Tag Archives: Isles of Scilly

A Twitch in 1817

A twitch doesn’t have to involve a bird. It is becoming increasingly fashionable to twitch animals. I have twitched a Steller’s Sea Lion on the Brisons, a pair of sea stacks just off Cape Cornwall, which is in Cornwall, funnily enough. And I succeeded in my quest. I saw this amazingly lost creature, who, by rights, should have been sunning herself in Vladivostock Harbour. I saw her, on and off, for several years, in actual fact:

Steller Sea Lion
I have twitched a Bottle-nose Dolphin in Gainsborough in Lincolnshire. It frequented the River Trent at the back of of a supermarket car park in Gainsborough, Lincolnshire, Netto, if I remember correctly. It was there from January 25th-30th 1999, although I turned up on January 31st. And guess what? Well, this is all that I saw:

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The following account is of a twitch for a sea-creature. It took place in the summer of 1817 in Massachusetts, and this is just one of a huge number of accounts. It came from Colonel TH Perkins on August 15th 1817. I have made one or two changes to make it easier for a modern reader to understand but other than that, there are no differences:

“The first appearance was in the summer of 1817, in the harbour of Cape Ann:

a Cape-Ann

And here is the more modern, less charming version:

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And conceivably, this map is the best one for all the English people who think Boston is a market town in Lincolnshire:

map ann (2)

Back to the story:

“I visited Gloucester with Mr Lee. On our way down we met several persons returning, who had already visited the place, and they reported to us that he had not been seen for two or three days past. We, however, continued our route to Gloucester, though with fears that we should not be rewarded with a sight of the monster which we sought.

I had already satisfied myself, from conversation with several persons who had already seen him, that the reports in circulation were not mere fables. All the townspeople were, as you may suppose, on the alert, and almost every individual, both great and small, had had sight of him, at a greater or less distance:

etching

“The weather was fine, the sea perfectly smooth, and Mr Lee and myself were seated on a point of land which projects into the harbour, about twenty feet above the level of the water, from which we were distant by about fifty or sixty feet. Seated in this way, I observed an agitation in the water at the entrance of the harbour, like that which follows a small vessel going five or six miles an hour through the water. As we knew there were no rocks where the water was this broken. I immediately said to Mr Lee that I had no doubt that what I had seen was the sea serpent in pursuit of fish. Mr Lee was not looking at the spot which I was talking about, and had not seen the foam of the water, the animal having immediately disappeared.
In a few moments after my exclamation, I saw on the opposite side of the harbour, at about two miles distance from where I had first seen, or thought I saw, the snake, the same object, moving with the rapid motion up the harbour, on the western shore”:

drawing (2)

“As he approached us, it was easy to see that his motion was not that of the common snake, either on the land or in the water, but evidently the vertical movement of the caterpillar. As nearly as I could judge, there was visible at a time about forty feet of his body. It was not, to be sure, a continuous body, as from head to tail he was seen only three or four feet at a time. It was very evident, however, that his length must be much greater than what appeared, as, in his movement, he left a considerable wake in his rear. I had a fine telescope, and was within less than half a mile of him. The head was flat in the water, and the animal was, as far as I could distinguish, of a chocolate colour. I was struck with an appearance in the front part of the head like a single horn, about nine inches to a foot in length, and of the form of a spike. There were a great many people collected by this time, many of whom had already seen the serpent. From the time I first saw him until he passed by the place where I stood, and soon after disappeared, was not more than fifteen or twenty minutes”:

erp banded (2)

“I left the place fully satisfied that the verbal reports in circulation, although differing in detail, were essentially correct. I returned to Boston, and having made my report, I found Mrs Perkins and my daughters disposed to make a visit to Gloucester with me when the return of the animal should again be announced. A few days after my return I went again to Cape Ann with the ladies; we had a pleasant ride, but returned unsatisfied in the quest which drew us there.”

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This particular sea serpent was seen regularly around Cape Ann until 1819 at least. Indeed, the east coast of the United States seems to have been a good place for would-be sea serpent twitchers, with records dating back to 1638:

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Don’t think I don’t have my own story to tell:

On October 25th 1988, I went to the Isles of Scilly to birdwatch. I crossed over on the ferry, the Scillonian. For two or three hours during the crossing, I remained on deck with my binoculars, eagerly scanning the storm tossed waves for seabirds.

Scillonian_III-01 xxxxxx

“At one point, I noticed what I took to be the head of a Grey Seal, which broke the surface perhaps a hundred metres away. It was dark in colour, and I could see a forehead, two eye sockets, and an obvious snout. I didn’t really think twice about it, and it remained there for perhaps two or three minutes. Then, suddenly, a Gannet flew directly above it, and I realised from a comparison of sizes that the head must be at least a metre and a half, if not two metres, across. And that means it cannot have been a seal !”

