Posted by: Rachel | February 22, 2013

Originally posted on Herbology Manchester:

Yesterday, Andrew Lawton (the Museum’s curatorial trainee) and I braved the cold outside the Museum entranace to make bird boxes with Evan Powell from the RSPB.

For National Nest Box Week, we made homes for starlings and sparrows which will be placed in trees around the University of Manchester campus. We’re hoping to increase the amount of wildlife that calls the University campus home.
Members of the public helped us by decorating the boxes with their individual artworks

We couldn’t decide whether this was a colder event than the Wonderful Whitworth Wildlife bioblitz last year!

Tomorrow, artist Lucy Burscough will be making beautiful bird houses made from woven naural fibres in one of our Urban Naturalist events. These nesting pouches would be suitable for wrens and are inspired by the work of the Scottish ‘outsider artist’ Angus McPhee.

View original

Posted by: katenaomiday | February 22, 2013

tree2yourdoor for Nature and Me

We’ve been running workshops at Manchester Museum for our new Nature and Me participants.  We’re making short films that show people talking about their own personal connections to nature.  One of the recent ones included a participant called Gareth Mitchell who has set up a business called Tree2MyDoor Ltd.

Hello- I’ve written a couple of things about museums recently that I wanted to share with you, and we have a number of events coming up soon too. Our approach boils down to a couple of things:

-Lots of people are interested in natural history in museums.

-Natural history in museums can often seem old-fashioned and not connected to issues today.

-Sustainability can seem depressing and boring.

-People need information and support, not more depressing mass-media stories of the environment, which is presented as a series of issues.

In Manchester Museum, we’ve been working on capitalising on the interest in natural history and trying to help visitors find activities that would interest them to follow up on. We use natural history displays to grab visitors’ attention, notably the Living Worlds gallery, which encourages people to reflect on their own attitudes to nature. This is complemented by events and programmes that encourage people to get involved with nature and sustainability, in whatever way they might be interested in. We’ve been focusing on encouraging people to see the value of small actions. This approach has been very successful for us, and for sustainability, and I hope it continues to be so.

This last year, we’ve been running a wildlife recording course with the Greater Manchester Ecology Unit as part of the HLF-funded Grey to Green project. This trains volunteers to become wildlife recorders, who submit records of plants and animals they’ve seen to a database. This information helps ecologists understand how the distribution of plants and animals is changing, and to ensure that development takes account of the presence of rare species. We’ve had a fantastic allotment in front of the Museum, looked after by volunteers and co-ordinated by Anna Bunney, Curator of Public Programmes. We’ll be opening the Nature’s Library gallery at the end of April, where visitors can explore the diversity of the natural world through a selection of specimens from the Museum’s enormous natural history collection.

We currently have a display of woven plant fibres strung round a tree in front of the Museum, produced by local people who took part in events that used nature to promote health and well-being. These are accompanied by poems produced on large leaf-shaped signs. We are nearly finished a fantastic project called ‘Nature and Me’, funded by the HLF. Two artist-practitioners (Kate Day and Naomi Kendrick) worked with 42 local people with a wide range of attitudes to nature. The views and ideas of participants were translated into short films by students at Stockport College. I’ve seen the films and they are absolutely fantastic, and some are very inspiring. These will be made publicly available soon.

At the heart of all this is promoting the value of nature to people. We articulated this when we were developing Living Worlds that, whether people value nature for it’s own sake or for the benefit it can bring to their personal well-being, nature has so much to offer.


ps. I was out birdwatching today on the Wirral at Parkgate, looking over the saltmarshes. I got out of the car and there was a beautiful Short-eared Owl sitting right in front of me on a post. It was preening a lot, as it had got wet in the rain. The haze cleared and it looked very golden, with an almost luminous white face, and very piercing yellow eyes. Then it flew around over the saltmarsh hunting, very, very beautiful on long, stiff wings. There was a Peregrine sitting on a stump not far off: an enormous one, with a very dark head and quite brownish on the cheeks and chest, probably not a fully adult bird. There was another one much further off, a fully adult bird, with a very white chest.

Posted by: henrymcghie | February 9, 2013

Nature manchester in 2012

Hello- I thought that the blog report from wordpress was interesting and thought I’d share it with you.


