‘There is a period near the beginning of everyman’s life when he has little to cling to except his unmanageable dreams, little to support him except good health, and nowhere to go but all over the place’ E.B. White [1]. In 1978 I was that nutcase and I have the bird-watching notebooks to prove it. Out of university and — by choice — out of work, I was bird-watching my brains out. I am glad that I did so because I can look back on the highlights. They were like passing patches of sun on the side of a rainy mountain; moments that left an indelible mark.

One episode began as a spark, not a fire. Nonetheless, as everyone knows, a spark is quite capable of igniting a blaze. In those days, instant news of unusual birds was unusual. Communications were received by telephone: if you were lucky enough to live in a home that had one. The tip I received on the night of Monday 27th November 1978 was hardly hot. For one thing, the information was already two days old. Tom Ennis, a bird-watching associate, rang my parents’ house and passed on word that an angler had reported a tame white gull on the wooden pier at Bangor, Co. Down, an area I knew. Tom lived just ten minutes from Bangor but had not checked out the report. For me, relying upon public transport to conduct sorties from home, the destination was two train rides and over an hour away. But I loved Bangor Harbour (since ruined by a marina) so I decided to travel there next morning.

Over recent weeks I had seen an adult Mediterranean Gull and a cream-coloured young Glaucous Gull in the vicinity: either of which might have suggested the term ‘white’. No matter what the fisherman’s find turned out to be, it would justify the trip. And, for the first time in my life, I could entertain a pipedream that the résumé might fit the richest prize of all, an Ivory Gull. Certainly, recent days had been chilly with winds blasting down across Ireland all the way from Greenland.

During my stint in academia I had enjoyed access to a university library stuffed to the gunnels with ornithological tomes. I read and read. I should also have read books related to my course of study but I never found the time. How could I divert from the likes of Edward Howe Forbush who wrote lyrically about the birds of Massachusetts and New England [2], including this portrait of Ivory Gull: ‘Where countless crowding icebergs rear their snowy pinnacles; where dark blue, racing seas, flashing and roaring in the clear sunlight, dash their foaming crests high up the pallid slopes of crashing ice … there the snowy bird sails serene.’

Evolution’s choice of camouflage is a no-brainer but it is hard to imagine a more sublime model than an Ivory Gull. Floes: Michael Clarke; inset: Bruce Mactavish.

Precise details of certain preliminaries have grown foggy over time. This is my line of defence against inciting truancy on the part of my young next-door neighbour, Bill Laird, who travelled with me next morning. We must have resembled Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer walking down Bangor’s main street towards the town’s sea wall. Bill was nuzzled deep inside a duffle coat and his long black fringe was cut in a Plimsoll line below his eyebrows, leaving next to no facial features for recognition by a schoolteacher at large. I sported acne-concealing long hair resembling — I liked to think — George Harrison on the cover of Abbey Road. However, my piece de resistance was a threadbare baggy camouflage jacket that a wildfowler had given me. This was a real badge of honour, especially as it featured stains that may well have been dried blood.

As with any day in the field, the hope was for a few jolts of surprise. Waiting for a gap in traffic before crossing the seafront we joked that, if the ‘white gull’ was still around, we might see it from where we stood. About 200 yards away the pier’s stilted wooden framework was strangely quiet. It looked cold and austere; a sphinx’s fist gripping the sea. Because it was a weekday in November no-one had braved the elements for a stroll. But there was life on the pier. Perched at the tip was an incongruous white dot. It did not move and was rooted — like a chess piece — to the spot. Bill and I ignored several changes of traffic light and assembled my rickety tripod topped with one of the few Kowa telescopes in Ireland. The view through the eyepiece put a heartbeat on the head of a pin. The dot was an Ivory Gull. We had hit the big time.

Like storm troopers, we rushed to a better vantage point. At 50 yards range we were on Cloud Nine. Everything that we desired was granted but the genie was peckish because it strode back and forth along the ground flicking over a brown paper bag used to carry bait. Although the bag was empty, the Ivory Gull was attracted to it by smell. My notebook was out and I began scribbling. This was a speckled youngster not an alabaster adult; its complexion was pimpled with the ebony spots of youth. Bill and I were happy about that because we deemed a first-winter to be more attractive. Naive connoisseurs within minutes!

Bangor pier, 1978. The ultimate seagull-beside-the-sea postcard.

A footfall behind us became ominous. A fisherman plotted a collision course with the Ivory Gull’s sanctuary. I summoned up the courage to intercept him and explained the situation. He was sympathetic, an attitude that I put down to the intimidating effect of my wildfowling kit. Maybe he thought I was armed. He stopped well short and proceeded to bait hooks. At the whiff of fish the Ivory Gull sprang into flight and sailed straight towards the fisherman, whistling as it planed down to land, light as a fairy, at his feet. He shot me a strange look but I didn’t care. Bill and I were so close to bliss we could almost touch it.

Dazed, but before losing the run of myself completely, I dashed off in search of a telephone. I decided that the enormity of the news warranted bursting into the lobby of a hotel and asking to make an emergency phone call. Once again, my attire probably helped instil a sense of panic. A bewildered clerk handed me a phone and I rang Tom Ennis at his work. The frantic conversation was overheard by several people within ear-shot, one of whom — a heavily perfumed matronly figure — happened to be Bangor’s Mayor. She was intrigued and dispensed her civic duty by spreading the news to the mass media, including the BBC. So, over subsequent days, the Ivory Gull became a topical tourist attraction.

