C. A. (Charles Alexander) Johns.

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upon a flat rock, bare, except where here and there grew tufts of
grass or stunted juniper clinging to its surface, when our attention
was attracted by the singular cry of a Turnstone, which in its eager
watch had seen our approach, and perched itself upon an eminence of
the rock, assuring us, by its querulous oft-repeated note and anxious
motions, that its nest was there. We remained in the boat a short
time, until we had watched it behind a tuft of grass, near which,
after a minute search, we succeeded in finding the nest in a situation
in which I should never have expected to meet a bird of this sort
breeding; it was placed against a ledge of the rock, and consisted of
nothing more than the dropping leaves of the juniper bush, under a
creeping branch of which the eggs, four in number, were snugly
concealed, and admirably sheltered from the many storms by which these
bleak and exposed rocks are visited.

[46] From this habit, the Turnstone is in Norfolk called a
'Tangle-picker'. - C. A. J.

[47] Vol. ix. p. 3077.



General plumage white; crown, nape, scapulars, lesser
wing-coverts, and primaries, black; bill black; irides reddish
brown; feet bluish ash. Length eighteen inches. Eggs
olive-brown, blotched and spotted with dusky.

This bird has become so rare, that having recently applied to two
several collectors in Norfolk, once the headquarters of the Avocet, to
know if they could procure me a specimen, I was told by one that they
were not seen oftener than once in seven years - by the other, that it
was very rare, and if attainable at all could not be purchased for
less than five pounds. In Ray's time it was not unfrequent on the
eastern maritime coasts. Small flocks still arrive in May and now and
again in the autumn, but collectors never allow them to breed. They
used to rest on the flat shores of Kent and Sussex. Sir Thomas Browne
says of it: '_Avoseta_, called shoeing horn, a tall black and white
bird, with a bill semicircularly reclining or bowed upward; so that it
is not easy to conceive how it can feed; a summer marsh bird, and not
unfrequent in marsh land.' Pennant, writing of the same bird, says:
'These birds are frequent in the winter on the shores of this kingdom;
in Gloucestershire, at the Severn's mouth; and sometimes on the lakes
of Shropshire. We have seen them in considerable numbers in the
breeding season near Fossdike Wash, in Lincolnshire. Like the Lapwing,
when disturbed, they flew over our heads, carrying their necks and
long legs quite extended, and made a shrill noise (_twit_) twice
repeated, during the whole time. The country people for this reason
call them _Yelpers_, and sometimes distinguish them by the name of
_Picarini_. They feed on worms and insects, which they suck with their
bills out of the sand; their search after food is frequently to be
discovered on our shores by alternate semicircular marks in the sand,
which show their progress.[48] They lay three or four eggs, about the
size of those of a Pigeon, white, tinged with green and marked with
large black spots.' Even so recent an authority as Yarrell remembers
having found in the marshes near Rye a young one of this species,
which appeared to have just been hatched; he took it up in his hands,
while the old birds kept flying round him.

The Avocet is met with throughout a great part of the Old World, and
is said to be not unfrequent in Holland and France. A writer of the
latter country says that 'by aid of its webbed feet it is enabled to
traverse, without sinking, the softest and wettest mud; this it
searches with its curved bill, and when it has discovered any prey, a
worm for instance, it throws it adroitly into the air, and catches it
with its beak'.

[48] It is not a little singular that the Spoonbill, a bird
which strongly contrasts with the Avocet in the form of
its bill, ploughs the sand from one side to another, while
hunting for its food.


