There's something special about...Ivory Gulls

February 25, 2014  •  3 Comments

There really is something special about high Arctic species such as Polar Bears, Arctic Foxes, Narwhals, Beluga Whales and....Ivory Gulls. Ivory Gulls have always been a mythical bird for me since I was a young kid. Jim Wilson found a well-marked juvenile bird in Ballycotton, Co. Cork back in January 1980. He inked a fantastic drawing of the bird and it still hangs on the wall at his home. I used to stare at it with wonder when I was a kid, and look at images of the species in Lars Jonsson's books. I never thought I would ever see one, unless I was fortunate enough to travel to the high Arctic to see them and their polar counterparts. 

I missed one in Kinsale Co. Cork in 1999 but was lucky to connect with a juvenile bird in March 2009 in Baltimore, Co. Cork (see the image above). It was a dank and dreary day and the last day the bird was seen - haunted doesn't even come close to describe how lucky I was. I have a tendency to wait until very late in a rare bird's stay to twitch it. It is something that has become normal with me these days, for reasons only known to my evil imaginary friend called "Sleep" and the comfort of a warm bed at 4am on a Saturday morning.

With the repetitive storm surges across the North Atlantic, which began in December 2013 and are still ongoing now in February 2014, originating in the channel between North America and Greenland, it was looking good for possible Arctic strays such as Glaucous Gulls, Iceland Gulls, Kumlien's Gulls, and the rarer Thayer's Gull, Ross's Gull and Ivory Gull. Incredibly, an Ivory Gull turned up on Tacumshin Lake in Co. Wexford after the devastating Storm Christine in early January 2014; a great find by Tony Murray. One of the last places one would expect to find an Ivory Gull in Ireland. True to form, I managed to get down to see the bird 3 weeks after it was found. I figured the crowds would have abated at that stage and I might enjoy the bird more, less the madding crowds. 

(Canon 500mm; f/4; ISO 2000; 1/100; 0 eV; tripod mounted)

I arrived pre-dawn to constant rain and low, grey cloud cover. Not the ideal really. I was sitting in my car waiting for acceptable lux levels to find themselves in the soupy morning dawn. I got out of the car to be greeted by a couple of like-minded souls, donned my wet gear, put on my camera's wet gear and trundled off across a ploughed field towards the lake edge. At the edge of the field, as I was walking across, were the two like-minded souls giving me the thumbs-up. Happy days. The bird was there. I joined them and could see the Ivory Gull feeding on the by-now famous rotting Porpoise carcass. The bird just glowed in the cold light of the grey dawn. Almost angelic-like (if one believes in such things). I was wet, but I was smiling. I clambered down and the bird didn't move. It was so tame. The light conditions were appalling, which made for difficult photography. Concentrating hard on the fluctuating light conditions in the constant rain was not pleasant.  However, it was an Ivory Gull. Who cared!?


(Canon 500mm; f/4; ISO 2000; 1/250; 0 eV; tripod mounted)

It seemed to have a pattern where it would feed for a period of time on the carcass, wander off behind the stump, wash its bill, have a drink and then fly out a bit on the (exceptionally flooded) lake for a wash and then wander off. Then it would return and land on the stump, look around, flop down on the carcass and continue to feed. Repeat. All through the morning it just rained and stayed grey. It was cold, uncomfortable but a mythical Ivory Gull was no more than 20 metres away from me. It was worth the soaking. It was worth constantly changing the camera settings. It was a great learning experience photographing a white bird in such grey and dark conditions. 

(f/8; ISO 800; 1/1000; 0 eV; tripod mounted)

Luckily, at one point during the 5 hours I sat there, the sun sort of belched through the clouds for a few minutes allowing some light to be thrown upon the bird. It was nice while it lasted and the only moment in my life when I've seen an Ivory Gull in direct sunlight. It reminded me of a short film that I saw as a child, which has haunted me to this day. The short film is called "All Summer in a Day", based on a short story by Ray Bradbury. The story is about a class of school children on a world of constant rainstorms (much like our winter), where the sun is only visible for one hour every seven years. Google it and you'll get the idea. The day I spent with the Ivory Gull felt like that day on the world of constant rainstorms. So when the sun shone ever so briefly, it was glorious and memorable. 

(f/4; ISO 1000; 1/800; tripod mounted)

At one point, after the bird had disappeared for an hour, it arrived again out of nowhere behind me from the east and landed on a hay bale which had been blown in by the recent storms. It was on odd combination of a bird, which normally lives inside the Arctic circle feeding alongside Polar Bears at a seal carcass, sitting on a bale of hay wrapped with mire mesh. It was a surreal day. But then again, seeing an Ivory Gull will always be a surreal experience. 

(f/4; ISO 1000; 1/800; 0 eV; tripod mounted)

(f/4; ISO 500; 1/1250; 0 eV; tripod mounted)


John Coveney(non-registered)
I love the one with the branch!
Terry Hoepfner(non-registered)
Lovely story, lovely photographs!
John Fogarty(non-registered)
Great work Mark , loved the story and pictures , the gull looks almost pigeon like to me in appearance and stance in some pics . (?)
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