The stats helper monkeys prepared a 2012 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

600 people reached the top of Mt. Everest in 2012. This blog got about 12,000 views in 2012. If every person who reached the top of Mt. Everest viewed this blog, it would have taken 20 years to get that many views.

Click here to see the complete report.

Hello. I’ve decided to try out a new line for this blog. My background is as an ornithologist, and I’m lucky enough to work with one of the best bird collections in the UK, at Manchester Museum. The collection includes about 15,000 preserved ‘study skins’ which aren’t usually on display, but are kept in drawers in locked cabinets. These have a number of uses, and we keep them in the dark to keep their colour and keep insect pests from eating them. If you try to imagine a time without bird books, or when next to nothing was known about birds, that’s when the collection was mostly put together. The collection, and others like it, is the basis of what we know about birds. What species there are, where they’re found, how they vary. Collections like this are still used a lot, to work out where birds are found, how they vary and how they change with age. If you think people know everything about birds, you couldn’t be further from the truth. Nature is extremely dynamic and things are changing all the time, and we know next to nothing about some of the commonest birds.

So,  I’m going to use this blog to go through some of the ways we identify birds, what they are and why museum specimens important. I hope you like it. To get us started, I’ve chosen a  specimen of an Arctic Redpoll (the privilege of position, a truly wonderful bird). This is a small greyish finch, which eats seeds, and as its name suggests mostly lives in the Arctic. The species is a rare visitor to Britain. It is found in Greenland and Canada, and in northern Europe across Siberia. It comes in two forms, Carduelis hornemanni exilipes (the more southern subspecies, known as Coues’ Arctic Redpoll) and Carduelis hornemanni hornemanni (found in Greenland and northern Siberia). Elliot Coues (pronounced ‘cows’) was a 19th century American ornithologist.

The first thing is to get to know the terms used for different parts of birds, like a kind of ‘map’.




This bird was collected (shot) in April 1875. It is identified as an adult male, probably on dissection. The tail feathers are adult. Note how white the rump and lower back are, with white extending up between the tertials (large wing feathers). Note also the broad white fringes to the tail feathers. Ground colour is certainly not white, but is greyish brown.


A view of the underside of the same bird, no streaks on flanks or undertail coverts. Breast is flushed rosy pink, not red as on the forehead.








Side view of the same bird, showing how white and unstreaked the sides of the lower neck are. Broad whitish supercilium (eyebrow) extends between eyes. Small black patch on chin. Bill is thick looking, partly because of black feathering over nostrils.

This bird was collected by the famous English ornithologist Henry Seebohm on one of his trips to Siberia, in 1875. It was described by Henry Dresser in his famous book ‘The History of the Birds of Europe’. It is  Coues’ Arctic Redpoll, not the Greenland Redpoll as not white enough and too small.

Hope you enjoyed this, the first venture into using museum specimens to help identify birds. The real power of these specimens is in affecting how we look at, understand and help conserve living birds.


Posted by: henrymcghie | September 18, 2012

Great quote from Hans Christian Anderson

Hello, I’ve been looking into some quotations for ‘Nature’s Library’, a new gallery opening here next Spring. These are worth sharing, so I’ll post one every so often.

“Just living is not enough… one must have sunshine, freedom, and a little flower.”

Hans Christian Anderson

Posted by: henrymcghie | September 13, 2012

The Outermost House- just beautiful

Hello, I thought I’d share a fantastic piece of writing with you. This is from Henry Beston’s ‘The Outermost House’, a classic written in 1925. I first came across this when I was about 16 in a book about Wolves. It is as perfect now as it was then:

“We need another and a wiser and perhaps a more mystical concept of animals. Remote from universal nature, and living by complicated artiface, man in civilization surveys the creature through the glass of his knowledge and sees thereby a feather magnified and the whole image in distortion. We patronize them for their incompleteness, for their tragic fate of having taken form so far below ourselves. And therein we err, and greatly err. For the animal shall not be measured by man. In a world older and more complete than ours they move finished and complete, gifted with extensions of the senses we have lost or never attained, living by voices we shall never hear. They are not brethren, they are not underlings; they are other nations, caught with ourselves in the net of life and time, fellow prisoners of the splendor and travail of the earth.”

