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 48 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 48 of 53)
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We have now reached the last family of birds, and it is a very
large one, comprising the great tribe of Terns, the still larger list
of Gulls, and the Petrels. They are all long- winged, and enjoy
a prodigious power of flight, which is not only extremely rapid,
but can be indefinitely prolonged and apparently without
exertion, at all events without causing fatigue. They are all
web-footed, and seek their food on the surface of the sea or on
the shore where it has been washed up by the waves ; but
though they float with buoyancy on the ocean, they are unable
to dive. They are consequently rather birds of the air than of
the water, and their evolutions on the wing are extremely

Common Tern. 525

graceful and pleasing ; and as the distances they traverse are
very great, they are frequently seen far inland, so that we are well
acquainted with many of them in this county, to which an excur-
sion from the southern coast is a mere morning's amusement.

220. COMMON TERN (Sterna hirundo).

The ' Sea Swallows/ as all the species which compose this
genus are commonly called, represent the fissirostral tribe of the
Insessores, and are of light and elegant shape, with small slim
bodies, but with wings of prodigious length and deeply forked
tails, the latter being a characteristic feature shared in common
by all birds of extraordinary powers of flight ; and when they
dash down with unerring aim on some luckless fish swimming
near the surface, it is with very great velocity and amazing
power. As they shoot over the waves or skim through the air,
and occasionally dip into the water, they bear a close resemblance
in general appearance to the real Swallows, whose arrival we
hail with such joy every spring. But in reality they have no
connection whatever with the Hirundinidce, for in anatomical
structure and habits they are true water-birds, and all their food
is derived from the sea or from freshwater rivers and lakes, from
which they are never long absent, and on whose shores they
make their nests. They are said to be very bold in driving away
any who trespass within the vicinity of their breeding haunts,
even attacking the intruder, and having been known to strike
his hat in their indignation and alarm. St. John remarks
farther, that though they hover about the place where the nests
are placed to drive away strangers, they do not care to sit upon
their eggs during fine weather in the daytime. Their beaks are
long and straight and sharp- pointed, and their legs are short
and their feet small. By many modern authors this species is
called fluviatilis, from its habit of ascending rivers to a con-
siderable distance, and sometimes visiting inland lakes far
removed from the sea ; but when its powers of flight are con-
sidered this will not seem surprising. In Sweden and Norway,
where it is the most common of all the Terns, it is distinguished

526 Laridce.

as Fitik Tdrna, or ' Fish Tern ' ; but by the fishermen it is more
generally known as Mack-rill Tdrna, or ' Mackerel Tern,' from its
habit of following the mackerel shoals in order that it may pick
up marine insects, Crustacea, and small fish which these in their
progress frighten up to the surface of the water. Its provincial
names on the British coast are so numerous that I will not
attempt to recount them. The Common Tern is in France
Hirondelle de mer pien*e garin; in Germany, Gemeine Meer-
schwalbe; in Portugal, Andorinha do mar; and in Spain,
Golondrina de mar, all bearing the same meaning of ' Sea
Swallow.' The Common Tern is not, however, so generally dis-
tributed on our shores as its name would seem to imply. It is,
however, abundant in some favoured localities : more common
on the western than on the eastern coasts of Great Britain.
Montagu expresses surprise that it has been found so far from
the sea as Bath, but many such instances must now be familiar
to all observers. Lord Methuen tells me it has been killed at
Corsham Court ; I hear of another killed at Kennet in 1881, and
one at Poulshot in 1861. But, indeed, I have had so many
notices of its occurrence from time to time, both in North and
South Wilts, that it would only be tedious to enumerate them.
I may mention, however, that Mr. Grant alone has had the
following specimens pass through his hands : In 1866, Sep-
tember 20, one from Collingbourne ; in 1868, August 21, one
from the Canal, Kowde ; and October 3 one from Devizes Locks,
and another from Potterne ; in 1869, September 23, two from
Berwick Bassett ; in 1871, September 29, one from Erchfont ; in
1874, May 29, one from Great Bedwyn. Its general plumage is
pearl-gray above and white below ; but the velvet-black crown
of the head and the bright red beak, legs, and feet conduce
much to the really handsome appearance of this slender,
graceful bird.

