SANDGATES - Shrimpy, the kelp gull star of St. Mary's County, soars in from the Patuxent River, lands gracefully on a utility pole and stands there puffing out its chest like a best-actor nominee at the Academy Awards show.
With its snowy-white head and breast and black wings with white spots like pearl studs, the bird looks quite elegant on the pole, an old-school gentleman in a dress suit.
Its bill, a yellow schnozzola worthy of W.C. Fields, undercuts the elegance a bit. The reddish gonys spot even suggests Fields' overindulgent imbibing. For nonbirders, the gonys spot is where the young bird taps its parent when it's hungry.
Jane Kostenko, the St. Mary's County birder who has chronicled Shrimpy over the years, thinks the gull's "gape," a wrinkle behind its bill, gives it a perpetual smile.
"It definitely loves an audience," she says.
Shrimpy is a celebrity in its own right, one of the best-known individual birds in the country, one that thousands of bird lovers have come to Maryland to see. It's a solitary voyager far from home. Kelp gulls normally are "circumpolar." Their natural habitat is the region around the South Pole.
"You find them in southern South America, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand, and on the Antarctic peninsula, and on the islands in between," says Phil Davis, secretary of the Maryland/District of Columbia Records Committee, which in November certified Shrimpy as a resident alien.
Davis, who has traveled to Antarctica and seen lots of kelp gulls at home, says, "From its feather pattern, we believe it's from South America."
Shrimpy celebrates a kind of birthday today. It was formally identified as a kelp gull on Feb. 14, 1999. But it's unlikely he - or she, nobody's determined the bird's gender - will find a mate for Valentine's Day. A kelp-gull sighting was reported recently in Colorado, and there's a small colony on the Chandeleur Islands in the Gulf of Mexico off Louisiana.
Patty Craig, who is St. Mary's leading birder right now, first spotted Shrimpy on Feb. 7, 1998. At first, she thought the bird might be a lesser black-backed gull, a rare enough species in itself. The idea that it was a kelp gull seemed unlikely. Getting the definitive ID took a year of observation and discussion.
But word went out on the Internet when it was identified, and birders flocked to the Sea Breeze restaurant in Sandgates to add Shrimpy to their "life lists," the birding equivalent of a lifetime home-run record. (Sandgates is a small town on the west bank of the Patuxent, about 10 miles from Solomons.)
"It's like collecting," Davis says. "But you don't put things on your shelf."
Listings are by state, areas within the state, and within the American Birding Association area - everything north of Mexico, including Alaska and Canada, but not Hawaii, or for that matter, Greenland.
In the ABA area, Davis says, "a lot of people spend a lot of money chasing birds, listing birds." The Fish and Wildlife Service says that one in five Americans is a birdwatcher.
Kostenko totes up about 3,000 visitors to Sandgates in the log book she's kept, from all but five states and from Canada, England and Ireland.
Shrimpy's halcyon days are over, but it still attracts birders. An Italian Web site notes its presence. A birder from Montreal just called to ask about coming down to see it.
Shrimpy drops down to the shore at the end of a row of pilings stretching out into the river from the rear of the Sea Breeze.
"It's a good-looking bird," Kostenko says. "There's something very clean about its black and white [look]. It's very personable the way it was walking, kind of chugging along there."
It got the name Shrimpy because the folks at the restaurant used to put out shrimp and clams and oysters on the half shell for it.
"The end of that particular pier is where they used to feed it," Kostenko says. "So that's where it likes to dig around for anything that's washed up. In spring and summer the watermen ... come in with their fresh catch and sell it here to the restaurant. And a lot of time they'll toss out their extra chum. So it's learned this is tasty little pool of goodness."
Shrimpy's the bully of the neighborhood. It spots an innocuous ring-billed gull on a piling and swoops over, chasing it out of the water.
"It's always with the attitude," Kostenko says. "Oh, it's ornery."
Craig says the bird does not often chase smaller gulls: "Usually it picks on the big ones."
Shrimpy brings the number of certified bird species that have been sighted in Maryland to 418. Before it was added to the list, the gull got a thorough background check from the nine-person records committee, which included Patty Craig.
The committee's report fills two thick loose-leaf binders. One volume records mainly details and photographs of sightings. The other contains reference material about kelp gulls.
No one doubted the identification. But a couple of people wondered how the gull got here. If it escaped from a zoo, or somebody brought it up in a cage, or it hitchhiked a ride on a ship, it might well have been disqualified.
"You have a pretty stringent voting process," Davis says. "If something gets through the committee, there's a pretty good likelihood that it is what it claimed to be."
As it turned out, Shrimpy was accepted 9-0.
"When I found it, there was no North American guide that had the kelp gull in it," Craig says. Now it's described in The Sibley Guide to Birds and there's a tiny dot on one of the book's North American maps.
"That little green spot," she says. "It's hard to see. But it's our little Shrimpy."
She thinks Shrimpy's something over 10 years old now. It was mature and thus over 4 years old when she first sighted it. Gulls can live to be 30, sometimes older.
Shrimpy hangs around the Sea Breeze most of the year. For a couple of months in spring, during the breeding season, it leaves the Patuxent with the rest of the gulls. Where they go and what Shrimpy does, no one quite knows.
"Usually, they breed where people can't get to them," Davis says. "Like out on islands, typically in the [Chesapeake] bay, or out in the offshore barrier islands."
Shrimpy has only once been reported sighted away from the Sea Breeze.
"We've never really found out where it roosts at night," Davis says. "One person says he thinks he saw it come to the [Chalk Point] power plant one night."
Shrimpy's diving down on a herring gull now and they sweep out of sight over the river, disappearing dots in the distance, and the doughty, displaced kelp gull is gone for the day.