Hope you like it,


Posted by: henrymcghie | September 3, 2012

Sounds of nature

Hello- I had an email in response to this blog. The sender agreed to me posting the comment here

“Incidentally, I discovered the blog of “Nature Manchester”, and I got captivated by the idea of the relationships between culture and nature that you were mentioning somewhere. Typically, we conserve more visual documentation: mainly books, writings, or so many examples in art – practically, we could say that all the styles are inspired by nature.

But what about music?! what about sounds? So much music incorporating the sounds of birds, the sound of whales, the sound of the sea or the wind (especially contemporary music). I understand that in museums is more difficult to catch the attention with sounds, but the cultural relation between music and nature, specifically birds, is unlimited. Music produced by humans (instrumental or vocal) is a constant imitation of nature: the tempo of the sea, birds, insects, the hypnotic silence of hummingbirds. Even the most sophisticated, radical or avant-garde music has its origin in nature: a yearning for freedom, or longing for a flying bird. Our own sounds through poetry! we have a tempo for every emotion transmited through our words. What about folk music?! The music of people, also primal sounds shared with nature (this is clear in the colourful folk music of México, Central América, South Amarica, or Africa! the sound of the desert). Irish, Scottish and English folk music has also a direct relationship with nature, there is always a tale involving some animal, forest or fairy. Cultures that are more expressive in feelings have more connections with nature. The list is never-ending.

It would be so great to incorporate in those exhibitions of animals music produced by humans as a bridge between the visitor, the animal (in whatever form) and the space itself.

I could not resist to share it with you while I was thinking about the influence of wild, untamed animals in our culture and ways of living.”

Posted by: henrymcghie | September 3, 2012

The ‘oldest’ bird in the Museum-a Hummingbird



I’m working on a new gallery, ‘Nature’s Library’, which will open next year. This gallery will show specimens from all of our natural history collections (there are about 3 million specimens in total in these collections), so that visitors can explore the amazing breadth of the natural world. One of the display cases will explore how the collection is arranged and how we continue to add to it. We’ve been looking for the first specimens to be accessioned- when they legally became the property of the Museum. The accession registers are like an A-Z of nature: A= mammals, B= birds, C= reptiles and amphibians, D= fish, E=  molluscs, F= insects, G= spiders and crustaceans, H= other invertebrates, I= corals and sponges, and so on.

I made a discovery last week- the ‘first’ bird to be accessioned in the Museum, a South American Hummingbird bought from a Mr. Harrison in 1889. This is a study skin, kept in a drawer in a locked cabinet, to keep dust and insect pests out. The specimen has lasted very well considering how old it is. The specimen had been listed on a database in the past, but its accession number, B.1, hadn’t been added. We have lots of birds, about 16,000 or so, so it is difficult to keep track of every detail.


Posted by: henrymcghie | August 31, 2012

Ross’s Gull in exhibition in Oslo













Hello, The last time I wrote I was just about to go to Oslo to see and exhibition I was involved in. We had a really interesting seminar where a number of us talked about our contributions to the project. Artists Bryndis Snæbjörnsdóttir and Mark Wilson talked through the ways in which they created an exhibition. This was no mean feat considering that our contributions are very different from one another, although they share much in common in exploring our understanding of, and conception of, animals. All of our contributions explore the relationship between humans and animals, and the ways that we come to understand animals through a wide variety of images, writing and specimens, and the importance of what was said about them in influencing our understanding of them. I mentioned last time that my contribution is an exploration of the cultural history of an Arctic-breeding gull, Ross’s Gull, once described as ‘one of the most mysterious birds in the world’. Bryndis and Mark presented a case with a specimen of the rare gull that was shot by Fridtjof Nansen, the famous Norwegian scientist-explorer, together with a Norwegian flag and images of the bird and photographs from Nansen’s published writings. Bryndis and Mark found one thing I hadn’t realised before- that the illustration with the bird in the foreground and the ship (the Fram) in the background is based on an actual photograph but with a person occupying the place of the bird. What we were trying to get across is that our understandings of animals are very heavily influenced by our relationships with the people who are saying things about them, and by our imagined views of their environment and history. I think they did a brilliant job!


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