Rare treat served up at Oahe
The bait was presented with a near perfect alignment of circumstances. The timing was impeccable. Plus the location was almost too good to be true. This was one I couldn't pass up.
Ivory gull (Pagophila eburnea) was one of those species that represented nothing more tangible than a photograph or illustration in a field guide; an almost mystical Arctic creature akin to a unicorn. Most of my cohorts had never seen one and few had realistic thoughts of ever doing so, short of an expensive foray to far northern latitudes. So attached to the Arctic, this gull rarely ventures far from the edge of the ice pack. North and South Dakota had no records of an appearance. Minnesota, with its "ocean" personified by Lake Superior, has about 10, with a one-day wonder this January breaking a string of 17 years without an ivory gull sighting.
Such were the circumstances by which I first heard of the bird on the Oahe Reservoir near Pierre, S.D. a couple weeks ago. One of that state's most prolific birders, Ricky Olson, had struck gold.
Most of the serious "chasers" consumed by this hobby of watching birds, have a sort of understanding with spouses, families, and employers which allows them to drop everything at a moment's notice and take off in pursuit of rare birds. Much as I try, circumstances rarely allow me that luxury. But this time it worked out.
After getting clearance from work and family, fellow West Fargo birder Dean Riemer and I hit the road late on the evening of Feb. 18, getting as far as my parents' place in Brown County, S.D. An early start the next morning put us in Pierre around sunrise. A gracious and accommodating Olson was there to meet us.
We drove to a desolate bluff overlooking the ice where Riemer and I proceeded to don our winter clothing. Olson - ahead and already looking - immediately spotted the target bird which had been returning religiously to a Canada Goose carcass to feed. But, by the time Dean and I walked over to the point, it was gone.
For aficionados, the anticipation of viewing such a bird is on a par with that which hunters feel when they've got the buck of a lifetime in the crosshairs; or fisherman when they've hooked a huge northern pike and are easing it into a net. It's a sweat-inducing, shaky thrill. And we had missed it. At least for the moment.
We descended the bluff and trudged the half mile to the location along the shore, then waited anxiously for the return of the gull. With both of us scanning, we couldn't miss it. Or could we? Minutes later I hear my name shouted and Riemer is pointing at the ivory gull. Somehow, thankfully, this white ghost of a bird had flown in and landed on the ice without our notice.
We watched in amazement as this rare, Arctic visitor went about its business as if we weren't there. Here it was - more accustomed to shadowing polar bears and feeding on seal blubber - on a sheet of ice in the middle of South Dakota.
It wasn't a pure white adult, which is even rarer south of the Arctic Circle, but a beautiful juvenile with dark smudges around its face and scant black spotting along its wings. It's claws, unlike all other gulls, are adapted to clinging to ice.
Some time later, another individual joined us and introduced himself. His name sounded familiar, John Vanderpoel. Turns out he is a videographer and had done all the work for Jon Dunn's Advanced Birding Series on gulls. All, that is, except for the ivory gull portion.
Vanderpoel had never seen one and had driven over from his Colorado home to score this South Dakota bird. He related the attempts he had made in the past, including a three-week stint on Gambel Island in Alaska and another in Newfoundland - all with no luck. He also pointed out, that of all the birds in America, this was the one he would bend over backwards to chase and was willing to shell out a lot of money to try it again. Now he wouldn't have to.
In the end, the bird stayed for 11 days, offering folks from several states the chance of a lifetime. Where it is now is anyone's guess. But not too often do the planets align like this. I've had my fair share of misses. This time however, everything worked like a charm. I made my son's basketball game in Valley City that same afternoon. A perfect end to a perfect day.