Monthly Archives: May 2015

Marsh Warbler: here yesterday, gone today

(An extract from my old birdwatching diary “Crippling Views”)

Wednesday, June 1, 1988

A quick trip out from my wife’s parents’ house this time. They live on the western edges of Birmingham, but I am off to see a speciality in a nearby area, namely Marsh Warbler. I find the site, next to a picturesque little humpback road bridge, and park the car. Then I set off along the riverbank, towards a brick railway bridge. Look for the orange arrows:

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As I walk along, there are Sedge Warblers, exploding indignantly at me from riverside clumps of vegetation.

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There are the odd few Reed Warblers, just to get me excited, but I am hopeful that Marsh Warbler will look completely different from its closely related congener.  It’s an unfamiliar and interesting landscape for me, with pollarded willows and soaking wet pastures, full of ferocious Friesian cattle, plotting to charge and trample me to death as soon as my back is turned. When I get to the railway bridge, there is already another birdwatcher looking for Marsh Warblers:

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After about ten minutes or so, a bird appears low down in the vegetation on the opposite bank of the slowly flowing river, just above the waterline. It looks good to me for Marsh Warbler, despite the fact that at no point does it actually sing. Its shade of brown has an appropriate grey tinge and its underparts are whiter than white with no hint of buff.

It has a smooth, flat head, without a crest of any kind. Its legs are a nice pale colour, as it reappears every ten minutes or so at roughly the same place. The bird is obviously doing a circuit around the nettles and the Rosebay Willow Herb, feeding as it goes. Perhaps it has just this minute arrived from Africa, and it’s getting its breath back before it bursts into its imitations of 93 different bird songs, and seven types of lorry reversing signals. Anyway, I agree with the other birdwatcher that this is a Marsh warbler. Then we both pack up and go home, plodding off down the riverside path. There aren’t any reasons to believe that the bird is not what it is supposed to be. Not a single feature contradicts Marsh Warbler as a verdict. Besides, most important of all, it’s exactly where it’s supposed to be.

Nowadays, the Marsh Warbler, as far as I know, no longer breeds in this exact area. There are, and there have been, various breeding records from Kent and Suffolk, among many others, but I no longer know of any reliable site for these birds. I know that I have definitely seen a Marsh Warbler, an individual that was seen by many, many others, who all agreed with the identification…alas! It was on the Isles of Scilly, in bracken in a rocky, overgrown field. Given the habitat and the time of year, there were many, many people who thought that it must be a Blyth’s Reed Warbler. Indeed, there were those who wanted it to be God knows what sort of Warbler from beyond not just Lake Baikal, but Kamchatka itself.

The lone birdwatcher I met at Eckington was a young woman. She still remains the only young woman I have ever seen in a twitching situation. Older women will readily, even eagerly, go on coach trips with the RSPB or the Nottinghamshire Birdwatchers but young women have many and better things to do in my experience. Birdwatching has always  been equally short of ethnic minorities. I know now that they exist in British ornithology, but in my twitching days, I never saw a black birdwatcher. I only ever came across one young Asian man, as we all embarked on the Scillonian for one of the old Pelagics, a trip out into the South West Approaches to find Black-browed Albatross and Sea Serpent. But that, as they say, is another story.

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“The Last Farewell” sung by David Clifton, B-17 Pilot

In the comments section for this video, Nick Dawson of Texas says that it is “awesome”. He is right.

David Clifton, a B-17 pilot in World War Two sings his own version of an old song. I believe that the video was made to mark Mr Clifton’s 90th birthday in 2010.

Enjoy.

By the way, I have no wish whatsoever to tread on anybody’s copyright toes in this short article. I just think that Mr Clifton and his very moving song deserve a very wide audience indeed. The clip was originally uploaded by BahamasDave1, and for those interested in a first-hand account of B-17s during the war, Lt. Colonel Clifton’s oral history, prepared by Charles Riley, provides detailed recollections. The tapes and transcripts are available at Florida Atlantic University Library, Mighty Eight Air Force Museum in Savannah, and the Library of Congress.

Riley, Charles. Oral History Interviews of Lt. Colonel David S. Clifton, USAF Retired, June 12th-July 26, 2001. Florida Atlantic University, Boca Raton, Florida, 19 April 2004.

