By the spring of 1838, just when it seems an end to the number of drawings for Birds of America is in sight, John James Audubon is compelled to add more. While in London to oversee the completion of Birds of America, Audubon is presented specimens gathered from expeditions stemming from England’s ambition to find a northwest passage across North America.
In the spring of 1818, Edward Sabine was a part of an expedition led by John Ross and William Edward Parry on the Isabella and Alexander, respectively. Sabine served as Ross’s astronomer, geographer, and navigator. He also was the first to document a new species that he named Larus sabini. In Birds of America, Audubon gives the bird the common name of Forked-tailed gull. The current common name for the bird is Sabine’s gull.
A more vexing bird is the Rock grouse that Edward Sabine’s son, Joseph, found in 1819. The current common name for the bird is the Rock ptarmigan. Sabine began seeing the bird on the southwestern side of Baffin Bay. Sabine placed some of the specimens that he was able to collect into a private collection managed by the 13th Earl of Derby (1775-1851). He sold three others to Glasgow’s Andersonian Museum.
When Audubon is given the opportunity to view three of Sabine’s birds from the Earl of Derby’s collection, Audubon questions the identity of the bird. “In the present state of our knowledge as to the changes and variations of plumage in Ptarmigans, it is impossible to form a decided opinion in many instances; nor will the subject be free of doubt until each alleged species has been traced through all its gradations.” Upon close examination of the gradations of Sabine’s specimens, Audubon concludes the bird is unique. Of the three specimens, Audubon draws the one he considers “the most beautiful” and names it the American ptarmigan for Birds of America.
When Audubon has the chance to see Sabine’s three other specimens of the Rock ptarmigan at Glasgow’s Andersonian Museum, he claims that they too are not Rock ptarmigan but American ptarmigan. Depending on the location and current condition of these six specimens, they are the only known American ptarmigans in existence.
Audubon’s drawing of the Rock ptarmigan is based on specimens collected by John Ross. According to Ross, the birds were located in the same vicinity as the American ptarmigan. Thus it seems the American and Rock ptarmigan would have been a more appropriate pair in a drawing. Instead, Audubon places the American ptarmigan (#1) with the White-tailed ptarmigan (#2) in Plate 418 of the double elephant folio of Birds of America.
The Zoological Society of London provides Audubon the only specimen of the White-tailed ptarmigan that Audubon ever gets to see. The few White-tailed ptarmigans that anyone has seen alive have been in the Rocky Mountains, the high elevations of western Canada, and Alaska. The largest count of the bird on Cornell’s e-Bird system is 63. On April 9, 1970, Bruce Paige found his way to Adams Inlet in the eastern part of Alaska’s Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve to count the birds. Based on the different locations in Birds of America for the American ptarmigan and the White-tailed ptarmigan, they likely saw little, if any, of each other. Or, as far as ptarmigan are concerned, maybe a great deal. The variety of their plumages and the overlap of their ranges rank ptarmigan high for puzzling identification.
The expedition in 1818 that was led by John Ross and William Edward Parry was botched when John Ross had a vision of mountains at the end of the Bering Strait that convinced him there was no passage. Ross named the mountains that he saw the Croker Mountains. William Edward Parry, James Clark Ross (the nephew of John Ross), Edward Sabine, and Joseph Sabine returned to the Bering Strait the following year to find water where the Croker Mountains were supposed to be. In place of the Croker Mountains there is now the Parry Channel.
In 1829, John Ross and James Clark Ross returned to the Bering Strait and beyond to try and complete the northwest passage aboard a paddle-steamer named Victory. The ship and crew were able to make it as far as Felix Harbor on the eastern tip of the Boothia Peninsula before stopping for the winter. The next spring, John Ross turned over the command of Victory to his nephew.
On June 1, 1831, James Clark Ross discovered the North Magnetic Pole. In the spring of the following year, Ross and his crew abandoned Victory and took out on foot for Fury Beach on Somerset Island. It is on this stretch that James Clark Ross befriended a Cackling goose. For the next 15 months, the bird “was the child of my solicitude, and my constant companion.” John Ross was knighted upon his return to England; on October, 28, 1834, James Clark Ross was promoted to captain in the Royal Navy; and James Clark Ross saved his pet Cackling goose for it to be the one drawn by John James Audubon for Birds of America.