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 38 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 38 of 53)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

Stork, may perhaps signify stark, ' the strong one,' from o-repeo?,
' firm ' ; or perhaps ' the tall one/ from the Anglo-Saxon steale,
1 high ' ; for f stork ' and ' stalk ' appear to have the same deriva-
tioa (See Skeat's Dictionary in loco.) In France, Cicogne
blanche; in Italy, Cicogna bianca ; in Spain, Ciguena ; in
Portugal, Cegonha ; but the origin of the specific word ciconia,
(which is classical Latin for Stork) is unknown.

149. GLOSSY IBIS (Ibis fakinellus).

The long arched beak of this bird, with a blunt rounded tip,
at once commands recognition, and its dark brown plumage,
glossed with a metallic lustre of green and purple reflections,
equally arrests attention. Sir R. Payne-Gallwey says that the
plumage of a recently-killed specimen is a beautiful shade of
shadowy black -green, and that it soon fades, but for some time
resembles in its metallic sheen the body of a large fly or beetle.*
Moreover, the portion of the head from the beak to the eyes is
quite bare of feathers, and the naked skin is of a green colour.
It is the only species really known in Europe, for though the
celebrated Sacred Ibis (/. religlosa) has obtained a place in Mr.
Bree's excellent work,-)- yet the author candidly owns that its
right to figure there is extremely doubtful; moreover, it is so
rare even in Egypt, that only an occasional straggler, at long
intervals, appears in that classic land : and the black and white
Ibis (' the Father of the Bills/ as the Arabs expressively term it)
must be sought for in Abyssinia, or still nearer the equator.
The Glossy Ibis, though certainly an uncommon bird, is not
amongst our rarest visitors, as scarcely a year passes without the
notice of the occurrence of one or more in different parts of
England, the fenny districts of Cambridgeshire, Lincoln and

* ' The Fowler in Ireland,' p. 238.

t ' The Birds of Europe not observed in the British Isles,' vol. iv., p. 45.

Glossy Ibis. 411

Norfolk being generally favoured ; and I have the authority of
the late Rev. George Marsh for stating that a specimen was
killed at Whetham near Calne, the residence of the then Rector
of Yatesbury, Rev. W. Money, in the year 1825. The hook-
shaped beak, which is so striking a feature, and whence it has
derived the title of 'Sickle-bill,' enables this bird, which is a
true Wader, the better to probe and search in the soft mud
where it seeks its prey. It was venerated in Egypt no less than
its more distinguished relative, and I brought home the em-
balmed bodies of these birds both from Memphis and Thebes,
some of which are enclosed in red earthenware pots, with their
covers still cemented to the top, and having externally a very
modern appearance ; but if one is opened and examined there is
no mistaking the bird within, swathed and bandaged though it
has been for 3000 years or more. By some modern ornithologists
the r good old generic name of Ibis is discarded, and Plegadis
substituted in its place ; and though the meaning of that word,
' of a sickle/ is appropriate enough, it is but a repetition of the
specific name, falcinellus, which also means ' a little sickle.' It
is the ' Black Curlew ' of European sportsmen, and the Svart
Ibis of Sweden. In North Africa, Canon Tristram found a
Glossy Ibis here and there among clouds of Buff-backed and
Night Herons, like a black sheep in a flock; and the Arabs,
seeing this dark-plumaged stranger among so many white birds,
have named it Mdazet et Md, ' the Devil's Crow.'* Hence it is
known in Spain as Garza diablo ; in France it is simply Ibis
falcinelle ; but in Germany Sichelschnabliger Nimmersat,
' Sickle-billed never satisfied ;' and in Italy, Chiurlo, ' Dolt.'
' Ibis ' is said to be a word of Coptic or Egyptian origin (Skeat).

It was our countryman, Colonel Montagu, who made careful
investigation into the subject, and unravelled the mystery which
then prevailed in regard to the several so-called species of Ibis,
and proved that the Bay, the Green, and the Glossy were all
one and the same species, but differing in plumage according to
sex, season and age.-f-

Ibis for 1860, p. 78. f See supplement to Ornith. Diet, in loco.

