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 46 of 53)
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one was killed near Devizes in 1840 ; to Mr. Baker that another,
an adult bird, was killed at Westbury in 1874 ; and to the Rev.
T. A. Preston that two specimens, which he saw, had been sent
to the Marlborough bird-preserver to be converted into plumes
for hats ! this was in April, 1870. I have also notices from the
Marlborough College Natural History Reports of one killed at
Preshute many years since ; and from Mr. Grant of specimens
shot at Eastcott in 1868, at Stanton in 1870, and at Lyneham
in 1870 ; the latter is now in the possession of Major Heneage at
Compton Bassett. Amongst the most advanced ornithologists
in England, P. rubricollis is now known as P. grisegena, or
' Gray-cheeked,' as already it had been generally known on the
Continent ; in France, Gr&be jou-gris ; in Germany, Graukehliger
Steissfuss ; and in Sweden, Grd-strupig Dapping, or 'Gray-
throated Dipper/

207. SCLAVONIAN GREBE (Podiceps comutus).

In my former papers on the Ornithology of Wilts, I was
obliged to omit this species from the Wiltshire list, as I had no
instance before me of its occurrence within the county, though I
remarked it did in all probability occasionally appear amongst
us, as it is, in comparison with some of its congeners whose
visits I am able to record, common in England. In 1864, Mr.
Henry Blackmore reported one shot in the immediate neighbour-
hood of Salisbury, which was brought to him in. the flesh on
January 19.* The Rev. A. P. Morres has himself shot it in his
own parish of Britford. Major Heneage possesses a specimen
which was killed at Lyneham in 1870. Mr. Baker, of Mere,
possesses one which was shot on a sheep pond at Knoyle in 1874 ;
* Zoologist for 1864, p. 9048.

Eared Grebe. 503

and in the winter of 1877 a policeman, walking down the street
in Warminster on a cold, dark night, when it was snowing
heavily, heard a flight of birds passing overhead, and shortly
after was startled by hearing a heavy thud behind him, which
turned out to be a Sclavonian Grebe, its plumage and wings
being so encrusted with frozen snow that it could no longer use
them. Like the last-named species, it is a winter visitor here,
retiring in spring to breed in the far north. In breeding-plumage
it may well be called cornutus, for it not only has a fine chestnut
tuft about the head, but below the chin, and round the sides of
the neck, a rich dark-brown ruff, giving it a very distinguished
appearance. It is also known as the * Dusky ' and the ' Horned '
Grebe ; the former referring to its immature or winter dress, the
latter to its summer plumage. Our countryman, Colonel Montagu,
was the first to make it known as British. Like others of the
family, it has been known to dive with its young under its wings
on occasion of alarm, and has also been seen to fly with the
young birds on its back, when it was necessary to transport them
to a place of safety otherwise than beneath the water ; for Sir R.
Payne-Gallwey* points out that the idea common in Ireland,
that the bird flies with its young under its wings, is manifestly
an error, since no bird could sustain its flight, and at the same
time grip an object under the wings. In France it is Grebe cornu
and le Grebe d'Esclavonie ; in Germany, Gehornter Steissfuss.

208. EARED GREBE (Podiceps auritus).

This is the rarest British Grebe, and I am glad to be able to
include it in our Wiltshire list : indeed, I have several records of
its capture ; the first on the authority of the late Rev. G. Marsh,
who informed me that a specimen was killed at Christian Malford ;
the second and third from the no less reliable testimony of the
Rev. G. Powell, who on March 24, 1875, wrote me word that he
had that afternoon seen a specimen of this rare visitor to Wilts.
It was killed near Knoyle, and (strange to say) another specimen
was killed, or picked up dead, in the same locality, not many
' The Fowler in Ireland,' p. 142.

