C. A. (Charles Alexander) Johns.

British birds in their haunts online

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frequent from May to September, they form colonies and lay their eggs,
generally apart from the allied species. The eggs closely resemble
those of the Common Tern, but are somewhat smaller. In its habits and
general appearance the Arctic Tern comes so close to the last-named
species, that the birds, even when flying together, can only be
distinguished by the most practised eye.


Lesser Tern [M]

Common Tern

Turnstone [M] _imm._

Oyster Catcher [F]

[_face p. 278_.]]


Glaucous Gull [F]

The Common Gull.

Lesser Black-backed Gull.

Greater Black-backed Gull [M]]


Bill moderate, red with a black tip; head and long feathers on
the back of the head black; upper parts bluish ash; quills
ash-grey, brown at the tips; tail much forked, not longer than
the wings, white, the two outer feathers on each side dusky on
the outer webs; under parts white, tinged with grey on the
breast; irides reddish brown; feet coral-red. _Young birds_
have a good deal of white about the head, and the feathers on
the back are tipped with white; tail ash-grey, whitish at the
tip. Length fourteen inches. Eggs olive-brown, blotched and
spotted with ash and dusky.

On those parts of the coast where the Common Tern is abundant, no
sea-bird is more likely to attract the notice of the visitor than the
Common Tern. It is less in size than any of the common species of
Gull, with which, however, it is often confounded by the unobservant.
It is more lively and active in its motions, not ordinarily flying in
circles, but, if I may use the expression, 'rambling' through the air,
frequently diverging to the right or left, and raising or depressing
itself at frequent intervals. These characters alone are sufficient to
distinguish the Tern from any of the Gulls; but it presents yet more
striking features. Its tail is elongated and forked like that of the
Swallow, and from this character rather than from its flight it is
commonly known as the Sea Swallow. Its mode of taking its prey is
totally different from that of the Gulls. Very frequently a single
Tern may be observed pursuing its course in a line with the breakers
on a sandy shore at the distance perhaps of from fifty to a hundred
yards from the beach. Its beak is pointed downwards, and the bird is
evidently on the look-out for prey. Suddenly it descends
perpendicularly into the water, making a perceptible splash, but
scarcely disappearing. In an instant it has recovered the use of its
wings and ascends again, swallowing some small fish meanwhile if it
has been successful, but in any case continuing its course as before.
I do not recollect ever to have seen a Tern sit on the water to devour
its prey when fishing among the breakers. Often, too, as one is
walking along the shore, or sailing in a boat, when the sea is calm, a
cruising party of Terns comes in sight. Their flight now is less
direct than in the instance just mentioned, as they 'beat' the
fishing-ground after the fashion of spaniels, still, however, making
way ahead. Suddenly one of the party arrests its flight, hovers for a
few seconds like a Hawk, and descends as if shot, making a splash as
before. If unsuccessful it rises at once, but if it has captured the
object on which it swooped, it remains floating on the water until it
has relieved itself of its incumbrance by the summary process of
swallowing it. I do not know a prettier sight than a party of Terns
thus occupied. They are by no means shy, frequently flying quite over
the boat, and uttering from time to time a short scream, which, though
not melodious, is more in keeping with the scene than a mellow song
would be.

In rough weather they repair to sheltered bays, ascend estuaries, or
follow the course of a river until they have advanced far inland. They
are harbingers of summer quite as much as the Swallow itself, coming
to us in May and leaving in September for some warmer coast. They
usually breed on flat shores, laying two or three eggs on the ground,
in marshes, or on sandy shingle. The eggs in my collection were
procured on the coast of Norfolk, but I have seen the birds themselves
in the greatest numbers in Belfast Lough and in Loch Crinan. They have
bred as far north as Sutherland.


Bill orange, with a black tip; feet orange; forehead, and a
streak above the eye, white; crown black; upper parts
pearl-grey; under, white; tail much forked, shorter than the
wings. _Young birds_ have the head brownish, with darker
streaks; upper plumage yellowish white and dusky; bill pale
yellow, with a dark tip; legs dull yellow. Length eight and a
half inches. Eggs stone-colour, spotted and speckled with grey
and brown.

