Ross’s Gull

How a his­toric voy­age taught us so much about this lovely seabird

Bird Watching (UK) - - Contents - WORDS: DAVID SAUNDERS

ON 28 APRIL 1934, while fish­ing between Whal­say and the Out Sk­er­ries in Shet­land, Scot­land, John Irvine caught an ex­hausted gull. De­spite be­ing quickly re­moved from his scoop net and cared for, it died sev­eral days later. Not recog­nis­ing the bird, he in­formed the then Shet­land or­nithol­o­gist G T Kay, who quickly iden­ti­fied it as a Ross’s Gull, the first seen in Great Bri­tain.

Some, how­ever, claim a much ear­lier record: of one killed in 1847 in York­shire. This is an event shrouded in mys­tery and in­con­sis­tency. It has no fewer than three pos­si­ble dates, two or three pos­si­ble col­lec­tors and, per­haps, three dif­fer­ent lo­cal­i­ties, all near Tad­caster, some 50 miles from the coast. It is also just one of a num­ber of rare birds of doubt­ful au­then­tic­ity to have passed through the hands of David Gra­ham, taxi­der­mist of Spurri­er­gate, York. Since Irvine’s more likely record, there have been just more than 90 other sight­ings, and small won­der Ross’s Gull has been de­scribed as a “top-drawer rar­ity and a prize find” Al­most a fifth of those seen have been in Shet­land. York­shire is next, with other records from the shores of a num­ber of east­ern and west­ern coun­ties. Just two sight­ings have oc­curred marginally away from the coast; at Framp­ton Pools, hard by the Sev­ern Es­tu­ary in Glouces­ter­shire, and at Mar­ton Mere, 2.5 miles in­land from the Black­pool seafront in Lan­cashire.

How Ross’s Gull got its name

Ross’s Gull is named af­ter James Clark Ross. Born in 1800, he was the third son of a mer­chant and en­tre­pre­neur and en­tered the Royal Navy aged just 11 to serve un­der his un­cle John Ross. Six years later, he made the first of his eight Arc­tic voy­ages. Sub­se­quently, he would head for the Antarc­tic, and was des­tined to be­come the most ex­pe­ri­enced po­lar of­fi­cer of his time. One of Ross’s com­pan­ions on his first Arc­tic voy­age in 1818 was Ed­ward Sabine, a Cap­tain in the Royal Ar­tillery. A keen or­nithol­o­gist, he was here serv­ing as the ex­pe­di­tion as­tronomer. Sabine col­lected sev­eral pre­vi­ously un­known gulls from a colony on an is­land off the west coast of Green­land, where “they flew with im­petu­os­ity to­wards per­sons ap­proach­ing their nests and young; and where one bird of a pair was killed, its mate, though fre­quently fired at, con­tin­ued on wing close to the spot where it lay”. His brother Joseph, re­port­ing them to the Lin­nean So­ci­ety in De­cem­ber 1818, named them Sabine’s Gulls. The first for Great Bri­tain was re­ported at Mil­ford Haven, Pem­brokeshire, in the au­tumn of 1839. This beau­ti­ful gull with a forked tail was now recog­nised as a reg­u­lar pas­sage in au­tumn off our coasts, oc­ca­sion­ally in­land, and with much less fre­quency in spring. In 1819, James Ross re­turned to the Arc­tic, and again Ed­ward Sabine was on board. Their cap­tain was now Wil­liam Parry, de­scribed as “that prince of po­lar ex­plor­ers”. Us­ing two ships, they over­win­tered and, hav­ing pen­e­trated be­yond 110 de­grees west at such a high lat­i­tude, the crews shared a £5,000 prize (which had been of­fered by Par­lia­ment) among them­selves, Parry him­self re­ceiv­ing £1,000. Ross, still a mid­ship­man and clearly en­thused by the po­lar re­gions, re­turned with Parry in 1821. They were to spend two win­ters in the Arc­tic, and in June 1823, while ex­plor­ing the Melville Penin­sula, two un­known gulls were shot. Parry de­scribes the event in his jour­nal: “Mr Ross had pro­cured a spec­i­men of gull hav­ing a black ring round its neck, and which in present plumage, we could not find de­scribed. This bird was alone when killed, but fly­ing at no great dis­tance from a flock of tern, which lat­ter it some­what re­sem­bles in size as well as in its red legs; but is on closer in­spec­tion eas­ily dis­tin­guished by its beak and tail, as well as by a beau­ti­ful tint of most del­i­cate rose-colour on its breast”. On the ex­pe­di­tion’s re­turn, one of the spec­i­mens was given to Wil­liam Macgil­livray of the Edinburgh Mu­seum, who, when de­scrib­ing it, gave the new bird the name Ross’s Rosy Gull. The other had been passed to Dr John Richard­son (him­self a po­lar trav­eller and whose name was once re­mem­bered by Richard­son’s Skua – now the Arc­tic Skua). He named it the Cuneate-tailed Gull when de­tails were pub­lished in Fauna Bo­re­ali-amer­i­cana in 1825, writ­ing: “It is to Com­man­der Ross, who killed the first spec­i­men that was ob­tained, that the species is ded­i­cated, as a trib­ute for his un­wea­ried ex­er­tions in the pro­mo­tion of nat­u­ral his­tory on the late Arc­tic voy­ages, in all of which he bore a part. Of the pe­cu­liar habits or win­ter re­treat of the species noth­ing is known”.