_Winter_ - plumage in front and beneath white; back of the head,
ear-coverts, and a streak down the nape, dusky; back
pearl-grey, the feathers dusky in the centre, a white
transverse bar on the wings; tail-feathers brown, edged with
ash; bill brown, yellowish red at the base; irides reddish
yellow; feet greenish ash. _Summer_ - head dusky; face and nape
white; feathers of the back dusky, bordered with orange-brown;
front and lower plumage brick-red. Length eight inches and a
half. Eggs greenish stone colour, blotched and spotted with

The Grey Phalarope, without being one of our rarest birds, is not of
irregular occurrence. Its proper home is in the Arctic regions, from
whence it migrates southward in winter. It is a bird of varied
accomplishments, flying rapidly like the Snipes, running after the
fashion of the Sandpipers, and swimming with the facility of the
Ducks. In all these respects it does not belie its appearance, its
structure being such that a naturalist would expect, _à priori_, that
these were its habits. During the breeding season, the Phalarope quits
the sea, its usual haunt, and repairs to the sea-shore, where it builds
a neat nest, in a hollow of the ground, with grass and other weeds,
and lays four eggs. The usual time of its appearance in Great Britain
is autumn; sometimes it comes then in numbers; but specimens have been
obtained in winter. On all these occasions it has shown itself
singularly fearless of man.


Head deep ash-grey; throat white; neck bright rust-red; under
plumage white, blotched on the flanks with ash; back black, the
feathers bordered with rust-red; a white bar across the wing;
two middle tail-feathers black, the rest ash, edged with white;
bill black; irides brown; feet greenish ash. Length seven
inches. Eggs dark olive, closely spotted with black.

The Red-necked Phalarope, or Lobefoot, is, like the preceding species,
an inhabitant of the Arctic regions, but extends its circle of
residence so far as to include the Orkney Islands, in which numerous
specimens have been obtained. It builds its nest of grass, in the
marshes or on the islands in the lakes, and lays four eggs. The most
marked habit of these birds seems to be that of alighting at sea on
beds of floating sea-weed, and indifferently swimming about in search
of food, or running, with light and nimble pace, after the manner of a
Wagtail. They are often met with thus employed at the distance of a
hundred miles from land. They are described as being exceedingly tame,
taking little notice of the vicinity of men, and unaffected by the
report of a gun.


Back of the head barred transversely with dusky; upper plumage
mottled with chestnut, yellow, ash, and black; lower reddish
yellow, with brown zigzag lines; quills barred on their outer
web with rust-red and black; tail of twelve feathers tipped
above with grey, below with silvery white; bill flesh-colour;
feet livid. Length thirteen inches. Eggs dirty yellow, blotched
and spotted with brown and grey.

The history of the Woodcock as a visitor in the British Isles is
briefly as follows: Woodcocks come to us from the south in autumn, the
earliest being annually observed about the twentieth of October. On
their first arrival, they are generally found to be in bad condition;
so weak, in fact, that I recollect many instances of flights having
reached the coasts of Cornwall, only able to gain the land. Their
condition at these times is one of extreme exhaustion; and they become
the prey, not only of the sportsman, but are knocked down with a
stick, or caught alive. In the course of a very few days they are
enabled to recruit their strength, when they make their way inland.
They have been known even to settle on the deck of a ship at sea, in
order to rest; or actually to alight for a few moments in the smooth
water of the ship's wake. Their usual places of resort by day are
woods and coppices in hilly districts, whither they repair for shelter
and concealment. Disliking cold, they select, in preference, the side
of a valley which is least exposed to the wind; and though they never
perch on a branch, they prefer the concealment afforded by trees to
that of any other covert. There, crouching under a holly, or among
briers and thorns, they spend the day in inactivity, guarded from
molestation by their stillness, and by the rich brown tint of their
plumage, which can hardly be distinguished from dead leaves. Their
large prominent bead-like eyes are alone likely to betray them; and
this, it is said, is sometimes the case. So conscious do they seem
that their great security lies in concealment, that they will remain
motionless until a dog is almost on them or until the beater reaches
the very bush under which they are crouching. When at length roused,
they start up with a whirr, winding and twisting through the
overhanging boughs, and make for the nearest open place ahead; now,
however, flying in almost a straight line, till discovering another
convenient lurking-place, they descend suddenly, to be 'marked' for
another shot. About twilight, the Woodcock awakens out of its
lethargy, and repairs to its feeding-ground. Observation having shown
that on these occasions it does not trouble itself to mount above the
trees before it starts, but makes for the nearest clear place in the
wood through which it gains the open country, fowlers were formerly in
the habit of erecting in glades in the woods, two high poles, from
which was suspended a fine net. This was so placed as to hang across
the course which the birds were likely to take, and when a cock flew
against it, the net was suddenly made to drop by the concealed fowler,
and the bird caught, entangled in the meshes. Not many years ago,
these nets were commonly employed in the woods, near the coast of the
north of Devon, and they are said still to be in use on the Continent.
The passages through which the birds flew were known by the name of
'cockroads', and 'cockshoots'.

