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‘Uber-rare’ sighting: ivory gull makes first-ever appearance in Missouri

The Ivory Gull, which normally lives in the Arctic, was spotted for the first time ever in Missouri this week. The bird has been hanging out along the Mississippi near Quincy, Ill.
The Ivory Gull, which normally lives in the Arctic, was spotted for the first time ever in Missouri this week. The bird has been hanging out along the Mississippi near Quincy, Ill. MALCOLM GOLD

People who’ve seen it say its fine-textured feathers are so snowy white they appear to glow. The tip of its beak is splashed with bright orange and its claws are extra long for gripping pack ice in its native Arctic habitat.

No one knows why, but a lone ivory gull turned up thousands of miles from home near Quincy, Ill., on Jan. 2. The bird has been fishing for shad, flying up and down the banks of the Mississippi River.

On Jan. 3, when it crossed over onto the Missouri side of the river, it was the first-ever record of the bird in the state. (The bird had been spotted in Illinois most recently in 1992.)

When Lenexa architect and president of the Kansas Ornithological Society Matt Gearheart heard about the “uber-rare event” through a birding email group, he and a flock of fellow bird fanatics piled into a car at 4:30 a.m. Jan. 4.

They drove across the state in ice, snow and bitter cold to get a gander of the gull.

“The last ivory gull that had strayed from the Arctic had landed in Pierre, South Dakota in 2008 — I had even contemplated that journey, which was double the drive to Quincy, so I’d be really kicking myself if I didn’t even give it a try,” Gearheart said. “It is not likely a bird like this will show up this close again.”

The crew headed for the Pier Restaurant in Quincy, Ill., one of the spots where the bird has been sighted. Dozens of other birders huddled in cars with binoculars, others shivered on a bridge in the blustery 10-degree cold with spotting scopes on tripods.

Gearheart thinks the bird journeyed here ahead of the big cold front. (There are many reasons birds can end up far out of their normal range, as outlined in this about.com article.)

After a few minutes, one of the birders got a phone call saying the bird had been spotted to the north a bit, and more than 30 birders jumped in cars and drove to the spot.

Before Gearheart even got out of his car, the gull made the leap from Gearheart’s imagination to his field of vision.

“It was soooo white, I could see it without binoculars,” Gearheart said.

The crowd grew to more than 50 over the course of the morning, with at least a dozen from Kansas City.

As word of the sighting has spread throughout birding circles, similar sized crowds have been coming each day to look at the gull.

One report suggest that the ivory gull is an indicator species that is affected by global warming.

As of Friday afternoon, the bird was still hanging around near Quincy.

To reach Cindy Hoedel, call 816-234-4304 or send email to choedel@kcstar.com. Follow her on Twitter @CindyHoedel, and at facebook.com/cindy.hoedel.

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