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Photographing The Ivory Gull

With dazzling white plumage the ivory gull is ideally coloured for its arctic home.

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Ivory gull

With its dazzling white plumage, the ivory gull is perfectly adapted to its inhospitable habitat: the Arctic.


The adult ivory gull can be quickly described as having a body about 40cm long with snow-white plumage, black legs and a dark beak with a yellow tip. The young birds are also white but with brown-black dots scattered on their bodies. Their faces appear 'dirty' because of the brown spots located at the base of the beak. They get their snow-white plumage during their second winter.


The ivory gulls are birds of the high Arcticc and are among the most northern bird species in the world. The Spitsbergen Island (Svalbard archipelago) in the Arctic Ocean is home to a large colony, but most of the Ivory gulls live in the Russian Arctic. Sometimes some specimens appear in Europe and lucky observers might spot the arctic guests in Great Britain or the Netherlands.

These robust birds live in areas of pack ice and ice-filled open waters. They can often be observed following ships, probably looking for food. They are also close to humans in the settlements on Spitsbergen where they may feed on refuse.

The worldwide population of ivory gulls is estimated at around 14,000 breeding pairs. What is certain, however, is the fact that stocks are declining, especially in Spitsbergen. The reasons for this can only be assumed. For some climate change is the main culprit, for others it’s the increasing number of tourists in the breeding areas.



Because of their harsh habitat, ivory gulls cannot be very selective when it comes to food choice. They glide across the sea, capturing plankton and small fish. On the pack ice they often follow polar bears to feed on the carcass of their prey. They can also consume placentas of seals and even droppings of other animals.

During the arctic winter, ivory gulls travel south just far enough to avoid the complete darkness. They breed between June and August and gather into breeding colonies. They usually build their nests on cliff ledges or on gravely ground. The nest is made from almost everything that can be found in the Arctic: driftwood, feathers, lichens, grass, mud and seaweed. After the female has laid one to three eggs, both parents incubate them for about 25 days.


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