The localities which Woodcocks most frequent are places which abound
in earthworms, their favourite food. These they obtain either by
turning over lumps of decaying vegetable matter and picking up the
scattered worms, or by thrusting their bills into the soft earth,
where (guided by scent it is supposed) they speedily find any worm
lying hid, and having drawn it out, swallow it whole, with much
dexterity. When the earth is frozen hard, they shift their ground,
repairing to the neighbourhood of the sea, or of springs; and now,
probably, they are less select in their diet, feeding on any living
animal matter that may fall in their way. In March they change their
quarters again, preparatory to quitting the country; hence it often
happens that considerable numbers are seen at this season in places
where none had been observed during the previous winter. They now have
a call-note, though before they have been quite mute; it is said by
some to resemble the syllables _pitt-pitt-coor_, by others to be very
like the croak of a frog. The French have invented the verb _croûler_,
to express it, and distinguish Woodcock shooting by the name _croûle_.
Some sportsmen wisely recommend that no Woodcock should be shot after
the middle of February; for it has been ascertained that increasing
numbers of these remain for the purpose of breeding in this country;
and it is conjectured, with reason, that if they were left undisturbed
in their spring haunts, they would remain in yet larger numbers. As it
is, there are few counties in England in which their nest has not been
discovered; and there are some few localities in which it is one of
the pleasant sights of the evening, at all seasons of the year, to
watch the Woodcocks repairing from the woods to their accustomed

The nest is built of dry leaves, principally of fern, and placed among
dead grass, in dry, warm situations, and contains four eggs, which,
unlike those of the Snipes, are nearly equally rounded at each end.

There have been recorded numerous instances in which a Woodcock has
been seen carrying its young through the air to water, holding the
nestling between her thighs pressed close to her body.

During its flight, the Woodcock invariably holds its beak pointed in a
direction towards the ground. Young birds taken from the nest are
easily reared; and afford much amusement by the skill they display in
extracting worms from sods with which they are supplied. The Woodcock
is found in all countries of the eastern hemisphere where trees grow;
but it is only met as a straggler on the Atlantic coast of the United


Crown black, divided longitudinally by a yellowish white band;
a streak of the same colour over each eye; from the beak to the
eye a streak of dark brown; upper plumage mottled with black
and chestnut-brown, some of the feathers edged with
straw-colour; greater wing-coverts tipped with white; under
parts whitish, spotted and barred with black; tail of sixteen
feathers; bill brown, flesh-coloured at the base. Length eleven
and a half inches. Eggs brownish olive, spotted with reddish

The Great Snipe, Solitary Snipe or Double Snipe, is intermediate in
size between the Woodcock and Common Snipe. Though not among the
rarest of our visitants, it is far from common. It is, however, an
annual visitor, and is seen most frequently in the eastern counties in
the autumn. Its principal resorts are low damp meadows and grassy
places near marshes, but it does not frequent swamps like its
congeners. This difference in its haunts implies a different diet, and
this bird, it is stated, feeds principally on the larvæ or grubs of
Tipulæ (known by the common name of Father Daddy-Long-legs), which are
in summer such voracious feeders on the roots of grass. It breeds in
the northern countries of Europe, and in some parts of Sweden is so
abundant that as many as fifty have been shot in a day. When disturbed
on its feeding-ground, it rises without uttering any note, and usually
drops in again, at no great distance, after the manner of the Jack
Snipe. It may be distinguished by its larger size, and by carrying its
tail spread like a fan. In the northern countries where it breeds it
is found most commonly in the meadows after hay-harvest, and as it is
much prized for the delicacy of its flesh it is a favourite object of
sport. It is remarkable for being always in exceedingly good
condition, a remark which applies to specimens procured in this
country as well as those shot in Sweden. The nest, which has rarely
been seen, is placed in a tuft of grass, and contains four eggs. The
_Zoologist_ once mentioned the fact of four solitary Snipes being
killed in the county of Durham in August, and two of these were young
birds, scarcely fledged.


