Lined up with cameras and binoculars poised, hundreds of bird watchers gathered near the breakwall at Duluth’s Canal Park for a “once-in-a-lifetime” glimpse of a bird — a rare ivory gull.
The species is an uncommon visitor anywhere in the Lower 48 states, but for the last week one — or even two — of these birds has been right at home on the icy shores of Lake Superior. Typically, the species is found in the high Arctic, some 1,500 miles north of Duluth.
“It’s a birder party,” said Sharon Stiteler, aka “Birdchick,” a Minneapolis birding enthusiast and author. “I normally don’t chase birds, but my chances of ever getting to see this bird again in my lifetime are slim to none.”
The sighting of the nearly-all-white bird has prompted last-minute plane reservations, extended Christmas vacations and impromptu road trips.
Bob Dunlap, vice president of the Minnesota Ornithologists’ Union, jumped in his car New Year’s Day barely 15 minutes after he heard that the ivory gull had been spotted.
“It was a fist-pump moment,” he said. “People are coming from all over the U.S. to see this bird. It’s a very big deal.”
For avid birders, seeing an ivory gull is equivalent to shaking hands with royalty, which might explain why the bird has been eating like a king since its first reported sighting on Dec. 30. Photographers and birders have been tossing fillets of tuna and salmon over the breakwall to lure the bird as close as possible.
“It was 10 feet away at one point flying over my head,” Dunlap said. “I probably could’ve touched it. It was putting on a show.”
One dead, another alive
Early this week, the spotting of a dead bird temporarily dashed birders’ hopes.
While photographing the sunset Tuesday night, Duluth resident Bryan Murdock found a dead ivory gull on Connors Point in nearby Superior, Wis. Murdock contacted Laura Erickson, a Duluth birding veteran, who arrived Wednesday morning to find the bloody, mutilated bird. “I was heartbroken,” said Erickson, who’d taken 800 photos of the bird just days before. “It’s one of the birds I’ve most wanted to see since I started birding over four decades ago.”
Erickson said she has seen about 1,700 species, including 675 species in the Lower 48, Alaska and Canada, before she saw the ivory gull.
After Erickson posted photos of a dead ivory gull to her social media accounts and website (blog.lauraerickson.com), news traveled quickly that another ivory gull had been spotted at Canal Park.
Bird experts say the two ivory gulls in Minnesota are both young, because they show a black smudge on their faces and delicate flecks of color on the wings and tail. Adult ivory gulls are pure white.
Ivory gulls have been seen before in Minnesota, but rarely. The total number of ivory gull sightings in the state is about 12, dating to 1948 and most recently in 2008, Erickson said.
Nobody knows for sure why the two birds showed up in Duluth. They breed in the Arctic, but seeing them even on their home turf is rare because they typically live near the pack ice, eating from the scraps left behind polar bear and seal kills.
“There were some warmer-than-usual temperatures in the Arctic in the last week — maybe that had something to do with it,” Dunlap said. “Or it could be a fluke.”
Serious birders say they keep track of the different species they see, and the ivory gull seems to be on everyone’s “life list” — a tally of bird species each birder has identified during his or her lifetime.
When a bird is checked off the life list, it’s tradition to have a piece of celebratory “lifer pie,” Stiteler said. But after seeing her first ivory gull, Stiteler wasn’t in the mood for pie. She went to an Asian restaurant instead. Even though she didn’t follow protocol, she also saw a snowy owl and a rare gyrfalcon while in Duluth.
“It’s a magical place to see all these rare arctic birds,” she said of the city.