The temperatures were in the single digits, but not low enough to keep the gawkers away. A celebrity was in town, behind the East Bay Grille, a visitor not seen in these parts in decades, if not longer.

But these weren't paparazzi, and this wasn't a Hollywood star. Rather, they were avid birdwatchers - about 20 in all - braving the frigid air as they scanned the bay and the edges of the breakwater with binoculars and spotting scopes.
Ivory Gull
© Greg Derr/The Patriot LedgerAn ivory gull, a native of the Arctic, has been attracting bird watchers from across New England to Plymouth Harbor.

And they would be rewarded, catching a glimpse of a glimpse of a rare, fully mature ivory gull. A birdwatcher reported seeing one in Plymouth last week, and another was spotted at Eastern Point Lighthouse in Gloucester. From Sunday through Tuesday, the avian visitor was a regular in Plymouth, much to the delight of birdwatchers, who came from near and far in hopes of adding the extremely rare bird to their life list.

Ivory gulls normally stay well above Newfoundland, living on Artic ice where they follow whales and polar bears to feed on the scraps and carcasses they leave behind after making a kill.

Until this year, the last report of a fully mature ivory gull in Massachusetts was in the 1800s. Three immature birds were seen in the 1940s. In 1976, another immature bird had been spotted in Rockport.

Russell Graham of Dallas is flying in Friday for a three-day visit. He's hoping the gull will still be in town when he arrives.

"The ivory gull is one of a handful of birds that every birder dreams of seeing but almost no one has.," he said. "This isn't a dream that's confined to North America. There is also an immature bird in France that is causing the same reaction there. There are a couple of places where you can go in the summer and expect to see one but they are distant and expensive - Svalbard on Spitsbergen, Norway and Pond Inlet on Baffin Island, Canada.

"I never thought I would have the chance to see one and I can't pass up this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity."

If the gull is gone, Graham will consider a side trip to Nova Scotia, where two adult ivory gulls have been seen recently. "I'll be keeping my fingers crossed," he said.

John Fox of Arlington, Va., and his friend Adam D'Onofrio of Petersburg drove more than eight hours on Sunday to see the gull.

"No bird this morning," Fox said a day later, shaking his head. "We left Virginia at three in the morning yesterday and arrived here 20 minutes too late."

On Sunday morning, hundreds of people got to observe and photograph the gull as it fed on a chicken carcass someone put out on one of the docks in the parking lot. The bird stayed until 11 a.m., then flew across the harbor. It was not seen again for the rest of the day.

"We arrived at 11:20 and spent the rest of the afternoon in the parking lot, hoping it would return," Fox said.

They stayed at Pilgrim Sands Motel and arrived at the parking lot early Monday morning for one more chance to see the ivory gull before returning to Virginia. Fox said it was his first time in Massachusetts. If he didn't see the bird, he said, at least he could see Plymouth Rock before they left for home.

"That's how it goes sometimes," he said. "We don't always see what we come for, but it's nice to see some of the sights when you travel to a new area in hopes of seeing a rare bird."

As Fox was planning his exit, a commotion caught his attention. One of the birders pointed toward the sky and said with a shout, "There it is."

The pure white gull was flying toward the parking lot, silhouetted against a bright blue sky. Someone in the crowd announced for the record the gull had arrived at 7:45 a.m.

The bird flew in circles overhead, then landed on a snow bank in the middle of the parking lot. Cameras clicked and the birders "oohed and ahhhed" each time the ivory gull switched positions.

"Look how white it is," someone said. "It's got black feet, black eyes and a grayish-black beak," said another.

The gull eyeballed the chicken carcass, still there from the day before, but it didn't eat. Instead, it flew to the railing along the edge of the boat ramp and perched with a group of sea gulls. The photographers followed, changing positions to get the best lighting.

Fox stood with the group, talking with other birdwatchers, as the gull sat peacefully on the railing, observing all the people gathered around it. Was it worth the long drive up from Virginia?

"It sure was," Fox said with a smile.