412 Scolopacidce.


Many of the species which compose this large family are well
known to the sportsman as well as to the epicure. The most
observable characteristic of the race is the long and slender
round-tipped beak, with which they are enabled to probe the
soft earth or mud and extract their prey, which consists of
worms and various insects and grubs ; for the Snipe family does
not live on air, or on nourishment derived by suction from
muddy water, as is very often popularly supposed. And yet
these birds are in one sense truly designated ' birds of suction/
for their beaks are marvellously formed for the purpose required,
by means of an unusual development of highly sensitive nerves
to the extreme tip, thus endowing them with an exquisite
sense of feeling ; while at the same time that member is further
provided with a peculiar muscle, which, by the closing or con-
tracting of the upper part of the mandibles, operates so as to
expand them at the point, and enables the bird, with the beak
still buried in the ground, to seize its prey the moment it is
aware of being in contact with it. Thus the delicate sense of
touch down to the very point of the beak, and its capability of
seizing as in a forceps the worm which it cannot see, renders
that admirable organ complete for its purposes, and enables it
to serve the place of eyes, nose, tongue, and hand. Hence the
name Scolopacidce from o-tcoXoyfr, ' anything pointed,' or ' a stake ';
which well applies to the beaks of alt the members of this family.
Birds of the Snipe family have also for the most part long and
slender legs, large and prominent eyes, and well-developed wings.
They are all migrants, and also move from one chosen locality to
another, as the frost compels them ; for soft damp ground in
which they can bore with their sensitive beaks without difficulty
is absolutely essential to them.

150. CURLEW (Numenius arquata).

This was a common bird on the downs within the memory of
many living sportsmen. The late Mr. Butler, of Kennett (from

Curlew. 413

whom I derived much practical information on the Ornithology
of Wilts), told me that he could recollect the time when they
were frequently killed here : and others assure me they used to
breed regularly in certain districts on the downs. Possibly they
may still occasionally do so, as Mr. Im Thurn pointed out in
his ' Birds of Marlborough,' showing that they had been reported
to breed on the Aldbourne downs, and for which the Rev. A. P.
Morres gave corroborative evidence, saying that they had lately
nested on the downs within seven miles of Salisbury. Indeed,
though I have no positive proof to bring forward, I do not know
why this assertion should be questioned, seeing that the
habit of the bird is to retire in the breeding season from the
coast, and to resort to heathy and mountainous districts ; seeing,
too, that N. arquata is still occasionally seen on our downs ;
and that it did, though not so regularly as (Edicnemus crepitans,
breed in the more retired districts of our Wiltshire downs.*
Mr. Howard Saunders says : ' A few pairs in the breeding season
may be scattered through Wilts and Hants/ and he adds, ' It is
the most wary of all birds, with the keenest sense of smell and
sight, and its shrill scream soon spreads the alarm among other
fowl.'-f- The Marlborough College Natural History Reports
mention eggs taken on Aldbourne Down in 1876, and a
specimen taken from the grasp of a hawk, by a keeper, in West
Woods in the same year, and one killed on Monkton Down in
April, 1877. Major Heneage has a specimen which was killed
at Compton Bassett in 1881. Lord Nelson possesses one killed
at Trafalgar. Lord Heytesbury's keeper has seen it occasionally
on the downs in his district ; and Mr. Grant reports one from
Coate, near Devizes, in January, 1862 ; another in December
of the same year from Bulkington, and one from Upavon
in January, 1864. These are all the records I have now
before me of the occurrence of single birds in various parts
of the county; but they are only stragglers and by no
means regular visitors now. Everybody knows the wild, mourn-

* Compare Zoologist for 1877, pp. 38 and 106.

f Fourth edition of Yarrell's ' British Birds,' vol. iii., pp. 501-504.

414 Scolopacidce.

ful whistling cry of the Curlew, as it rises from the marsh or
mud-bank on the sea-shore; and equally well known is the
peculiar long curved beak with which it is provided. As is the
case with so many other birds with beaks of unusual length or
shape (e.g. the Crossbill, Spoonbill, Avocet, Hoopoe, Shoveller,
etc.), the young when hatched have the ordinary short beak of
other species, and it is not till they advance towards maturity
that their beaks develop, until they attain the shape and
dimensions of that of the adult. It is of a shy timid nature, and
avoids the proximity of man, and is so wary, vigilant, and
withal so quick-sighted, as to be the first to discover and give
notice of the presence of an intruder, as every shore-shooter
knows to his vexation and cost. And as it seeks out for its
retreat the most retired and lonely spots, I conclude that the
breaking up and cultivation of our wild downs has been the
cause of banishing it from amongst us.

