Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Puffin strongly

I like this one cos there's a robust Scottish wind going on.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006


Cripes, is it just me or do the carol singers get weirder every year?

Monday, December 18, 2006

Bird Jokes

Oldies, but goldies.

Two vultures are sat in a desert eating a dead clown. One looks up to the other and says:
'Does this taste funny to you?'

A baby penguin at the South Pole goes to it's Mum and says:
'Am I a real penguin'
'Course you are,' says its Mum. 'I'm a penguin, your Dad's a penguin, so you're a penguin too!'
Baby penguin isn't convinced, so he goes to his Dad:
'Am I a real penguin'
'Don't be stupid - course you are,' says its Dad. But he can see the look of worry in his baby's eyes, and tries to explain. 'I'm a penguin, your Mum's a penguin, so you're a penguin too! That's how it works. but why are you asking?
And baby penguin looks up at his dad with his big dark eyes and says:
'Cos I'm f***ing freezing.'

Night all - did see some birds today and might tell you about them later.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

More Hume's stuff

Ah, the little darlings... it was Christmas assembly at Lizzie's school this morning so I spent an hour listening to the in-tune warblings of 60 Primary Schoolers. Then to work, but if I was going to turn up at 11.30, I wouldn't get parked, so solved that problem by going off to the Donmouth for another hour with my own scratched bins and RememBird and tried to get some recordings. This I did, just. Haven't had time to sort them all out but have put an audible one on putfile.

Try and ignore the traffic noise, howling wind and assorted cracklings, turn it up LOUD and listen to rather boring HLW call here.

Got a crappy sonagram out of it, and it confirms my sharp(!) perception of a flat monosyllabic call with a hint of a downturn.
The 5 kHz frequency is lower than your Yellow-broweds, and the call is very short, about 0.14 s, which is shorter than YBW but within range of HLW. It's not the most typical Humey call, but I think it corresponds to the 'forceful dsweet' of the Collins Guide. I bet Yellow-broweds could do that too, but they also do their characteristic calls as well. I wish this bird would do something more characteristic of Hume's, like an upward inflecting or disyllabic call, but it doesn't.

Other links:
Other Hume's and Yellow-browed calls, showing variation at here, here and here.

Finder's report and photo for this bird here. (12th and 13th December entries).

Plumage: in the sunshine today the bird looked a bit brighter on occasions... with a mossy green dusting to the uppers (not YBW-green, though :-)) . On he left wing there is a very thin but complete median covert bar, but on the right only a couple of feathers tipped pale.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Phylloscopus jacobscreamcrackerii

Well whaddayaknow.... Elvis is dead, but autumn has not yet left the building! Eh? A Hume's Leaf Warbler turned up at the Donmouth yesterday. Malheureusement (that's a sophisticated 'bugger', in French) I didn't have the car today, but made a mental note to take my nockies into work just in case the opportunity to get away happened. Then of course this morning in my dash to get out of the door, I forgot them, which made it even more embarrassing when Ian Broadbent met me in the queue at the canteen this morning and asked if I wanted a lift down. 'But I don't have my binoculars!' Didn't matter... he had a spare pair. Get in! grabbed a biro and a bit of paper... up up and away!

The bird didn't take too much searching for when we got there - staying low in the bushes next to the shore, out of the wind. *That's* how I like my Phylloscs. On the ground. And alive. Alive is very important.
it was calling regularly, and that immediately grabbed attention - not like a Yellow-browed's piercing 'tsooeeee!', but still pretty loud. A slightly lower 'pheeeeeu' - almost monosylla
bic, but could just pick up at downturn at the end. This is the third one I've seen, and the first I haven't had to break my neck to get views of. We got good views too, so much so I was inspired to use my biro and bit of paper in a Mckinney-esque orgy of fine artwork.

Were I a conscientious rarity recorder I would produce a tidied-up, after-the-event sketch posing as a real field sketch like [censor - names deleted to protect the guilty], but being lazy, I'll leave my original sketch all perfect as baby jesus and all his little angels intended. Otherwise, grey-buff dirty macintosh uppers, off-white supercilium with no obvious yellow tones, obvious greater covert bar (white) but not much median covert (was convinced of 2 white-tipped feathers on right hand side and maybe something similar on left). Dark, white-edged tertials, and primary projection about 1/2 to 2/3 tertial length. No obviously contrasty dark secondary bar. Whitish underparts - no yellow. Largely black bill though saw v small amount of pale pink at base of lower mandible. Dark brown legs, but feet pinky-orange. Plumage would possibly nail it as Hume's, but there's no real clinching feature. Really needs the call, which is distinctive. We gave it a blast of Hume's call playback and it immediately responded, calling several times and coming close for a look. It also responded to Yellow-browed call, though less intensely (called once and didn't come closer), before responding strongly to Hume's again. Interesting. I'm willing to bet £25 it would have responded to Chiffchaff too, or a creaky door.

And it was a JOY to look through some binoculars that weren't scratched! Ian may have got the call on video, but I might go back tomorrow with the RememBird and get some more recordings. If it's still there. And another thing... you know that any bird with the word 'Hume's' in its name is going to be a cracker! Also 'Pallas's' - they're all crackers too. And don't get me started on 'Blyth's', 'Steller's' and 'Jacob's Cream'. They're all crackers.

Ken Dodd diversion...
What a lovely day. What a lovely day for running through a biscuit factory shouting: 'You're all crackers!'.. [30 minutes of jokes about taxman, followed by tired rendition of 'Happiness'].

Monday, December 11, 2006

Mamma told me there'd be days like this.

And man, she wasn't foolin'

With all the hero-data yesterday, didn't get chance to expand on my Sunday birding. But first, let me set the scene... Friday/Saturday I'd been in the deep deep deeeeepppppp south, i.e. Newcastle, in the Secret Underground Bunker where the BOURC has its winter meetings. Got home about 10 on Saturday night after hacking and spluttering all over my fellow passengers on the train for 4 hours - they loved it really. Don't they know who I am!!!???? Spent the night coughing away, waking up with a chest full of pains. Then at 7.30 Lizzie comes through to the bed and tries to get in and headbutts me full on on the nose! Ow! Seeing stars. Now my head was full of aches. Sundays don't start much worse than that. Except THEN I look out of the window at the weather and see they can get worse. Not that it was particularly wet; it wasn't. Or even particularly windy. But it was dreary dark, and it never really got light all day. Land of the mid-day dimming here. I sat around the house, interacting with the kids (THAT's how bad it was), before heading out about 1 pm - it was still dark! And frankly things went downhill from there. There was a small movement of Black-legged Kittiwakes going south offshore. More precisely, two.

Sunday, December 10, 2006

Heroes of the Birding Revolution VI - Harry Witherby, 1873-1943

Henry (Harry) Forbes Witherby, son of Henry Forbes Witherby, owner of Witherby & Co. publishers, came out of nowhere, took British ornithology by surprise, gave it a good seeing-to and left it sore, grateful and forever changed. Indeed for much of the first half of the twentieth century, he was the face of the birding establishment.

