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 40 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 40 of 53)
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every year. This is especially the case in the south-western ex-
tremity of England, and the late Mr. Rodd, of Penzance, pointed
out to Professor Newton and myself, when we were on an excur-
sion through Cornwall, several specimens in his most interesting
collection. The only instance I have of its occurrence in Wilt-
shire I give on the authority of my friend, Colonel Ward, who
informed me that it was picked up alive by a labourer on Chip-

B.O.U. ' List of British Birds,' p. 170.

Knot. 433

penham Bridge, and was taken to Mr. Dangerfield, bird-preserver
of that town, who at once wrote to Colonel Ward to come and
see it, which that gentleman did, and secured it for his own col-
lection. This was in July, 3869, when it should have been breed-
ing in more northern latitudes; but, strange to say, several of the
occurrences recorded in England bear the date of July. Hitherto
this species has contrived to elude the sharp eyes of ornithologists
when searching for its nest, and its eggs have never been dis-
covered, and are quite unknown to science. Mr. Seebohm, indeed,
confidently hoped to add this to the other laurels he gained in his
famous journey to Siberia, but the Curlew Sandpiper baffled him,
and he came home without accomplishing that portion of the
task he set himself to fulfill.* In Sweden it is known as Bdg-
ndbbad Strand-Vipa.

164. KNOT (Tringa canuta).

This is in my judgment one of the most excellent birds for the
table : nor am I singular in that opinion ; for however little
known to modern epicures, it derives its name, Latin as well as
English, from the famous Danish King Knut or Canute, who had
an especial liking for the flesh of this, the most delicate perhaps
of all the well-flavoured family to which it belongs. It has, how-
ever, been suggested that the name may be derived from its
littoral habits, in allusion to the story of Canute's celebrated
reproof to his courtiers ; but I prefer the other derivation. It is
strange how the eggs of this bird are still absolutely unknown to
science, and how curiously they have eluded discovery. Swedish
and Norwegian naturalists considered that they bred on the
higher fjelds in the more northern parts of Scandinavia, within
the Arctic Circle, but even Wolley failed to discover their nests
there. When the famous Arctic Expedition of 1875-76, under
Captain Nares, attained the high latitudes to which the Alert and
Discovery penetrated, Captain Markham wrotef that in August,

See his ' Siberia in Europe,' p. 233 ; also his ' British Birds,' vol. iii.,
p. 181.

f 'The Great Frozen Sea,' p. 127.


434 Scolopacidce.

1875, some Knots were obtained, but no amount of search was
successful in discovering the egg of that bird ; and even Captain
Feilden, enthusiastic ornithologist as he was, and determined as he
was to unravel the mystery, was baffled in his efforts, though
every man on both ships was on the look-out for the nest, and the
parent birds in full nuptial plumage, and evidently breeding, were
almost daily seen. Again, when Mr. H. Seebohm made his famous
expedition to the valley of the Petchora in European Siberia,
the Knot was one of the half-dozen birds whose breeding grounds
were wrapped in mystery, and whose eggs he especially desired to
find; but it was the only bird of the six which he never met with
at all in the valley of the Petchora,* and we may be sure it would
never have escaped the notice of that keen ornithologist if it had
been in that district. Neither was he more successful in regard
to this bird in his subsequent adventurous journey to the banks
of the Yenesei.f In Norway it is called Isliindsk Strand-Vipa,
as if Iceland was its home ; but its nest is quite unknown there.
In this country it is a winter migrant, and the mud-flats and
sand-banks of the eastern coast literally swarm with the vast
flocks of this species ; at one moment they will rise simulta-
neously in a compact body, and, after a short flight, settle again
in close array on the shore ; then they will run at the extreme
odge of the receding tide, and seek their food in the ooze laid bare
by the retreating waves. The numbers which compose these
great flocks must be immense; they cannot contain less than
many thousands, so widespread and at the same time so dense is
the cloud, which, with one impulse, takes wing, wheels about with
simultaneous movement, and as rapidly settles again at the edge
of the waves. This general account of their immense numbers
may in some degree prepare the way for a marvellous shot, which
I am about to relate ; and which will doubtless seem incredible to
those whose experience is confined to inland shooting only, and
who are unaccustomed to see the vast flights of birds which occa-
sionally collect on our coasts ; but of the truth of which I have
satisfied myself, and therefore do not hesitate to publish the
* ' Sibeiia in Europe/ p. 2. f ' Siberia in Asia.'

