large-scale population changes the barred owl's western migration, for instance, that has started to displace the northern spotted owl rather than a lone bird's wayward route.
Birder watchers take a different view.
"Those birders get very excited when a bird's in the wrong place," Golightly said. "I've called some of 'em crazy and they don't flinch. They think they are, too."
A warbler from China visited Del Norte County about seven years ago, followed by humans from the east coast of the U.S.
"I call 'em birdheads. They're kind of a culture of their own," Golightly said.
That culture includes a mostly female, middle-aged group with extra money to spend and time to travel.
"It may be a bigger industry than a lot of people think," Golightly said, noting the annual Aleutian Goose Festival in Crescent City, Godwit Days in Arcata and a bird festival in Bolinas.
The Aleutian Goose Festival depends on birders' unique attitude to their hobby, festival organizer Rick Hiser said.
"One of the motivating factors for having the festival was the fact that birders do this," Hiser said. "They travel in pursuit of their passion."
More than 200 have registered for the spring event that started nine years ago with 130 participants. Hiser estimates that each spends more than $300 in local motels, restaurants and businesses over a weekend stay.
"The Aleutian goose was kind of the star attraction," he said, noting the economic benefits for the region. "It gives the opportunity to showcase the entire county."
Around the nation, one in four bird species shows significant negative trend estimates, mostly from habitat destruction, according to a 2001 U.S. Fish and Wildlife report.
"Birders may be the and political force that can help save the birds," the report states.
The report estimates that the nation hosts 46 million bird watchers. About 18 million of them traveled for their hobby. Wildlife watching in general that year pumped about $85 billion into the U.S. economy.
Crescent City officials aim to attract some of those birders. Last fall, the city opened its California Redwoods Birding Trail, a loop of bird-watching stops that joins the Oregon Coast Birding Trail. Participants drive along a self-guided tour from the mouth of the Smith River to Klamath and along Highway 199 back to Oregon.
Birding takes place mostly in spring and fall, shoulder seasons that tourism officials want to build. And birders leave little footprint, such as noise and pollution.
"There's a lot of interest in developing ecotourism in the area," said city manager Will Caplinger, noting possible kayak routes and hiking trails.
Caplinger, too, has noticed birders' enthusiasm. When a blue-footed booby from South America once turned up at Point St. George, birders arrived from other countries.
"I met people from Arkansas," he said.
City officials plan to count Web site visits and brochure distributions to better track visiting birders.
Hiser expects such steps to grab more attention for Del Norte County's birds.
"The potential is pretty major because Del Norte County has 420-plus bird species that have been recorded here, which is a huge number for a county," Hiser said. "You take what your strengths are birds and the natural beauty and you capitalize on that."
Those features lured Barron to the area more than 20 years ago.
"It's one of the best places around," said Barron, who wrote a county bird field guide and knows the power of certain sightings.
When Tahiti's rare bristle-thighed curlew visited Del Norte County in 1998, more than 600 humans drove or flew in, as well.
"The chance to see something like that is so small, when it turns up here, it creates quite a stampede of birders," Barron said.
The hobby has room to grow in Del Norte County.
"It's wide open here for discovery," Barron said, "with something as simple as walking out the door with binoculars."
Reach Hilary Corrigan at .