The Hen Harrier is a bird of prey which is called in North America the ‘Northern Harrier’ or the ‘Marsh Hawk’. These days it is becoming an increasingly rare and endangered bird in England because of the activities of the large shooting estates. Hen Harriers are harmful to Red Grouse, the quarry species for the man with a £3000 shotgun, so, completely illegally, many gamekeepers kill Hen Harriers on sight. Prosecutions are extremely few and far between because effective evidence needs to be gathered in very remote places where trespassers are far from welcome:
In Great Britain we have the wild spaces for more than a thousand pairs of breeding Hen Harriers, but this illegal killing for commercial reasons has limited the number to fewer than ten pairs. There are those, myself included, who think that the law should be changed. Instead of trying to prosecute individuals (who are quite often disowned by the estate owners), the estates themselves should be brought to account. Any estate found guilty should have their enormous subsidies of taxpayers’ money withdrawn.
Interestingly enough, just after I wrote this article, a fine example of what happens to Hen Harriers in northern England came to light. It is totally typical of the contempt which the moneyed classes have for the ordinary person who lives his or her life not to accrue wealth by any means whatsoever, but instead to delight in the wonders of the natural world. And look too at what the police managed to do after other people had done more or less 99% of their job for them.
In Nottinghamshire, therefore, the Hen Harrier is not a particularly common bird. The male is very distinctive, but the female or the young bird, the so-called “ringtail” stands out a lot less:
In 1857 William Sterland recounted how, on an unrecorded date this year:
“I was walking past Lord Manver’s poultry yard at Perlethorpe, which adjoins Thoresby Park, when a ringtail came sailing over, evidently intent on plunder. Three times she soared around the large enclosure , which contains several hundred head of poultry, and although it is bounded by a high wall, and is surrounded by the dwellings of the gamekeepers and others, she was only deterred from carrying off a chicken by the presence of some of the men.”
In 1866 William Felkin spoke of birds of prey in general:
“On the whole, this noble tribe of birds is fast decreasing, and some species, if not yet extinct, soon will be, under the deadly warfare waged against them by trap and gun; and thus the finest ornament of English forest scenery will be for ever lost, for the paltry gain of the few head of game they might possibly destroy.”
How true that has turned out to be. The Hen Harrier is well on its way to extinction as a breeding bird in this country, and before their recovery in modern times, both Common Buzzard, Marsh Harrier and Osprey had been exterminated by gamekeepers from most of the country.
William Sterland wrote in his “Birds of Sherwood Forest”:
“…the blue hawk as the male is called, is not by any means uncommon ; and both male and female being considered, and I fear not unjustly, as very destructive to game, are visited, whenever opportunity offers, with condign punishment, and their once buoyant forms are seen nailed up in terrorem amongst others of their order, in grim companionship with stoats, weasels, polecats, and other vermin.”
Indeed, by the end of the nineteenth century, polecats themselves were extinct in England. And only the departure of all the gamekeepers to the trenches of the First World War prevented the extinction of the ordinary fox from many areas, especially in East Anglia.
Before 1907 Joseph Whitaker had seen only five or six Hen Harriers in thirty years of birdwatching.
He relates how:
“…one of the Hen Harriers I saw close to my home in Rainworth, was a male in full plumage, coloured pale lavender slate.”
Whitaker took great pleasure in this, and other birds of the same species. Rather like William Felkin, he thought that:
“An odd harrier or two do very little harm, and the graceful flight, which I may describe as a cross between that of a Hawk and an Owl is always pleasant to see and adds immensely to the delight of the country walk.”
In his own copy of “The Birds of Nottinghamshire”, he has written of his own sighting:
“About Xmas 1914 a Hen Harrier female flew over the road at the head of my pond within 20 yards. It had been seen earlier by Blackburn (keeper) today, March 19 it again passed over the same road, but at the top of mill by our gate it looked grand in a clear sun light. I am so glad it has escaped the keepers snare + hope it may like to lay a clutch of Cambridge blue eggs amongst the heather of the windswept Orkney Islands.”
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:
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:
29th of June 1906
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:
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.
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:
6 July 1906
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:
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:
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,
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.”
