C. A. (Charles Alexander) Johns.

British birds in their haunts online

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of summer. This change is, in fact, but an extension of the law which
clothes several of the quadrupeds with a dusky or a snowy fur in
accordance with the season. The Grey Plover, as seen in England, well
deserves its name, for, as it frequents our shores in the winter
alone, it is only known to us as a bird grey above and white below.
But in summer the under plumage is decidedly black, and in this
respect it bears a close resemblance to the Golden Plover, with which,
in spite of the presence of a rudimentary fourth toe, it is closely
allied. My friend, the Rev. W. S. Hore, informs me that he has seen
them in Norfolk wearing the full black plumage in May. The occurrence
of the bird, however, in this condition, in England, is exceptional;
while in the northern regions, both of the Old and New World, it must
be unusual to see an adult bird in any other than the sable plumage of

The Grey Plover is a bird of extensive geographical range, being known
in Japan, India, New Guinea, the Cape of Good Hope, Egypt, the
continent of Europe, and North America. In this country, as I have
observed, it occurs from autumn to spring, frequenting the sea-shore,
and picking up worms and other animal productions cast up by the sea.
Grey Plovers are less abundant than Golden Plovers; yet, in severe
seasons they assemble in numerous small flocks on the shores of the
eastern counties, and, as Meyer well observes, they are disposed to be
"sociable, not only towards their own species, but to every other
coast bird. When a party either go towards the shore, or leave it for
the meadows and flat wastes, they unanimously keep together; but when
alighting, they mix with every other species, and thus produce a
motley group." They fly in flocks, varying from five to twenty or
more, keeping in a line, more or less curved, or in two lines forming
an angle. Their flight is strong and rapid, rarely direct, but
sweeping in wide semicircles. As they advance they alternately show
their upper and under plumage, but more frequently the latter; for
they generally keep at a height of sixty or a hundred yards from the
ground, in this respect differing from Ringed Plovers, Dunlins, etc.
Occasionally one or two of the flock utter a loud whistle, which seems
to be a signal for all to keep close order. Just as Starlings
habitually alight wherever they see Rooks or Gulls feeding, so the
Grey Plovers join themselves on to any society of birds which has
detected a good hunting-ground. During a single walk along the sands I
have observed them mixed up with Dunlins, Knots, Gulls, Redshanks,
and Royston Crows; but in no instance was I able to approach near
enough to note their habit of feeding. They were always up and away
before any other birds saw danger impending. In autumn they are less

The people on the coast describe the Grey Plover as the shyest of all
the Waders, and could give me no information as to its habits; but
Meyer, whose description of this bird is very accurate in other
respects, states that "its general appearance is peculiar to itself;
it walks about on the ground slowly and with grace, and stops every
now and then to pick up its food; it carries its body in a horizontal
position on straight legs, and its head very close to its body,
consequently increasing the thick appearance of the head."

The Grey Plover breeds in high latitudes, making a slight hollow in
the ground, and employing a few blades of grass. It lays four eggs, on
which it sits so closely that it will almost be trodden on. When thus
disturbed its ways remind one of the Ringed Plover.


_Winter_ - head dusky ash; over each eye a reddish white band,
meeting at the nape; face whitish, dotted with black; back
dusky ash, tinged with green, the feathers edged with rust-red;
breast and flanks reddish ash; gorget white; beak black; hides
brown; feet greenish ash. _Summer_ - face and a band over the
eyes white; head dusky; nape and sides of the neck ash;
feathers of the back, wing-coverts, and wing-feathers, edged
with deep red; gorget white, bordered above by a narrow black
line; lower part of the breast and flanks bright rust-red;
middle of the belly black; abdomen reddish white. Young birds
have a reddish tinge on the head, and the tail is tipped with
red. Length nine inches and a half. Eggs yellowish olive,
blotched and spotted with dusky brown.

