• Susan Elaine Jones

Cataloging a hole, a cuckoo nest and a bunch of pebbles

In these strange days of lockdown, the museum has tried a new way of working. Using photos of a collection, and a little negotiation with the photographer physically in the building, could remote volunteers usefully describe and transcribe a museum collection?

Linnet nest with handwritten note

One of the many hidden treasures in the stores that needed time and attention is a cabinet of bird nests.

The museum has very few bird nests in the collection, even though it was (but fortunately no longer is) a popular historic hobby for amateur naturalists. This collection was put together by a great nerd, who noted when they collected the nest, where it was, often with a photo of the nest in situ, what vegetation was around. As well as the common name, they give the latin species name, often to subspecies level, and which book or source they are following. They even type their notes most of the time rather than leaving us with indecipherable handwriting. Though there are a few notes in the bottom drawer that were either written leaning on a brick, written by a child, or by someone who just broke their normal writing hand. Yet, even those notes are still quite legible.

Oystercatcher nest with limpet decoration

What could possibly be difficult?

What is a comprehensive set of notes for a collector is still not quite museum standard information. I’m really glad that they described what some of the nests are made of – I can’t quite tell from the photos the difference between fine rootlets, grasses or vegetable down. I didn’t even know that vegetables had down. Fortunately, my partner in crime, Pablo, was brilliant and identifying everything from moss, grass bents, inorganic man-made detritus and fucoid brown algae (I didn't ask).

Jay nest with eggs - cut down to fit into a drawer

It can also near-impossible to tell how many eggs are in a nest from just one photo. We solved that by the lovely Matt (who when he was in the stores, took photos for us), also noting on his iphone notepad how many eggs he could see in the nests.

So far, so good.

Now given this collector was really good at labelling, there are still a few mysteries to solve.

I’m sure they knew exactly where the elder bush by the hen run in Surrey was that they collected a Linnet nest, but I’m a little less sure exactly which bush that might be. Was that near the Goldfinch nest in an apple tree in the orchard in Surrey, collected on the 7th May – and whilst we’re at it, what years did they collect these nests? I think they must live in in the south as the spotted flycatcher’s nest is made with string and sewing materials, as they noted the nest was “opposite the housekeeper’s window” in Wiltshire, which is a familiarity that I don’t have with many places except my home town.

Spotted flycatcher nest made with sewing materials

I’m sure they remember which year they were collecting various places, so just noting “15th May” is all you needed. But, given that they collected nests in June in Surrey, Wiltshire, Scotland, Cambridge, Norfolk and Northumberland I will have to conclude that this was in different years. I note only two objects collected from that lovely seaside fossil town Lyme Regis – a chiffchaff nest from Uplyme at the “end of May”, and the Thrush anvil taken from the nearby Lyme Regis undercliff in 1916 - with fragments of tourist chips still stuck to it from the snail slime – a lovely detail! Can we guess that these were the same, and only trip to Lyme Regis? They also picked up a grey wagtail nest on the 12th May and a wood warbler nest on the 25th of May from the edge of Horner Water in Exmoor – which may be nearby but with a fortnight between those collections, I would guess was a different trip?

Thrush anvil with tourist chips
Little tern "nest" with two eggs

I don’t think I can make any strong conclusions about Scotland either, as you got a few things from the Highlands, including an Eider nest in early June, and a rock pipit nest (made of... rocks, which the collector has dutifully brought home and arranged in a box based on his photo) from the Isle of Skye on the 4th of June, whilst also bagging a crested tit nest from Rothiemurchus in “June”. They were either very mobile back and forth across Scotland or went a few times in different years.

I do note the extreme diligence of collecting nests that aren’t nests. The Rock Pipit was just one. The Little Tern nest which they noted as “no true nest, eggs in hollow in small shingle” dutifully collected and brought home the small shingle to place in a box with a label, and the blown eggs on top. Similarly the Common Tern nest made of bivalve shells, shingle, driftwood and man made inorganic debris. Now forever preserved in the museum collection.

Cuckoo "nest"

I enjoy that they have a nest filed under “cuckoo”. It is diligent that they have various eggs in amongst a clutch from a reed warbler, meadow pipit and pied wagtail, as well as the reed warbler’s nest. Though that does make our listing under “species” a little more complex.

Similarly, the tree sparrow nest in an old woodpecker hole might need to be double filed for species, but it is important information as you note that the sparrow still makes a proper dome inside the nest regardless that the eggs won’t fall out given it is in a woodpecker tree hole.

Tree sparrow nest in green woodpecker hole

Whilst we are speaking of woodpecker holes, can I just share the delight of the collection including a few slices of trees in a drawer to show the holes that woodpeckers made. Does that mean that we will be accessioning the holes? Shall we file that next to polo and doughnut middles?

A woodpecker "nest"

Trips to this region occasionally have dates – the corn bunting nest near Lemsford, Hertfordshire gets the exceptional accuracy of 10th of May 1919, and the yellowhammer nest found “two feet from the ground in a low thorn scrub mixed with the rank growth of the grass verge of a minor road. Near Barton, Cambs. 4 6 22.” Is wonderfully precise. Cambridge and the Norfolk coast are particular favourite haunts, but many of the nests are frustratingly vague or focussed on other details. For example, a spotted flycatcher nest “of soft materials giving no inherent strength, so always built on a ledge or in a hollow. Here the nest was on a window ledge opposite a sequoia sempervirens from strips of the soft bark of which nest is made.”. But where and when it was collected is a mystery.

I will leave the final note from the collector who not so much collected as wrote a mini-biography of a Black redstart that nested in Cambridge City Centre. “After nesting in 1936 and a successful nest in the Eaden Lilley yard in 1937, they made a new nest (this one) in a hole in unfinished top floor of Victorian Cinema in 1937. It was found in 1938 close to the new 1938 nest materials typical of those freely available in and on the soot begrimed roof gutters, chimney stacks and top garret window ledges – of the smoky Cambridge of those days!”

Mapping out all the collection has helped identify some of the areas. But we next tackle the additional chest of drawers labeled "eggs" which may help with further investigations.

Mapping the bird nest collection