 

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The Birdwatchers of Victorian Nottinghamshire

In the Victorian era there were hardly any birdwatchers in Nottinghamshire. Most ordinary people seem to have been too busy just living their lives to have a hobby such as watching birds. Among the richer individuals such as the landed gentry and the nobility, their particular interest was not watching but shooting birds:

another shoot

Even so, the very fact that they enjoyed shooting birds would actually have led them to develop some identification skills, however rudimentary, if only to avoid shooting a species which was out of season, or the same species over and over again:

shooting

At this time, there was great interest in having a large collection of stuffed birds or animals. Here again, identification skills would have been important:

_42866547_stuffed_416

The earliest actual birdwatcher in Nottinghamshire seems to have been a man called William Felkin junior who lived in Nottingham from at least 1845-1870. Like his father, he was a lace manufacturer, but he became a Fellow of the Zoological Society and possessed a collection of stuffed birds of some 313 species. In 1866 he wrote the first ever book about birds in the county, entitled “The Ornithology of Nottinghamshire”. It was incorporated in Allen’s “Hand-book to Nottingham” published in the same year. This, I believe, is William Felkin senior. Hopefully. he looked a lot like his son:

felkin senior zzzzzzz

A contemporary of Felkin was William Foottit of Newark-on-Trent (fl 1840-1860). He was the local Coroner and ordinary people from miles around would bring unusual birds to him. Foottit was a frequent contributor to “The Zoologist” magazine:

Untitled

In 1869, clearly an outdoorsman of some competence, William Sterland of Ollerton wrote the marvellously entertaining “Birds of Sherwood Forest”:

sterland book

This book contained many anecdotes, and a number of records of rare birds. Sterland was the relatively uneducated son of a “grocer/ ironmonger/ tallow chandler/ dealer in sundries”, and, when the great man deigned to review it, his book was slated by Edward Newman, owner of “The Zoologist” magazine :

220px-EdwardNewman

This was possibly because Sterland was a frequent contributor  to “The Field” magazine, a fierce rival of “The Zoologist”:

p_1-the-field-top-banner

It is more likely, though, that this was a slightly more complex issue. Newman had himself left school at sixteen to go into his father’s business.  Now he mixed with some of the most prominent scientists and zoologists in the land. I suspect that if Newman’s well healed and well connected upper class friends found out that William Sterland still worked in his Dad’s village grocer’s shop, they might well have been strongly reminded of the humble origins of Newman himself.

Unabashed, though, in 1879, William Sterland produced “The Descriptive List of the Birds of Nottinghamshire”. Needless to say, Edward Newman still had quite a few buckets of bile left to throw, but all the local newspapers in the Nottingham area really liked the book.

Sterland’s collaborator in this venture was a young man called Joseph Whitaker, now universally acknowledged as “The Father of Nottinghamshire Ornithology”.  Whitaker (1850-1932), the son of a farmer, was born at Ramsdale House, nowadays a golf centre and wedding venue to the north of Nottingham. Look for the orange arrow:

ramsdale map

Recently this beautiful building received a great deal of publicity as the erstwhile residence of the most infamous dentist in the history of the National Health Service:

ramsdale zzzzz

In later life Whitaker moved to Rainworth Lodge, a large country house with a lake, slightly further north in the county. Look for the orange arrow:

rain ladge

Here, he was known to one and all as the man to contact about birds in Nottinghamshire, whether it be a member of the nobility or a simple farm labourer who had found an unusual bird dead in the road as he walked to work:

rainworth zzzzzzz

Whitaker would travel around Nottinghamshire by horse and trap to see various interesting species of birds, or to talk to people who had seen, and/or shot, unusual birds on their estate.

Whitaker wrote a number of books about nature, including “Scribblings of a Hedgerow Naturalist” and “Jottings of a Naturalist: Scraps of Nature and Sport on Land and Sea”. His finest title was most assuredly “Nimrod, Ramrod, Fishing-Rod and Nature Tales”. I believe that the young lady on the front cover of the book is the maid, rather than Whitaker himself:

nimrod

Whitaker was a frequent contributor to “The Zoologist” and in later years to the newly fledged “British Birds” magazine:

british birds

Before the rise of the pager, the mobile phone and the Internet, this publication was the only way to announce the presence of rare birds.

Whitaker also corresponded with his social betters, the Lords and Ladies whose many estates were the origin of the expression “The Dukeries” to describe north Nottinghamshire. There is a large collection of Whitaker‘s letters in the local collection at Mansfield Library. As well as the nobility, Whitaker also exchanged letters with many of the great ornithologists of the Victorian era, the men who wrote textbooks on birds, either in Britain, or in Europe as a whole. Joseph Whitaker’s greatest triumph, though, was a book entitled “The Birds of Nottinghamshire”,  which he had printed privately in 1907. It contains information about every single species of bird which the author knew to have occurred in the county. In Mansfield Library, we still have Whitaker’s own copy of this book, to which he has had a professional bookbinder add extra pages. In this way, the great man could cut out interesting stories from newspapers or magazines and then just paste them in.  Alternatively, he could simply handwrite in any interesting items of bird news which he had gleaned. Unfortunately, I have been able to trace only four photos of Joseph Whitaker, none of them as a young man. In all of them, he has a reassuringly large walrus moustache:

