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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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does, and so have earned only diminutives of its popular names.
In the Mississippi region the lesser telltale is far more common
than in the east, but it is still abundant on the Atlantic coast in
the autumn migrations, at least; and it is supposed to be every-
where a commoner bird than the greater yellowlegs. Possibly
this smaller tattler responds more readily to the whistling down
method of enticing a flock to decoys, but the experiences of indi-
vidual sportsmen differ greatly in this as in most matters.

Solitary Sandpiper

(Totanus solitarius)


Length 8 to 9 inches.

Male and Female In summer : Upper parts dingy olive with a
greenish tinge, streaked on the head and neck, and finely
spotted on the back with white; tail regularly barred with
black and white, the white prevailing on the outer feathers;
primaries and edge of wing blackish; underneath white,
shaded with dusky and streaked on sides of throat and
breast; sides and wing linings regularly barred with dusky.
Long, slender, dark bill; legs dull green, turning black after
death. In winter : Similar, but upper parts more grayish
brown and the markings everywhere less distinct.

Range North America, nesting occasionally in northern United
States, but more commonly northward, and migrating south-
ward in winter to Argentine Republic and Peru.

Snipe, Sandpipers, etc.

Season Spring and autumn visitor; April, May; July to Novem-
ber. Rarely a summer resident.

A lover of woods, wet meadows, and secluded inland ponds,
in the lowlands or the mountains rather than the salt water
marshes and sand flats of the coast that most of its kin delight in,
the wood tattler is a shy recluse, but not a hermit. At least a
pair of birds are usually seen together, representatives of small
flocks scattered over the neighborhood, but generally hidden in
the underbrush. As compared with most other sandpipers that
move in compact flocks and are ever inviting other waders to
join them, this species is certainly unsocial; but to call it soli-
tary implies that it is a misanthrope like the bittern, which
no one knew better than Wilson, who named it, that it is not.
"It is not a morose or monkish species, shunning its kind,"
says Mr. D. G. Elliot, "but is frequently met with in small com-
panies of five or six individuals on the banks of some quiet pool
in a secluded grove, peacefully gleaning a meal from the yielding
soil or surface of the placid water. As they move with a sedate
walk about their chosen retreat, each bows gravely to the other,
as though expressing a hope that his friend is enjoying most
excellent health, or else apologizing for intruding upon so charm-
ing a retreat and such select company." Dainty, exquisite,
graceful, exceedingly quick in their movements, their chief fault
is in keeping out of sight so much of the time the characteristic
that preserves their delicate flesh from overloading game bags.
Penetrate to their retreats, and they prefer running into the
underbrush rather than expose their neat figures and speckled
plumage by skimming over the pond. Sit down on the bank,
and perhaps some dapper little fellow will pay no attention to
your motionless figure and pursue his own concerns. He will run
nimbly along the margin of the water, snapping at insects and
caterpillars here and there, or, rising lightly in the air, seize a
small dragonfly on the wing. He may go lightly over the lily-
pads, rail fashion, half flitting with his wings, half running to keep
himself from sinking, or wade up to his breast with measured
steps, heron fashion, and remain fixed there, waiting for the small
coleoptera to skip along the surface within range of his bill. This
species appears to eat comparatively few snails, worms, and
crustaceans, and a preponderance of insect fare. Its low, musi-


Snipe, Sandpipers, etc.

cal whistle is rarely heard here, but the South Americans see the
propriety of calling this bird a tattler.

Although the solitary sandpiper is known to make its nest
in the United States, so cleverly does it conceal it, only a
single clutch of eggs has ever been found, so far as known,
the one taken by Richardson near Lake Bombazine, Vermont, in
May, 1878. Dr. Brewer described the eggs as light drab, with
small rounded brown markings, some quite dark, nowhere con-
fluent, and at the larger end a few faint purplish shell marks.


(Sympbemia semipalmata)


Length About 16 inches.

