• Sim Elliott

Tring Natural History Museum & College Lake NR: Taxidermy, Ivy Bees & a Red Kite 22.09.21

On Tuesday 22nd September I visited Tring National History Museum, after reading The Feather Thief by Kirk Wallace Johnson



On a cool June evening in 2009, after performing a concert at London’s Royal Academy of Music, twenty-year-old American flautist Edwin Rist boarded a train for a suburban outpost of the British Museum of Natural History. Home to one of the largest ornithological collections in the world, the Tring museum was full of rare bird specimens whose gorgeous feathers were worth staggering amounts of money to the men who shared Edwin’s obsession: the Victorian art of salmon fly-tying.


Example of some of Wallace's bird skins; these are not on display to the public (this photograph is from Alfred Russel Wallace (1823-1913) | Natural History Museum (nhm.ac.uk)



Rist had been there before, months earlier, posing as a student photographer. He was granted access to the collection, and used his time to case the place, taking photographs of the layout of the museum, and making a mental map of the location of each species.

After scaling a wall behind the museum and breaking out a window, the champion fly-tier climbed inside and set out to work. He grabbed hundreds of bird skins—some collected 150 years earlier by a contemporary of Darwin’s, Alfred Russel Wallace, who’d risked everything to gather them—and escaped into the darkness. The Story – The Feather Thief: Beauty, Obsession, and the Natural History Heist of the Century


.... Wallace has risen back into wider public awareness over the past decade and his exceptional achievements are once again being recognised, particularly his role as the co-founder with Charles Darwin of the theory of evolution by natural selection.. Wallace is also known for his years of travel and collecting, both in the Amazon basin between 1848 and 1852 and across the Malay Archipelago (now Malaysia and Indonesia) from 1854 to 1862. During his expeditions, he collected over 100,000 specimens, mainly birds, beetles and butterflies, which resulted in a huge contribution to scientific knowledge and also the collections of the Natural History Museum.


Relatively few birds survive from Wallace’s exploration of the Amazon basin; apart from a small number of specimens dispatched back to Britain and purchased by the Museum in 1851, the majority of Wallace’s assembled collection was sadly lost when he was shipwrecked on his return voyage in 1852.


By contrast, thousands of specimens survive from the Malay Archipelago expeditions. Wallace was collecting commercially, shipping specimens back regularly to his agent Samuel Stevens who sold them on his behalf.


The Museum made regular purchases of bird specimens between 1857-1865, amounting to about 900 specimens. However, Wallace’s material was also being sold into other collections, including important private collections such as John Gould’s and Frederick Godman’s. Eventually, much of this material also reached the Natural History Museum when these collections were also acquired by the Museum.


A particularly large proportion of Wallace’s bird specimens from Sarawak are now in the Museum; these specimens and their labels are now the subject of a detailed study relating them to Wallace’s original field notebooks for the trip, also held by the Museum.


Perhaps the most interesting part of Wallace’s bird contributions is his personal collection of about 2,500 specimens which he sold to the Museum in 1873. Over 100 type specimens were recorded amongst this single collection, reflecting the enormous contribution Wallace made to ornithological discovery. Also, the specimens in this collection are often amongst the best examples of a species collected by Wallace, carefully selected by him and set aside by his agent to await the traveller’s return. Alfred Russel Wallace (1823-1913) | Natural History Museum (nhm.ac.uk)



The modern extension in which the National History Museum's historic bird collections and ornithological library are held; only accessible by appointment from bone fide collectors, and into which Rist broke in.