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Whitaker’s greatest claim to fame was the Egyptian Nightjar which was shot in 1883 in Thieves Wood near Mansfield by a gamekeeper called Albert Spinks. At the time this poor lost individual (the bird, not the gamekeeper) was the first known sighting in England, and just the second in Europe. Even now, a hundred and thirty years later, only one more has been seen in this country. Whitaker erected a stone to commemorate the event but it was smashed to smithereens in the 1980s (to celebrate its centenary, presumably) and replaced by a wonderful modern sculpture costing well in excess  of £8.50:

original mem

The pieces of the original stone were recently found and reassembled, although one little bit does seem to be somewhat of an enigma:

bits of stone

The bird itself was stuffed and, as an item of immense prestige, it went into Whitaker’s enormous collection. After his death, it eventually finished up in the foyer of Mansfield Library, safe behind highly reflective glass.

nightjar2

I thought it might be quite interesting to bring to a wider audience some of the birdwatching anecdotes which Whitaker mentions, both in his original book, and in the very many additions which he made to it. In future blog posts, therefore, I will bring you the true story of the famous Egyptian Nightjar and any number of other notable birds.

One final point is that the Nottinghamshire of the Victorian era was a very different place to the Nottinghamshire of today. The current Nottingham ring-road was just a muddy footpath alongside the Daybrook. Had our own suburban house existed then, there would have been no other private houses in sight in any direction. Just Bagthorpe Prison, Bagthorpe Hospital and the City Workhouse. It is amazing just how few people must have been alive in the county at that time.

A second final point is that many of these early ornithologists would not have had optical aids of any great standard, whether binoculars or telescopes. They may have had nothing beyond the Mark One Eyeball. In addition, they may have had no access to identification books, where they could carefully check what they had seen. This is why, if the presence of a rare bird was to be proven beyond doubt, it had to be shot. That is the origin of that grand old saying, “What’s hit is history, what’s missed is mystery”.

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Filed under History, Humour, Nottingham, Wildlife and Nature

The Beast of Noth

A more modern monster to menace the peace and tranquillity of the French countryside and its inhabitants was the wonderfully named “Beast of Noth”, “La Bête de Noth”. Here is an aerial view of where it was seen:

Capture

Noth is a small village to the north of Limoges. It is marked in red on the map of France. The street map shows just how small a place it is:

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Once again, I will look at a number of French cryptozoological websites and you can take your own average between them. I have combined two apparently closely related websites to produce this, slightly more detailed, account…

“In November 1982 the sun is rising over Noth, a village of just 450 people. Marcel Jinjeau, a market gardener from Fongeneuille near Noth, steps into his field to start the first jobs of the morning. Suddenly he notices through a veil of mist a shape lying on the grass. He thinks it is a calf. The animal feels his presence, sniffs the air then stands up. Marcel pinches himself: it is not a cow, or any bovine. The back end of the animal is slim but the neck is like that of a bull. And the way it walks. It’s like some kind of cat!

autumn mists zzzzzz

The animal walks off to take refuge in the woods. Terrified, Marcel rushes back home. If he tells this story to the village, they will think he is a madman. The following day at first light, just a few hundred metres away, at the Castle of La Fot, one of the servants goes to fetch his master’s car from the garage. As he is approaching the vehicle, he hears a savage growling in the darkness. Frightened, the man goes off to find a torch and a rifle, but when he returns to the garage, there is nothing there. Outside on the other hand, the strange visitor has left the imprint of his paws: four inches long (10cm) long, and nearly five inches(12 cm) across; a hefty animal. In the following days, the beast will leave other tracks: the corpses of lambs, that of a bullock, and a heifer. They are ripped to pieces, torn to shreds. Today though, a storm will wash away all trace of it.
Died of Fright
Meanwhile, that very afternoon the Mayor of Noth, André Lalande, and his friend, one of the partners in the Wolf Centre at Dun-le-Palestel then organise a beat. About thirty local hunters rush off to scour the forest, but the weather is against them. A storm brews up, the wind cuts out all electric power, and vast torrents of water wash their cars away. The animal is seen by several witnesses but many hunters turn back.
Not Rémy L. To prove his reputation as a crack shot, and to brave the elements which have been unleashed, he rushes off into the mud when suddenly – the beast looms up just five metres in front from him. He aims his rifle. But all of his body is shaking. He has never faced an animal of this kind. He fires, but only hits the cabbages. And he flees without further ado, quaking with fear. He will remain in shock for two days, completely incapable of putting a name to this creature. Which disappears, only to reappear forty kilometres away in Haute-Vienne, near Chateauponsac. In this area, witnesses talk of an animal a great deal bigger than a dog, with a long tail and with fur the colour of burnt sienna (a dark orangey-brown). The victims increase in number and terror spreads. People think they are seeing this feline everywhere. In the schools the children take fright and their teachers reassure them as best they can. The Mayor of Noth gives the cast of the paw prints to Dr Klein, a Parisian veterinary who is totally upfront.