504 Colymbidce.

years previously. The Marlborough College Natural History
Reports mention one caught near the ' Burnt House,' Savernake
Forest, on January 27, 1878; and Mr. Grant records three
specimens which have come to him in the flesh : viz., in 1864
from Stanton, in 1865 from Chitterne, and in 1877 from Keevil.
The most modern school of ornithologists call it nigricollis, and
certainly the ' black neck ' does offer a point of distinction ; but
auritus, ' eared,' was the name used by all our older authorities :
Pennant, Montagu, Bewick, Fleming, Selby, Yarrell, Temminck,
etc. It may also be at once distinguished from the species last
described, and which it much resembles, by the beak, which is
bent slightly upwards and depressed at the base. Canon Tristram
gives an admirable account of a colony of Eared Grebes, the most
gregarious of the genus, which he found breeding in societies
more densely crowded than any rookery, on Lake Halloula, in
Algeria : the nests, formed like those of other Grebes, were raised
on artificial islets, frequently almost touching each other, and
sometimes piled on stout foundations rising from more than a
yard under water.* Mr. Cecil Smith, who has kept this bird in
confinement, says, ' Grebes do not sit erect, but with face to the
ground; but when walking or running, the posture is nearly
erect, and they proceed along with a waddling gait. When
resting, they do not place their feet upon the ground, but turn
them up so as to place them under their wings, which they
cover with their side feathers, and thus entirely hide them from
view. They will also rest in the same manner upon the water.f
In France it is Grebe oreillard ; in Germany, Gehorter oder Ohren
Steissfuss ; in Italy, Colimbo Suasso turco.

209. LITTLE GREBE (Podiceps minor).

We come now to the commonest and best known of all the
genus, the familiar ' Dabchick/ which may be generally seen on
every retired river or large pond ; a shy retiring species, disap-
pearing beneath the surface at the first alarm, and only re-

* Ibis for 1860, p. 159.

t ' Birds of Somerset,' p. 532.

Little Grebe. 505

appearing at a considerable distance; and then perhaps, after
the manner of its race, only thrusting its head above water,
while the body is still submerged. Like most, if not all of its
congeners, it covers its eggs during temporary absence from the
nest, but this does not appear to be for any purpose of retaining
the warmth of incubation, but for concealment and consequent
protection from marauders. It is strange that with this species,
too, the nest is wet below, and the eggs are covered with wet
weeds. As it flutters along the surface of the pond when dis-
turbed, its feet (which are longer in proportion to its size than
those of any other Diver) appear to weigh it down, and it drags
them dip, dip, dipping along the water behind it.* Indeed, it is
most reluctant to take flight, and trusts to its wonderful diving
powers to elude an enemy ; but, when once on the wing, its flight
is both rapid and well sustained. When it stands upright, it
has a very awkward, knock-kneed appearance. Provincially in
many parts of England it is known as the ' Didapper,' or ' Little
Diver.' In Sussex it is called the ' Mole Diver.' By many authors
it is now no longer known under the old familiar name of
Podiceps minor, but transferred to a separate genus of its own,
and called Tachybaptes fluviatilis, or the ' River Quick Diver.'
In France it is Grebe castagneux, or ' Chestnut-coloured Grebe,'
in allusion to the colour of its neck in the breeding season ; and
in Sweden Smd Dopping, or ' Little Dipper ' ; in Germany, Kleiner
Steissfuss; in Spain, Zambullidor, ' Dipper,' or ' Plunger.' Before
taking leave of this genus, I would again call attention to the
feet of the Grebes, which are very peculiar, and are furnished
with a broad membrane down the sides of the toes, not unlike
those of the Lobipedidse.

210. GREAT NORTHERN DIVER (Colymbus gtacialis).

This magnificent species is an inhabitant of northern seas, as

its name implies, and one of the most glorious sights to me as an

ornithologist when in Norway was the almost daily view of a

pair of these fine Divers, or its congeners, the ' Black- throated '

4 The Fowler in Ireland/ p. 142.

506 Colymbidce.

(C. arcticus), or the 'Red-throated' (C. septentrionalis), swim-
ming in the midst of some salt-water fjord or fresh-water inland
lake, monarchs of all they surveyed, for I never recollect meeting
with two pairs on the same water. They are all wild, shy birds,
and extremely difficult to shoot, from the facility with which
they would dive, the distance they would traverse before they
rose again to the surface, and their instantaneous disappearance
again beneath the water when alarmed ; and I have spent hours
in chasing them in a boat before I could secure the specimens I

In diving, indeed, it is most expert, and its progress at the
bottom is said to be at the rate of more than seven miles an
hour, while it continues its submarine hunting with apparently
little exertion. In swimming, its flattened body is often immersed
deep in the water, the head and neck only appearing above the
surface ; at other times it will swim as high as a duck, and float
as buoyant as a cork. But on land it presents a very sorry
figure, with little more means of walking than a seal has : for
the construction and position of its legs combine to render it
incapable of moving on its feet like other birds. Accordingly,
venire d terre, it shoves itself forward on its breast by jerks and
by striking the ground with its feet. So averse is it to leave the
water, and so reluctant to fly, that it will swim and dive for hours
when hotly pursued ; but when once it does take wing its flight
is swift and, for so heavy a bird, wonderfully powerful Its cries,
as you listen to it on a still night in Norway, uttered with loud
voice from the midst of some fjord, are most plaintive and
melancholy ; and many in consequence are the idle superstitions
and fearful tales connected with this bird, thoroughly believed
in by the credulous Norsemen, and gravely detailed by the
marvel-loving, quaint old Bishop, Pontoppidan.* Its plumage is
so thick and close and impervious to wet, and, moreover, its skin
is so tough and strong, that it is much prized by the natives of
Northern Europe for making into warm articles of clothing.
Among the Laplanders more especially I have seen it so em-
* Lloyd's ' Scandinavian Adventures,' vol. ii., 487.