Back at the front, calm reigned. It was one of those sublime interludes when ‘time was away and somewhere else’ [3]. Bill and I watched our gift from the land of deep snow, Polar Bears and Gyr Falcons. The only parallel was the intense cold. In crystalline light redolent of a gin & tonic with ice, I snapped some images when the outlander approached in the mistaken belief that we might be Eskimos about to feed seal meat to huskies. By now I was past the glib ‘Ivory Gull looks like a white pigeon’ caricature. I encountered elegance and a soft whistle that peaked and then declined like a descending graph. Always good at homework, I wrote everything up that night [4]. Here are some excerpts: ‘in flight, wings much longer than Kittiwake … more tapering and pointed tips … wing-beats shallow, flight light and buoyant. Called regularly when flew, less so at rest. The call was soft and mellow, disyllabic with the syllables run together, the second drawn out … pheee-yew.’ [You can hear the call on at, chiefly between the 14th and 22nd seconds].

Watching the Ivory Gull felt like being at church. At the end of the service the two members of the congregation filed back down the pier and headed home, stealing a final peep at the monotone stranger happy in a world of colour. It stayed until Friday by which time — according to reports — the hassle from photographers caused one of its feet to become entangled in a tin can. It was last seen struggling into flight carrying the can like Jesus labouring under his cross. So much for shanti, shanti, shanti.

Some birds feel like a messiah. Ivory Gull delivers inner heat on a cold day, eye contact with the soul and serenity born of white vestments.

Unaware of its disappearance and probable demise, I went back at the weekend. A small crowd had gathered; several people had come from Dublin. Although long faces were de rigueur, one man approached exuding excitement. He was Colm Moore, a first-rate observer who I had met before. Colm was keen to introduce me to an elderly gentleman standing nearby. The reason for the fuss was because Colm had just learned that the senior observer (with an Ulster accent) had travelled to Bangor because he was keen to revisit his memory of the only other Ivory Gull to reach Northern Ireland. That was in early March 1931 when one arrived on the Copeland Islands where it was seen several times by Mr A.J. Kennedy, the lighthouse keeper, before it moved to Donaghadee Harbour on the adjacent coast. Here, much like the Bangor bird, it could be seen by visitors, one of whom was the man I now beheld. Sadly he was unable to renew his avian acquaintance in 1978 but he was happy to recollect his first encounter. Although I cannot remember everything he said, I found common purpose with him in the shock of discovering that Ivory Gulls whistled just like a Wigeon. He had not expected that in 1931 and neither had I, 47 years later.

And there matters rested until, extraordinarily and sensationally, I recently came across a review of the 1931 Ivory Gull that led to the report being disbelieved and struck off the official record. This appeared on a website maintained by the Northern Ireland Birdwatchers Association (NIBA), a body accountable to no-one and without a democratic mandate. Affiliated to the latter, and equally illegitimate in terms of accountability, is a self-styled NIBA Rarities Committee (NIBARC). Sadly, any pronouncements made by the NIBARC are rubber-stamped by the Irish Bird Records Committee whose remit, for rare bird records, no longer runs in Northern Ireland. But let’s skip the politics for now. News of the record’s demise was handled as follows. I have used italics for the proclamation.


The record of the 1931 Donaghadee Ivory Gull has been re-assessed by the committee. In reviewing this record NIBARC fully agreed with Tom Ennis and the record has been removed from the NI list … the comments from Tom are below:

“I have been interested in this record for some time but I have only recently been successful in finding any documentation to substantiate the record. I have discovered that it was recorded in British Birds volume XXIV pages 372–373 and I have managed to get a look at what was published in the Notes section of that issue. [Tom Ennis’s ostensibly arduous work-flow seems most odd. The record is referenced in several publications, such as page 226 in the Ivory Gull account in Birds of Ireland [5]. To boot, the British Birds website provides instant free access to all published material right back to 1907. The facsimile of the record (below) took less than a minute to copy from the website.]

Tom Ennis continues: “My interest in this record stemmed from the fact that the bird appeared to be a long stayer, which is not very usual in this species. More commonly Ivory Gulls are only present for a few days and then ‘disappear’. When I read this note I was surprised that there was no description of the plumage at all. I assume therefore that it was taken to be an adult Ivory Gull as had it been immature, the observer would surely have remarked on the black spotting and darkish face. He goes on to make statements about the bird which are not in accord with any of the Ivory Gulls I have seen. He contrasts it with the Black-headed Gulls and he states that ‘the somewhat greater length and more slender build of the Ivory appear accentuated.’ Elsewhere he states that in flight ‘the tern-like manner of the Ivory Gull is very noticeable’. In my experience Ivory Gulls are plump and pigeon-like and I have never come across anything tern-like in their appearance. While an Ivory Gull is bigger and bulkier than a Black-headed Gull, ‘somewhat greater length’, although imprecise, concerns me. In describing its flight he states that its ‘superior grace and lightness of wing’ not only separate it from the Black-headed Gulls but also from the Herring Gulls. According to the literature Ivory Gulls are often aggressive to other species and are not renowned for their conviviality. Nevertheless a lost and tired bird may behave very differently from its norm.

Observers in 1931 did not have the field guides and other sources of knowledge which are available to us today. The Handbook of British Birds had not yet been published and it was well into the 1950s before the first practical methods of separating Iceland and Glaucous Gulls in the field were known. Accepting that the observer has used a degree of hyperbole in his note, I think there is nothing he has written that would not equally well apply to a white phase first-winter or second-winter Iceland Gull. I do not say that this definitely was not an Ivory Gull but I think it is far from proven and I do not see how it can stand as a first Northern Ireland record of Ivory Gull.”

