Neltje Blanchan.

Birds that hunt and are hunted; life histories of one hundred and seventy birds of prey, game birds and water fowls online

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nest. This consists of a few dry leaves on the ground in the


Snipe, Sandpipers, etc.

woods, usually near a stump, where the four buffy eggs, spotted
over with reddish brown, are laid, often before the snow has
melted, in April. A dry place being chosen for the nesting site,
it sometimes becomes necessary to transport the funny little
fluffy, long-billed chicks to muddy hunting grounds, and the
mother has been detected in the act of flying with one of her
brood held between her thighs. But the chicks are by no means
helpless, even from the instant they leave the shell. It is a pretty
sight to see a little family poking about at twilight for larvae,
worms, and small insects, among the decayed leaves, the fallen
logs, and the ferns and skunk cabbages. Peep, peep, they call,
quite like barnyard chicks.

By the first of August the woodcocks, deserting the low,
wet lands, scatter themselves over the country in corn fields,
grassy meadows, birch covered hillsides, "alder runs," pine
forests, and thick, cool, moist undergrowth, near woods; and
now they moult. No whistling of wings can be heard as the
birds heavily labor along near the ground, often unable to raise
their denuded bodies higher. In September, when the sportsmen
make sad havoc in the flocks, already gathering for migration,
they are found in the dense thickets of wooded uplands, where a
stream flows to keep the ground soft; and in October, when the
birds are in prime condition, the spot that contained scores at
evening may hold none by morning. The russet colored birds
mingle with the russet colored leaves, and, as they lie close, it
takes a good dog to find them. The woodcocks migrate silently
by night, and an early frost, that stiffens the ground, drives them
off suddenly to softer territory southward. Hence the delightful
element of uncertainty enters into the hunting of this bird, that
is here to-day and gone to-morrow. When flushed, its flight
appears to be feeble, as, after a few whistles of its short, stiff
wings, and trailing its legs behind it, it quickly drops into cover
again, running a little distance on alighting, but the distances
covered in migrations prove it to be no unskilled flier.


Snipe, Sandpipers, etc.

Wilson's Snipe

(Gallinago delicata)


Length 10. 50 to 1 1. 50 inches.

Male and Female Upper parts varied with black, brown, and
buff; crown dusky, with buff stripe; throat white; neck
and breast buff, streaked with dusky ; underneath white, the
sides with blackish bars. Outer feather of wings white ;
wings brownish black, the feathers barred with reddish
brown and margined with white. Tail bay and black,
the outer feathers barred with black and white; the inner
ones black, marked across the end with rufous and tipped
with soiled white. Bill about 2.50 inches long and resem-
bling the woodcock's.

Range North America at large, from Hudson Bay and Alaska,
south in winter to central and northern South America and
the West Indies. Nests in far north chiefly, rarely in the
northern United States.

When the first shad run up our rivers to spawn, and the
shad bush opens its feathery white blossoms in the roadside
thickets in March, the snipe come back from the south to haunt
the open wet places of the lowlands, fresh water marshes,
soaked fields, and the sheltered sunny spots in a clearing that
are the first to thaw. Only in exceptionally dry seasons do these
birds go near salt water marshes. Generally speaking, snipe
prefer more open country than woodcock; but plenty of the
former have been flushed in bush-grown, springy woods the
woodcock's paradise when the lowlands become flooded. The
russet colors and markings of these birds, that so perfectly mimic
their surroundings as they lie close, conceal them from all but
the sharpest eyes. We may know of their arrival by the clusters
of holes in the mud; for both snipe and woodcock have the habit
of thrusting their bills into the soft ground up to the nostrils, feel-
ing for worms as they probe with the sensitive tip whose upper
half is flexible and capable of hooking the earthworm from its
hole. As the snipe's eyes are set far back in its head, it must be
guided only by the sense of touch. The larvae of insects and
insects themselves are found by overturning old leaves and


Snipe, Sandpipers, etc.

decayed wood ; but most of this bird's food must be probed for.
Martin Luther was not the only one to profit by a Diet of Worms!

