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

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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 39 of 53)
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Sea the Common Sandpiper is reported to act the part of a
servant or guardian towards the Redshank. Now, the Redshank
(T. calidris) is known to the fishermen as Tolk, or ' Interpreter,'
because of its shrill cry, whereby it warns other birds of the
coming of the fowler, for which reason the Common Sandpiper
is there often designated TolJca-piga, or ' Handmaid to the
Interpreter.' In France it is Chevalier guignette ; in Germany,
Trillender Strandlaufer ; and in Italy, Piovanello.

156. GREENSHANK (Totanus glottis).

This is a rare bird in Wiltshire. The Rev. A. P. Morres had
the good fortune in 1865 to see three together on two con-
secutive days in some water-meadows near Salisbury, where
they had been noticed to have taken up their quarters, and to
have occupied the same spot for some four or five days pre-
viously. They were very wild, and would not admit of too near
approach. It is not usual to see three in company, for when
found in this country it is almost always a single bird that is

422 Scolopacidce.

found alone. Another instance of its occurrence in Wiltshire
was communicated to me by the Rev. A. W. Phelps, who informed
me that a specimen had been killed from the ' Diamond/ opposite
the Abbey at Amesbury, by Sir E. Antrobus' keeper, on the
August Bank Holiday of last year (1886). A third passed
through the hands of Mr. Grant, which was shot at Foxhanger
in August, 1870. A fourth, as I am told by Lord Methuen, was
shot near the waters at Corsham Court, and is preserved there.
Mr. Rawlence possesses a specimen killed at Gombledon, near
Salisbury ; and Lord Heytesbury called my attention to an
instance of which the Rev. G. Powell had previously informed
me, which had been observed on the 27th of August, 1868, by
Mr. William Swayne, in the Knook meadows in the parish of
Heytesbury, and after flushing it several times, that gentleman
contrived to get a shot at it as it rose from some rushes and
killed it. It appeared to have been wearied by previous long
flight; and my informant, who examined the bird carefully,
believes it to have been a young bird and a hen. The Green-
shank, though a scarce bird in England, does make its appear-
ance almost every year as a straggler, and is generally observed
during the spring or autumn migrations, either on its way to or
its return from its breeding-places in the far north. Hence the
specimen last mentioned was undoubtedly on its journey south-
wards when it halted to rest in the parish of Heytesbury. Like
many others of its congeners, it will on occasions perch on the
top of a tall tree, to the no small astonishment of the observer*
who is ignorant of this unlooked-for habit in a true wader. Its
beak is, though very slightly, yet perceptibly curved upwards.
In connection with this upturned beak, Mr. Harting remarked a
peculiarity in its manner of feeding, for he noticed that it placed
the bill upon the surface, the under mandible almost parallel
with the mud, and as it advanced scooped from side to side after
the fashion of the Avocet, leaving a curious zigzag line im-
pressed upon the ooze.* Its food consists of small molluscs,
worms, beetles, and insects of various kinds. Our English word
'Birds of Middlesex,' p. 181.

Bar-tailed Godwit. 423

' Greenshank ' indicates at once the grayish-green-colour of the
legs, which distinguishes it from the Kedshank. Its scientific
name glottis, and in Swedish Glutt Sndppa, signify the bird
' with a tongue ;' so the French call it Aboyeur, ' the Barker/ for
it is most vociferous, and its loud shrill note, with which it rises
when disturbed, alarms all other birds in the fen. In Germany
it is Grunfussiger Wasserlaufer, and in Italy Pantana

