January 11, 2015: In January, 2009, shortly after our annual “snowbird” migration from Connecticut back to Florida, an Ivory Gull showed up in Plymouth, Massachusetts. I was still fairly new to birding then and didn’t fully realize what a rarity the Ivory Gull was, or I might have at least considered a flight up and back to New England to see it, but it wasn’t until a few more years had passed that I resolved to do everything within reason to try to see an Ivory Gull if and when such an opportunity ever presented itself again.
On January 2, 2015 an adult Ivory Gull was first reported along the Mississippi River in Quincy, Illinois. By the sheerest coincidence the location happens to be less than an hour from the Missouri home of my good friend and birding colleague Bob Mustell, who viewed the bird on January 4 and encouraged me to come visit. Last minute airfares being as ridiculous as they are, I thought this would be out of the question until a web search turned up a late Thursday evening non-stop flight on Frontier Airlines from Fort Lauderdale to Saint Louis for an almost unbelievable $49, and so the game was afoot!
After my overnight stay near the airport, Bob picked me up promptly at 8 AM, and after a brief en route stop at his home, we arrived at Quinsippi Island in Quincy, Illinois just before 11. The problem inherent with contemplating a long trip for just one lone bird is of course that the bird may simply have departed the night before, so this was going to be a case of either joyful vindication or ignominious defeat, but on this very cold but perfect sunny day with a brilliant, cloudless azure sky, the bird gods smiled upon us. At the marina we found about ten parked cars and folks with cameras and telescopes – just the very sight we were hoping would greet us – and there was the unmistakable pure white gull perched conspicuously at the apex of the aluminum roof of one of the marina sheds. Except for a short time-out for lunch at the Burger King in nearby Quincy, we were able to spend some three-plus unhurried hours photographing the Ivory Gull and studying its habits.
We spent the rest of the afternoon at various spots along the Mississippi River admiring the views and watching the absolutely astounding numbers of Bald Eagles. Much of the river was frozen, but rushing water at the various locks and dams provided open holes for the eagles to easily find fish. I have never seen anywhere close to this many Bald Eagles in one place. We also noted several large flotillas of ducks, primarily Common Mergansers.
The following morning we looked for Eurasian Tree Sparrows in some wild brushy areas, but they tend to congregate mainly at residential feeders at this time of year, and we found none in the wild areas. We did have some ten species, the most notable being a group of three Northern Bobwhite that scampered across a dirt road just in front of the car.
It helps to have luck on your side. We saw the Ivory Gull so easily on Friday, but, as I learned on social media only after returning home to Florida, all the people who went to see it on Saturday, many from who knows how far away, were in for a major disappointment. The gull was gone.