While comparatively few nests are built in the United States,
most of the love making is done here, and one of the character-
istic spring sounds in districts frequented by this snipe is the
/Eolian whistling of its wings at evening, dawn, or by moonlight,
when its wooing is done chiefly in mid air. Lighter and more
trim of figure than a woodcock, Wilson's snipe is a better flier,
and, rising upward by erratic yet graceful spirals, it attains a
height we can only guess at but not see in the dusk; then darting
earthward, music thrums and whistles in its wake to charm the
ear of the listening sweetheart. It makes "at each descent a
low yet penetrating, tremulous sound," says Brewster, "which
suggests the winnowing of a domestic pigeon's wings, or, if
heard at a distance, the bleating of a goat, and which is thought
to be produced by the rushing of the air through the wings of the
snipe. . . . Besides this 'drumming' or 'bleating,' as it is called,
the snipe, while mating, sometimes make another peculiar sound,
a kuk-kuk-kuk-kuk-kup, evidently vocal, and occasionally accom-
panying a slow, labored, and perfectly direct flight, at the end of
which the bird alights on a tree or fence post a few minutes."

The flight of a snipe, almost invariably erratic, zig-zag one
minute and maybe strong and direct the next, discourages all but
the most expert wing shot. Although lying close, and generally
flushed in the open, no tyro is quick enough at covering the
swift, tortuous flier to bag it. Nervous, excitable, and therefore
particularly difficult to hit, poor of flesh and muscular from long
travel in the spring migration, nevertheless there are in many
states no laws to prevent the killing of these snipe then ; and the
fact that eggs are already formed in many birds brought to the
kitchen has not yet moved the hearts of sportsmen and legis-
lators to action. For the most part, these snipe go north of the
United States to lay three or four clay-colored or olive eggs,
heavily marked and scratched with chocolate, in a depression in
the ground.

When the early frosts of autumn harden the soil at the north,
so that the bill can no longer penetrate it, the snipe, migrating
by night, again visit us, this time fatter, more lazy, or at any rate
less nervous than they were during the mating season. Just as
a wet meadow may be full of them some August morning before


Snipe, Sandpipers, etc.

we are expecting them, so in September the sportsmen go to
look for them at dawn where they were the evening before in
numbers, to find that they have silently travelled southward
during the night. There is always the charm of the unexpected
about the snipe's appearance or disappearance. Like the wood-
cock, it is almost nocturnal in habits, because earthworms
come to the surface then. Coming out from under cover,
where it has dozed the best part of the day, to feed in
the open at twilight of morning or evening, it lies close
until flushed, when, springing upward from the grass almost at
the sportsman's feet, as if shot out of a spring trap, and startling
the novice out of a good aim by its hoarse, rasping scaip, scaip,
it stands a good chance of escaping, thanks to its swift zig-
zag course.


( ' Macrorbampbus griseus)

Called also: RED-BREASTED SNIPE (summer); QUAIL SNIPE;

Length 9.5010 1 0.50 inches.

Male and Female: In summer Upper parts black, the feathers
edged or barred with rusty red, white, and buff; tail and
rump white barred with dusky ; lower part of back white,
conspicuous in flight; under parts rusty red, paler or white
below, more or less spotted and barred with dusky. Bill,
which is two inches long, is blackish brown. Legs and feet
greenish brown. In winter General plumage brownish or
ashy gray; lower back white; rump and tail barred with
dusky and white; lower parts white, shading into gray
on breast.

Range Eastern North America, nesting within the Arctic Circle
and wintering from Florida to the West Indies and Brazil.

Season Spring and autumn migrant; April, May; August and

Compact flocks of gray snipe, as they are called after the
summer moult has transformed them, migrating southward
along the sea coast in August and September, may be easily


Snipe, Sandpipers, etc.

called down by anyone sufficiently familiar with their loud,
quivering, querulous whistle to imitate it. Sportsmen also use
decoys; but these are gentle, sociable birds, among the last to
suspect evil or to take alarm, and need little encouragement to
alight beyond the supposed entreaties of a sister flock. They
appear to be never in a hurry; the long journey to and from their
nesting grounds has frequent halting places; the mellow days of
early autumn find them free from care and ready to accept every
invitation to enjoy life to the full.