157. BAR-TAILED GODWIT (Limosa rufa).
Common though it is on the coast, I have only one instance of
the occurrence of this bird in Wilts, and that was a specimen
shot in the neighbourhood of Marlborough ; and as it puzzled its
captors, it was sent tome to name on November 6th, 1881, when
it was of course in winter plumage. In Sweden it rejoices in
a name almost as long as its beak, being known as Rost-rod Lang
Ndbba, or ' Rust-red Long-Bill,' but provincially Augusti Snappa,
because it appears in August. Its scientific name, Limosa,
meaning * muddy,' marks the localities it prefers, and here it will,
with its long semi-flexible bill, probe the muddy deposit on the
banks and mouths of rivers, wading deep in the water, immersing
the head at intervals, and searching the ooze beneath.* When
disturbed and raised on the wing, the Red Godwit will send forth
a cry not unlike the bleat of a goat, whence, I suppose, the name
cegocephala bestowed on it by old writers, for in no other respect
assuredly does it bear any resemblance to the head of a goat. In
consequence of their great length of beak, they are often called
' Sea Woodcocks/ and as they arrive on the east coast pretty
regularly on or about May 12th, that day is known to the fen
men as * Godwit-day/ a plain proof, if any were wanting, how
numerous they once were in the fen districts of England. Hart-
ing says Godwits come with an east wind, and are more plentiful
in mild than in severe winters ; he also adds, in their winter dress
they greatly resemble Whimbrel, from which, however, they may
be distinguished at a distance by their note, which sounds like
Selby's ' Illustrations of British Birds/ vol. ii., p. 94.

424 Scolopacidce.

lou-ey, lou-ey* Professor Skeat derives our English word
' Godwit ' from the Anglo-Saxon god, ' good,' and w-iht ' creature,'
the goodness of the creature having reference, I conclude, to its
edible qualities. In France it is Barge rousse ; in Germany, Rost-
brauner Wasserlailfer ; in Portugal, Macarico gallego.

158. RUFF (Machetes pugnax) .

This is truly a fen bird, and belongs of right to the eastern
counties, from which, however, the draining of the fens and the
rage for reclaiming waste land have nearly succeeded in banishing
it. But I am glad to hail it as a straggler to our county, for it is
extremely handsome, and withal a very interesting species. Two
instances have come to my knowledge of its occurrence in Wilt-
shire, one killed by a farmer in the neighbourhood of Wootton
Bassett, about 1850 ; the other taken in the immediate neigh-
bourhood of Salisbury in 1828. The striking feature of the bird
is the strange frill or ruff of feathers which, together with con-
spicuous auricular plumes, surrounds the neck of the male bird
in his breeding plumage, and which when raised form a shield
round the head, reminding one of the costume of the worthies,
with whose portraits we are familiar, of the time of Elizabeth. At
that season, so much do they vary in colour of plumage that it is
scarcely possible to find two alike; the ruffs which these birds
assume being of all shades, from white, yellow, chestnut, brown,
or a mixture of any or all of these colours, to pure black. At all
other seasons of the year, they are of comparatively sober hue, and
more nearly resemble the females, which are called Reeves.

These birds are polygamous, unlike all the rest of the Snipe
family ; and, like the Capercaillie and Blackcock, select a dry
hillock in the breeding season on which to ' hill,' as it is termed,
or take their stand in defiance of all rivals. And here these
magnificently bedizened Lotharios strut about in their pride of
dress, and proclaim aloud their readiness to combat all opponents,
and challenge such to fight for possession of the somewhat dowdy-
looking females assembled around. Indeed, they are most ex-
' Birds of Middlesex,' p. 184.