Glossy Ibis is a bird from warmer, southern climes such as the Mediterranean. Even nowadays, it is quite a rare species in the county:
On October 27, 1909, a single bird was shot by Fred Smith at Misson in the very north eastern corner of the county, almost in Yorkshire. This latter county had, for reasons unknown, received an influx of at least fourteen birds during this month of October 1909. The orange arrow marks the spot. The county boundary with Yorkshire, to the north west, is indicated by the perforated line and must be only a few hundred yards away:
Two interesting letters to Joseph Whitaker tell the story.
I have the pleasure of dropping you a line in reply to yours, duly received. A man named Fred Smith, who I fear is a shocking poacher, shot the bird, Glossy Ibis, in question. His wife took it to a game dealer, at Doncaster, whose name is Borrill, his shop being in St Sepulchre Gate . He gave her the large sum of one shilling for it, after endeavouring to get it for sixpence.
A doctor bought it from Borrill and is having it stuffed for the museum. I am sorry to have forgotten the doctor’s name, but no doubt the game dealer would tell you if you wrote him. You will forgive me, I hope, for not knowing your book.
I also love birds and used to keep a great many – once I had 46. We still have a few in a good-sized aviary in a greenhouse and my little daughter aged 11 is much interested in birds and has lately acquired several volumes at a cost of £3.10 shillings on the subject.
Joseph Whitaker followed the clues and two months later, he received further information from Dr Corbett himself:
9, Priory Place,
11. 11. 09
Mr Borrill showed me your letter re-the Glossy Ibis. All I know of it is that it was exposed in his shop with other wildfowl & I was, fortunately for me, the first to “spot” it & purchase it for the local museum of which I am the curator. If ever you are in Doncaster I shall be pleased to show it to you.
Anybody who missed that dead specimen in Doncaster in 1909 had a very long wait to see another Glossy Ibis in Nottinghamshire. In the winter of 2013-2014, a single bird was seen in a flooded roadside field next to the Peugeot Garage in Lowdham, near to the River Trent in the south of the county. southern Nottinghamshire:
Most people who wanted to see a Glossy Ibis were able to watch this particular individual which was very amenable and reliable in its appearances. It attracted a steady stream of admirers, and was very easy to see::
A more spectacular species of Ibis to occur in Nottinghamshire in the future might well be the Sacred Ibis. This bird normally lives in sub-Saharan Africa, but, in actual fact, there is a healthy feral population in western France. It would not be outrageous for them to cross the Channel:
One of the more interesting issues in the area of local Natural History concerns the occurrence of eagles in Nottinghamshire in centuries gone by. In the era of the Anglo-Saxons, for example, the white-tailed sea eagle was called the Erne. This, supposedly, gave the town of Arnold its name.
More problematic is the Golden Eagle, which certainly occurred in England much more frequently in the past than it does now. Between 1800-1900, there were at least twenty records nationwide with seven different birds in Yorkshire:
In books about local ornithology, there are some really old records of Golden Eagle. In “The Birds of Derbyshire” which was published in 1893, F.B Whitlock quoted an earlier, eighteenth century ornithologist, Mr Pilkington, who wrote about a Golden Eagle which was seen in Hardwick Park, a large estate right on the border of Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire. Hardwick Hall itself is within less than half a mile of the county boundary and in the absence of an exact location for this particular bird, it seems hardly unreasonable to suggest that it must have ventured into Nottinghamshire at some point during its stay. Both Hardwick Park and Hardwick Hall are easy to spot on this map. I have marked the county boundary between Derbyshire (top left) and Nottinghamshire (bottom right). Look for the orange arrow:
That particular Golden Eagle occurred as far back as 1759. A second Golden Eagle was shot in the same area around 1770. Twelve years later, in 1782, two Golden Eagles were seen “in the out-lying portions of Sherwood Forest, near Hardwick”. It was obviously a suitable habitat with a good supply of food.
In his “Ornithology of Nottinghamshire” published in 1866, William Felkin stated that “The eagle has twice been seen near Beeston: once by myself.” As a man, who, unfortunately, had no digital camera or mobile phone to record evidence of what he had seen, Felkin could have been no more definite than that.
I have recently become addicted to acquiring those reprints of Victorian Ordnance Survey maps and they do reveal that the outskirts of Nottingham were unbelievably countrified as recently as 1901 and even more so in 1866. Perhaps a stray eagle is not quite an outrageous bird to have seen, if only just passing over.
