By Martin Finucane, Globe Staff
While many people were inside trying to keep warm Saturday morning, birdwatcher Jeremiah Trimble was stepping out of his car at the Eastern Point lighthouse in Gloucester to take a look at the line of gulls perching on the breakwater. It was “absolutely freezing,” he said. But what he saw through his binoculars at about 11:30 a.m. was well worth the pain.
“The tenth bird I saw was a small, pure white gull. It was a long ways off, but I was pretty confident in what it was,” said Trimble, 30, of Cambridge. “I thought, ‘Wow, this is an ivory gull!’”
It was the first sighting of the bird, which usually makes its home in the high Arctic, in more than two decades in Massachusetts, according to officials at the Massachusetts Audubon Society, and hundreds of birdwatchers, including some from hundreds of miles away, have been flocking to Gloucester since then to see it. A second ivory gull was also spotted today in Plymouth, stirring even more excitement among birders.
Ivory gulls grow to be 16 to 17 inches long, with a wingspan of 43 to 47 inches. Their feathers are white, their feet are black, their eyes are black and their bills are bluish at the base, turning grayish green, with a yellow or red tip, according to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology website. The bird only rarely comes south of the Bering Sea or Canada’s Maritime Provinces and typically spends the winter on the ice north of Newfoundland, the website said.
“The ivory gull is about as northern a bird as you can imagine. They really are associated with pack ice and Arctic oceans,” said Wayne Petersen, director of the Massachusetts Important Bird Areas program at the society.
Petersen said the birds are a magnet for birdwatchers and in the past few days people from Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Maryland have traveled to Gloucester to get a glimpse of a bird they would normally have to travel to the top of the world to see. Scientists believe that the species is declining so that makes it even more of an attraction, he said.
He said it wasn’t clear what brought the two gulls to Massachusetts, but it was probably something in their normal habitat, such as possibly bad weather or a food shortage, that had driven them to wander southwards.
Trimble, whose day job is managing the bird collection at Harvard University, said it was an unusual experience to see a bird that normally lives so far away and has been known to scavenge the scraps from polar bear kills.
“They’re pretty amazing birds when you think of it, how they survive that way,” he said.
Trimble said he went back to Gloucester Monday and hundreds of people had come to the same parking lot for a glimpse of the bird.
Petersen said there was no telling how long the ivory gulls would stay in the area. “If the living is easy, they may stick around,” he said.