Adult ivory gull at Quincy, IL. (Photo by Ethan

Adult ivory gull at Quincy, IL. (Photo by Ethan Gyllenhaal)

I had seen ivory gull in Illinois before, the immature that was at Burnham Harbor in 1991, so it was not a top priority to rush off to Quincy to see the gorgeous adult that no searcher had yet missed. Day after day friends went down to see it. Dave Johnson even took a train from Chicago, rented a car in Quincy, and obtained good looks. Wes Serafin braved threats of a snow storm and he too returned victorious. By its very lingering it was an irritant, an itch that would  not go away. And it can not be denied that ivory gulls are remarkable birds, denizens of open arctic seas (coming to land only to nest), where they feed in part on dead whales and  rarely stray beyond the realm of floating ice. Read this passage from Townsend’s account in Arthur Cleveland Bent’s Life History of North American Birds:  “About a gallon of seal blood is poured on the ice near the rocks . . .  Some of the [ivory gulls] in their eagerness to obtain the blood dash themselves with such force against the ice as to kill themselves.” Not to drive five hours to see such a species just seemed wrong.

But the mundane dictates of everyday life intruded. For example, on Thursday I had to join a conference call and Friday a guy was coming over to clean the furnace. Meanwhile, I had made reservations for Cindy and me to stay  Saturday night at Starved Rock State Park, one of our favorite places just two hours south and west of us. Illinois’ oldest state park, it encompasses 2,800 acres of wooded valleys and ridges overlooking the Illinois River. The spacious lodge is of CCC vintage and boasts cozy rooms and a fine restaurant. A further attraction is the lock and dam nearby which is usually a very productive location for gulls, waterfowl, and bald eagles.

Hmm, thinks I. And a plan emerged which Cindy agreed to. When she arrived home from school on Friday, she immediately went to packing and we had a quick dinner. By 5:30. we were on our way to Quincy. Arrived 5.5 hours later and stayed at a slightly over priced motel. In the morning, we met another guest who is from Mesa, Arizona and had seen the bird Friday at the Art Keller Marina, perhaps the most reliable spot since temperatures dropped. The bird was hanging out at a tiny open patch of water kept from freezing by aerators. At 7:30 we were in place, along with a few ohter birders. Among them was Phil, a local birder involved in the initial discovery and identification of the gull. He suggested that the bird was getting lethargic, hanging out at the marina once it arrived in the morning. He said he saw it feeding on suet that someone had brought (a poor substitute for walrus entrails).

More birders continually arrived, from places like Pennsylvania and Mississippi. My friend Laura Ericson was driving down from Duluth. Another carload from Chicago was headed by Craig Taylor: we exchanged cell numbers to keep in touch during the day. (Knowing we were at the marina, his group spent most of their day at the lock and dam.) During discussions it emerged that the bird had appeared on Friday at exactly 9:32. It was easy to  shed off concerns: “Oh, it is only 9.” “So the bird is only a half-hour late.” A flock of 20 something great-blue herons flew by; a pileated put in an appearance; and a kingfisher sat peacefully next to the bubbling open water. But alas the ivory gull never did show up. We waited until 11 before we headed out with Craig to check a stretch of river a bit north. Then Cindy and I aimed for Starved Rock where we arrived shortly before dark.

But perhaps the last word was issued by an obviously unenthused gull watcher whose pithy assessment of the effort was written in snow next to the marina:

Jan 15 2015 156

 

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