1 August, 2003
After I calmed down from the excitement of seeing my first Ivory Gull, I began to wonder what-in-the-world was this "arctic ghost" doing out here in the middle of nowhere at 73 degrees north? Yes, Ivory Gulls are a big deal! If you are a birder, enough said; however, for those of you who don't know the difference between a Black-legged Kittiwake and a Black Guillemot, let me try to explain.
First, a brief geography lesson: Ivory Gulls breed in the high Arctic up to 85 degrees north in eastern Canada, northern Greenland, Spitsbergen, Franz Josef Land, Novaya Zemlya, and Severnaya Zemlya. Plainly put, none of these places are very close to here. Spitsbergen is north of Scandinavia, while Franz Josef and the Zemlyas are above Russia and Siberia. This bird's idea of going south for the winter is northern Alaska, or wherever you find pack ice which of course is just about the entire Arctic. And I guess this also means its winter here at the beginning of August.
This gets to why this beautiful snowy-white gull with a yellow-tipped bill and shiny black feet is here in the Chukchi Sea. The Ivory Gull is primarily a scavenger. According to seabird expert Peter Harrison, the Ivory Gull is "quarrelsome and aggressive - attends Polar Bear kills, dead cetaceans [whales], seals etc., where uses bill to advantage, tearing and gulping large strips of flesh." So the Ivory Gull follows Polar Bears- cool!
That got me thinking about relationships. The gull gulps grub from bear leftovers. What about the bear? Fat, juicy Ringed Seals are favorites. Polar Bears catch seals by waiting for hours near their breathing holes or leads in the ice. So Polar Bears follow Ringed Seals- also cool.
I suspect you already know where I'm going with this, but what about the seal? Ringed Seals eat a tiny, 3-inch fish called an Arctic Cod. They also feed on small shrimps and other crustaceans. So Ringed Seals follow the Arctic Cod- interesting.
Yes, the cod presumably eat some sort zooplankton, amphipod, or something smaller than itself. But guess what? Guess who else eats the Arctic Cod? Yep, the Ivory Gull. Or at least the one I observed today following the ship did. As the Palmer plowed through the ice, the opportunistic gull swooped down and snatched a wiggling cod that had been washed-up onto the ice in the ship's wake.
Now the circle is complete- and that's cool too.
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