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Four poor Germans, a very long way from home

On a number of previous occasions, I have written about the Allied servicemen who are interred in Penzance Cemetery. There are also four German combatants from the Second World War, all of them buried, quite fittingly, alongside their erstwhile adversaries:

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Ernst Erich Elsperger and Conrad H.W. Schweizer were both members of the German Navy, the Kreigsmarine.

Ernst Erich Elsperger was born on October 27th 1924. He reached the rank of Obergefreiter (Senior Lance Corporal) and died on March 22nd 1945 aged only twenty one:

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Ernst Elsperger is recorded as being a crew member of the U-1169, which was sunk by depth charges from HMS Duckworth, just south of the Lizard. It was commanded by Oberleutnant Heinz Goldbeck who was himself only thirty one years old when he was killed. Here is HMS Duckworth:ff_hms_duckworth_k351

This particular U-Boat, the U-1169, had not sunk or damaged a single enemy vessel in the almost two years since it was launched at Danzig on April 9th 1943. No photographs of the vessel seem to have survived, and neither do any of its captain. Here is the only surviving Type VIIC U-Boat in the world, the U-995, currently on display at the Laboe Naval Memorial near Kiel. It is exactly the same type of vessel as the U-1169. Do not fail to click on the link to the German website, and make sure that you try the Panorama views. They are guaranteed to scare you (top of the tower) or make you very seasick indeed. Look for the yellow circles on the photograph of the tower:

u boat xxxxxxx
There seems to be some kind of mix-up in the dates of Ernst Elsperger’s death as the U-1169 was sunk on March 29th, and the inscription on the grave says March 22nd. It is possible, of course, that he was a member of the crew of one of the other U-boats sunk in the area in early 1945, namely the U-399, the U-1199, the U-1208, the U-605, or the U-1018.

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Conrad H.W. Schweizer was born on January 1st 1915 and died on December 18th 1944 aged twenty nine. He is buried alongside an unknown German naval casualty:

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Both Conrad Schweizer, and the unknown seaman buried in the cemetery, were members of the crew of the U-Boat U-1209 which was scuttled after hitting Wolf Rock near the Isles of Scilly on December 18th 1944:

wolf_rock

Forty four crew members survived and were picked up by the Canadian destroyer, HMCS Montreal. There were nine fatalities, including the Captain, Oberleutnant zur See Ewald Hüsenbeck, who had a heart attack during the journey into Plymouth. This is the Montreal:

HMCSMontreal

This second photograph was snapped by Charles James Sadler, RCNVR, a First Class Stoker who was serving in the Canadian destroyer HMCS Columbia:

pg_hmcs_montreal

Earlier in the war, the Montreal had rescued 33 survivors from the Norwegian merchant ship Fjordheim, which had been torpedoed and sunk north of Ireland by the German submarine U-482. The Montreal survived the war and was sold in 1947.  It was finally broken up for scrap in Sydney, Australia, shortly afterwards.

The unfortunate U-1209 was built to exactly the same design as the U-1169 and the U-995, (pictured above). It had been launched at Danzig on February 9th 1944, but, exactly like the U-1169, during its entire career, it had not sunk or damaged a single enemy vessel:

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The final grave is that of Richard Hille. Richard was a member of the Luftwaffe. He was in the crew of a Heinkel He 111 bomber of Kampfgeschwader 28, serial numbers 1T+LH, which was shot down on the night of January 31st / February 1st 1941.

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This aging aircraft crashed into the sea off Treen just to the south east of Land’s End after being engaged by a naval patrol vessel, whose name I have been unable to ascertain.

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Richard Hille was the only crew member to be recovered. On his gravestone, the date given for his death is February 12th 1941. This is because it was the usual convention at the time to use the date of the discovery of bodies found either at sea or on the foreshore, as the date of death. Richard Hille’s body was in fact initially recovered from the sea by a Newlyn trawler. The “Western Morning News” newspaper reported therefore, on the Friday, February 14th, that his body had been hauled up in a trawl off Land’s End on the previous Wednesday, February 12th. A report in the “Cornishman” newspaper of February 20th 1941 detailed his burial at Penzance Cemetery with full military honours:

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Finally, two things. Firstly, it would have been totally impossible to write this blogpost without using this source, a forum for exchanging information about the myriad events of World War Two. And secondly, I cannot understand why these four men have never been taken back the hundreds of miles to their own homeland and their own towns or cities. The two U-boats involved caused no damage whatsoever to anybody and the Luftwaffe were never known as war criminals. The four men in Penzance were not members of the Waffen SS or the Wehrmacht. Let them go home at last!

