Turn back the clocks to the 23rd of January and in the town of Stranraer at the southern point of Loch Ryan, Dumfries and Galloway, an adult Ivory Gull was found exhausted in a garden. The monotypic species is the only member of the genus Pagophila that originates from in the high Arctic where it has a circumpolar distribution through the Nearctic and Pelearctic. In Britain, the species averages one record a year with most relating to birds in the northern isles and mainland Scotland, though some venture further south such an individual shot in Cornwall in 1874.
Following the discovery of the exhausted and underweight individual, it was handed to the Hessilhead Wildlife Rescue Centre from the SSPCA as they were unable to identify the species and the centre had previous experience with Ivory Gull. In 2007 a bird was brought into the centre, though unfortunately the bird died as a result of gape worms. Since that encounter the centre were not going to take any chances, so as well as helping the bird to gain weight via a diet of sprats it also given antibiotics and wormer. When the bird was brought in it weighed only 368g, a bad sign given how the minimum weight for an adult female is 448g and 500g for a male.
Following the birds arrival on January 23rd, it wasn’t until the first of February that the bird was moved into an aviary and took regular baths which by the 6th, it was flying well enough that the staff made the decision to make plans to release the bird. Two days later it was confirmed that the site of release would be Stevenson Point, Ayrshire on the 11th of February and after 19 days in rehabilitation in the centre, the bird was released.
For most Monday was not an ideal date for a release, though for myself along with young Scottish birders Andrew Russell (@AndyRussOrnitho) and Michael Sinclair (@mikes_nature) it worked a treat. Before its release time of 1300 the three of us met up at Stevenson Point for our first proper introductions, as previously I’d only had brief encounters with both; Andrew at Spurn back in 2016 for the Siberian Accentor and Micheal at BTO Bird Camp’17. The wait was soon over when the trio of us caught sight of the Hessilhead van approaching…
Before the bird would be released, a group of volunteers assembled to collect donations for the rescue centre, which given how twitching has a bad stigma attached to its definers; it was great to see the majority of the 150 strong crowd donate. Hayley Douglas from the centre presented a brief speech shortly before the release of this arctic beauty, who informed us that with permission from the BTO, the bird had been fitted with a metal and darvic ring – yellow 2E86. Then it was down to Andy and Gay, the owners of Hessilhead, to open the lid and for the crowd to let off a gasp in total captivation.
No matter how much you may prepare yourself to witnessing an Ivory Gull, when you finally set your eyes upon one it simply takes your breath away. The sheer purity of beauty of this gull is incomprehensible and to me surpasses every other of the 700+ species of bird I have set my eyes upon. Hand on the heart, the best bird I have ever seen but unfortunately the moment of short lived. Once the top opened the gull burst out and landed on the ground, for probably half a minute at the most before it took grace and flew to the gull roost assembled on the nearby beach. Here, it spent a quarter of an hour washing and being mobbed by Black-headed, Lesser Black-backed and European Herring Gull before it flew north, the last we saw. Since then there has been no further reports of the bird.
For some the release of the Stranraer bird was a long awaited life tick, though not for all. Leading up to the birds release debates where taking place on multiple platforms regarding weather or not should people going to see the bird, have the right to ‘tick’ it. As it stands the British Ornithological Union (BOU) have no set criteria to what people can and can’t tick, so currently it is a case of your list, your rules. Personally as a man of ethics, the Stevenson Ivory Gull won’t be going onto my life list – why? Despite it being the best bird I have ever had the good fortune of seeing, it would have died if not taken into care. Therefore the bird is not in a fully wild state and for me, seeing a bird that otherwise would be dead if not taken into care doesn’t make the grade of mine, Andrews or Michael’s list.
Proceeding a fruitful scan of the sea off Stevenson Point that produced Common Eider, Red-throated Diver, Long-tailed Duck, Red-breasted Merganser,Harbor Porpoise and Great Northern Diver, I headed inland in search of Greater Scaup. As Andrew said at the point, a well performing flock of ten Greater Scaup where present on the flood pool at Auchenharvie Golf Course which seemed to be a little oasis: Common Snipe, Tufted Duck, Common Goldeneye and European Stonechat, as well as a several darvic ringed European Herring Gull and Great Black-backed Gull.
Afterwards, the rest of the day was spent checking the local harbor, sea watching with the Isle of Arron in the background whilst trying to collect the codes of darvic gulls a a meat processing centre. In short, an unforgettable and refreshing day out with a star bird and great company; you can’t really ask for much else.
Thanks for reading,
PS. Michael Sinclair has also written a post about the Ivory Gull, which if you would like to read the click here.