Knot. 435

story. It is the custom of the wild-fowl shooters or 'gunners/ as
they are called on the Norfolk coast, to paddle noiselessly down
the creeks of the Wash in a low narrow gun-boat or canoe, with
a large duck gun moving on a swivel lashed like a cannon in the
bow ; and a single lucky shot into a flock of geese, or ducks, or
knots, or other birds, frequently produces a great harvest of spoil.
With one of these gunners I was very well acquainted, and have
been accustomed to overhaul the produce of his day's or rather
night's excursion, in search of rare ^specimens; and from him I
have gathered a great deal of information on the shore-feeding
birds of the eastern coast. He has often astonished me by the
quantities of ducks of various species with which his boat was
loaded on his return, and I have seen half a sackful of Knots,
amounting to above 200 in number, turned out on the floor of his
cottage as the result of one fortunate shot with the long gun ; but
when he assured me that on one occasion he had picked up and
brought home after a single discharge no less than 36 dozen and
11 Knots, or 443 birds, I acknowledged that I was incredulous,
till conversation with sportsmen of the neighbourhood convinced
me that the story was true ; and then I felt ashamed that ignor-
ance of shore-shooting in the fens led me to doubt the word of an
honest man. Since then I have often watched the Knots by the
hour together on the Norfolk coast, on the shores of the Wash;
and with a double field-glassXthe ornithologist's best companion)
have followed the every movement of these busy birds ; and
seeing the dense array of the countless hosts which compose
a flock, I can well understand the havoc which a well-aimed dis-
charge of the big gun must cause.

In my former papers on the ' Ornithology of Wilts ' I quoted
Thompson as having more practical knowledge of shore-shooting
with the swivel gun than any other author of birds with whose
work I was then acquainted, and as one who will be found in
great measure to corroborate this assertion ;* but since then we
have had the advantage of the books written by Sir K. Payne -

See Thompson's 'Natural History of Ireland,' vol. ii., p. 292, under the
head of ' Dunlin,' and p. 309, under the head of * Knot.'


436 Scolopacidce.

Gallwey, who is the highest living authority on shore-shooting,
and he speaks of the vast numbers of Knots which frequent the
coast and the tidal harbours and estuaries, and relates how he
once killed 160 at a shot with his big gun, having mistaken
them on a dark evening for Plover.* Still more emphatic is the
testimony of Mr. Cordeaux as to the extraordinary gathering of
Knots on the Humber flats, and the noise made by their occa-
sional short flights along the coast ; the roar, or rather rush,
made by their wings in flight reminding him, more than any-
thing else, of the noise made by a mighty host of Starlings when
settling down for the night. Thousands and thousands of Knots
were massed together on the foreshore as the tide was coming in :
here crowded as closely as they could sit, there again straggling
out into a more open line, and there again massed together by
thousands. Some hundreds of yards in length and about thirty
in breadth, along the edge of the water, were fairly crowded with
them.-)- Colonel Hawker in his time, and provided only with the
clumsy punt-gun of old, says, ' Knots sit on the edge of the mud
so thick that you may sometimes kill the whole company at a
shot ;'J and Selby speaks of the vast numbers which frequent the
ooze on the coast.

I have three instances of the occurrence of this bird in
Wiltshire. The first, a male, killed at the side of the rail-
way cutting at Langley, in 1850, by Mr. Bethell, of Kellaways
Mill, and, I believe, still in his possession ; the second, killed
at Seend in February, 1870, as recorded by Mr. Grant ; and the
third, reported to me by Mr. W. Wyndham, as shot by his keeper
at Langford on December 10th, 1879. As it is generally seen in
England in winter garb, the Knot is of very sober plumage,
composed of ash-gray above and white beneath ; but in summer
dress it is far more attractive. Keddish-brown above and rich
reddish-chestnut below render it very gay, and enable it to vie
with the Gray and Golden Plover in their respective nuptial

< The Fowler in Ireland,' p. 24.

t 'Birds of the Humber District,' p. 134, and Zoologist for 1866, p. 75.

$ ' Instructions to Young Sportsmen,' p. 230.

Dunlin. 437

dresses. In England it is often called the 'Plover Knot/ on
account of its general resemblance to Plovers ; in France it is
B&asseau Canut or Maubbche ; in Germany, Aschgraue Strand-
iailfer ; and in Italy Chiurlo. Considering the high favour in
which all birds of the Snipe family are deservedly held for the
table, and the method of dressing these birds as practised ( in
England, though repudiated abroad ; considering also the positive
assertion which I have made that they do not live by suction,
but devour worms and various grubs and insects, it is but fair
that I should add that the digestion of all these birds is extra-
ordinarily rapid.