221. ARCTIC TERN (Sterna arctica).

This species is perhaps numerically more abundant than the
preceding, to which, indeed, it bears a very close resemblance,

Arctic Tern. 527

and with which it is doubtless often confounded. It is only to
be distinguished from 8. hirundo by its shorter and deeper-
coloured beak and by the darker under plumage, which is of a
light gray colour. It is most probable, therefore, that several of
the instances recorded above really belonged to this species.
Without doubt it must be a frequent visitor in Wiltshire, and
Yarrell mentions Devizes as one of the places visited by con-
siderable numbers in the strange irruption of these birds in 1842,
as recorded by Mr. Strickland in the ' Annals and Magazine of
Natural History ' for that year. Beyond this notice I have other
evidence of its occurrence in our county : first, in a note from
Mr. Elgar Sloper, who informs me that three were brought to
him which had been killed on the Kennet and Avon Canal, near
Devizes, after a gale from the west in October, 1844; and
secondly, from the Rev. G. Powell, who wrote me word on
September 28, 1870, that an Arctic Tern was killed by Mr.
Charles Phipps at Charlcote a few days previously. The Marl-
borough College Natural History Reports speak of one found on
the Canal at Savernake in 1867, and another in 1881 on the
Canal at Wootton Rivers ; and Mr. Grant received one from Mr.
T. Kemm, of Avebury, in October, 1875. As its name implies,
it frequents high northern latitudes. Reinhardt found it breed-
ing in Greenland ; and Professor Newton records that it breeds
in numbers in Spitzbergen, where it feeds principally on surface-
swimming animals, crustaceans, mollusca, and the like,* and it
has been noticed in still more northern regions by Arctic
voyagers. But S. arctica, which certainly, more than either of
its congeners, is found in polar regions, has been of late deprived
of its title by some modern ornithologists, and designated
macrura, with the meaning of ' long-tailed,' from pa/epos and
ovpd ; while in Norway it is Rod-ndbbad-Tdrna, or ' Red-billed
Tern,' neither of which appear to me to distinguish it sufficiently
from its fellows. In France it is Hirondelle-de-mer arctique.
The flight of this and all the other Terns is exceedingly graceful,
and Harting calls attention to the very interesting sight of a
Ibis for 1865, p. 215.

528 Laridcv.

flock of these birds fishipg in undisturbed enjoyment ; and Sir
William Jardine observes that all the Terns are very light, and
the body being comparatively small, the expanse of wings and
tail so buoys them up, that when shot in the air they are
sustained, their wings fold above them, and they whirl gently
down like a shuttlecock.*

222. BLACK TERN (Sterna fissipca).

The dark sooty colour of its plumage at once distinguishes
this species from its congeners. Although in every respect a
true Tern, it differs in habits from those previously described,
inasmuch as it seeks freshwater lakes and rivers in the interior,
where it lives upon such flies and other insects as suit its palate.
Hence it has more frequently been met with in Wiltshire than
any other of its congeners. Thus I was informed by Mr. Withers
that three specimens had been brought to him for preservation
in the spring of 1853, one of which was killed at Compton
Bassett by Mr. Heneage's keeper, and two at Berwick Bassett.
The Rev. G. Marsh showed me two in his collection which were
killed near Bath in 1845. .The Rev. Henry Methuen not only
recorded the capture of one at All Cannings on May 2nd, 1849,
but generously presented it to our Museum at Devizes (a very
considerate and liberal act, which I cannot too highly commend
to the imitation of any who may obtain specimens of our rarer
birds killed in Wiltshire), and Mr. Elgar Sloper informed me
that one was killed near Salisbury in 1840, and added to his
note in reference to this species, 'I may here remark that I
have scarcely known an April or October without hearing of the
occurrence of some of the Sternidce.' Mr. Baker possesses two
specimens in his collection, one killed 'at Mere in summer
plumage, and another shot at Norton Ferris in 1860 in winter
dress, and also records the capture of a third, which hovered
.over the water quite close to him when he was fishing at Steeple
Langford on April 29th, 1884, and which proved to be an adult
bird in full breeding plumage. The Rev. A. P. Morres, too, had
' Birds of Middlesex,' p. 247.

