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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of Bradford-on-Avon, near that town. It derives its name from
a long pendant crest of narrow silky feathers, three inches in
* Mr. Cecil Smith's ' Birds of Somersetshire,' p. 500.

Long -tailed Duck. 491

length, and curving from the top of the head down the neck
From Mr. Cordeaux we learn that it is known in Yorkshire as
the ' Brass-eyed Poker Duck/ in reference to the brilliant golden-
yellow of the eye, which is its most attractive feature ; and from
Mr. Cecil Smith that in Somersetshire it is the ' Curr Widgeon '
and is the commonest there of all the Diving ducks, except
perhaps the Pochard, which is also dubbed ' Curr Widgeon ', but
elsewhere the ' Black Widgeon,' and is almost as much esteemed
for the table as that bird. In other places it is called the ' Small
Black Diver.' In Sweden it is the Vigg, or ' Wedge/ so called
because, when on the surface of the water, it almost always lies
with its neck stretched forwards, as if ready to dive ; whereby
the body assumes a somewhat wedge-like shape. In France it
is Canard Morillon ; in Germany Reiher-ente, 'Heron-duck.'
In Portugal this species is also called Negririha, from its dark

200. LONG-TAILED DUCK (Fuligula glacialis).

I include this species in the Wiltshire list without hesitation,
as I do so on the authority of that excellent ornithologist, the
late Rev. George Marsh : otherwise I have no farther notice of
its appearance amongst us : indeed, as its specific name, glacialis,
'icy,' implies, it is a thoroughly Arctic bird, inhabiting and
breeding in, not only Lapland, Spitzbergen and Greenland, but
even the very highest latitudes to which our Polar expeditions
have penetrated. Moreover, as it is a true denizen of the ocean,
seldom coming inland, it is necessarily much more scarce in
England than either of its congeners previously described : and
yet hardly to be accounted a rare bird in Britain : as it is (though
in small numbers) a regular winter visitor to our northern coasts.
It is remarkable for the elongated tail-feathers, whence it derives
its name, and which are quite pheasant- like in appearance. It
is also called * Hareld ' in some places, and by some consigned to
a separate genus, Harelda, which appears to be an Icelandic
name. Montagu says it is provincially known as ' Coal and Candle
Light,' from a fancied resemblance of its long and plaintive winter

492 Anatidce.

call to these words. In the Orkney and Shetland Islands it is
known as ' Calloo/ which is there supposed to represent its song.
Cordeaux so much admires this strange note that he says r
' Amongst all the varied cries and calls of our numerous sea-fowl,
that of the Hareld is the sweetest, most melancholy and harp-
like. Heard from a distance at sea, in the spring, on a still day,
it is inexpressibly wild and musical.' But in America it is
derisively termed ' South Southerly/ and ' Old Squaw/ from its
' gabbling notes/ so diverse are opinions and tastes as to excel-
lence of voice, whether in the feathered or the human race. In
Norway it is called Angle mager, ' Hook-maker/ doubtless from
its cry, connected with the time of its appearance when the sea-
fishing begins:* and in that country its arrival is hailed with
delight, for its down is held next in estimation to that of the
Eider. For an admirable account of this species see Messrs.
Seebohm and Harvie Brown on the Birds of the Lower Petchora
in the Ibis for 1876, p. 445. In France it is Canard de Midon ;
in Germany, Eisente Winter Ente; in Sweden, Al-Fogel.

201. GOLDEN-EYE (Fidigula clangula).

This very active, sprightly, and withal beautiful bird, with a
remarkable brilliancy of eye (which is of a golden yellow colour,
whence its name), is tolerably common on the coast, though
rarely seen in the interior of the country. I have often met
with it on the shores of the Wash, but have never seen it far
from the sea. I have, however, an instance of its occurrence in
Wiltshire from the pen of the Rev. G. Marsh, who wrote that a
specimen of this bird had been killed on the river at Salisbury
in 1830 ; and had been preserved at the house of Mrs. Bath.
The Rev. A. P. Morres reports its appearance, though rarely, in
the water-meadows at Britford, and instances a fine male shot by
the keeper some years back, and now preserved at the ' Moat ' in
that parish. Another was killed at Stourton in 1874 : and an
immature bird was shot at Mere by Mr. J. Coward, in the winter
of 1880. Another was killed at Mildenhall in 1867 : and Major
* J. Wolley in Ibis for 1859, p. 70.