Male and Female In summer: Upper parts brownish gray, streaked
on the head and neck with black; the back barred across with
black, which sometimes give the prevailing tone ; a large white
space on wings, half the primaries and the greater part of
secondaries being white ; upper tail coverts white, indistinctly
barred with dusky; central tail feathers ashy, indistinctly
barred with dusky; the outer feathers almost white, and mot-
tled with gray. Under parts white; the fore neck heavily
streaked ; the breast and sides washed with buff and heavily
barred with dusky; wing lining sooty. Bill long and dark;
legs bluish gray ; the toes partly webbed (semipalmate). In
winter : Upper parts a lighter brownish gray, nearly if not
altogether unmarked; the tail coverts white; below white
shaded with gray on throat, breast, and sides ; axillars black-
ish. A great variety of intermediate stages.

Range Eastern temperate North America, nesting throughout its
United States range, but rarely north of Long Island or Illi-
nois; resident in southern states, and wintering southward
to West Indies and Brazil.

Season Summer resident or spring and autumn visitor; May;
August and September.

Pill-will-willet, pill-will-willet, loudly whistled from the tide
or fresh water marshes, leaves no doubt in the sportsman's mind as
to what bird is sounding the alarm to better game and startling
every throat and wing in the neighborhood to action. Wary,
restless, noisy, no one may approach this large tattler, however


Snipe, Sandpipers, etc.

well protected in the spring, at least (as every bird should be), un-
der the wing of the law ; neither will it come to a decoy easily,
nor permit itself to be whistled down to the stools, unlike the
majority of its too confiding kin. But however distrustful of
man, it is not unsocial, since we often see it in companies of other
beach birds that evidently depend upon its office as sentinel. Morn-
ing, noon, and night its voice is loudly in evidence, until one tires
of hearing its persistent whistle. Within a stone's throw of a
summer cottage on the New Jersey coast, a decidedly wide-awake
call came from the marsh every hour between sunset and sunrise.

But love, the magician, works wonders with this noisy, dis-
trustful bird, and a radical if temporary change comes over it
during the nesting season. "They cease their cries," says Dr.
Coues, "grow less uneasy, become gentle, if still suspicious, and
may generally be seen stalking quietly about the nest. When
willets are found in that humor absent minded, as it were, ab-
sorbed in reflection upon their engrossing duties, and unlikely to
observe anything not in front of their bill it is pretty good evi-
dence that they have a nest hard by. During incubation, the bird
that is 'off duty ' (both birds are said to take turns at this) almost
always indulges in reveries, doubtless rose tinted . . . and
the inquiring ornithologist could desire no better opportunity to
observe every motion and attitude."

A nest in the Jersey marsh already mentioned was nothing
more than a depression in a dry spot of ground, containing four
pale olive brown eggs spotted with a darker shade and rich pur-
plish brown. This nest, among the thick sedges, was reached by
a sort of tunnel among the grasses, entered some little distance
away by the sitting bird. Neither parent had forgotten how to
get scared or to make a noise the day that nest was visited ; nor
did other birds in the marsh fail to loudly protest their sympathy,
not to say alarm, as they circled overhead in a state of painful ex-
citement. Reassured that no harm had been done by a mere
glance at the speckled treasures, the willets wheeled about lower
and lower over the sedges, flashing the white wing mirrors in the
sunlight before they alighted, and with wings held high above the
back until they met, at last set foot to earth again, bowing their
heads like reverent archangels as they struck this exquisite posture.
Musical, liquid, tender notes, evidently a love song, float from
the throat of the sentinel lover, walking up and down in absent-


Snipe, Sandpipers, etc.

minded happiness not many paces from the entrance to the grassy
tunnel. None of the willets in that well populated marsh were
ever caught in the act of swimming, though the partial webbing
of their feet indicates that they must be able to swim well when
necessary. A western representative of these birds, formerly con-
founded with them, nests west of the Mississippi, and Mr. Will-
iam Brewster discovered that it is a slightly larger bird, with a
more slender, long bill, of paler coloration, and with less distinct
bars and other marks.

Bartramian Sandpiper

(Bartramia longicauda)

Called also: UPLAND, or FIELD, or GRASS, or HIGHLAND

Length 1 1.50 to 12.75 inches; usually just a foot long.

Male and Female Upper parts blackish varied with buff, brown,
and gray ; the head and neck black streaked with buff, and
a buff stripe through the eye; the back and the wing coverts
dusky barred with buff, the lighter color prevailing on the
nape and wings; outer primary olive brown barred with
white, the others barred with black; lower back, rump, and
central tail coverts brownish black; tail feathers brownish
gray, the outer ones varying from orange brown to buff or
white, all more or less barred with black, with a broad black
band across the end, and white tips of increasing breadth.
Under parts white, washed with buff on breast and sides,
which are streaked or barred with black. Bill comparatively
short, yellow, with black ridge and tip; feet dull yellow.