Felkin also noted that a Golden Eagle had been killed in an unrecorded year long ago at Castle Donington. This village, of course, is nowadays on the border between Derbyshire and Leicestershire, although it is reasonably close to Nottinghamshire. Felkin considered that this bird had occurred on Nottinghamshire’s “south-western border” and as such, was therefore worthy of inclusion in his important book about the county’s avifauna:
Modern birdwatchers would say that all these observers were simply mistaken, but that has always seemed a rather strange attitude to me. Just because they lived in the eighteenth or nineteenth century does not make people less trustworthy or more stupid than us. Certainly, in the case of the Golden Eagle which was shot around 1770 near Hardwick Hall, it would have been seen by a great many people once it was stuffed and out on display. They would certainly not have been slow to speak up about any identification errors committed by his Lordship or, indeed, his bird stuffer:
Joseph Whitaker mentions a number of eagles in his “Birds of Nottinghamshire” published in 1907, but these were all considered to be White tailed Sea Eagles, spending their winters further south than their summer breeding areas. His first account was:
“It was in the winter of 1838 that the bird appeared in Welbeck Park. Mr Tillery says :–
“The lake was frozen over at the time, except in one place, where a flush of warm water entered from a culvert which drained the abbey. The place was covered with ducks, teal and widgeon, and I saw his majesty swoop down once or twice to get one for his breakfast, but unsuccessfully, as the ducks saved themselves by diving or flying off. The park-keeper got two shots at him with a ball on a tree but missed him each time, and he gradually got wilder, so that he could never be approached again near enough for a shot. After levying blackmail on the young lambs, hares and game in the neighbourhood, he took himself off after three weeks’ sojourn”
In 1857, a single White tailed Sea Eagle was shot at Osberton near Ollerton on a date several days before January 13th. According to F.O.Morris, the nationally regarded author of “A History of British Birds”, he was informed of the occurrence by Sir Charles Anderson, Baronet, a gentleman who was presumably known to George Saville Foljambe Esquire on whose estate near Osberton the event took place. Sir Charles wrote thus…
“It was first seen sitting on a tree near a place where a cow had been buried a few days before and it continued flying about this locality for some days, always returning to the same tree, as if attracted towards it. There was partial snow on the ground at the time.”
William Sterland included in his two main books, “The Birds of Sherwood Forest” (1869) and “A Descriptive List of the Birds of Nottinghamshire” (1879) an account of the occurrence of a second White tailed Sea Eagle in Lima Wood at Laughton-en-le-Morthen. Strictly speaking, this bizarrely named village is in Yorkshire but it is really quite close to the Nottinghamshire border. On this map, Laughton-en-le-Morthen is towards the top left corner and I have indicated the dark blue county boundary with the orange arrow:
This occurrence was only a few days after the demise of another eagle, shot on the Foljambe estate near Osberton, and related immediately above. Whether the two birds were connected, male and female, or perhaps siblings, we will never know. It is certainly a very striking story:
“The bird was seen in the neighbourhood of Morthen for more than a fortnight before it was shot. On several occasions it was observed perched in a tree about a hundred yards from Pinch Mill, the person resident there taking it at that distance for a stray heron. Thomas Whitfield, the gamekeeper to J.C.Althorpe Esquire of Dinnington made many attempts to get within range of the bird, but was often baffled by its wariness. It was observed to be much molested by crows and small birds, and frequently, as if to escape from persecutions which were beneath its notice to resent, it would mount into the air with graceful spiral curbs until it became nearly lost to sight, leaving its puny assailants far below, and then would sweep as gracefully down again, with all the ease and lightness of wing of the swallow.”
“It seems uncertain what its food consisted of during its sojourn for it was not seen to make any attack. At night it roosted on a tree, but still maintained a vigilant watch. When perceived by Whitfield, it was perched on a tree on the outskirts of the wood, but the night being moonlight, it perceived his approach and he had great difficulty in getting within gunshot. At the moment of his firing it flew off and he thought he had failed in hitting it; but in the morning he found it dead in an adjoining field. Its expanse of wing from tip to tip was seven feet six inches and it weighed eight pounds and a quarter. The friend I have mentioned kindly procured the loan of the bird from Whitfield and sent it for my inspection. It is a fine specimen in the immature plumage of the third or fourth year.”
The bird was shot on January 13, 1857, although. clearly, it had been present for some time before this.
Nearly forty years later in 1896, a single White tailed Sea Eagle was seen in the Deer Park at Park Farm, Annesley, between Nottingham and Mansfield, on November 5th, and for several days afterwards. It was thought to have been attracted to the area by the large number of rabbits present there and indeed, on a number of occasions, was seen feeding on them.