The Dotterel, Little Dotard, or Morinellus, 'little fool', received
both the one and the other of its names from its alleged stupidity.
'It is a silly bird', says Willughby, writing in 1676; 'but as an
article of food a great delicacy. It is caught in the night by
lamplight, in accordance with the movements of the fowler. For if he
stretch out his arm, the bird extends a wing; if he a leg, the bird
does the same. In short, whatever the fowler does, the Dotterel does
the same. And so intent is it on the movements of its pursuer, that it
is unawares entangled in the net.' Such, at least, was the common
belief; and Pennant alludes to it, quoting the following passage from
the poet Drayton

Most worthy man, with thee 'tis ever thus,
As men take Dottrels, so hast thou ta'en us
Which, as a man his arme or leg doth set,
So this fond bird will likewise counterfeit.

In Pennant's time, Dotterels were not uncommon in Cambridgeshire,
Lincolnshire, and Derbyshire, appearing in small flocks of eight or
ten only, from the latter end of April to the middle of June; and I
have been informed by a gentleman in Norfolk that, not many years
since, they annually resorted also in small flocks to the plains of
that county. Of late years, owing most probably to their being much
sought after for the table, they have become more rare; and the same
thing has taken place in France.

The Dotterel has been observed in many of the English counties both in
spring and autumn, and has been known to breed in the mountainous
parts of the north of England; but I may remark that the name is
frequently given in Norfolk and elsewhere to the Ringed Plover, to
which bird also belong the eggs collected on the sea-coast, and sold
as Dotterel's eggs.


Forehead, lore, sides of the face, gorget reaching round the
neck, black; a band across the forehead and through the eyes,
throat, a broad collar, and all the lower parts, white; upper
plumage ash-brown; outer tail-feather white, the next nearly
so, the other feathers grey at the base, passing into dusky and
black, tipped with white, except the two middle ones, which
have no white tips; orbits, feet and beak orange, the latter
tipped with black. _Young_ - colours of the head dull; gorget
incomplete, ash-brown; bill dusky, tinged with orange at the
base of the lower mandible; feet yellowish. Length seven and a
half inches. Eggs olive-yellow, with numerous black and grey

On almost any part of the sea-coast of Britain, where there is a wide
expanse of sand left at low water, a bird may often be noticed, not
much larger than a Lark, grey above and white below, a patch of black
on the forehead and under the eye, a white ring round the neck, and a
black one below. If the wind be high, or rain be falling, the observer
will be able to get near enough to see these markings; for sea-birds
generally are less acute observers in foul weather than in fair. On a
nearer approach, the bird will fly up, uttering a soft, sweet,
plaintive whistle of two notes, and, having performed a rapid,
semicircular flight, will probably alight at no great distance, and
repeat its note. If it has settled on the plain sand or on the water's
edge, or near a tidal pool, it runs rapidly, without hopping, stoops
its head, picks up a worm, a portion of shellfish, or a sand-hopper,
runs, stops, pecks, and runs again, but does not allow any one to come
so near as before. The next time that it alights, it may select,
perhaps, the beach of shells and pebbles above high-water mark. Then
it becomes at once invisible; or, if the observer be very
keen-sighted, he may be able to detect it while it is in motion, but
then only. Most probably, let him mark ever so accurately with his eye
the exact spot on which he saw it alight, and let him walk up to the
spot without once averting his eye, he will, on his arrival, find it
gone. It has run ahead with a speed marvellous in so small a biped,
and is pecking among the stones a hundred yards off. Its name is the
Ringed Plover, or Ringed Dotterel. Fishermen on the coast call it a
Stone-runner, a most appropriate name; others call it a Sea Lark. In
ornithological works it is described under the former of these names.

The Ringed Plover frequents the shores of Great Britain all the year
round. It is a social bird, but less so in spring than at any other
season; for the females are then employed in the important business of
incubation, and the males are too attentive to their mates to engage
in picnics on the sands. The nest is a simple hollow in the sand,
above high-water mark, or on the shingly beach; and here the female
lays four large, pointed eggs, which are arranged in the nest with all
the small ends together. The young are able to run as soon as they
break the shell; but, having no power of flight for a long time, avoid
impending danger by scattering and hiding among the stones. The old
bird, on such occasions, uses her wings; but not to desert her charge.
She flies up to the intruder, and, like other members of the same
family, endeavours to entice him away by counterfeiting lameness or
some injury.