Range North America, chiefly east of Rocky mountains and
north to Nova Scotia and Alaska; nesting nearly throughout
its North American range; wintering southward so far as
Brazil and Peru.

Season Summer resident or migrant; April, July, August, Sep-

It is in high, dry, grassy meadows, among the stubble in old
pastures, in rustling corn fields and on the open plains, and not
always near salt water, that the sportsman looks for this so called
wader, more precious in his sight than any other small game bird


Snipe, Sandpipers, etc.

except possibly the woodcock, Bob White, and Jack snipe. Few
birds have been more tirelessly sought after; few that were ever
abundant in New England and other eastern states have been so
nearly exterminated there by unchecked, unintelligent, wanton
shooting. It is to Kansas, Texas, and the great plains watered
by the Missouri that one must now go to find flocks numbering
even fifty birds, whereas our grandfathers once saw them in
flocks of thousands on the Atlantic slope. Like the geese,
ducks, and certain other birds that are exceedingly afraid of men
and impossible to stalk afoot, this wary " plover" pays no atten-
tion whatever to horses and cattle; hence shooting from a wagon
is the common method of hunting it in some parts of the west
to-day; and an unsuspicious flock, suddenly startled to wing only
when the wheels rumble beside it, soon fairly rains plover. Shot
easily penetrates the delicate tender flesh unprotected by a dense
armor of feathers such as generally saves a goose under similar

Delicious as a broiled plover is, there is no true sportsman
who will hesitate to admit that the graceful, slender, beautifully
marked, sweet voiced bird is not vastly more enjoyable in life.
A loud, clear, mellow, rippling whistle that softly penetrates to
surprising distances, like the human voice in a whispering gallery,
has an almost ventriloqual quality, and one never knows whether
to look toward the clouds or among the stubble at one's feet for
the musician. For liquid purity of tone can another bird note match
this triplet ? At the nesting season, especially, a long, loud, weird
cry, like the whistling of the wind, chr-r-r-r-r-e-e-e-e-e-oo-oo-
oo-oo, as Mr. Langille writes it, may be heard even at night; the
mournful sound is usually uttered just after the bird has alighted
on the ground, fence, or tree, and at the moment when its wings
are lifted, till they meet above its back. Everyone who has ever
heard this cry counts it among the most remarkable sounds in all
nature. The spirited alarm call, quip-ip-ip, quip, ip, ip, rapidly
uttered when the bird is flushed in its feeding grounds, and
still another sound, a discordant scream quickly repeated, that
comes chiefly from disturbed nesting birds, complete the list of
this tattler's varied vocal accomplishments.

If this upland plover realized how perfectly the plumage on
its back imitates the dried grass, it might safely remain motion-
less and trust to the faultless mimicry of nature to conceal it.


% Life-size.

Snipe, Sandpipers, etc.

As you look down from your saddle into a dry field, the sharpest
eye often fails to see these birds squatting there until something
(but not the horse) frightens them and a good sized flock sur-
prises you when it takes wing. Three or four sharply whistled
notes ring in your very ears as the plovers mount. The swift
flight is well sustained. Mere specks seem to float across the
heavens, and were it not for the soft, clear rippling whistle that
descends from the clouds, who would imagine that these birds so
commonly seen on the ground would penetrate to such a height
above it ? In the migrations along the coast and inland, serried
ranks, flying high, cover immense distances daily. The pampas of
the Argentine Republic hold flocks that have gathered on our own
great plains, who shall say how soon after the journey was begun ?
On alighting, with their wings stretched high above their
backs in plover fashion, these true sandpipers remain perfectly
still for a minute, turning their slender necks now this way, now
that, to reconnoitre, before they gracefully walk or run off to
feed, bobbing their heads as if satisfied with the prospect as they
go. They must devour grasshoppers by the million another
reason why they should be protected. In the nesting season, at
least, the mates keep close together when feeding on berries and
insects, that, however largely consumed, fail to fatten their slender
bodies now. Anxiety, common to all true lovers and devoted
parents, keeps them thin. A few blades of dry grass line the
merest depression of the ground in some old field or open prairie
that answers as a cradle for the four clay colored eggs spotted
over with dark brown and clouded with purplish gray shell
marks. Funny, top-heavy, fluffy little chicks tumble clumsily
about through the grass in June.

