Monday, December 7, 2009

Ivory Gull!!

Friday November 27th 2009 will go down as a day to remember at Cape May for those of us that were there. For those who were away visiting relatives over the Thanksgiving weekend, it will go down as a real nail-biter - though as it turned out, they needn't have worried!

The text message on my mobile phone said something along the lines of "Possible ivgu seen distantly at CM Harbor" For brevity, birders here tend to use the bird banders' codes in the text messages. Some misinterpreted this message as a possible Iceland Gull - rare, but not too worrying; I have to admit to being a little sceptical: ivgu? That's an Ivory Gull - and a possible? Well, that'll be something else then.

Then the second text message came through: "ivgu confirmed juv... photos!! by the tall royal blue boat".

This is big. This is very big, massive, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. I was at work, but it's late morning - surely time for an early lunch break? Yes!! Birders throughout the area just dropped everything immediately and descended on Cape May Harbor. By the time I arrived, having to make my way through from the wrong side of town, word was that the dockside by The Lobster House restaurant was the best vantage point. Everyone was there and...... yes! The bird was there! A superb, ivory-white visitation from the high Arctic. What a bird; I had seen one in the UK back in 1999 but this was only my second and for many it was a lifetime bird.

On day one, the bird gave us the run around. It flew the length and breadth of the harbour and had people dashing around like crazy things. Every marina from Cape May out to the toll bridge on the way to Wildwood Crest needed to be checked, but the bird just kept heading back the other way as soon as you got there! Richard Crossley, being a canny old devil had worked out that Utsch's Marina was nicely centrally placed and I could scope him and see him photographing it within a few yards! No Fair! Before long, Scott Whittle and I had joined him and we pretty much got the first real close photos of the bird. But such things soon became academic as the following day the bird settled into a routine that it is still maintaining; it discovered the fish cleaning dock at the Bree-Zee Lee Marina and the rest, as they say, is history. Birders have descended on Cape May from as far away as Oklahoma and there can't be a single birder (at least not one who cares any way!) within 300 miles who hasn't been to pay homage.

So why all the fuss? Well Ivory Gulls are one of the few birds that spend their whole life in the high Arctic. These birds are most readily to be found scavaging from Polar Bear kills which makes them pretty special in most people's eyes. And their normal pattern of behaviour means that a massive effort has to be made to see this bird - with all the necessary stress and struggle and cold weather associated with a trip to such places. That is, until one mysteriously pops up much further south. Ivory Gulls do occasionally wander down to more temperate climes and I guess we'll never really know why this happens. But we're glad that it does.

The amazing visitation of an Ivory Gull to Cape May - the first time the species has ever been recorded here - truly does show the wonderous nature of this place. Birds from the southern hemisphere and now the high Arctic can be seen in just a tiny part of the North American mainland; heaven on earth? It's pretty close!!

Pardon me while I now indulge myself with an overdose of Ivory Gull pictures!

When the Ivory Gull first turned up it was unsettled and not easy to get close to, but dramatic skies as a front moved through ensured for some nice atmospheric shots.

A closer cropping of the above picture allows the unique plumage of a first-winter Ivory Gull to be seen. Note the largely white plumage, dotted with chocolate brown spots.

Once familiar with the area, and having discovered that there was plenty of manky old fish to gorge on, our friend from the north started to put on a spectacular show. Many Arctic birds show a lack of fear of people, perhaps simply because they so rarely see any of us and don't think of us as a threat. Flight shots soon became easier than they had been!

I couldn't resist a shot into the light, with the sun shining through the wings...

Our friend began settling regularly on the outer wall of the marina and gradually got acclimatised to people walking down the access pontoons for some great perched shots. Again, shooting against the light a little is a good way to get some interest into what might otherwise just be a plain old white bird!

From the outer wall, the gull would make feeding sorties around the marina...

Giving great photo opportunities, wherever you happened to be standing!

Whenever a tasty morsel was spotted, the Ivory Gull would pull up sharply, turn on a sixpence and drop down to the water surface....

....grab a tasty morsel....

....on more than one occasion....

...and fly right on by the gathered masses.

As it got used to the crowds, the Ivory Gull became even more tame and started landing in amongst its admirers.

But once it discovered the fish cleaning dock, it became very predictable in its routine, such that it was possible to stand where you knew the bird would come sooner or later, and set up some nice Cape May backgrounds! I've heard tell of shots with the moon, the American flag, the Coastguards watertower - you name it, it's probably been done over the last couple of weeks!

Another shot from the fish cleaning jetty.

After the gull discovered that there was ample food to be had at the fish cleaning jetty, there was no keeping it away. In between feeding bouts it would have a quick wing stretch round the marina then back to its favourite resting place...

....right amongst the snap-happy photographers!

And so it was, that our once tricky-to-photograph friend settled down and looked likely to start putting on a little too much weight!

And though it was occasionally intrigued by the odd stick.... could usually most readily be found scoffing itself on Bluefish or Striper, courtesy of the local birders and fishermen, and often feeding a mere ten feet away from its admirers.

It really has been a privilege to enjoy this bird, and to enjoy it with such a well-behaved and appreciative audience of birders. Ivory Gull is one of the world's special birds; normally found only in some of our planet's most remote places, different enough from everything else to be put in its own genus and, for most people, a once-in-a-lifetime bird.

The other day, I was at the Ivory Gull with Dale Gerhard of the Atlantic City Press - all in the name of work you understand! - and he asked what this bird scored on a 1-10 scale. I replied "Eleven." What more can you say.