The Ringed Plover sometimes goes inland to rear her young, and lays
her eggs in a sandy warren, on the bank of a river or the margin of a
lake; but when the young are able to fly, old and young together
repair to the sea-shore, collecting in flocks, and for the most part
continuing to congregate until the following spring. Their flight is
rapid and sweeping, consisting of a succession of curves, while
performing which they show sometimes their upper grey plumage, and at
other times the under, which is of a dazzling white. Occasionally,
too, as they wheel from one tack to another, every bird is lost sight
of, owing to the perfect unanimity with which, at the same instant,
they alter their course, and to the incapacity of the human eye to
follow the rapid change from a dark hue to a light.

Not unfrequently one falls in with a solitary individual which has
been left behind by its companions, or has strayed from the flock.
Such a bird, when disturbed, utters its whistle more frequently than
on ordinary occasions, and, as its note is not difficult of imitation,
I have often enticed a stray bird to fly close up to me, answering all
the while. But it has rarely happened that I have succeeded in
practising the deception on the same bird a second time.


Forehead, a band over each eye, chin, cheeks, and under parts,
white; upper part of the forehead, a band from the base of the
beak extending through the eye, and a large spot on each side
of the breast, black; head and nape light brownish red; rest
of the upper plumage ash-brown; two outer tail-feathers while,
the third whitish, the rest brown; beak, irides, and feet,
brown. _Female_ wants the black spot on the forehead, and the
other parts black in the male are replaced by ash-brown. Length
six and a half inches. Eggs olive-yellow, spotted and speckled
with black.

The Kentish Plover differs from the preceding in its inferior size, in
having a narrower stripe of black on the cheeks, and in wanting the
black ring round the neck. It is found from time to time in various
parts of the country, breeding in Kent, Sussex and the Channel
Islands, but is most abundant on the shores of the Mediterranean. Its
habits resemble closely those of the allied species.

On the authority of the Greek historian Herodotus, a little bird is
found in Egypt called the Tróchilus, which is noted for the friendly
and courageous office it performs for the Crocodile. This unwieldy
monster, having no flexible tongue wherewith to cleanse its mouth,
comes on shore after its meals, opens its jaws, and allows the
Tróchilus to enter and pick off the leeches and fragments of food,
which, adhering to its teeth, interfere, with its comfort. This story
was long believed to be a fable; but the French naturalist Geoffrey de
Saint Hilaire has, in modern times, confirmed the veracity of the
father of history, and pronounces the Tróchilus of the ancients to be
the _Pluvier à Collier interrompu_, the subject of the present
chapter. The Cayman of South America is also said to be indebted for a
similar service to the kindly offices of a little bird, which,
however, is not a Plover, but a Toddy.


Curlew [M]

Peewit [F]

Dotterel [M]

Norfolk Plover [F]

[_face p. 246._]]



Grey Phalarope [F]

Red-necked Phalarope

Bar-tailed Godwit [F]]


Feathers on the back of the head elongated and curved upwards;
head, crest and breast, glossy black; throat, sides of the
neck, belly and abdomen white; under tail-coverts yellowish
red; upper plumage dark green with purple reflections; tail,
when expanded, displaying a large semicircular graduated black
patch on a white disk, outer feather on each side wholly white;
bill dusky; feet reddish brown. _Young_ - throat dull white,
mottled with dusky and tinged with red; upper feathers tipped
with dull yellow. Length twelve and a half inches. Eggs
olive-brown to stone buff, blotched and spotted with dusky

The Peewit, or Green Plover, as it is sometimes called, is among the
best known birds indigenous to the British Isles. This notoriety it
owes to several causes. The lengthened feathers on the back of its
head, forming a crest, at once distinguish it from every other British
Wader. Its peculiar flight, consisting of a series of wide slow
flappings with its singularly rounded wings, furnishes a character by
which it may be recognized at a great distance; and its strange note,
resembling the word 'peweet' uttered in a high screaming tone, cannot
be mistaken for the note of any other bird. In London and other large
towns of England its eggs also are well known to most people; for
'Plovers' eggs', as they are called, are considered great delicacies.

