The enquiry was driven by a 114-year-old whodunit. Who collected the type specimens of the South Island (=Stewart Island) snipe on Jacky Lee Island in 1897 & 1898? The labels on some specimens were signed by Henry Travers, a Wellington-based collector and dealer in bird skins and plant specimens. Although Travers has long been credited with the discovery of this now-extinct snipe, I suspected that – apart from trips to the subantarctic islands in 1890 and 1894 – Travers never ventured south of Banks Peninsula.
The main question that I asked of Trish James (Senior Document Examiner, NZ Police) was whether any of the ‘Travers’ labels on birds collected from the Stewart Island region between 1897 and 1905 had been written by someone other than Travers. And she concluded that some had. Four of the labels had writing that differed from Travers’s, particularly in the form of the capital S and F, and the lower case t. Yet the words were written on the typical ornate labels that Travers used on most of his specimens, and tied on with his characteristic pink cotton.
Between them Travers and Dannefærd sold over 500 bird specimens to the Colonial and then Dominion Museum (now Te Papa), and many hundreds more ended up in either the British Museum of Natural History or the American Museum of Natural History (which purchased Lord Rothschild’s enormous private collection in 1932). Travers and Dannefærd collected or traded many notable specimens, including the name-bearing types of black robin, Chatham Island rail, Stephens Island wren, Snares Island fernbird, Snares Island tomtit, Hutton’s shearwater, and the South Island snipe. But they were both notorious for their poor record keeping. As a result of the forensic examination completed by Trish James, we now know that even the labels and cotton that we thought were diagnostic signatures of both men are unreliable. Both of them must have provided blank labels (and possibly spools of cotton) to others collecting birds on their behalf, and on at least some occasions they were both employing the same man!