Ivory Gull - the Bird of the Decade

ivory gull
Photos by Pat and Clay Sutton

Posted December 2009
by Clay and Pat Sutton

While it’s only a fanciful, unofficial competition, most votes are now in and, as the decade ends, just about every birder agrees that the best bird of the past ten years is, yes, a seagull.

Gulls, still “seagulls” to many residents and visitors, are an integral part, even a hallmark, of the Jersey Shore. But, as birders know, not all gulls are created equal.

A very, very special gull just concluded its “state visit” to Cape May – Cape May Harbor to be specific. We say state visit because it was true royalty among gulls, and its reception here in Cape May was as if we were receiving royalty.

A young Ivory Gull, a pure white visitor from the far north, recently just completed a two-week stay at the fish docks in Cape May Harbor – November 27 through December 11, 2009.

Note: Some of the first photos of the Ivory Gull, taken by the Suttons, appeared on Cape May Times!

See the first day story here.

In part it was special due to its rarity; only three other times in history has an Ivory Gull been found in New Jersey – and never in Cape May. It is rare too because its world population is small; only about 24,000 Ivory Gulls are thought to exist – a very low number from a population standpoint.

Adding to its fame and cachet, the Ivory Gull was out of range – far out of range. It breeds in northern Greenland, northern Nunavut, and northern Siberia. It migrates south, but even in winter its normal range is the edge of the Arctic pack ice, in places like Davis Strait between Labrador and Greenland. Some years, no Ivory Gulls are reported in the United States at all, save from the Bering Sea in Alaska.

So “our” Ivory Gull’s yuletide season visit was a very special event for Cape May birders and nature enthusiasts. But range and rarity not withstanding, why is it the Bird of the Decade or even, as some have boldly proclaimed, the Bird of the Century?

One factor is beauty. Few who saw the bird can deny that this small, crystal-white gull was gorgeous. Its immature plumage – pure white, yet flecked with dots of coal black – was stunning. It was dainty, yet stocky and powerful at the same time. To say the Ivory Gull was elegant is an understatement. At times, as it ran across the low tide mudflats to pick at the plentiful fish carcasses, it resembled a white dove or pigeon in gait and build. Arctic mariners once had an apt name for it too – the Ice Partridge.

Another factor in the Ivory Gull’s charm, and the spell it cast over birders, was its pure charisma. Charisma is largely subjective, and what one person finds exciting another may not. For example Northern Cardinals are beautiful to watch, their eye-catching red plumage amazing. A Carolina Wren, in comparison, is patterned much more subtly, yet its lively behavior and animation, lusty singing (even in January), perky and inquisitive behavior give it a certain cachet that the overtly more beautiful Cardinal somehow lacks. See? We said this is subjective . . .

The Ivory Gull’s charisma emanated from its high arctic homeland. The bird has a highly evolved specialized behavior. It is nomadic, traveling the edges of Arctic seas and pack ice searching for Polar Bear kills – probably indeed following the bears to feed on the remains of seal carcasses. It is a feisty bird from the land of the midnight sun, although at this season, its homeland is the land of the midday night.

Realizing that this five-month old Cape May visitor had been among Polar Bears, Beluga Whales, maybe even Musk Ox and Reindeer just a few weeks before and several thousand miles away, was an exciting jolt that lent the bird a distinction and popularity that few, if any, other Cape May birds have ever achieved.

Cape May, known world-wide as a crossroads of migration and a “vagrant trap” for rare birds, has seen rarer birds than the Ivory Gull. The July 1993 Whiskered Tern, from Europe and Asia, was the first record for North America. The tern however lacked an aura similar to the Ivory Gull – many had not heard of Whiskered Tern, there were ID learning-curve issues, and it only stayed for three days after it was identified. The Mongolian Plover in July 1990 was one of only a handful of records in eastern North America, yet was a “one-day wonder,” seen by only 15 or 20 lucky birders.

Those who stand on pure facts and data might say that Cape May even had a rarer bird this very year. The early fall 2009 Common Ground Dove at Nummy Island was only the third state record. Although very well photographed, the dove was only seen by two people and never relocated, not that day or ever. And one can easily see Common Ground Dove in our southern states at any time. Not so for Ivory Gulls – anywhere!

One bird that might contend with the Ivory Gull for top honors was the May 2000 Yellow-nosed Albatross seen along Cape May County’s Delaware Bayshore. Also called the “Bird of the Century” at the time, it was even farther from its home (southern hemisphere) than our wayward Ivory Gull. The albatross certainly had a charisma factor that was off the charts – yet again was essentially a “one-day wonder” and seen by maybe only 50 or so birders. Many searchers went home empty-handed.

The Cape May Ivory Gull was seen by over a thousand excited birders.

The bird was dependable and tame. Tens of thousands of photos were taken of the Ivory Gull, perhaps a million. One photographer shot 4,000 digital images in one day alone, and came back for several more visits.

Suffice it to say that this was the most viewed Ivory Gull in history – a bird seen by more people in one place than any Ivory Gull ever before. Ivory Gulls visit New England in some winters (not annually) and are viewed sometimes by hundreds of people, but they rarely stay more than a few days before their wanderlust takes them back out to sea. “Ours” stayed for two weeks, perhaps the most cooperative Ivory Gull of all time!

In the end, it is hard to rate birds, but many agree that even if the Ivory Gull wasn’t our rarest bird, it may have been the best. Compared to other rare birds, it was hands down the winner in longevity and number of happy viewers. Its flair and beauty led to what was certainly the biggest single birding event in Cape May history.

If our stunning Ivory Gull – a glowing beacon as it fed on the dark tidal mudflats and bold white against the deep blue December Cape May Harbor sky – wasn’t our best bird ever, or at least the very best bird of a decade, we can only hope we are fortunate enough to see what might edge it out.


Clay and Pat Sutton are noted Cape May birders and the authors of Birds and Birding at Cape May.

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