noth prints

“They are those of a lion or a puma.” And just what is an animal like this doing right in the middle of the Creuse region?
Some people have their own ideas. Since no circus has reported any escape of an animal, there must be a man behind it. Somebody who has come back from Africa. Somebody who is wealthy enough to carry out the scheme. All eyes all turn towards an aristocrat in North, the Marquis de V. The rumours become increasingly accusatory, “There has been an incident”, they murmur in the village. “He has lost his lion and he can’t get his hands back on it.” An even stronger rumour is that the Marquis remains a  ghostly figure, never there, always somewhere else, away in Moselle. The gossips have an answer for everything. When the zoologists state that the beast’s appetite is abnormally light for a big cat, they argue “It’s because the hand of Man is feeding it”. Moreover when there is a new beat near Chateauponsac on December 12th, two witnesses state that they have caught a glimpse of the Beast deep in the forest……with a man. An hallucination?
During a year there are sporadic reports of people who think that they may have seen this feline, until the gossip finally dies away.  Today in the village, nobody is keen to retract what has been said. “No….I tell you….there was an animal, the people who saw it said it used to have a strange expression in its eyes. But one that they will never forget.”

A slightly less dramatic telling of the tale comes in Wikipedia:

“The « Bête de Noth » was a carnivorous animal behind a series of attacks on flocks of sheep from November 1982 onwards, in the Department of Creuse.  Among others, on November 10th the Beast of Noth killed a bullock and a heifer each weighing 900lb, both at a place called Maison-neuve.

farm barns zzzzzz

And then on November 19th, two lambs at Auzillac, with another at Maupas on December 3rd, and then a second heifer at Grand-bourg on December 9th. It was not the attacks on farm animals which appalled people so much as the state in which the corpses were found. They were all horribly ripped to shreds. Rumours began to circulate, suggesting a lion or a puma imported by an aristocrat in the area. During a beat organised in the Forest of Noth in November 1982 one huntsman was confronted by the animal but he was not able to identify it. The whole affair has never been explained.”

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The Officer Training Corps 1915 Part One

This photograph shows the Officer Training Corps in 1915. You might be forgiven for thinking that they are all far too young to have left the High School, to have immediately joined the army, trained as officers, gone to the Western Front and then been killed. But you would be wrong. This time, it was only three dead out of twelve though, and this represents a much better casualty rate than the rugby team of Boxing Day, 1913. On the other hand, though, it is still a staggering 25%!

otc 1915

On the back row of the photograph are, from left to right, F.A.Bird, J.R.Coleman, D.J.Clarkson, J.Marriott, A.W.Barton, G.R.Ballamy, S.I.Wallis and W.D.Willatt.

On the front row are, from left to right, L.W.Foster, V.G.Darrington, Second Lieutenant J.L.Kennard, Captain G.F.Hood, Second Lieutenant L.R.Strangeways, G.James and R.I.Mozley.

In 1915, the High School, according to the anonymous writer of some reminiscences about school life at the time, was a place:

“…dominated by the War and its effects. Masters disappeared and were replaced by women teachers, the Officer Training Corps underwent intensive training, and the School Flag seemed to be constantly at half-mast for Old Boys, many of whom had left us only a few months before.”

Only a year earlier, before August 1914, the O.T.C. had been poorly equipped and they frequently complained of the lack of equipment, both rifles and bayonets. Over the course of the war, however, the O.T.C. was to take on a much greater importance. According to the “History of the Corps”, written fifty years later by a member of staff, Mr.A.G.Duddell:

“By 1913 the O.T.C. had become a well-established organisation in the school, and while it had exchanged its picturesque uniform, of which the wide-awake hat with green puggaree and plume of black feathers was a striking feature, for the more conventional khaki tunic with flat peaked cap, knee-breeches and puttees, it had also become a contingent of the Officers’ Training Corps (Junior Division)…The reality of war brought a great increase in numbers, and gave urgency to the training ; parties of cadets were taken for camps at Barton-in-Fabis and field exercises were carried out on the Gotham Hills. Field Days then, and for many years after, were held at Ramsdale Park, and as no transport was available in the early days, much of the time, and energy, was used for the five mile long march out and back. Later the position was eased, but at first only by special trams between the Forest and Daybrook Square. Another handicap of those earlier days was the state of the School playground, the surface of which consisted of the raw sandstone rock, with a covering of loose sand. Uneven at all times, from dust in dry weather, it became a quagmire after rain.”

