Untold lives blog

29 July 2021

Birdwatching in Assam

One of the fascinating elements of private paper collections is what they contain about people’s hobbies and interests.  The India Office Private Papers are full of such collections.  One example is the papers of Dorothea Craigie Milburne which record her passion for birdwatching.

Overview of papers of Dorothea Craigie Milburne spread out on a tablePapers of Dorothea Craigie Milburne - British Library Mss Eur D913 Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

Born in Bristol in 1896, she was the first of two children of Edward Tuckett Daniell, a Bristol lawyer, and his second wife Alice Craigie.  She married William Milburne, the manager of Dhendai tea plantation, Darrang, Assam.  Both Dorothea and William were keen photographers of big game, and some of their work was published in the Statesman and the Manchester Guardian in the 1930s.  They left India in 1945, and Dorothea died in Bristol in 1982.

Most of her birdwatching was done in Darrang, Assam, as recorded in her detailed notes and notebooks.  In these papers she carefully recorded the birds she saw, giving observations on their appearance and behaviour, and even giving a numbered reference to the authoritative published guide on the birds of India by Oates and Blanford.  Here are some examples of her observations.

Of the Small Minivet she noted that they were not nearly as common or gay as other Minivets, and comments: ‘I once saw large black velvet & buttercup butterfly chasing an obviously terrified hen Small Minivet round & round peach trees in compound’.

Painting of a Minivet - orange, black and grey feathersMinivet by J Briois, c.1824 – British Library Images Online Shelfmark NHD 47/22 Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

 

Painting of a Shama - black and white feathers with a light brown breastShama by J Briois c.1824 – British Library Images Online Shelfmark NHD 47/22 Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

In recording her sightings of the Shama, she described an experiment she carried out: ‘I made interesting experiments with Shama visiting compound which responded to Ludwig Koch’s Nightingale record (gramophone), hopping across lawn to within few yards of verandah though usually hiding in shrubs, cocking head and responding with snatches of song.  Unfortunately chased right away by compound Dayal & Brown Shrikes & possibly frightened by cutting down of neighbouring shade trees’.

Dorothea Craigie Milburne's notes on the BitternDorothea Craigie Milburne's notes on the Bittern - British Library Mss Eur D913 Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

Fans of the BBC nature programme Springwatch will know of the presenters’ fondness for the Bittern which is known for its distinctive ‘boom’ like call.  This shy bird appears fleetingly on Dorothea’s list: the Chestnut Bittern (‘Never saw settle to take in details’), Malay Bittern (‘seen once only flying through evergreen forest’), and Black Bittern (‘seen flying across a hoolah in garden several times one August’), although she records disappointingly ‘I did not hear one “boom”!’

Dorothea Craigie Milburne's notes on the Spur-winged PloverDorothea Craigie Milburne's notes on the Spur-winged Plover - British Library Mss Eur D913 Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

Knowing the call of a bird is essential in identifying it, and Dorothea kept careful notes on the sounds each bird made.  She even wrote the sounds down in music notation.  Of the Spur-winged Plover she wrote of its cry: ‘Gutteral, conversational “Whee whee wew” like beginning of “Did he do it” cry.  Rapid, irregular “Jip! Jip!” on C in flight’.

Dorothea Craigie Milburne's notes on the PittasDorothea Craigie Milburne's notes on the Pittas- British Library Mss Eur D913 Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

Dorothea often shared her passion with other birdwatchers, such as the planter and naturalist Charles McFarlane Inglis, who spent much of his free time in the study of India’s birds, and later became curator of the Darjeeling Natural History Museum.  In her notes she says that Inglis seemed surprised that she had not seen a Blue-necked Pittas, and says ‘Made special point of looking for it cold weather 1944 & early ’45 but in vain’.

John O’Brien
India Office Records

Further Reading:
Dorothea Craigie Milburne papers, 1933-1945, shelfmark: Mss Eur D913.
Forests and ecological history of Assam by Arupjyoti Saikia (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), shelfmark: YC.2012.a.8245
The fauna of British India, including Ceylon and Burma: Birds by Eugene William Oates and W T Blanford (London,Taylor and Francis; [etc., etc.]1889-98), available online. 
Ludwig Koch on the recording a White-rumped Shama in 1889.
BBC Springwatch,Minsmere round-up - my highlights’ by Chris Packham, 18 June 2014.
Charles McFarlane Inglis (1870-1954).

 

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