C. A. (Charles Alexander) Johns.

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shores early in autumn, keeping together in small flocks, or joining
the company of Dunlins, or Ringed Plovers. In spring they withdraw to
high latitudes, where they breed; they are not, however, long absent.
Yarrell mentions his having obtained specimens as late as April and
June, and I have myself obtained them as early as the end of July,
having shot at Hunstanton, on the coast of Norfolk, several young
birds of the year, on the twenty-third of that month; and on another
occasion I obtained a specimen on the sands of Abergele, in North
Wales, in August. This leaves so very short a time for incubation and
the fledging of the young, that it is probable that a few birds, at
least, remain to breed in this country, or do not retire very far
north. Little is known of their habits during the season of
incubation, but they are said to make their nests in the marshes, of
grass, and to lay four eggs.

Like many other shore birds, they have an extensive geographical
range, and are found in all latitudes, both in the eastern and western


Bill curved downwards, much longer than the head.
_Winter_ - upper tail-coverts and all the under parts white;
upper plumage ash-brown, mottled with darker brown and
whitish; breast the same colours, but much lighter; bill
black; iris brown; feet dusky. _Summer_ - crown black, mottled
with reddish; under plumage chestnut-red, speckled with brown
and white; much of the upper plumage black, mottled with red
and ash. Length seven and a half inches. Eggs yellowish, with
brown spots.

This bird, called also the Pigmy Curlew, is of about the same size as
the far commoner Dunlin, from which it is distinguished not only by
the difference in the colour of its plumage, but by the greater length
of its beak, which is curved downwards. Pigmy Curlews are observed
from time to time in this country at the periods of autumn and spring,
and it is said that a few remain with us to breed, but their nest and
eggs have never been detected. In their habits they resemble the
Dunlins, from which they may readily be distinguished, even when
flying, by their white upper tail-coverts. They are of wide
geographical range, but nowhere abundant, and visit us on passage in
spring and autumn.


Beak straight, a little longer than the head, much dilated
towards the tip; tail even at the extremity; a small part of
the tibia naked. _Winter_ - throat and abdomen white; breast and
flanks white, barred with ash-brown; upper plumage ash-grey,
mottled with brown; wing-coverts tipped with white; rump and
upper tail-coverts white, with black crescents; bill and legs
greenish black. _Summer_ - streak over the eye, nape, and all
the under plumage, rusty-red, the nape streaked with black;
back streaked and spotted with black, red, and grey. The upper
plumage of _young birds_ is mottled with reddish brown, grey,
black, and dull white; legs dull green. Length ten inches. Eggs

The Knot, Willughby informs us, is so called from having been a
favourite dish of King Canutus, or Knute. It is a migratory bird,
visiting the coasts of Great Britain early in autumn, and remaining
here till spring, when it retires northwards to breed. During the
intervening months it keeps exclusively to the sandy or muddy
sea-shore, assembling in small flocks, and mixing freely with Dunlins,
Sanderlings, and Purple Sandpipers. Some authors state that it feeds
principally early and late in the day, and during moonlight nights;
but I have seen it on the coast of Norfolk in winter feeding at all
hours of the day in company with the birds mentioned above, and
differing little from them in the mode of obtaining its food. But I
remarked on several occasions that, when a flock was disturbed, the
Knots often remained behind, being less fearful of the presence of
man; in consequence of which tardiness in rising they more than once
fell to our guns after their companions had flown off. On their first
arrival, they are said to be so indifferent to the vicinity of human
beings that it is not difficult to knock them down with stones. Their
provincial name in Norfolk is the Green-legged Shank, the latter name,
Shank, being applied for shortness to the Redshank. Dr. Richardson
states that 'Knots were observed breeding on Melville Peninsula by
Captain Lyon, who tells us that they lay four eggs on a tuft of
withered grass, without being at the pains of forming any nest.'

Flocks of young make their appearance early in August, the adults
arriving a little later.


Dunlin [F] [M]

Little Stint.

Temminck's Stint [M]

Cream-coloured Courser.

[_face p. 262._]]


Green Sandpiper [F]

Purple Sandpiper [M]

Common Sandpiper [F]

Curlew Sandpiper.]


