Ivory Gulls in Duluth
By Kate Crowley
The last thing I would expect to happen in the heart of a Minnesota winter is to add a new ‘life’ bird to my list, but that’s just what happened a week ago in Duluth. Maybe you heard the news reports about the Ivory Gull that appeared on December 30th along the shipping canal in Duluth. Soon after it was identified, word spread in the ‘birding’ world. People began to come from all over the country to get a look at it. Ivory gulls are normally found in winter on the edge of the pack ice of the Arctic Ocean, or at sea between southwest Greenland and Labrador. Jan Green of Duluth is a well-known birder and according to her an Ivory Gull was last seen in Duluth in 2008, but it was only seen for one day. This new arrival continued to hang around Canal Park with the other more common ring-billed gulls.
I was hoping it would stay long enough for me to get a look and luck was with me. On January 5th, I finally had a chance to drive to Duluth. As I pulled into the parking lot I saw a bunch of guys with tripods and cameras with telephoto lenses gathered together. After I got out I asked the important question. “Is the gull still there?” They confirmed that it was and so I made my way over to the sidewalk and short slope that faces the rocks and water next to the Channel. I could just as well have been walking on pack ice. The combination of little snow, rain and lots of people’s feet had created a treacherous, uneven icy surface. Shuffling along I inched up the little hill next to a man with a spotting scope and again asked for help spotting the gull. He pointed at a smaller, almost pure white bird sitting on the concrete wall next to the walkway. He also let me look through his spotting scope and there I saw the prize.
Ivory gulls measure 17 inches long with a wingspan of about 33, considerably smaller than the ? gulls. This one was identified as an immature bird because it had the black smudgy markings found on Ivory gulls in their very first year. It was a cold day with a biting wind, so I knew I wouldn’t be staying long, so I carefully slid down the little slope and shuffled over to the steps leading to the walkway.
A gate is erected in the winter months to keep people from walking all the way down to the end and all the gulls were hanging out on the other side of this fence. There were pieces of suet and possibly some fish that people had thrown on the ground on the far side of the fence and periodically the gulls would rise up in a group, swirl around and land near the proffered food. As I reached the fence, the birds took off and that gorgeous white visitor flew right over my head at low altitude with the beautiful blue sky behind it. It was a Jonathan Seagull moment.
Ivory gulls are typically scavengers and will follow behind polar bears waiting to clean up scraps. The question of why and how this gull came to Minnesota will not be answered, but there is no question it would be hungry after a journey of 1500 miles. Birds are occasionally blown off course when severe storms hit the Atlantic or Pacific Coast, and other birds (like the snowy owls) will fly to our region specifically to find food in times of low food in the tundra.
I have my own personal supposition about these rare Arctic visitors got here. (Another Ivory gull was found dead a day after my visit). Do you remember the deadly storms of late December in the southeastern U.S? That same system sent a hurricane like storm with strong winds and low pressure roaring up to the North Pole during the last week of December. This caused air temperatures to rise above freezing in this most northerly region; something only recorded once before. I believe this must have created conditions that could have pushed birds far out of their range. We will never know for sure, but those birds’ misfortune was my good fortune. I do worry though, whether the lone survivor will make it through winter here and manage to find its way back to the Arctic.
The most recent reports from Duluth birdwatcher’s is that there are now two Black-legged Kittiwakes hanging out in the Canal area. These too are Arctic birds. I will be making another drive north early this week.