A Great Bustard in Edwardian Nottinghamshire

Great Bustards are huge birds, more or less the size of a domestic turkey. They used to live in many areas of Merrye Old Englande, as long as there was plenty of open grassland and only scattered farmland. They liked the chalk downs of central and southern England such as Wiltshire,  for example, and the open sandy heaths of East Anglia. The last bird English bird was shot in 1832. This is not him:

great bustard ddddddddddddddddddddddddddd

A single Great Bustard  was seen at South Collingham on April 1st and April 23rd to 24th 1906. South Collingham was, I presume, to the south of present day Collingham. The latter village is just to the north of Newark-on-Trent. In 1906, there would have been no electricity cables or pylons. Just open, infrequently visited farmland. The orange arrow marks the approximate spot:


Mr Henry Wigram sent Joseph Whitaker two letters which have survived, and they are kept in the Local Collection in the library at Mansfield:

The Lodge,
South Collingham,
29th of June 1906

Dear Sir,
I am afraid you will think me slow in answering your PC (postcard), but I have had some difficulty in obtaining accurate information about the Cormorant, about which I had no note myself:

gret corm xxxxxxxxxxxxxx

I can tell you now that it was seen on the Newark Parish Church steeple for nearly two months. If I can hear anything more definite than this I will let you know.

I was glad to have your enquiry about the Great Bustard, because most people have simply smiled, & said “What could it have been ? ” ! !


I can positively say I did see one, as I had another view of it nearly three weeks after:


I reported it to “Countryside”, flying over my garden & I believe my wife saw it at about the same time & place on the following day.

The second time I saw it, it was making a noise like an exaggerated Crow’s caw, while on the wing. It was this that drew my attention. On both occasions I was within 120 yards of it:

You have perhaps heard of the Snipe & Redshank laying in the same nest at Besthorpe. The Snipe laid first, each laid 3 eggs, from which I saw the Redshank get up. I am afraid I cannot say how many were hatched.

I have a few other notes which seem interesting to me, but they may very possibly be rather commonplace to one with so much more experience, as you have.
Though I collected eggs as a boy, it is only of late that I have really studied birds at all. If you think I could help in any way I should be only too glad to do so, as far as I can. I am often at Retford on business and could come over to see you if you wish. After all, I have heard of Rainworth from my friend Bonar, who went to see you with the Wordsworths last year, there can be few more interesting places anywhere.
Yours truly,
Henry Wigram

PS:    I am sorry to find I addressed this wrongly, and it has been returned to me.”

A week later, Henry Wigram sent a further letter to the great man, dated July 6th 1906:

The Lodge,
South Collingham,
6 July 1906

Dear Sir
Thank you for your Postcard. Since writing you I have seen a coloured plate of a Great Bustard, & find that it entirely corresponds with my recollection of the bird I saw, but I noticed, as you say, that the bird looks much whiter on wing (sic) than with its wings closed:


At the time I saw it, the bird appeared to me to resemble a Turkey more than anything else I could think of. Its colouring was white & brown, not brown & grey.
I put its stretch of wing roughly at a yard and a half, and found afterwards that my man, who was with me on both occasions, guessed it at the same measurement:


I first saw it on April 1st, again on April 23rd. My wife is also certain that she saw it on April 24th.
I had field glasses in my pocket the first time, but the bird, which when I first saw it, was in the act of rising from the ground in a grassfield – disturbed by other people passing, (who did not see it) – though at first it did not appear to be flying fast got away so quickly that I could not get the glasses on to it:

taking offqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqq
I was much struck at the time by the pace at which it flew with comparatively slow beats of the wing.
On the second occasion the bird passed right over my head at a height of, I should say, 50 to 60 feet.
This was in the evening. The following morning my wife saw it taking exactly the same line of flight.
I sent word to Gates at Besthorpe on 2nd April that this bird was about, but he was ill & could not look out for it. However a Besthorpe man told him that he had seen a large strange bird about that time:


My father also saw a large bird he could not identify near the same date, but he did not get near enough to it to give any particulars.
I should very much like to come over to Rainworth as you kindly suggest. Would Friday the 20th suit you, & if so at what time?
I saw a bird the other day which puzzled me completely:

tree pipitqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqqq

It was the size and shape exactly like a Tree Pipit, but it had pink legs, & the markings on the throat were darker (almost like those of a  miniature French Partridge , & did not extend so far down the breast as in the case of a Tree Pipit. It also seemed to have a dark mark around the neck.
Would it be possible for strong sunlight to deceive one in this way? There were Tree Pipits about the place at the time.
Gates was with me, & quite agreed as to the markings.
Yours very truly,
Henry Wigram

In his own copy of the Birds of Nottinghamshire, Joseph Whitaker has written:

“I may add that Mr Wigram is a keen and careful observer of birds and a good field naturalist, and I am perfectly satisfied that it was a Great Bustard he saw.”



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

16 responses to “A Great Bustard in Edwardian Nottinghamshire

  1. John, you have the ability to educate me in ways that I never though possible. You have expanded my knowledge, and I thank you for it. Terrific article.

  2. Interesting, John. Who says we can’t learn something new everyday?!!

  3. Informative as ever John. This reminds me of an event that occurred to me two weeks ago. Whilst driving back after visiting your glorious town of Nottingham, I came across two very large brown birds picking away at an animal carcass at the side of the road. I can only describe them as ‘eagle’ size such was the enormity of the two birds. This would have been to the south of Cranwell and I would love to know what they were. Sadly I was driving and couldn’t take a photo or even stop to get a better look, but all I can say is they were simply huge! Any ideas?

    • If they were brown, the chances are pretty strong that they were Buzzards, which have apparently started recently to feed on road kill. This is thought to be one of the reasons that Kestrels are becoming a lot scarcer nowadays. I’m sure that they wouldn’t have been eagles because they are not native to the Midlands, and I’m certain that they would be appearing on the Rare Birds internet sites if a couple had strayed here from Scandinavia. As the man famously says in the film, “Keep watching the skies!”…..but not too much if you’re driving!

      • That sounds like a very feasible suggestion John, they were brown, or as brown as I could make out! I didn’t even realise we had these birds around here – everyday’s a school day (as they say). Thank you for clearing that up for me – I knew you’d have the answer.

  4. So does this mean that the Great Bustard is really not extinct at all? Fascinating post, John! Why is the coloring different as noted? You’ve got my curious mind poked. 🙂

    • Silly me! What I should have said is that the Great Bustard was extinct in England but not elsewhere in Europe. There are populations in Spain, Hungary and Russia. They are coloured differently because the female is less flamboyantly plumaged, presumably so that she can get on with all the work more easily. The male is much more colourful because he needs to strut his stuff to every passing female who will then find him simply irresistible. Nothing like human beings of course!

      • Ahh, thank you, John. Now you know I really did read your post. All males in the Nature Kingdom need to strut their stuff, more colorful or not. 😉 I am always astonished at how “plain” the female birds are in comparison to the males. I just find it fascinating as I did your post. Thanks, John!! 🙂

  5. Interesting story – if it had been within gunshot I’m sure the question would have been settled definitively! I’m thinking of the Egyptian Nightjar story.


    “What’s hit is history, what’s missed is mystery.” as they used to say.

    • Yes, undoubtedly he would have shot it if he could. Towards the end of Whitaker’s life though, he does start to realise that this cannot go on. That there are no birds of prey. No more Corncrakes at Blidworth and so on. And that the shooting has to stop. Pretty much like Peter Scott who used to slaughter geese until one day he realised that it was spiritually wrong.

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