Bill a little longer than the head, slightly bent down at the
tip; two middle tail-feathers the longest, dusky and pointed; a
small part of the tibia naked. _Winter_ - throat and a streak
between the bill and eye white; upper plumage ash-brown
streaked with dusky; upper tail-coverts dusky; lateral
tail-feathers ash, edged with white; breast greyish white,
mottled with brown; bill black; feet dusky. _Summer_ - most of
the upper plumage black, edged with rust-red; belly and abdomen
black. _Young birds_ have the upper plumage variously mottled
with ash-brown, dusky, and reddish yellow; the bill is shorter
and straight. Length eight inches. Eggs greenish white,
blotched and spotted with brown.

The name _variabilis_, changeable, has been applied to this species of
Sandpiper on account of the great difference between its summer and
winter plumage. It was formerly, indeed, supposed that the two states
of the bird were distinct species; of which the former was called
Dunlin, the latter Purre. It is now known that the two are identical,
the bird being commonly found to assume in spring and autumn colours
intermediate between the two.

Except during the three summer months, May, June, and July, the Dunlin
is common on all the shores of Great Britain, where there are
extensive reaches of sand or mud. I have obtained specimens on the
coast of Norfolk as early as the twenty-fifth of July; but, generally,
it is not until the following month that they become numerous. From
this time until late in the winter they are reinforced by constant
additions; and in very severe weather the flocks are increased to such
an extent that, if it were possible to number them, they would be
probably found to contain very many thousands. Such a season was the
memorable winter of 1860-61, when, during the coldest part of it, I
made an excursion to the coast of Norfolk for the purpose of observing
the habits of the sea-side Grallatores and Natatores which, in winter,
resort to that coast. Numerous as were the species and individuals of
these birds which then flocked to the beach and salt-marshes, I have
no doubt, in my own mind, that they were all outnumbered by Dunlins
alone. Of nearly every flock that I saw feeding on the wet sand or
mud, fully half were Dunlins; many flocks were composed of these birds
alone; while of those which were constantly flying by, without
alighting, the proportion of Dunlins to all other birds was, at
least, three to one. Added to which, while the parties of other birds
were susceptible of being approximately counted, the individuals which
composed a flock of Dunlins were often innumerable.

At one time, we saw in the distance, several miles off, a light cloud,
as of smoke from a factory chimney: it moved rapidly, suddenly
disappeared, and as suddenly again became visible. This was an
enormous flock of Dunlins, consisting of many thousands at least. They
did not come very near us; but smaller flocks which flew about in our
immediate vicinity presented a similar appearance. As the upper
surface of their bodies was turned towards us, they were of a dark
hue; suddenly they wheeled in their flight as if the swarm was steered
by a single will, when they disappeared; but instantaneously revealed
themselves again flying in a different direction, and reflected
glittering snowy white.

Dunlins, while feeding, show a devoted attention to their occupation,
which is not often to be observed in land birds. They run rapidly,
looking intently on the ground, now stopping to pick up some scrap of
animal matter which lies on the surface of the sand, now boring for
living prey where they detect indications of such prey lying hid.
Occasionally an individual bird appears to suffer from lameness, and
halts in its progress as if its legs were gouty. Frequently they chase
a receding wave for the sake of recovering a prize which has been
swept from the beach: never venturing to swim, but showing no fear of
wetting either feet or feathers. While engaged in these various ways,
they often keep up a short conversational twitter, in a tone, however,
so low that it can only be heard at a very short distance. While
flying, they frequently utter a much louder piping note, which can
readily be distinguished from the call of the other sea-side birds. I
observed that a small detached flock, when disturbed, generally flew
off to a great distance; but if other birds were feeding in the
neighbourhood, they more frequently alighted near them, as if assured
by their presence that no danger was to be apprehended.