The senior officers in the O.T.C., Mr Leggett of the Preparatory School and Mr Lloyd Morgan, were among the first to join up in 1914, becoming Captain and Lieutenant, in the 11th Service Battalion of the Sherwood Foresters and the 2nd Battalion of the Cambridgeshire Regiment respectively. The school magazine hoped that:

“they will both have a “smack” at the enemy and return safely again.”

Ironically, Messrs Leggett and Morgan had been the two prime movers in favour of the school’s switch from football to rugby in December 1914. Here is one of the oldest photographs of a school rugby team that I have been able to find. It was taken around 1924:

rugger xxxxx

Presumably, if they had got to the Front in time, Messrs Leggett and Morgan would have been able to encourage the soldiers during the Christmas Truce to forget the football and play rugby across no-man’s-land.

As soon as they left, the O.T.C. was taken over by Captain Hood, assisted by Mr Kennard. I could not write a biography of Captain Hood, but I can recount one or two occasions when his name was on people’s lips. He had come to the school in 1908 as a teacher of Chemistry, or “Stinks” as it was nicknamed at this time. Mr Hood’s own nickname was “Freddy”, although I have been unable to trace his real first name. After three years in charge of the O.T.C., he finally received his very own chance to have “a “smack” at the enemy”, although by now it was a rather unsporting enemy who was using phosgene, chlorine and any other “Stinks” that could kill human beings in large numbers. Luckily though, the call came as late as July of 1918 so the chances are that Captain Hood may not have seen a lot of action during his spell with the Royal Engineers. A more sinister interpretation would be that when the Royal Engineers sent for somebody with a degree in Chemistry, they themselves were the ones trying to manufacture poison gas in larger quantities and at a faster rate than the Germans:

16-Gas-Attack-Getty

In 1925, the School was feeling the financial pinch and seems to have been, on occasion, extremely strapped for cash. Mr Hood, along with Mr Betts, offered to install electric lighting in part of the school while their classes were taking examinations. The offer was eagerly accepted, presumably in the days before that fateful phrase, “Health and Safety” had quite the ring to it that it has now.

A few years later, Mr Hood must have become a pastoral tutor, since, on Monday, July 6th 1931, in an effort to improve the general behaviour of one Burton of 2C, he put in him detention for receiving “too many detentions”.  On Tuesday, April 5th 1932, Mr Hood, accompanied by Mr Houghton, took a group of thirty boys to visit the Home Brewery in Daybrook. They saw the entire brewing process, from barley to the finished product. At the end of the visit, the boys were given sandwiches and soft drinks, while the delighted teachers “sampled the real stuff”:

home alse zzzzzzzz

In July 1946, Mr Hood retired after decades of service to the school. After 38 years as a dedicated teacher, his departure was marked in the school magazine by a warm tribute and farewell which lasted for just a line and a half of print, and must have been quite a bit short of one word for every year.

Second Lieutenant J.L.Kennard had the first name Joseph. He had come to the school in November 1910, and had previously been a teacher in Switzerland. He was a famous sportsman, having captained Lancashire at rugby, and having played for the North of England in an England trial. Here he is, on the left, with Mr Onion the groundskeeper and the First XV after the Great War in 1926-1927:

1926 xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx

Inside the classroom, Mr Kennard was a teacher of Modern Languages and his nickname was “Guts”. When Mr E.P.Gaskin, the Head of Languages, retired in July 1927, he was succeeded by Mr Kennard. Around this time, Mr Kennard became the Housemaster of Mellers.

When war again came knocking at the school doors in 1939, the school had enormous difficulties carrying on with the ordinary day-to-day teaching because a large number of classrooms were being used by the men of the South Notts Hussars. By the Spring Term of 1940, Mr Kennard, along with Mr Duddell, came up with an emergency schedule, which allowed a full timetable of lessons to be taught, although every form had to spend one day per week at the Games Field, with normal classes in the mornings and then games in the afternoon:

sp day

The masters, who in many cases were forced to commute the mile and a half between the main school and the Games Field by bicycle, were somewhat less than happy with this situation. In 1941 when Mr Goddard retired, Mr Kennard was appointed Second Master. He had himself retired as the school rugby coach in 1939, although he was soon forced to resume these duties at the age of sixty by the absence of younger members of staff who were away in the forces. Mr Kennard finally retired in 1947.  After a splendidly long retirement, he died on Sunday, January 5th 1969, at the age of eighty-seven, after a short illness:

