Alfred Charles Smith.

The birds of Wiltshire. Comprising all the periodical and occasional visitants, as well as those which are indigenous to the county online

. (page 35 of 53)
Online LibraryAlfred Charles SmithThe birds of Wiltshire. Comprising all the periodical and occasional visitants, as well as those which are indigenous to the county → online text (page 35 of 53)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook


37 tf Ckaradriadce.

servable, when I wandered into the desert on the banks of the
Nile. Several species of Chats, more especially Saxicola desertl
and S. isabellina, partook of this hue, but above all the ' Bush
Babbler ' (Crateropus acacice), of which I once shot two specimens
perched in an isolated ' sont ' bush, and though they both fell
quite dead on the sand beneath the tree, it will hardly be believed
that I searched for twenty minutes, and very nearly gave up the
search in despair, though they were both lying on the sand just
before me, so marvellously did their colours match with that of
the sand. Though I kept a constant look-out for the Cream-
coloured Courser when in its native land, and though it was occa-
sionally seen by some of my companions, I was never so fortu-
nate as to fall in with it. It is notorious for its surprising fleetness
of foot, as its name would lead us to infer ; and shows a strange
confidence, or rather carelessness, of man, so unusual in other
members of the family, to which I have already called attention.
Its cry of alarm is said to resemble that of the Plover ; it rests
and sleeps in a sitting posture, with its legs doubled up under it.
When disturbed, it will run off with astonishing swiftness,
rnano3uvring to get out of sight behind stones or clods of earth ;
then, kneeling down and stretching the body and head flat on
the ground, it endeavours to make itself invisible, though all the
time its eyes are fixed on the object which disturbs it, and it
keeps on the alert ready to rush off again if one continues to
approach it.* The name Cursorius, or ' runner/ is, as we have
seen, applicable enough, but Gallwus, as it used to be styled, was
most unfortunate, for it was bestowed upon it by Gmelin under
the erroneous impression that it only occurred in France. Still
more misleading is the name in use among the Maltese, who call
it the 'English Plover' (Pluviera ta I'Inghilterra), than which a
more inappropriate term could scarcely be devised. In North
Africa, where it is well known to the Arabs, they call it the
' Camel Pricker/ Song el Ibel^ but on what ground I know not.
In France it is Court-vite isabelle, 'Sand-coloured Courser'; and

M. Favier, of Tangier, quoted in ' Yarrell/ 4th edition, vol. iii., p. 244.
t Canon Tristam in Ibis for I860, p. 79.



Great Plover. 377

in Italy Corrione biondo, ' Flaxen Runner ' ; but in other countries
of Western Europe it appears to be almost unknown; at all events,
I can find no name for it in the bird lists.



,136. GREAT PLOVER (CEdicnemus crepitans).

This is the largest bird of the family with which we are
acquainted in this country : and is elsewhere known as the
Thick-kneed Bustard, the Stone Curlew, and the Norfolk Plover.
It may still be seen on our open downs during the summer
months, for it leaves this country for warmer latitudes in the
autumn, and I have met with it within the tropics in Nubia in
winter. Colonel Montagu imagined that it never penetrated to
the western parts of England, but was confined to the eastern
counties, where undoubtedly it is most abundant: but I have
information from many quarters that it was once very generally
known in Wiltshire, whose wide-spreading downs indeed offered
it the retirement as well as the space in which it delights. The
late Rev. G. Marsh told me that up to 1840 it was still common
on the downs near Salisbury. Mr. Benjamin Hay ward, of
Lavington, spoke of it as becoming more scarce, but still occa-
sionally to be seen on Ellbarrow and the higher hills. The late
Mr. Withers, of Devizes, mentioned that it had on several
occasions been shot on Roundway Down, and brought to him for
preservation; and Mr. W r adham Locke, of the Cleeve House,
Seend (to whose intimate acquaintance with birds I owe many a
lesson), wrote me word that he had seen a very large flock of
these birds in the air, migrating from north to south at the fall
of the year, when they made a most melodious whistling noise.
In addition to this satisfactory evidence, I will now add that for
several years past I have seen these birds on the downs of North
Wiltshire in a particular locality, which for obvious reasons I do
not desire to specify more minutely, and that during the summer
I can generally find them in or near their favourite haunts. Still
more interesting is the fact of their rearing their young in our
county, an instance of which was given me by the Rev. Alexander