The English word 'Curlew,' and the French Courtis are
supposed to represent the strangely wild note of this bird. In
the B.O.U. list we find that Numenius is derived from * the new
moon,' veos + fjujwr), and has reference to the crescent-shaped beak.
Arquata, too, has much the same signification, meaning ' bent
like a bow,' arcus. It was in old time highly esteemed for
the table, but my experience of one which I obtained on the
Norfolk coast is decidedly the other way. Mr. Cordeaux, who is
intimately acquainted with it on the Yorkshire coast, says : ' To
modern taste its flesh is bitter and unpalatable ; but it is curious,
showing the estimation in which it was held by our forefathers,
that the price of the ' Kerlew,' as set forth in the Northumber-
land Household Book (begun in 1512) was twelvepence, an
extraordinary sum for that day : Pheasants, Bitterns and Herons
being valued at the same price, while such modern delicacies
as the Woodcock and Teal were fixed at Id. and ljd., and
Mallards and Partridges at 2d. each.* I conclude this account of
the Curlew with some remarks on it by Sir R. Payne-Gallwey,
whose keen observation is only equalled by his graphic descrip-
' Birds of the Humber District,' p. 109.

Curlew. 415

tion of the birds of which he writes : * The bill of a Curlew is a
mere bundle of delicate nerves of the most sensitive order
enclosed in a thin skin : by reason of this tender soft bill it feels
the effect of frost sooner than any other bird. Their bill being
adapted for feeding on soft ground only accounts for their
preference for the mud of estuaries and harbours, and for their
seeking the oozy flats just uncovered by the tide. But how
Curlews can tell from inland fields, farYrom and out of sight of
the tide, the exact moment to make for the shore, is more than
I can guess at. But they are more regular in repairing to their
haunts than any other birds. To the minute they will desert
the moors and meadows to leave for the coast : and they fall
arrive just as the ooze is sufficiently uncovered to enable them
to get their food whilst wading. I have watched them, several
miles from the tide, cease feeding, call to one another, collect,
and then point for the sea, and this, too, at the very moment I
knew the shallows must be nearly exposed. Spring tides they
will hit off exactly, never late, always on the spot just as the
banks begin to show. They may at these times be seen travelling
in long strings to their favourite haunts.'* In Continental
languages it bears the title of ' Great,' in reference to its congener
the ' Whimbrel,' next to be mentioned. Thus in France it is
Grand Courlis cendre; in Germany, Grosse Brachvogel, 'Great
Fallow-Bird ;' in Italy, Chiurlo maggiore ; in Spain, Chorlito real;
in Portugal, Magarwo real ; in Sweden, Stor-Spof.

151. WHIMBREL (Numenius phceopus.)

Doubtless this bird is often confounded with the preceding, to
which it bears a very close resemblance in all points, and from
which it differs in little else than in size. It is about one-third
less than its congener, and hence has derived the names of Half-
Curlew and Jack-Curlew. The first instance I adduce of its
occurrence in Wilts is the specimen in the Kev. George Marsh's
collection, which was obtained in his own parish in 1838, killed
in Sutton Mead, where it had been observed alone for some time.
* ' The Fowler in Ireland,' pp. 232-237.

416 Scolopacldce.

Lord Nelson possesses a specimen killed at Trafalgar. Mr. Grant
records a pair shot at Swindon in April, 1865, one at Overton
in May, 1873, and one at Enford by Mr. Sargent in May, 1882.
Then in 1876 a flock of six was seen at Berwick Bassett on May 13th,
and one of these was shot by a labourer who was scaring birds.
It was an adult male, in very fair plumage, and extremely fat :
its gizzard contained the remains of earthworms with a blade or
two of grass, and a few small stones ; all of which particulars
were recorded in the Zoologist* Since that date Mr. Swayne, of
Wilton, in a letter dated November 14th, 1883, informed me
that about the middle of October Lord Pembroke shot a
Whimbrel on the hill above Butteridge, and said that he had
seen four or five fly over his head the previous year in the
meadows just out of shot, but, except that they looked too small,
he thought they were Stone Curlews, of which there are generally
some about the hill, and several of which Mr. Swayne has seen
killed. The specific name, phceopus, means ' dusky-foot/ from
<ato?, ' dusky,' and TTOU?, ' a foot,' and marks one point in which
it differs from its larger congener, whose feet are light blue.
Mr. Cecil Smith says that they are called by the fishermen on
the Somerset coast ' Young Curlews '; and Mr. Knox that in
Sussex they are locally designated ' Titterels,' from the trilling
note which they utter while on the wing. Elsewhere they are
known as the ' May Bird/ because they arrive on migration so
regularly in that month. These, too, are the genuine ' Seven
Whistlers/ a term which is now applied to several other species,
but belongs by right to the Whimbrel alone, whose whistle is
supposed to be repeated just seven times. Mr. Cordeaux gives
the ' Knot Curlew ' as one of its many names in Yorkshire, and
adds : They are very partial to washing and bathing ; coming
down to the tide edge each day and wading out breast deep, they
scatter the water with their wings in sparkling showers over
their backs and bodies. After the bath they stand on the fore-
shore, gently fanning their wings to and fro, or preening and
arranging their plumage. When migrating they advance at an

For 1876, 2nd series, p. 5166.

