Tag Archives: The Birds of Sherwood Forest

Eagles in Nottinghamshire

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:

zoaring_golden_eagle zzzzzzzzz

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:

hardwick

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:

zzzzzzzzz -goldeneagles ad
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:

goldeneagle soaring zzzzzzzz
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”

White-tailed%20Eagle flying zzzzzzzzzzzzzzz

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.”

white tailed imm zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz

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:

Untitled

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.”

killie-male-26 zzzzzzzz

“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.

Haliaeetus albicilla4

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.

WTE juv 1 zzzzzzz
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.”

sea eagle cliff

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.

wte ad

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:

lifting man zzzzzz

 

Advertisements

10 Comments

Filed under History, Nottingham, Science, Wildlife and Nature

The Corncrake: the sound of Victorian England

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:

Corncrakegreyt zzzzzzzzz

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:

siningig zzzzzzzzzzzzzzz

John Clare, England’s greatest poet, wrote a poem about the bird which he knew as the “Landrail”:

“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:

crake zzzzzzzzz
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.”

flightg zzzzzzz

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.”

corncrake zzzzzzz

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.”

corcrake_30594 zzzzzzz

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.”

Corncrakeflight zzzzzzzzz

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:

 

10 Comments

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