378 Charadriadce.

Grant, Rector of Manningford, from whose letter, dated Sept. 2nd,
1864, 1 quote the following particulars : ' I think you will be glad
to hear that the Norfolk Plovers I mentioned are alive and doing
well : my son picked them up on our downs between Manningford
and Everleigh. F. O. Morris says that " the young when fledged
will squat, and allow themselves to be picked up. If disturbed
from the nest, the parent runs oft' very swiftly, with the head
stooped.' This, my son states, is exactly what occurred when he
found the birds. About ten days after he had taken them, a
person called at my house with another young Norfolk Plover,
picked up on the Rushall or Charlton downs : and about the
same time I saw at least two pairs flying and hovering about the
downs near Sidbury Hill, not far from the old track from Marl-
borough to Salisbury.

The Marlborough College Natural History Reports also state
that the egg was taken in June, 1866, in that neighbourhood, and
again on Overton Down in 1868, and again in May, 1874. Mr.
George Butler says that it still breeds on the downs near
Kennett ; Mr. G. Watson Taylor that it sometimes nests on the
downs above Erlestoke, where the keepers have caught the
young birds ; and Lord Heytesbury, on his keepers' authority,
that they come annually early in March to breed on the downs
above Heytesbury.

The Rev. A. P. Morres has also had the young birds as well
as the eggs brought to him from the immediate neighbourhood
of Salisbury, and used to consider it by no means uncommon on
the downs near him ; but he laments, what I fear is also the case
in North Wilts, that it is rapidly decreasing in numbers. I
have, however, many notices of its recent appearance in Wilts.
In letters sent me this year (1887), Mr. F. Stratton says that
whereas it was getting scarce at Gore Cross Farm on the
Lavington downs some ten years since, it is now somewhat
more numerous there. The Right Hon. E. P. Bouverie informs
me that his son shot one last autumn on the downs above
Cheverell. Mr. W. Stancomb, jun., writes that they are often
seen on the downs above Colston, and Lord Arundel that he has



Great Plover.

seen it on the downs near Wardour, while Mr. Grant's list
mentions specimens from Netheravon, Manningford, Everley,
Lavington, Erlestoke, Tilshead and Chitterne. Thus it is clearly
established that the Great Plover is no stranger to Wiltshire r
albeit of not very frequent occurrence in the present day : and
I have entered fully into the evidences of its appearance on our
downs, because it has been doubted by some whether the species-
has not been mistaken. That such, however, is not the case, I
am perfectly convinced, and indeed there is no other bird with
which it can be readily confused. It is of fine stately form, of
considerable size and of erect carriage, and its large prominent
yellow eye is the principal feature which attracts attention. It
is a nocturnal feeder, as the size and prominence of its eye
indicates, and rests by day on the wide hilly downs, which are
its chosen haunts ; but it is of a wild and shy disposition, and if
disturbed in its retreat, flies off with its legs stretched out behind
after the manner of the heron ; and after a short flight alights
again, and then runs off with great rapidity. It is a migratory
bird, arriving here in the spring, and retiring in autumn to pass
the winter in Africa. Like the Bustards, it lays but two eggs,
and in its insect and animal diet, as well as general habits, it
follows the custom of its congeners.