Wheeling about as the imitation of their call reaches them, if
they are not perchance flying too high to hear it, down swings
the flock, hovering over the mud flats and tracts of low beach
exposed at ebb tide. After circling about and seeing none of
their kin, they may nevertheless decide to stop and rest awhile
and feed in so promising a field. Now they scatter, but never
so far that a chattering talk may not be kept up with their com-
panions while they look for snails, seeds of sedges, insects, small
mollusks, gravel, and bits of vegetable matter picked off the
surface or from the shallow pools in the salt marshes. Some-
times they probe the soft mud, too, for some tiny marine creature
that has buried itself there; but not commonly, as the woodcock
and Wilson's snipe do. A sand bar will often be so crowded
with these sociable little waders that the sportsman picks off a
dozen or more birds at a single shot; and so innocent are they
that even such a lesson does not prevent their returning to the
identical spot after a short flight. It is small wonder they are
favorites with shooters.

Skimming over the marshes, swallow fashion, a flock darts
about in an erratic, joyous course now high in air and performing
some beautiful evolutions, now close above the sedges their
shrill, quivering whistle, constantly called back and forth, keeping
the neighborhood lively. The note can scarcely be distinguished
from the whistle of the yellowlegs that these snipe frequently
associate with as they do with various sandpipers. When on
the wing, the white spot on the lower back, a diagnostic feature,
is conspicuous enough to help the novice name the bird.

A number of nests or depressions in the moss or grasses that
answered the purpose, have been found near lakes and marshes
at the far north by travellers who have brought back to our
museums clutches of four drab or fawn colored eggs spotted and


Snipe, Sandpipers, etc.

marked with sepia, chiefly around the larger end. These birds of
many names are not found in Germany, any more than the so
called English snipe is found in England, but they are called
German snipe or Deutschers, to distinguish them from that
species, dowitcher being simply a corruption of Deutscher in the
mouths of longshoremen.

The Long-billed or Western Dowitcher ( Macrorbampbus
scolopaceus), the representative of the preceding species from the
Mississippi Valley westward to Alaska, may be distinguished
from it chiefly by its slightly larger size and longer bill and
possibly by its more uniformly rusty under parts and the heavier
dusky bars on its sides in the summer plumage only. Very
rarely one of these birds is taken by gunners on the Atlantic
coast. In habits these two species are similar even their eggs
being identical; but the shrill whistled p'te-te-te, p'te-te-te, of the
gray snipe swells into a musical song, something like peet-peet;
pee-ter-wee-too; wee-too; twice repeated, according to Mr. D. G.
Elliot, in the case of the long-billed dowitcher. For years even
scientific men thought these two species were one.

Stilt Sandpiper

(Micropalama bimantopusj


Length About 9 inches.

Male and Female : In Summer Feathers on upper parts blackish,
each bordered with gray or buff or tawny, the markings
scalloped on the shoulders; wings darker; ears, and an indis-
tinct line around back of head, rusty red; lower back ashy;
upper tail coverts white with dusky bars; tail ashy, the
centre and edges of the feathers white. Under parts white,
streaked and barred with dusky. Bill nearly as long as a
snipe's, and flattened and pitted at the tip. Legs very long.
Both bill and feet greenish black. In Winter : Upper parts
brownish or ashy gray, the feathers edged with white; a
white line like an eyebrow; upper tail coverts white, the
tail feathers white margined with brownish ash ; throat and
sides streaked with gray; under parts white.

Snipe, Sandpipers, etc.

Range Eastern North America, nesting within the Arctic Circle,
wintering from Florida and the Gulf States to Brazil and Peru.
Season Spring and autumn migrant, May ; July to October.

From the Arctic Circle to Peru is surely a journey to warrant
frequent and long breaks; but only rarely do we hear of a small,
open flock of these tireless travellers resting awhile on the sand
flats of our coast or the muddy channels of the rivers inland to
fortify themselves with a square meal before continuing their
rapid flight. Like most birds that spend part of their lives at
least in Arctic desolation, these sandpipers, not knowing man,
have little fear of him, being of the same gentle, confiding dispo-
sition, apparently, as the dowitchers, with which they may some-
times be found, lured by the sportsman's decoys. Four birds,
watched on a Long Island beach, were wading about in a pool
left by the receding tide; and as they tipped forward, thrusting
their sensitive bills into the soft sand to feel after food, and often
immersing their heads to secure a worm or snail buried there,
it seemed as if the top-heavy little waders must upset from
their long, slender props. Yet when they walked for they do
not run as actively as true sandpipers, this species being a con-
necting link between sandpipers and snipe they moved grace-
fully and easily. One characteristic they have that reminds one
of the avocet and black-necked stilt: on alighting they first
teeter, then stand motionless as if to steady themselves and make
sure of their balance. Colonel Goss tells of their squatting to
avoid detection, flying only as a last resort, then darting swiftly
away, calling a sharp tweet, tweet.


