An Ivory Gull at Flathead Lake – What’s Behind a Complicated Chase

On January 31st, the following was posted on the Montana Rare Bird Alert:  “WOW!! This immature Ivory Gull, a state first, was photographed by Craig Barfoot yesterday (January 30th) at Blue Bay, Flathead Lake.”  It was reposted on the Facebook ABA Rare Bird Alert where I saw it.  The gull had originally been found on the 29th.  It was found again on the 31st so maybe it would stay.

On Cornell’s All About Birds website the Ivory Gull is described as “A small white gull of the high Arctic, the Ivory Gull only rarely comes south of the Bering Sea or the Maritime Provinces. In fact, it rarely is found away from pack ice, spending the winter on the ice north of Newfoundland.”  There have been a number of sightings in New England and very rarely in the Midwest and even as far South as Alabama BUT it is a VERY rare bird and is very much sought after by birders.  It had never been seen before in Montana.  There are two singular observations in Washington; none in Idaho or Oregon and only a couple in California.  I wanted to see it.

Here it is again, Rule 1 for a chase – GO NOW!!  It was already two days after the first observation.  Flathead Lake is 520 miles from Edmonds.  When I checked on the 31st, I found an “almost affordable” flight from Everett, WA to Kalispell, MT.  It is another 55 miles from there to the hotspot.  Not a great departure or return schedule so an overnight and two days were probably necessary. Not ideal…BUT IT WAS AN IVORY GULL!!


And oh yeah, there was that Super Bowl Party thing.  Cindy and I had committed to attending it on Sunday February 2nd.  Rule 1 was NOT going to be followed.  I contacted some Edmonds birders with a plan.  If the Gull was seen again on Saturday the 1st and Sunday the 2nd, I would fly out on Monday hopefully see it then and then fly back on the morning of the 4th or if not seen on Monday, then try again on Tuesday.  They all had conflicts and could not go.

The fundamental basis for Rule 1 is that things change.  And change they did.  The area was hit by a big wind storm with winds exceeding 60 mph on Saturday February 1st.  Many disappointed observers failed to find the Ivory Gull.  Ken Trease from Edmonds had made the long drive and was one of them.  OK, so as of Saturday night – I was not going to go.   On to Super Bowl Sunday, still keeping an eye on Ebird reports.  And there it was…the Ivory Gull was seen again Sunday morning.  In fact Ken had stayed over on Saturday and fortunately was able to see the Ivory Gull Sunday morning.  As I said things change.  Another one.  The price for what had been a sort of affordable flight had doubled.  I really wanted to see the Ivory Gull BUT not at that price.

All day Sunday, I watched the bird reports on Ebird and related sites – continuing to do so as the Super Bowl started.  The Ivory Gull was seen in the morning and again in the afternoon.  Time for Plan B:  Make the drive and keep fingers crossed that it would return again on Monday.  If I left around 2:00 a.m. after a few hours of sleep, maybe I could get there by 11:00 a.m. Monday…but uh-oh that would actually be 12 p.m. as the time zone changed.  The bird’s pattern seemed to be to show in the morning with the afternoons being more questionable.  I adopted Plan B-2, paying somewhat delayed homage to the Go Now directive of Rule 1.  I would leave before the Super Bowl was over and drive as far as I could, sleep a few hours in the car and get to Flathead Lake as early as I could on Monday morning.   There were several mountain passes on the route and reports for all were good.  That too could change – I went now!!

I was on the road before 8:00 pm.  According to my GPS, allowing for gas stops etc. a non-stop drive would get me to the Lake before 6:00 a.m. Mountain Time.  Possible, but I knew that some sleep would be beneficial AND I expected I could make better time than that without getting a ticket along the way.  I drove through to Coeur d’Alene, ID making good time and found a Rest Area to try for a bit of sleep in the car.  Not super comfortable and it was very cold (in the teens) but I got a couple of hours of rest/sleep and was back on the road.  It had been dark the whole trip and dark in Idaho and Montana is very dark.  The roads were clear but there was snow everywhere and it was hard to ignore the warning signs to look for ice.  Either there was none or my Jeep handled it easily.  Not a single slip or slide.  It was also very cold.  Going over Lookout Pass between Idaho and Montana, it dipped down to 5 degrees.  I stayed in the car; the heater worked.

