The Tadcaster Rarities


Ever since bird study became a serious science, several people have attempted to make money or gain kudos from the ornithological scene. Early records were not judged by committees, and usually the only supporting evidence was a note to a magazine or newspaper. By the late 1800s, specimens were examined at meetings of the British Ornithologists Club. Although discussion took place it was usually a single person (e.g. Newton, Yarrell, Saunders, Witherby, etc.) who passed ultimate judgement by way of comment in a book which would become the standard reference of its time.

At the height of the collecting era, specimens exchanged hands for high prices. One way that the ordinary man might make a few shillings was to sell a corpse to a local taxidermist. Obviously the rarer the bird was, the more he stood to gain, as was the case for the taxidermist who passed it on to wealthy collectors eager to further their hobby. The majority of taxidermists were honest people taking their commissions from regular customers, usually wealthy landowners or members of the aristocracy. They were fully aware that if any fraud was discovered they might lose the goodwill and custom built up over many years and with their reputation in tatters they would stand to lose their prime source of income.

However, as always, there were bad apples in every barrel. The best-known fraudulent act was the Hastings Rarities Affair, which occurred at the beginning of the 20th century and lasted more than two decades. For many years one taxidermist, George Bristow, received many rare specimens that were passed on to collectors. Several new additions to the British List were made, and indeed they stood for about 50 years before being removed in 1962. Although no case of fraud was ever proven, the statistics were so unbelievable that all records where Bristow had involvement were removed from the British List.

Through necessity, foreign specimens had been preserved abroad prior to exportation until this time, but early experiments with refrigeration during this period meant that corpses could be brought to England and taken to ornithologists with a freshly shot appearance, some still dripping with blood. A taxidermist could also be duped in this way and Bristow may have been tricked himself; indeed he made no great financial gain from his involvement. Many of the people who brought him corpses were well-respected professionals, such as policemen, doctors and members of the clergy. It is most likely that only some of the records later removed were fraudulent. Nowadays, it would not be unusual to find a Bluethroat or Barred Warbler at Dungeness, Kent, but many (probably good) records of such were removed along with Black Larks and Slender-billed Curlews. In the 1960s the Hastings Affair made newspaper headlines and a whole edition of British Birds was devoted to the case.

The work of the BOURC has been just as important ever since, and other mistakes in the assessment of old records have been uncovered. It was while looking through many old records as part of researching my book, First for Britain and Ireland 1600–1999, that I came across some other dubious records. One "Mr Graham of York" kept cropping up among a variety of records. As mentioned earlier, it was not unusual for a single character to dominate the birding scene in one district or during a certain period. Mr Graham had received and preserved at least four first British records: Lesser Kestrel, Houbara Bustard, Orphean Warbler and Ross's Gull. He was also involved with several other rare bird specimens. Respected people had brought the first two species to him and he had mounted the specimens for them. He would have received the normal commission fee and made no additional profit from them. The Ross's Gull and Orphean Warbler were different, and both struck me as being of dubious merit.

The Orphean Warbler had allegedly been nesting in Wetherby, Yorkshire, and despite an attempt to 'collect' the breeding pair on 6th July 1848, only the female was shot and the male escaped. Graham apparently travelled to Wetherby and purchased the specimen. He claimed it had been incubating and was poorly mounted by the shooter. I suspected that this statement was used to excuse the poor state of the mounted specimen, which is now in Leeds Museum. Graham had originally sold it to Sir William Milner who placed it in his collection and dispatched communication regarding the discovery to The Zoologist.

The Ross's Gull, which is also in Leeds Museum, was an adult in winter plumage and was apparently shot while in a ploughed field in 1846 (or 1847) at Milford-cum-Kirby, near Tadcaster, Yorkshire. Again Graham purchased the specimen and there were discrepancies between the finders' stories at the time. This was the first time that the species had ever been seen and described in its non-breeding plumage - indeed it was only the second specimen to be discovered anywhere in the world. It was accepted at the time and remains the first British and European record. There were no further British records for almost a century and it remains the only inland report from over 85 British records to date!

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Digging deeper, I found that Graham was also involved with an unacceptable Bulwer's Petrel record (found dead on the beach at Scarborough in spring 1849). Graham also claimed to have collected a Brünnich's Guillemot and its egg from the Scottish Isle of Soay on 15th June 1847 and sold it to William Milner, who also had in his possession an American Saw-whet Owl Aegolius acadius suspected to have come from Graham, as Milner was told that it had been obtained in Yorkshire.

While dismissing the Guillemot report, Eagle Clarke called Graham a man of "dubious character" and clearly several records with his involvement were rejected at the time. The four 'First' records however still stand, as there was no reasonable doubt surrounding them.

With better understanding and a more complete picture of vagrancy patterns, the Orphean Warbler and Ross's Gull remain highly suspicious. The Orphean Warbler was not seen in Britain again until 1955 and there have been only five British records. An unlikely breeding report and suspect skin are surely unacceptable for a British first. The Ross's Gull specimen has the appearance of being mounted from a relaxed skin rather than from a freshly killed specimen, and there have been no other inland British records. It is likely that a bird landed on a ship, most likely a whaling ship en route to Whitby, and was captured by a sailor who then sold it to Graham.

This practice was common among sailors who brought several species from as far as the Antarctic, even releasing some, alive, in British waters. It was recorded that several Pintado Petrels were released into the English Channel by returning sailors in 1866.

The BOURC are currently looking at records with Mr Graham's involvement. These have become affectionately known as the 'Tadcaster Rarities'. Although I have my own thoughts on these records, it is the democratic work of such a committee that should rightly have the final say. A decision is expected soon.

Phil Palmer’s book First for Britain and Ireland 1600–1999 provides a history of bird recording in Britain as well as presenting accounts of the first records of over 360 species on the British List. It also includes c.200 photographs. To order a signed copy email phil@nightjar.connectfree.co.uk - price £23 plus postage.
Written by: Phil Palmer