Black Tern. 529

a personal interview with one, for while he was rowing on the
river at Downton one of these birds, in adult plumage, flew
round and round the boat, coming so close to him that he had a
perfect view of it. The Marlborough College Natural History
Eeports mention, on the authority of Mr. Dixon, of Pewsey, that
a specimen was shot at that place on May 18, 1876, and two
others in the middle of May, 1880, the one at Hungerford, the
other at Ramsbury. Mr. Grant reports one killed at Fyfield by
Mr. Lavington in May, 1876, and Mr. Rawlence one killed at
Wishford. In France it is known as Hirondelle de mer
epouvantail, ' Scarecrow,' or ' Bugbear Sea Swallow,' probably
from some superstitious terror on account of its sombre dress ;
but in prosaic Germany it is Schviarzgraue Meerschwalbe ; in
Sweden, Svart Tdrna; in Italy, Sterna Cenerina o di testa nera;
and in Spain, Fumarel. Modern systematists have removed this
species from the true Terns, and relegated it to a small group
of 'Marsh Terns,' and inflicted on it the tremendous name of
Hydrochelidon, or ' Water Swallow.' The specific name, fissipes,
arises from the fact that the membranes which connect the
three toes in. front are short and deeply scalloped a distinctive
mark recognised by the fishermen, who in some parts call it
provincially ' Cloven-foot Gull.' Formerly, before the fens and
marshes of the eastern counties were drained, it used to breed
in great numbers in Norfolk and Lincolnshire ; in the former it
was known as the ' Blue Darr/and in the latter as ' Car Swallow/
Selby compares its flight, which is peculiarly buoyant, to that
of the Nightjar ; and Montagu described how it escaped from the
repeated pounces of a Peregrine Falcon by means of the rapidity
of its flight and the dexterity and singular quickness of its

223. LITTLE GULL (Larus minutus).

The Gulls differ from the Terns in their more sturdy and less
elegant shape, in their stronger, shorter beak with curved tip, in
their longer and stouter legs, and in the partial or total absence
of fork in the tail. They seem equally at rest, whether floating


530 Laridoo.

buoyantly on the surface of the sea, gently flapping on powerful
wing through the air, or standing quietly, often on one leg, on
the beach. Though they float like corks on the waves, they
seldom swim and never dive. They may be almost called
omnivorous, so welcome to their insatiable appetite is every kind
of animal food they can secure. The Little Gull, the smallest
of its genus which figures in the British list, and, I believe, of the
whole genus, is distinguished in most languages by a name
which calls attention to its diminutive figure. In France it is
Mouette pygmde ; in Germany, Die kleine Meve ; in Sweden,
Dverg-Mdse, or 'Dwarf Gull'; but in Russia, where it is best
known, it is honoured with the distinguished title of Scheik.
It is by no means a common bird, even on our coasts : but .1
have three undoubted instances of its appearance in Wiltshire,
as the Rev. G. Marsh had a specimen in his collection which was
killed on a pond at Rodbourne in 1848, and sent to him by Mrs.
Pollen. The Rev. George Powell informed me that a very good
specimen, in winter plumage, was killed in January, 1869, at
Upton Scudamore, near Warminster. It was quite alone when
discovered, and had doubtless been driven inland by one of the
south-westerly gales which prevailed at that period. And a
third was picked up dead on March 28, 1870, on Rockley Down,
near Marlborough, as I was informed by the Rev. T. A. Preston,
who secured the specimen for the admirable museum which was
established by his efforts at Marlborough College. The home of
this elegant little bird is in Central and Northern Russia and
Siberia, where it is said to congregate in immense colonies and
to literally swarm in the air a few feet above the surface of the
lakes, like Swallows over a river on a summer's evening, or like
mosquitoes, which (as some of my readers may know to their
cost, or if not, let them take the word of one who has often and
in many lands been driven in by their attacks) hover over their
favourite pools in countless myriads.*

* W. H. Simpson in Ibis for 1861, p. 362.

Black-headed Gull. 531

224. BLACK-HEADED GULL (Larus ridibundus).

I consider this to be the most common species of Gull on our
British coasts ; and the immense numbers which congregate
together for breeding purposes at their well-known haunt,
Scoulton Mere, in Norfolk, must be seen to be understood. This
is a true cosmopolite, and I have met with it both near the
Arctic circle and within the tropics. One specimen I brought
home from Nubia, which I shot on the Nile no less than seven
hundred miles up the river : and it has been repeatedly found
as far from the sea as the lakes of Central Asia. Occasionally it
is found in North Wilts, and Mr. Grant has received specimens
from Biddestone, near Chippenham, in August, 1873, and a few
days later from Cheverell ; and in October, 1878, from Broadleas,
near Devizes. It is often seen on Salisbury Plain and on the
downs of South Wiltshire, following the ploughman after the
manner of Rooks, and greedily devouring the grubs which are
thus exposed. For it differs from all its congeners in the
localities it frequents, turning its back on the sea and the sea-
shore, and preferring freshwater lakes and rivers, and meadows
and plains ; and when the breeding season comes, resorting to
some chosen inland morass or marsh, and not to the precipitous
rocks overhanging the sea, which is the usual nesting-place of
the Gulls. The eggs laid by this species vary in colour and in
markings more perhaps than those of any other species; and,
though they differ from them much in colour and still more in
shape, are often sold to the indiscriminating public in London
and elsewhere as Plovers' eggs. Perhaps as a salve to the
conscience of such fraudulent dealers, this species is provincially
called the ' Peewit Gull.' The specific name, ridibundus, ' full
of laughter,' in German, Lachmeve ; in French, Mouette rieuse ;
in Norsk, Skratt Mdse, are all derived from the hoarse cackling
note which is generally supposed to resemble a human laugh.
It is also called the ' Sea Crow,' ' Mire Crow,' and ' Blackcap/
Cordeaux says it is an unfailing weather prophet, and that when