With ref­er­ence to Macgil­livray’s nam­ing of the gull, he had this to say: “The mul­ti­pli­ca­tion of syn­ony­mous names for the ob­jects of nat­u­ral his­tory has been de­servedly repro­bated as cre­at­ing a bar­rier to the ad­vance­ment of the sci­ence, and it may be con­sid­ered as pe­cu­liarly un­for­tu­nate that a bird of which only two ex­am­ples have reached Europe, should al­ready have been fig­ured un­der two dis­tinct ap­pel­la­tions”. How­ever, Ross’s Gull was to win the day, the sci­en­tific name even­tu­ally adopted be­ing Rho­doste­hia rosea. Quite un­known at the time was a spec­i­men col­lected in Green­land in 1813 by an Aus­trian ge­ol­o­gist Karl Lud­wig Giesecke and pre­sented to the Hof­s­mu­seum in Vi­enna. For­tu­nately not recog­nised as a new species, no at­tempt was made to name it. If it had, it would have taken prece­dence over Macgil­livray’s work.

An­other en­counter

James Ross was to en­counter his gull once more, when serv­ing as se­cond-in-com­mand on Parry’s fourth ex­pe­di­tion in 1827. Dur­ing an at­tempt to reach the North Pole from Spitzber­gen, they man­aged to travel some 172 miles north­wards be­fore be­ing forced to re­treat. De­spite be­ing 500 miles from their goal, this record would stand for al­most half a cen­tury. Ross him­self was se­verely in­jured when squeezed between a boat and an ice hum­mock. The next great stride in the study of Ross’s Gull would come in 1874, when the flam­boy­ant, wealthy and ec­cen­tric James Gor­don Ben­nett Jnr – owner of the New York Her­ald, and (some say) ori­gin of the phrase ‘Gor­don Ben­nett’ – was per­suaded to fi­nance an Amer­i­can as­sault on the North Pole. His cho­sen cap­tain was Lieu­tenant Ge­orge De Long. The ves­sel was the for­mer Royal Navy bomb ves­sel Pan­dora, launched in Pem­broke Dock in 1861, now re­named Jean­nette af­ter Ben­nett’s sis­ter. Ray­mond New­comb, aged 30 and the youngest of the sci­en­tists on board, was asked to pay at­ten­tion to “an­i­mals, plants, min­er­als, fos­sils and eth­nol­ogy”. Sail­ing in July 1879, they left San Fran­cisco and struck north­wards through the Ber­ing Strait and on across the Chukchi Sea. By early Septem­ber the Jean­nette be­came locked in the ice. For al­most two years she drifted gen­er­ally west­wards be­fore be­ing crushed, 33 men and 23 dogs watch­ing as their home slipped away. Early in their time trapped in the ice on the Jean­nette, Ray­mond New­comb had col­lected spec­i­mens of Ross’s Gull, de­scrib­ing the event in his nar­ra­tive of the ex­pe­di­tion: “They came along the lead where I was sit­ting, and when within range I fired, tum­bling one down into the wa­ter; the other turned and I got it. “They proved to be Ross’s Gulls, an ex­ceed­ingly rare species, very buoy­ant and grace­ful on the wing, beau­ti­ful pearl-blue on the backs, ver­mil­lion feet and legs, and lovely tea-rose on the breasts and un­der parts; the rosy tint be­ing scarcely a color, yet blend­ing in ex­quis­ite har­mony with the pearl blue of the up­per parts”. De Long, writ­ing in his diary that the spec­i­mens were “a most valu­able prize and valu­able be­yond cal­cu­la­tion”, had or­dered New­comb to safe­guard three of the skins. This he did by car­ry­ing them wrapped round his body un­der his shirt, as they be­gan their har­row­ing jour­ney for sur­vival. The crew trav­elled south­wards across the ice un­til they reached open wa­ter and could launch their boats. One of these, con­tain­ing eight men, was sub­se­quently over­whelmed in a storm. The other two even­tu­ally made their land­falls

By this stage we now knew some­thing of the move­ments of Ross’s Gull, but still its breed­ing grounds re­mained a mys­tery

