The Criccieth Ivory Gull - a Personal Account


Photo: Kelvin H Jones

No doubt most birders immediately breathed the 'don't need it' sigh of relief when news broke of the Criccieth Ivory Gull on Saturday 10th February, saving them a long journey to a remote corner of the British Isles. However, when Kelvin Jones emailed his photographs (one of which is reproduced above) to BirdGuides on Saturday, I was naturally tempted to make the pilgrimage myself. The pictures showed a perfect combination: a pristine adult Ivory Gull perched on top of a harbour porpoise, which was admittedly dead, but presenting an impression of raw nature and a feeling of polar wilderness. More than enough to get the adrenaline going and a journey was planned for Monday morning.

The following day I was at work again, but aware that the bird was still showing well and further pictures from Steve Stansfield kept BirdGuides informed about the bird and served to further whet my appetite. On Sunday, despite poor weather, it showed well at the porpoise carcass for most of the day. Despite this, it became slightly jumpy due mainly to sailboards and cars driving too fast down the beach. This was reflected the following day when I noticed it flinch at sudden loud noises, such as slamming car doors - sounds a little too loud for a bird used to the Arctic silence. However, once settled the close proximity of cars, or people, did not prevent it from enjoying a meal.

I left early on Monday morning, driving through the torrential rain that always seems to predominate around Manchester, only to find that on arrival at Black Rock Sands the coastal scene was bathed in sunlight. This was despite assurances from weather forecasters on television and the radio shipping forecast that it would rain for the majority of the day! As I arrived, the bird had already fed on the porpoise and flown out to sea at about 09.00. A band of 50 people waited for it to return, with one birder vigorously deterring cars that tried to park too close with the regularity of a Securicor guard's Doberman.

As time drew on, there were worries that the bird would not return to the porpoise with people standing so close to its food source, but Ivory Gulls are traditionally fearless. For a bird that spends most of its life waiting in line for a meal beside Polar Bears and Walrus, the threat posed by the green welly brigade pales into insignificance. Failure of the bird to reappear promptly ensured that some birders of a more pessimistic nature began to think that the good weather might have caused the bird to depart, so attention was turned to the sea. Several scoters bobbed about on the water, and small flocks flew by throughout the day. However, seawatching into the sun was a nightmare, and the strong wind had created deep troughs that obscured the duck, and attention was soon turned to other distractions. Two Ravens displayed over the nearby hills and despite the cold, the assembled group were glad of the weather forecasters' inaccuracies.

At about midday the Ivory Gull reappeared, flying up the beach towards us, to alight close by on the sand. It appeared slightly apprehensive, most probably due to the close proximity of two crows. It also kept an eye on them later in the afternoon. Quickly it walked to the porpoise and began to take small pieces of meat from the edge of an open cavity in the belly. Feeding was rapid, with a bill perfectly adapted to tear off tiny chunks of flesh. As the bird was incredibly confiding, we were able to see clearly its yellow-tipped bill and red orbital ring. The white feathers looked immaculate, with perhaps just a little wear to the longest primaries. This was one bird where digiscopers were at a disadvantage, and many had to walk away for a distance, before fitting the bird onto their screens! With a full crop of flesh, the bird flew off after about 30 minutes, to be lost again, and most birders then began the long journey home.

During this absence, close inspection of the carcass showed that the bird had torn tiny holes in the tough black outer skin of the porpoise, especially near the fins, where the skin may have been softer. When the carcass had been turned over, the bird still chose to take small pieces of white blubber situated just below the black skin, and from around the edge of the large belly cavity. This was in preference to the softer entrails that were more easily accessible.

In the Arctic, Ivory Gulls are strongly tied to food sources, usually taking pickings around birthing seals and Walrus, or the remains of animals killed by Polar Bears. They apparently home in on the sound of gunshots, in the hope that native hunters have left food for them. The Welsh bird clearly associated with this particular porpoise carcass, and would be expected to remain in the area as long as the food source remains palatable. Interestingly, during my visit the local council arrived to take the porpoise away, but agreed to leave it for the duration of the bird's stay. During the course of our conversation, the men informed me that they had buried a large rotting Minke Whale carcass that had washed up at the same spot the previous week. It is possible that the Ivory Gull had originally been attracted to this, rather than the small 4-foot porpoise, and had then remained in the area taking advantage of a new food source.

One theory proposed that the bird might actually have travelled further south than usual on this floating whale corpse, feeding at sea. On reading BWP, this seems unlikely, as Ivory Gulls have a natural dislike of water, or getting wet, possibly due to the risk of freezing. Bathing and swimming is only undertaken when this risk is much reduced, but the birds would rarely move any further south then the pack-ice edge anyway, so the risk probably rarely decreases. Most Ivory Gulls forage on the ice, or beaches, but they occasionally take invertebrates brought to the water's surface by feeding whales. The Inverness Ivory Gull, also an adult, that I observed feeding on a river some years ago, only alighted on the water for short periods, and this activity is only usually tied in with feeding activity. It fed by picking food from the water's surface in a manner similar to Little Gulls. This would seem to imply that the Criccieth bird did not in fact fly out to sea for any length of time, as some reports have suggested. It most probably flew back inland further up the beach when out of sight, and presumably it did not roost on the sea either.

During my visit the bird returned to the porpoise at 17.00, just as darkness approached, and was still there when I left. As these birds naturally spend the polar winter in almost darkness, they may not actually roost for lengthy periods in the manner we normally associate with our inland gravel pit gull roosts, but snatch short periods of sleep between feeds. During the late afternoon, I had found the bird dozing out of the wind behind a washed-up cabbage. It remained there for about an hour, trying to sleep. The bird probably spent most of its time roosting on the beach and digesting its meal in this manner when not in view of the crowds. All of the Ivory Gulls I have seen in the UK also prefer their own company, rarely roosting, loafing or feeding with gull flocks.

Hardly presenting an identification challenge, it is always a pleasure to see the small Arctic gulls and my repeated visits to observe Ivory and Ross's Gulls, has provided me with a window into a frozen world that many of us are unlikely to see.

Written by: Phil Palmer, BirdGuides