The Buff-breasted Sandpiper ( Tryngites subruficollis) closely
allied to the larger upland "plover," like it prefers dry fields and
grassy prairie lands, although during the migrations it too is often
met with on beaches on the coasts of both oceans. Its upper
parts are pale clay buff, the centre of each feather black or dark
olive; the inner half of the inner webs of the dusky primaries is
speckled with black, a diagnostic feature ; the longer inner wing
coverts are conspicuously marked and tipped with black edged
with white ; the feathers of under parts are pale buff edged with
white and indistinctly marked. A few of these migrants rest


Snipe, Sandpipers, etc.

awhile on the south shore of Long Island in the early autumn
yearly. "They are an extremely active species when on the
wing," writes Dr. Hatch, who studied them in Minnesota, "and
essentially ploverine in all respects, seeking sandy, barren prairies
where they live upon grasshoppers, crickets, and insects gener-
ally, and ants and their eggs especially. I have found them
repasting upon minute mollusks on the sandy shores of small
and shallow ponds, where they were apparently little more sus-
picious than the solitary sandpipers are notably. The flight is in
rather compact form, dipping and rising alternately, and with a
disposition to return again to the neighborhood of their former
feeding places." "During the breeding season," says Mr. D. G.
Elliot, "they indulge in curious movements, one of which is to
walk about with one wing stretched out to its fullest extent and
held high in the air. Two will spar like fighting-cocks, then
tower for about thirty feet with hanging legs. Sometimes one
will stretch himself to his full height, spread his wings forward
and puff out his throat, at the same time making a clucking
noise, while others stand around and admire him."

Spotted Sandpiper

(Actitis macularia)


Length 7. 50 inches.

Male and Female Upper parts an olive ashen color, iridescent,
and spotted and streaked with black; line over eye and
under parts white, the latter plentifully spotted with round
black dots large and small, but larger and closer on the male
than on the female, the smallest marks on throat; inner tail
feathers like the back, the outer ones with blackish bars;
secondaries and their coverts broadly tipped with white;
some white feathers at bend of wing; white wing lining
with dusky bar; other white feathers concealed in folded
wing, but conspicuous in flight. Bill flesh colored or partly
yellow, black tipped. Winter birds are duller and browner
and without bars on upper parts.

Range North America to Hudson Bay, nesting throughout its
range; winters in southern states and southward to Brazil.

Season Summer resident; April to September or October.


Snipe, Sandpipers, etc.

The familiar little spotted sandpiper of ditches and pools,
roadside and woodland streams, river shores, creeks, swamps,
and wet meadows of the sea beaches, too, during the migrations,
at least quite as frequently goes to dry uplands, wooded slopes,
and mountains so high as the timber line, as if undecided whether
to be a shore or a land bird, a wader or a songster. Charming
to the eye and ear alike, what possible attraction can a half dozen
of these pathetically small bodies roasted and served on a skewer
have to a hungry man when beefsteak is twenty cents a pound ?
A thrush is larger and scarcely more tuneful, yet numbers of
these little sandpipers are shot annually.

Some quaint and ridiculous mannerisms, recorded in a large
list of popular names, make this a particularly interesting bird to
watch. Alighting after a short, low flight, it first stands still, like
a willet, to look about; then making a deep bow to the spectator,
you might feel complimented by the obeisance, did not the eleva-
tion of the rear extremity turned toward you the next minute
imply a withering contempt. Bowing first toward you, then
from you, the teeter deliberately sea-saws east, west, north, south.
This absurd performance, frequently and ever solemnly indulged
in, interrupts many a meal and run along the beach. A sudden
jerking up or jetting of the tail as the bird walks, like the solitary
sandpiper, gives it a most curious gait, all the more amusing be-
cause the bird is so small and evidently so self-satisfied. One
rarely sees more than a pair of these sandpipers in a neighbor-
hood which they somehow preempt, except at the migrations,
when families travel together; but as two broods are generally
raised in a summer, these family parties are no mean sized flock.
Startle a "teeter snipe," and with a sharp, sweet peet-weet, weet-
weet, it flies off swiftly on a curve, in a steady, low course, but
with none of the erratic zig-zags characteristic of a true snipe's
motions, and soon alights not far from where it set out. A fence
rail, a tree, or even the roofs of outbuildings on the farm have
been chosen as resting places. The peet-weets skim above the
waving grain inland, their pendant, pointed wings beating
steadily, and follow the same graceful curves that mark their
course above the sea.