Redshank. 417

immense height, generally in line, one leading, the rest following,
not directly, but en tchelon, and are constantly repeating their
call- note.* In France it is Le petit Courlis or Courlis Courlieu ;
in Germany, Regen Brachvogel; in Italy, Chiurlo minore; in
Spain, Zarapito ; in Portugal, Ma$arico ; and in Sweden, Sma-

152. REDSHANK (Totanus calidris).

This species is thoroughly well known on the coast, and little
beloved by the shore- shooter, for its wary eye is the first to
detect the intruder, and its shrill note of alarm, as it hurries off
on rapid wing, puts every bird in the marsh on the alert. So
well known is this its regular habit in every country it frequents,
that in Greece it is nicknamed pdprvpos, or the ' Tell-tale,' and
in Sweden Tolk, or the * Interpreter.' Sir E. Payne-Gallwey,
indeed, says that this is ' not from timidity, for it will continue
its search for food within a few yards of your punt, but from
pure restlessness of disposition, which never allows it to remain
long in one spot ; and on the wing it always calls loudly, whether
near or far, and whether frightened or unsuspicious.'f I must,
however, own that this is contrary to my experience, for I always
found it to be the most timid and the first to take alarm of all
the birds on the shore ; and, indeed, that such is its general
character the nicknames mentioned above sufficiently prove.
One writer has observed that he was much struck with the
curious manner in which Kedshanks dart their bill into the
sand nearly its whole length, by jumping up and thus giving
it a sort of impetus, by the weight of their bodies pressing it
downwards. It is a bird of erect, somewhat martial bearing, and
used to be known in England, according to Bewick and others,
as the ( Red-legged Horseman,' and in France, according to
Temminck, as Chevalier gambette, and, according to Cuvier, as Le
grand Chevalier au pieds rouges. By Italian authors it is
described as Gambetta, which signifies a 'small thin leg/ and

' Birds of the Humber District,' p. 111.
t ' The Fowler in Ireland/ p. 239.


418 Scolopacidce.

by old British writers, Latham and others, it was known as
Tringa gambetta. The meaning of calidris is unknown, but it
is as old as the time of Aristotle, who designated some speckled
water-bird under this name, and it was applied by Linnaeus to
the Redshank, which it is to be hoped will retain it to the end
of time. This species seldom comes far inland except in the
breeding season, and I have but two instances of its occurrence
in "Wiltshire, both communicated to me by Mr. Grant, who
received the two specimens in the flesh, the one on May 26th,
1865, the other in September, 1868, both, strangely enough, from
the same locality, Whitley, near Melksham. In addition to the
names mentioned above, it is known in Germany as Rothfussiger
Wasserlaiifer, * Red-Footed Water- Runner ;' in Sweden as Rod-
bent Sndppa ; and in Portugal as Chalrtta.

153. GREEN SANDPIPER (Totanus ochropus).

This and the following species seem interlopers in the midst
of the Snipe family, and scarcely deserve to be classed with
them, for their beaks are neither so long nor so sensitive, and
they seek their food on the surface as much as below the
mud. In other respects they are closely allied to the other
members of the family. This is a far more common bird in
'Wiltshire than many suppose. It has been shot by the late Rev.
G. Marsh in the water-meadows at Salisbury in 1833 : and the
Rev. A. P. Morres, who lives in a locality far more suited to its
requirements than that which I inhabit, says they are almost
always to be found in the water-meadows near Salisbury ; indeed,
he has seen them there in every month of the year, with the
exception of June. Mr. W. Wyndham writes that it is common
at Dinton ; and Lord Heytesbury that a specimen was killed by
one of his grandsons in 1884. In North Wilts I learn that^one
was seen at Littlecote in May, 1876, and Mr. Grant furnishes me
with a goodly list of sixteen which have passed through his
hands for preservation, having been taken within a radius of ten
or twelve miles of Devizes. It does not remain on the sea-coast