He was born into the comfortable surroundings of the family of a small but moderately successful publishing firm, and seemed to have spent his early years pottering around the babbling brooks and whispering canopies of the New Forest, where one assumes he became interested in birds. He went straight from school into the family firm - nepotism compensating for lack of qualifications in the traditional olde-English way - and never received a formal scientific training. He got his feet under the table in a conventional self-educational-type magazine (published by Witherby's) called Knowledge, where he started a regular series of Bird Notes that proved extremely popular. He didn't have his own pair of binoculars, so he used the family pair of opera glasses and bumbled about the countryside observing and learning. Harry eventually started publishing books, pretty dreadful ones at first... but daddy owned the company, don't you know? Forest Birds in 1894 was the first, but then Harry started birding abroad, bought himself some bins, and got interested in plumage changes, moults, and geographical variation within species. So he bought himself a gun too, and started amassing a significant collection of skins. Ahead of his time, he saw the value in preserving moulting birds, immature specimens, and tatty things that he could not quite characterise. They were to form the basis of not only his education, but his readers' too. He went round Spain, through north-west Russia, North Africa and the Middle East, killing and preserving interesting birds, and meticulously forming his own opinions about the value of subspecies, and about the distribution of birds and the relation of moult timings to life histories. It was exciting stuff. He married his wife (as was conventional...) Lilian in 1904 and took her on honeymoon to Algeria where they whiled away the long evenings skinning birds together, their eyes meeting over a bucket of entrails, and their bloodied fingers accidentally brushing against each other by candlelight. They were eventually to have five kids together, so it must have worked.

Harry was bursting with ideas about birds, and was desperate for ornith
ology to take off in an organised way so that birders could find out new things. And he wasn't alone; although there were a number of Natural History magazines available to moneyed gentlefolk of the time, he saw that there was space on the market for a magazine devoted solely to birds. And moreover, to his vision of a modern, collective, scientific ornithology. He got together with William Pycraft at his Marylebourne Club and as the room filled with the pungent aroma of Turkish cigarettes, warm leather and fine Scotch Whisky they sketched out the crazy idea for a magazine called 'British Birds', which was launched in 1907 with Witherby as the editor, published by the family firm. The history of BB is about to be explained fully in a forthcoming article for the 100th anniversary, so I won't pre-empt that. But in the end, his crazy idea worked. British Birds was popular... and it did what Witherby wanted - it mobilised a generation of amateur ornithologists to intensify their hobby, and to work together, through BB, to perform large scale studies of the distribution, status and migration of birds. Two aspects of Witherby's personality and modus operandi are relevant to his hero status. The first was that he destroyed the competition, partly because his magazine was best, but partly because he had a web of international contacts and a family publishing house that was prepared to invest heavily in his undertaking. BB's 'forerunner', a Natural History magazine called The Zoologist was perhaps the most high profile casualty (although I guess 'Knowledge' didn't last long either). The Zoologist had been started by Edward Newman in 1843, but wilted under the pressure and finally gave in, being incorporated into BB in 1916. The second aspect of Witherby's hero status was that he was a stickler for accuracy, and indeed must have been a total pain in the butt. He insisted that everything that went into his magazine and books was checked and double checked for accuracy, and that every statement could be justified on the basis of published data. Nice if you can do it... but Witherby did, and he stuck to it. He was trying to bring some order to the chaotic situation that was developing as more and more authorities published more and more data in more and more places in the early 20th century. His solution was to say 'BB will have all that, thank you', and then he took on the job of checking it all. An enormous and heroic task that occupied the last thirty-odd years of his life; and if he hadn't succeeded none of us would have known what the heck was going on.

Part of his mission was to muscle himself to the the top of the British ornithological pyramid (and there were already some pretty huge giants trying to get to the same place), and a significant part of that was to place the editors of BB (in practice, himself) as judge and jury for records of rare birds in Britain. It was still more-or-less acceptable for records of rarities to be published piecemeal in County avifaunas and local publications, provided they were supported or verified by a recognised authority, but increasingly the gold standard of trust for a rarity record became publication in BB - not least because of the stringent checks made by Harry W. The battle between him, George Bristow, and J B Nichols over the provenance of the Hastings Rarities has gone down in folklore (a 1910s gentlemens' equivalent of a flame war), and it was one of the few times that Harry was beaten and ended up publishing duff records.

Sharp readers and tax-dodging students will have noticed that the things that Harry wanted BB to stimulate,
i.e. to mobilise a generation of amateur ornithologists to intensify their hobby, and to work collectively to perform large scale studies of the distribution, status and migration of birds, sounds very like what the British Trust for Ornithology, the BTO, considers its job to be today. And Harry did pretty much lay the foundations for the BTO. Nascent ringing (banding) schemes in Aberdeen and in Europe were the inspiration for Witherby to start his own ringing scheme via BB in 1909, and characteristically he then organised the sorting and collation of returns, and publication of reports single-handedly. The ringing scheme grew exponentially and became the biggest of its kind, but Harry stuck with it until 1937 when it was formally handed over to the BTO, who continue it reasonable well(!). Prior to that, he had sold his entire collection of several thousand bird skins to the British Museum for £1500 to get the BTO up and running.

Witherby took on one more battle early in his career - that of the International Rules of Zoological Nomenclature. In that, unlike other Brits at the time, including the BOU, he stuck to them. He recognised the value of trinomials for naming subspecies, and the value of strict use of priority for forcing some order on the chaotic world of scientific names. He fired a killer broadside at the establishment by the publication of the Hand-list of British Birds in 1912, which quickly became the established authoritative reference checklist. So much so that when the BOU published the second edition of th
eir checklist in 1915, they copied the Hand-list to a large extent, without acknowledgement. In his review of the BOU checklist for BB, Harry noticed that the BOU had also copied a few errors!

The Hand-list was followed in 1919-24 by the Practical Handbook of British Birds, which he co-authored with, among others, the future Mrs Meinertzhagen v2.0. It was a huge advance on what was already available because of the amount of detail on plumage sequences and life-history of birds, and became the standard reference for serious birders. Within 10 years, however, it was out of print and Witherby was ready for a final challenge. He had retired from the publising firm at the age of 63 (although still editing BB) and got his team together to produce the Handbook of British Birds (1938-43). The Handbook was, and still is, everything more than everything else, and was the standard reference until the 1980s when BWP hit the shelves. Harry wangled a full set of accurate colour plates for the Handbook depicting
different plumage states for all the species and subspecies in there (a pioneering idea). What really made the Handbook stand out was the full treatment of all subspecies - Witherby's hobby horse and in this case, his crowning glory. It must have been an unnerving experience, however, working his way through the publication of 5 volumes as war raged in Europe with no certain outcome, and with Witherby in failing health.

When Harry retired he had wanted to spend his time editing BB and tending his garden at the family home, where he was setting up a small nature reserve. BB was in a bit of a rut, to be honest. And then there were so many men of fighting age out of the country, Harry was forced to go back to work. The strain did not improve his health, and after a couple of bouts of illness he died in 1943. He had lived to see the Handbook universally praised, and had seen enough of the war to have a pretty good ide
a that there was eventually going to be a Britain where it could be used. Bernard Tucker took over at BB (see Heroes passim). Throughout his life he had published many papers in BB and elsewhere, and his last effort was an article for BB about Black Redstarts nesting on England's bombsites in 1942.

Harry Forbes Witherby. You had visions. In a good way. You were a gentleman, conventional, smart, smoked like a chimney. A self-taught scientist who brought order, your order, to your World, and organised the British birding scene into a useful fighting force that could learn more about birds as a unit than it could as a series of individuals. You pushed the boundaries of knowledge forwards by your own studies of moults and variation within speices, provided the vehicle, British Birds, for ornithologists to tell each other what they had seen, and a series of books that synthesised this knowledge for the next generation to define their own questions. You transformed ornithology into a mass-appeal collective endeavour that it was to remain for much of the twentieth century, and for this I name you a Hero of the Birding Revolution, 1st Class.