My goodness! Of course, Tom Ennis, with his usual incomparable irascibility, has every right to zing arrows into Claude Blake Whelan’s published note. I have been unable to find any account by the bird’s discoverer, A.J. Kennedy, the lighthouse keeper stationed on the Copeland Islands. In the course of regular dealings with keepers between 1882 and 1900, Richard Barrington’s data [6] includes frequent identifications of Iceland and Glaucous Gulls. Unless A.J. Kennedy was a greenhorn — C Blake Whelan’s opinion of him (‘a keen observer’) suggests the opposite — it is not unreasonable to believe that he had some familiarity with Iceland Gulls. David Branagh, a young birdwatcher active around Belfast and beyond in the 1960s, did not actually meet ‘Mr Kennedy’ but had heard of him through his mentor, C. Douglas Deane, deputy director and keeper of Natural Science at the Ulster Museum and author of the Handbook of the Birds of Northern Ireland [7]. David kindly supplied a reference from one of his own notebooks (for 1959) quoting a visit made in 1939 by C. Douglas Deane to the Copeland Islands where he discovered breeding Manx Shearwaters. The entry reads: ‘Jimmy found a Manx Shearwater nest … with the help of Mr. Kennedy, who was a birdwatcher of note.’

The point of C. Blake Whelan’s letter to British Birds was not, as inferred by Tom Ennis, to furnish a description. Instead the account was designed to draw attention to aspects of the bird that impressed him. Clearly, on foot of news about the bird’s presence, he was keen to see it. But who was he? He came from a County Wicklow family and was educated at Trinity College, Dublin, as a lawyer and served in the First World War. He died at the age of 59 in 1954. Although an all-round naturalist, his main interests lay in archaeology and geology in which he was a respected international authority and author. His full obituary can be read in the Ulster Journal of Ornithology, volume 17 (1954). He settled in the north of Ireland in the 1920s and, testifying to his ornithological interests, made several contributions to British Birds and elsewhere on topics relating to Ireland, including Great Spotted Woodpeckers and breeding Common Gulls. Of major significance, neither C. Blake Whelan (because he died in 1954) nor A.J. Kennedy (who only saw the Ivory Gull on the Copeland Islands and not in Donaghadee) was the man that I met in Bangor in 1978 and who described the bird’s diagnostic call. Hence, from a witness standpoint, three people would all need to have misidentified the bird by sight and sound for it not to have been an Ivory Gull.

Sniffing injustice and having studied the one Ivory Gull in my life well enough to feel that Tom Ennis’s characterisation of the species was somewhat awry, I asked Bruce Mactavish, who lives in Newfoundland, Canada, for his opinion. After Gyrfalcon, Ivory Gull is Bruce’s all-time favourite bird. At his latest count, he has seen over 3,000 Ivory Gulls, mainly in Canada but also in Greenland. He wrote:

Everything Mr C. Blake Whelan says about the bird fits Ivory Gull, such as the tern-like flight. Ivory Gulls are very light on the wing, agile in the air compared to Herring Gulls. They are not afraid of larger gulls at all. They are used to stealing food from Glaucous Gulls scavenging dead seals etcetera. Ivory Gulls are longer than Black-headed Gulls with a more attenuated look. But they are bigger birds with a chubby body. Superior grace and lightness on the wing describes Ivory Gull. The reasoning by the committee or person reviewing this record is not sound. Ivory Gulls do have a chubby (plump, pigeon-like) body but the wings are not in the same league. Not broad like a pigeon for example, but very long and narrow, knife-like in a wind; light and airy with no wind. Every bit as graceful and light on the wing as a tern. Ivory Gulls can be scrappy and noisy around food (among other Ivory Gulls) but also often feed close together and even closer to larger gulls feeding on a seal carcass [well described by C. Blake Whelan: ‘and was struck by the intimacy — one can use no other word — between it and the Herring-Gulls.’] They sneak in like a jackal on a lion kill. But often sit still and docile near a carcass waiting for their chance to steal some meat. Attached are some photos, all of the same bird taken over the period of a week [at St. John’s, Newfoundland] in 2007. I have thousands of other shots of other birds.

Grace and elegance infects everything about Ivory Gulls. Airborne, the wings are raked like a tern’s and at rest they resemble a bridal train. Images: Bruce Mactavish

Because we live in a democracy it is right and proper that decisions can be queried. A contrary voice (in this instance Tom Ennis’s) has a right to be heard. A fresh look does no harm. In turns out that the re-examined evidence is even more supportive of the original identification. Another factor that adds credence is the weather over the days prior to A.J. Kennedy noticing the bird on the Copeland Islands. There, the lighthouse is located on the smallest island, Mew Island. A walk around Mew Island’s shoreline, probably something A.J. Kennedy did on a regular basis, would take no more than about 15 minutes. So it is a good bet that the Ivory Gull arrived on the day he found it. According to C. Blake Whelan, the discovery date was 1st March. Thanks to a free archive of daily synoptic charts stretching back to 1871 [] it is possible, with the click of a mouse, to revisit the weather conditions of 26th, 27th and 28th February 1931.

To navigate the website, look for ‘Top Karten’ and follow the link to ‘kartenarchiv’ where you can scroll through a list of years and dates. Upon selecting a date, click ‘zeigen’ (German for ‘go’). Although I am not a meteorologist with a capital M, I can interpret weather patterns and their associated labyrinths of winds. Given that Ivory Gulls are present throughout the year in the Arctic between northeast Greenland and Svalbard (Spitsbergen) and that, in winter, the population moves south in association with the drift-ice zone [8], a combination of factors can trigger a vagrant to arrive in Ireland’s latitude. For example, the ice front is generally at its most southerly in February and March, potentially bringing some Ivory Gulls within the influence of northerly gales capable of displacing individuals to lower latitudes. Such a scenario regularly delivers variable numbers to the northern tip of Newfoundland, principally in March (Bruce Mactavish, pers comm.). Looking at the conditions for the three days prior to 1st March 1931 reveals an ideal scenario (see below). A brisk northerly airflow extended south from the Greenland Sea and locked Ireland into a spell of cold northwest wind. Unsurprisingly, a similar weather scenario presaged the arrival of the 1978 Ivory Gull in Bangor.