Green Sandpiper. 419

when it reaches our island in its migrations, but proceeds at
once to the rivers and streams of the interior. I have met with
it in great abundance in Egypt in winter, and I have seen it in
summer in its breeding haunts in Norway, and have occasionally
met with it in the creeks of the Wash on the coast of Norfolk.
When disturbed, it will hurry away with a shrill whistle, flying
low, and skimming over the surface of the water, and generally
following accurately all the bends and angles of the stream. We
have the excellent authority of Dr. Kruper in Pomerania, and
that of Herr Badeker and Mr. Wainwright in Norway, that this
bird, contrary to expectation, will occasionally, if not generally, lay
its eggs in the old nests of fieldfares or other tree-building birds.*
This, as well as the Common Sandpiper, and some other members
of the same family, is frequently dubbed the ' Summer Snipe.'
Its scientific name, ochropus, signifies ' with pale yellow feet/
from to^/009, ' pale yellow/ and TTOU?, ' a foot '; but this is singularly
in opposition to the fact, for the feet are very dark gray or
nearly black, with a green tinge. Some modern ornithologists
remove it from the genus Totanus and call it Helodromas, which
signifies ' Marsh Runner/ and is appropriate enough. It is also
called the ' Whistling Sandpiper/ from its shrill note, said by the
Rev. R. Lubbock, in his 'Fauna of Norfolk/ to be probably the
loudest note for its size of any of our fen birds. In France it is
Chevalier cul-blanc, 'White-tailed Horseman;' in Germany,
PunJctierte Strandldufer ; in Italy, Culbianco ; in Sweden,
Grd-bent Sndppa.

154. WOOD SANDPIPER (Totanus glareola).

This is but an occasional straggler to the British Isles, so that
its occurrence in Wiltshire was hardly to be expected; and,
indeed, I have but one instance of its being taken within the
borders of our county, and that was at the hands of Mr. W.
Macey, of Lavington, on January 13th, 1879, as I am informed by
Mr. Grant. It is somewhat smaller than the Green Sandpiper,

* See Canon Tristram in Ibis for 1860, p. 169, and Mr. Simpson in same
vol., p. 390.


420 Scolopacidce.

with which it is often confounded, and with which it was always
supposed to be identical, until our countryman Montagu pointed
out wherein it differed; but though similar to that bird in
plumage, in general habits, and especially when breeding, it
more closely resembles the Redshank. Its true home is in
Central Asia and Central Europe, where it frequents thickets of
alder and willow in marshy ground, and is common in winter
throughout the Mediterranean, including the northern shores of
Africa. The specific name glareola, which is a diminutive from
glarea, ' gravel/ would imply that it haunts gravelly places, but
such appears to be by no means characteristic of this species.
It is the Tringa grallatoris and 'Long-legged Sandpiper' of
Montagu, and, indeed, its length of leg seems disproportionate to
the size of its body. The English specific name, * Wood Sand-
piper/ as well as the French Chevalier Sylvain and the German
Wald Strandlaufer, all point to the peculiar haunts it loves,
wherein it differs from all its congeners. In Sweden it is known
as Gron-bent Sndppa.

155. COMMON SANDPIPER (Totanus hypolewos).

This is a far more common species than T. ochropus, as its
trivial name implies, and may be frequently met with in summer,
not only on the banks of our streams, but even occasionally on
our downs. The Rev. G. Marsh told me that it is especially
abundant in the neighbourhood of Salisbury ; and that is tho-
roughly confirmed by the Rev. A. P. Morres, who sees them every
summer there. Sometimes, but only very seldom, I have met
with them in the water-meadows in the parish of Yatesbury. It
is an elegant little bird, and all its movements are graceful and
pleasing : whether on the wing, as it skims over the surface of
the water with a shrill piping whistle, or on foot, as, perched on
a stone, it continually moves its tail up and down, or runs with
great rapidity by the margin of the stream. It is also said to be
able to dive as well as swim on emergency, and, in short, is a
bird of most active habits and most lively motions. Its note,
too, is remarkably loud for its size. To most people it is known

Common Sandpiper. 421

under the name of f Summer Snipe.' The specific name, hypo-
leucos, 'white underneath,' though not distinctive, tells accurately
of the pure unspotted white of the plumage on the under surface
of the body. I found this species most abundant in Egypt during
the winter, and met with it at every turn of the river ; and not
less common in Norway during the summer, where it established
itself in its breeding quarters on every river and stream, and
where I have taken the young just out of the shell, and marvelled
at its size in comparison with its parents. But the Drill Sndppa,
as it is there called, is very abundant all over Scandinavia. By
the Lapps it is called Skillili, and they have a saying as to the
disproportionate size of the egg to the bird which may be thus

rendered :

' Skillili, Skillili ! I carry, I carry
An egg large as that of a Ripa,
So that my tail cocks in the air.'

In like manner as the Dunlin is commonly said in Iceland to
guard and tend the Golden Plover, so on the islands of the Baltic

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 38 of 53)