Its generic name (Edicnemus, from ofoog, ' a swelling,' and
XI^AMJ, ' the leg,' is very descriptive of the remarkable swelling of
the tarsal joint of the leg in the young bird, which reminds one
of a gouty man, and which is a very characteristic feature in this
species. I was informed by Mr. Parsons, of Hunts Mill, Wootton
Bassett, when looking over my collection of birds in 1870, that
there is an old saying in Wiltshire, having reference to the value
of the Stone Curlew in olden time :

' Let the curlew be white or black,
He carries ninepence on his back.'

A somewhat high price when the value of money, if only a
hundred years ago, is taken into account ; but there is no
question that it is of excellent quality for the table. In France
it is (Edicneme criard, ' Clamorous (or noisy) Thick-knee ;' in



380 Charadriadce.

Germany, Lerchengraue Regenpfeifer, and Grosser Brachvogel,
4 Great Fallow-bird ;' in Italy, II gran Piviere ; but in Spain,
Alcaravan ; and in Portugal, Alcaravdo, which carry with them
a strong Moorish flavour.

137. GOLDEN PLOVER (Charadrius pluvialis).

The Wiltshire sportsman on the downs will not need to be
told that here we have a winter migrant which favours our
county when frosts and snows drive it from more northern
latitudes, but which retires again as spring draws on, to breed
in the mountain districts it loves so well. It is a handsome
bird even in winter, when the golden hue which overspreads its
plumage gives it a bright appearance ; but when met with in full
breeding dress in summer, as I have seen it in Norway, on the
high fjelds of that wild country, it assumes such altered colours
that we can scarcely recognise it: for in place of the grayish
white which prevails on all the under-plumage, a glossy black
now appears, while bright golden yellow tips the edges of the
upper feathers, and the contrast of dark below and light above
is extremely pleasing. Its flesh is very highly esteemed by
epicures, and therefore it is diligently sought for by the fowler,
but thanks to its innate shyness, it is not very easily approached,
except during a fog.

I found these birds very plentiful on the upper fjelds in
Norway ; and instead of the timidity they exhibit here, they
seemed perfectly fearless. On one occasion we were overtaken
by a snowstorm on a wild and desolate fjeld, more than twenty
miles from any human habitation, and took refuge during the
night in a goat-shed, where we vainly tried to keep out the cold
by heaping up a fire of heather and brushwood, round which
our shivering horses as well as ourselves were glad to crouch,
notwithstanding the suffocating smoke which filled their noses
and throats, and the bright flames which the crackling heather
gave out. Here the Golden Plovers abounded, and neither snow-
storm nor bitter wind, nor clouds of smoke, nor crackling flames,
dismayed them. All round the hut and during the entire night



Golden Plover. 381

they were constantly uttering their plaintive melancholy cry,
most congenial with the circumstances, but most trying to the
listener. As we rode away next morning, these beautiful birds
in full breeding plumage were so tame that they would run
along the stony ground within a few yards of my horse, then fly
a few paces, and then stand and stare and run along as before.
It is very seldom that these pathless fjelds are trodden by the
human foot ; and this accounts for the absence of timidity
displayed by these birds. Our route was marked out (as it always
is in such fjelds) by small stones being placed upright on some
large conspicuous pieces of rock : these little pyramids of stone
are excellent landmarks to show the way; the snow does not
obliterate or conceal them ; and being readily formed, they are
numerous enough to guide the traveller from one to another.
It was while passing between two of these landmarks that I
discovered a nest of the Golden Plover, placed right in our path :
the nest was a mere depression of the scanty grass, unprotected
by bush, heather or rock : the eggs, four in number, and with
the small ends towards the middle (as is usual with all the Plover
tribe), had been sat upon for some time, but I succeeded in
bringing them away without damage, and they are now in my
cabinet.* In Scandinavia this Plover goes by the name of
Ljung-Pipare, or ' Heath Piper.' There are several reasons
adduced for the specific name pluvialis ; because it comes in
the rainy season, say some ; or because it frequents places damp
from rain, and marshes, say others; but without doubt, as it
seems to me, because it shows an extraordinary restlessness
before bad weather, and so announces the approach of rain-
storms. Sir K Payne- Gall wey, than whom there can be no
better authority as a field observer, says : ' Peewits and Plovers
are excellent weather prophets ; when they are heard and seen
screaming and wheeling in the evening, it is a sure sign of a
dirty night, as this is their usual hour to settle on the ooze or
meadows to rest or feed.'f But Yarrell says that the French
term Pluvier has been applied to the Plover, 'pour ce qiCon le

Zoologist for 1851, p. 2979. t ' Fowler in Ireland/ p. 14.



