It has been quite a while since I’ve written anything for a number of reasons, but I’m back at last and I’m rearing to go! I thought I’d get my 2017 blogging underway with an unusual topic that I’ve been longing to tell you about for some time: the Tomkinson collection. If you follow me on Twitter you may have seen a recent post linking to an article about an egg collection that has been taken on by the Natural History Museum and this is my take on it all.
When I was a child my love of wildlife, and birds in particular, was nurtured and encouraged by my parents but also by my Great Uncle, John Tomkinson. He lived in South France and we didn’t see him very often, but every time we did he would be asking me what I had seen in the garden and whether I had learnt the song of a certain bird yet. Sadly, he died when I was 10 but I have fond memories of him and am thrilled to have been left his binoculars along with a few of his books. The books allow me to learn more about him on a deeper level. It’s almost like I have a firsthand account of his likes and interests, and while I could learn more about him by using sites like Genealogy Bank and accessing their census records, I don’t think anything could beat what I am learning about him through his books, and his binoculars too, of course. I use the bins regularly and am always reminded of him when I do. It truly feels like a blessing.
In turn, my Great Uncle John was encouraged to observe nature as a young boy by his father, my Great Grandfather, Gerald. Gerald was a keen birder and collector of eggs, a passion which he shared with John. Between the 1890s and mid-1950’s they amassed a large and meticulously recorded egg collection. In the 1970’s John donated the collection to the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust and it has been kept at Slimbridge ever since. We took my Great Uncle back to Slimbridge in the mid-90’s, shortly before he died, to see the collection again. I have little recollection of the trip itself, but I do remember completing a school project on it at the time and a couple of numbers have always stuck in my head: Around 27,000 eggs in the Tomkinson collection totalling 5,000 clutches of 335 species of bird. The figures are quite astonishing but the records kept alongside them are equally important.
I should point out here that when the collection was put together, the gathering of bird’s eggs was legal. I should also explain that Gerald and John were very careful in the techniques which they employed and in their recording of the endeavour. They collected only entire clutches and this is an important consideration: in nature when a bird loses a whole clutch of eggs, to a predator for example, they will almost always lay a new clutch of the same size as the original or larger. By contrast, when only one or two eggs are lost, the bird usually won’t lay more. Therefore, in taking a whole clutch early in the breeding season, Gerald and John ensured that the population size was less likely to be affected by their actions.
Anyhow, the long and short of this story is that before Christmas we were contacted by Slimbridge to ask whether we would like to visit the collection again. This came about because it was due to be moved to the Natural History Museum’s collection at Tring where it will be better housed and available for use in research projects. We were thrilled at the news that it has become such a valuable research asset and jumped at the chance to take another look at this astonishing piece of family history. And so, on a wet weekend in December whilst visiting my parents in Herefordshire, 7 of us set out for WWT Slimbridge for the day.
We had a wonderful warm greeting and began our day with a particularly special and memorable treat; an exclusive visit to Sir Peter Scott’s house. He is a personal hero of mine on many levels. Needless to say that to be allowed to sit in his study, to see his last painting still on the easel and originals on the walls, to look at this hand painted records of Bewick’s Swan beak patterns and see what books lined his shelves was an absolute joy and an experience that I will never forget.
Having torn ourselves away from the house we split into two groups. The room holding the egg collection is fairly cramped and so for ease of access half went for lunch while the others spent time looking through the collection and vice versa. I could have spent a week in there let alone just a couple of hours! I should point out here that I had to resort to using my phone for any photography because the light levels in the room were too low (for conservation purposes) to take images handheld on my DSLR and there simply wasn’t space for a tripod between the cabinets. Not only this but the eggs are all under glass for protection and so I had lots f reflections to contend with… it was not ideal! I therefore apologise for the quality of the images but I felt that they were still worth sharing.
The collection is housed in a series of wooden cabinets with drawers full of boxes containing whole clutches of eggs. The full drawers were a thing of beauty in themselves, such delicate things as egg shells all perfectly presented, some even with feathers from the nest.
The factor which made it all the more fascinating though was the records. Each clutch was numbered and logged in a record book which listed when and where they were collected along with any other relevant information such as clutch size, any unusual colouring, presence of a cuckoo egg or pygmy egg. There were also a series of diaries which can be tied in with the record books, describing outings in further detail and mentioning things such as when the bird had been seen building the nest and by whom, detailing more precisely the locations, many of which are still on family owned land and familiar to us. For example, this clutch of Long-tailed Tit eggs was collected from a tree in my Great Grandparents’ garden.
Alongside these there were also a series of photo albums. These were mostly images from trips abroad but contained a few shots which made the mind boggle rather – Gerald, my Great Grandfather, naked as the day he was born with the exception of a hat and shoes, in an image simply captioned “Packing up the eggs”! Only by looking at previous photographs does it become apparent that he had stripped off to wade out in chest deep water to a Grebe’s nest (somewhere in Hungary if I recall correctly)… rather him than me!
I also found one of my Great Uncle as a young boy going over a cliff edge with a piece of rope tied round his waist to collect his first Buzzard’s nest. Let’s just say that health and safety is a very different matter these days!
Finally, there were the oddities in the collection which one would perhaps struggle to see in a lifetime, let alone all in one place:
- Pink eggs from a Raven (they are usually greenish in colour).
- An entire clutch of Linnet eggs that are pygmy (much smaller than normal and probably would have failed to survive).
- Single pygmy eggs in the nests of Long Tailed Tit and Coaltit along with normal clutches (one such clutch is pictured above).
- A Treecreeper nest with an unusually large clutch of 14 eggs from a single bird.
- A clutch with 2 Cuckoo eggs in from separate individuals.
- A clutch of 4 Redstart eggs with a Coaltit egg in the same nest.
- A clutch of 4 Bluetit eggs with a Redstart egg in the same nest.
To name but a few…
Interestingly, a bird laying eggs that have a particularly unusual colouration can be a great help scientifically, as this bird will continue to lay eggs this way for her entire breeding life and can therefore be tracked fairly reliably if she stays in one area.
There is little doubt in my mind that a great deal can be learnt from the Tomkinson collection which spans every group from tiny Whinchats and Tree Pipits through Sparrowhawks and Guillemots to gangly Flamingos. I understand that there has already been significant interest in the collection within the research community and I am incredibly proud that my family have left such a valuable legacy to science. I hope to visit the collection again now that it is at Tring and I cannot wait to see what they discover!