“sentiment had little place in his character, and his guiding principles were devotion to duty, loyal service and firm discipline”

Second Lieutenant L.R.Strangeways had come to the High School in 1908 as just Leonard Ralph Strangeways. He was a teacher of Classics and had been educated at Sheffield Royal Grammar School:

sheffield magazine

By late 1916, he was helping to produce food for the starving population of a U-boat beleaguered Britain:

“An area of some three quarters of an acre was cultivated by the boys at Woodthorpe. Despite being a “very uncompromising clay dump”, it was eventually to produce much fresh food. One member of staff, Mr Strangeways, a Classics teacher, dug so energetically that he “not only shattered one spade in sunder, and so bent another that it was impossible to discern which side was which, but also succeeded in unearthing an ancient Roman broom.”

Two years later, in January 1918, “The Highvite” carried the humorous story about two prefects and one teacher:

“Barton, Bird and Co Ltd. had an advertisement for poisons, the quality of which was endorsed by Mr Strangeways.”

Mr Strangeways left the school in 1918. He went to Bury Grammar School where he was Headmaster from 1919-1936. The school still has its Strangeways Library.

In my next blog post about this photograph, I will try to find out what happened to the boys in the years after it was taken.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Filed under Football, France, History, Nottingham, The High School

Jer Falcon. one shot at Park Hall by Mr Shelton. Now in my collection.

In his own vastly expanded version of “Notes on the Birds of Nottinghamshire”, published in 1907, and now housed in the local collection of Mansfield Library, author Joseph Whitaker has added, for the most part in pencil, his own notes and additions. In some cases, he has pasted newspaper clippingts onto the pages. At one particular point, towards the end of the book, he has added the following handwritten note, misspellings and all:

“Jer Falcon. one shot at Park Hall by Mr Shelton. We were beating a plantation on Clipstone Road near the Red House Farm it was misty + this falcon flew low over the trees + was shot by him.
I missed this bird out when this book was written. Now in my collection”.

Sceptics might say, of course, that Joseph Whitaker was mistaken in his identification of the bird and that it was, quite simply, not a definite Gyrfalcon. This is, however, a rather unlikely scenario. Joseph Whitaker was familiar with many, many different kinds of raptor. If anything, he had probably seen more species within the county than the majority of present-day birdwatchers. And don’t forget. Mr Shelton shot it. They were identifying a corpse, not a distant dot disappearing into a dismal sky:

Gyrfalcon_e0 zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz
In any case a Gyrfalcon would have been easily identifiable on size alone. It is a falcon as big as a Common Buzzard And if Whitaker’s bird was a white phase individual, it would have been totally unmistakeable:

faucon-gerfaut-vol-tm3 zzzzzzz

There are only two birds of this size which are completely white, namely Gyrfalcon and Snowy Owl. The latter is not exactly difficult to identify:

speciexxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx

Gyrfalcons exist in two different colour morphs and it would, admittedly, have been more difficult to identify a dark morph bird:

dark

The issue of size would still have been there, of course. Gyrfalcons of both white and dark morphs are huge birds. Furthermore, even dark phase Gyrfalcons are very distinctive birds, especially when viewed as dead specimens.

Dark morph birds may just be an academic problem anyway. According to at least one ornithological authority, namely Fisher in 1967, the vast majority of Gyrfalcons seen in England during the Victorian era were, in actual fact, white phase birds, with apparently only one dark morph individual recorded nationally during the last third of the 19th century.

And in Whitaker’s day, of course, there was no need to worry about the presence of escaped foreign falcons from Australia, or exotic, artificially inseminated hybrids produced by Baron Frankenstein the Falconer. It would have been very difficult to misidentify one of these charismatic killers:

32_GYRFALCON stuffed zzzzzz

Indeed, it is difficult to imagine what Mr Shelton shot, if it were not a Gyrfalcon. We also know that the bird went into Joseph Whitaker’s collection. This fact in itself would have served as some kind of checking mechanism, since the specimen would have been mounted and then inspected by the continuous parade of visitors to Whitaker’s house in Rainworth. These would have included a large number of nationally reputable ornithologists and it would have been impossible for a man like Joseph Whitaker to have shown them such an important county specimen without their quickly mentioning the fact had the bird be misidentified.

gyrr zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz

Why then do we not have the Gyrfalcon now? Again, answers are not difficult to find. The bird may have been sold privately, either before or after Whitaker’s death. Equally it was common practice, when the owner of a great collection died, for selected individual birds to be passed onto close friends, before the collection as a whole was sold, usually at a public auction. It is also conceivable that the specimen may have been stolen after Whitaker’s death.