382 Charadriadce.

prend mieux en temps pluvieux qu'un nulle autre saison. Our
word 'Plover' is derived from the French Pluvier* This is also
a nocturnal feeder, and can run very fast : during the day it
will squat or stand asleep, with its head drawn down between its
shoulders : it flies in large flocks, and if disturbed, the whole
flock will perform many aerial evolutions and rapid wheelings
before they again settle on the ground.f Sir R. Payne-Gallwey
remarks that it has a pretty habit of trotting nimbly along a
few steps, and then stopping motionless for some seconds, ere
resuming its run, and he adds that Curlews at a distance, not-
withstanding their much greater bulk and long peculiar bills,
bear such a wonderful resemblance to the Golden Plover, from
the way they sit, especially when herded together, that it is
very difficult to identify them.J I need not specify localities,
for it may be said to be distributed in flocks, though sparingly
and uncertainly, all over the county. In France it is Pluvier
dori ; in Germany, Goldregenpfeifer ; in Italy, Piviere dorato ;
in Spain, Chorlito ; and in Portugal, Tarambola.

138. DOTTEREL (Charadrius mormellus).

This, too, is, or perhaps I ought to say was, a thoroughly
Wiltshire bird, our county being one of the few enumerated by
Yarrell as its regular haunts. At the beginning of this century,
Colonel Montagu described it as a bird which annually visits us
in spring and autumn in its migratory flights to and from its
breeding-places in northern Europe ; and he adds, ' On the
Wiltshire downs it resorts to the new-sown corn or fallow
ground for the sake of worms, its principal food : in the autumn
they fly in families of five or six, which we have observed to be
the two old birds and their young ; but sometimes a dozen or
more flock together.' They generally rested but a few days
amongst us, but during that period they were often so numerous
that sportsmen now alive have killed from forty to fifty. Now

Yarrell's ' British Birds,' 3rd edition, vol. ii., p. 449.
t Selby's ' Illustrations of British Birds,' vol. ii., p. 234.
J Sir R. Payne-Gallwey's ' Fowler in Ireland,' pp. 174-182.



Dotterel 383

they are rarely to be met with, and though scarcely a year
passes without a notice of the capture of one or more on some
portion of our downs, it is but an accidental straggler, which has
wandered out of its way. My good friend, Rev. W. C. Lukis,
chanced to see such an one, as he was driving with the Rector
of Manningford Bruce, between Upavon and Enford in May,
1857 ; it was close to the roadside, standing on a clod of earth,
all alone in its glory, and did not care to move out of the. way.
My own specimen, now in my collection, was shot on the
Lavington downs. It came to me in the flesh in 1841, and
is one of the few Wiltshire birds of my own preparation and
mounting, handled in those early days, which has survived to
the present time. Lord Nelson possesses a specimen killed at
Trafalgar. Lord Heytesbury, on the authority of Lis keeper,
reports that they are often on the downs in that neighbourhood ;
but Mr. G. Watson Taylor says that though often seen in former
years on the downs above Erlestoke, none have been observed
there of late. The late Mr. Withers had many pass through
his hands for preservation ; and indeed everybody conversant
with our Wiltshire birds will know something of its occurrence.