Dunlins have bred in Cornwall and Devon; but in many parts of
Scotland, in the Hebrides and Orkneys 'they frequent the haunts
selected by the Golden Plovers, with which they are so frequently seen
in company, that they have popularly obtained the name of Plovers'
Pages. Sometimes before the middle of April, but always before that of
May, they are seen dispersed over the moors in pairs like the birds
just named, which, at this season, they greatly resemble in habits.
The nest, which is composed of some bits of withered grass, or sedge,
and small twigs of heath, is placed in a slight hollow, generally on a
bare spot, and usually in a dry place, like that selected by the
Golden Plover. The female lays four eggs, and sits very assiduously,
often allowing a person to come quite close to her before removing,
which she does in a fluttering and cowering manner.'[49]

In a few specimens which I obtained, the bill was considerably curved
downwards throughout its whole length, thus approaching in form that
of the Pigmy Curlew; but the dusky upper tail-coverts sufficiently
distinguished it from its rarer congener.

[49] Macgillivray.


Bill longer than the head, slightly bent down at the tip,
dusky, the base reddish orange; head and neck dusky brown,
tinged with grey; back and scapulars black, with purple and
violet reflections, the feathers edged with deep ash; breast
grey and white; under plumage white, streaked on the flanks
with grey; feet ochre-yellow. Length eight and a quarter
inches. Eggs yellowish olive, spotted and speckled with reddish

The Purple Sandpiper is described as being far less common than the
Dunlin, and differing from it in habits, inasmuch as it resorts to the
rocky coast in preference to sandy flats. The few specimens of it
which I have seen were associated with Dunlins, flying in the same
flocks with them, feeding with them, and so closely resembling them
in size and movements, that a description of the one equally
characterizes the other. It was only, in fact, by the difference of
colour that I could discriminate between them; and this I did, on
several occasions, with great ease, having obtained my specimens
singly while they were surrounded by other birds. According to Mr.
Dunn, 'The Purple Sandpiper is very numerous in Orkney and Shetland,
appearing early in spring, and leaving again at the latter end of
April; about which time it collects in large flocks, and may be found
on the rocks at ebb-tide, watching each retiring wave, running down as
the water falls back, picking small shellfish off the stones, and
displaying great activity in escaping the advancing sea. It does not
breed there.'

This species has a wide geographical range. It has been often observed
in the Arctic regions, where it breeds. It is well known in North
America, and is found in various parts of the continent of Europe,
especially Holland.


Bill slightly bent down at the tip, much shorter than the head;
tail graduated. _Winter_ - upper plumage brown and dusky; breast
reddish; lower plumage and outer tail-feathers white; bill and
feet brown. _Summer_ - All the upper feathers black, bordered
with rust-red; breast reddish ash, streaked with black. Length
five and a half inches. Eggs unknown.

Temminck, in whose honour this bird was named, states that it
'inhabits the Arctic Regions, and is seen on its passage at two
periods of the year in different parts of Germany, on the banks of
lakes and rivers; probably, also, in the interior of France; never
along the maritime coasts of Holland; very rare on the Lake of Geneva.
Its food consists of small insects. It probably builds its nest very
far north.' A few have been killed in England, and it occurs in many
parts of Asia and in North Africa, but it is nowhere abundant, being
an irregular visitor, only on migration.


Bill straight, shorter than the head; two middle and two outer
feathers of the tail longer than the rest ('tail doubly
forked'); tarsus ten lines; upper plumage ash and dusky; a
brown streak between the bill and the eye; under plumage white;
outer feathers of the tail ash-brown, edged with whitish;
middle ones brown; bill and feet black. Length five and a half
inches. Eggs reddish white, spotted with dark red-brown.

A rare and occasional visitant, appearing from time to time in small
flocks on the muddy or sandy sea-coast. My friend, the Rev. W. S. Hore
(to whom I am indebted for many valuable notes, incorporated in the
text of this volume), obtained several specimens of this bird in
October, 1840, on the Laira mud banks, near Plymouth. In their habits
they differed little from the Dunlin. They were at first very tame,
but after having been fired at became more cautious. In their food and
mode of collecting it, nothing was observed to distinguish them from
the other Sandpipers. They come on passage in spring and autumn.


