17 February 2010

Ornithology of Expedition Which First Denoted the Ivory Gull

A journal of an exploratory expedition which sallied forth from England towards the North Pole in 1773, is an account of a few birds observed during a few summer and early months, but most importantly, included the first known record of the distinctive Ivory Gull of the great northern lands.

Constantine John Phipps was a Captain in the Royal Navy of Great Britain, leading the crews of the H.M.S. Racehorse and H.M.S. Carcass as they sailed down the river towards the northern sea, upon their departure in late May.

There were 92 men on the Racehorse, and about the same number on the sister ship, with the naturalist Dr. Irving among the hearty crew sailing towards the cold seas of the Arctic.

Bird History

The first notation of a bird observation was on June 23, when a "small bird called a Redpoll" was noted at 7 in the morning, when the Racehorse was northward of the 72nd parallel. The other pertinent observation of the day, was a piece of driftwood, as this was apparently something significant.

As the ships sailed along, the route continued along the west and north coast of Spitsbergen during July. On the 3rd, the journal notes: "The weather fine, and the wind fair all day. Running along by the coast of Spitsbergen all day : several Greenlandmen in sight."

In the latter part of the month, temporary anchor was made at Mossen Island by the Carcass, and notes were provided by Captain Lutwidge. Their brief visit started at 11 p.m. on July 25th.

"Sent the master on shore, who found the island to be nearly of a round form, about two miles in diameter, with a lake or large pond of water in the middle, all frozen over, except thirty or forty yards around the edge of it, which was water, with loose pieces of broken ice, and so shallow they walked through it, and went over upon the firm solid ice. ... They saw three bears, and a number of wild ducks, geese, and other sea fowls, with bird nests all over the island."

Nearby Low Island was visited on the 29th of the same month, with it also being described in the Captain's journal, based on someone else's observations:

"The island is about seven miles long, flat, and formerly chiefly of stones from eighteen to thirty inches over, many of them hexagons, and commodiously place for walking on : the middle of the island is covered with moss, scurvy grass, sorrel, and a few ranunculuses then in flower. Two rein-deer were feeding on the moss; one we killed, and found it fat, and of high flavour. We saw a light grey-coloured fox; and a creature somewhat larger than a weasel, with short ears, long tail, and skin spotted white and black. The island abounds with small snipes, similar to the jack-snipe in England. The Ducks were now hatching their eggs, and many wild geese feeding by the water side."

Though no particular species can be determined from the narrative, birds - including geese, ducks and shorebirds - were a prominent feature at both places.

The journey continued, but there were no further notes of the bird life present.

The ships returned to a home port in latter September, with a subsequent narrative of the voyage, with an analysis of the species recorded. It is not apparent who undertook the specific study needed to determine the birds described.

Bird Species

In the following notes, the f character so often used in the typography of historic narratives from England have been replaced with the appropriate s character. The following text is given nearly verbatim as published in Captain Phipps' account, published in 1775 at Dublin.


Anas mollissima. Linn. Syst. Nat. 198. 15.
Eider Duck. Penn. Brit. Zool, p. 454, Found on the coast of Spitsbergen.
Alca arctica. Linn. Syst. Nat. 211. 4.
The Puffin. Penn. Brit. Zool. p. 405. Found on the coast of Spitsbergen.
Alca Alle. Linn. Syst. Nat. 211. 5.
Found on the coast of Spitsbergen in great abundance.
Procellari glacialis. Linn. Syst. Nat. 213. 3.
The Fulmar. Penn. Brit. Zool. p. 431. Found on the coast of Spitsbergen.
Colymbus Grylle. Linn. Syst. Nat. 220. 1.
Found on the coast of Spitsbergen.
Colymbus Troile. Linn. Syst. Nat. 220. 2.
Found on the coast of Spitsbergen.
Colymbus glacialis. Linn. Syst. Nat. 221. 5.
The great Northern Diver. Penn. Brit. Zool. p. 413. Found on the coast of Spitsbergen.
Larus Rissa. Linn. Syst. Nat. 224. 1.
Found on the coast of Spitsbergen.
Larus Parasiticus. Linn. Syst. Nat. 226. 10.
The Arctick Gull. Penn. Brit. Zool. p. 420. Found on the coast of Spitsbergen.
Larus Eburneus, niveus, immaculatus, pedibus plumbeo-cinereis.
Found on the coast of Spitsbergen.

This beautiful bird is not described by Linnæus, nor, I believe, by any other author; it is nearly related indeed to the Rathsher, described by Marten in his voyage to Spitsbergen, (See page 77 of the English translation) but, unless that author is much mistaken in his description, differs essentially from it. Its place in the Systema Naturæ seems to be next after the Larus nævius, where the specifick difference given above, which will distinguish it from all the species described by Linnaeus, may be inserted.


Tota avis (quoad pennas) nivea, immaculata.
Rostrum plumbeum.
Orbitæ oculorum croceæ.
Pedes cinereo-plumbei. Ungues nigri.
Digitus Posticus articulatus, unguiculatus.
Alæ cauda longiores.
Cauda æqualis, pedibus longior.
Longitudo totius avis, ab apice rostri ad finem caudæ, - - Uncias 16
Longitudo inter apices alarum expansarum, 37
----- Rostri, - - - 2
Sterna Hirundo. Linn. Syst. Nat. 227. 2.
The greater Tern. Penn. Brit. Zool. p. 428. Found on the coast of Spitsbergen.
Emberiza nivalis. Lynn. Syst. Nat. 208. I.
The greater Brambling. Penn. Brit. Zool. 321.

Found not only on the land of Spitsbergen, but also upon the ice adjacent to it, in large flocks: what its food can be is difficult to determine; to all appearance it is a granivorous bird, and the only one of that kind found in these climates, but how that one can procure food in a country which produces so few vegetables, is not easy to guess.


An Ivory Gull(s) was closely observed or collected by some member of the expedition, and later considered in closer detail once the men returned to port, in order to prepare the proper account needed to claim it as the first observation of a new species. As the first documented occurrence of this gull was attributed to Spitsbergen, it is very likely that the specimen was collected during July, and possibly either at Mossen Island or Low Island, and most likely not on the larger island of Spitsbergen.

Only a few species noted for this brief exploration, with an account which includes only a dozen types of birds seen, with no geese or snipe included in the list. This narrative is an important, original account essential to historic ornithology which conveys the different species present at a particular place more than 235 years ago.

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