165. DUNLIN (Tringa variabilis).

This is one of the most abundant birds on suitable coasts, and
immense flocks may generally be seen where sand-banks and
mud-banks are left bare by the receding tide ; but it is seldom
found far from the seashore, and it is quite by accident when an
occasional straggler is driven so far inland as Wiltshire. It
seldom comes so far south except in winter, for the breeding
places of the great bulk of the species are in the distant north ;
hence its modern specific name, alpina. And out of the seven
specimens of which I have records in this county, six were killed
in the month of February viz., in 1870 two were killed on
February 10th at Chitterne, on February 16th, one at Market
Lavington, on February 18th, one at Compton Bassett, now in
the possession of Major Heneage. In 1873, one was shot on
February 13th at Avebury, one on February 22nd at Wed-
hampton ; and in 1875, on December 9th, one was shot by Mr.
T. Jenner, of Netheravon. So much does its breeding plumage
differ from its winter garb that it was long known under two
names, the ' Dunlin ' and the ' Purre ' ; and the identity of these,
till then recognised as distinct, was discovered by our country-
man, Colonel Montagu, who unravelled so many similar cases of
confusion, and pointed out the truth. When a flock of Dunlins
is on wing above the mud-banks, it is marvellous to see by what
simultaneous impulso every bird twists and turns, now exposing

438 Scolopacidce.

the upper, now the under, surface of the body a feat which we
who live far from the seashore may see faintly imitated by the
somewhat similar, though more clumsy, evolutions of a flock of
Starlings. All its movements, too, on the sand are graceful and
elegant, and it runs with great swiftness, for it is as active on
foot as on the wing. It derives its name variabilis from the
difference of plumage exhibited by a flock in transition from
winter to perfect summer dress. So abundant a bird is certain
to be honoured with many provincial names on the coast, and
accordingly we find it recognised by the fishermen of various
districts as the ' Ox-eye ' and the ' Oxbird,' the ' Sea Snipe ' and
the ' Least Snipe/ and the ' Sea Wagtail/ from a habit it has of
jerking the tail up and down. In Iceland it is known as Low
Prodi' the Servant of the Golden Plover ;' for it is there said
that a solitary Dunlin will attach itself to a solitary Golden
Plover : and this strange notion has extended to the Hebrides,
where, from its habit of associating with those birds, it is called
the ' Plover's Page.' I found it very abundant in summer on the
high fjelds of Norway, and no less numerous in spring on the
coast of Portugal ; indeed, it was the only member of the genus
which I met with in that country. But it is one of the most
cosmopolitan of birds, swarming in the island of Formosa and in
Japan ; very common in winter on the northern coast of Africa
and in the Red Sea, and breeding in Greenland, British North
America, and Hudson's Bay.* The Continental names are
generally mere translations of variabilis ; as in France, Bdcasseau
variable ou brunette; in Germany, Veranderliche oder Alpui
Strandlaiifer ; in Sweden, Fordnderlig Strand-Vipa.

166. PURPLE SAND-PIPER (Tringa maritima).

This is another winter visitant to our shores, and generally
comes in large flocks where it finds a rocky coast suitable to its
taste : for it abhors the sand-banks and mud-flats so dear to the
greater number of its congeners. Hence it was once known as
the ' Rock Tringa/ I conclude it was called Maritima because

* Ilia, 1859, p. 347 ; 1860, p. 80 ; 1861, p. 11 ; 1863, pp. 97, 132, 412.

Purple Sandpiper. 439

it was supposed never to come inland. Wherefore the arrival of
a specimen in the heart of Wiltshire, at Everleigh Rectory, on
February 3rd, 1881 (as I learn from Mr. Grant, who received it
in the flesh and preserved it), must be looked upon as the single
exception which proves the rule. By the B.O.U. Committee the
name maritima is now abandoned in favour of striata the
' striped ' which was undoubtedly the name under which it was
described by Latham and Gmelin. It is readily to be distinguished
from all its congeners by its dark purple or bluish lead colour.
Hence provincially it is the 'Black Sandpiper'; in France^
B&asseau violet, and in Sweden, Svart-grd Strand-Vipa.
When the spring arrives it departs for the highest latitudes,
having been found to breed in the most northern districts of
Europe and America in Greenland, Spitzbergen (where it was
said to be the only species of the Grallatores seen), and in Nova
Zembla, as well as in Davis Straits, Baffin's Bay, Melville Island,
and the shores of Hudson's Bay. Sir R. Payne-Gallwey, who
reports that they are numerous in some districts in Ireland, says
' they are so tame you may pelt them with stones, and they will
not rise, but merely trot farther off. It is common to see them
running about or sitting huddled upon the rocks at the verge of
a lashing sea. Each wave looks as if it must overwhelm them ;
but no ! they judge their distance to a nicety, or stick like
limpets to the rock, amid the spray and foam.'*