On November 8th, it was shot by Mr George Charles Musters, as it fed on the corpse of a rabbit, and when examined was found to have a total wingspan of seven feet one inch, and a weight of nine and a quarter pounds. It was an immature bird, although not a first winter individual, being considered to be probably three or four years old. It was, of course, preserved by a taxidermist and soon occupied pride of place in the collection of Mr John Patricius Chaworth Musters at Annesley Park.
In Joseph Whitaker’s own personal copy of “The Birds of Nottinghamshire”, housed in Mansfield Library’s local collection, he has appended a short note in pencil, written in that punctuation-free style that he always seems to use:
“I was standing on doorsteps one day in August 1907 waiting for carriage to come round it was a clear warm day a few white clouds were passing over very high I was looking up in the sky when I saw a bird pass under a white cloud it was so high if the white had not shown the job I should never have seen it but it was most distinct + I am certain it was an eagle by its size + flight whether Golden or White tailed I do not know.”
In another handwritten account in 1916, Joseph Whitaker tells the following story which, although illegible in places, is clear enough to constitute a valid record:
“A large bird of the (illegible) kind was seen by Mr Henry Smith’s son in Nov 1916 flying over his farm at Cropwell Butler. He wrote to me saying it was a very big bird + had a white tail. I told him it would be a mature Sea Eagle, and as such a bird was shot in Lincolnshire by Mrs (illegible) keeper of the next week. There is no doubt it was the same bird.”
Attitudes about shooting birds though, were gradually changing: people were well aware that a previously healthy Victorian population of Sea Eagles had disappeared from Scotland by 1900, every single one either shot or poisoned. The very last Sea Eagle was killed on the Shetlands in 1916, an albino bird shot by a member of the clergy.
These new, more conservationist, ideas were reflected in an account included in the Ornithological Records of the now defunct Nottingham Natural Science Field Club. It was included by one of the club’s most prominent birdwatchers, Frank Hind. Even nowadays, his handwriting is still recognisably angry:
“A Sea Eagle was shot by some bounder at Grimesmoor and sent to a taxidermist at Grantham in February of 1920. Mr Turton saw it there. It measured seven feet from tip of one wing to the tip of the other.
This rare visitor had shared the fate of so many noble birds which were frequently to be seen in the British Isles before anyone with a few pounds could buy a gun to destroy whatever his few brains had prompted him to shoot at.”
Nowadays, the positive attitude is the one which has prevailed. Even as I write, there are reintroduction schemes for this magnificent raptor in Ireland, eastern Scotland and many other areas of Great Britain. Many people would like to see it reintroduced to England and the debates rage about whether to select Norfolk or Suffolk. In the Inner Hebrides in western Scotland, of course, these charismatic birds are worth hundreds of millions of pounds to the local economy. Listen to just a few hundred quids’ worth of camera in this wonderful video by Brianpwildlife:
And no, they can’t carry off children or adults or small cars or large cars or vans or lorries or even what appears to be a young man equipped with perhaps a camera on a tripod or maybe a specially adapted hover mower for ice covered lawns:
The White Stork is a very large and spectacular visitor to England. People have asked me on many occasions why we think that babies are brought by storks. My answer has always been that a good number of new babies have a red mark on their forehead when they are first born. This mark is triangular and it looks as if their head has been grasped for a considerable period of time in a stork’s beak. My own daughter certainly had the mark on her forehead when she was first born, although it usually fades with time.
Sir Herbert immediately typed a letter to Joseph Whitaker, as soon as he reached home after seeing this wonderful bird:
“This morning a specimen of Cicogna Alba passed across the Nottingham-Mansfield high Road (sic) at 9.50 a.m. between the Pilgrim Oak and the Hutt House, the bird was in Spring plumage, with legs and beak very bright:
It was, I think, a hen bird, and passed directly over me within easy gun shot, flying relatively low, over the tops of the Beech trees by a few feet. It is possibly a War Refugee from the Low Countries.”