Woodcock. 425

ceedingly pugnacious ; no gamecock could be more combative,
and hence they derive both their generic and specific names,
Machetes, signifying 'warrior/ from /m^-nf?, andpugnax, ' fond of
fighting/ from pugna. So in France it is Becasseau combattant ;
in Germany Streitstrandlaufer ; in Italy, Gambetta scherzosa, or
'Playing Horseman/ in reference to the lek, or' hill ' ; and Com-
battente, in reference to its pugnacity ; in Spain it is Com-
batiente, and in Sweden Brus-hane. The Rev. R. Lubbock says
that when the ' hill ' is over the males seem to be much inconve-
nienced by the collar of long feathers which obstructs their flight,
rendering it slow and laboured; but, relieved of this by the autumn
moult, their flight becomes powerful and glancing, like that of
the female. No birds were in old time more highly esteemed by
epicures than the Ruffs ; consequently the price they fetched was
very remunerative, and they were caught in nets in great numbers
and fatted on bread and milk, hempseed, boiled wheat, and sugar.
But the method of killing them when fat enough for the table,
though as quick and certain as by the guillotine, seems to us
barbarous enough, for it was the custom to cut off their heads
with a pair of scissors, in order that the blood might more readily
be discharged, and then they were dressed like woodcock.*

159. WOODCOCK (Scolopax rusticola).

I need scarcely assert that this is a winter migrant to our
county, though I fear it is becoming less abundant every year.
A few pairs undoubtedly remain in England to breed in summer,
and a nest was found at Winterslow in 1830, but the larger part
retire to more northern and more secluded localities. It loves
open glades, and moist ground in woods, and is not therefore
often seen in the down districts. Occasionally, as I learnt from
Mr. Stratton, of Gore Cross, as well as from the late Mr. William
Tanner, of Rockley, it is to be met with in our more exposed
covers on the hills. But the moister climate of Ireland seems to
have attractions for the Woodcocks which this country does not
hold out, for we learn from Mr. Knox's admirable book that
Cordeaux's ' Birds of the Humber,' p. 121.

426 Scolopacidce.

1 forty couple is frequently the result of one day's sport in the
Emerald Isle/* and Sir R Payne-Gall wey speaks of even a larger
bag ; while in 1881 an exceptional year for abundance of Wood-
cock a thousand head a week for three weeks were forwarded to
London by one dealer only ; and over five thousand were brought
into a small town in County Clare during the three weeks' frost
of January of that year. And yet this is as nothing compared to
the immense quantities which are obtained in the evergreen woods
and swamps of the Greek coast and Ionian Islands, as we may
gather from Lord Lilford's graphic account in the Ibis.^ The
Woodcock is a nocturnal feeder, as might be inferred from its
immense, full, dark, bright, and very prominent eyes, which are
also placed very far back in, and nearly on a level with the crown
of, the head, and give the bird a singular staring appearance.
That the eyes are so placed is doubtless to avoid their contact
with mud and wet, as well as to see while they plunge their bills,
nearly forehead deep, while in the act of feeding. Unlike its
congeners, it seeks the retirement of woods during the day, only
emerging at twilight or dusk to its feeding-places in swampy
ground. Its flight is perfectly noiseless, and very rapid, and it is
marvellous how quickly and accurately it will thread its way
through the thick branches of the trees, and very soon it will close
its wings, and suddenly drop into any tempting cover, and then
run to shelter into any rank grass or thick underwood it can
find. St. John observes that its flight in the evening is rapid and
steady, instead of being uncertain and owl-like, as it is often in
bright sunshine;* an( * Sir R. Payne-Gallwey, ' that if flushed when
a hurricane is blowing, its immense powers of wing (unrivalled
almost) will carry it along in any direction as if it was merely a
summer zephyr. It is a solitary bird, and seldom associates with
its fellows. Its plumage is peculiarly rich, of a deep brown

* ' Game Birds and Wild Fowl,' p. 50.

t Ibis for 1860, vol. ii., pp. 340-342. See also Thompson's ' Natural History
of Ireland/ vol. ii., p. 242.
t * Highland Sports,' p. 220.
' The Fowler in Ireland/ pp. 16, 218-225.