_Male in spring_ - face covered with yellowish warty pimples;
back of the head with a tuft of long feathers on each side;
throat furnished with a ruff of prominent feathers; general
plumage mottled with ash, black, brown, reddish white, and
yellowish, but so variously, that scarcely two specimens can be
found alike; bill yellowish orange. _Male in winter_ - face
covered with feathers; ruff absent; under parts white; breast
reddish, with brown spots; upper plumage mottled with black,
brown, and red; bill brownish. Length twelve and a half inches.
_Female_, 'The Reeve' - long feathers of the head and ruff
absent; upper plumage ash-brown, mottled with black and reddish
brown; under parts greyish white; feet yellowish brown. Length
ten and a half inches. _In both sexes_ - tail rounded, the two
middle feathers barred; the three lateral feathers uniform in
colour. Eggs olive, blotched and spotted with brown.

Both the systematic names of this bird are descriptive of its
quarrelsome propensities: _machetes_ is Greek for 'a warrior',
_pugnax_ Latin for 'pugnacious'. Well is the title deserved; for Ruffs
do not merely fight when they meet, but meet in order to fight. The
season for the indulgence of their warlike tastes is spring; the
scene, a rising spot of ground contiguous to a marsh; and here all the
male birds of the district assemble at dawn, for many days in
succession, and do battle valiantly for the females, called Reeves,
till the weakest are vanquished and leave possession of the field to
their more powerful adversaries. The attitude during these contests is
nearly that of the domestic Cock - the head lowered, the body
horizontal, the collar bristling, and the beak extended. But Ruffs
will fight to the death on other occasions. A basket containing two or
three hundred Ruffs was once put on board a steamer leaving Rotterdam
for London. The incessant fighting of the birds proved a grand source
of attraction to the passengers during the voyage; and about half of
them were slain before the vessel reached London. Ruffs are
gluttonously disposed too, and, if captured by a fowler, will begin to
eat the moment they are supplied with food; but, however voracious
they may be, if a basin of bread and milk or boiled wheat be placed
before them, it is instantly contended for; and so pugnacious is their
disposition, that even when fellow-captives, they would starve in the
midst of plenty if several dishes of food were not placed amongst them
at a distance from each other.

Many years have not passed since these birds paid annual visits in
large numbers to the fen-countries. They were, however, highly prized
as delicacies for the table, and their undeviating habit of meeting to
fight a pitched battle gave the fowler such an excellent opportunity
of capturing all the combatants in his nets, that they have been
gradually becoming more and more rare. The fowler, in fact, has been
so successful that he has destroyed his own trade.

Another peculiarity of the Ruff is, that the plumage varies greatly in
different individuals - so much so, indeed, that Montagu who had an
opportunity of seeing about seven dozen in a room together, could not
find two alike. These birds are now become rare, but occasional
specimens are still met with in different parts of Great Britain, and
at various seasons; but if they are ever served up at table, they must
be consignments from the Continent.

The female builds her nest of coarse grass, among reeds and rushes,
and lays four eggs. The brood, when hatched, remain with her until the
period of migration; but the males take no interest in domestic
affairs. The few that have not been caught become more amicably
disposed during the latter portion of the year. They lose the feathery
shields from whence they derive their English name, and, assuming a
peaceful garb, withdraw to some southern climate. The Ruff is about
one-third larger than the Reeve; and the latter is, at all seasons,
destitute of a prominent collar. Formerly these birds bred in the east
of England.


Upper plumage olive-brown, with greenish reflections, spotted
with whitish and dusky; lower plumage white; tail white, the
middle feathers barred with dusky towards the end, the two
outer feathers almost entirely white; bill dusky above, reddish
beneath; feet greenish. Length nine and a half inches. Eggs
whitish green, spotted with brown.

This bird, which derives its name from the green tinge of its plumage
and legs, must be reckoned among the rarer Sandpipers. In habits it
differs considerably from most of its congeners, in that it is not
given to congregate with others of its kind, and that it resorts to
inland waters rather than to the sea. It is seen for the most part in
spring and autumn, at which seasons it visits us when on its way to
and from the northern countries in which it breeds. Specimens have
been killed late in the summer, from which it has been inferred that
the Green Sandpiper sometimes breeds in this country; but the fact
does not appear to have been confirmed by the discovery of its nest.
While migrating it flies very high, but when scared from its
feeding-ground it skims along the surface of the water for some
distance, and then rises high into the air, uttering its shrill
whistle. In its choice of food, and habits while feeding it resembles
the Common Sandpiper. It lays its eggs in deserted nests and old
squirrel dreys - and breeds probably in wild parts of Surrey, Sussex
and Hampshire. The Son of the Marshes considers that it does so.


