Monday, January 11, 2016

Ivory Gull: I Should Care

Nature is mysterious. Among the more intriguing of the inexplicable phenomena it throws in our path is the movement of birds. Bird migration is not well understood, and it's even more difficult to explain why birds occasionally diverge widely from their common range. But it certainly adds to the fun.

Duluth is a year-round hot-spot for unexpected arrivals from the north. Unusual sightings from my early birding days (the late 1970s) include the sight of a wimbrel wandering in a field at a resort near Castle Danger and a parasitic Jaeger harassing gulls just offshore out on Park Point.

In recent days many visitors to Canal Park have spotted an extremely rare visitor from the Arctic: an Ivory gull. I had heard about the sightings, and I knew we were heading to the North Shore for our annual new year's ski, but I didn't put two and two together until we were half way to Duluth, and Hilary was reading an article about the bird to me from the Star-Tribune.

"We could go out and see if it's still there ...  after we pick up some sandwiches at the smoked fish shop." Of course we could!

It wasn't hard to find the bird. We pulled into the parking lot next to the marine museum and wandered over to the small clutch of people fiddling with their spotting scopes. No one seemed very excited. It was as if they were tending their children at a neighborhood park, but not paying much attention.

Two of the men were discussing lenses. Finally one of them turned to me and said, "The ivory gull is over there, on the far side of the canal. And right here, in the second lamp-post down, you can see a black-backed gull."

The ivory gull was easy to see through binoculars. It was standing all alone, mostly white, but with black blotches on the face and a few black dots on the wings.

This little bird rarely strays from Arctic ice flows, where it feeds on fish and the remains of Inuit sea mammal kills,  and has been known to harass injured polar bears.

What was it doing in Duluth?

A mangled specimen of the same species was found a few days ago on Conner's Point in Superior, just across the harbor. Perhaps it had been attacked by the rare gyrfalcon that's been spotted repeatedly in recent days, hanging out amid the nearby grain elevators. Who knows? In any case, I found it nice to imagine that two young gulls decided to take an exploratory trip to more moderate climes, rather than that a single immature gull had gotten disoriented and later found itself a long way from home.

Taking another long look at the gull, I saw traces of neither sorrow nor confusion on its face. It just looked like a little white gull, with an inscrutable gull-like expression on its face.

An ore boat was approaching the canal through the light fog.

"I'm not a birder," one of the men in the little group said. "I'm a boat-watcher. I have 2,300 images on my website." He repeated the url but it was long and I didn't catch it. 

"That boat is a mile and a half out."

"What's it doing on the lake this time of year?" I said.

"It's a Canadian ship. It's coming into port to refuel," he surprised me by saying. "Then it will head up to Two Harbors to load with ore."

He didn't mention where it would be taking the ore, but as the vessels passed by I took a few pictures and I later looked it up.

The Michipicoten (formerly the Elton Hoyt II) has an interesting history. It was built in 1952 and towed up the Mississippi and Illinois Rivers to Lake Michigan. Thus it isn't as large as many of the lakers, and was less often used over the years. But it was eventually retrofitted with a diesel engine and automatic unloaders, and its smaller size made it possible for her to visit some of the smaller ports on the Great Lakes.  

In 2003 Lower Lakes Towing, a Canadian shipping company, bought the vessel and renamed it the Michipicoten, in honor of the river near where the ship is likely to sail.

I had never heard in the Michipicoten River, but notice that it flows into Lake Superior north of Sault Ste. Marie near the metropolis of Wawa, Ontario. (Other ships in the little fleet include the Cuyahoga, the Saginaw, and the Mississagi.)

As the ship entered the canal someone on the lift bridge let go a blast on the horn, and the Michipicoten responded with several of its own. All the birders had come over to the canal to watch it go by. Some people waved at members of the crew who were scurrying along the side-decks. 

It's a majestic sight, watching such a large vessel make the turn toward Superior Harbor, framed by the lift-bridge. Before it had vanished from sight, we all headed back to the parking lot. The ivory gull seemed to have flown off. In any case, everyone had gotten a good look at it.

For most of us, the allure of a rare bird sighting fades pretty fast. But one avid birder, Jim Williams, who often writes for the papers, spent five hours with the bird a few days ago, during which time it only vocalized once.

You can read his report here.

We were happy to sit in the car eating a very spicy Sitka Sushi sandwich made from wild Alaskan sockeye gravlax, with cucumber, shredded veggies, pickled ginger, cilantro, chili sauce, and wasabi mayonnaise, all stuffed into a hero roll. I was saddened to see that the rolls are smaller than they used to be. But in retrospect, I wonder if they just seemed smaller, due to the fact that we'd agreed to split one sandwich, rather than buying our own.

We gave a passing thought to heading over to the Menards in Superior, where a snowy owl had been seen hanging around the parking lot. But to tell you the truth, I don't know where the Menards in Superior is, and we were eager to get up into the woods, where the snow and the trees and the rocks combine to give you a more robust embrace.  

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