Mr. Morres speaks of them as not uncommon on the downs
near Salisbury some years since, though now seldom seen, and
mentions a trip* of three as observed in the spring at Stockton
in 1873. Mr. Baker writes me word that an immature specimen
was killed at Fonthill on October 1st, 1876, and that others were
seen by him on two or three occasions on Mere Down, the last
on March 7th, 1881. However, of quite recent date, the Rev.
T. N. Hart Smith, President of the Marlborough College Natural
History Society, tells me that in their museum are two specimens
which were shot on the Kennet two years ago. Mr. Gwatkin
records a Dotterel taken at Tilshead in the spring of last year
{1886). The Rev. W. H. Awdry saw a trip of Dotterel near

* A small flock of dotterel is known as a trip; and it is worthy of obser-
vation how various are the terms applied to the several species when in com-
pany : Thus we have a, cast of hawks, a flock of sparrows, a flight of starlings
or pigeons, a dule of doves, a nid of pheasants, a covey of partridges, a bevy
of quail, a brood of grouse, & flight of woodcocks, a wisp of snipe, a wing of



384 Charadriadce.

the Druid's Head on Saturday, March 12th of this year (1887),
and the Hon. Gerald Lascelles reports a good-sized flock near
Everley, also in March last (1887). These recent occurrences
prove that it is not yet extinct, but I fear it is every year
becoming more scarce in this county, and will soon be as
completely wanting on our downs as the Great Bustard itself.

Its flesh it considered a great dainty, and in the days of its
abundance on our downs it was eagerly sought for by fowlers.
It may be readily known by the dark orange brown of the breast,
which deepens into black lower down ; and by the streak of
black and another of white which cross the breast. It is a
nocturnal feeder, and rests by day, and has a habit of stretching
out its legs, wings and head, as many other birds do, when roused
from a state of repose ; but from this habit, wherein it has been
credited with aping the actions of the fowler who was in pursuit
of it, it derives its specific name morinelius, ' little fool,' or
' simpleton/ as if the actions above described were in imitation
of those of human beings, and were peculiar to this species alone.
The Arabic name for it is El Molir, * The Rich/ but I know not
the origin of that appellation : I should rather incline to think
that /Ao?po9, ' a fool/ was the root of that word too. Our English
word ' dotterel ' is interpreted by Professor Skeat to signify ' a
foolish bird/ from the old word dote, ' to be foolish/ remains of
which we may see in dotage, dotard, etc. In France it is
Pluvier guignard, ' Gaping (or Leering) Plover ;' in Germany,
Der dumme Regenpfeifer, ' The Stupid Plover ;' in Italy, Piviere
de corrione, ' Simpleton Plover / but in Spain, Chorlito marismeiio,
t Plover of the Salt-water Lake ;' and in Sweden, Fjall-Piparc,
' Fj all-Piper.' It is a smart dapper little species, and its
dwindled numbers and rapid extinction from among our down
birds is much to be lamented.

The tenth of May, says Mr. Howard Saunders, quoting from
Hone's ' Every-Day Book/ used to be known on the borders of

plover, a sege of herons, a covert of coots, a herd of swans, a skein of geese
(when flying), a gaggle of geese (when at rest), a team of wild duck, a
sprig of teal, a dropping of sheldrake.



Ringed Plover. 385

Hertford and Cambridgeshire as ' Dotterel day ;' but in Wiltshire
it certainly used to arrive at least a fortnight earlier. Its
appearance in the autumn was regarded by the shepherds as a
sign of coming winter, hence the following rhymes :

1 When dotterel do first appear,
It shows that frost is very near ;
But when the dotterel do go,
Then you may look for heavy snow.'*