_Winter_ - a narrow dusky streak between the bill and eye; upper
parts deep brown, spotted with white; breast and adjacent parts
dirty white, mottled with ash-brown; under plumage and
tail-coverts pure white; tail-feathers barred with brown and
white; two outer feathers on each side with the inner web pure
white; bill and legs greenish. _Summer_ - head streaked with
brown and dull white; the white of the breast clearer; each of
the feathers of the back with two white spots on each side of
the centre. Length seven and a half inches.

This species closely resembles the last both in appearance and habits.
It received its name of Wood Sandpiper from having been observed
occasionally to resort to boggy swamps of birch and alder, and has
been seen even to perch on a tree. Its most common places of resort
are, however, swamps and wet heaths. Like the last, it is a bird of
wide geographical range, nowhere very abundant, and imperfectly known,
coming only on passage in spring and autumn.


Upper parts ash-brown, glossed with olive; back and central
tail-feathers marked with fine wavy lines of rich dark brown; a
narrow white streak over each eye; under plumage pure white,
streaked at the sides with brown; outer tail-feathers barred
with white and brown; bill dusky, lighter at the base; feet
greenish ash. Length seven and a half inches. Eggs whitish
yellow, spotted with brown and grey.

To this bird has been given not inappropriately the name of Summer
Snipe. In form and mode of living it resembles the Snipe properly so
called, and it is known to us only during summer. Unlike the last two
species, it is a bird of common occurrence. One need only to repair to
a retired district abounding in streams and lakes, at any period of
the year between April and September, and there, in all probability,
this lively bird will be found to have made for itself a temporary
home. Arrayed in unattractive plumage, and distinguished by no great
power of song - its note being simply a piping, which some people
consider the utterance of one of its provincial names, 'Willy
Wicket' - it may nevertheless be pronounced an accomplished bird. It
flies rapidly and in a tortuous course, likely to puzzle any but the
keenest shot; it runs with remarkable nimbleness, so that if a
sportsman has marked it down, it will probably rise many yards away
from the spot; it can swim if so inclined; and when hard pressed by a
Hawk, it has been seen to dive and remain under water until all
danger had passed away. It has never been observed to perch on the
twigs of trees, but it has been noticed running along the stumps and
projecting roots of trees. Its favourite places of resort are withy
holts (where it searches for food in the shallow drains), moss-covered
stones in rivers, the shallow banks of lakes, and the flat marshy
places intersected by drains, which in low countries often skirt the
sea-shore. Its food consists of small worms and the larvæ and pupæ of
the countless insects which spend their lives in such localities. It
may be presumed, too, that many a perfect winged insect enters into
its dietary, for its activity is very great. Even when its legs are
not in motion, which does not often happen, its body is in a perpetual
state of agitation, the vibration of the tail being most conspicuous.

Sandpipers do not congregate like many others of the Waders; they come
to us generally in pairs, and do not appear to flock together even
when preparing to migrate. The nest is a slight depression in the
ground, most frequently well concealed by rushes or other tufted
foliage, and is constructed of a few dry leaves, stalks of grass, and
scraps of moss. The Sandpiper lays four eggs, which are large, and
quite disproportionate to the size of the bird. Indeed, but for their
peculiar pear-shaped form, which allows of their being placed so as to
occupy a small space with the pointed ends all together, the bird
would scarcely be able to cover them. The parent bird exhibits the
same marvellous sagacity in diverting the attention of an intruder
from the young birds to herself, by counterfeiting lameness, which has
been observed in the Plovers. The young are able to run within a very

Online LibraryC. A. (Charles Alexander) JohnsBritish birds in their haunts → online text (page 33 of 39)