al­most 80 miles apart, with win­ter fast ap­proach­ing, in the vast es­tu­ar­ine maze of the Lena Delta. There would be just 13 sur­vivors. De Long, the leader, was not among them. New­comb and his three Ross’s Gulls, mean­while, were. They are now held in the Smith­so­nian In­sti­tu­tion. Three years af­ter she had van­ished be­neath the ice, wreck­age of the Jean­nette was found off the south-west coast of Green­land, a dis­cov­ery which prompted the Nor­we­gian ex­plorer Fridtjof Nansen to pro­pose that drift might be en­listed in the ser­vice of ex­plo­ration. This be­came the ge­n­e­sis of his 1893-1896 Fram ex­pe­di­tion. Writ­ing in his diary on 3 Au­gust 1894, he recorded his first en­counter with a Ross’s Gull: “To-day my long­ing has at last been sat­is­fied. I have shot Ross’s Gull, three spec­i­mens in one day. This rare and mys­te­ri­ous in­hab­i­tant of the un­known north, which is only oc­ca­sion­ally seen, and which no one knows whence it cometh or whither it goeth, which be­longs ex­clu­sively to the world to which the imag­i­na­tion as­pires, is what, from the first mo­ment I saw these tracts, I had al­ways hoped to dis­cover, as my eyes roamed over the lonely plains of ice”. An­other ex­plorer who had chanced on Ross’s Gulls amid the pack ice was Swedish bal­loon­ist Salomon An­dree, who, with two com­pan­ions, dis­ap­peared while en­deav­our­ing to fly to the North Pole in 1897. The bal­loon crashed en-route, although the tragedy was only re­vealed in 1930 when the ex­pe­di­tion diaries and bod­ies were dis­cov­ered on White Is­land to the east of Sval­bard. These re­vealed that they had en­coun­tered Ross’s Gulls, per­haps as many as 17 times dur­ing their epic strug­gle across the ice. How­ever, nei­ther An­dree nor Nansen were aware of ob­ser­va­tions made in 1881-83 by the Amer­i­can In­ter­na­tional Po­lar Ex­pe­di­tion to Point Bar­row, Alaska, for the sim­ple fact that they were not pub­lished un­til 1899. The nat­u­ral­ist on that ex­pe­di­tion, John Mur­doch, know­ing that only about 15 spec­i­mens of Ross’s Gull had pre­vi­ously been col­lected, was amazed by what he wit­nessed at the end of Septem­ber 1881: “As I walked up the beach, sev­eral flocks of small grace­ful Gulls passed me,” he wrote “mov­ing to­wards the north­east, but out of gun­shot. As they whirled in the sun­shine, I thought I no­ticed that some of them were rosy un­der­neath. Could they be the fa­mous Rosy Gulls? As may be fan­cied, I grew a lit­tle ex­cited. The ques­tion was soon set­tled, for a flock at last came within range, and a for­tu­nate shot brought down a bird which proved to be a fine adult in win­ter plumage. “I came home well pleased with my­self, as may be sup­posed, laid the bird care­fully away in the cold store tent to be at­tended to at the first op­por­tu­nity. But I had failed to reckon with the ubiq­ui­tous Eskimo dogs, and when I came to look for my pre­cious bird, it had van­ished”. None were seen the fol­low­ing year un­til once again a ma­jor au­tumn pas­sage was ob­served, with more be­ing col­lected. Mur­doch again: “To my great cha­grin, I had only a small share in this great shoot­ing, for at the time the gulls were most abun­dant, I was laid up with a se­vere cold which pre­vented me from do­ing any out­door work, or in­deed from skin­ning. This, how­ever, did no se­ri­ous harm, be­cause the birds were put away, out of reach of the dogs, where they soon froze solid, and staid frozen un­til I was ready to at­tend to them. “Ev­ery night, I used to pick out a batch of about half a dozen, all that I wanted for a morn­ing’s work, and put them on the rack be­hind the stove in the quar­ters, where we used to dry our stock­ings, and the next morn­ing they would be nicely thawed out and ready to skin”.

Breed­ing ground mys­tery

By this stage we now knew some­thing of the move­ments of Ross’s Gull, but still its breed­ing grounds re­mained a mys­tery. In 1905, Sergei Alexan­drovich Bu­turlin, one of the most em­i­nent of Rus­sian or­nithol­o­gists (he was to pub­lish more than 2,000 pa­pers, ar­ti­cles and notes and 20 books), headed for the Kolyma Delta, sit­u­ated in Siberia’s far north-east some 800 miles from the Ber­ing Strait. It was here that Stalin lo­cated some of the most no­to­ri­ous Gu­lags, and where Bur­turlin made per­haps his great­est dis­cov­ery: at last, the nest­ing grounds of Ross’s Gull.

Adult win­ter Ross’s Gull, lack­ing the black col­lar, but with a dark smudge on the cheek, and grey nape

Ar­chiv­ist / Alamy

EX­PLORER James Clark Ross, whose name was given to the Ross’s Gull

EARLY DAYS Wil­liam Macgil­livray named the bird Ross’s Rosy Gull

Pic­tures/flpa RM

ROSY PLUMAGE In breed­ing plumage, Ross’s Gulls have a de­light­ful rosy glow Chris Schenk, Buiten-beeld/min­den

STRANDED For two years, the ves­sel Jean­nette was locked in ice – af­ter re­lease it was crushed in the sea

RE­SEARCH Ray­mond New­comb, a sci­en­tist who col­lected Ross’s Gull spec­i­mens in the 1800s

Steve Young / Alamy Steve YOUNG/FLPA RM

YOUNG­STER First-win­ter Ross’s Gulls lack the clean pat­tern and colour of adults

FIRST-WIN­TER In flight, first-win­ter Ross’s Gulls in are a bit like Lit­tle Gulls of the same age, but with the dis­tinc­tive wedge-shaped tail

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