139. RINGED PLOVER (Charadrius hiaticula).
Common enough on the seashore all round our coasts, this
species is such a lover of salt-water that it very rarely is seen far
inland. I have a notice by the late Rev. G. Marsh of a specimen
which was killed near Malmesbury, in 1838, and which I have
seen in his collection ; and that was the only individual which
had come to my notice as having appeared in Wilts, until, on
August 13th, 1881, a small flock of seven were seen in my parish
of Yatesbury by Mr. C. A. Tanner's shepherd, near the sheep-
fold. As the man happened to have a gun, he shot at them
and knocked down three, two of which he secured, and by the
courtesy of Mr. Tanner they were at once sent to me in the flesh, and
are now in my collection. Mr. Grant, of Devizes, tells me that one
was killed at Lavington at the same date. The Rev. A. P. Morres
once, and once only, saw a single bird in some water-meadows
immediately behind the Vicarage at Britford ; and I now learn
that Mr. Grant had received specimens from Netheravon in 1869,
and from Ufcot in 1873 ; and the Marlborough College Natural
History Society's Report speaks of one shot at Kennet on August
12th, 1881, probably one of the flock which came to Yatesbury. It
is a prettily marked little bird, light brown above and white below,
and is conspicuous for the distinct collar of white and then of black
which encircles its neck. It is indigenous in our island, and I
have met with it at all seasons on the Norfolk coast in consider-
able abundance ; like other shore-feeding birds, it follows the
tide, and runs rapidly at the edge of the advancing or retreating
waves, with neck outstretched and head thrown well back between

* Dyer's ' English Folk-Lore,' p. 96.

25



386 Charadriadce.

the shoulders : it also flies very swiftly, but seldom to any great
distance. Its cry is, like that of so many other members of this
family, wild, mournful, and plaintive. The specific name
hiaticula is given by the B.O.U. list as derived from its habit of
haunting the mouths of rivers, hiatus; and the generic name
jEgialitis (which it has received from some modern ornitho-
logists, in lieu of Charadrius), has the meaning of 'belonging
to the shore :' but neither of these names seems to me very happy,
as they may, with equal propriety, be applied to a large pro-
portion of the Order of Waders. In Sussex it bears the pro-
vincial name of 'Stone-runner.' Sometimes the cavity in the
sand in which it deposits its eggs is lined or covered with a
number of small stones about the size of peas, upon which the
eggs are laid, and this habit has gained for it in some counties
the provincial name of ' Stone-hatch/ * In Norway and Sweden,
where it is very common, both on the coast and on the sandy
shores of the lakes of the interior, it is known as the Storre
Strand-Pipare, or ' Greater Strand-Piper.' It also ascends to
very high latitudes, having been found in Lapland and Iceland,
and even occasionally in Spitzbergen,t and in Greenland, where
it has been known to breed. J

It is often known in England as the ' Ring Dotterel ' and the
' Sand-lark.' In France it is Grand Pluvier d Collier ; in Italy,
Piviere col Collare; and in Germany, Halsband Regenpfeifer ;
but by some authors Buntschnabliger Regenpfeifer, ' Plover with
Parti-coloured Beak ' : in allusion to the orange-yellow base and
black point of the beak of the male in summer dress. In Spain
it is known as Anda-rio, 'Stream Rover,' and sometimes as
Correplaya, 'Shore-runner'; in Portugal it is Lavadeira, 'Washer.'

140. LAPWING (Vanellus cristatus).

Here we have the true Plover of the downs of modern days ;
and what Wiltshireman does not know the peculiar call-note of

Howard Saunders' 4th edition of Yarrell's * British Birds,' vol. iii., p. 258.
t Professor Newton in Ibis for 1 865, p. 504.
$ Reinhardt in Ibis for 1861, p. 9.



Lapwing. 387

the Peewit, or the remarkable flight of the Lapwing (for both
names belong to one and the same bird), as he traverses any
portion of the downs ? Kesplendent with a metallic gloss on its
dark green upper plumage, capped with a crest or tuft of long
narrow curling feathers ; elegant as it runs forward at a rapid
pace, and as suddenly stops, and then runs forward again in



Online LibraryAlfred Charles SmithThe birds of Wiltshire. Comprising all the periodical and occasional visitants, as well as those which are indigenous to the county → online text (page 35 of 53)