We are now approaching the more essentially aquatic birds,
and there are several characteristics in the family of Rails which
lead on to the true Water-fowl. Thus their bodies are more
compressed and boat-shape, and most of them can swim with
ease. Their legs are shorter and their feet larger, and with the
hind toe more developed than in the preceding family. Their
beaks, too, are much harder and stronger, and some of them are
furnished with a narrow membrane on the sides of the toes,
which is the first approach towards a web- foot. They are, for
' The Fowler in Ireland,' p. 243.

440 RalUdce.

the most part, a shy race, and as they generally prefer inland
ponds and lakes to the sea-coast, they secrete themselves in the
flags and reeds and rushes which border their haunts, and are
often found in wet ditches. They creep through the thick cover
with amazing quickness, winding their way amidst the dense
grass, and are very unwilling to rise on the wing; but when
compelled to do so, their flight is heavy and awkward, as might
be expected from the shortness of their wings.

1G7. LAND-RAIL (Crex pratensis).

This species, known also as the Corn- Crake, is familiar to the
partridge shooter, and well known also to him is its disinclination
to rise, and the rapidity with which it skulks with depressed
head through the stubble ; and if forced to take wing where it
can drop into cover again, it will fly with legs hanging down and
prepared to run the instant it alights. Harting says that, besides
running with great swiftness, it has a curious method of avoiding
the dogs by leaping with closed wings and compressed feathers
over the long grass some three or four yards ; and, then running
a short distance and leaping again ; and that the scent being
thus broken, it eludes the most quick-scented dogs.*

It is common enough in our cornfields in summer, and yet it
is a genuine Rail, and resorts to damp meadows and marshy soil
to seek its food, for St. John declares it to be wholly insectivorous,
and never to eat corn or seeds ;( but other authors assign to it a
vegetable as well as an insect diet. The name crex is a Latinized
form of A-ptf, ' a Rail/ and this has the same derivation as Kptica>,
'I strike so as to sound ' (B.O.U.). Hence our English ' Crake.'
' Rail/ too, comes from its cry, from roller, ' to rattle in the
throat ' (Skeat). In France it is Poule d'eau or Rale de Genet;
in Germany, Wiesenknarrer, ' Meadow-Crake ;' in Sweden, Kom-
Knarr and Ang-Knarr ; in Portugal, Codornizdo. It is a true
migrant, and never winters with us ; but in May its harsh
croaking cry of crek, crek, may be frequently heard ; and the

* ' Our Summer Migrants/ p. 297. t ' Highland Sports/ p. 145.

Land-Rail. 441

bird which produces it has the remarkable power of the
ventriloquist in causing the note to sound now on this side, now
-on that, now under your feet, now at the farther end of the
field ; and many a hopeless chase, and many a bewildered and
baffled pursuer, has been the result of this peculiarity. When
uttering its cry the neck of the bird is stretched perpendicularly
upwards. Gilbert White speaks of it as having been abundant
in the low wet bean-fields of Christian Malford in North Wilts.
But, indeed, we may say it is very common at this day in all
parts of the county. In the South of France the peasants call
it Eoi des cailles, and in Spain it is known by the name of Guion
de las codornices, owing to an idea that it places itself at the
head of the Quails, and precedes them on their migrations.*
Harting believes that Corn-Crakes hibernate ; while Gilbert
White says it is poorly qualified for migration.

Undoubtedly it is a difficult problem to solve how a bird which
flies so heavily and awkwardly across even one field can prolong
its flight from the other side of the Channel ; but it is certain
that other species of feeble r powers of flight do annually perform
the passage. Sir K. Payne-Gallwey, however, brings forward
proof which cannot be gainsaid, that Corn-Crakes do occasionally
winter in Ireland. He has himself twice found them, to all
appearance asleep, in the month of February, ensconced in the
centre of loose stone walls close to the ground, and has met with
several other instances of the kind. He has also evidence of
others, taken in a semi-comatose state out of a rabbit-hole.t

The Rev. H. E. Delme Radcliffe writes me word that he
observed one in his garden at Tedworth on the remarkably early
date of April 1st, and that he saw it again and again in the very
short grass in his field ; and as it always ran back to the hedge
and ditch full of dead leaves, in which it crouched, he was able
to examine it minutely. On the other hand, Mr. W. W^yndham
gives me instances of its late appearance at Dinton : in 1881

* Howard Saunders, fourth edition of ' YarrelPs British Birds,' vol. iii.,
p. 139.

f ' The Fowler in Ireland, 1 p. 251.