Great Snipe

Jack Snipe [M]

Common Snipe

Woodcock [M]

[_face p. 256_.]]


Knot [M]

Wood Sandpiper.

Sanderling [M]

Whimbrel [M]]


Upper plumage very like the last; chin and throat reddish
white; lower parts white, without spots; flanks barred
transversely with white and dusky; tail of fourteen feathers.
Length eleven and a half inches. Eggs light greenish yellow,
spotted with brown and ash.

The Common Snipe is a bird of very general distribution, being found
in all parts of the eastern hemisphere, from Ireland to Japan, and
from Siberia to the Cape of Good Hope. It is common also in many parts
of America, especially Carolina, and is frequent in many of the
American islands. In Britain, Snipes are most numerous in the winter,
their numbers being then increased by arrivals from high latitudes,
from which they are driven by the impossibility of boring for food in
ground hardened by frost or buried beneath snow. In September and
October large flocks of these birds arrive in the marshy districts of
England, stopping sometimes for a short time only, and then proceeding
onwards; but being like many other birds, gregarious at no other time
than when making their migrations, when they have arrived at a
district where they intend to take up their residence, they scatter
themselves over marsh land, remaining in each other's neighbourhood
perhaps, but showing no tendency to flock together. Their food
consists of the creeping things which live in mud, and to this, it is
said by some, they add small seeds and fine vegetable fibre; but it is
questionable whether this kind of food is not swallowed by accident,
mixed up with more nourishing diet. The end of their beak is furnished
with a soft pulpy membrane, which in all probability is highly
sensitive, and enables the bird to discover by the touch the worms
which, being buried in mud, are concealed from its sight. Snipes when
disturbed always fly against the wind, so when suddenly scared from
their feeding-ground, and compelled to rise without any previous
intention on their part, they seem at first uncertain which course to
take, but twist and turn without making much progress in any
direction; but in a few seconds, having decided on their movements,
they dart away with great rapidity, uttering at the same time a sharp
cry of two notes, which is difficult to describe, but once heard can
scarcely be mistaken. When a bird on such an occasion is fired at, it
often happens that a number of others, who have been similarly
occupied, rise at the report, and after having performed a few mazy
evolutions, dart off in the way described. At other times they lie so
close that between the sportsman and the bird which he has just killed
there may be others concealed, either unconscious of danger, or
trusting for security to their powers of lying hid. This tendency to
lie close, or the reverse, depends much on the weather, though why it
should be so seems not to have been decided. But the movements of
Snipes generally are governed by laws of which we know little or
nothing. At one season they will be numerous in a certain marsh; the
next year perhaps not one will visit the spot; to-day, they will swarm
in a given locality; a night's frost will drive them all away, and a
change of wind a few days after will bring them all back again. If
very severe weather sets in they entirely withdraw, but of this the
reason is obvious; the frozen state of the marsh puts a stop to their
feeding. They then retire to milder districts, to springs which are
never frozen, to warm nooks near the sea, or to salt marshes. Perhaps
the majority perform a second migration southwards; for, as a rule,
they are most numerous at the two periods of autumn and spring - that
is, while on their way to and from some distant winter-quarters. After
March they become far less frequent, yet there are few extensive
marshes, especially in Scotland and the north of England, where some
do not remain to breed. At this season a striking change in their
habits makes itself perceptible. A nest is built of withered grass,
sometimes under the shelter of a tuft of heath or reeds, and here the
female sits closely on four eggs. The male, meanwhile, is feeding in
some neighbouring swamp, and if disturbed, instead of making off with
his zigzag winter's flight, utters his well-remembered note and
ascends at a rapid rate into the air, now ascending with a rapid
vibration of wing, wheeling, falling like a parachute, mounting again,
and once more descending with fluttering wings, uttering repeatedly a
note different from his cry of alarm, intermixed with a drumming kind
of noise, which has been compared to the bleat of a goat. This last
sound is produced by the action of the wings, assisted by the
tail-feathers, in his descents. One of its French names is _Chèvre
volant_, flying goat, and the Scottish name 'Heather-bleater', was
also given to it as descriptive of its peculiar summer note. The
female sits closely on her eggs, and if disturbed while in charge of
her yet unfledged brood, endeavours to distract the attention of an
intruder from them to herself by the artifice already described as
being employed by others of the Waders.

