The highlight in any birder’s life is when they see a completely new bird – a ‘Lifer’. Living in northern Minnesota, it is highly unlikely to see one of these in the middle of our winter, but in the last two weeks, I’ve seen not just one, but Two! Living close to the Canadian border and the tundra regions of the northern hemisphere, we occasionally have ‘irruptions’ (no – that’s not misspelled) of birds coming south in large numbers due to poor food supplies in their normal winter range. These birds include the snowy owl, great gray owl, common redpolls and pine siskins (both finches), and occasionally pine grosbeaks or white-winged crossbills. I have been fortunate to see all of them at one time or another.
Juvenile Ivory Gull
What are more unusual to see are the water birds, but living near the greatest of the Great Lakes – Lake Superior – means the possibility of seeing a rare bird in the winter increases. On December 30th, 2015, an Ivory Gull was spotted 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.
The Great Black-backed Gull next to the (smaller, grayer) Thayer’s Gull in Duluth on January 18, 2016. Photo by Mike Link.
I first saw this rare gull on January 5th, sitting among all the much larger Herring Gulls on the concrete wall that is part of the public walkway. True to its name, it was nearly all white. This one being a juvenile had some black feathers on its face, tail and wingtips. It measures 17 inches long with a wingspan of about 33 inches. There were lots of people with cameras and spotting scopes standing along the icy bank staring at this beautiful visitor from the far north.
My husband wasn’t with me on this trip and when he went to Duluth a couple weeks later, the gull was not around. However, last week we heard through the birder’s ‘grapevine’ that not only was the Ivory Gull still hanging around, but two Black-legged Kittiwakes had been spotted recently. These too are Arctic birds, very rarely seen in mid-continent. So two days ago we drove back to Duluth to try our luck again. The temperatures had been stuck in the subzero range for several days, but that didn’t keep the birdwatchers away.
When we arrived, we were pleased to see people with long lens and spotting scopes set up, because that confirmed the presence of something special. As it turned out, the Kittiwakes had been elusive, but the Ivory Gull was there, hunkered down on the concrete wall next to several larger Herring Gulls. Mike was able to add it to his Life List. While we talked to other birders, we heard them mention a Thayer’s Gull and a Great Black-backed Gull and sure enough, these Artic and Oceanic gulls were sitting right next to one another on the concrete wall opposite the Ivory Gull. We had seen the Black-backed once before in Nova Scotia, but the Thayer’s was another ‘lifer’ for me. The Black-backed looked huge next to the Thayer’s and is bigger than the Herring Gulls.
We were able to share our sighting and excitement with two men who wandered up and asked what everyone was looking at. I shared my binoculars with them and both, though obviously not birders, were pleased and impressed to know they were seeing something rare and beautiful.
By Kate Crowley