Peewits are found in abundance in most parts of Europe and Asia from
Ireland to Japan. They are essentially Plovers in all their habits,
except, perhaps, that they do not run so rapidly as some others of the
tribe. They inhabit the high grounds in open countries, the borders of
lakes and marshes and low unenclosed wastes, and may not unfrequently
be seen in the large meadows, which in some districts extend from the
banks of rivers. They are partially migratory; hence they may appear
at a certain season in some particular spot, and be entirely lost
sight of for many months. Individuals which have been bred in high
latitudes are more precise in their periods of migration than those
bred in the south. In Kamtschatka, for instance, their southern
migration is so regular that the month of October has received the
name of the 'Lapwing month'. In Britain their wanderings are both more
uncertain and limited; for, though they assemble in flocks in autumn,
they only migrate from exposed localities to spots which, being more
sheltered, afford them a better supply of food.

In April and May these birds deposit their eggs, making no further
preparation than that of bringing together a few stalks and placing
them in a shallow depression in the ground. The number of eggs is
always four, and they are placed in the order so common among the
Waders, crosswise. Lapwings are to a certain extent social, even in
the breeding season, in so far that a considerable number usually
frequent the same marsh or common. It is at this season that they
utter most frequently their characteristic cry, a note which is never
musical, and heard by the lonely traveller (as has happened to myself
more than once by night) is particularly wild, harsh, and dispiriting.
Now, too, one may approach near enough to them to notice the winnowing
movement of their wings, which has given them the name of Lapwing in
England and Vanneau in France (from _van_, a fan). The young are able
to run as soon as they have burst the shell, and follow their parents
to damp ground, where worms, slugs, and insects are most abundant.
When the young have acquired the use of their wings, the families of
a district unite into flocks. They are then very wary, and can rarely
be approached without difficulty; but as they are considered good
eating, many of them fall before the fowler.


The plumage of this species is entirely black and white; head, neck,
scapulars and terminal half of the tail black; rump, upper
tail-coverts white; legs and toes pink; eyelids crimson. Length,
sixteen inches. The young have the feathers of the back and wings
margined with brown. The Oyster Catcher inhabits the shores of Great
Britain and Ireland throughout the year. The first time I came upon a
flock of these birds I was able to approach them nearer than on any
other occasion. They frequently uttered a harsh note in a high key
which, though unmusical, harmonized well with the scenery. I had many
other opportunities of observing them on the shores of the Scottish
lochs, and I was once induced, on the recommendation of a friend, to
have one served up for dinner as an agreeable variation from the bacon
and herrings which mainly constitute the dietary of a Scottish
fishing-village inn. But I did not repeat the experiment, preferring
fish pure and simple to fish served up through the medium of a fowl.
The nature of its food sufficiently accounts for its strong flavour.
Oyster Catchers frequent rocky promontories or the broad banks of mud,
sand, and ooze, which stretch out from low portions of the coast. Here
they feed on mussels and other bivalves, limpets, worms, crustacea,
and small fish; mixing freely with other birds while on the ground,
but keeping to themselves while performing their flights. In their
mode of using their wings they remind the spectator of Ducks rather
than of Plovers, and they advance in a line, sometimes in single file,
one after another, but more frequently wing by wing. When they alight,
too, it is not with a circular sweep, but with a sailing movement.
When the mud-banks are covered by the tide they move to a short
distance inland, and pick up slugs and insects in the meadows, or
betake themselves to salt marshes and rocky headlands. They have also
been observed many miles away from the coast; but this is a rare
occurrence. Their nest is generally a slight depression among the
shingle above high-water mark; but on rocky shores they make an
attempt at a nest, collecting a few blades of grass and scraps of
sea-weed. They lay three or four eggs, and the young are able to run
soon after breaking the shell.