Woodcock. 427

colour, barred and spotted, and crossed with, black or very dark
brown. Woodcocks frequently arrive on the east coast in the
autumn migration, very much exhausted, and will drop immedi-
ately on reaching land in the nearest available cover, or even at
the base of the rocks on the shore. It is curious how they always
seem to arrive two or three days after the Golden Crested Wren,
hence dubbed the 'Woodcock Pilot.'* Gilbert White has been
censured for refusing to credit what he called the improbable
story of the naturalist Scopoli as to the Woodcock, when
alarmed for the safety of its young, carrying them off in its beak,
'pullos rostro portat fugiens ab hoste;' for he considered the long
and unwieldy beak of that bird very ill adapted for such a
purpose. But in truth our good old English naturalist was quite
right in his opinion, for though the Woodcock does, beyond
question, remove its young when in danger, it is not with the beak,
but either with the feet, grasping the young bird in its claws, as
an owl will carry off a mouse, or else supporting it with both
feet and bill, which that bird could well do, as it always flies with
bill pointed downwards to the earth, or else pressed between the
thighs. This has been witnessed over and over again of late
years, and for instances and further particulars on this very
interesting subject I refer to the pages of Bewick, Yarrell,
Lloyd, St. John, Stevenson, Harting, Howard Saunders, and, above
all, Sir Kalph Payne-Gallwey. In Sweden it is called Mor-kulla.
or ' Moor-maid/ and it is commonly supposed there that there
are two species, the Common and the ' Stone Woodcock,' the
latter known in Germany as the Stein- Schneppe, and described as
of darker colour, and as nearly one-third less in size than the
other. But it would appear that this divergence is only attribu-
table to the difference of sex, the male bird, as Mr. Cecil Smith
has pointed out, being much smaller than the female. Indeed,
Yarrell says a young male shot in October will sometimes
weigh only 7 oz., while an old female will probably weigh
as much as 14 or 15 oz. It is only of late years that it has
been known to breed in England, but now that attention has

c " Cordeaux's ' Birds of the Humber District,' p. 136.

428 Scolopacidce.

been called to it, there are few counties in England which
cannot boast of a Woodcock's nest. In Wiltshire I learn from
Mr. C. Penruddocke that its nest is occasionally found in the
woods at Compton ; from the Kev. S. L. Sainsbury, Rector of
Beckington, that it breeds in some of the covers at Longleat;
and I hear that it is strongly suspected to breed within tho
precincts of Savernake Forest, though I have no positive infor-
mation on this point. The specific name rusticola is a diminutive,
meaning ' belonging to the country ' (B.O.U.). In France it is
La B&asse; in Germany, Wold Schneppe, ' Wood Snipe;' in Italy,
Beccaccia; in Spain, Gallineta, and in some districts Chocha;
in Portugal, Gallinhola.

160. GREAT SNIPE (Scolopax major).

I have little doubt that this species is often confused with its
commoner relative, and mistaken for a large specimen of S.
gallinago ; while fine individuals of that bird have undoubtedly
in their turn equally been hailed as S. major. Since, however,
the attention of naturalists has been directed to the points in
which these species differ, the Great Snipe is found to be
sparingly scattered over the country every autumn ; and Wilt-
shire is one of the counties named by Montagu in which it had
then been observed. The late Rev. G. Marsh reported that one was
killed in Winterslow Wood in 1831, and he had himself seen a
specimen in Christian Malford, though he was not able to obtain
it. The Rev. George Powell tells me of one killed in South
Wilts in 1854, and of another killed by his brother at Hurd-
cott, on the 25th September, 1868 ; and the Rev. A. P. Morres
mentions one killed at Pewsey on September 23rd of the same
year, which Mr. Grant, who preserved it, tells me weighed 7J oz.
Another killed near Hungerford in October, 1874, is recorded by
Mr. Grant.

In 1868, from some unexplained cause, these birds were
extraordinarily numerous in many parts of England : and I have
notices of one killed on Salisbury Plain, another at Milton,
near Pewsey, and of several others on the borders of the county.