Harry Forbes Witherby 1873-1943.

'And finally, I come to the birds. What should we do without them? How can one help studying such wonderful and fascinating creatures? After months of toil in the museum or in the study you may sometimes wonder if it is really worthwhile. But you only have to go outside your door or, indeed, to any part of the world and watch the birds themselves, and you are quickliy reassured that any labour to find out more about them is worthwhile.'
HFW - acceptance address for BOU Salvin-Godman medal, 1938.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Sorry, I'm running out of ideas now...

Last go?

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Sunday, December 03, 2006

O hear us when we cry to Thee, For all in peril on the seawatch.

Oooohhh quite a storm last night. Can always tell it's been a good one when we find a dolphin floundering in the roses. And on one memorable occasion, a Sperm Whale - we didn't need to go to ASDA for weeks! I might have been dreaming about eating the Sperm Whale, mind. When I woke up my pillow was gone. We found the tv aerial dangling from the roof this morning. Sod it, we've got Sky. Let it dangle. Still blowing very fresh from the south this morning, so I headed down to the beach to release the dolphin back into its ocean home. Look at the waves! That was something else.

I think this is what they call a 'boiling' sea. Stoopid! It's obviously freezing. Look at it!

I was lying about the dolphin. But there were 5 Ruddy Turnstones and a couple of Rock Pipits on the beach - braver birds than I. It was a bit hairy when I went up the cliffs to try and seawatch - waves breaking over my head. But, and this is true - I was surprised to see a Harbour Porpoise swimming in and around the surf, feeding on scared fish I suppose. Just a single Guillemot visible offshore through the splatter of salt, a few Great Black-backed Gulls, couple of Common Gulls and a Herring Gull. oooh. I needed a bit more height to keep dry, so headed down to Muchalls, via the allotments (1 Goldcrest, 51 Oystercatchers shelterin on the cricket pitch), and the stubble fields (Skylark, 50 Rooks, 5 Jackdaws, 25 Carrion Crows and one nearly-Hooded Crow). Muchalls was atmospheric, but bird-dead.

Sorry, that's all I got just now. Is anyone hankering after the music videos, instead of weak humour like this?

Oh yeh, I forgot...

Take heed... chew hair, and quite literally take back the thingies. Respect the classics, man!

Saturday, December 02, 2006

I try to be self-deprecating...

... but I'm not very good at it.

So in the spirit of humility, I humbly offer my second bollywood movie, found here

Do you know the Playstation beat me at chess today.... but it was no f***ing match at kick-boxing! Boom boom!

errr.... I do know another joke, but it's a career-ender. In the pub last night I had to write it down on the back of a receipt, pass it round and then destroy the evidence. You might know it... it's about whisky, 16 years and coke.

Diane reviewed my movie for me. Something like this:
How long does this last? That long? Well that's just about long enough.

Friday, December 01, 2006

Tin foil hats

Wow, from under there, it feels like you could tick Chestnut Bunting.

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Big dame hunters

Let's face it. If there were any birds about, there'd be no need to feature this

Or this

Monday, November 27, 2006

This will stop...

When McKinney and now Menzie stop too. Until then try this... the true story of my attempts to build a West Lothian list in blue-collar orange-marching hard-drinking Winchburgh. It was love at bomb site!

Sunday, November 26, 2006

Warning, may stray off topic

This blog post has been edited by Diamond White technology

Diamond White - directly responsible for my reproductive output x2 and many embarrassing experiences

Nighttime turns to morning, it's a cold but sunny day, and I resolve to STOP slipping old Quireboys lyrics into my text. If it started raining I could maybe slip some GnR lyrics in. But it didn't. With hopeless optimism, I put a new battery in the RememBird and headed out birdspotting. Have decided I need a PSP so I don't have to stop playing Star Wars just for the sake of going out. Did a big figure-of eight walk, down the track to the beach, up the cliffs, seawatch, back through Newtonhill to the Retreat, then down and up and round Cran Hill, back to the railway bridge and hame. Afraid it was dull again. Blue Tits and Robins. Not that I want to disparage Blue Tits and Robins. Jeez, if they were rare we wouldn't be able to stop talking about them. But as it happens (ladies and gentlemen) they're common as muck, especially in sunny Newtonhill. For the RSPB magazine, I saw a Chaffinch having a bath, and for Birdwatch magazine, I pished for a bit and brought a further 4 Chaffinches out of cover, and two Blue Tits and a Robin. 2 more Robins having a fight up the cliff sides, while a Dunnock and Wren watched. Offshore... 4 Common Gulls, 2 Great Black-backed Gulls feeding, + 2 Guillemots, and 2 Bottle-nosed Dolphins swimming about. Yada yada. I enjoyed the sensory-overload of 5 hybrid Hoodie x Carrion Crows feeding around the enormous dung heap on Cran Hill - when they spread *that* it spells DOOM for Newtonhill. Ach! Meadow Pipits, Skylarks, Magpies. Sorry I've got nothing to interest the casual reader. Mmmmm casual readers. You are welcome here.

My mind started to wander.... but that's OK - it came back. I've been watching the Dr Who spinoff, Torchwood, which on the whole is pretty dire, except for all the girl-on-alien sex etc. Last two episodes were interesting. One the other night they all went off to investigate aliens making people disappear in the Welsh Valleys. In the end it turned out there were no aliens involved - it was just Welsh farmers eating each other! I object! Being one third Welsh by residence (eh?) I thought it perpetuated stereotypes of rural communities being made up of suspiciously closely related, socially inept primitives. It was a cheap shot at the people we all know are the TRUE GUARDIANS OF THE COUNTRYSIDE! The other episode, I only saw 5 minutes in the middle and 1o at the end, but I think I picked up on the nuances of the plot. Housing estate built on ancient woodland site... fairies in the wood (who are really aliens, obviously) get cross and start killing people and taking children away. Actually, I think that might be true. Suburbia - where they cut down the trees and name the streets after them. That used to happen all the time where we used to live in West Lothian. You used to drive past bits of habbo month after month, and then one day it would be gone and there'd be one of those yellow signs advertising new developments called things like 'DeerPark', 'Birchwood Estate', 'Red Moss' etc. The worst one I remember was called 'Waterside Meadows'. I bet all the middle-management money-men commuters wonder why they can't get house insurance and their gardens go all squelchy in winter. Am I digressing? Maybe there's a hidden message here. Maybe it's not very hidden. Diamond White is driving my life tonight. And it's drunk!
Not sure what happened in Newtonhill. We live on a relatively modern estate... but the streets are all C-list celebrity saints... St Michael's, St Ternan's, St Peter's (guess he's an A-list), St Ann's. They must have dissolved a monastery, slaughtered the good people, and built houses on top. Btw did you know the best way to preserve Scotland's wildlife is to plant trees all over the top of it? It must be true cos I saw it in a leaflet.

Anyway, inspired by The McKinney, I thought I could post my top five songs of the week too. First one... the one most likely to make you go wtf? is by a band called Love/Hate, and is in fact one of the top five of my life. In fact I think everything self destructive I've ever done has been a direct result of this band. I even had a Budweiser-can crucifix of my own. Diane made me hang it from the rafters in our garage in Winchburgh, and I left it there when we moved out. Nice surprise for the person moving in. I saw this band once, at the Buckley Tivoli (oh yes!). Went on the bus. How they were not HUGE I will never know.

And the rest.... I won't embed these for the benefit of people who have lost interest by now... but check out:

Smashing Pumpkins - Today. The best song ever, with the best video ever. I wish our ice-cream man had the same Mad Max feel.