On the death of a great collector, it was a frequent occurrence that the beneficiaries of the estate had little or no expert knowledge of the worth or importance of certain individual stuffed birds. These vulnerable specimens were then liable to disappear between the death of the collector and the public disposal of the collection. This has certainly happened to a number of other birds which are known to have been in Whitaker’s possession but have now disappeared, presumably between his death and the acquisition of his collection on behalf of the Mansfield Museum.
In any case, why should we automatically cast doubt on Whitaker’s handwritten note? What clearer message can the great man have hurled forward into the future, than the one we now have? He offers us the word of an honest man.

You might be lucky enough one day to see a Gyrfalcon in this country. I never have. But I console myself by watching the Peregrine Falcons which have nested for years in the middle of the City of Nottingham:

the urban peregrine zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz

They can be seen on the Newton and Arkwright Building of Nottingham Trent University on South Sherwood Street, Nottingham.

In this aerial view, the Fire Station is coloured orange as it is the most well known building in this part of the city for the majority of people. (No, it’s not on fire):

fire station zzzzzzzzz

Look at the street to the right of the Fire Station and follow it towards the top of the photo. The Newton and Arkwright Building is the enormous white building on the right as you walk up the slight slope towards the Theatre Royal. It is a very distinctive Third Reich type of 1930s architecture.

If you go there, take some binoculars if you have any. Look at the right side of the building. The nest is on a wide lip that runs the whole length of the building, just below a row of largish windows. This street map might help. Look for the orange arrow:

map of south shwood st

If you wish, you can watch them on a live webcam. The birds are present pretty much all they year round. Theoretically, they should not be here in the winter, but somehow they seem quite frequently drawn back, a little bit like teenagers returning to the Bank of Dad. At the moment, they should be feeding their young. In the past, there have been catastrophes with this, as is always the case with Mother Nature, but if all goes well, it can be a wonderfully blood spattered spectacle.

But back to Gyrfalcons.
Here are a pair of them, filmed by “thegowser1” at 78 degrees north between Svalbard and Greenland:


More typical for a twitcher in north west Europe would be these two films of a bird which had strayed to  Champtocé-sur-Loire, in Maine-et-Loire, France. The two films come from Alain Fossé, and show a raptor doing what they spend most of their time doing…absolutely nothing!. High calorie meals of meat mean you only need move around infrequently (or so I tell my wife).

These are much more typical  of a March day near Mansfield than an icebreaker near the North Pole!

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Filed under History, Nottingham, Science, Twitching, Wildlife and Nature

Seven graves to Penzance

If you cast your minds back what seems now a very long time, my continuing researches about the German bomber shot down in St.Just in western Cornwall on September 27th 1942 , had led me to the cemetery in Penzance. I have already spoken about some of the graves to be found there, and this article continues that theme.

This beautiful, tranquil place contains seventy one Second World War burials, including the six graves of the crew of H.M.Trawler “Royalo”:

Royalo_Crew_04_Penzance

They were killed when their vessel was sunk by a magnetic mine on September 1st 1940 just outside Penzance Harbour, around one mile from the seafront. The orange arrow gives the approximate position:

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The “Royalo” was built by Cook, Welton & Gemmell of Beverley, Yorkshire, and was launched on December 6th 1915, being fully completed by August of 1916. I have been unable to trace any photographs of the vessel. A ship of only 248 tons, when the Great War broke out, it was immediately requisitioned and converted into a minesweeper. After the end of the Great War, in 1919, it was returned to its owners. In 1933 the ship passed into the ownership of Sleight & Humphrey of Grimsby, only for it to be requisitioned for a second time in November 1939, just after the beginning of the Second World War. This time it was converted into an APV, an “Auxiliary Patrol Vessel”. In 1940, the vessel was converted for the second time into a minesweeper and given the serial number of FY825. It was armed with just one six pounder anti-aircraft gun.
A short but very vivid account of the ship’s sinking is given on the “Hearts of Oak” website:

“The “Royalo”, under Commanding Officer, Skipper William Durrant Warford RNR, was sweeping Mount’s Bay clear of mines which had been previously laid there by a German aircraft. Around midday, there came the sound of a huge explosion, which was easily heard in Penzance. My brother-in-law remembers, as a child, hearing the sound of an enormous explosion. He ran out of the house, and down the road, to see nothing but a pall of smoke; there was no sign of the vessel. She had been blown up by a magnetic mine, and a column of water had lifted her out of the water.
And she was gone.
The Penzance lifeboat was launched, and small boats came to the rescue of the survivors.
The “Royalo” had sunk in position 50.06N : 05.30W, about one mile off Penzance.”

On at least one other website, Lieutenant Irvine Willox Watt is given as the Commanding Officer.