( Tringa canutus)

SANDPIPER (summer); GRAY SNIPE (winter) ; BEACH

Length 10.50 inches: largest of the sandpipers.

Male and Female : In summer Upper parts varied black, gray and
reddish; crown gray streaked with black; line over the eye,
chin, throat, and underneath cinnamon red, fading to white

Snipe, Sandpipers, etc.

on centre of abdomen ; rump, upper and under tail coverts
and flanks white, barred with dusky; tail ashy brown,
bounded by dusky brown and tipped with white. Bill,
legs, and feet black. In winter Top of head and back of
neck brown, streaked with soiled white; back and shoulders
ashy gray, the feathers edged with a lighter shade or white ;
under parts white, the neck and breast spotted and barred
with gray.
Range Nearly cosmopolitan ; nesting in the northern half of the

Slobe and migrating to the southern half in winter. In the
nited States more common, during the migrations, along
the sea coasts than in the Mississippi valley route southward.
Season Spring and autumn migrant; May and June; July to

Like King Canute, this beach robin that Linnaeus named for
him seems to defy the waves, as, running out after them, it
would fain bid them keep back until it has had its fill of the
small shellfish left uncovered on the sand; but more quickly
running in again when the surf combs and breaks in a threaten-
ing deluge. Now it runs nimbly out in the wake of the receding
waters, apparently intent only on its dinner, but all the while
watching out of the corner of its eye an incoming wave, whose
march and volume it so accurately estimates. It is amazing how
closely and yet how certainly it escapes a drenching: the
tumbling surf never quite overtakes it on its race back, though
that last morsel it stopped for seemed inevitably fatal. It is a
fascinating, though a nervous, sort of occupation, watching the
sandpipers picking up their hurriedly interrupted meals. Dray-
ton gives a different reason for fastening Canute's name on the
knot, than the one popularly supposed to be the right one, in
his lines:

" The Knot that called was Canute's bird of old,
Of that great king of Danes his name that still doth hold,
His appetite to please, that far and near was sought."

Not all the knot's food is picked off the surface : the worm,
snail, or small crustacean that has buried itself in the soft mud
must be probed for, snipe fashion.

Gentle, easily decoyed birds, owing to their fondness for
society, usually a good sized bunch, if any, settles down on
the mud flat or sandy beach after a preliminary wheel in close

Snipe, Sandpipers, etc.

array ; hence the all too frequent possibility of a single discharge
killing the entire company. The marvel is that there are any
knots left to shoot. Mr. George H. Mackay, in The Auk, tells
of the "fire lighting" method of capturing them, once in vogue,
which was "for two men to start out after dark at half tide, one
of them to carry a lighted lantern, the other to reach and seize
the birds, bite their necks, and put them in a bag slung over the
shoulder." Sportsmen put a stop to the burning of marshes
some years ago, but not until this fine game bird, with many
others, had become rare. The same authority quoted describes
its notes as "a soft wab-quoit, and a little bonk." In Kansas,
Ohio, and other parts of the interior, where there is no surf to
chase out and run from, one meets scattered flocks pattering
about on the muddy shores of lakes and rivers, quite as actively
as if the water pursued them. Alighting one minute, flying off
the next, resting an instant, then on again after a quick little
run, the knot sometimes acts more like a fugitive from justice
than an inoffensive, peaceful lover of its kind. This restlessness
is not so noticeable in the autumn migration, perhaps, when the
birds are fat from abundant food, as in the spring, when they
make short pauses on the long trip, impatient to reach their
nesting grounds within the Arctic Circle.

It was General Greely who first made known the eggs and
nest of these birds. "They arrived on June 3, 1883," he writes
in his "Three Years of Arctic Service," "and immediately nested
(near Fort Conger). . . . The ground color (of the egg) was light
pea-green, closely spotted with brown in small specks about the
size of the head of an ordinary pin. . . . Fielden has described
the soaring of these birds, and the peculiar whirring noise
they make."

