Laura Erickson's For the Birds

Monday, January 4, 2016

Lifer Ivory Gull!

Ivory Gull in Duluth!

Birding is a sport of diminishing returns. The first few years after I started birding in 1975, it was relatively easy to add life birds. I saw at least 100 new birds in both 1975 and 1976, but never again did I see that many new birds within the United States in a single year. Since starting birding, there have only been three individual years when I haven’t seen a single lifer—the first was 1985, the year I was pregnant with and had my third baby while caring for my 1- and 3-year olds. The second year I didn’t see a single lifer was over 20 years later, in 2008, the first year I worked at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, when I was far too busy writing about and editing stories about birds to be able to get out and see any. And the third year was 2015. I went down to southern Illinois in January trying to see an Ivory Gull that turned up along the Mississippi River in Quincy, but didn’t get there until the day after the last sighting of it. Just a few weeks later I had my heart attack, which put the kibosh on my doing the kind of birding likely to get me any lifers.

I got confirmation that 2016 will be a different kind of year right away on New Years Day. I got an email via the Minnesota Ornithologists Union listserv from Doug Kieser saying an Ivory Gull was present at Canal Park, so I charged right over with my little dog Pip. The gull was sitting along the breakwater, and flew up giving me great views of it in flight before settling back down to eat a chunk of salmon one birder had tossed out for it. I took over 800 photos of it, and many of them turned out.
Ivory Gull in Duluth!

As exhilarating as seeing any new bird is, some are more electrifying than others, and Ivory Gull has been one of my most yearned-for birds since I started birding. It belongs in the high arctic, where it seldom leaves the pack ice even in winter, though an individual will wander south every year or two to give birders a big thrill. Adults are pure white—the whitest of all gulls, in keeping with their habit of following one of the whitest of all mammals, the polar bear, to feed on bits of carrion. This one was hatched in 2015, so still has a dark face and beautiful dark flecking on the wings and tail.

Ivory Gull in Duluth!

Ivory Gull appearances are sporadic and unpredictable, but occur regularly enough that the American Birding Association calls it a Code 3 bird, one that occurs somewhere in North America in very low numbers, but annually, in the ABA Checklist Area, including visitors and rare breeding residents. There is no pattern at all with Ivory Gull appearances—the bird that showed up in Quincy, Illinois, last winter was a pure white adult, and one that showed up in Minnesota in the 90s was a pure white adult, too. Ivory Gulls, like birding in general, is like a box of chocolates—you never know what you’re going to get, but it’s certain to be sweet.

Ivory Gull in Duluth!

Like Polar Bears, the Ivory Gull is rare and declining, fairly inaccessible in its natural range and seldom found in the Lower 48. This is now the rarest bird Pip has on her lifelist, and among the rarest on mine.

Photo Copyright 2016 by Scott Wolff (who happens to be the first person to spot the Ivory Gull, in late December!)
I’ll be going out to see it whenever I can get away, and will also be keeping track of other people’s sightings—already many people from nearby states are dropping everything to go and see it, and if it settles into a regular schedule, birders working on year lists or simply needing it for their life lists will be showing up from all over the country. The Minnesota Ornithologists’ Union’s facebook page will keep up with sightings, and to get information, you can email me at

Ivory Gull in Duluth!

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