Here is the Pilgrim Oak in both spring and autumn:
Joseph Whitaker would have been totally gutted, to use the modern expression, that a non-birdwatcher had seen such a wonderful, spectacular bird, and he hadn’t:
Just under a week later, on Sunday, April 18th, Sir Herbert wrote again to Whitaker confirming the identity of a bird that he had already seen in many locations in the Middle East. This must really have twisted the knife, although, of course, unwittingly:
“I wish that you had seen the Stork instead of I (sic) although it is the first one that I have ever seen in England. Last year I was in the uplands of Algeria, south of Constantinople on the day of their arrival in very considerable numbers (early March) at the Dardanelles on the shores of the Sea of Marmora , 17th March is the day of their arrival. A day’s march from Gallipoli on the eastern side, they have a great assembly place-for both spring and autumn.
The natives allege that in Autumn, the birds of the year pair there, before the migration.”
All the way through this account, I have deliberately used the phrase “White Stork”. This is because there is a Black Stork as well. This is a much rarer bird, and one which I myself have yet to see:
In Victorian times there was just one report of this species being seen in the county. This was an unfortunate individual which was shot during the autumn of 1871 at Colwick by Mr John Brown of Old Moat Hall. Joseph Whitaker was told the facts in a letter from Mr P. Musters of West Bridgford. As Old Moat Hall is in Cheshire, I suppose we can presume that Mr Brown was a guest of one of the members of the extended Chaworth-Musters family, who were rich landowners in Nottinghamshire.
As far as I can see, their possessions included Annesley Hall, Colwick Hall, Wiverton Hall, Edwalton Manor, West Bridgford Hall and for Sundays, Felley Priory.
The male eider duck is a particularly beautiful bird:
It has a much imitated call. This is a recording by “markwilmot”:
A female eider is a much drabber bird than the drake, and arguably, is barely recognisable as the same species:
Eiders are common enough birds around our coasts, particularly in the north east, but inland, they remain very much a rarity. This report details the only Victorian occurrence in Nottinghamshire:
“According to “The Zoologist” magazine, a female eider was shot near Nottingham on November 16th, 1882. It had been attracted to the area by the large number of acres of farmland under water at the time and its acquisition brought the number of Notts species to 240.”
The unrecorded wildfowler who shot this rather drab, but extremely rare bird, immediately took it to Mr J Stanley the “Art Naturalist and Sporting Trophy Mounter” of 5, Trent Street, in the City of Nottingham. The wildfowler was probably ignorant of the bird’s identity, but he would have been well aware of its value. For his part, Mr Stanley would have bought the bird from him without a moment’s hesitation. Look for the orange arrow:
Mr Stanley knew very well what the bird was, and he knew equally well who would pay a very large amount of cash for it. At 8 o’clock that evening, therefore, he sent a note, presumably by hansom cab, to Joseph Whitaker at Rainworth, some fifteen or so miles from his shop. Again, look for the orange arrow:
Mr Stanley must have been more or less totally certain that Joseph Whitaker, an avid collector of rare birds killed in Nottinghamshire, would pay him handsomely for such a rarity. Stanley’s note read, spelling mistakes and all:
“I have just had a Female Eider Duck come in shot to night in our Medowers it is left for me to buy if you have not got one & you would like it Please to right by return & oblidge your
Joseph Whittaker, of course, came immediately to Nottingham, perhaps even in the same hansom cab in which Mr Stanley had sent the note:
And Joseph Whittaker duly bought this exceptionally rare prize, although, unfortunately, we do not have any record of the price he paid.
Thirty years later, though, in 1913, Fred Smith, described by Whitaker on another occasion as “that shocking poacher”, was to charge him seven shillings for a pair of sheldrakes, a relatively common species, so we can only guess at what price was paid for a genuinely rare bird.
To keep birdwatchers on their toes, many birds exist in what are called “species pairs”. This means that you may know that a particular bird is either a Ruff or a Buff-breasted Sandpiper, but it will not necessarily be that easy to separate them:
And there are literally hundreds of these species pairs, some easy, some not quite so simple. House Sparrow and Tree Sparrow are unmistakable, but what about that rare vagrant to England, the Spanish Sparrow?
Montagu’s Harrier and Pallid Harrier, for females or juveniles at least, will require careful and probably lengthy examination:
Occasionally, a particular bird will never be identified for definite. Nearly thirty years ago, I drove all the way to Weymouth in Dorset, a round trip of nearly 500 miles, to see a Pipit which was present from mid March to early May 1989, in a field near the Observatory. Look for the orange arrow:
It was either a Richard’s Pipit (not that rare) or a Blyth’s Pipit (one of the first two or three ever in England). Here they are:
And the controversy has never really been solved. Indeed, this particular bird is usually known to twitchers as the “Portland Pipit” after the Bird Observatory in whose fields it spent the winter.