Alice in Chains - Nutshell. My physical desire for all members of Alice in Chains, even the dead one, needs no further comment.

Cure - Friday I'm in Love. I KNOW that if you like The Cure you're meant to say that the early stuff is best, and that Killing an Arab is your favourite song, and later they sold out, etc etc. But sorry. I 've GOT the Killing an Arab album and it is largely sh*t. This song is genius... I don't care if Monday's blue, Tuesday grey and Wednesday too. Thursday I don't care about you, it's Friday I'm in love!

Abrasive Wheels - Burn 'em Down. Leeds punk band, early 80s, still going but now fat. Even at this stage (82 video) they had lst the urgency... a couple of the band members used to hang around our house. It's where I first learnt the seductive smell of glue. Genius song. Caused troubled when some kids really did burn down their school.

Confession. I aren't really drinking Diamond White tonight. It's too classy and expensive. I'm on ASDA White Lightning. I'll regret it in the morning. Still, nothing lasts forever, and we both know hearts can change. And I'll just end up walking in the cold November Rain. ha ha! Got it!

Sunday, November 19, 2006

Swine and pigs and hogs

I was at the Young Farmers' Annual Ball and Piss-up on Friday night, and there I met a rosy-cheeked big-bosomed farmer, predictably called Molly, who invited me over to her place Sunday morning to see her pigs. I was rather taken, to be honest, so naturally I scooted round there at 5 am (fashionably late) today. To my disappointment it turned out she really did want me to see her pigs. Or more accurately, find them. They were out in the woods - had been since the acorns fell - and now she wanted them back. So I called up my swineherd, Matty. He really didn't want to come because apparently his wife was giving birth or something, but I threatened him with the sack and homelessness (nothing like the Scottish feudal system with its tied houses for keeping the working classes in line) and he was round in 20 minutes. We had a bit of a natter about the best way to make applejack, then got to work. Didn't get home til after noon. I was hoping for better luck at the Young Conservatives wine-tasting tonight (just got in) but to be honest it was the same crowd, each with a bigger set of false teeth. And Molly? Well 'she' turned out to be a man. I guess the beard should have been a clue, but love IS blind. Or maybe it's just me. That would in fact explain why I saw so few birds today. Actually I haven't seen many birds at all this week. The reason is we bought a Playstation... and it's fantastic. Have been playing Star Wars Lego all week. In fact this is me...

... I can't believe that I've wasted my life reading books, watching telly, going birding etc., when really I should have been defeating the evil empire of whatever. This is my problem really. I haven't actually seen the films. Not the new three anyway, so I'm not sure who I'm meant to be saving and who I should be slaying. But things seem to work out OK.

I was out today though, round Newtonhill against the odds. Hard work. I had to fight for every Blue Tit. There was a bit of movement going on, with some Skylarks and Meadow Pipits going over, and a Eurasian Siskin. There's a flock of Rock Pipits building up in the fields in from the beach - 12 today - built up to over 50 last winter. An Atlantic Puffin offshore was a bit unusual for winter, also 2 Northern Gannets going north. A Great Black-backed Gull turned up and the Puffin scarpered. Stood on the clifftops in an eastely breeze coming straight from Denmark, it occurred to me that it was unnecessarily chilly. In fact it was bloody freezing. I was really regretting my choice of vest, shorts and sandals for today's excursion. Trouble is Diane has washed my army coat and it doesn't feel like home any more. It smells pleasantly of washing powder.

So, I'm off to kill some Lego dude with a red and black stripy face. TTFN and remember kids...

Take heed, take care and TAKE BACK THE BIRDS!

Monday, November 13, 2006

Country Diary

Sunday Morning.

There was a westerly gale overnight, but the morning was pretty calm and in fact quite a nice day. So nothing for it, but to spoil my fun with a walk round newtonhill looking for birds. Face it Martin, the autumn is OVER - no Blackcaps, no Chiffchaffs, not even a Goldcrest today!
As I was throwing stones into the bushes at the Mill, hoping to flush all those Dusky Warblers, there was a Peregrine attacking a flock of 15 pigeons over Cran Hill. Really serious getting-my-breakfast-type going-for, very fast, on flickery half-folded wings. The pigeons were scattering round and round in confusion, and for a couple of minutes the Peregrine would pile through them, miss, come out the other side, turn round and smash through them again. Very exciting, except it didn't get any closer to a kill than knocking a couple of wing feathers out of one bird. When the pigeons split up and went in separate directions, the Peregrine gave up and relaxed its wings, flew over my head into Newtonhill. See... that's how few migrants there are now; I'm forced to write about this sort of stuff. My blog has become a country diary / natural gleanings. Next stop... The Guardian. And after that, the ignominy of Birdwatching magazine. While this was happening, a Common Buzzard flew through, going west (more hookbill vermin!), and I heard the calls of the wild wild geese, returning from their Arctic breeding grounds as they have done for so many millenia (I'm good at this!).

After this, I met up with my cousin, Lord Bufton of Tufton, for whisky and eggs, and we went out stalking deers. There was a Roe Deer on the opposite (south) side of the Elsick Burn, bouncing through the bracken. I quickly changed out of my hunting pink back into my stinking army coat, and sat down to watch it as it approached within 5 m without seeing me. It jumped into the burn and started heading downstream. With my high powered Communist resistance rifle, I could have shot it, but pity, I say pity, stayed my hand. I admired its beauty as it headed away to eat the roses in someone's garden. They are beautiful animals, but VERMIN, of course, and they all have to die. As Lord B says, they eat your crops and destroy your land. And he should know, because unlike you townies, us cuntry folk understand the ways of the errr.... countryside.

A White-throated Dipper (vermin - they drink your streams and crap on your washing) was on the rocks just up from the shore, and 12 Common Eider just out (parasites - they come to our country and spread disease). I tried a seawatch, but there was nothing happening. I think I was the only active birder in the country on Sunday who didn't see a Pacific alcid of some sort. What about that eh? Do you think it's not a coincidence that the Murrelet came in with Little Auks, and that it had come over the top? Anyway, I didn't see any murrelets, nor their considerably rarer cousin, the Little Auk (vermin - eat your plankton and laugh at your pint). There were a few Guillemots and Razorbills going back and forth, a Red-throated Diver south and a Long-tailed Duck north.

Cran Hill blah blah blah... Eurasian Curlews, Northern Rufous-backed Linnet-finches, Sky Larks, hybrid Hooded x Carrion Crows. Brown Hare. Myself and Buffie, we killed and ate them all, and drank heartily. I saw some dolphins close inshore, and ran pell mell across the stubble field to the clifftops for a better view, sending 20+ Rock Pipits scattering all directions (vermin). They didn't mind, they thought it was sweet. At least that's what they kept saying. The dolphins were two Bottle-nosed, going north close in. I got them both with a right and a left (you townies might think this is cruel, but remember they're WILD ANIMALS and they ENJOY the thrill of the hunt. And they eat all the fish. AND don't even get me started on Grey Seals, of which two offshore also).

When I got home I told Diane about the mammals I'd seen, and Lizzie asked me what a mammal was. So I said they were furry animals like hares and cats and errr... dolphins. But dolphins aren't furry, she pointed out. And Diane threw Kangaroos into the conversation for me. NEVER, repeat NEVER start an explanation you can't finish. I guess that's my top tip for the day. Ker-CHOW!