Given the dramatic way in which the “Royalo” had met its end, its position remained well known over the years to the people of Penzance. In 1962 a group of divers explored the wreck, which lay some ten metres below the surface. They were able to recover a wooden box. It turned out to contain a sextant, which is a navigational aid. This particular one was manufactured in 1939 by the celebrated Hughes & Son Ltd. of London. The Royal Museum at Greenwich acquired the sextant at some point during the 1970s:

sexrant

Of the casualties buried in Penzance Cemetery, Henry Thomas Dukes was an Engineman in the Royal Naval Patrol Service who was forty five years of age at the time of his death:

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He was the husband of Ellaline Isabell Dukes of Grimsby, Lincolnshire. The rather bittersweet verse inscribed on the lower section of his gravestone reads…

Honoured in life
Treasured in Death
A Beautiful Memory
Is all we have left.

William Henry Greenfield was a Stoker in the Royal Naval Patrol Service. His age at the time of his death has not been recorded, and I have been unable to trace any further details about him:

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Raymond Ormerod was a Telegraphist in the Royal Naval Volunteer (Wireless) Reserve and was twenty years old at the time of his death:

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He was the son of Reginald and Octavia Ormerod, of Wroxham, Norfolk:

weoxham

His mother had the following verse inscribed on the lower section of his gravestone:

Loved one
You are never forgotten
In my heart
You are always near
Mother

Raymond is listed on the memorial plaque in the Church of St Mary the Virgin in Wroxham:

wroxham church

He also appears on the town’s War Memorial:

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Thomas Gardner Taylor was an Ordinary Signalman in the Royal Navy who was twenty one years of age at the time of his death:

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He had already been awarded the Distinguished Service Medal. He was the son of Thomas Gardner Taylor and Hannah Ann Taylor, of High Heaton, Newcastle-on-Tyne. The verse inscribed on the lower section of his gravestone reads:

Gone his happy smiling face
Those happy cheerful ways
His heart won many friends
In happy bygone days

Robert John Tilley was a Seaman in the Royal Naval Patrol Service who was twenty seven years of age at the time of his death:

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The verse inscribed on the lower section of his gravestone reads…

No one knows
How much we miss him
None but aching hearts
Can tell
Mum and Mary

Robert John Tilley’s sacrifice is commemorated on the Memorial of the Whitstable Royal British Legion Club in Kent.

legion

Irvine Willox Watt was a Lieutenant in the Royal Naval Patrol Service who was thirty three years of age at the time of his death.  He was the son of G. Fieldes Watt and Jean Fieldes Watt, of Kensington, London.

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Of the tiny crew of the Royalo, at least one is not buried here in Penzance, Sam Lockwood-Dukes was the son of Samuel and Emily Lockwood-Dukes, of Worsborough Bridge in distant South Yorkshire.  He was twenty two years of age when he was killed. He was not buried with the rest of his naval family in Penzance, as his parents no doubt wanted to be able to place flowers on his grave regularly, so he was interred in Saint Thomas Church Cemetery in Worsborough Dale.
Because of the nature of the incident, however, not all of the casualties were found.
One of these was Engineman Robert William Edward Grant Burgoyne who was an amazing sixty four years of age at the time of his death. He was the son of Robert and Sarah Burgoyne and the husband of Rosina Burgoyne. They all lived in Willington Quay, Northumberland. His sacrifice is commemorated on the Royal Naval Patrol Service Memorial at Lowestoft:

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Second Hand Leonard Rye was in the Royal Naval Patrol Service. He was twenty six years of age at the time of his death and a holder of the Distinguished Service Medal. He was the son of Charles John and Clara Louise Rye and the husband of Florence Lilian Rye. They all lived in Hull in East Yorkshire. His sacrifice is commemorated on the Royal Naval Patrol Service Memorial at Lowestoft:

galleon

Engineman Jim Walker Pitts was twenty eight years of age at the time of his death. He was the son of Mr and Mrs James Pitts and the husband of Joan Agnes Norah Pitts. They all lived in Great Yarmouth, Norfolk. His sacrifice is commemorated on the Royal Naval Patrol Service Memorial at Lowestoft:

Surely one of these gallant seamen must be in this grave, whose date is the same, as the “Royalo”…

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I said that I had been unable to trace a photograph of the unfortunate “Royalo”. That is true, but I did find this…

Capture

And this…

Capture 2

 “Full fathom five thy father lies;
Of his bones are coral made;
Those are pearls that were his eyes:
Nothing of him that doth fade,
But doth suffer a sea-change
Into something rich and strange.
Sea-nymphs hourly ring his knell:
Ding-dong.
Hark! now I hear them—Ding-dong, bell.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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