10 April 2010

Great Auk Killed in 1850 at Cape York?

Five words in the journal of Robert Randolph Carter may be enough to change the known history for the now extinct Great Auk (i.e., Alca impennis, and now Pinguinus impennis).

Carter was the first officer on the brig Rescue, searching in 1850-1851 for any details from the lost Franklin Expedition. He had just graduated from the Navel Academy at Annapolis. During the search up in the Arctic waters, he kept a personal journal, with daily entries giving numerous and interesting details for what was known at the time as the U.S. Grinnell Expedition. His account was published in its entirety, with editorial comments nearly 150 years later, and the narrative regularly refers to birds.

Officer Carter's journal, as published, starts on May 13, 1850 at the Brooklyn Navy Yard, while the boat was being readied for its cruise to the Arctic seas. There are so many interesting details of history indicated in the narrative, but to get to the topic of particular interest is needed.

The journal entry for "Friday August 16th 1850" includes these too few words of such importance in the history of an extinct species: "Brooks shot a Great Auk."

Henry Brooks was the boatswain and a second officer of the Rescue. Carter and others were ashore at Cape York, Melville Bay, northern Greenland. The prior day, a precise geographic locale was indicated by the entry noting the latitude as 75o59' and longitude at 60o47' W in the nearly daily entry for the ship's location.

During the onshore outing, the little auk was noted, and this species had been regularly noted in the account by Carter, in addition to other species of the Arctic seas.

Great Auk scene. Illustrated in The Beautiful and Curious Birds of the World, issued in 1881 by Charles Barney Cory.

On the day of interest, the Rescue was off-shore from Cape York. Further details are given in Carter's journal.

"... The hills here at least 1000 feet high and very steep. The Commo saw a fox. Docr Kane saw a beast like a weasel and got into a bog trying to get a shot at it. I killed three dovekies which came to look at the strangers on a piece of floating ice. And so we left standing up the coast again. Brooks shot a Great Auk."

The diary continued, and the next geographic landmark visited was the vicinity of Dudley Digges Point.

Last Record of the Great Auk

The last known instance of the Great Auk is often attributed to early June, 1844 at Eldey, an bit of oceanic rock visited by some Icelanders. They bludgeoned a couple of auks, and smashed an egg. The auks were killed by the intruders, including Jon Brandsson, Sigurdr Islefsson and Ketil Ketilson who were completely focused on taking the big auks and probably for the money they could make from selling the specimens to some collector. There was a ready market at the time for birds eggs and specimens, and something like a Great Auk could command a hefty price.

These men deserve recognition for their slaughter of two auks, but they do not deserve any notation about their being instrumental in the end of a species. Any claim that this was the end of the species, is wrong as the sordid event does not mark the final occurrence of the species.

The record by Carter is so brief that it cannot be considered with scrutiny that would indicate with no uncertainty that it was a Great Auk that was killed. Perhaps it was a Razorbill, larger than the little auk and with a similar bill and other features similar to the auk, but according to modern range maps, not expected in northwest Greenland.

Carter regularly notes the little auk in his narrative, with numerous mentions of many of these birds being taken and providing a tasty fare for a day's meal. His journal refers to different types of birds nearly fifty times during their expedition, including loons, kittiwakes, brant, ravens, the ivory gull, petrels and the snow bunting.

The known history for this species does add credence to the authenticity of the notation, though the record is far north from what has been identified as the known range for this auk.

When Alfred Newton wrote an article that was published in 1861, presenting an abstract of the important work by J. Wooley, information given on the range for the gare-fowl noted that it had been noted "within the limits of the arctic circle" based on a bird that had been killed in 1821 at Disco, on the western coast of Greenland. Cape York is north northward some 200 miles.

Great Auk in North America in the Early 1850s

There is other supporting evidence for the Great Auk having survived and to occur in Baffin Bay in 1851. Southward in the northern Atlantic Ocean, there is another record of occurrence.

A December 1852 sighting on the Grand Banks of Newfoundland, was reported by Colonel Drummond Hay and noted in the tome on the Great Auk issued by Symington Grieve issued in 1885 (The great auk, or garefowl (Alca impennis, Linn.). Its history, archaeology, and remains.). This record of occurrence has been accepted by the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources. The same author also noted that in 1853 a dead Great Auk was picked up in Trinity Bay by J. Macgregor of St. John's, Newfoundland.

These details indicate that the Great Auk apparently did not become extinct in 1844, but continued to exist - probably as isolated individuals - into the early 1850s. The last occurrences were in North America, not Europe.

The record seems to indicate that the last instance of the species was not associated with death caused by hunters, but may have been an individual at sea, that may have eventually succumbed to the fates of life, and died in the waters of what had been a haven, and to be the carcass noted on a Canadian beach.

The history of the Great Auk needs to be revised and the notion of its final existence being in 1844 needs to be expunged from the record of historic ornithology.

When a Dovekie is a Guillemot

In Carter's journal, he mentioned numerous times the dovekie and then subsequently the little auk.

According to the footnote for the first observation of the dovekie, the editors attributed it to Alle alle - the modern scientific name for the Dovekie - which also was known at the time by the common name of little auk.

The journal subsequently also mentioned the little auk.

When either the dovekie or little auk was mentioned, it was in a distinctive manner and based upon a review of each instance, neither was associated with the other.

For the Carter journal, it would easily be apparent that the dovekie and little auk were referring to the same species.

Further consideration indicates otherwise, for two prominent reasons.

First, as each was mentioned distinctly, it conveys a sense that the species were distinctive, and this lead to further evaluation. And there is another helpful source which is extremely helpful.

William Parker Snow was a civilian aide - sent out by Lady Jane Franklin, the wife of John Franklin, whose lost expedition was the focus of the huge search effort - on the schooner Prince Albert, one of about a dozen involved in the search effort.

Snow kept an account of his voyage, and also mentioned birds a few times. One particular entry in very telling in helping to identify the proper species which the mention of the dovekie pertains.

On August 6, 1850, Snow wrote: "Innumberable quantities of birds, especially the little auk (Alca alle), and the doveca (Colymbus grylle) were not seen in every direction. They were to be observed, in thousands, on the wing, and in the water, and often on pieces of ice, where they were clustered together so thick that scores might have been shot at a time by two or three fowling pieces." The Prince Albert was in Melville Bay.

The account refers the dovekie to Colymbus grylle, an archaic scientific name for the Black Guillemot (Cepphus grylle). There are also other historic narratives from Arctic adventures which mention the dovekie, then include the scientific name for the guillemot.

This is evidence of the dichotomy to the attributions made be Carter concerning the dovekie and little auk. The dovekie was the Black Guillemot and the little auk was the Dovekie.

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