If the ivory gull that spent the first week of the year in Duluth’s Canal Park has in fact flown the coop, the bird should be headed to Hollywood — after all, it is now a bona fide star.
The gull was last seen in Duluth about a week ago. During its visit (about 1,500 miles south of its usual winter home on the pack ice of the High Arctic), the gleaming white bird attracted hundreds of observers to Canal Park. Scores of longtime birders quickly grew fond of the bird that was clearly comfortable with people and grateful for the meals of salmon proffered by many visitors.
While its fans will miss the ivory gull, the people whose avocation has been to report its comings and goings may finally have a chance to catch their breath.
That includes Mike Hendrickson of Duluth, a birder for 40 years who runs three Facebook groups devoted to avian tracking in Minnesota. It wasn’t long ago when a birder might get a phone call from a friend when a rare species was spotted, Hendrickson said. But now there’s pressure to get sightings up on social networks or websites as quickly as possible after an initial observation.
That’s how a little ivory gull becomes an overnight sensation.
Hendrickson was out searching for a different bird New Year’s Day morning when he got a group text saying an ivory gull had been discovered not far from Canal Park. “We were shocked,” Hendrickson said. “We dropped everything. It was ‘let’s go.’ ”
Shortly after seeing the gull himself, Hendrickson posted the news for his Facebook followers. Alerts on other Facebook groups quickly followed, and a report went out on the Minnesota Ornithologists’ Union (MOU) electronic mailing list service, a form of communication that predates social media but is still favored by many birders.
Given that the ivory gull was spotted on a holiday, dozens of Minnesota birders streamed to Duluth, keeping track of the bird’s whereabouts by smartphone while en route. By evening, dozens of photos had been posted online.
Dan Tallman, a retired biology professor from Northfield, Minn., who has been birding for more than 50 years, was one of those who made the journey. “We took off on the spur of the moment,” Tallman said. “We had to drive 180 miles, and by the time we got there, 50 other birders were already in the park.”
Tallman has more than 2,300 bird species on his “life list,” but he had never seen an ivory gull.
Peter Nichols, who runs a 3,300-member Facebook page called Minnesota Birding, did not see the ivory gull until Jan. 2, but he also posted news of its appearance on his group site shortly after it was sighted.
“Many of the rare birds that show up in Minnesota can be found elsewhere in the U.S., but anywhere in the Lower 48 is way out of the ivory gull’s range,” Nichols said. “I thought my chances of ever seeing one were very low. I knew it would attract people from other states who felt the same way — people who would be willing to fly or drive long distances to see it.”
“In an instant, the story was out there,” said Richard Hoeg, a Duluth birder who recently produced Minnesota Birding News, an app for smartphones and tablets that aggregates many Minnesota bird information sources. “When the ivory gull showed up, social media made Canal Park the birding spot of the country.”
Even with the broad reach of social media, not all rare bird sightings end up as this kind of “perfect chase,” as one MOU poster described it.
Rare or coveted birds often appear only briefly or are difficult to see in camouflaged habitat. Photos of a bird may be posted online, but specific locations are frequently kept a secret — to keep crowds from endangering the welfare of the bird or overrunning private property, or, on occasion, because photographers want their images to be unique.
Besides being extremely rare, the Canal Park ivory gull appeared in a public area, made daily appearances for an extended period of time and did not seem to be bothered by the presence of humans. It endeared itself to photographers by frequently posing at eye level atop a concrete wall.
But all good things come to an end. When the ivory gull failed to show up on the morning the mercury in Duluth dipped below zero for the first time this winter, some Canal Park visitors wondered if the bird was driven away by the chill. Facebook posters quickly answered the question — while we Minnesotans are proud of our frigid weather, this isn’t the real Arctic.
Jeff Moravec is a Minneapolis writer and photographer. Reach him at email@example.com.