Golden-Eye. 493

Heneage possesses two specimens which were shot at Lyneham
in 1870 and 1883, and it is most probable that other instances
which have not come to my notice have occurred. This species
breeds in Lapland in holes in the trees, or in tyllas, or nest boxes,
generally portions of hollow wood which the natives affix to the
trees, often at a considerable height above ground, and I have
eggs in my collection taken from such a situation by my lamented
friend Mr. John Wolley, who was so keen and accurate an ob-
server, and did so much for Ornithology, and had already earned
for himself a European reputation, as a master in natural science,
and would undoubtedly (had his life been spared) have proved
one of the first naturalists of the day. This duck is also known
as the ' Morillon,' which at the beginning of this century was the
name bestowed on the female and immature bird, from the
supposition that they belonged to another species : and St. John
to the last maintained that the Golden-Eye and Morillon are
distinct : * but the contrary has been authoritatively determined,
and the question is no longer to be entertained. So active are
they in the water, and so rapid in their movements, and so easily
do they dive at the flash of the gun, and so avoid the shot, that
in America they are called ' Conjuring/ or ' Spirit Ducks :' but
they are awkward enough on land, and their gait shuffling and
ungainly, owing to the large size of their feet. Their old name
was Garrot, as it is still in France ; in Germany, Schelle Ente ;
and in some parts of England ' Curre,' in regard to which
Colonel Hawker says, ' If you see a single Curre by day, when he
dives, you must run ; and the moment he comes up, squat down ;
so you may go on till within ten yards of him.' t The specific
name, clangula, 'noisy,' may possibly refer to the rapid beating
of the wings and the distinct whistling sound so caused; and
hence perhaps they may be called ' Rattlewings/ 'Whistle-wing,'
and 'Whistler'; some, however, think the latter term has reference
to the voice, which is very loud. It is also known as the ' Magpie
Diver/ a very descriptive name, by reason of the black and white

* 'Highland Sports/ p. 132.

f 'Instructions to Young Sportsmen.'

494 Anatidce.

plumage of the adult male ; and they seem to have the power
(says Sir K Payne- Gallwey) when rising from the bottom of the
water, to spring on wing into the air with the same upward
shoot ; nor do they appear to hesitate a couple of seconds on the
surface to recover breath ere flying, as is the case with Scaup
and Pochard.* In Sweden it is known as Knipa.

202. SMEW (Mergus albellus).

I am again indebted to the Rev. G. Marsh for the first informa-
tion that the Smew Merganser has been killed in Wiltshire.
Two other instances have since been recorded by Mr. Grant,
which came into his hands for preservation, one from Fy field,
Enford, in January, 1876, and the other in December, 1879, but
where it was killed I am not able to say. Though admitted at
the end of the great family of Ducks, and partaking of their
general habits and appearance, the Mergansers (of which this is
one), differs from them, in being provided with a beak, both
mandibles of which are toothed or serrated, the saw-like teeth
inclining backwards, the better to prevent the escape of the
slippery prey. The form of the beak is also long and extremely
narrow, and it is terminated with a very strong hooked nail.
Armed with this admirable implement, the Mergansers have no
difficulty in supplying themselves with fish, which constitutes
the bulk of their food : moreover, they can swim and dive and
fly with great quickness, but, from the backward position of their
legs, are awkward on shore. In swimming they appear deeply
immersed in the water, the weight and flattened form of the
body giving them that appearance, the head, neck and back only
being visible. In diving, they seem to fly beneath the surface
with great rapidity, and they remain for a long time below, and
on rising for breath they merely raise the bill above water, and
then dive again, without causing any perceptible disturbance of
the surface. Montagu says it is called in Devonshire the ' White
Widgeon,' and sometimes the ' Vare ' (or Weasel) ' Widgeon,' from
the supposed similitude about the head to a Weasel or Vare, as
* * The Fowler in Ireland,' p. 110.

Red-breasted Merganser. 495

it is called in Devonshire ; and indeed the head of the female^
which is very small, does in colour resemble in some degree
that of the Weasel. Mr. Cecil Smith says it is also known in
Somersetshire as the ' Weasel Coot/ as well as the c Ked-breasted
Smew '; and elsewhere it is known as the ' White Nun/ and the
' White Widgeon.' The generic name, mergus, meaning ' Diver/
is appropriate enough, and the specific term, albellus, ' the Little
White Bird/ is equally applicable. In Germany it is the Weisser
Sager, or ' the White Sawyer/ The terms ' Red-breasted Smew/
and 'Lough Diver/ refer only to the young bird in immature
plumage. Like most of its congeners, it is a very shy bird, and
cannot tolerate the presence of man. Its true home seems to be
the northern countries of Europe and Asia, more especially
Northern Russia and Northern Siberia. It would be but
blemishing the tale if I were to attempt to condense the admir-
able account by the late J. Wolley of the nesting of the Smew,
which, until its discovery by that ardent, painstaking ornitho-
logist, was wholly unknown. I must therefore refer my readers-
to the story as told by him in the Ibis for 1859, pp. 69-76 ; and
also for an excellent account of the same bird in its native
haunts to Messrs. Seebohm and Harvie Brown's paper on the
Birds of the Lower Petchora, in the Ibis for 1876, p. 448. In
France it is Le petit Harle Jiuppe, ou la Piette ; in Italy, Mergo
oca minore ; and in Sweden, Sal-Skrake.

