Arctic species: Ivory Gull

On the wish list of nearly every birder that comes to Spitsbergen, often on the very top: the Ivory Gull. Why is this species so sought-after by birders? Part will be because of its pure white plumage, with only the black eye and legs and blueish-grey bill with a yellow tip. The other reason for its popularity is its distribution: the Ivory Gull is a true High Arctic species and will spend nearly all its life close to the pack ice (the scientific name Pagophila eburnea means ‘the ice-loving, from ivory’). Rarely one is seen further south, outside of its normal breeding range, which immediately attracts a lot of birders.

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Adult Ivory Gull on an iceberg

Ivory Gull – Pagophila eburnea
Length: 41-47 cm, wingspan 100-113 cm
Slightly larger as Kittiwakes, clearly smaller as Glaucous Gull
The only pure white gull in the area

Ivory Gulls breed in loose colonies on steep cliffs, often on nunataks, mountains completely surrounded by glaciers. To make finding breeding colonies even more complicated, they typically use a certain colony only for a few years before moving to the next location. Ivory Gulls are scavengers and are often seen in the pack ice, trying to find left-overs of Polar Bear meals. They are often first noticed by their shrieking call and can follow ships in the pack ice for a while. Besides the pack ice, they are often seen close to glacier fronts, icebergs and on garbage dumps or dog kennels, where they feed on the seal blubber they hang to dry for the dogs.

 

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An Ivory Gull (foreground) and a Glaucous Gull waiting for the Polar Bears to be finished with their meal

At a Polar Bear kill it is often clearly visible that the Ivory Gulls dare more as the larger Glaucous Gulls. Where the latter often sits at a respectable distance, waiting for the bears to be finished with their meals so they can have a go, Ivory Gulls are not afraid to try and steal already something with the bears still present.

 

Arjen Drost

Arjen is a Polar ecologist, nature photographer and full time expedition guide on expedition cruise ships in both Polar regions. With his pictures and stories he likes to show the beauty of these very fragile and threatened places.

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