In the nesting season, which practically extends all through
the summer, this is a sand "lark" indeed. Soaring upward,
singing as he goes, in that angelic manner of the true lark of Eng-


Snipe, Sandpipers, etc.

land, the male pours out his happiness in low, sweet peet-weets
trilled rapidly and prolonged into a song; cheerful, even ecstatic
notes, without a trace of the plaintive tone heard at other
times. A good deal of music passes back and forth from these
birds a-wing. Fluffy little chicks run from the creamy buff
shells thickly spotted and speckled with brown, as soon as
hatched. The nest, or a depression in the ground, lined with dry
grass, that answers every purpose, may be in a meadow or
orchard, but rarely far from water that attracts worms, snails, and
insects for the little family to feed on. This is the one sandpiper
that we may confidently expect to meet throughout the summer.

Long-billed Curlew

(Numenius longirostris)


Length 24 inches; bill of extreme length, about 6 inches, some-
times 8 inches.

Male and Female Upper parts buff or pale rufous and black ;
the head and neck streaked ; the back, wings, and tail barred
or mottled with cinnamon, buff, and blackish ; under parts
buff; the breast streaked, and the sides often barred with
black. Long, black bill, curved downward like a sickle;
long legs and feet, dark.

Range Temperate North America ; nesting in the south Atlantic
states and in the interior so far as Hudson Bay, or mostly
throughout its range ; winters from Florida and Texas to the
West Indies and Guatemala.

Season Summer resident in the interior; an irregular summer vis-
itor on Atlantic coast north of the Carolinas ; migratory north-
ward to the prairies of the great northwest.

The extraordinary bill of the curlew, curving in the opposite
direction from the avocet's, serves the same purpose, however,
and drags small crabs and other shell fish that have buried them-
selves in the wet sand, snails, larvae, and worms from their holes,
the blades acting like a forceps. Beetles, grasshoppers, and flying
food seized on the prairies; berries, and particularly dewberries,
complete the curlew's menu. The entire bill so far as the nos-


Snipe, Sandpipers, etc.

trils, notwithstanding its extreme length, often sinks through the
soft sand or mud to probe for some coveted dainty. The curlew,
the avocet, the sea parrot, and the skimmer vie with each other
in possessing the queerest freak of a bill.

Large flocks of curlews, flying in wedge-shaped battalions,
like geese, with some veteran, a loud, hoarse whistler, in the lead,
evidently migrate up our coast to the St. Lawrence and across
Canada, to disperse over the broad prairies of the northwest.
Not at all dependent on water, however truly their bills indi-
cate that nature intended them for shore birds, they are quite as
likely to alight on dry, grassy uplands as on the muddy flats of
lower water courses. "Their flight is not rapid, but well sus-
tained, with regular strokes of the wings," says Goss; "and
when going a distance, usually high, in a triangular form, utter-
ing now and then their loud, prolonged whistling note, so
often heard during the breeding season. Before alighting, they
suddenly drop nearly to the ground, then gather, and with a ris-
ing sweep, gracefully alight." Flocks on their way south stop to
rest awhile on Long Island any time from July to September.

Wherever the curlew strays, its large size and unusual bill
make it conspicuous. It is a shy and wary bird, impossible to
stalk when feeding, but responsive to an imitation of its call, and
coming readily to decoys. In the interior, sportsmen declare the
flesh is well worth shooting; but on the coast, north or south, even
its odor is rank. Evidently there is a truly strong attachment be-
tween members of the same flock, as there is among many sand-
pipers, for the cries of wounded and dying victims draw the
agonized sympathizers back to the spot where they lie, although
a second discharge may bring them the same fate.

Three or four clay colored eggs, shaped like a barnyard
hen's, but spotted with fine marks of chocolate brown, are found

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 18 of 29)