203. RED BREASTED MERGANSER (Mergus serrator}.

The form of beak at once proclaims that the habits of all the
species of Mergansers are identical. This is a more common
bird than that last described, but is seldom found inland. I
have, however, positive evidence of the occurrence of one fine
specimen which Lord Nelson pointed out to me in his collection,,
which was killed in his water on the Avon, by the Rev. J. N.
Neate, in December, 1864 ; of another killed by Mr. Heath at
Quemerford, near Calne, about 1860 ; of another taken at Trow-
bridge, in March, 1873; and of another fine specimen shot at
Great Bedwyn, and presented to the Wiltshire Archaeological

496 Anatidce.

and Natural History Society by the Rev. W. C. Lukis, in the
year of its inauguration, 1853. Lastly, the late Major Spicer
wrote to me on February 5, 1881, that his keeper had that
morning brought him in a good specimen of a female Merganser,
killed on the pond at Spye Park, where he had disturbed it the
previous evening, but to which it returned during the night.
The Merganser, or ' Diving Goose/ as that name signifies, may
well be called serrator, or ' one who wears a saw,' so effective an
instrument for holding its slippery prey must be its long serrated
crimson beak. In Ireland it is known to the fishermen and
fowlers as the ' Skeld Duck/ and sometimes as ' Spear Widgeon/
on account of its sharp-toothed bill. In England it is provincially
known as the ' Harle/ and the ' Jack-Saw/ and in Sweden it is
the Smd-SkraJct, ' Small Saw-bill/ One cannot but admire the
remarkable position of the legs of this and all the other Mergi,
and Colymbi as well, which, though it renders them clumsy on
land, to which they seldom resort, so marvellously supplies them
with oars and rudders in the water, where they spend their lives.
Both these families were called by Linna3us Compedes, because
they move on the ground as if ' shackled ' or ' fettered.' * Of all
fowl ' (says Sir R. Payne-Gallwey,) ' except perhaps the Golden-
Eyes, they are the most restless and wary : never quiet, always
swimming, diving, or flying, and to no apparent end.' I never
yet saw one at rest with head down and bill tucked under wing.
They build in cracks and crevices in the rocks and shore, but do
not choose rabbit holes. Ekstrom, the Norwegian naturalist,
says, ' The Saw- bill is the best of barometers ; if, during a partial
thaw in the winter, it reappears, one may be very sure there will
be no more severe frost that year.' In France it is Harle huppt ;
in Germany, Langschnabliger Sager ; in Italy, Mergo oca di
luwgo becco ; in Portugal, Merganso.

204. GOOSANDER (Mergus merganser).

This is the largest species of the genus, and perhaps the most
common, though none of this little group of birds are very
plentiful on our coasts : and very seldom does a straggler from

Goosander. 497

such truly oceanic ducks penetrate so far as our inland county.
The Rev. George Marsh, however, had a pair in his collection
which were killed in Wiltshire on the river Avon, in February,
1838. Mr. Grant, of Devizes, reports one killed at Wedhampton,
in the parish of Erchfont, in January, 1861 ; another on the
canal at Devizes in 1862; one at S to well in 1875; and one at
Spye Park in 1881. Major Heneage has a pair shot at Lyneham,
one in 1856, the other in 1857. The Marlborough College
Natural History Reports state that one was shot at Stitchcombe
by Mr. R. Butler in December, 1879. Lord Arundell mentions
one killed at Wardour about twenty years ago. Lord Nelson
has a specimen killed at Trafalgar ; and the Rev. E. Duke, one
killed at Great Durnford, on the estate adjoining Lake. The
Rev. W. H. Awdry tells me of one killed near Ludgershall this
spring (1887), and Mr. G. Sotheron Estcourt records how one
has visited the lake at Estcourt this winter, swimming about for
several weeks with the domesticated wild ducks, but especially
with the Coots. Again, I have a notice, which I extract from
the Zoologist* of its occurrence at Clarendon Park, Salisbury,
where the bailiff picked up a fine male specimen quite dead on
the banks of the lake in February, 1867, its mouth full of fresh-
water weeds. The Rev. A. P. Morres has twice fallen in with
them in the meadows at Britford, where on the first occasion two
adult birds in fine plumage, and on the second occasion, in 1870,
a small band of three attracted his attention ; and as a proof that
he was not mistaken in the species, which he only saw on the
wing, one was killed by the keeper in the evening of the same
day. Lastly, Mr. Hussey Freke, of Hannington Hall, reported
that a female specimen was shot on the river Thames, in the
parish of Highworth, on January 6, 1871. It is called 'Goosander'
by us, and Merganser, or ' Diving Goose/ as its scientific name,
on account of its size, as it is the largest of the genus. So in
Sweden it is Stor Skrake, or ' Great Saw-Bill.' From its manner
of fishing in flocks, and driving the fish before it, it has acquired
in Sweden the name of Kor-fogel, or ' Driving Bird.' Then, when
Second Series, volume for 1867, p. 709.