In the Victorian era, of course, without modern telescopes worth more than my car, and, more importantly, field guides with colour photographs, many birds remained unidentifiable especially if they were both fairly rare. One such pair, which I still find challenging enough even now, is the Cormorant and the Shag. Here is a Cormorant:
And here is a Shag:
You can probably guess what the Victorian solution was to this problem, at least as far as a rare bird was concerned. You shot the bird, if at all possible.
With all that in mind, let’s take a trip back to the real era of Steampunk:
“According to H.E. Forrest in a letter to “The Zoologist” magazine, it was on an unrecorded date during the year of 1863 that a single Cormorant was shot at Lamb Close Reservoir near Eastwood and acquired for the collection of Joseph Whitaker:
“The keeper had seen it about some few days and noticed when he put it up, it always flew over the boathouse to another pond beyond. He told Mr Percy Smith, who was staying there, who the next morning took his gun and stood by the side of the boathouse; the keeper rowed round the lake, the bird rose, came as usual and was shot. Just as Mr Smith was lowering his gun, another large bird followed and shared the same fate; on getting to it, he found it was an immature Great Black-backed Gull; thus he brought off a very curious right and left, and secured two very rare Notts birds, which through his kindness are now in my collection.”
Thirty years later, in 1893 came the appearance of another Victorian anecdote about cormorants, this time concerning a famous bird at Newark on Trent. Once again Joseph Whitaker tells the tale:
“I am indebted to Mr Cornelius Brown of Newark on Trent for the following very interesting note : during October 1893 Newark was a centre of interest to naturalists and others owing to the visit of a friendly cormorant which continued to perch week after week on the arrow on the top of the spire of the Parish Church. The Times, Standard, and most of the leading newspapers noticed the incident while Punch magazine had some poetry upon it. The bird went away several hours each day to fish in the Trent, and returned after its sport to its lofty perch, where it might be seen trimming its feathers and making himself smart and comfortable. It left on Friday, November 17th, the day after a heavy storm, after a state of eight weeks save one day.”
The poem appeared in the comical magazine Punch on November 11th, 1893, and is a surprisingly radical comment on the church in general and clergymen in particular. It went thus:
“We are told a Cormorant sits, and doth not tire,
For a whole month, perched upon Newark spire! Vinny Bourne’s jackdaw is beaten, it is clear
Yet there are cormorants who, year after year,
Perch in the Church. But these omnivorous people
Favour the pulpit mostly, not the steeple
Thrivers upon fat livings find, no doubt,
Cormorant within is cosier than without.”
Wikipedia tells the tale of Vincent “Vinny” Bourne, a Classical scholar who wrote a comic poem about a jackdaw which lived on a steeple.(In Latin, of course)
For some people, the Cormorant was a bird of very ill omen. Out in the wilds of Lincolnshire:
“On Sunday, September 9th, 1860, a Cormorant took its position on the steeple of Boston Church, much to the alarm of the superstitious. There it remained with the exception of two hours absence, till early on Monday morning, when it was shot by the caretaker of the church. The fears of the credulous were singularly confirmed when the news arrived of the loss of the P.S.Lady Elgin at sea with 300 passengers, amongst whom were Mr Ingram, Member of Parliament from Boston, and his son, on the very morning when the bird was first seen.”
The Shag is very similar to the Cormorant, but is slightly smaller, a fact which is much more obvious when the birds are seen together. A single bird is often nowhere near as easy to identify as it is supposed to be. In the Victorian era both species were very rare in Nottinghamshire, so the chance of seeing the two together in order to make a comparison was never going to happen. For this reason, people had great difficulty in distinguishing between the two species of birds.
However in 1879, Joseph Whitaker wrote a letter to “The Zoologist” about some Shags which had turned up in the City of Nottingham itself.
“ON COMMON BIRDS IN NOTTINGHAMSHIRE.- ….Early in the same month, as some workmen at Nottingham were one morning proceeding to their work, they came across two Shags, flapping about in Cross Street, and after an exciting chase caught them both. They were taken to T.White, birdstuffer, who tells me they dived for fish in his tank, eating several; he kept them alive for two days, but finding they “did not look like living”, killed and stuffed them. I have purchased them for my collection. Another was caught in a street close by, and the fourth was shot on Mapperley Plains. They were all young birds, possibly from the same nest, and having wandered away, got lost; or they may have been driven inland by a gale.”