532 Laridce.

it soars high and flies round in circles it is a certain sign of wind
and rain within twenty-four hours.*

225. KITTIWAKE (Larus tridactylus).

This, too, is a common species on our coasts, though seldom
seen in winter; but considering its abundance, it is, though
occasionally met with on our downs in summer, by no means a
frequent inland visitor. Indeed, its legs are so short that it is
unable to run or walk with much freedom. In consequence it
is more thoroughly marine in its habits than others of its con-
geners, and derives almost all its food from the surface of the
sea or the seashore. Also, unlike the species last described, it
never breeds on the open ground, but always on the cliffs and
precipices which it finds overhanging the sea. However, I have
many instances of its occurrence in Wilts. The first was re-
corded by Mr. Elgar Sloper as having been picked up dead on
the snow in the neighbourhood of Devizes in November, 1847 ;
the Marlborough College Natural History Reports mention one
killed at Brimslade in 1881 ; Sir H. Meux tells me of another
shot at Fylield, near Marlborough ; Lord Heytesbury informs me
of a beautiful specimen picked up on his property about ten
years ago, and now in the possession of Mr. Henry Swayne, of
Heytesbury ; and Mr. Grant's list enumerates no less than sixteen
of this species which have come into his hands from the follow-
ing places : in 1863, from Lavington ; 1864, from Swindon ; 1865,
from Netheravon and Lavington ; 1866, from Tinhead ; 1868,
from Stanton ; 1869, from Charlton, Bromham, Chitterne, Wilcot,
Edington, Bratton, Bulkington ; 1872, from the Crammer Pond,
Devizes ; 1879, from Clatford, killed by Mr. Hussey ; and in 1881,
from Enford, killed by Mr. Sargent. It is called tridactylus,
and in most Continental languages the equivalent to ' three-toed/
from the imperfect development, almost, I may say, the absence,
of a hind toe, which peculiarity at once distinguishes it from the
Common and other Gulls of about the same size and colour.
Our English word, ' Kittiwake/ is supposed to syllable the note

' Birds of the Humber District,' p. 202.

Kittiwake, 533

it utters, ' Kitti-aa, Kitti-aa,' which, Mr. Seebohm says, imagi-
nation likens to ' Get away, get away/ especially when the
intruder is near the nest.* Sir R. Payne-Gallwey gives a very
graphic account of the preparation of the nest in the breeding
season. He says : ' About the beginning of February they may
be seen to come and view their old nests to see whether the
storms have swept them away. Then they wheel round the
caves a few times and depart. Then they squabble over any
nests which may happen to have remained intact since the
previous spring, great chattering and disputing going on all the
while. Nodding and chattering ends in biting and fighting, in
violent struggles, often in clinging together, and falling and
rolling sometimes a hundred feet into the sea below. Laying
the foundation of a nest is an important and anxious piece of
architecture. Wet clay is brought and placed on the small
projecting piece of rock, often not more than six inches square.
Each time a fresh supply is fetched and laid down it undergoes
a process of hardening and consolidating by the little black feet
of the builder. Round and round he tramps, here a little and
there a little. If, as is sometimes the case, he has not room to
make a complete circuit, by reason of his tail striking the wall
of cliff, up and down he pats it smooth, now more clay, now
grass, then sea-weed, more tramping, and the nest is ready.'f in
France it is Mouette tridactyle ; in Italy, Gabbiano terragnala e
galetra ; in Sweden, Tre-tdig Mdse, ' Three-toed Gull ' ; but in
Portugal, in common with several other species of Gull, Gaivota.

226. COMMON GULL (Laws canus).

I doubt whether this species, numerous though it is, deserves
its trivial English name so much &&L.ridibundu8; but, perhaps,
in Wiltshire it may fairly be entitled our ' Common Gull.' In
the southern parts of the county it is very frequently met with,
and I have often seen it in North Wilts passing overhead, or
perched on the downs. It is also an indefatigable attendant on

' British Birds,' vol. iii., p. 342.

f ' The Fowler in Ireland,' pp. 169, 270.