It helped that there was almost no traffic.  At one point I had traveled over 100 miles without passing a vehicle going in my direction or overtaking one either.  Gas stations in Idaho were “open” but only for gas – no food or services – after 11:00 p.m. on Sunday – no 24 hour availability.  Leaving the rest stop early on Monday morning around 2:00 a.m. a warning light came on my dashboard – low tire pressure.  Maybe just a result of sitting in the cold air, but I would have liked to get some air.  I checked at 6 gas stations in Idaho and then later in Montana.  Not a single one had air available.  Oh well what was the worst that could happen…on slippery roads, in the cold, in the dark, alone…  I left that thought and carried on.

Adrenaline is a wonderful thing.  The drive to get to Blue Bay and a chance for this amazing life bird was more than enough to get by on less than 2 hours of sleep.  I found some coffee at a truck stop in Montana.  Later there was a bathroom run at an open early McDonald’s with a “something McMuffin” and before 6:30 a.m. Mountain time, I was at the Blue Bay Campground at Flathead Lake.  There was a tiny hint of light and no one else was there, and it was windless and cold and clear.   I was surprised that no other birders were present.  Had I missed a post somewhere that the Ivory Gull had died?  There are terrible moments on a chase – especially a long one, and especially for a very special bird, when the doubt seeps in.  There is so much investment.  Was I at the wrong area even at the right place.  The bird had been reported “on the dock” but there were several docks including some much further down the lake.  There were NO birds.  Well there was one.  I heard the distinctive call note of a Townsend’s Solitaire.  It was atop a light post.  Barely visible as it was almost completely dark still.   It flew off.  Then I saw movement on the shore next to the boat launch.  Had the Solitaire just landed in the water?  No it was a second bird – an American Dipper.  Don’t know where it came from but I was interested in much bigger prey.  A few minutes later there was something the right size, but definitely the wrong color – a black Raven not a white Gull.

Dock at Blue Bay – Flathead Lake. Montana

Blue Bay2

I waited alone as the light improved but no birds were seen.  An hour passed – nada.  I walked out onto two of the docks – maybe it was there but hidden from my view from the shore.  Nope.  I returned to the car to turn on the heat and warm up a couple of times.  I texted Ken Trease around 7 a.m. Edmonds time and got a kind call back and Ken confirmed I was in the right place.  About 8:20 a.m. Mountain time, I emailed friend Melissa Hafting in Vancouver, B.C.  We had not been able to work out a combined trip – disappointing to both of us but moreso to her as she had missed an Ivory Gull in Nome by moments and very much wanted to see this bird.  I told her that so far it was a no-show.  The light was good and I was more than ready and getting a bit anxious.  I was beginning to think that I would have to abide by Rule 2 for a chase:  “If you do not follow Rule 1 and go now, you are not allowed to whine about it.”  I thought about whining but determined to just wait.

Seemingly out of nowhere 10 minutes after I had emailed Melissa, a gull was flying towards me from out on the Lake.  It passed by the large dock at the Marina and flew towards the smaller dock near the entrance to the campground.  It seemed too big for an Ivory Gull – more like the somewhat larger Ring Billed Gull which would not be surprising at this location.  I did not see dark wing tips – maybe, maybe, maybe – please, please, please.  I got a quick photo as it flew by.  It did not land on the dock.  It turned and flew towards me – right at me – and landed not more than 100 feet away on the shore.  It was without doubt the Ivory Gull and without doubt I was ecstatic!!

Ivory Gull – First View in Flight

Ivory Gull Flight2

Like the Ross’s Gull, Ivory Gulls in their native habitats rarely see any people and are not at all concerned about us.  It truly was as if I was not there as the Ivory Gull paid me no mind whatsoever.  About 5 minutes after first spotting the gull, another birder arrived parking on the boat launch ramp which was between the two sets of docks.  I later learned that this was Eric Rasmussen, an excellent birder/ornithologist from Missoula.  He had been scanning the area from outside the park and now he had his scope on it in front of me.  I made sure not to startle the bird, but approached for better photos walking onto one of the docks to get closer as the gull remained on the shore and this would give me a great angle.  I need not have worried.  The Ivory Gull kept foraging and kept coming towards me – getting to within less than 25 feet.  My camera could just barely focus it was so close.


