An uncommon kerfuffle over a rare Hitchin bird which could rewrite the record books if the experts agree

PUBLISHED: 09:01 22 March 2015

The north Herts museum service specimen of a Least Bittern

The north Herts museum service specimen of a Least Bittern

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A stuffed bird from Victorian times gathering dust in a museum stockroom is causing a flutter in learned circles as experts decide whether it can be confirmed as the first specimen of its type recorded in the UK.

Mike Ilett from the Herts bird club with the north Herts museum service specimen he identified as a Least BitternMike Ilett from the Herts bird club with the north Herts museum service specimen he identified as a Least Bittern

The Least Bittern – Ixobrychus exilis in Latin – is normally found in North America.

It breeds in reed beds and can be difficult to observe due to its shy and secretive nature – and until now has never been recorded in the UK.

All that could be about to change, but Mark Ilett – who chairs the Herts Rare Birds Panel and is co-author of Birds of Hertfordshire, isn’t getting his hopes up just yet.

The bird in question is part of the collection held at Hitchin Museum, and at the moment it’s held in storage while the heritage base transfers from its former home next to the town library to the revamped Hitchin Town Hall site, which is due to open its doors later this year.

Mike Ilett from the Herts bird club with the north Herts museum service specimen he identified as a Least BitternMike Ilett from the Herts bird club with the north Herts museum service specimen he identified as a Least Bittern

Mark said: “The bird in question was a specimen labelled in the 1890s as the more common Little Bittern.

“As part of preparation for the book it was photographed and subsequently re-identified as the far rarer Least Bittern.”

It was apparently once owned by prominent local photographer TB Latchmore, and at the time it was recorded that it had been shot on Oughtonhead Common in the 1890s.

“Whether it was Latchmore who claimed it or someone before him we aren’t sure,” said Mark.

“The fact that it was labelled as a Little Bittern – not as the rarer and far more valuable Least Bittern – would indicate Latchmore wasn’t trying to be underhand.

“If that had been the case he would surely have labelled it as a Least Bittern, making it far more valuable.

“There’s currently no accepted record of the Least Bittern in Britain, so details have been submitted to the British Ornithologists Union Records Committee.

“It would be amazing if it was confirmed – but in the 1890s the practice was to shoot birds to confirm their species before stuffing them.

“Many dubious characters would buy stuffed birds and either pass them off as their own, or buy stuffed birds and label them falsely in order to make money out of them.

“We’ll probably never know if Latchmore was the person who shot the bird, or whether it just fell into his hands as a genuine collector, or even if it was actually shot on Oughtonhead Common as claimed.

“But as I say in my book, due to the lack of supporting evidence it would seem unlikely the particular record of this Least Bittern will be accepted as a first for Britain.”

Birds of Hertfordshire is one of a number of books published by the Herts Natural History Society.

Find out more online at www.hnhs.org, where you can also find a log of more recent rare bird sightings recorded by birders in Hertfordshire.

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