534 Laridce.

the ploughshare, frequenting the interior of the country the
greater part of the year in search of worms. The Rev. A. P.
Morres says it is very frequently seen flying up and down the
river near him, and picking up any refuse matter it can find on
the banks. The late Rev. G. Marsh used to say that in South
Wilts it obtained the sobriquet of ' Barley Sower.' The Rev.
W. C. Lukis kept one alive for some time that was captured at
Great Bedwyn in 1854, and was present when another was
secured in the parish of Burbage, in March, 1857, during a snow-
storm, by which, and the furious gusts of wind which prevailed
on that day, it seemed quite overcome and exhausted. Perhaps,
too, the same violent gales had driven it from the coast, and it
may have been faint from hunger. It is called canus, ' hoary,'
from its light-coloured plumage of pure white and pearl gray,
than which no Quaker's dress could be more subdued in colour,
or more pure and spotless. In France it is Mouttte d pieds
bleus; in Italy, Gabbiano mezza mosca, 'Half-gray Gull.' In
Sweden it is the Fisk Mdse, or ' Fishing Gull ' ; and in Germany
the Sturm Meve, or ' Storm Gull/ though why such a title should
be applied to a species which is the first to seek shelter from the
coming tempest I know not ; for this species only comes to land at
the approach of rough weather at sea, hence the popular rhyme :
' Sea-gull, Sea-gull, sit on the sand,
Tis never good weather when you're on the land.'

Throughout Norway and up to the North Cape, in the interioi
as well as on the sea coast, it is found in immense numbei
Whatever it may be in Great Britain, it is certainly th<
' Common ' Gull of Northern Europe.

227. LESSER BLACK-BACKED GULL (Larus fuscus).
Though common enough on the coast and within a few mile
of the sea, this species is generally supposed not to venture ven
far from salt water, but yet it certainly does come boldly inlan<
both for the food it finds on meadows and pasture lands, and
also for breeding purposes; in proof of which I have several
instances of its appearance in various parts of our county. The

Lesser Black-backed Gull. 535

first of which. I have any record was shot many years since in
the middle of Salisbury Plain near Tilshead, as I was informed
by Mr. George Elgar Sloper. Again the Kev. G. Powell wrote
me word in December, 1875, that he had seen a specimen about
three months previously, which was said to have been killed in
Wilts; and Mr. Grant tells me of nine specimens which have
come into his hands for preservation; one killed at Bromham,
August 29th, 1865 ; one taken at Wexcombe, near Marlborough,
August 30th, 1872; one from Biddestone, near Chippenham,
August 12th, 1874; another from Brimslade, and another from
Cheverell at about the same date ; in 1876, one from Tilshead
and one from Eowde; in 1877, one from Nonsuch ; and in 1879,
one from Avebury. It is well called fuscus, as the dark colour
of the upper plumage distinguishes it at once from its congeners
of the same size : its bright yellow legs also are no less charac-
teristic of the species. In France it is known as Ooeland a pieds
jaunes ; and in Germany as Gelbfussige Meve ; but in Sweden
this species is Sill-Mdse, or the ' Herring Gull.' As Harting well
observes : ' Gulls appear to be longer in arriving at maturity of
plumage than perhaps any other class of birds. Many species
of birds attain the adult plumage after the first moult; but most,
if not all of the Gulls, pass three years in a state of gradual
transition before they display the colours of their parents.'*

228. HERRING GULL (Larus argentatus).
This is the commonest of all the species of Gulls on the
southern and western shores of England, and with the Black-
backed and some other species frequents the newly- ploughed
land for grubs: and Montagu says it will trample the ground
upon the same spot, turning about in all directions to make the
worms emerge ; and Selby attributes to it a like movement on
the sand, in order to bring to the surface the shrimps and worms
from beneath. It is a sad pilferer of its neighbour's goods, and
is sometimes called the ' Egg-Gull,' from its habit of devouring
the eggs of other sea birds. Its note is a wild cry or hoarse
' Birds of Middlesex,' p. 261.

536 Laridcc.

laugh, and when its ringing shriek is heard, it is the signal of
alarm to other birds, and puts them on the alert. Sir R Payne-
Gallwey says this species takes five years to obtain maturity
of plumage. The specific name argentatus, 'silvery white/
sufficiently describes its light-coloured dress, as do the French
Goeland cendre, the German Weissgraue Meve, and 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 48 of 53)