Sunday, November 12, 2006

"If any question why we died / Tell them, because our fathers lied"

So, on 22 October 1914, Lieut. Francis Monkton (24), posted to St Nazaire at the mouth of the Loire, wrote a letter to Harry Witherby about the migration of birds through the area. The letter was subequently published in British Birds.

Two weeks after writing this, Monckton was killed in action, and became the first obituary in BB resulting from that stupid series of family tiffs between inbred Royal donkeys that was the Great War.
The writer has lost in Monckton a valued and sincere friend and correspondent, and the study of Staffordshire Ornithology will suffer much by his having given his life so nobly for his country. (BB 8, 287)

Lewis N. G. Ramsay, 1890 - 1915.
Ornithologists have cause to mourn the loss of one most enthusiastic fellow worker who, though only 25 years old, had already much good work to his name... From an early age Mr Ramsay had been a keen student of birds and had amassed a great amount of data regarding the ornis of Aberdeenshire.

Lord Bradbourne, 1885-1915
..was killed at Neuve Chapelle on March 12th 1915. Lord Bradbourne had for some years been engaged in the study of South American birds, and at the time war broke out he was making collections of birds in Peru, whence he hurried home to rejoin his regiment.

Captain the Hon. Gerald Legge 1882-1915.
... was mortally wounded at Sulva Bay on September 9th 1915. All his life he was a keen naturalist, taking a special interest in wildfowl... As an instance of his keenness in studying ducks I may relate that one day when I met him at Patshullm he has just arrived from Northumberland, whence he had brought a nest of teal just hatching out. By telegraphing forward to several stations en route he had secured a relay of hot water bottles by means of which he had succeeded in keeping the ducklings warm.... He was last seen mortally wounded on the ground, and cheering on the men of whom he was so proud.

Major C. H. T. Whitehead 1881-1915
... was killed in action in France on September 25th or 26th, 1915. He was thirty-four years old... He discovered the new thrush, which I had the pleasure of naming Oreocincla whiteheadi after him, and amongst other interesting discoveries he made were the breeding haunts in the Himalayas of the Chinese Reed-Warbler.

Richard Bowen Woosnam 1880-1915.
..was killed while gallantly leading his men in an attack on the Turkish trenches in Gallipoli in June 4th,, 1915. Woosnam was an experienced traveller and field naturalist... All the collections he made are in the British Museum, and accounts of the birds with his field-notes have appeared in various volumes of the Ibis and the the Transactions of the Zoological Society.

Charles Stonham, 1859-1916
The ranks of British Ornithologists have been further thinned by the death of Charles Stonham... the brigade was duly mobilised at the outbreak of the present war, and in April 1915 Stonham proceeded to Egypt... and contracted the illness from the effects of which he came home to die... As a man, Stonham was a striking personality, tall of figure, lean and saturnine of appearance, of a fearless and outspoken honesty, and the possessor of a biting tongue: he hesitated not to speak of men and things as he found them: of enemies therefore he did not lack, nor did he of very many friends, and those of us who were privileged to know him well, knew him for a man of the kindliest nature, true as steel, and with a heart of pure gold.

Lieut. Col. H H Harington, 1868-1916
...who was killed in Mesopotamia on March 8th 1916. Colonel Harington was the discovery of a number of new forms, and several birds have been named after him in recognition of good work he did. He also contributed from time to time to the Ibis, the Journal of the Bombay Natural History Society and other periodicals.

Major F W Proctor, 1862 - 1916
...Almost to the last he retained his keen interest in oology and bird-life, and nothing gave him greater pleasure than the receipt of a letter full of bird news or a talk with a brother ornithologist.

Capt JM Charlton, 1881-1916 and Lieut HV Charlton, 1884-1916.
John Charlton was killed in the great attack near La Boiselle on July 1st 1916. He fell, shot through the head by a bullet, while leading his company....his last words being to his orderly: 'Is that you, B----? For God's sake, push on, I'm done.'...He supplied British Birds with a number of interesting notes and wrote many short articles in other journals and local papers. He was a most skilful and accurate taxidermist.
Hugh Charlton fell in action near Whychaate on June 24th 1916, struck by a bomb from a trench mortar... He also was a clever ornithologist and the brothers worked much together.... Birds were his speciality; his work was very artistic in nature.... One of his pictures, 'Home of the Dipper' was exhibited in the Royal Academy in 1912.

Capt. Cecil Stanley Meares, 1883 - 1916
... was killed while leading his company into action on July 30th 1916... He made, together with his brother DH Meares, an excellent scientific collection of British birds' eggs, which contained perfect clutches of eggs, of nearly every British breeding bird, supplemented by profuse and accurate data of their localities, notes and habits.... In his spare moments, even within sound of the guns, he would take walks and rides through the country to observe the bird life.

Captain Lord Lucas 1976-1916.
It was reported the Lord Lucas was missing after making a flight over German lines on November 4th, 1916... He was an ardent lover of Nature, and especially of birds, and was elected a member of the BOU in 1902. It may be mentioned that he took a considerable interest in our Marking Scheme, and only the other day we heard of an interesting record of the recovery of a Lapwing ringed by him some four years ago.

Frederick Courtney Selous 1842-1917
On one occasion, when grouse driving, Selous saw two Peregrine Falcons pass over, very high, mere specks in the air. None of the other six guns had noticed them; our gaze was presumably limited to the level of game flight. Selous scanned the whole arc of heaven... His very death - 'killed in action' at 65 - epitomizes his whole career.

Capt. John D. Grafton-Wignall, 1888-1917

... January 1916 saw him in Mesopotamia where, to the bitter regret of all who knew him, he was killed in action just over a year later... he had that perfect sight that enabled him to 'pick up' a sitting Woodcock or a clutch of shingle-laid eggs as quickly as (and he was quick) he could detect - and accurately name too - flying or at rest some bird a great way off... To his many friends - and to me especially - his loss is irreparable: ornithology has lost a very accurate, first-rate and indefatigable observer.

Eric B Dunlop, 1887-1917
The war has claimed as a victim in the person of Mr Eric B Dunlop, who was killed in action on May 19th, 1917, at the age of 30 years, one of the most promising young ornithologists in the north of England... He made a special study of the roosting habits of the Corvidae showing that the whole of the British members of this group congregated for roosting at certain seasons. ....At the outbreak of the war he was engaged upon a study of the nesting habits and incubation of birds and was in northen Manitoba, Canada... He was in France barely a month before his death.

Christopher James Alexander 1887-1917.
He was seriously wounded near Passchendaele on October 4th 1917, and it seems almost certain he was killed, or died after being put on the ambulance...
...Several letters followed from France, ending with one on September 30th in which he wrote of a Quail they had put up , which, with Pied Flycatcher, Woodchat and Melodious Warbler seen passing a few days before, made 107 species for the year - a wonderful total under such conditions. 'The sun is sinking into the mists' he concluded: 'it really looks quite wintry, in spite of the heat'. And then they went up to the line again...
... His work seemed hardly to have begun. But such as it is, all his work is methodical, scientific, accurate, full of insight and judgement, and, above all, the true expression of a life devoted to the study of Nature.

CJ Alexander was one brother of Horace Alexander (see 'Heroes') and this was written by him.

All these come from obituaries published in
British Birds.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

is total BS! I make the joke in the Secret Freezer Sunday. it appears in the Aberdeen Evening Express Monday!

Monday, November 06, 2006

Another Yellow-browed

I've spent a lot of my lunchtimes in Westburn Park over the autumn, sometimes with nockies, sometimes not. Today not, but I wish it had been with, cos as I was tucking into my prawn sarnies a Yellow-browed Warbler called a few times from the sycamores around and about me. it was keeping high up and although I saw it moving about I couldn't get any plumage. It seemed to drop down into the bushes by the Tennis Centre, but when I went over I couldn't pish it out again, so it may have headed off.

