Avid bird watchers from around the state flocked to Grover Beach this past weekend to see a rare ivory gull feeding on the carcass of a seal.
Brad Schram of Arroyo Grande, who has birded in the area for nearly 30 years, called the sighting of the small, snowy-white gull a “mindblower.”
It was the second time the endangered bird, which nests in the Arctic circle, has ever been found on the coast of California, in one of the southernmost sightings in the world and the earliest ever for the United States, according to an article by the online journal eBird.
The ivory gull’s bill is tipped with pale yellow and the bird has coal-black eyes and feet. It grows to 17 inches and weighs 1.4 pounds, with a 37-inch wingspan, according to the National Audubon Society website.
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The bird survives some of the harshest conditions on the planet by following polar bears, scavenging meat from seal kills and eating polar bear droppings.
The bird was photographed Thursday near the entrance to Pismo State Beach at Grand Avenue by Los Angeles resident Mike Stensvold, who posted photos online Friday without realizing what he’d found.
Christopher Taylor of Los Angeles identified the bird as an ivory gull, and word quickly spread on birding e-mail groups and websites.
By dawn Saturday, there were nearly 30 people from around California at Pismo State Beach to see the bird, Schram said.
The group of birdwatchers swelled to nearly 50 and followed the bird as it spent the day repeatedly feeding off dead seal meat for an hour, Schram said, flying half a mile down the beach to Pismo Creek to “wash down rancid seal and sleep for an hour” before feeding again.
At 9:50 Sunday morning, it flew away and was not seen again.
Birders scoured the coast from Santa Maria to San Simeon on Monday looking for the bird with no luck.
The bird is known to migrate, but ivory gulls have only occasionally strayed to southern Canada and the northern United States, according to eBird.
The journal also suggests that widespread environmental problems in the Arctic, including climate change, may be a cause for earlier and more southerly vagrant migrations.
The only other ivory gull to stray south into California was sickly. It was seen for eight hours at Doheny State Beach in Orange County, Schram said.
But the bird spotted in Grover Beach appeared to be a healthy adult, unlike some of the younger birds who are more likely to stray from the flock.
How did it end up so far from home?
“It’s just one of those inexplicable things,” Schram said.