Great Snipe. 429

It is often called the ' Solitary ' Snipe, as it was supposed, though
it seems erroneously, to shun the society of its fellows. It is also
called the 'Double' Snipe, from its size ; the ' Silent' Snipe, from
its uttering no cry as it rises on the wing ; and the ' Meadow '
Snipe, from its habit of frequenting fields of long coarse grass,
whence it is also designated by the Germans Wiesen Schnepfe.
It is rarely seen in England but in the autumn : in summer I
have met with it in Norway, where it retires to breed on the
vast wild fjelds of that thinly populated country. The principal
points wherein it differs from the Common Snipe are its greater
size and heavier form ; its smaller and shorter beak ; its stouter
and shorter legs ; and the under-plumage invariably barred with
brown and white, which in the commoner species is pure white.
The eye, too, is placed very high in the head, and it flies more
like a Woodcock than a Snipe, more heavily and sluggishly, and
without those turns and twists for which the latter is notorious.
It also prefers drier situations than its congeners, the heather-
covered hillside or the rough grass of a sheltered bank being
favourite haunts. When on the wing, it spreads its tail like a
fan. In France it is Grande ou Double Bdcassine ; in Germany,
Mittelschneppe ; in Italy, Beccacino maggiore ; in Portugal,
Narseja grande; and in Sweden, Dubbel Beckasin.

Like the Huffs and some other species described above, Great
Snipes have their leks, or playing grounds, wherein the males
strut and posture, droop their wings, spread their tails, swell out
their feathers, and do battle for the admiration and approbation
of the other sex. The English word ' Snipe ' is undoubtedly
derived from neb, the Anglo-Saxon for a 'bird's beak,' and
certainly that is the most noticeable feature in all the members
of this family.

161. COMMON SNIPE (Scolopax gallinago).

It is unquestionable that these birds, once so numerous here

in winter, are gradually becoming perceptibly scarcer every year.

This may be attributed to the general increase of draining, and

the reclaiming of fens and marshes ; so that, like the Red Indian

430 Scolopacidce.

in America, the Snipe will soon be improved off the face of this
country by the rapid advance of high farming. In Wiltshire
and the more southern parts of England it is a true migrant,
arriving in the autumn and departing in the spring ; but in more
northern counties many pairs remain annually to breed in the
moors or fens. The shrill alarm cry of this bird, and its peculiar
zigzag flight, are too well known to require comment. I may
mention, however, that in addition to the sharp scream with
which we are all familiar in the winter, it makes a drumming or
bleating noise in the breeding season, and hence is called by the
French Chdvre volant, and in several other languages words
equivalent to the ' Air-goat,' or the ' Kid of the Air.' More
poetically it is called in Germany Himmel ziege, or ' Goat of the
Heavens ' ; and by many modern authors Capella ccelestis ; and
in some parts of England ' Heather Bleater ' and ' Moor Lamb,'
the bleating sound being described in Norfolk as 'lambing,'
because of its similarity to the bleating of lambs.* But in
Norway, where this peculiar note is supposed to resemble the
neighing of a horse, it has obtained the appellation of Skodde-Foll,
or ' Horse of the Mist ' ; and in some parts of Hors-Gok, or ' Horse
Cuckoo,' for, in that land of legends, this bird is indeed believed
to have at one period been a veritable steed.-)- It has been much
disputed whether this bleating or humming proceeds from the
mouth or from the motion of the wings. It seems, however,
unquestionable that it only occurs when the bird is descending
rapidly with wings shivering or violently agitated. It is also to
be noted that rooks, peewits, ring-doves, and black-headed gulls
all occasionally produce a loud humming sound with the wings.J
Mr. Mitchell, in his admirable little book on the 'Birds of
Lancashire,' says Snipes are amongst the earliest risers in the
morning, and may often be heard drumming before daylight.

Christopher Davies' ' Norfolk Broads and Rivers,' p. 13.

t For the legend referred to, see Lloyd's ' Scandinavian Adventures,'
vol. ii., p. 406.