In one of his newspaper articles about birds in North Nottinghamshire, published in the Nottingham Evening Post on June 21st, 1937 , Clifford W. Greatorex, a Fellow of the Zoological Society told the following story:
“Finally, mention must be made of a Shag, three or four examples of which were recorded in early spring from various parts of North Notts. Contrary to a widely held opinion, the Shag does travel inland occasionally, although its inland visits are not so frequent as those of the more familiar and more abundant Cormorant.
One of these visitors from the coast lingered on a part of Welbeck Lake, where it was seen by several reliable observers and its instinctive characteristics noted. Another, apparently injured in some way, was found in a field near a North Notts Village.
The finder induced this bird, which could not fly, to enter a small pond, where it remained, and for the greater part of the week was fed by school children who brought it herrings, soaked bread and table scraps, all of which were devoured with avidity. Unfortunately, however, its injuries proved fatal, and one morning the young folk were grieved to find their new pet lying dead upon the bank.”
Nowadays, Shags remain fairly numerous on the rocky coasts of England, particularly in the west, but overall, they are probably diminishing in number. They are still very rare inland. Cormorants are extremely numerous, enjoying the many lakes conveniently filled with large fish for anglers to pit their wits against. At the moment, they are a protected species, but this may not last too much longer.
In the meantime, Cormorants will continue to entertain, as greedy but ever optimistic birds:
Nowadays the Corncrake is limited to the Outer Hebrides in Scotland although there is also what seems to be a highly successful reintroduction scheme being carried out in the RSPB Nene Washes Reserve in Cambridgeshire, England:
In the first half of the nineteenth century, Corncrakes were present throughout the length and breadth of England and their distinctive call was heard in every sunlit field. Even their Latin name, crex crex, is onomatopoeic. The birds were described as producing the most distinctive summer sound to be heard on a country walk anywhere in England. This is the song of the corncrake, beautifully recorded by “therhys927”
Corncrakes will often sing all through the night, and they can in fact be pretty aggravating little so-and-so’s once the initial novelty has worn off:
“How sweet and pleasant grows the way
Through summer time again
While Landrails call from day to day
Amid the grass and grain
We hear it in the weeding time
When knee deep waves the corn
We hear it in the summers prime
Through meadows night and morn
And now I hear it in the grass
That grows as sweet again
And let a minutes notice pass
And now tis in the grain”
Nowadays, the Corncrakes are all gone, gradually killed off by decade after decade of desire for profit, intensive farming practices and in particular the mechanised mowing techniques used by the nation’s farmers in place of the trusty scythe. This sad decline is chronicled in Nottinghamshire by the county’s Victorian birdwatchers:
In 1866, in his “Ornithology of Nottinghamshire”, William Felkin wrote that “the corncrake is very common”. Three years later, in 1869, William Sterland provided a charming account of this delightful bird in “The Birds of Sherwood Forest”:
“That bird of singular habits and note, the corncrake, visits us in abundance every year, sometimes arriving as early as the first of May, while in 1853 I did not hear its note until the 18th. This was unusually late; the season being a remarkably cold and backward one, a fact of which our other migratory birds also seemed, in some mysterious way, to be fully cognisant. Nothing, indeed, relating to the feathered tribes is more wonderful or more deserving of our admiration than that knowledge, call it instinct or what you will, which, implanted in them by their Creator, enables them to hasten or delay their departure for their distant but temporary places of abode, according as the seasons there are suitable to their necessities or otherwise. How strikingly is this wisdom brought forward in Holy Scripture: “Yes, the Stork in the heaven knoweth her appointed time and the turtle, and the crane, and the swallow observe the time of their coming.”
William Sterland seems well aware of the piece of Corncrake behaviour which was to prove its downfall, as the mechanized mower made its inexorable way forward:
“I have never succeeded in causing the Corncrake to take wing except with a dog, and even then its flight is always brief, as it takes an early opportunity of dropping to the ground and regaining its cover. It flies rather slowly with its legs hanging down, and there is such an air of effort about his movements on the wing, that I have often wondered how its migrations are performed.
