Tuesday, 28 August 2012

The Dead Zoo

I was in Dublin for a meeting last week so with a little time to spare at lunch I popped into the Natural History Museum on Merrion Square. The musuem closed in 2007 after a staircase collapsed and was re-opened following refurbishment in April 2010. Since then I've been meaning to visit. The one and only time I was ever there was as part of a trip with my national school in about 1980 (I think). It was at the time of my initial interest in birds and I recall ticking everything I saw in there, my list was a little less 'regulated' back then. It didn't matter if the bird was alive or stuffed and mounted in a glass case, as far as I was concerned I had had tickable views!
Anyway, the first thing I'll say is that flash photography is not allowed and I hadn't even got a compact camera with me so all the pics I took were with my Blackberry so please forgive the graininess and reflections from the glass. They're there to illustrate a point only.
And while there are plenty of very nice displays and mounts of our common breeding birds, it was the rare stuff that I was really interested in. And there's some absolute gems in there!
Back in day before DSLRs, powerful optics and advanced field guides, if you wanted to identify the bird you had to blow its brains out first. Sad really, but at least the skins and stuffed birds offered a permanent record and enabled early ornithologists to study their subjects in more detail. It was after all how John James Audubon drew birds for his life's work 'The Birds of America'.
In the first display case my attention was drawn to a Pallas's Sandgrouse. Shot in Drumbeg, Co. Donegal in 1888. Presumably part of the large irruption that year caused possibly by heavy snowfalls and hard snow crust in its central Asian breeding area which led to problems with drinking water and feeding.

Pallas's Sandgrouse - shot Drumbeg, Co. Donegal 1888
The next specimen to catch my eye was this fine Black-eared Wheatear. Recovered dead off Tuskar Rock, Wexford on 16th May 1916. This represents the first Irish record of this species and I think there have only been four since. Given the full title of Western Black-eared Wheatear so I presume its of the subpss. hispanica.

Western Black-eared Wheatear - |Tuskar Rock, Wexford, 1918
It also looks to be a full spring male, what a cracker. I was away for the female that turned up in May 2010 on the Great Saltee so this is one I would definitely twitch if it showed up.
In the same case was a fine American Robin found / shot in Shankill, Co. Dublin (oh if only!!) and a stunning (even though it was stuffed) White's Thrush. Shot in January 1885 in Westport, Co. Mayo.
With only a little bit of time available to me I had to skip quickly past the many cases of moths and butterflies, I'll come back to those next time. But the next exhibit I stopped at was of Ireland's first ever Firecrest, my own personnal favourite bird. Given that these are now just scarce autumn vagrants its hard to believe the 1st Irish record was as recent as 1943. Shot (of course) in Glengariff, Co. Cork. The record is attributed to J.E. Flynn and G.F. Mitchell.

A first for Ireland (in 1943) - Firecrest

Moving on around the ground floor, there was plenty more to see. Perhaps most interesting of all was this exhibit of an Eskimo Curlew. It didn't say the year or the specific location, just Sligo. But I presume this is the one and only Irish record, apparently shot in Co. Sligo but only properly noticed for what it was when it was seen hanging in a butcher's shop in Dublin.

Eskimo Curlew
Other goodies included Little Bustard (Ennis. Co. Clare, 1946), an inland (Enniskillen) specimen of Wilson's Petrel (presumably wrecked) and some nice examples of Golden Oriole, Hawfinch, Roller and adult Rose-coloured Starling.

Little Bustard
Upstairs on the 1st floor was the famous Barrington collection. It consists of specimens of birds collected at Irish lighthouses and lightships from the late 19th century. The collection was donated to the musuem by R.M. Barrington's wife. I was running out of time at this stage but the Barrington collection is an amazing assembly of common, rare and scarce birds and gave quite an insight at the time into the patterns of bird migration.


  1. Interesting birds. Glad someone "rescued" that Eskimo curlew skin, it's a good specimen. Appears to be a fresh juvenile.

    1. Thanks Darlene

      The year was 1870, it's the only Irish record and 2nd Western Palearctic record of Eskimo Curlew. Sadly there will probably never be a 2nd record.

      Best regards.......Graham Clarke