Synoptic charts for 26th, 27th and 28th February 1931. In German, H stands for High Pressure and T indicates Low Pressure. Airflow around areas of high pressure is clockwise; around low pressure, windflow is anti-clockwise. A strong northerly airflow, originating from within the Arctic Circle between NE Greenland and Svalbard, extended south as far as Ireland, especially on 27th and 28th February 1931. Copyright:

I think that you, dear reader, will agree that I have spent some time in ‘rescuing’ A.J. Kennedy’s famous record. Why is that? For me, past glories capture the thing that cannot, no longer, be captured. Historical events generate future energy; they are precious and worth saving. So I will fight to preserve them. Rather, I will fight to preserve those that are sound. They provide a war chest of motivation for the birdwatchers of tomorrow. You may feel that all I am doing is indulging a kind of misguided reminiscence. To an extent that is true. I guess that is because so much of ‘modern birding’ is intolerable of a bygone era and to those, like me, who value it. So it is no surprise that I might escape into the past. One end of my rainbow is there. At one time I thought that everyone else’s rainbow was rooted there too. That has turned out to be wishful thinking. Is it any wonder that the title of this article is an allegorical swipe at those who have usurped Ireland’s ornithological record?

A Zeitgeist has become established that brands old observations obsolete purely because they are old. This is heresy. It has arisen for two reasons. First, out of smugness that considers contemporary standards to be superior. Second, because books written before the present generation could read are no longer consulted and are dismissed with a swanky air reminiscent of Pol Pot declaring Year Zero. Fortunately birds do not change their appearance or habits as quickly as birdwatchers change whims. I have already mentioned Edward Forbush’s monumental three-volume Birds of Massachusetts and other New England States [2]. Forbush was captivated by birds from early childhood and, aged fifteen, gave up school in favour of his passion. At sixteen, he was appointed Curator of Ornithology of the Worcester Natural History Society’s museum — probably the youngest museum curator ever. That was 1874. He died in 1929, aged 71, when his life’s work was within a few pages of completion. Did Ivory Gulls look different is his day? Of course not. This is what he wrote about Ivory Gull under the heading Field Marks: ‘ … wings well extended in flight, long for size of bird but with little bending of carpal joint … flight much like that of tern.’ The past is not, therefore, incognisant.

For its part, the NIBARC abdicated its responsibility to investigate A.J. Kennedy’s Ivory Gull when, with just two words, it ‘fully agreed’ Tom Ennis’s damning assessment. I believe that any reasonable mind is capable of reading between the lines in Tom Ennis’s wannabe death warrant and seeing it for what it is: tosh.

Here are just some of the things that the NIBARC could — and should — have done. First, referred C. Blake Whelan’s published note to someone who had a proper knowledge of Ivory Gulls. Second, attempted to locate any notes written by A.J. Kennedy. These may well exist. Because I did not feel that there was any doubt about the record, I did not go to the trouble to track down A.J. Kennedy’s pedigree in detail: but that ought to have been an imperative by a committee faced with a challenge to a long-standing record. Third, checked among older generations of Ulster birdwatchers to jerk their memory. The line in C. Blake Whelan’s note ‘In view of a report from A.J. Kennedy …’ is a clue that more than just C. Blake Whelan was aware of the Ivory Gull in Donaghadee. Given that, 47 years later, I bumped into an additional observer, there may be departed others whose diaries record a visit to Donaghadee. Other questions emerge from this shambles. NIBARC members took it upon themselves to dismiss the record. To do such a thing, solid experience of Ivory Gull should be a fundamental requirement. It was not. Instead, the NIBARC rowed in behind Tom Ennis’s opinion. This begs an obvious question: what are the credentials of those who serve on the committee and what is the best way to set fire to it?


Within the Arctic, Ivory Gulls have only Gyrfalcons to fear. But for those that reach Ireland, bird records committees await. Image: Bruce Mactavish

I expected more snicks of the guillotine when I pored over the annals of Ivory Gulls from the rest of Ireland. Down the years, several old reports have been discredited. Forget nostalgia, the past links us all in an indestructible chain. We walk in the footsteps of giants. Ireland’s greatest ornithological footprints were left by three sets of authors. Very conveniently, their works are spaced at almost exactly half-century intervals. They are Thompson: The Natural History of Ireland (1849–52) [9], Ussher & Warren: Birds of Ireland (1900) [10] and Ruttledge et al: The Birds of Ireland (1954) [5].


William Thompson (1805–1852) was born in Belfast and was the son of a linen merchant. He devoted his relatively short life to natural history. Although he gave the greatest chunk of his time to birds, he was also a pioneering authority in marine biology and an outstanding botanist. He was a close associate of William Yarrell, Britain’s leading ornithologist at the time, whose three-volume A History of British Birds (1843) was a standard reference for over 60 years. Charles Darwin was a contemporary and, in a way, Thompson was Ireland’s Darwin. He became a focus for communication drawn from all corners of the country and was a punctilious correspondent, indefatigable in committing worthwhile observations to print. Hence, it took three volumes and 1,275 pages of The Natural History of Ireland to document his store of bird knowledge. In the process he burned himself out and started to suffer from serious heart trouble at the age of 42. Five years later, while working on a fourth volume dealing with mammals, reptiles, fish and other invertebrates, he died. Surveying his achievement, it is possible to state unequivocally that he set up a great target and pounded himself to death trying to hit it square in the middle.

