Every county has an archive containing its recorded ornithology, typically consulted only during preparations for a county or regional avifauna or when establishing the historical context of rarities. Seldom is the archive examined in detail, at least with regard to common species. Recently, the entirety of Britain’s historical ornithology was summarised by David Ballance (Ballance 2020), in a worthy successor to his Birds in Counties (Ballance 2000 and supplements).
The Historical Ornithology of Shropshire (http://histo.shropshirebirds.com) is believed to be the only example of a complete record of the entire ornithological literature of an English county. This online record, known within the county as ‘Histo’, contains in excess of 1,500 items, with a complete 15,000-entry Species Index. (Online Histo is accompanied by an annotated hard copy, occupying 22 lever arch files.) Work in compiling Histo began in 2007 and has involved scanning or photographing every page of every document relating to the occurrence and status of birds within the county (but avoiding ethology). The pages are scanned image files so, except in a few cases, items cannot be word-searched but the comprehensive index enables all species records to be tracked down. The material spans annual nature reports and academic papers, some with records back to Roman times; journal entries from The Zoologist, The Field and other less well-known nineteenth-century journals; local newspapers; and the pages of current journals and magazines, including BB. The compilation of Histo was brought to a close with all known records to the end of 2020.
Histo’s core material is the records of the Caradoc & Severn Valley Field Club, from the 1880s, together with its successor the Shropshire Ornithological Society, from 1955. Further data have been added from multiple additional sources, notably two recently discovered county ornithological diaries, of Charles Gawen (Tucker & Tucker 2018) and the Meares brothers (Waddell 2017).
William E. Beckwith (1844–1892) was the leading nineteenth-century ornithologist in Shropshire and made his first appearance in the literature with a report of three rarities in The Zoologist in 1867. His next contribution was a bird species list for Shrewsbury in 1878. He went on to accumulate and publish, in instalments, the largest body of nineteenth-century ornithological information but died suddenly at the age of 48 without completing the book he was working towards. Histo was used to create the first single volume of all Beckwith’s bird work (Tucker & Tucker 2017). From Beckwith’s work we can begin to gain some idea of the county’s nineteenth-century avifauna, providing the earliest ornithological baseline we have for Shropshire. This enables us to gauge the extent of the many losses (and few gains) there have been since then. A recent example published in BB concerned the Common Sandpiper Actitis hypoleucos (Brit. Birds 113: 178–179).
No value judgements are imposed on the material or attempts made to validate records; Histo is simply a compilation of everything known. The Species Index is comprehensive and covers every mention with the exception of common species (colour coded in the index) in Annual Bird Reports since 1955. For example, there are 142 records for Turtle Dove Streptopelia turtur and 123 for Common Cuckoo Cuculus canorus, both always popular with recorders although now, respectively, functionally extinct or rapidly declining. The Species Index has a Notes field, which can help in finding particular records and sometimes sites – there is no Sites Index. The Index highlights, in red, all records rejected by county or national adjudicators.
The compilation of the data since 2007 probably represents the equivalent of around three person-years’ work. The additional work on the website, undertaken by my brother Peter, is impossible to quantify. It was Peter who first suggested making it available online and this was invaluable during the preparation of Birds of Shropshire (Smith 2019).
Another early application of the resource was in relation to phenology. Histo was examined to extract migrant arrival dates, the very first being a Cuckoo recorded by Beckwith on 9th April 1871. The outcome, after three months of data extraction and checking, was SMAD (Shropshire Migrant Arrivals Database; http://pgt7.uk/sos/general/sos2016tuckerree.html). SMAD currently contains close to 3,200 first-record dates spanning 130 years for 32 species of migrant birds. The annual data are virtually complete for Barn Swallow Hirundo rustica and Common Swift Apus apus, with only five and two missing dates respectively. They are more sparse for less familiar species and the series were curtailed for others as they either adapted to overwintering (for example Common Chiffchaff Phylloscopus collybita) or became rare or extinct in the county (European Nightjar Caprimulgus europaeus and Corn Crake Crex crex).
A recent paper on the results from SMAD used descriptive models to interrogate one of the longest datasets of its kind. It was remarkable that a small range of simple models revealed intriguing trends, which are presumably responses to climatic and environmental changes. Of the 32 species examined by Reese & Tucker (2020), eight showed no significant change from earlier arrival dates while 15 showed progressively earlier arrivals, for example Willow Warbler P. trochilus, by ten days (fig. 1) over the century. The remaining nine species fitted a ‘broken stick’ model, with different trends up to the middle of the twentieth century and thereafter. All three common hirundines showed this pattern and the Sand Martin Riparia riparia (fig. 1), even with its change in trend, is arriving 16 days earlier over the century. Three winter visitors (Fieldfare Turdus pilaris, Redwing T. iliacus and Brambling Fringilla montifringilla) were fitted by ‘broken sticks’ but are less clear-cut. The next steps are to reproduce, or debunk, the models we identified and to attribute some biological meaning to the patterns.
While Shropshire is perhaps unique to have assembled them, the county cannot be alone in having similar data in its county archives. For anyone with the time and inclination, the process of delving into their own county ornithological record, so diligently accumulated by our forebears, is a source of potentially rich reward.
I thank Peter Tucker for his work on the Histo website, Allan Reese for converting the SMAD data into something meaningful and Tom Wall and Roger Riddington for comments on a draft of this editorial.
Ballance, D. K. 2000. Birds in Counties. Imperial College Press, London.
–– 2020. Avifaunas, Atlases & Authors. Privately published.
Reese, R. A., & Tucker, J. J. 2020. Descriptive models for first-arrival dates of migrants in an inland UK county. Ringing & Migration 34: 1–7.
Smith, L. (ed.) 2019. Birds of Shropshire. Liverpool University Press.
Tucker, J. J., & Tucker, P. G. 2017. Beckwith’s Birds of Nineteenth Century Shropshire. Holbrook Design.
–– & –– 2018. Journal of Field Ornithology. Charles Gawen 1888–1911. Holbrook Design.
Waddell, T. A. 2017. Diaries of C. S. and D. H. Meares, 1892 to 1949. Privately published.
John Tucker, e-mail [email protected]