The grand saga of Minnesota’s ivory gull(s)
The Minnesota birding year is off to an emotionally overwhelming start. It began with an unconfirmed report of an ivory gull on Lake Superior. On Jan. 1, photographers confirmed that an immature ivory gull was hanging out at Canal Park in downtown Duluth.
Ivory gulls breed in the high Arctic and rarely appear in the Lower 48 states. They normally hang out with polar bears on pack ice. Periodically there are reports on the coast or the Great Lakes, and the birds generally stick around for a few weeks, thus attracting birders far looking for a photo.
The Duluth specimen had lots of appeal. It’s been easy to reach, and chances are good you can see other great birds like Bohemian waxwings, snowy owls, and an incredible gyrfalcon. I drove from the Twin Cites with my friend Wendy who is fairly new to birding. We got a leisurely start to our day by hitting the road by 8 a.m., and we were in Canal Park by 11. We quickly located the crowd of birders aiming their scopes and cameras to a mixed flock of gulls. As we left the parking lot I instantly spotted the ivory gull and made sure we got great scope-views to say, “We saw it,” and then found a better angle for a photo.
The bird flew in to a pile of mostly salmon remains within about 20 feet of some birders and began to feed. I snapped two pictures of the bird before a bald eagle soared over and startled the gulls. They eventually settled but the ivory gull was much farther away. Wendy and I enjoyed the gull, and shot a few other species including Glaucous, Thayer’s, and Iceland. Another eagle startled all of the gulls sending them high in the air. We grabbed lunch then drove to Superior, Wis., where we passed under a snowy owl perched on a street lamp. We watched a majestic gyrfalcon hunt pigeons for about 20 minutes. It was a very successful birding day.
The next few days I watched social media as other friends traveled to see the ivory gull. It was fun to watch the flood of pictures… but then cryptic messages began to show up saying that the ivory gull was gone!
On Wednesday morning, Jan. 6, news broke that on Tuesday night a photographer found the ivory gull’s carcass. Soon pictures appeared of an immature ivory gull body. The kill looked like an aerial predator got it, but tracks surrounding the gull suggested a fox. Had the gyrfalcon killed it, began to feed, then been startled away by a fox? Birders who hadn’t yet made the trip were crying in anguish.
Then things got really weird.
Reports arrived from Canal Park Wednesday morning that people were seeing the gull. What? Impossible. We have photos of the carcass. But then people posted photos of themselves standing in front of the gull. It suddenly became clear: There had been two ivory gulls in the area all along!
How did we miss this? Two mega rarities in the same area!
Birders rejoiced once again and plans formed for people who hadn’t seen it yet to go this weekend to see the bird. Via this link, you can see the collection I made of memes and gifs to show the emotional roller coasters birders suffered on Wednesday.
The ivory gull is a cool looking bird, and – unlike other species of gulls – it’s easy to identify. Immature birds are small and white with black feet. It has a black mask and black edging to some of its feathers. Adults are pure white.
So if you are remotely inclined to see this Arctic visitor, head to Duluth in the next week or two. You’ll meet some other birders, who will be happy to help you out.