Thompson saw birds and nature with his head and heart. Conservation-minded, he was horrified at the senseless slaughter of terns on the Copeland Islands. As a scientist he dissected many birds to learn more about avian diet and physiology. He catalogued stomach contents because he was able to identify seeds, adult insects and their larvae. In April 1834 he made an important contribution to the Zoological Society of London (later to become the Linnean Society) about the stomach lining of adult Cuckoos — that consisted of hairs from the larvae of Tiger Moths [11]. It is evident from his writing that he worked so ferociously that he disregarded cold and damp. He measured, noted, classified and corresponded. Lean and wiry, it is easy to imagine him sitting at his desk deep into the night, hunched over his books by candlelight, composing long letters to numerous contacts. Little wonder that the intensity of it all made him ill.

In his Ivory Gull account in The Natural History of Ireland (vol. 3, pp. 347–348) he wrote:

The following was published in my Report on the vertebrata of Ireland in 1840: ‘In the appendix to Ross’s second voyage, it is remarked [under Ivory Gull] “this beautiful gull has lately visited the western shores of Ireland,” page 35. Captain James C. Ross, the author of this appendix, informed me that, early in the year 1834, he derived the above information from Joseph Sabine [Joseph was the elder brother of Edward Sabine, the co-discoverer, along with James Clark Ross, of Sabine’s Gull. For a spellbinding account of the lives of Edward Sabine and James Clark Ross, their entries in Richard & Barbara Mearns’s BIOGRAPHIES FOR BIRDWATCHERS is indispensable.] For some years I have had a note, communicated by the late Thomas F. Neligan, of Tralee, who was very well versed in British birds, that, in January 1835, he saw a gull in a field near that town, four miles distant from the sea, which he was satisfied, was L. eburneus [Ivory Gull]. The ivory tint of its plumage and its black legs, attracted his attention and he watched the bird for about twenty minutes.’

Mr. R. Chute, writing to me in February 1846, from Blennerville, near Tralee, remarked that he had heard of an Ivory Gull being seen in that neighbourhood [that is, the Ivory Gull reported in 1835 by Thomas F. Neligan] … and another near Dingle. In the next year he supplied the following more satisfactory information: “After the storm that occurred in the beginning of February 1847 there were several Ivory Gulls about here; I heard of three being seen near Dingle; one of them I saw myself. During my absence from home, two of them for a few days in succession alighted in my yard; my servant thought they were tame birds, and did not frighten them. However, one was shot on the third day and when I came home I found it to be an Ivory Gull in rather immature plumage: the other bird they said [presumably, Mr Chute’s servants?] was pure white … although frequently seen since, I was not able to procure it. I have the bird that was shot in my collection.”

Mr G. Jackson informed me that a gull of a pure white colour appeared in January 1849 in the harbour of Glengariff [Bantry Bay, Co. Cork] and remained for three days. He and others made every attempt to obtain it but without success; he was certain of it being an Ivory Gull, from descriptions of that species that he had read, but he had never seen one before. An adult Ivory Gull was picked up dead, but quite fresh, on the beach of the island of Achill [Co. Mayo] a few years ago [that is, a few years before 1849], by a man of the Preventive Service.’


Richard John Ussher (1841–1913) was eleven when Thompson died. Robert Warren (1829–1915) was 23 when Thompson passed away and corresponded with the great scribe. Ussher was from Waterford and Warren was from Cork. In terms of ornithological accounting, Thompson could not have left a better legacy. We are fortunate that his books can still be picked up and read. They are sacred and their information, because of Thompson’s fastidious painstaking, remains radioactive. His distillation speaks to us across two centuries.

It is a pity that Ussher and Warren chose to misrepresent Thompson, a rot that continues to this day. Thompson was faithful to his correspondents; Ussher and Warren could not even be faithful to Thompson. For Ivory Gull, they sabotaged some key facts by abdicating from the task of placing details on the published record. Here is their 1900 Ivory Gull account from Birds of Ireland, pp. 347–348.

Has been once obtained, once in Kerry and once in Cork.

The first instance on record in which the Ivory Gull was obtained in Ireland took place after a storm in February 1846 [NB incorrect year given; correct year was 1847], when two alighted in the yard at Blennerville, Co. Kerry, and from their want of fear were looked upon as tame birds. On the third day, however, one of them, an immature, was shot; and I lately inspected it among the birds in the Chute Hall collection. It has black tips to the tail and primaries, and a black spot between the beak and the eye, but the rest of the plumage is white. Its companion was said by Chute to have been pure white (Thompson, III., p.347). A second specimen, now in Queen’s College Museum, Cork, was shot by Captain Newburgh in Bantry Bay, on 31st January 1852 [Unbeknown to Thompson who died in London on 17th February 1852]. In both these instances the Ivory Gull visited the south-west of Ireland … other gulls, supposed to have been of this species, have been observed in Ireland. The most circumstantial record of this sort was that of Neligan, who in January 1835 remarked a gull, which was feeding in a field near Tralee, and which had plumage of an ivory tint and black legs. In some other cases the birds reported to have been of this species were probably Iceland Gulls.