The water close to the shore and next to the dock was partially frozen and my favorite photos were of the Ivory Gull standing on the ice – almost as if it was on its usual frozen habitat in the far north.

Gull on ICe

After many shots, I left my post and went to see who this other birder was.  Eric had driven in from Missoula and it was from him that I learned of the big windstorm on Saturday that explained the absence of observations that day.   Eric is a Field Ornithologist/Naturalist at MPG Wildlife which is a very interesting organization that stewards and manages a 15,000 acre ranch for wildlife preservation and study.  As with almost all other birding adventures, there is a likelihood of finding great people and places along with the great birds.  We shared many stories including about having partners who are not birders but are interested in birds – well at least the charismatic ones.

We stood on the boat ramp and watched the Ivory Gull continue to forage and then it flew off for a second – and then returned and landed 20 feet away from us – completely ignoring our existence.  The photo below is not high quality – but it was taken with my phone.  I never expected to see an Ivory Gull and certainly would never have expected to get a photo of one with a cell phone – unless I was on some inflatable on a high arctic adventure which was not going to happen.

Cell Phone Photo

Phone Picture

The Gull foraged on the shoreline to the left and right of the ramp.  We took hundreds of photos in the hour or so that we enjoyed this incredible opportunity.  Finally I had to leave as I wanted to get back to Edmonds.  As I returned to my car another car pulled in and they could immediately see the Ivory Gull on the rocky shore and they sped off on foot for better looks.  It did not seem like they had paid their proper dues with the instant gratification, but I have been in that spot myself so I was just happy they were able to see the gull.


The return trip was much different than the journey to start the chase.  For one thing it was bright sun and all of that unseen territory in the darkness of the night was now visible – and gorgeous.  Snow on the beautiful mountains and incredible lakes and rivers which made me think of flyfishing and trout.  I was able to stop at a Les Schwab Tire Center and get air into my tires and I had a nice chat with the guy there who actually appreciated hearing about my trek and the rare bird nearby.




As I was reveling in my good fortune and the marvelous Ivory Gull, a sign caught my eye with the promise of coffee and a bakery.  I felt a celebratory reward was in order so in I went.  This was not some urban and urbane frou frou bakery.  The cinnamon rolls were large enough for a hard working cowboy’s appetite – too big for me even for a grand celebration.  I found a nice looking confection with sliced almonds on top that looked manageable (and yummy).  It was only after my first bite that I found the cream filling which I am sure doubled the calories.  Nevertheless I did finish the whole thing.

Coffee and a Dessert


So sustained, I drove all the way back with a brief stop for a 20 minute cat nap outside Post Falls, ID and then a little bit of birding at a favorite spot near Suncadia in Washington.  To avoid traffic into Seattle, I stopped for dinner in Issaquah – a good decision as afterwards it was clear sailing home.

It was quite a trip.  Over 1000 miles in less than 24 hours and an incredible encounter with a rare and beautiful bird that I never expected to see.  When I set off, I figured the trek would give me a story to tell one way or the other.  The story is oh so much better having seen the Ivory Gull but just making the effort and pushing on with almost no sleep was yet another confirmation of participating in the adventures that life – and birding – have to offer.   The photo was the 710th ABA species photographed.  More ahead I hope, but I have been very fortunate to have had many great adventures lately – mostly involving more birds of the North.  In just the last two months, I have seen a Ross’s Gull, a Glaucous Gull, a Dovekie, a Barnacle Goose, a Gyrfalcon and now an Ivory Gull.  I think I would still decide to trade them all for a single Male Smew but adding the Ivory Gull makes it a tougher decision.


2 thoughts on “An Ivory Gull at Flathead Lake – What’s Behind a Complicated Chase

  1. Congrats I can feel your excitement. I dipped on this bird last time i was in nome hoping to get this MT bird and glad it is sticking

    congrats again well worth the drive


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