In high latitudes Oyster Catchers are migratory, leaving their
breeding grounds in autumn, and returning in the spring; consequently,
those coasts from which they never depart afford an asylum in winter
to vast numbers of strangers, in addition to their native population.
On the coast of Norfolk, for example, they are to be seen in small
parties all through the summer; but in winter, especially if it be a
severe one, they may be reckoned by thousands. They here seem to have
favourite spots on which to pass the night. One of these is what is
called the "Eastern point" of Brancaster Marsh, a place of perfect
security, for it is difficult of access under any circumstances, and
cannot be approached at all with any chance of concealment on the part
of the intruder. Towards this point I have seen line after line
winging their way, all about the same hour, just before sunset, all
following the line of the coast, but taking care to keep well out at
sea, and all advancing with perfect regularity, every individual in a
company being at the same height above the water. They are very wary
at this season, insomuch that though I must have seen many thousands,
and examined upwards of twenty species of sea-shore birds, which had
been shot in the neighbourhood, not a single Oyster Catcher was
brought to me.

A common name for this bird is Sea-pie, another appropriate one is
'Mussel picker'; and it is thought that 'Catcher' comes from the Dutch
_aekster_ (magpie). The note is a shrill _keep_, _keep_. It swims
well, and sometimes it will take to the water of its own accord.
Although the nest is commonly on shingle or among sand-hills, or a
tussock of sea-pink on a narrow ledge of rock, Mr. Howard Saunders has
seen eggs of this bird in the emptied nest of a Herring-gull and on
the summit of a lofty 'stack.'


Crown reddish white, with longitudinal black streaks; upper
part of the back, scapulars, and wing-coverts, rusty brown,
spotted with black; rest of the plumage variegated with black
and white; bill and irides black; feet orange-yellow. Length
nine inches. Eggs greenish-grey, blotched and spotted with
slate and brown.

The Turnstone is a regular annual visitor to the shores of Great
Britain, and indeed of almost every other country, having been
observed as far north as Greenland, and as far south as the Straits of
Magellan; but it is rarely inland. It arrives on our coasts about the
beginning of August, not in large flocks like the Plovers, but in
small parties, each of which, it is conjectured, constitutes a family.
It is a bird of elegant form and beautiful parti-coloured plumage,
active in its habits, a nimble runner, and an indefatigable hunter
after food. In size it is intermediate between the Grey Plover and
Sanderling, being about as big as a Thrush. The former of these birds
it resembles in its disposition to feed in company with birds of
different species, and its impatience of the approach of man. For this
latter reason it does not often happen that any one can get near
enough to these birds to watch their manoeuvres while engaged in the
occupation from which they have derived their name, though their
industry is often apparent from the number of pebbles and shells found
dislodged from their socket on the sands where a family has been
feeding. Audubon, who had the good fortune to fall in with a party on
a retired sea-coast, where, owing to the rare appearance of human
beings, they were less fearful than is their wont, describes their
operations with his usual felicity: "They were not more than fifteen
or twenty yards distant, and I was delighted to see the ingenuity with
which they turned over the oyster-shells, clods of mud, and other
small bodies left exposed by the retiring tide. Whenever the object
was not too large, the bird bent its legs to half their length, placed
its bill beneath it, and with a sudden quick jerk of the head pushed
it off, when it quickly picked up the food which was thus exposed to
view, and walked deliberately to the next shell to perform the same
operation. In several instances, when the clusters of oyster-shells or
clods of mud were too heavy to be removed in the ordinary way, they
would not only use the bill and head, but also the breast, pushing the
object with all their strength, and reminding me of the labour which I
have undergone in turning over a large turtle. Among the sea-weeds that
had been cast on shore, they used only the bill, tossing the garbage
from side to side with a dexterity extremely pleasant to behold.[46]
In like manner I saw there four Turnstones examine almost every part
of the shore along a space of from thirty to forty yards; after which
I drove them away, that our hunters might not kill them on their

A writer in the _Zoologist_[47] gives an equally interesting account
of the successful efforts of two Turnstones to turn over the dead body
of a cod-fish, nearly three and a half feet long, which had been
imbedded in the sand to about the depth of two inches.

For an account of the habits of the Turnstone during the breeding
season - it never breeds with us - we are indebted to Mr. Hewitson, who
fell in with it on the coast of Norway. He says, 'We had visited
numerous islands with little encouragement, and were about to land

Online LibraryC. A. (Charles Alexander) JohnsBritish birds in their haunts → online text (page 31 of 39)