Ussher and Warren omit Mr R. Chute’s 1847 report of ‘three being seen near Dingle; one of them I saw myself.’ Dingle is nowhere near Blennerville (50 km by road, more than twice that distance by sea); hence the two Ivory Gulls that appeared in Mr R. Chute’s yard were almost certainly different. Moreover, it is safe to assume that Mr Chute, having seen one Ivory Gull at Dingle and another at Blennerville (that he shot) was correct in his identification. Ussher and Warren also omit the reports of an Ivory Gull at Glengariff in January 1849 and a dead specimen from Achill Island. Because the Achill Ivory Gull was not retained and, regarding the January 1849 Ivory Gull at Glengariff, Bantry Bay, Co. Cork, because no one appears to have committed quill to parchment — notwithstanding three days of good views by several observers attempting but failing to shoot the bird, backed up by reference checking — Ussher and Warren have opted for deletion rather than trust. For the Glengariff Ivory Gull, Ussher and Warren’s attitude takes the maxim ‘what’s hit is history, what’s missed is mystery’ to a cynical extreme. The nineteenth century records that they ignore are not afforded as much as an epitaph, ensuring that unless Thompson is checked, the reports are obliterated. By way of an interesting parallel, exactly three years later an Ivory Gull was shot at Bantry Bay in January 1852. Moreover, Ussher and Warren are grudging in the way they gloss over — rather than embrace — Neligan’s report from January 1835, even though the bird’s diagnostic features (specifically, ‘black legs’) were accurately described. Once again, the old chestnut of ‘probably Iceland Gulls’ is used to throw sand in our eyes. Only some young Iceland Gulls ever look close to white, although almost none match the pure white of Ivory Gull. Leg colour — invariably coal black on Ivory Gull — is diagnostic of only Ivory Gull because all ages of Iceland Gull are pink-legged. In terms of rare examples of smaller gulls that develop atypical all-white plumage, the most convincing Fool’s Gold might be provided by a Kittiwake. However, even in this scenario, leg colour would probably not be black, as evidenced by a 1983 ‘white Kittiwake’ that showed ‘legs and feet flesh-pink’ [12].


Ruttledge et al, rather than going back to source (that is, William Thompson’s presentation of all material) followed Ussher and Warren’s selective list. Hence, if a report was axed by Ussher and Warren, it remained axed in Ruttledge et al. Here is the Ivory Gull account from The Birds of Ireland, pp.226. Because Ruttledge takes over from where Ussher and Warren left off, the material includes all post-1900 records.

If we exclude as insufficiently authenticated a report of an Ivory Gull said to have been seen far inland at Abbeyleix on 18th February 1930 (Irish Times, 24th February 1930), then this gull has been recorded only on six occasions. In one instance two birds were present.

Two, of which one in immature plumage was shot, appeared at Blennerville near Tralee, Co. Kerry, in February 1847. One shot in Bantry Bay, Co. Cork, 31st January, 1852, was presented to Queen’s College Museum, Cork. One found dead at Belmullet, Co. Mayo, on 27th March 1905, is in the National Museum. The leg and wing of an Ivory Gull picked up on the Marina, Cork, on 16th February 1913, is in the Barrington Collection in the National Museum, also an immature female shot at Teelin, Co. Donegal, on 13th March 1913. One was observed off the coast of Down during the first few days of April 1931 (British Birds, XXIV: 372).

The first two occurrences are recorded in Ussher & Warren, and the possible occurrence of another Ivory Gull near Tralee is mentioned. This gull, seen in January 1835, was described as having ivory-tinted plumage and black legs.

Although Ruttledge rowed in behind Ussher and Warren (who purged Thompson’s narrative) the Ivory Gulls that entered his orbit appear to be faithfully reported and each is endorsed on the basis of remains or a convincing account, including the 1931 Ivory Gull from the Copeland Islands. Are we, therefore, to assume that Ruttledge’s only sin was, for whatever reason, to omit some of Thompson’s reports and — either unwittingly or deliberately — back Ussher and Warren? At least Ruttledge gives space to Neligan’s report from near Tralee in January 1835, Ireland’s first Ivory Gull record that refuses to die. Before trusting to Ruttledge’s discernment of reports in his time, let’s have a look at that letter in The Irish Times, which he was happy to exclude. I tried and failed to access the information but victory was plucked from the jaws of defeat when I contacted Michael O’Clery who in turn asked his father Conor O’Clery (a former leading journalist with The Irish Times) for help. In no time I had the letter. It was dated 24th February 1930 and appeared in The Irish Times letters page on 25th February 1930, written by John W. Young of Brockley Park, Stradbally, Queens County. Here it is, verbatim:

‘The Ivory Gull. Sir, when shooting on the 18th inst, at Granston Manor, Abbeyleix, on Lord Castletown’s marshes on the Erkina River, I saw an Ivory Gull. I was within 80 yards of it and its pure white colour all over, black legs and feet, and solitary habit were characteristic. It was standing on a tussock protruding through the ice on a frozen overflow and when it flew it did not join a great flock of Black-headed Gulls on an open flash a few hundred yards off but kept away by itself. The occurrence in Ireland of this extremely rare visitant from the Arctic may be worth recording. I have never previously seen the bird in Ireland.’

Although incontestably beautiful, it does not take 1000 words to describe an Ivory Gull

Did ever economy of words paint a more convincing and atmospheric picture? All diagnostic features are noted and the bird’s ‘splendid isolation’ is echoed in other descriptions, such as the following from Maine, USA, in January 1918 [13]: ‘The snowy whiteness of its plumage was always noticeably different from any other gull in the harbour, which contained at the time an abundance of Herring Gulls and Kumlien’s Iceland Gulls. Its habits and flight also differed distinctly: it was much more restless, now alighting on the ice, either to remain at rest for a few minutes, or to feed at the water’s edge, and then away to search the edge of an ice field or to feed near some of the docks. It seemed to pay little or no attention to the other gulls, or their feeding [italics added] … its dashing flight seemed more like that of a jaeger [American term for smaller skuas] than that of a gull.’ Weather records for Ireland for February 1930 attest to bitter cold: [].

So there you have it. Ruttledge was playing footsy with the facts. If he had been a reputable investigative journalist, his editor would have carpeted him. Will any AWOL Ivory Gull records that fall within the remit of the Republic of Ireland ever be reinstated? Not on your Nelly. Or, for that matter, Neligan. At least, not under the say-so of the current Irish Rare Birds Committee.

