Tuesday, March 2, 2010

The Ivory Colored Frost Lover

Saturday, 20-Feb-2010: Pat Jones, birder from Long Island, discovers an adult Ivory Gull on Lake Champlain, on the Vermont side, while searching the area for a previously reported Northern Hawk Owl. During his trip to the northern reaches of New York, Pat Jones also found an adult male Tufted Duck, in addition to the continuing Northern Hawk Owl, making for an incredible northern New York rarities trifecta.

As the reports of the Ivory Gull continued through the following week, schemes began to form for a trip to the northeast corner of New York State. A major winter storm that hit Ithaca Thursday night almost thwarted our attempt. Not wanting a repeat of our first Ivory Gull chase in January of 2009 where we drove through the middle of a blizzard, we watched the weather intently. However, the storm passed, and the roads were cleared by midday on Friday.

By Friday afternoon, plans were made to leave Ithaca at 3:30 the following morning. A second group of Ithaca birders left earlier that day, and were able to track down the gull on Friday afternoon.

Now, I was going out to dinner with friends the night before, and didn’t get back until late, so I had the bright idea of not sleeping before leaving. That, in the long run, hurt, but, all went well enough. After an early start, Tom, Carolyn and I were on our way, first to pick up Brad, and then to Ausable Point, first to track down the Tufted Duck. Arriving at Ausable Point around 9 AM, we quickly saw the Tufted Duck, pointed out to us by our fellow Ithacans who had found it earlier in the day. Now, I can understand that part of the appeal of Tufted Ducks is that they are a rare bird for us U.S. birders, but I really do enjoy watching them. Their tuft is actually quite loose, and flops around a lot as they swim, turn their head, and dive. When resurfacing, their tuft, initially plastered to their head with water, suddenly springs back out.

My poor attempt at digiscoping the Tufted Duck. In this picture, it is pretty close to center and sleeping. You can pick it out by its black back and clean white sides

After we finished watching the Tufted Duck, we moved on to the Ivory Gull. As soon as we arrived, the dozen or so birders that were already gathered on the jetty pointed out the bird to us. At first, the bird remained quite distant on the ice for quite a long period of time, seemingly content with bathing, preening, sleeping, and pooping. We waited on that break wall for a good 4 hours, with intermittent snow squalls making our vigil particularly painful. But, we were rewarded for our patience, as the bird eventually got hungry, and came into a chicken carcass that was on the ice near the jetty. It fed on the chicken for nearly 45 minutes while we just stared in amazement at its beauty.

Views from the Rouses Point jetty, where we spent close to five hours watching the Ivory Gull. Note the ice fishermen on the ice in the middle picture.

Sitting through a brief snow squall while watching the Ivory Gull (photo by Carolyn Sedgwick)

The Ivory Gull begins to close in on some tasty chicken

When not feasting on this chicken, this Ivory Gull would pick at fish that the ice fishermen had left out for it

Adult Ivory Gull, Rouses Point, NY.

Ivory Gull going for a stroll on the ice after gorging on chicken

After we had our fill of the Ivory Gull (not that I can ever tire of that bird), we moved onto the Northern Hawk Owl, which had been spotted earlier in the afternoon after a two-day hiatus, for our final twitch of the day. Again, we were not disappointed, as the bird sat on the side of the road, and at one point caught a vole, which it later cached somewhere. Unfortunately, by that time of day, the light was poor, and my camera refused to cooperate.

Northern Hawk Owl, Champlain, NY.

Probably one of my best birding days in New York state (from a rarities perspective), this day was tempered by the thought that this adult Ivory Gull may only be here due to changes in its northern realm. Over the past two winters, an unprecedented number of Ivory Gulls (mostly adult birds, no less) have shown up on the East Coast, one making it as far south as Georgia (roughly 10 birds south of the Canadian border). Typically, vagrant birds are juvenile birds, but the sudden surge of adult vagrants this far south raises questions of the quality of the traditional winter grounds. In the Canadian Arctic, Ivory Gull populations appear to be declining quite rapidly (based on surveys at the breeding colonies), with climate change thought to be one of the primary factors (Mallory et al. 2008). In addition to changes due to climate, Ivory Gulls have been found to have increasing levels of pollutants in their bodies, with high amounts of mercury and other pollutants (Birdlife International 2010)

For a few more pictures of mine, plus a video of the Ivory Gull feeding, check here.

For much better pictures of the Ivory Gull and Northern Hawk Owl, check out Tom's pictures here and here.


Mallory, Mark L., Iain J. Stenhouse, Grant Gilchrist, Gregory Robertson, J. Christopher Haney and Stewart D. Macdonald. 2008. Ivory Gull (Pagophila eburnea), The Birds of North America Online (A. Poole, Ed.). Ithaca: Cornell Lab of Ornithology; Retrieved from the Birds of North America Online: http://bna.birds.cornell.edu/bna/species/175


  1. Goddamnit... you know how much I hate you?

  2. buzzardseyeview.blogspot.comOctober 4, 2013 at 12:15 PM

    Love your blog - the photos are enhanced by the detailed commentary. Thank you.