Chasing a Mythical Gull

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Jan 26, 2009 | by Adrian Binns

At 1:25AM I picked up Frank. Edie was next at 1:40AM and the three of us were off, headed to Massachusetts. Five States later at 7:15AM we arrived just north of Plymouth Rock to find a half dozen frozen birders scanning all over the bay. At 7:55AM someone shouts ‘white-winged’ gull and sure enough one is in flight coming over the breakwater right at us, not just any old ‘white-winged’ gull but the purest of them all, the only all-white gull, a magnificent adult Ivory Gull.

Other than the one that showed for a few days in Gloucester just before this bird, February 1997 was the last time New England hosted of one these stunning beauties, but that was a juvenile, with black markings on it – no less pretty but not as pure white. It has been over a century since the last adult was seen in this part of the country, hence all the excitement over not one but two of them that had been found in the last week. We are soon joined by Alan Brady, who in all the excitement managed to lose his front bumper on the ice, but that is another story. More importantly Alan who has been birding for well over 60 years had yet to see an adult.

The Ivory Gull is slightly smaller than a Ring-billed Gull, but bulkier with more of a barrel chest; long tail and even longer wings, which to me showed a similar jizz to a jaeger in flight. The head is perfectly rounded with a short neck; the bill, a two-tone blue-grey with yellow tip; beady black eyes and short black legs, which undoubtedly make it easier to walk on the packed ice in the High Arctic where it is from. Its all white plumage blending in so perfectly with the color of the ice. It is the most northerly breeding bird, a scavenger, fond of fish, seal scraps and carcasses. We watched it flying around often pulling up and hovering for a second, with its feet dangling (photo above) as it thought about descending. In the time that we were there it sat on a dock railing, dwarfed by Herring and Great Black-backed Gulls. It stood on the ice in the car park and walking about picking up whatever food it could find until it located a piece of meat – which hit the spot.

It was awfully tough to leave this bird, but we had come a long way and it was just as far to go back! Following a celebratory breakfast, where the waitresses were ecstatic over all the extra business that birders had bought to the community, we were back on the road at 10:15AM and unloading in Philadelphia at 4:00PM. A long very satisfying day – mission accomplished.

all photos © adrian binns


  1. Julie Zickefoose on January 26, 2009 at 11:37 PM

    Oh thank you for this vision in ice. What a gorgeous, gorgeous bird. I cut my birding teeth around Gloucester–how I would love to go back. But it’s about 14 hours for me. Sigh.

  2. Edie Parnum on January 27, 2009 at 7:42 AM

    What a wonderful bird to see. I loved it, and, Adrian, your pictures capture its beauty. Thanks for inviting me. The all night drive was nothing, especially since you did all the driving. Who cares that my daughter calls me “crazy lady”–what does she know of such natural beauty.

  3. Christopher on January 27, 2009 at 8:50 AM

    Glad that you were able to get there and see it, and get such wonderful photographs of the bird. It has not been nearly as cooperative as when it was first spotted – seems to take off mid-morning now and not be seen for the rest of the day -a lot of birders have been missing it.
    Again – spectacular shots, thanks for sharing them!

  4. Adrian Binns on January 27, 2009 at 9:38 AM

    Go Julie Go….and drag BT3 along. You will not regret it.

  5. Derek on January 27, 2009 at 9:41 AM

    From : Derek, London.

    Really enjoyed your article and fab photos.
    Sadly, I hear that global warming will deplete the number of Emperor penguins by 95% within the century, (down to 600 breeding pairs).
    Let’s hope that these magical gulls aren’t too

  6. Adrian Binns on January 27, 2009 at 9:48 AM

    Christopher…I believe that there has been a pattern the last few days which may be related to the availability of meat for it to feed on. It seems as though the first 2-3 hours in the morning it is hanging around, feeding till it is full, and then likely heading to an area, out of sight, to roost for the remainder of the day.

  7. giggles on January 27, 2009 at 11:57 AM

    Thrilling…simply beautiful…….

  8. Adrian Binns on January 27, 2009 at 6:14 PM

    Derek – While the penguins are in the southern hemisphere things are not that much better in the High Arctic where polar bears are also in trouble. It is estimated that there has been a 75% decline in Ivory Gulls in the Canadian Arctic in the last 3-4 decades. I believe that the next decade will be crucial as we see whether these trends continue at such a rapid rate or whether we can find a way to slow down this acceleration.

  9. Becky on January 27, 2009 at 6:47 PM

    Thanks for sharing these beautiful photos and fun story! Too bad there’s no Tim Horton’s in Massachusetts… or is there?

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