Those who read Patricide [] will understand why I am not going to ask the IRBC to rectify the country’s Ivory Gull back catalogue, especially as the prevailing view is to ‘bin all old records unless there is a specimen.’ How’s that for a Draconian rubric?

Mark Twain once reviewed a book on American humour that he found objectionable [1, pp.243–249]. He thought the book was a ‘great fat, coarse volume.’ He expressed his opinion about the content in an unusual literary ploy. He wrote, ‘I am saying these things in this frank way because I am a dead person speaking from the grave. Even I would be too modest to say them in life. I think we never become really and genuinely our entire and honest selves until we are dead — and not then until we have been dead years and years. People ought to start dead, and then they would be honest so much earlier.’

Speaking from the grave, the fundamental problem with those that have set themselves up to curate, judge and administer Ireland’s national ornithological archive is that they have become a Masonic, self-serving elite. The word ‘elite’, in the IRBC context, is better synonymized with ‘arrogant’. The IRBC should submit themselves to the words of Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg address: ‘government of the people, by the people, for the people.’ What about sandpapering an old idea called democracy and trying it out? Given the comparatively youthful — and inexperienced — age of those involved, it might help if I elaborated on the meaning of the word ‘democracy’: ‘a system of government by the whole population or all the eligible members of a state or profession, drawn from elected representatives.’

A fingertip search of the IRBC website [] failed to discover any trace of a constitution that might explain aspects such as selection of members, qualifications for office, duties of voting members or allotted length of time to be served on the committee. In a way the lack of a constitution is good because, had such a thing existed, the inherent hypocrisy would stink. The IRBC has a chance to remove that incipient stink permanently. Or, parodying IRA tactics, is the guru going to replace the ballot box in determining the history of Ireland’s birds?

One look at the British Birds Rarities Committee website shows democracy in operation []. It took me about 20 minutes to digest the content, which is exemplary. To cite just one example, voting members are expected to hit seven targets: such as the BBRC’s stipulation for voting members to possess ‘the capacity to work quickly and efficiently.’ Contrast this with the exasperation contained within the words of Kieran Fahy who, from 2010 to 2015, was the IRBC secretary: “unfortunately, the cold reality is that I am absolutely dependant on the return of batches in order to discharge my duties in a timely and appropriate manner. Return of batches (or, more accurately, the non-return of batches) is the bane of my IRBC life. No matter how often I chase batches, no matter how often I ‘throw my toys out of the pram’ (and I have done this on multiple occasions), no matter how many deadlines that I try to impose, the batches are returned only when the lads decide to finally get around to returning them.”

Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?

Who is sponsoring this mess? A sense of megalomania runs within the current crop of IRBC members who do not seem to be fully aware of the fact that they operate under the financial forbearance of Birdwatch Ireland []. That organisation does have a constitution. Might I offer a bit of advice? The present junta should hold up their hands in a spirit of perestroika and reform the committee. Along what lines? One artifice that might serve as a unifying force is the introduction of four seats, one for each province. Four, however, is an even number and might tie split decisions. So there ought to be a fifth seat, acknowledging gender equality. Yes, there needs to be a female voice. Why?

In my days on bird records committees the best genius I ever came across was Patricia ‘Pat’ Vizard. She was the secretary of the Northern Ireland Bird Records Committee, then a quasi-official organ of the Ulster Museum. Meetings, usually monthly, were held in chambers that smelled of floor wax and oak tables. I was, by a long chalk, the youngest member and I sat in awe of some pipe-smoking old-timers whose tales of glories in the field helped launched my own efforts. Manners and respect were the hallmarks of committee business and handwritten letters of thanks and acknowledgement were despatched to observers and referees by Pat, illuminated by her wondrous calligraphy. It took me a while to discover that she was not, in fact, a birdwatcher. That did not matter. Observing the methods she used to dispense aid, sympathy, counsel and ideas and admiring her grasp of function and debate inspired me to attend meetings in my Sunday best.

Irish bird records committees need a feminine hand to share the tiller. I showed a draft of this article to a female reader. She commented: ‘It is infuriating that those on rare bird committees have the power to delete records without properly researching and analysing the evidence. For example, based on (among others) the 1931 Ivory Gull from Abbeyleix, it is clear that the review process is flawed and I would argue that none of the ‘old’ records should ever be deleted from the list. Any review or doubts or new evidence could always be attached to the records in some shape or form so that people can make up their own minds: you cannot make deletions based on one man’s opinions. Even if an old record could somehow be shown to be entirely impossible and wrong, the record still has value on the basis that it may be of interest in that it was thought to be accurate in a former era.’

See what I mean?


Rather than list amazingly helpful people in alphabetic order, I prefer to pay thanks to everyone individually. Eleanor Keane and Richella Duggan read the draft text and steered it with big suggestions and small corrections alike. Ruth Mann gave me food for thought too. David Branagh, Eric Dempsey, Joe Furphy, John Mercer, Frank Murphy, Neville McKee, Craig Nash, DIM Wallace and Julian Wyllie took great care checking content and word construction and commented wisely. Colm Moore kindly answered my queries. Fiona McGarry and Angela Ross searched successfully for information about C Blake Whelan; David Branagh and Julie Mackie made enquiries about A J Kennedy. Leanne Briggs, from North Down Borough Council, helped fill in important details. For weather information, Ken Douglas and Heinrich Scholl were invaluable. Michael O’Clery and his father Conor O’Clery came up with a stunning ace when they tracked down John W Young’s letter published in 1930 in The Irish Times. Martin Garner, Neville McKee, Chris Murphy and Oscar Campbell, past and present members of the Northern Ireland Birdwatchers Association Records Committee, gave me insights into the dysfunctional nature of the present committee. Kieran Fahy, former secretary of the Irish Rare Birds Committee, kindly passed on the ‘official’ archive list of Ireland’s Ivory Gull records [in other words, an incomplete national archive]. David Shawe was a great help in designing layout. Michael Clarke took the atmospheric image of the ice floes. Last but far from least, Bruce Mactavish demonstrated true knowledge in reviewing Tom Ennis’s letter and Bruce’s photographs are the jewels in the text. Except for the two images of the 1978 Bangor Ivory Gull, all other Ivory Gull images were taken by him.