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An insect with a billion friends

This story is an extract from my old birdwatching diary “Crippling Views”.

These events all took place on Friday, October 28, 1988, which was the fourth day of my stay on the Isles of Scilly:

“A late lie-in this morning, with the Radde’s Warbler ticked off, and little else to get up for, certainly not at five o’clock in the morning:

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I eagerly consume a splendid Scillonian breakfast made up of every conceivable Identified Frying Object, with the possible exception of haggis, although this could well be the single mysterious item which I cannot identify with absolute certainty. Then it’s a leisurely walk down to the Porthcressa Restaurant where the magic blackboard promises Melodious Warbler at the Garrison. With a bit of luck, I might see that, and then go over to St Agnes for the Short toed Lark. I walk up the horrendously steep slopes of the hill to the Garrison, and start looking…

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Unsuccessful after a couple of hours, I return to Hugh Town, the Big City. I find that I have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity facing me. It’s not a bird, but a flying creature just as rare as any of the birds which reach the Scillies. It’s a Locust. Only the fourth or fifth ever to be blown to these rocky isles. At the moment, it is being housed in an art gallery in a backstreet. I stroll over there and find that the insect is living happily in a vivarium on the counter. It is a truly splendid and beautiful creature, far better than any of the birds that I have seen on the Scillies, including the juvenile Rose-coloured Starling:

rc starling xxxxxxxxxx

I could even imagine this magnificent insect being used as a powerful argument for the existence of God, particularly in mediaeval times.  It is constructed so wonderfully skilfully that it becomes a classic example of the Celestial Watchmaker. It has one set of protective plates inside another, and then another beyond that. It looks like a knight in armour, but instead of being as dry as dust and rusty like something in an old stately home, this is a live being and it can move. It is a child’s clockwork toy that has the gift of life.

I am surprised by two things. Firstly, the creature’s colour, or rather colours, for it is at one and the same time, both yellow and pink and orange and sandy. I am shocked too by the size. I have never seen a Locust before, and it is absolutely huge. At least to a person like me who leaves the room when the zookeepers take the tarantula out of the glass case, or somebody who thinks that ladybirds are fierce.
The gentleman in the shop tells me that the creature was found on the local beach and was brought to his gallery so it could be drawn and photographed. He quite clearly and obviously is very attached to his six legged guest and seems to be well on the way to regarding it as his very own pet, or at the very least as an attraction to his gallery. Apparently, the British Museum have already contacted him and told him that he must kill it immediately, put it in a cardboard box, and send it to them in a parcel as a scientific specimen:

scan one zzzzzzz

I am totally appalled and disgusted by this news. I cannot find the words to capture my feelings. It seems somehow so repulsive to kill this beautiful innocent creature which has had to fight so hard for life. It has crossed the Atlantic in all probability, or has perhaps arrived here all the way from West Africa. Now it’s happily munching English grass, but soon it is supposed to die at the whim of some cold hearted scientist who has taken upon himself the right to dole out life or death. It seems to be taking such an advantage of an insect’s lack of awareness and essentially innocent existence.

The gallery owner, I feel, would rather not kill the insect, but keep it. I do try to tell him that in all probability it belongs to him, and that the British Museum have no legal right whatsoever to tell him to do what he does not want to do, and still less to actually make him do it.

Strangely, it seems to be to no purpose. The  gallery owner seems overawed by the demands of an organisation as apparently so powerful as the British Museum. And presumably, the locust will have to die. It is so sad that we should be given the chance to meet such an exotic and unusual member of God’s family, but should then lack the reasoning power to do anything more creative or imaginative than to kill it.
I would hope that I personally could do better than that, if put in the position of having to look after a stray innocent. At the very least though, I will remain the only person with a framed, but not autographed, picture of a locust above the fireplace…Even if it is only when my wife is out of the house.

Years and years later and I am sure that I read somewhere that the poor unfortunate locust was not  killed for the British Museum, but instead was allowed by its admiring owner to live out its life in its little vivarium on the counter of his gallery. Unfortunately, I have been unable to substantiate this, as I have long forgotten where I read the wonderful news. Locusts continue to reach the shores of our freezing wet little island, but only on very rare occasions. Certainly, there has been nothing like the situation in 1869 when whole swarms of Desert Locusts reached England, apparently from West Africa.

Cruel scientists still insist on killing creatures to prove what they are, and there was considerable outcry a few years ago, when a Californian ornithologist, I think it was, killed the first Arctic Redpoll ever to be found in that state. This, of course, is why Bigfoot keeps such a low profile for somebody who is nine or ten feet tall. He knows he exists, so why should he get himself killed just so that other people can?

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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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