Ivory Gull - Shetland Nature Diary

by Brydon Thomason -

The Ivory Gull

Approaching the darkest depths of a Shetland winter as a birder, there are but a meagre handful of very rare and highly prized rarities one hopes for each year. During the winter months species like Ivory and Ross's gulls, Gyr falcon, Snowy owl and slightly more common King eider moving south out into the edge of their wintering range are undoubtedly some of the top contenders on any European birders winter wish lists.

Having grown up in the isles, over the years I have been extremely fortunate to enjoy all but one of theses afore mentioned species- the Ivory gull and if I (or any other birder in the country) could have hoped for a species to end the year on, it would surely be this one.

They are notorious scavengers and will roam for miles in search of carrion, decaying sea mammal carcasses typically being the favoured attraction, upon which is where the majority of UK records have been discovered feeding. With this in mind, enthusiastically and with great optimism I set out to attract one in to the shores of my home island, Fetlar.

Still gathering suitable remains and carcasses I found around the island to the same beach since mid November, my hopes a month later were beginning to dwindle. Had my hopes been too high, was attracting in such a vagrant just too unrealistic….. Certainly not, on the 14th as I did my near daily check of my baited beach, there before me sat the very species I had been hoping and indeed trying for - a superb Ivory Gull!


Although there have been over twenty records in Shetland, since the first sighting in 1822 occurrences in the isles have averaged as few as one every seven or eight years. Astonishingly there had been a very brief sighting in Lerwick of one just days after I began baiting in Fetlar; these were the first records in Shetland for seven years.

These majestic and almost mythical Arctic scavengers have a near circumpolar breeding range, seldom straying any further south than the edge of the pack ice during winter months. Watching any natural history documentaries on the Arctic, especially featuring Polar bears, you are likely to spot these magnificently snow white gulls scavenging around a seal kill, which is one of their main sources of food.

Little bigger than our Common or Black-headed gulls, Ivory gulls have a pristine, brilliant white plumage and a distinct two-toned bill, being a lovely light turquoise blue grey with a clean yellowish ivory toned tip.

I wonder as I write this December nature diary entry; will the new-year begin with the excitement of which the last one ended, perhaps that other highly prized gull from the Arctic… "08 out with an Ivory… "09 in with a Ross's… My fingers will be crossed!

Bye for now...
Brydon Thomason

About Brydon Thomason

Brydon runs a specialist wildlife guiding service that focuses on all aspects of Shetlands exhilarating natural history for individuals, couples or small groups (maximum of 6), specialising in: otter watching, bird watching, wild flowers, boat trips and much more. Read more about these trips at www.shetlandnature.net

Having lived in the Shetland all his life, Brydon is one of the most experienced and knowledgeable naturalists in the isles. He welcomes any questions or comments on the monthly nature diary and should you require any information on any aspect of Shetland's natural history please contact Brydon

View Brydons otter watching blog by visiting http://shetlandotterwatching.blogspot.com