Photo of the Week: Ivory Gull in Flint, Michigan

Updated March 13, 2017: Unfortunately, the bird was found dead this morning. See latest news.

Thanks to the sharp eyes of 16-year-old Lauren LeFave, birdwatchers in Michigan (and beyond) had a rare treat this week: an Ivory Gull.

Typically found in the high Arctic areas of Canada, Greenland, Norway, and Russia, the bird was discovered last week along the banks of the Flint River in downtown Flint, Michigan.

He seemed unaware of the excitement from birders who watched the white bird as it drank water, preened itself, and walked along the dam ledge and shoreline to catch fish.

I know. I was one of the people who staked out a spot along the river to see the bird.

What is That Gull?

LeFave saw the gull last week, as the bird stood on the ledge of the dam on the Flint River on the University of Michigan-Flint campus.

She noticed it was an unusual-looking gull and took a photo with her phone.

LeFave joined the Birding Michigan group on Facebook, posted her finding, and explained what made her identify the bird as the Ivory Gull.

And like many birders, she asked if others could confirm her identification of the bird.

Her find was confirmed quickly as a first-year Ivory Gull.

Birders throughout the state began their trek to Flint to get a glimpse of what would be a life bird (first view of a bird).

Who Doesn’t Want to See the Ivory Gull?

It wasn’t only people in Michigan who were excited about seeing the Ivory Gull.

People traveled hundreds of miles, from Cleveland, Chicago, Pittsburgh, and Indianapolis, to see the bird.

Tim from Cleveland, Ohio drove in Friday night only to discover his hotel no longer had his room reservation. He was unaware of the power outage in Michigan; the hotel was booked solid.

Thankfully, the hotel staff discovered three available rooms and he had a place to stay for the night.

I had the pleasure of meeting and chatting with Yve Nagy Morrell, known as the The Dancing Birder online, who flew in from Naples, Florida to see the bird.

Morrell is on a Big Year quest; the Ivory Gull made bird #444 for her. Last week, she saw the Hawfinch in Anchorage, Alaska.

Where is the Ivory Gull?

Arriving yesterday in the late morning, I learned the bird hadn’t been seen for hours.

I stood on the footbridge with a couple dozen other birders searching the shoreline before I went back to the car to warm up from the freezing temperatures.

Disappointed, I took time for lunch at the Flint Farmers Market, only to receive an alert notification the bird had been seen again.


Off I went in search of the bird. It didn’t take much searching; I passed by several birders with big smiles on their faces.

It’s up ahead, on the ledge. You can’t miss it.

I descended the stairs to the river and saw a bright spot of white on the ledge.

Ivory Gull standing on ledge of dam as water washes over ledge

There it was, calmly standing and occasionally walking along the ledge. I quickly took photos and stepped back to watch the bird through my binoculars.

What a dream to see the Ivory Gull!

He seemed unfazed by all the attention. Eventually the bird took flight and flew over to the other side of the dam, landing on the shoreline.

Ivory Gull flying over the Flint River, retaining wall in background

Ivory Gull on TV

Luke Lester and DJ Shields from the local Flint ABC TV station arrived mid-afternoon yesterday. I noticed them as they got out of their car, went over, and asked if they came for a news story about the bird.

After chatting about birding and the unexpected Ivory Gull in Michigan, they asked about interviewing other people.

Thanks to chatting with another birder, I discovered naturalist and author Kenn Kauffman was on site, watching the bird.

I knew he was the ideal person to talk about the Ivory Gull.

After I introduced myself to Kenn and told him about the TV reporters, he gave an excellent interview about the Ivory Gull, where it’s usually found, habitat, and why everyone was celebrating the small white bird.

Kenn Kaufman interview with Flint ABC TV 12 news station

The Ivory Gull news story aired last night, with part of Kauffman’s interview. (You can see the back of me at 00:08 in the video, the person with the long black coat and pink hat).

Another Life Bird!

Like many other people who saw the Ivory Gull this past week, it was a life bird for me.

That makes three life birds for me this year:

  1. Northern Saw-whet Owl
  2. Ivory Gull
  3. Northern Bobwhite I saw last night on the way home from Flint

Hope my trend continues!

From what I learned, this month’s finding of the Ivory Gull is only the second official recording in Michigan.

The Ivory Gull was first seen in Michigan by Terry Fuller in Marquette, Michigan (in the Upper Peninsula), in their Christmas Bird Count (December 22, 1995 to January 12, 1996).

Future of the Ivory Gull

Given how far north its normal habitat is, scientists can’t confirm the status for the Ivory Gull.

Like the polar bear, the Ivory Gull is dependent on Arctic ice. What happens when there is little ice?

Canadian records indicate the Ivory Gull population has been reduced and many breeding colonies are abandoned.

You can learn more about the Ivory Gull in The Allure of the Ivory Gull, written by Gerrit Vyn.

Thank you Lauren LeFave for sharing your discovery, you made my week!

Latest News

Heartbreaking news to share. The Ivory Gull was reported dead this morning (March 13, 2017) in Flint, Michigan.

The bird was collected and delivered to University of Michigan(UM) Flint staff.

It will be sent to the UM Museum of Zoology in Ann Arbor, Michigan to perform a necropsy and prepare the bird as a research specimen for their collections.

Photo of author

About the Author

Deborah Edwards-Onoro helps small businesses, consultants, nonprofits, and higher ed with creative and distinctive websites. Deborah shares her expertise with web design, user experience, and accessibility on her blog, social media, and at meetup events. As organizer of Refresh Detroit, West Metro Detroit WordPress, and Metro Detroit WordPress, she encourages members to share their knowledge and experiences. In her free time, you'll find her birding, shooting photos, reading, or watching tennis.

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