Its ventriloquial powers are well known to every observer. Now it’s harsh “Crake, crake” seems within a few yards, and the next moment it sounds as if it were halfway across the field, and this apparent variation in distance is so well simulated that in a consecutive repetition of its call for ten or twelve times, a few notes will sound as if uttered almost at your feet, and the next two or three from afar, and yet the bird is standing motionless all the time, as I have several times tested. Its singular call I have often imitated by drawing my nail across the teeth of a pocket comb, and thus inducing its near approach.”
Again Sterland reveals how fully conscious he is of the problems the Corncrake will face throughout the rest of the nineteenth century:
“The female sits very closely on eggs, so closely indeed, as not infrequently to lose her life by the mower’s scythe. I have known two instances of this, in one of which the poor bird was almost cut in two.”
Ten years later, in 1879, William Sterland provided additional details about the Corncrake:
“An abundant summer visitor. It is also been found in winter, and on this account has been thought by some to hibernate; but apart from the fact that no bird is known to hibernate, why should a corncrake which remains during the winter not be able to fare as well as a water rail or a common snipe. Cold does not affect them.”
In his “Scribblings of a Hedgerow Naturalist”(1904), Joseph Whitaker wrote:
“The other evening when talking to Rose the Nottingham taxidermist (who has set up a great many specimens in this collection) I remarked how very few Corncrake there were about, he said he well remembered about 35 years ago, a man bringing a large basket to his father, of these birds, which he had shot in two days, and they numbered over fifty; at that time he said the meadows round Nottingham were full of them, and their call could be heard on all sides. This year I have heard one, although I have been about a great deal.”
No Corncrakes in 1904, no meadows in 2014! Elsewhere Joseph Whitaker wrote about his country house at Rainworth, between Nottingham, and Mansfield:
“I am sorry to say the Corn Crake is getting scarcer. I have not heard one near the house was several years, although twenty years ago they were in every mowing field. No doubt the result of mowing machines which cuts the young up often I fear.”
Three years later in 1907, Joseph Whitaker provided in “The Birds of Nottinghamshire” the following information :
“I sorrow to say that this interesting bird is a rapidly vanishing species, not only as far as Notts is concerned, but in many other counties. Twenty years back it was the exception in the spring not to hear a corncrake in nearly every mowing field in the Trent Valley, and almost every seed and grass field left for hay in other parts. In this very high and dry parish of Blidworth, we had between ten and fifteen pairs, now for the last three years not a bird has been heard.”
Like his fellow nature writers, Joseph Whitaker chronicles the decline:
“At Southwell, on a June night, their curious call resounded on all sides; now this year there may be two pairs. Mr Henry Smith Junior of Cropwell Butler informs me that this scarcity is very noticeable in that part, and in fact all over the south of the county.”
Alas, Whitaker was to be proved wrong when he wrote:
“Let us hope that it will be many years before they are quite a bird of the past, but if they decrease during the next twenty years as fast as their decrease during the last two decades, it pains me to think that it may be so.
I once heard a corncrake calling inside the kitchen garden at Welbeck Abbey.”
And finally, in “Jottings of a Naturalist” in 1912, Whitaker wrote:
“Twenty years ago there were Corncrakes all over the parish, in fact it was the exception not to hear them in every mowing field, but I know that there is been none for the last ten years, not a single bird heard, and the parish is six thousand acres; and it is not only so in these parts, it is the same everywhere.”
And really, that was that. The end of the Corncrake.
As the Great War loomed, the Victorian age drew to a close. No more mowing fields, no more meadows full of flowers, no more clouds of brightly coloured butterflies. And no more Corncrakes. Just mud, blood, war and death.
To film a Corncrake nowadays, you are more or less wasting your time in England. This beautiful, atmospheric video comes from “mikhailrodionov” in faraway Russia:
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:
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:
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:
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:
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:
In 1869, clearly an outdoorsman of some competence, William Sterland of Ollerton wrote the marvellously entertaining “Birds of Sherwood Forest”:
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 :
This was possibly because Sterland was a frequent contributor to “The Field” magazine, a fierce rival of “The Zoologist”:
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:
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:
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:
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:
Whitaker was a frequent contributor to “The Zoologist” and in later years to the newly fledged “British Birds” magazine:
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:
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:
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.
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”.
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:
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:
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:
Gyrfalcons exist in two different colour morphs and it would, admittedly, have been more difficult to identify a dark morph bird:
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:
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.
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:
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):
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:
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!