Great Northern Diver. 507

ployed. The generic name, colymbus, is simply the Latinized
form of Ko\u/z/3o9, 'a diver.' The specific, glacialis, 'living
amongst the ice/ marks it at once as an inhabitant of Arctic
regions ; and the Swedish Is Lorn and the German Eis Taucher,
' Ice Diver/ are a close translation of Colymbus glacialis. Pro-
vincially, on some parts of our coast it is called the ' Great
Doucker/ which is clearly the same as the German Taucher. It
is also known to fishermen as the ' Immer/ or ' Ember Goose/
and also as the ' Herdsman of the Sea/ from its habit of driving
before it the fishes which it pursues, even to a very great depth.
In France it is Plongeon Imbrim ; in Germany, Schwarzhalsiger
Seetaucher, ' Black-necked Sea-Diver ' ; in Italy, Mergo Maggiore.
Though all the three species of Divers occur sparingly on our
coasts, and from each we have had one or more visits in Wilt-
shire, the Great Northern Diver is that most frequently found
inland ; and of its occurrence in this county I have no less than
ten instances. Lord Arundell informed me that one was killed
at Wardour about ten years ago ; Lord Methuen possesses a
specimen which was killed on the water at Corsham Court;
Lord Bath tells me that one, if not two, have been taken at
Longleat ; Lord Nelson has one killed at Trafalgar ; Mr. Grant
reports one killed at Whitley in December, 1869, by falling on
the ice on a Sunday in the midst of a number of people. The
late Rev. G. Marsh had an immature specimen in his collection,
shot by his brother in the river at Salisbury in 1831 ; and also an
adult specimen, killed on the borders of the county near Bath,
in February, 1838. Holliday, a bird-stuffer at Calne, informed
me that he had preserved one which was shot at Bowood in
1855. A very fine specimen was taken in a brook leading from
Spye Park to Chittoe in November, 1853, and came into the pos-
session of Captain Meredith, the particulars of whose capture I
recorded in the Zoologist at that time ;* and another was killed
on Major Heneage's water at Lyneham, and is now preserved in
the hall at Compton Bassett House.

Zoologist for 1854, p. 4166.

508 Colymbidce.

211. BLACK-THROATED DIVER (Colymbus arcticus).

I think this is one of the handsomest birds when in full-
breeding plumage which I have ever seen in a wild state, and I
met with it frequently in Norway. The arrangement of black
and white feathers, the square and lozenge- shaped spots of pure
white on a black ground, the velvet black of the neck, set off by
a collar of black and white lines and the pure white of the under
surface of the body, combine to give it a most attractive dress
though it has no bright colours in its plumage. In all their
habits and powers of diving, swimming, and flight, the Divers
resemble one another, and all are equally ungainly on dry land,
so that ' the peasants of Norway have the somewhat irreverent
saying that when first created their legs were forgotten, but sub-
sequently thrown after them. This in their eyes accounts for
their pedestals being placed so singularly far behind.' It is also
believed, in consequence of its difficulty in coming ashore, to
carry about its two eggs, each in a hollow which exists for the
purpose under either wing, and there, without the necessity of
leaving her favourite element, or of climbing on to the hated
land, the parent bird hatches out her young in comfort and in
security. Another strange fiction in regard to this bird,
commonly believed by the Scandinavian peasant, is that when
its two eggs are hatched, finding a difficulty in providing for two
young ones, it immediately destroys one, and devotes itself to
the maintenance of the other. To pass from fable to fact, I
found this species many times in Norway on the lakes in the
interior, and sometimes in the more retired fjords, but more
especially on the lakes of the upper mountain plateaux, the
coldness and dreariness of which nothing can exceed, for they
never seemed at any time in the summer to be secure from snow
and frost and ice and cold biting winds. I suppose it was the
solitude and wildness of these lakes which made them so attrac-
tive to the Black-throated Divers ; certainly they preferred them
to other lakes lower down the mountains, and most certainly
they were seldom disturbed there, and very seldom intruded on

