Ronald Hickling, who died in 2006, was an influential figure in local ornithology. In 2009 I summarised his contribution as follows in BLR:
A major milestone, and the most influential statement since Browne, was reached in 1978, when Hickling published his ‘Birds in Leicestershire and Rutland’ on behalf of the LROS. The book’s 199 pages included chapters on birds in the landscape, articles reprinted from LROS Annual Reports, four maps, 11 illustrations, 39 black-and-white photographs of habitats and a table of the arrival dates of migrants, as well as a systematic list. It provided a suitably balanced treatment of common, regular and rare species and summarised records up to 1974 (with an appendix listing unusual records up to 1977); it is therefore important as a review of the local avifauna before the development of Rutland Water. A notable strength of the work was its discussion of changes in bird numbers in relation to changes in the environment. The author’s economical style, however, did result in some texts which lack descriptive detail, both for commoner species (for example Turtle Dove, to which Hickling devoted only one line of text compared with 11 lines by Browne) and some rare ones (for example Great Snipe, which is treated dismissively by Hickling even though Browne cited three specimen records, one of which is in Leicester museum and another of which he had seen personally).
What this brief summary doesn’t mention is that in 1995 Hickling published another work of local interest, this time about James Harley. The bulk of this booklet is made up of extracts from Harley’s diary for the years 1840-1847; Hickling provides a review of Harley’s work, though as noted above his style tends to be rather economical. Two of Harley’s entries (both reproduced without comment) are of particular interest. The entry for September 11th 1840 states: ‘A fine example of the hoopoe ‘Upupa epops‘ was shot on the 8th of this month at or near to Lutterworth in this county. This example is described as being found sitting on a rail near to the Midland Counties railway.’ This provides more information about the record than noted in BLR.
More, interesting, however, is the entry for August 12th 1840, which mentions a November 1839 specimen of Rough-legged Buzzard, then continues: Cinereous shearwater “length from tip to tip of the wings 39 inches [99.1 cm], from the point of the bill to the middle feather of the tail 18 inches [45.7 cm], from the caracord joint to the tip of the first feather of the wing 18 inches. Wings half an inch longer than the tail. Twelve tail feathers rounded. Bill black and hooked at the end. Nostrils raised, oval and lengthwise. Plumage on the upper part very dark ash colour, with the feathers tipped with brown. From the throat down to the vent a slatey ash colour, growing dark from the breast to the vent. Under the wings the feathers ash colour having a dark streak along their shafts approaching almost to black. Weight 22 oz. [624 grams]. This bird was captured at Cossington by a shepherd dog in a field of turnips, and was kept several days afterward in captivity. It manifested a very savage and ferocious disposition whilst it was alive in captivity, fighting furiously at a cat or dog that might come its way.”
It is remarkable that Hickling made no comment on this record. Browne had included the record in his Vertebrate Animals under Manx Shearwater (he thought “Cinereous Shearwater” was Harley’s name for Manx – he had presumably not seen the description); he adds that for several days it was confined to a grass plot by the foot. It was also included in BLR as the first local record of Manx Shearwater. In fact, the description and measurements identify the bird as a Sooty Shearwater, which would be an exceptional (or possibly unique, in Britain at least) inland record. This would also have been one of the earliest British records of this species. Its weight was low, which might be expected of an emaciated bird found inland.
Although Hickling (and others) overlooked something important here, had he not published his work on Harley this might not have come to light. The original Harley manuscript is said to be in the Leicestershire Museum archives. The record will now need to be reviewed.