498 Anatidce.

gorged, it retires to open water to rest and digest its food, and
allows itself to be rocked by the waves. Whence its designation
in some districts of Vrak-fogcl, or ' Wreck Bird/ implying that at
such times it lies like a wreck on the billows.* Most of the
provincial names given to its congeners, as related above, are also
indiscriminately applied to this species, for in the eyes of fisher-
men and labourers small distinctions are overlooked ; so this,
too, is the 'Harle,' the 'Saw-bill,' and the 'Jack Saw;' but I
believe alone it enjoys the names of 'Dundiver' and 'Sparling
Fowl,' as given it by Bewick, Montagu, and others. Before I
take leave of this genus, I would quote the following instructive
passage from the masterly hand of Sir R. Payne-Gallwey :
1 Mergansers have longer wings and lighter bodies for their size
than the diving ducks, and are therefore more powerful on the
wing than the latter. Their actions, like those of other divers,
when alighting, are governed by their power of rising. Feet and
legs being near the tail, they cannot fly from, or pitch on, the
water with the facility exhibited by the true ducks. In structure
they are admirably formed for fishing; and their prey once
caught has as much chance of escaping from the serrated beak
as has a roach from the mouth of a pike. As in the case of the
pike, the saw-like teeth on the edges of the mandibles curve
inwards/ ( In France it is Grand Harle ; in Germany, Oansen-
Sager oder Taucher Gans, ' Diving Goose ' ; and in Italy, Mergo
oca marina e Mergo dominicano. When alive, this species
shows a most delicate rose colour on its neck and breast, which
(as in the case of Pastor roseus and several other species) fades
very quickly after death. A magnificent specimen which I once
procured from a Norfolk fenman as he was returning with his
spoil, and which quite glowed with a rich rosy hue, soon after
faded (to my intense disgust) to a dingy smoke colour, and has
now no trace of its former beauty.

* Lloyd's ' Scandinavian Adventures,' vol. ii., p. 480.
f ' The Fowler in Ireland,' p. 117.

The Divers. 499


This very remarkable family of Diving birds shows a most
complete structure, and a general formation thoroughly adapted
to their submerged habits, for all the species which comprise it
pass a considerable portion of their lives, not only on the surface
of the water, but beneath it. The form of body is remarkably
long and oval ; the neck long and tapering, the head small, and
the beak straight, hard, and sharp-pointed ; the legs are placed
at the extreme end of the body, and the feet are large, thus
acting as paddles propelling from the stern ; the tarsus is re-
markably thin or laterally compressed, and the feet, though
furnished with membranes, have the toes so articulated as to
fold into a very small compass when drawn towards the body,
after making the necessary stroke, thus offering the least possible
resistance in the water. By this arrangement they are enabled
to pass rapidly through the water beneath the surface, and can
remain a long time submerged ; but on land they are awkward
and ungainly enough, standing quite upright, and resting upon
the whole length of the leg from the foot to the first joint, re-
minding one of the kangaroo, and when surprised or alarmed
they shuffle into the water on their breasts, somewhat after the
manner of the seals. But they rarely come on shore except at
the breeding season, and then they place their nests at the
water's edge. Though their wings are short and their bodies
heavy, they can fly with astonishing strength and swiftness, yet
the flight is necessarily laboured ; but, once in the water, none
are more active and rapid, and even graceful, in their movements
than the Divers. Many of them are quite tail-less, and others
have but rudimentary apologies for tails ; but perhaps the most
admirable provision for their subaqueous habits centres in their
plumage, which is not only thick, downy, and soft, but has a
glossy, silky lustre, which renders it so completely waterproof
that prolonged immersion has no effect in penetrating beneath it.
There are but two genera belonging to this family, the Grebes
and the Divers, and we have instances of both as having occurred
in this county.