Sunday, November 05, 2006

Warning, terrible pun, just thought of, makes me giggle

Back out around Newtonhill this morning; I wanted a slice of this Little Auk action that's been happening midweek. This was my first chance to be out, so reckoned had missed the big push, but almost certainly some stragglers to catch up with. A chance for my new scope to do its stuff too. I've thought of a new advertising campaign for Zeiss - here it is. Do you think they'll go with it and I'll get rich?

Actually, the reason I went for this scope was that it was designed by Tolkien-obsessed nerds and does in fact glow blue when in the presence of Auks. Ideal for today's job.

Deadly dull heading down the track, with all the Blackcaps cleared out of their recent haunts. Couple of Rock Pipits on the beach, with a Common Eider offshore. Dull dull dull. I even contemplated making some notes about bird behaviour. THAT'S how dull. Two men burning one of the fishermen's huts was interesting. Hope it was theirs to burn.

So I get to my clifftop seawtching soot,and my scope is glowing blue - good sign - but it turns out to be 2 Razorbills and a few Guillemots on the water. They look good though, as I'm no longer looking through strata of dried-on rainwater. I can tell there's been Little Auks about, because 3 Great Black-backed Gulls are flying up and down offshore, looking really fat and well fed. Bit of a seawatch, and bingo, I get onto 12 Little Auks moving north in ones and twos. A dribble. As I told the nurse at the sperm bank, it's not much, but it's something. Actually I'm not sure how long it took to see that many/few. I think it was about an hour, sometime mid-morning. My watch stopped at 12.30 pm a week past Friday. You'd think it would be a pain, but quite the opposite - I've entered a fantastic alternative universe where no one can pin me to a deadline, because time has no meaning, except in so far as it's lunchtime ALL the time. It's a bit like being on BOURC!!! haha! That's a joke by the way. In truth, it's so *completely* unlike BOURC it would be insulting to the committee and my colleagues on it to even contemplate such a joke publically and perpetuate unjust and inaccurate stereotypes. I really wish I'd think before opening my mouth. Sorry sorry sorry.

back on track... also 4 Red-throated Divers south, and a Great Northern Diver (pretty good). 2 male Common Scoters north and 2 male Long-tailed Ducks, and a single juv Northern G
annet. As I was packing up to go home, a Shelduck flew north close inshore. Pretty uncommon here. And as I walked back through Newtonhill, I chivvied a Blackcap out of the sycamores in the cottage gardens. So there are some migrants still about.

Fantastic sunset this evening - photos in Lizzie's Pink Plastic Warehouse.

Monday, October 30, 2006

Halloween Heroes of the Birding Revolution - Richard Meinertzhagen

I'm sorry, I'm so so sorry. Ripped on drink and drugs, and you certainly need to be. You shouldn't have gone into the woods. You shouldn't have lost the map. With extra spookiness, I present....

Colonel Richard Meinertzhagen DSO, CBE 1878-1967

Born under a blood red moon (probably) into a life of relative opulence at Mottisfont Abbey, Hampshire. The family were so rich they didn’t even notice the servants embezzling £100s in selling poached game. Natural History formed a big part of their life, and with the family connections, combined with trips to Tring and a town house close to the recently opened Natural History Museum in Kensington, the wee Meinertzhagens got to meet pretty much all the movers and shakers of the time. Not that they sat back and let the bigwigs come to them. Dickie and his brother, for example, bought a dead Garganey in Leadenhall market (London), and pretended they didn’t know what it was as a pretext to go to the British Museum and get it ‘identified’ by Bowdler-Sharpe, who them took them on a tour of the bird collection. They also bumped into Gätke (see previous ‘Heroes’ ) on their travels, Seebohm (famous for Petchora slaughter and big bird book), and Dresser (famous for even bigger bird book). Thomas Huxley (evolution pioneer, genius) had a bit of a crush on Dickie’s mum and hung around the house more than was good. The Meinertzhagens called in on Huxley one day, and young Richard got to bounce up and down on Charles Darwin’s knee – he thought Darwin looked a kindly old gent, but smelt of wee. I made that last bit up. Richard also met George Bernard Shaw, Oscar Wilde (not impressed), and Kaiser Wilhelm(!). With prescience that was to characterise his later life, Richard foresaw that war with Germany was in the pipeline.

But first, some very serious schooling.... at Aysgarth school in darkest God-forsaken Yorkshire, where the headmaster personally force-fed the students boiled beef and spotted dick (fnarr fnarr!) and made them run of miles in the freezing dawn rain until they either died or developed the physique and mentality of a public library. Richard at 6’ 5” tall and 4’ wide, opted for the latter. Then to Harrow (crumpets, fagging and thrashing), and finally Göttingen University. Richard wanted to enter a career in birdspotting, but his Dad told him to get a proper job, and in the best traditions of upper class nepotism made him take a position in the family firm. Richard didn’t like it, and ran away to join the army in 1899 (I presume the circus was full). What followed was one of the most incredible (for the intelleckuals, I use that word deliberately) military careers ever recorded. Until the Great War, he soldiered in India, Burma, Kenya, slaughtering restless natives with enthusiasm. No really, he was a nasty piece of work, as he was to admit in later life. He revelled in the savagery of Africa, cracked heads with enthusiasm… and famously finished his Christmas dinner before popping out to shoot a German diplomat. He developed a reputation for brilliance and astuteness.

In 1917, during the Great War, he was posted to the Middle East. Eventually, he got there – his ship, The Transylvania, was torpedoed and sunk. Dickie saw the dash for the lifeboats, decided it wasn’t for him, so purloined a couple of bottles of brandy, walked off the deck of the sinking ship into the Mediterranean, got kicked in the stomach by a horse floundering in the water, and was rescued by some Japanese sailors, smashed but alive, a few hours later. His military career in Egypt, Israel and Arabia was the stuff of legends. He used to hang out with Laurence of Arabia. Brilliant and ruthless, he spied, shot people, got death threats and collected birds. Caught on a plane once with a collapsed pilot, he got the airstrip personnel to spell out instructions for landing the plane in big strips of cloth on the ground. It would have been funnier if they’d spelt out “you’re f*cked”, but they didn’t and he wasn’t. His most famous exploit was inventing and carrying out a plan to pretend to ‘lose’ a haversack containing ‘secret’ military plans behind Turkish lines, convincing the Turks that we weren’t going to attack Beersheba, and then sneakily we did. Onwards to Jerusalem, and the campaign was won. Lloyd George himself got to hear about the brilliant young soldier. In 1918 he managed to be part of the apocryphal team that (allegedly), on the direct and illegal orders of King George, rescued one of the Russian princesses from the Tsar’s captive family in Ekaterinburg, flinging her onto a moving plane and bringing her back to a life on the run in Europe. Ironically, this action, if it ever happened, directly led to the slaughter of the entire remainder of the family. He officially retired from the army in 1925, but his espionage continued - 1929 saw him in Spain, murdering 19 Soviet agents at their hideout at Ronda, an action which got him a lungful of poison gas and the award of the Order of King Charles III. In 1934, he met Hitler. It would be unfair to call Dickie a sympathiser, and in time he came to regret not killing Hitler when he got the chance, but certainly he felt a great empathy with the German people (his stock) and respected the Nazis’ ability to get the trains running on time. No one told him the protocol, so he’s stood there and Hitler approaches and goes ‘Heil Hitler’, which Dickie thought was a bit weird, but he replied in kind ‘Heil Meinertzhagen’. You could have heard a pin drop. In 1940, (age 62) he was at the tiller of one of the fleet of boats ferrying escaping British soldiers from Dunkirk.