Black-throated Diver. 509

by man. The Lapps are very fond of ornamenting their dresses
and tobacco-pouches with the feathers of these handsome birds,
as well as using their skins for articles of clothing ; and I bought
of them a small bag of reindeer's skin, which they had tanned
for themselves and ornamented with tufts of feathers from these
birds. Its skin is also said to be highly prized by the Esquimaux
for its warmth and beauty, for which purpose they are much
sought after and dressed and made into garments, such as that
much-to-be-pitied people wear. This species is somewhat larger
than its red-throated congener ; hence known in Norway as Stor
Lorn, or ' Great Lorn.' Of all three species of Divers this is the
most rare on the English coast ; and I am happy in being able
to add it to our Wiltshire list, on the authority of Mr. E. Baker,
of Mere, who himself saw the bird, and described it in transition
plumage, though killed in the month of December, 1872, in the
neighbourhood of Salisbury. I have since learned from Lord
Methuen that he possesses a specimen which was killed on the
water at Corsham Court. In France it is Plongeon lumme ou d
gorge noire ; in Germany, Der polar Taucher oder Schwarz-
kehliger Seetaucher, ( Black-throated Sea-Diver.'

212. RED-THROATED DIVER (Colymbus septentrionalis}.

Of this species I have three occurrences in Wiltshire to record.
The first was captured after a severe storm on Knoyle Down,
when it was so exhausted and unable to rise that Mr. R Godwin
struck it down with a riding-whip and so secured it, when it
came into the collection of Mr. Baker, of Mere. The second was
shot at Lyneham in 1866, and is now in the possession of Major
Heneage ; and the third, as Mr. Grant informs me, was killed
at Erlestoke in November, 1876. I found it very common in
Norway, both on the inland freshwater lakes and on the salt-
water fjords. In the latter, however, they generally get up
towards the extreme end, where the narrow arm of the sea pene-
trates far into the interior of the country, often as much as eighty
or a hundred miles from the sea-coast. Here the fjord becomes
much like an inland lake ; and as large streams and torrents are

510 Colymbidce.

perpetually pouring their waters into it on every side, and
especially at the extreme end of every arm, these fresh waters have
in some parts so great power over the sea water that the fjords at
their heads, though true branches of the sea, have but little taste
of salt in their waves : and here the Red-throated Diver retires
to breed ; and whether sailing about on the waters they have
appropriated to themselves, or flying high in the air with long
necks outstretched, and with a wailing scream, they never failed
to impart additional interest to the scene. In Norway it is Smd
Lorn, or ' Little Lorn,' being somewhat smaller than the Black-
Throated. Mr. Cecil Smith says that in Devonshire it is known
as the 'Loon,' which is evidently the same as the Norsk Lorn
and the Lapland Lumme, which is said to mean ' lame,' in
reference to its hobbling mode of progression on land. Some-
times it is called the ' Speckled Diver ' and sometimes the ' Rain
Goose/ as it is apt to utter hoarse cries before rough weather.
Elsewhere it is known to the fishermen as the ' Sprat Loon,' from
the partiality it shows for that fish ; but in Finmark, in con-
sequence of its harsh and disagreeable cry, it is called in derision
' Lofodden's Nightingale.' Of its amazing powers, both of diving
and swimming, and, I may add, of flying, I can speak by ex-
perience, having spent many hours in chasing it in a boat manned
by sturdy Norwegian boatmen before I could secure the speci-
mens I desired to add to my collection. It comes to the British
coast oftener than either of its congeners, and may at any season
and age be readily distinguished from them by the slightly up-
turned bill. In France it is Plongeon Cat-marm oil d gorge
rouge; and in Germany, Rotkkehliger Tawher.