500 Colymbidce.

205. GREAT CRESTED GREBE (Podiceps cristatus).

This fine species well deserves to take rank at the head of the
family, and an adult bird furnished with its ruff or fringe round
the neck, and long occipital tufts or horns, presents a dignified
appearance. It spends a part of its life amidst inland lakes and
part in the shallow waters of the coast, whence it procures its
food. So rapidly does it dive, and such progress can it make by
exerting wings and feet beneath the surface, that it requires a
well-manned boat and sturdy rowers to keep pace with it. The
generic name, podiceps, from poditis + pes, signifying ' with feet
at the stern/ calls attention to one of the most marked features
which the whole genus shares. It was known in old time in
Lincolnshire, where it was abundant, as a ' Gaunt/ which, Mr.
Harting says, signifies ' one who yawns/ from the Anglo-Saxon
geanian, and is applicable to these birds, as he has frequently
observed in the Grebes and Divers a spasmodic action analogous
to gaping or yawning.* But I would with deference venture to
submit whether, taking into consideration the shape of the bird
' an elongated cone/ as Yarrell describes it the word ' gaunt '
may not bear the more obvious meaning of ' slim/ ' slender/ for I
find the word in Skeat's Etymological Dictionary signifies a
' thin pointed stick/ or a ' tall thin man/ and is there said to be
an East Anglian word, presumably Scandinavian, and corre-
sponds to the Norwegian gaud. Mr. Harting further adds that
in the r^ign of Edward I. land was held in the county of Bucks
by the tenure of providing, among other things, ' two Grebes
when the King came to Ailesbury ' ; nor does he doubt that duas
gantes signified 'two gaunts,' whose soft, satiny plumage was
esteemed of great value for the trimming of robes and mantles.
On the broads of Norfolk it is known as a ' Loon/ with the
meaning of 'clown/ 'slow/ 'ungainly/ with reference to its
awkward gait on land, and in Ireland as ' Molrooken/ Some-
times it is called the 'Satin Grebe/ from the delicate silvery
whiteness and shining silky appearance of the under surface of
Zoologist for 1884, p. 350.

Great-Crested Grebe. 501

the body. The English word ' Grebe ' is from an old Breton word
signifying 'crested ' or 'tufted with feathers ' (Skeat). In France
it is Grebe huppt ; in Germany, Gehaubter Steissfuss ; in Italy,
Colimbo crestato ; in Sweden, Hvit strupig Dopping, ' White-
throated Dipper ' ; in Portugal, this and all the other species
known there are called in common Mergulldo, ' Diver.' Its nest
consists of a mass of wet sedge or half-rotten decayed water-
plants floating on the surface of the water, and how the eggs are
hatched in such moisture seems extraordinary. This nest is so
fastened to the reeds amongst which it is placed that it cannot
be driven away by the wind ; and (strange to say) near each nest
is a second platform, or pad of sedge, upon which the male bird
rests while his mate is sitting. When the Grebes are alarmed
they immediately sink, without splash, in the water, and dive away
for security ; and when the young are hatched the parent birds
will on emergency take them down under their wings for safety
when they dive, the young birds being placed with their heads
towards the tail, and their bills resting on the back of the
parent. Though necessarily only an occasional straggler in Wilt-
shire, where we have no large lakes suited to its habits, I have
several instances of its occurrence. Mr. Elgar Sloper informs
me that a young male in his collection was shot on the Kennet
and Avon Canal near Devizes in February, 1839. Mr. Withers
had an immature specimen sent to him for preservation which
was killed at Enford ; Mr. Marsh possessed a female shot on the
Avon in February, 1838 ; and Lord Methuen has one killed on
the water at Corsham Court.

206. RED-NECKED GREBE (Podiceps rabricollis).

This is a smaller species than the last, and if not a more rare
visitor to our coasts, is more rarely noticed, as it prefers salt
water to fresh, and being an inhabitant of more northern
latitudes, only comes to us in winter. It is said, when diving,
' to dart through thick entangled masses of weeds and grass with
the ease and rapidity of the fish/ but not to use its wings under
water, as from the very weedy nature of the lakes or streams

502 Colymbidce.

it invariably frequents, that would only impede its progress.
Like others of their congeners, they swallow a mass of their own
feathers to aid the digestive process, somewhat after the habit of
hawks and owls. I am fortunate in having several instances of
the occurrence in our county of so rare an inland straggler ; and
I am again indebted to Mr. Elgar Sloper for the information that

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 45 of 53)