See Harting on this subject in ' Birds of Middlesex,' p. 190 ; his edition
of ' White's Selborne,'' p. 119 ; and in Zoologist for 1881, pp. 198-200.

'Birds of Lancashire,' p. 186.

Jack Snipe. 431 .

In France it is Btcassine ordinaire ; in Germany, Heerschneppe ;
in Italy, Beccacino reale; in Sweden, Enkel Beckasin, 'Single
Snipe ' ; in Spain, Agachadiza ; in Portugal, Narseja ordinaria.
To distinguish it from the succeeding species, it is in England
sometimes called the ' Whole ' Snipe.

162. JACK SNIPE (Scolopax gallinula).

This diminutive species might, with much more reason, be
denominated ' Solitary ' than its largest relative, inasmuch as it is
almost always found alone. ' He is rarely seen ' (says Sir R Payne-
Gall vvey) ' careering in a storm ; not he : he sticks like a limpet
to the lee of a " tuft," his little body crouched warm and low in
the herbage. If disturbed, he will make for another shelter at a
short distance, and even return to the same.'* But it utters no
cry when it rises from the ground ; hence known in Sweden as
Stum Beckasin, or ' Mute Snipe ' ; and it lies so close that you
may almost tread upon it before it will move, and, as Harting
says, really appears to be so deaf that the French name for it,
Btcassine sourde, is not an inappropriate one. When at rest,
the head reclines upon the back, between the shoulders, giving
the bird the appearance of having no neck : the bill rests on the
ground in front, the breast touches the ground, and the tarsus
and tibia touch, and are parallel. When, however, it is roused^
the bird rises so suddenly as to cause an involuntary start on
the part of the observer,f but it does not fly with such twists as
does the preceding; and it invariably departs to northern
countries for breeding purposes. In general habits, feeding and
nesting, the Snipes are all alike. It is often called the ' Half '
Snipe, in allusion to its size; and is said to have derived the
name of Jack Snipe from an old erroneous supposition that it
was the male of the ' Common Snipe. The provincial names of
these three species accurately describe their relative size; the
Jack or Half Snipe weighing about two ounces ; the Common,
Whole, or Full Snipe four ounces ; and the Great or Double Snipe
eight ounces.

' The Fowler in Ireland/ p. 17. f ' Birds of Middlesex,' p. 194.

432 Scolopacidce.

In Germany it is Moorschneppe, ' Fen Snipe ' ; in Sweden,
Half-enkel BecJcasin, ' Half-single Snipe ' ; in Italy, Beccacino
minore; in Spain, Agachadera; and in Portugal, Narseja
gallega ; and here I may observe that gallega, as a diminutive,
is given to several other species, as the smallest woodpecker, the
short-toed lark, the little bittern, etc.; probably because the
servants and porters of Portugal, coming from Galicia (one of
the northern provinces of Spain), as hewers of wood and drawers
of water, have come to be looked on as inferiors, and hence
gallego is a term of inferiority; just as real, ' royal/ is on the
contrary applied to species of a large size.

It is called gallinula, or ' the chicken/ I suppose, as if it must,
from its diminutive size, be the young of a larger species ! But
if the bird is small, its eggs are large : perhaps of greater bulk,
relatively to the size of the bird, than any others in the British
list ; for whereas the Jack Snipe weighs two ounces, its four eggs
weigh more than an ounce and a half.

163. CURLEW SANDPIPER (Tringa mbarquata).

This is sometimes known as the ' Pigmy Curlew/ the specific
name, subarquata, having also the meaning of ' a little like a
Curlew ; '* and the beak of this pretty little bird, gently curved
downwards, reminds one immediately of Numenius arquata, of
which it looks like a miniature edition. It has often been con-
fused with the Dunlin, which in general appearance it much
resembles ; moreover, it is not nearly so rare a visitor to our
shores as was once supposed, a considerable number being noticed

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 39 of 53)