The Purple Sandpiper, Winter or Rock Snipe (Tringa
maritima), an extremely northern species, also observed by
General Greely near Thank God Harbor, comes down our
Atlantic coast between November and March, but not often
farther than Long Island or the Great Lakes. Like the Pilgrim
Fathers, it chooses to dwell on a "stern and rock bound coast."
It is wonderfully sure-footed in running over the slippery
bowlders dashed by the spray, picking its food as it goes from
among the algae attached to the rocks. It is nine inches long,


Snipe, Sandpipers, etc.

and in its winter plumage the only dress we see the purplish
gloss on the black feathers of its back, worn in summer, is not
visible. Instead, it is a uniform lustrous ash on its head, neck,
breast, and sides. The back, which is a dingy olive brown, has
the feathers margined with ash. The wings are the same shade,
but the coverts and some of the long feathers are distinctly bor-
dered with white; linings of the wings and under parts are
white; the upper tail coverts and middle tail feathers are black-
ish ; the outer feathers, ashy.

Pectoral Sandpiper

(Tringa maculata)


Length 9.00 to 9.50 inches.

Male and Female The blackish brown feathers of upper parts
heavily bordered with buff; the lower back and upper tail
coverts black, lightly tipped with buff. Tail pointed; the
shorter outer feathers brownish gray, edged with white.
Eyebrow white; sides of head, neck, and breast white,
streaked with brown or black; rest of under parts white. In
winter plumage the feathers of upper parts are edged with
chestnut, instead of buff, and the breast is washed with

Range The whole of North and the greater part of South Amer-
ica; also the West Indies. Nests in the Arctic regions;
winters south of United States.

Season Migratory visitor, April, May, and from July to November.

To all except inveterate gunners the habits of this little game
bird become most interesting after it has gone to the far north,
where most people may not observe them, and we must depend
upon Mr. Nelson's "Report on Natural History Collections made
in Alaska" for our information. On reaching the nesting
grounds a male becomes intensely excited in its efforts to win the
attention f a sweetheart. It may "frequently be seen running
along the ground, close to the female," he writes, "its enormous
sac inflated, and its head drawn back and the bill pointing direct-
ly forward; or, filled with springtime vigor, the bird flits, with

Snipe, Sandpipers, etc.

slow but energetic wing-strokes, close to the ground, its head
raised high over the shoulders, and the tail hanging almost di-
rectly down. As it thus flies, it utters a succession of hollow,
booming notes, which have a strange ventriloquial quality. At
times the male rises twenty or thirty yards in the air, and, inflat-
ing its throat, glides down to the ground with its sac hanging
below. Again he crosses back and forth in front of the female,
puffing his breast out, bowing from side to side, running here
and there. . . . Whenever he pursues his love making, his rather
low but pervading note swells and dies in musical cadences."
These liquid notes may be represented by a repetition of the
syllables too-u, too-u, too-u. Like certain members of the grouse
family, the skin of the throat and breast of the male becomes
very loose and flabby, like a dewlap, during the mating season,
and may be inflated at will to a size equalling that of the body.
Eggs brought to the Smithsonian Institution from tufts of grass
in meadows at the delta of the Yukon are greenish drab, spotted
and blotched with umber.

When flocks of these sandpipers come down from Alaska
and Greenland in early autumn, we see them less commonly
scattered on the beaches, where one naturally looks for sand-
pipers, and usually in the salt marshes, or in meadows near
water, salt or fresh, running nimbly among the grasses, pattering
about in the pools, pecking at insects, snails, and other tiny
creatures above ground, or probing the soft mud or sand for
such as have buried themselves below. Silent, gentle, almost
tame, friendly with their allies and unsuspicious of foes, they lie
well to a dog, squat when danger comes near, and only when it
positively threatens fly off with a "squeaky, grating whistle."
Because they fly in a zig-zag, erratic course, they are frequently
called snipe, but they are true sandpipers, nevertheless. Decoys
rarely lure them, though an imitation of their whistle may.
In autumn we can see no indication of the extraordinary pectoral
sac that becomes so prominent in the bird's figure in June,
and that is responsible for the most characteristic of its many
popular names.

The White-rumped, Schinz's, or Bonaparte's Sandpiper
(Tringafuscicollis), scarcely over seven inches long, looks like a

Online LibraryNeltje BlanchanBirds that hunt and are hunted; life histories of one hundred and seventy birds of prey, game birds and water fowls → online text (page 16 of 29)