This family comprises the Guillemots, the true Auks, and the
Puffins, and it is strange that I am able to record any member
of the family as a visitor, however rare, to Wiltshire, so seldom
do they straggle so far from the coast, and so thoroughly
maritime a race all the members of Alcadse are. Indeed, so
entirely marine are their habits, that they pass almost all their

Common Guillemot. . 511

lives in and on the sea, and accordingly their legs are placed so
far behind that they are wholly incapable of walking on land ;
not, however, at so great an angle with the body as in the Divers,
so that they are able to sit in an upright attitude, resting equally
on the feet and the whole length of the tarsus. Then their
wings are little more than rudimentary, and are advanced so
far forwards that, though admirable as oars or fins in propelling
them through the water, they are of comparatively little service
in enabling them to fly through the air. But they do literally
fly through the water, the wings having exactly the same action,
though not quite so much extended nor so rapidly moved, as
when they are flying in the air. On this account the presence
of any member of this family in our inland county is indeed

213. COMMON GUILLEMOT (Uria troile).

This is more abundant, perhaps, than any other of the sea-birds
which swarm in some portions of our coasts, and is common
enough all round our island. But its powers of locomotion on
land are very limited, owing to the backward position of the legs,
and the shortness of the wings ; so that it is wonderful how any
individual of this species ever reached Wiltshire. I am indebted
to Mr. Grant, of Devizes, for the information that it has been
found in our county, one having come into his hands for
preservation, which had been killed at Salisbury in December,
1871. It breeds in vast colonies on the precipitous cliffs on the
coast, laying its one large egg on the narrow ledge, in close
proximity to scores of others, but the variety of colour, shape,
and size of these eggs is astonishing. There is no nest, but the
Guillemot sits in an upright position on her single egg, which is
conical in shape, and very broad at one end, and very narrow at
the other ; and this form protects it from rolling off the shelving
rock on which it is deposited, since if accidentally disturbed it
merely describes a circle within its own length. I have four eggs
in my possession which, common as they are, and only worth a
few pence, I value more than any others in the whole collection,

512 Alcadce.

for they were given me by Mr. Waterton when I was on a
visit to him at Walton Hall, and he described to me how he took
them with his own hands at Flamborough Head, on the coast of
Yorkshire, when he made the perilous descent of that lofty cliff,
and was let down by a rope from the top, after the custom of the
adventurous fishermen who have pursued that dangerous practice
for generations. The young bird, when about three weeks old, is
carried down to the sea on the back of the mother, who soon in-
structs it in the arts of swimming and diving, and carries it out
to sea far from the shore. This is another species which
penetrates to Polar regions. Nordenskiold* observed it in great
numbers hovering about the tops of the rocks, and settling on the
ledges in Northern Spitzbergen, as early as the 4th of March ;
and Sir Edward Parry met with it in latitude 81. As regards
the name, we have adopted the French term, ' Guillemot/ derived
from the cry of the adult; but on the south coast it is called
' Willock' or ' Willy/ which is supposed to represent the cry of
the young bird. Elsewhere it is known as 'Murre,' from the
murmuring noise of the assembled multitudes at their breeding
haunts: and by the fishermen on the east coast as 'Scout/
perhaps from its short or 'cutty' tail; also as 'Marrock' or
'Marrot.' In Sweden it is Sill Grissla, or 'Herring Grissler';
and in Germany, Dumme Lumme; and by us the 'Foolish
Guillemot/ because it is so unsuspicious of harm, and so con-
fiding as oftentimes to endanger its life. In Portugal it is Airo.
The B.O.U. Committee says that the specific name, troile, was in-
tended as a compliment to Troil the Icelander.

214. LITTLE AUK (Mergulus alle).

This is another thoroughly oceanic bird, and chiefly at
home in the more northern part of the Polar seas, where it
has accompanied the most intrepid of the Arctic explorers to
the farthest point attained by them. It is commonly known
to English sailors and to Arctic voyagers generally as the
'Rotche/ and the numbers congregated in some spots of the
Nordenskiold's ' Arctic Voyages,' p. 217.

Little Auk 513

far North appear almost incredible; but there it finds an un-
limited supply of the crustaceans and other small marine animals
on which it subsists. Colonel Sabine related that off the coast
of Greenland, in latitude 76, in the channels of water separating
fields of ice, ' hundreds were killed daily for food/ and the ship's
company supplied with this acceptable change of diet. Norden-
skiold speaks of an ' Auk- fell in Spitzbergen inhabited by millions
of Auks, which sit closely packed together in all the clefts and
crevices of the rocks, and the air was literally darkened by the
multitude of fowl on the wing at one time. Other vast flocks
were sitting upon and between the ice-floes, seeking their food.'
In another part he came to a mountain fifteen hundred feet in
height which, ' from the hundreds of thousands of Auks which
frequent it, was called Alk hornet, " the Auk horn," and here land,
sea, ice, and sky seemed darkened with the dense flocks :' while
in the same dreary country Admiral Beechey ' frequently saw a
column of Rotches which by means of a rough calculation he
estimated as consisting of nearly four millions of birds on the

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 46 of 53)