'Sabine's Snipe', which was at one time thought to be a distinct
species, is now admitted to be a melanism, a dark variety of the
Common Snipe, recent examination of specimens having proved that its
tail contains fourteen feathers and not twelve only, as was supposed.
It is seldom found outside Great Britain.


Crown divided longitudinally by a black band edged with reddish
brown; beneath this on either side a parallel yellowish band
reaching from the bill to the nape; back beautifully mottled
with buff, reddish brown, and black, the latter lustrous with
green and purple; neck and breast spotted; belly and abdomen
pure white; tail of twelve feathers, dusky edged with reddish
grey; bill dusky, lighter towards the base. Length eight and a
half inches. Eggs yellowish olive, spotted with brown.

As the Great Snipe has been called the Double Snipe, on account of its
being superior in size to the common species, so the subject of the
present chapter is known as the Half Snipe, from being contrasted with
the same bird, and being considerably smaller. The present species is
far less abundant than the Common Snipe; yet still it is often seen,
more frequently, perhaps, than the other, by non-sporting observers,
for it frequents not only downright marshes, but the little streams
which meander through meadows, the sides of grassy ponds, and the
drains by the side of canals, where the ordinary pedestrian, if
accompanied by a dog, will be very likely to put one up. Its food and
general habits are much the same as those of the Common Snipe; but it
rises and flies off without any note. Its flight is singularly crooked
until it has made up its mind which direction it intends to take;
indeed it seems to decide eventually on the one which was at first
most unlikely to be its path, and after having made a short round
composed of a series of disjointed, curves, it either returns close to
the spot from which it was started, or suddenly drops, as by a sudden
impulse, into a ditch a few gunshots off. I have seen one drop thus
within twenty yards of the spot where I stood, and though I threw
upwards of a dozen stones into the place where I saw it go down, it
took no notice of them. It was only by walking down the side of the
ditch, beating the rushes with a stick, that I induced it to rise
again. It then flew off in the same way as before, and dropped into
the little stream from which I had first started it.

From this habit of lying so close as to rise under the very feet of
the passenger, as well as from its silence, it is called in France _la
Sourde_, 'deaf'. In the same country it is known also as 'St. Martin's
Snipe', from the time of its arrival in that country, November 11;
with us it is an earlier visitor, coming about the second week in

A few instances are recorded of the Jack Snipe having been seen in
this country at a season which would lead to the inference that it
occasionally breeds here; but no instance of its doing so has been
ascertained as a fact.


_Winter_ - upper plumage and sides of the neck whitish ash;
cheeks and all the under plumage, pure white; bend and edge of
the wing and quills blackish grey; tail deep grey, edged with
white; bill, irides, and feet, black. _Summer_ - cheeks and
crown black, mottled with rust-red and white; neck and breast
reddish ash with black and white spots; back and scapulars deep
rust-red, spotted with black, all the feathers edged and tipped
with white; wing-coverts dusky, with reddish lines, and tipped
with white; two middle tail-feathers dusky, with reddish edges.
_Young in autumn_ - cheeks, head, nape, and back variously
mottled with black, brown, grey, rust-red and dull white.
Length eight inches. Eggs olive, spotted and speckled with

The early flocks of Sanderlings often consist of old as well as young
birds, which is not the common rule with Waders. They are plentiful on
our sandy shores, and they sometimes visit inland waters. By April the
return passage begins. The note is a shrill _wick!_ They arrive on our

Online LibraryC. A. (Charles Alexander) JohnsBritish birds in their haunts → online text (page 32 of 39)