How a historic voyage taught us so much about this lovely seabird
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.
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
EXPLORER James Clark Ross, whose name was given to the Ross’s Gull
EARLY DAYS William Macgillivray named the bird Ross’s Rosy Gull
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
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