August 2022 marks the sixtieth anniversary of the publication of an important special issue of BB. Vol. 55, issue 8 ran to over a hundred pages and covered, in staggering detail, one of the greatest cases of fraud in ornithological history: the Hastings Rarities. Between 1892 and 1930, Sussex-based taxidermist George Bristow handled hundreds of specimens of dozens of rare species, all alleged to have been collected within a 30-mile radius of Hastings. Many of the species were, at the time, new to Britain and selling the skins to collectors and ornithologists earned him a substantial amount. Without any sort of formal rarities committee at the time, and with the supposed ‘evidence’ of a physical specimen, the records were accepted by most at face value. 

The BB paper laid out the statistical reasoning for why such a concentration of rare birds, all falling into the hands of one taxidermist in such a relatively short space of time, was improbable at best, entirely impossible at worst. 

What is, however, interesting is the number of species that, at the time of the report, were removed from the British List but have, over the subsequent five decades, made it back on. For some of the species, it’s hard to believe that they were not on the list at the time – Cory’s Shearwater Calonectris borealis, Cetti’s Cettia cetti and Sardinian Warblers Curruca melanocephala, for example; while others, such as Black Melanocorypha yeltoniensis and White-winged Larks Alauda leucoptera, Rüppell’s Warbler C. ruppeli and Brown Flycatcher Muscicapa dauurica have been recorded only once or a few times since. In fact, only a couple of species struck from the list in 1982 have yet to be recorded in Britain: Moustached Warbler Acrocephalus melanopogon has been claimed several times, but was removed from the list following a review, and Snowfinch Montifringilla nivalis has yet to reach Britain’s shores. Nonetheless, the possibility of a Moustached Warbler occurring at some point doesn’t seem so impossible, while accepted records of Snowfinch from the German North Sea island of Heligoland (Brit. Birds 115: 330–346) show that the species has vagrancy potential. Regardless of the ethics of the operation, Bristow clearly had a good eye for picking species that might, eventually, occur in Britain, many of them having already occurred on Heligoland.

The full issue is available to read on BB Online – https://britishbirds.co.uk/volume-55/issue-8

Volume: 
Issue 8
Start Page: 
422
Display Image: 
Subtitle: 
60 years since the Hastings Rarities report

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