30 May 2014

29 May 14 - Historical Re-enactment: The Third Arctic Expedition Of James Ross

Living close to Corfe Castle, it's not unusual to see historical re-enactment societies appearing for a few days there, to tell the story of a historical period in English history, especially the English Civil War. The societies will appear for a few days, usually around a public or school holiday & try to inform the public about daily life & food in that period whilst dressed in the typical clothing & often with a bit of staged fighting thrown in. They seem to have a lot of fun with the re-enactment & so I felt it was a good opportunity to try my own re-enactment of one of the many expeditions to find the North West Passage. The North West Passage is the long hoped for route to the North of Canada, as a route to the Great Western seas (Pacific Ocean) without having to sail around Cape Horn: which was the only very dangerous alternative in those days. In 1829, James Clark Ross was on his third Arctic expedition as the scientific officer on William Parry's expedition to discover the North West Passage. The expedition didn't return until 1834. Given the timescales (one of my crew had to be back to see his sons before they went to bed) & the costs of a full re-enactment, I was settling for finding a sea route South leading to the Great Western seas (settling for the Exe estuary leading to the Atlantic Ocean) as we couldn't be away for 4.5 years.
Grey Heron: Ross might well have seen a Great Blue Heron on one of his Canadian expeditions (thanks to this Grey Heron for stepping in to play the part of the Great Blue Heron)
Like Ross, I set off to the North & West. After a gruelling journey of literally 15 minutes, I stopped at the final friendly port of Wareham, stopping close to the quayside to collect the all-essential navigator, Peter Moore. With the final provisions loaded (Peter's packed lunch) and extra scientific equipment safely stowed (camera, telescope, tripod and wet weather gear as the forecast was for rain), we were ready to depart again. The course was set again to the North & West, before heading on a more Westerly bearing. Like Ross & Parry, we were optimistic we would find the channel of water South, which would lead to the Great Western sea. Finally after a long journey of well over an hour, we reached the start of the passageway to the South (the Exe estuary). We followed it, excited that our goal was close. But the route got narrower and narrower until finally, our transportation could go no further. Having got so close, we decided we had to continue on foot to look for a viewpoint, to see if we have found the fabled route to the Great Western sea.
Canada Goose: Ross would have been familiar with this species from his expeditions
Barnacle Goose: Again a species Ross would have seen so this single bird also helping with the historical accuracy
Back to Parry & Ross's expedition. They found only impenetrable ice, we found impenetrable mud. Like Parry & Ross, at the last moment, our expedition had failed and we would have to return home, having got so close, but failing to find the North & West route that lead to the Great Western sea.
The impenetrable mud that defeated our quest: The Ross's Gull is directly above the post in the mud (honestly)
But in a final attempt to emulate Ross's third expedition, we seized the moment and looked at the Gulls. A cry from Peter went up, look at that small Gull. Followed by the noise of shooting in the purposes of science (only from his camera, Ross's expedition only had to make do with guns). There it was a Ross's Gull, shot in digital: the final tribute. Ross had shot the first specimen for science: we had shot the first specimen for the Exe estuary. You couldn't get a better or closer re-enactment.

Ross's Gull: 1st Summer. Slightly larger than a Little Gull, but with a white head & variable collar from the nape to the throat. But they don't have the smudgy grey crown & large ear coverts spot of 1st Summer Little Gulls
Ross's Gull: We returned to Bowling Green Marsh in late afternoon, where I picked it up flying into the roost. In flight, Ross's Gull have longer wings that Little Gulls, which are exaggerated by the broad white trailing edge to the wing on the inner primaries & outer secondaries (Little Gulls have a dark wing bar on the secondaries). They also have a dark tipped diamond shaped tail (Little Gulls tails are notched) 
Ross's Gull: Showing the extend of translucency in the wing & how it gives it a longer, narrower wing shape
Like Ross, we still had to return home safely to complete the scientific publications. By this stage, food on the return journey was limited. Fortunately with the knowledge from earlier Western expeditions, we successfully refound a chippie (in Honiton). Unfortunately for Peter, Seal burgers weren't on the menu that evening, so he had to settle for the next most appropriate option: fish. Being vegetarian I skipped the fish as well. Safely home, the scientific observations are now all written up (here & in the prestigious Journal of Moore Birds). Sadly, in the case of Ross's Gull, it was first mentioned in print by Willian McGillivray, a zoological assistant at the Edinburgh University museum, who named it Rhodostethia rosea. Dr John Richardson who was tasked to describe all the species Ross collected on the expedition, named it as Larus rossii. But as with the general scientific principles, the first published scientific name is the one that sticks. However, to recognise Ross's contribution, the English name Ross's Gull was adopted after Richardson's publication as part of Parry's overall documentation of the expedition. As with all explorers, Ross went on to become involved in further exploration of both the Arctic & Antarctic, before living quietly in his latter years. Perhaps he also reminisced about his first expedition in 1818 when he served as a midshipsman on his uncle's Arctic expedition. On this he worked closely with Captain Edward Sabine, who had Sabine's Gull named after him. He came out of retirement, to lead another expedition North in 1848 to try to discover what happened to the ill-fated final expedition of Sir John Franklin, who Franklin's Gull is named after. He returned, having failed in the main quest on the fate of Franklin: an early case of extreme dipping. I will start fund raising now for future re-enactments of other historical expeditions.

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