The Natural History Museum at Tring houses the largest collection of stuffed mammals, birds, reptiles and insects in the UK. The museum started life in 1889 as a 21st birthday present to Walter Rothschild from his father, the first Baron Rothschild. The Baron regarded his son’s interest in nature as a harmless past-time; little suspecting that it would eventually lead to the creation of one of the greatest natural history collections ever assembled by one man. Before his death in 1937, Lord Rothschild gifted the entire museum and its collections to the Trustees of the British Museum – on condition that it would remain a centre for zoological research. It is now a branch of the Natural History Museum and entry is free. Natural History Museum at Tring (dacorum.gov.uk)


Rothschild's museum





Walter Rothschild ... spent his life studying wild animals and collecting taxidermy specimens from around the world. A shy but eccentric man, Rothschild was known to pick up guests from the local train station in his zebra-drawn carriage and escort them to his house where kangaroos, ostriches, giant tortoises, camels and even a potentially deadly cassowary bird roamed free on the grounds.


Rothschild’s interest in animals started early in life, and he reportedly announced to his parents at just age seven that he would open a museum for his collection, which was on its way to becoming the largest private zoological collection ever amassed by one person. Sure enough, the Walter Rothschild Zoological Museum was opened at the family’s Victorian estate at Tring Park in 1889.


Now known as the Natural History Museum at Tring, the extensive collection is wonderful to browse. The exhibits include everything from a full-size giant sloth skeleton to real fleas dressed in Mexican traditional clothing, so tiny they have to be viewed through a microscope. There are thousands of specimens collected from all around the world, including some now-extinct creatures like the dodo bird , lesser bilby (a marsupial), passenger pigeon and Tasmanian tiger that you will be hard-pressed to see anywhere else.


By today’s standards, Rothschild’s collection methods are controversial. He would have the animals drawn in their country of origin by an artist, then shot, skinned, and transported to England where they were recreated from the drawings. This technique was prone to some misrepresentation; sharp observers will notice that some of the penguins at the museum were stuffed with the neck fully extended rather than the more natural, relaxed pose, and the polar bear seems to have an almost cheeky smile. Natural History Museum at Tring – Hertfordshire, England - Atlas Obscura












After visiting Tring Museum I walked around Tring Park


Tring Park is brimming with history: from being formed from the limestone of the Chiltern Hills that were created at the end of the last Ice Age 10,000 years ago, to becoming established as a manor site in the Saxon period and playing host to gentry, kings and queens from then on. Royal connections include Charles II’s notorious mistress, Nell Gwyn, to whom the towering obelisk in the park is reputed to commemorate. Tring Park - Visiting Woods - Woodland Trust


Tring Park was once part of a larger estate which included the stunning Tring Park Mansion, originally designed by Sir Christopher Wren in 1685. Past residents have included Sir William Gore, Sir Drummond Smith and members of the Rothschild family. The mansion is now a school for the performing arts.


The grounds of the mansion and wider estate were formally landscaped in the 1720s by leading landscaper Charles Bridgeman, evidence of which can be seen in the park today.


In his teens, Walter [Rothschild} also started to acquire live exotic animals which were all allowed to roam freely in the park. That is, until his father was chased on his horse by a cassowary, after which some of the animals were caged, with the exception of the emus and rheas. Tring Park - Visiting Woods - Woodland Trust










Whilst walking back to the town I passed a clump of Ivy full of Ivy Bees


A recent addition to the list of European bees, being described as new to science in 1993. Previously this bee had been misidentified as both Colletes halophilus and C. succinctus by various authors. It is very closely related to both of these species, especially C. halophilus. Colletes hederae Schmidt & Westrich,1993 | BWARS

A recent arrival in Britain, with the first confirmed records from Dorset in 2001. By 2016, the bee had spread across Southern England and South Wales, northwards and eastwards to colonise most of East Anglia, the Thames and Severn Valleys. The species is now well established in South Wales and in 2014 was recorded in north Wales for the first time. Since the 2016 season, there has seen expansion northwards with new records from Nottinghamshire, Yorkshire, County Durham (Whitburn) and southern Cumbria. Also well known from the Channel Islands with confirmed records from Alderney, Guernsey, Herm, Jersey and Sark. It is widespread elsewhere in western Europe and it appears to be spreading rapidly, with records from Austria, Belgium, Croatia, France (including Corsica), Germany, Greece, Italy (including Sardinia), Luxembourg, The Netherlands, Serbia, Slovenia, Spain and Switzerland. Previous reports from Cyprus are likely to be of the close congener C. brevigena. Colletes hederae Schmidt & Westrich,1993 | BWARS