So what of the birds? Natural History had taken a back seat in his early army career, but after a series of high profile humiliations and other troubles, he turned back to birds as a kind of occupational therapy, somewhere around 1912/3. But it was when he got to Egypt and the Middle East in 1917 that his birding really took off. He spent the remainder of his life collecting birds, across Asia and Africa, and amassed one of the finest collections of bird skins (specimens), 25,000 in total, beautifully preserved and cared-for, jam-packed with unique and very important records. He genuinely loved it, the tangible result of his life’s work. And there was more than just birds, he did everything, including lice.

He once thought he saw a Monk Seal just off the beach in Egypt, so ran off for his gun and was going to shoot when he realised it wasn’t a Monk Seal, it was his Chief-of-Staff’s wife, a Mrs Waters-Taylor, skinny dipping.She would have looked good mounted, I bet.

The ‘Meinertzhagen Collection’ wasn’t the only love of his life, however – he had two wives, not at the same time. The first, Amorel, married 1911, he never slept with, which also was ironic because just about everyone else did! The second, Anne, was a fantastic ornithologist in her own right, until she accidentally shot herself in the head in 1928 with Richard’s revolver, while they were practising with targets. Not sure how she managed it, as she was very gun-savvy, but the position of the entry wound and the damage done are apparently more consistent with her being shot by someone else, a tall man, for example. Richard was the only other person there, but no inquest was ever held. Still he seemed pretty shaken up, especially when he inherited his wife’s vast estate, but he only got it on condition he never remarried. He spent the rest of his life with his gorgeous pouting 33-years-younger cousin, Theresa Clay, with a secret passage connecting their next-door houses. I bet he was up and down her passage all the time.

With Meinertzhagen’s travels and collecting came publications, and it was through these, there were plenty of them, that he became one of the elder statesmen of British Ornithology. He lacked a scientific education, but he was very clever, and cut through to the heart of many pressing ornithological issues by bringing that second sight that characterised his military career into the bird world. He was, for example, one of the few people who was never convinced by the Cambridgeshire Moustached Warbler records (see Secret Freezers passim). Not that all his work was great – there were problems with it. For example he published personally observed details about the life history and ecology of Razo Larks in spite of never having visited Razo to see them. His two major bird books were Nicoll’s Birds of Egypt (1930) and the magnificent Birds of Arabia (1954). He met Michael Nicoll, assistant director of the zoo at Gaza, during the Palestine campaign, and they struck up a friendship which lasted until Nicoll died in 1925. Actually, Dickie thought Nicoll, and his wife Norrie, were ignorant upper class twits, but they were friends all the same. Meinertzhagen was hardly on the bones of his arse himself, but even he got hacked off with the Nicoll’s opulence and their enormous baggage train and servants that they insisted on hauling around the remote corners of Egypt while out birding. When Michael died, leaving an enormous collection of bird records and illustrations for an unpublished book, Norrie asked Meinertzhagen to finish it off, which he did in some style. Keen Freezer-ites might remember that Michael Nicoll was also one of the suspects in the ‘Hastings Rarities’ scandal – hold that thought for a future edition of ‘Heroes’.

Birds of Arabia (1954) is universally acknowledged to be a great book. While serving in the Middle East, Dickie had come across, and stolen, an unpublished manuscript in the British Legation offices in Jidda, for a book of the same title by a man called Bates, who was fortuitously dead. Meinertzhagen built his own ‘Birds of Arabia’ around this manuscript, which he wrongly assumed to be the only copy (there was another one lurking in the Natural History Museum, which is how we found out what he had done). Meinertzhagen’s book was reviewed in Ibis by a French Canadian, Charles Vaurie, a republican who hated Meinertzhagen and everything he stood for politically. It was like asking George Galloway to review Prince Andrew’s helicopter expenses, and the result was a lukewarm assessment. Dickie blew his top and threatened to leave the BOU. Serious news(!).

So there were problems with his publications… but there were also problems with his collection of bird skins. The care and work he put into maintaining the high standards of his specimens was legendary, but strangely it was also known, during his life, that he could be extraordinarily careless about the labels he tied to them. ‘Quirky’ might be one way to describe it, but he made some crazy mistakes, and relabelled things for no apparent reason, gave birds wrong or misleading data, and hence began the process of devaluing his greatest achievements. And he stole things – birds from other peoples’ collections held in museums around Europe for safe-keeping were purloined for his private use. As early as 1919 he got a 12-month ban from the British Natural History Museum for trying to steal specimens. He got back in, but in 1935 the police were called after he was accused of stealing books from the museum library. Somehow he got away with it and charges were never pressed. In spite of that, he got a pass-key to the museum, where the staff knew what he was up to, but just kept an eye on him best they could. They had their eye on the inheritance… 25000 immaculate bird skins that would one day surely be passed onto the museum. They figured if he was stealing birds, they’d get them back after his death. Then disaster! He fell out with the British Museum after staff refused him permission to beat lice out of the skins (around the time they noticed an asian Greenfinch that Meinertzhagen had been looking at was missing). Meinertzhagen threatened to bequeath his collection to an American museum, where he said the skins would be better looked after. The NHM couldn’t stand the thought of that, and arranged transfer of nearly all his specimens to them in 1954, giving them a room to themselves where Dickie could come and go as he pleased and retained total control over the collection. So the Natural History Museum had got the stolen specimens back, maybe, but what they could not have guessed at the time was that Meinertzhagen had been relabelling and remaking them, giving them new locations and passing them off as his own work. Or maybe they should have guessed. Charles Vaurie had. Phillip Clancey, who had been travelling with Meinertzhagen and skinned stuff for him, also did, though it was not until after Dickie’s death that he voiced his complaints. He noticed that some African birds from the Meinertzhagen collection appeared to have been relabelled with misleading data. He also found that Meinertzhagen had taken one of Bowdler-Sharpe’s Redpolls, renamed it as his own and given it a new locality (in France). Alan Knox pioneered the detective work and with forensic analysis of Redpoll skins in particular was able to prove the point. A bit of harmless mischief perhaps? But real concern when Pamela Rasmussen and Robert Prys-Jones found that Meinertzhagen had stolen one of the few specimens of Forest Owlet from James Davidson’s collection, one of seven shot by Davidson in Maharastra in 1884. Meinertzhagen manipulated and re-fixed it in a new style, given it a new location and date (Mandvi, 300 miles away, 1914). This would have represented a significant range extension for what was then a presumed extinct species, and was a major prize in the Colonel’s collection. Rasmussen and Prys-Jones went on to show that all 14 of Dickie’s unique and most valuable east Indian specimens were stolen and fraudulently labelled, significantly messing up our understanding of the avifauna of the region. More and more frauds are coming to light all the time (most recently, in British Birds – a Meinertzhagen specimen of Gray’s Grasshopper Warbler, supposed to have hit the lighthouse at Ouessant in 1933, was in fact shot by Owston in north-east China in June 1908, and resided at Tring until Dickie stole it). In fact, there’s quite a clear modus operandi here…. Meinertzhagen would find a series of specimens of a species that he liked the look of, take the best individual, maybe crack it about a bit, change its shape, do a bit of work on it so it wasn’t obvious where it had come from, then give it a new data tag with some interesting location, and pass it off as one of his own birds, in his own collection. The scale is incredible – it’s estimated that of the 25000 skins in his collection, maybe as many as 5000 are stolen fakes. It’s clear that Meinertzhagen claims to have collected loads birds in places he simply was not there at the time. It’s bit like some imaginary modern-day fraudulent twitcher claiming to see a rarity somewhere on the same day that he is independently seen to be 100s miles away.

