Words On Birds by Steve Grinley
Looking for Rare Arctic Gulls in Winter
January 26, 2024
By Steve Grinley
The temperature has moderated this week after a couple of weeks of “winter blast.” Those days of below freezing weather and biting cold winds forces a lot of “birding-by-car” and looking for places out of the wind to look for birds. It is on these bitter days that we spend looking for unusual gulls, geese, ducks and alcids wherever we can view them by staying close to the car.
It reminds me of those winters when the rare Ross’ gull was discovered in Newburyport Harbor back in 1975. More recently, and a bit less famous, was the ivory gull that was found off Eastern Point in Gloucester in 2009. It seems appropriate that I share that story again with you to help us through the winter!
“Last Saturday was a sunny but bitterly cold day, which began quiet enough as Margo and I birded around Salisbury finding only the usual suspects. We had thought of going to Gloucester to look for gulls and alcids, but I had planned to work a bit at the store later in the day and we didn’t want to wander too far. Most birds were hunkered down away from the wind and we spent much of the time birding from the car. We ventured away from the car for only a few minutes at a time as the windchill was well below zero. Little did we know that our quiet morning was about to change.
“I received a call from Rick Heil who said that Jeremiah Trimble had found an adult ivory gull at Eastern Point in Gloucester. The ivory gull is a bird of the Arctic Ocean, rarely moving any further south than northern Canada and the Maritime Provinces. Even more rarely does it show up in the United States. The last one I saw, was an immature bird in Portland, Maine, which I saw in mid 1990’s. Previous to that, I saw my first ivory gull, also an immature, at the jetty at Salisbury Beach back in 1975. We hoped to see them on my Alaska trip this past summer, but there were none to be found. Not quite as rare as the now famous Ross’ gull that raised a national fervor by showing up in Newburyport Harbor in winter of 1974/75, but rare enough just the same.
“So now the dilemma. I had planned to work, but, then, this WAS an ivory gull! The first thing we both did was got on our cell phones and called every birder on our contact lists. I then drove to the store and saw that it was already posted on Massbird, the local listserve for bird sightings. I then got “permission” to leave the store and we headed to Cape Ann in hopes of seeing what would be a life bird for Margo and my first adult ivory gull.
“Ivory gulls are about the size of a ring-billed gull, 16 to 17 inches long, with a wingspan of about 37 inches. The adults are pure white with black feet, black eyes, and a bill that is gray with a yellow tip. The immature birds, the only ones I had seen to date, are speckled with black like a young snowy owl. The bird was seen on the breakwater at the Eastern Point lighthouse and it would be easy enough to pick out of a crowd if it were still there. The problem we feared was that, like last year’s slaty-backed gull, the Gloucester gulls move around a lot between the inner and outer harbor, as well as over to Brace’s Cove.
“When we arrived at Eastern Point shortly after one o’clock, there were a dozen cars already there in the parking lot with scopes fixed on the dog bar. We grabbed our scopes, but as soon as we got to the line of people and scopes, we were offered looks through scopes that were already fixed on the bird. Its pure white plumage and smaller stature stood out among the hundreds of herring and greater black-backed gulls that lined the jetty. We set up our scopes and peered into the piercing wind for longer looks. Zooming up to sixty power gave good views of its black eye and black legs, and we could easily see the yellow tip on its bill. The bird was sitting less than half way out on the jetty, but still we hoped for closer looks.
“As more people arrived, and our eyes watered and feet numbed from the cold, the bird took flight. Everyone watched it circle the breakwater and then it appeared to head right toward us. The bird continued toward us and veered off to the cove right next to the parking lot. The light shone on its white wings and it seemed almost mythical, warming the coldest of us. It came within fifty yards of us and eventually sat down on the ice. With now closer scope views, we could see that the base of its bill was a beautiful pastel gray that blended into the yellow tip. A stunning bird indeed!
“Birders continued to pour in and soon the lot was full and parking was backed up onto the entrance road. A few people sacrificed their lunch sandwiches or crackers to help lure the gulls closer, with limited success. Then Joe Paluzzi of Swampscott remembered seeing some dead fish discarded on Jodrey State Fish Pier in Gloucester and volunteered to retrieve it. Joe left and returned within twenty minutes with dead fish wrapped in old plastic in the back of his brand new SUV. (His wife was probably not thrilled when he got home!) Jeremiah, who had found the bird originally, carried the fish into the cove and threw it on the ice and rocks. It wasn’t long before the rare arctic visitor came in to the bait, providing drop-dead views of this incredible bird, views that resulted in spectacular photographs for all who tried…
“Birder’s from as far away as Florida and Ohio have flown in or driven here to see this bird. Even more amazing is the discovery of a second adult ivory gull in Plymouth harbor on Tuesday! Now the only questions are which one to go to see, and when will one show up in Newburyport harbor!”
Except for a fly-by on Andrew’s Point in 2021, it has been fifteen years since an ivory gull was seen in Massachusetts. Certainly none in Newburyport Harbor. But always worth looking for on those bitter winter days!