1 White, E.B. 1977. Essays of E.B.White. Quotation taken from a 1961 essay entitled ‘The Years of Wonder’, page 169. Harper & Row. New York, Hagerstown, San Francisco, London.

2 Forbush, E.H. 1925–1929. The Birds of Massachusetts and Other New England States (three volumes). Volume 1 (1925): Water Birds, Marsh Birds and Shore Birds. Page 61. Massachusetts Department of Agriculture, Commonwealth, MA.

3 ‘Time was away and somewhere else’ is a line from the Louis MacNeice poem, Meeting Point (1939). Originally published in Plant and Phantom (1941) and repeated (page 79) in Louis MacNeice Selected Poems (1988). Faber and Faber Limited, Bloomsbury House, 77–74 Great Russell Street, London WC1B 3DA.

4 Transcription of field notes:

Original notebook page

Pagophila eburnea. The Ivory Gull was first located on Sunday night (26th November 1978) and was still in the same place (that is, the North Pier) on the morning of 28th November. DESCRIPTION: Base of upper mandible pale blue-grey, tip of upper mandible yellow-horn backed by brown-grey sub-terminal patch extending along culmen to the bill base. Lower mandible: tip dark brown-grey; remainder pale blue-grey except for thin area of yellow-horn running along cutting edge of lower mandible. Bill slightly shorter than Kittiwake and marginally thicker with more pronounced gonys. Mouth pink. Lores and chin mottled mealy grey with darker (blackish) shadow mark in front of eye. Eye fairly large: black and with very thin white rim. Remainder of head snowy-white with very few, sparsely distributed, faint grey spots on crown and nape — the spots being like circular grey smudges, rather than clear spots. Head shape well rounded (slightly domed) with staring black eye giving the bird a lovely dove-like, endearing expression. Chest and under-parts pure snowy-white lacking any dark mottling. Upper-parts snow-white, sparsely flecked with dark spots. Wings: five exposed primaries at rest showed obvious black tips. Primary coverts and alula also tipped black. Black sub-terminal marks on three exposed tertials. Flecking clearest at bend of wing and in three irregular lines along sub-terminal areas of greater, median and lesser upper wing-coverts. Scapulars and mantle sparsely smudged with grey and black. In overall size, slightly bigger than Kittiwake with longer wings but heavier chest. In flight, wings much longer than Kittiwake and broader-based (more tapering) and with well pointed tips; body deeper than Kittiwake. Wing beats quite shallow and long wings an obvious feature. Flight itself light and buoyant, although still gull-like rather than tern-like. In flight, displayed black sub-terminal tips to all tail feathers (one tail feather missing) that formed thin but noticeable black tail rim. Black tips showed well to primaries and primary coverts but secondaries completely white, lacking dark markings. Black tips to upper tail-coverts. Incredibly snow-white on the wing; a very beautiful bird with truly snowy plumage, long tapering wings and a light, graceful flight. It called frequently when it flew, less so at rest. The call was very soft and mellow, disyllabic with the two syllables run together and the second drawn out to almost a whistle. It could be rendered ‘pheee-yew’. Legs fairly short (shorter than Kittiwake) and all-black with wide black feet palmations, always well splayed. Gait distinctive: deliberate, slightly awkward, plodding (quite duck-like). BEHAVIOUR: Incredibly tame; spent its time picking at fish scraps and wouldn’t take bread. It settled on the seas several times. On land, often rested on tarsi. Took no part in feeding melees of Black-headed Gulls. Always looked plump and fat-chested with a gentle, inquisitive expression but the long wings added a slim dimension to its general appearance. It in the distance it really could suggest a white pigeon but close up obviously a beautiful, delicate gull. On occasion it would draw itself into a quaint puffed-up stance; then the white plumage, dove-like character and short legs all contributed to a proverbial pigeon-like appearance.

5 Kennedy, P.G., Ruttledge, R.F. & Scroope, C.F. Assisted by Humphreys, G.R. 1954. The Birds of Ireland. Oliver& Boyd. Edinburgh, London.

6 Barrington, R.M. 1900. The Migration of Birds as Observed at Irish Lighthouses and Lightships. London publisher: R.H.Porter, 7 Princes Street, Cavendish Square. Dublin publisher: Edward Ponsonby, 116 Grafton Street.

7 Deane, C. D. 1954. Handbook of the Birds of Northern Ireland. Belfast Museum and Art Gallery. Bulletin volume 1, number 6.

8 Olsen, K.M. & Larsson, H. 2003. Gulls of Europe, Asia and North America. Helm. London.

9 Thompson, W. 1849–52. The Natural History of Ireland (four volumes). London, Reeve, Benham and Reeve.

10 Ussher, R.J. and Warren, R. 1900. Birds of Ireland. London. Gurney and Jackson.

11 Proceedings Zool. Soc., 1834, page 29.

12 Stone, C.W. 1984. The pitfall of a white Kittiwake. British Birds. Vol:77; pp 484–485.

13 Norton, A.H. 1918. Ivory Gull at Portland, Maine. Auk, vol. XXXV [35], pp.220.


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