So has Meinertzhagen pissed on his legacy to such an extent that his collection is now totally useless? Probably not. For a start, many of the stolen specimens can be recognised as missing from the original series or collection they came from, and can be ‘repatriated’. Second, there are immensely important skins in the Meinertzhagen collection that appear to be totally genuine – his Afghan Snowfinches (the types – there was nowhere to steal these from) and his Yemeni specimen of Northern Bald Ibis. To be handled with care… but the Meinertzhagen birds are beautifully prepared and it would be a criminal to burn the lot, as has been suggested. You cannot spend 40 years shooting everything that moves without building up an interesting collection; somewhere among the 20000 genuine birds are bound to be some important stuff.

Why did he do it? Prestige? It could be that, but he would have had that anyway. I put it down to arrogance, and to contempt. While Meinertzhagen was extraordinarily generous and kind to his friends, at the same time he didn’t seem to care about honesty in his professional relationships. He loved ruses – to be played out equally on enemies or friends – and was contemptuous of the opinions of others. He KNEW what he was trying to prove, about avifaunas, was true, so felt justified in stealing and relabelling the skins, or inventing data for publications, to prove it. And he let nothing stand in his way… maybe even his second wife.

Meinertzhagen died in 1967, but was virtually bedridden for some time after he bumped into a big dog and broke his hip. For a man who had thrived on the thrill of being alive, the joy of movement, of feeling things, and excitement, it must have been a wretched end. But he probably took some comfort in the trail of wreckage he left behind.

Richard Meinertzhagen DSO CBE. You were one of the elder statesmen of Palearctic birding. A pioneer who was perhaps the last scientific collector, hiding a gun in your walking stick, to mingle in the world of modern day birding. I would have paid good money to have seen Ken Williamson’s face when the Fair Isle birders were back at the Obs debating the identity of a ‘pipit’ in 1952, and you pulled the corpse of a Short-toed Lark out of your pocket – ‘Is that it?’. You were one of the most brilliant soldiers and ornithologists ever produced, not only a double life, but a triple, and quadruple. You were an imperialist enforcer, arrogant and inspired, generous, ruthless, a thief, a real spy, and a liar, occasional bigot, and always a whirlwind. At the moment we don’t know if you did more harm than good. History needs people like you, but I’m not sure why. I therefore decorate you… Halloween Hero of the Birding Revolution, 1st class.

‘… For the future, I shall go my own way, disregarding conventionalities, with hardened morals, ignoring failure and thwarting disappointment, following my own inclinations, regarding the World as one huge plaything made for my amusement, doing good to others where and when I was able but refusing outside effort to make me happy, encouraging companionship but avoiding friendship and ignoring the advice of and, if necessary, even the existence of my family.’
Richard Meinertzhagen, 1917.

‘Meinertzhagen knew no half measures. He was logical, an idealist of the deepest, and so possessed by his convictions that he was willing to harness evil to the chariot of good. He was a strategist, a geographer, and a silent laughing masterful man; who took as blithe a pleasure in deceiving his enemy (or his friend) by some unscrupulous jest, as in spattering the brains of a cornered mob of Germans one by one with his African knob-kerri. His instincts were abetted by an immensely powerful body and a savage brain....’
TE Lawrence, Seven Pillars of Wisdom, 1926.

‘Needless to say he [Meinertzhagen] never rose in the War above the rank of Colonel. I met him during the peace Conference and he struck me as being one of the ablest and most successful brains I had ever met in any army. That was quite sufficient to make him suspect and to hinder his promotion to the higher ranks of the profession.’
David Lloyd George (Memoirs).

‘Meinertzhagen will be remembered as an eminent and outspoken ornithologist of international fame and as one of the best and most colourful intelligence officers the Army ever had’
The Times, obituary, 1967. I actually think that Meinertzhagen wrote this himself. Before he died.

‘I can say upon my oath that Meinertzhagen’s collection contains skins stolen from the Leningrad Museum, the Paris Museum and the American Museum of Natural History, and perhaps other museums but the three I mentioned were verified by me. He also removed labels, and replaced them by others to support his ideas and theories.’ Charles Vaurie, 1974.

Blindfold-Bunny-Baby has got her own blog.

1 day to go....

Lock up your skins... and your young cousins.

He's coming. 31 October. Dickie M.

Sunday, October 29, 2006

Sunday Morning

With Lizzie and Diane away for the rest of the weekend, it was just me and Peter. I shoved him in his buggy and we did a circuit of the patch, looking for birds. Who would have guessed that having a whingeing 2-year old would inhibit my birding. Well, I'm shocked to tell you, it did. Though we had a good long play at the swingpark by The Retreat, checking the sycamores for Pallas's Warblers etc. And once we'd called at the shop and I could feed him Milky Ways and Kinder Eggs, he was much better. Still not a whole lot about, but the good haul of Blackcaps continues, with one at the top of the track by St Ann's, 4 in the Mill garden, and one in the lone sycamore at the clifftop. A few Goldcrests, too, but that was about it. We went home and watched 'Boo'.

A very disappointing 100th post

I was out on Thursday morning round Newtonhill, in a terrific gale - saw bugger all.
Saturday morning, the wind had dropped, but the rain was coming down hard. A few Blackcaps and Goldcrests around the Mill and beach area, and a very few Redwings. And 1 Coal Tit.

Coming soon.... make sure you're not doing anything on October 31. Get ready. Halloween Heroes of the Birding Revolution, with extra spookiness. Lordy! He's coming! Run! It's....

Richard Meinertzhagen.
You read it... your phone rings, you die.

Monday, October 23, 2006

Jockeys and Horses

My pal Lynne and her husband Robin were at Aviemore for the weekend, and they took this lovely scenic picture of Loch Morlich, which they knew would appeal to me. And it does... so beautifully composed, with the ripples and the hills and everything, and the shagging ducks.

Robin once invited me out for a dirty weekend to Barcelona, but I refused because I thought Lynne would find out and be cross. Then he claimed he meant to email Lynne (email bns239@) and not me (bns230@), but none of us really believe that.

I suppose I should tell you about the birding in Newtonhill on Sunday morning, but there's a bit of a repetitive theme going on. There had been a bit of movement overnight though - I kept bumping into small parties of Goldcrests that had not been here on Saturday evening, and also Coal Tits. I can go weeks without seeing a Coal Tit here, but on Sunday there were several newly around. 3 Blackcaps in the elders at the top of the St Ann's track, and another 6 in the Mill Garden - good score. A Common Chiffchaff in the sycamores before the railway bridge was a nice crisp one with a good super and was probably albietinus.

A hint of eastern promise from the allotments - a Lesser Whitethroat in the willows. Quite a typical dark one... not warm rufous or particularly pale or any of that rubbish. Egad! That my first of the autumn! Unfortunately it was a nice warm day (Red Admirals and Painted Ladies on the wing), so the gardeners were out and I was getting the evil eye, so moved on.

I had to get down to the Water Valley (Brambling over, but only 1 Redwing), but when I got there it was very disappointing. 1 Goldcrest - and then that flew away! All very relaxing I guess, and certainly birds on the move, but I'm starting to think my autumn peaked with YbW.