Often an abundant bee where it does occur (G R Else, pers. obs.). Since initial establishment in the UK in 2001, nesting sites have been found in sparsely vegetated banks and paths, on urban and suburban lawns and grassy areas, roadside verges, golf courses and on soft rock cliffs and undercliffs.


Nesting aggregations are often extensive (containing several thousand nests) and have been encountered in a variety of sites, such as grassy slopes, coastal cliffs, roadside verges and gardens. ..

Males, which generally far outnumber females, occasionally settle to inspect open burrows and, within very dense nesting aggregations commonly attempt copulation with each other. When female bees emerge from burrows they are often pounced upon by a number of males forming conspicuous mating clusters. Most females mate immediately on leaving their nest entrances. There they attract the attention of males that are awaiting such an event. This was demonstrated in dramatic fashion at Brownwich Cliffs, a coastal site on Southampton Water, Hampshire, in September 2010 (G R Else pers. comm.). A huge number of males were flying about the sandy cliff face though no females were immediately obvious. From time to time mating clusters would tumble down the cliff and come to rest on the more or less level ground at the base. There more males would join the cluster. Somewhere in the center was a freshly emerged female that had coupled with one of the males. After some minutes the mated pair would extricate itself and the bees would fly off in tandem. Some clusters, however, consisted only of males, perhaps as many as two dozen. ...


Bischoff, Eckelt and Kuhlmann (2005) studied in some detail the nesting biology of C. hederae in Germany. They found that nesting females utilised old nests and also dug new ones. Four nest burrows of this bee were excavated and studied by these authors. These first ran between 7-12 cm horizontally into a steep face, before turning downwards. The cells were located at a depth of 30-45 cm. Groups of up to four cells branched directly off the main vertical burrow and in most instances side branches were absent. Colletes hederae Schmidt & Westrich,1993 | BWARS



I then walked 2 miles to College Lake


A visionary nature reserve

Once a chalk quarry, College Lake is now one of the Berks, Bucks & Oxon Wildlife Trust's flagship nature reserves. The transformation is a fantastic example of what people passionate about wildlife can bring about through a shared vision and sheer determination. Thanks to the hard work of BBOWT staff and volunteers, this thriving nature reserve now supports more than 1,000 different wildlife species. An eco visitor centre with stunning views of the lakes opened to the public in 2010.


Best in the county

College Lake is widely regarded as one of the best places in Buckinghamshire for water birds, and with many hides overlooking the lake, this is a great destination for bird watchers or for families, whatever the weather or time of year.


Wetland birds

The marshland is perhaps the most important of the reserve's homes for wildlife, as in the summer it supports a number of breeding waders. These include lapwing and redshank, both of which are rare species, and College Lake is a key breeding site in Buckinghamshire. In the lake, common terns nest on specially created islands. In the winter, the inhabitants of the water change, and wintering wildfowl, such as wigeon and teal, from Scandinavia and beyond, use the wetlands for feeding and roosting. College Lake | Berks, Bucks & Oxon Wildlife Trust (bbowt.org.uk)


There were few interesting birds around; there were many Canada Geese; some Mallards and a Grey Heron; most of the over-wintering birds have yet to arrive. However, I Red Kite swopped over the reserve, looking for prey, in the most spectacular way.




Canada Geese





A Speckled Wood Pararge aegeria


A Red Kite, Milvus milvus



A Blue Tit


A Grey Heron




Mallards and Canada Geese



The excellent eco Visitor's Centre which sells excellent cake




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