442 Rallidce.

he himself shot one on November 12th; and in 1883, on
November 23rd, his retriever caught an old bird, and in very
good condition, one of whose wings had been previously slightly

168. SPOTTED CRAKE (Crex porzana).

Though not in reality uncommon, this sombre-clad little
species is so retiring and timid in its nature, and seeks such
little-frequented, quiet ponds for its haunts, that it escapes
observation, and is supposed by many to be a rarer bird than it
really is. I have heard of several in Wiltshire : the late Rev. G.
Marsh killed one in some marshy ground at Christian Malford in
October, 1849 ; Mr. MacNiven, junior, shot another at Patney
about 1871 ; and the Rev. A. P. Morres records the capture of
several in South Wilts. ' In the autumn of 18G9 a pair were killed
at Hinks Mill pond, in the parish of Mere, by Mr. Forward ; and
in the very same field another specimen was killed on October
12th, 1878. In 1873 one was picked up dead at Gillingham,
having been killed by flying against the telegraph-wires; and
another met its fate in the same year and in the same way near
Westbury. In 1879 a friend brought me a wing of this bird, for
identification, which had also been picked up under the wires
near Salisbury, and which had been apparently quite severed
from the body by the force of the concussion ; and these three
occurrences happening so near together would certainly prove
the bird to be more numerous than is generally supposed, for
none of these three specimens would, in all probability, have been
heard of had it not been for their singular misfortune. In addi-
tion to all these instances, Mr. Baker reports that a nest containing
twelve eggs was put out in a clover-field adjoining a marsh beside
the stream at Mere, and that he sent up one of the eggs to
the Field office, where it was pronounced a genuine egg of
C. porzana* Lord Heytesbury wrote me word that one was
killed by one of his grandsons on his estate last year (1886) ; Mr.
W. Wyndham that he shot one at Dinton on October 25th, 1875.
See Field of June 18th, 1881, ' Natural History Notes.'

Spotted Crake. 443

One was picked up at Marlborough, and secured for the College
Museum, September 12th, 1872, by Mr. Coleman ; and Mr. Grant
reports one from Wedhampton, near Devizes, November, 1863,
and from Melksham, December, 1879. It is, like its congener, a
migrant ; but, unlike that species, it is one of the earliest to
arrive, and one of the latest to depart. Its general plumage is
dark green and brown, speckled with white.

In Sweden it is distinguished by the lengthy name of Smd-
flacldg Sump-Hona, or ' Small-spotted Fen-Hen ' ; and with us is
provincially called, according to locality, ' Spotted Kail/ ' Spotted
Water-Kail/ and ' Spotted Water-Hen.' From the difficulty ex-
perienced by sportsmen in forcing it to move, and the hard work, in
consequence, which it gives to the dogs employed for this purpose,
it has obtained in the South of Europe the sobriquet of ' Kill- dog/
Tue-chien, Mata-perros, Cansa-perros, etc.* Its great length of
foot enables it to run lightly over floating leaves, and its narrow
and compressed body to penetrate through the dense herbage
which forms its retreat. Porzana seems to be a corruption of
the Italian sforzana. In France it is Poule d'eau marouette ;
in Germany, PunUiertes Rohrhuhn ; and in Italy, Gallinellcv
aquatica sutro.

169. WATER-RAIL (Rallus aquations).

This is a very common bird in wet and marshy districts, and,
I am told, is especially numerous in the lowlands near Salisbury.
I have shot it in the water-meadows at Old Park, and I have in-
stances of its occurrence in all parts of the county. Like all
other members of the family, it seeks safety in running amidst
coarse herbage, and in hiding itself in the thickest cover it can
find ; and I have seen it, when driven by a dog from its place of
refuge, fly up and settle in the branches of a thick bush, in pre-
ference to seeking safety by flight. It will on occasion run on
the water, making use of the flags and floating water-plants as
stepping-stones in its course; and hence, I suppose, from the

* H. Saunders in fourth edition of 'Yarrell's British Birds/ vol. iii.,
p. 146.

444 Rallidce.

softness of its tread on the floating herbage, which it traverses so
nimbly, it is provincially known as the ' Velvet-runner,' the
4 Brook-runner,' and the ' Runner/ Montagu calls it the ' Oar-

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 40 of 53)