On the sandy and marshy shores of Norfolk, the Lesser Tern is a bird
of common occurrence in summer, either single, or in small parties of
three or four. Not unfrequently, as the sea-side visitor is sauntering
about on the sands, one of these birds seems to take offence at its
dominion being invaded. With repeated harsh cries it flies round and
round the intruder, coming quite close enough to allow its black head
and yellow beak to be distinguished. Its flight is swift, something
like that of a Swallow, but more laboured, and not so rapid. If fired
at, it takes little notice of the noise; and, knowing nothing of the
danger, continues its screams[51] and circling till its pertinacity
becomes annoying. When feeding it presents a far pleasanter
appearance. Then, altogether heedless of intrusion, it skims along the
surface of the drains in the marshes, profiting by its length of wing
and facility of wheeling, to capture flying insects. At least, if this
be not its object, I can in no other way account for the peculiar
character of its flight. At other times, either alone or in company
with a few other individuals of the same species, it is seen flying
slowly along, some fifteen or twenty feet above the surface of a
shallow tidal pool, or pond, in a salt marsh. Suddenly it arrests its
onward progress, soars like a Kestrel for a second or two, with its
beak pointed downwards. It has descried a shrimp, or small fish, and
this is its way of taking aim. Employing the mechanism with which its
Creator has provided it, it throws out of gear its apparatus of
feathers and air-tubes, and falls like a plummet into the water, with
a splash which sends circle after circle to the shore; and, in an
instant, having captured and swallowed its petty booty, returns to its
aërial watch-post. A social little party of three or four birds, who
have thus taken possession of a pond, will remain fishing as long as
the tide is high enough to keep it full. They take little notice of
passengers; and if startled by the report of a gun, remove to a short
distance only, and there resume their occupation. Sometimes they may
be seen floating about in the open sea, resting their wings, perhaps,
after a long flight, or simply idling, certainly not fishing; for
although they plunge from a height, with great ease and elegance,
diving proper is not one of their accomplishments.

To the stranger who visits the coast of Norfolk, the Lesser Tern will,
perhaps, be pointed out under the name of 'Sea Swallow', or, more
probably, as a 'Shrimp Catcher'. Either of these names is appropriate.
Its mode of progress through the air is more like a Swallow's than
that of the Common Tern, and in size it does not so very much exceed
the Swift as to make the comparison outrageous. A shrimp it can
undoubtedly catch; and it exercises its vocation in shallow water,
such as shrimps alone inhabit or small fish no larger than shrimps.

Like the other Terns it is migratory, repairing year after year to low
flat shores on various parts of the coast, arriving in May, and
departing in September for some climate subject to no cold severe
enough to banish small marine animals to deep water. The Lesser Tern
makes no nest, but lays its eggs, generally two, among the shingle.

[51] I have been beset in this manner by a Lesser Tern, so far
on in the summer that I could not attribute its actions to
any anxiety about either eggs or young. I am inclined to
think it is, on such occasions, taught by its instinct to
accompany a traveller for the sake of the insects disturbed
by his movements. During the summer months, the shingle, on
a sunny beach, is haunted by myriads of sluggish flies,
which rarely take wing unless thus disturbed. That the
Chimney Swallow often accompanies the traveller for this
object, I have no doubt; as I have seen them fly to and fro
before me, darting in among the swarming flies, and so intent
in their chase, as to pass within a few yards of my feet
every time they crossed my path.



_Summer_ - head and neck black; lower part of the neck, tail,
all the under plumage, white; upper plumage pale ash-grey;
primaries white at the end; bill reddish brown; irides dark;
legs vermilion. _Winter_ - forehead, front and sides of the neck
white; nape and cheeks white, streaked with greyish black.
Length eleven inches.

This, the smallest of the Gulls, comes sometimes in numbers to the
British coast. It is said to be remarkably active and graceful in its
movements through the air, and to associate with Terns. Its food
consists of marine insects and small fish. Its breeding-place and eggs
are unknown. As a rule it leaves us in September or early in October.


_Summer_ - head and upper part of the neck deep brown; lower
part of the neck and all the under plumage white, slightly
tinged with rose; upper plumage bluish ash; primaries white,
edged with ash, and broadly tipped with black; irides brown;
bill and feet red, with a purple tinge. In _winter_ the head
and neck are white; bill and feet bright vermilion. In _young
birds_ the hood is pale brown; the upper plumage dark brown,
mottled at the edges of the feathers with yellowish; bill livid
at the base, the tip black; feet yellowish. Length seventeen
inches. Eggs olive, spotted with brown and dusky.

Black-headed, Blackcap, Brown-headed, Red-legged, and Pewit, are all
common distinctive names of this Gull, to which may be added that of
Laughing Gull. The latter name is, indeed, often given to the next
species, a rare bird, and might with equal propriety be applied to
several other species, whose harsh cry resembles a laugh. The
systematic name, _ridibundus_, which has the same meaning, is by
general consent confined to this. The reader, therefore, must bear in
mind that though the term _ridibundus_ will bear no translation but
'laughing', the name of the Laughing Gull is _Larus atricapilla_,
which can mean only 'Black-headed Gull'; a paradoxical statement,
perhaps, but one which it is necessary to make, or the young student
will probably fall into error.

Brown-headed Gull is the most appropriate of all the above names, at
least in summer, for at this period both male and female are best
distinguished by the deep brown colour of the head and upper part of
the neck.

This is one of the most frequent of the Gulls, to be sought for in the
breeding season not on the rocky shore among cliffs, but on low flat
salt marshes on the coast and in fresh-water marshes far inland. Early
in spring large numbers of Brown-headed Gulls repair to their
traditional breeding-grounds and wander over the adjoining country in
search of food, which consists of worms and grubs. From the assiduity
with which they resort to arable land and follow the plough, they have
been called Sea Crows. In April and May they make their simple
preparations for laying their eggs by trampling down the broken tops
of reeds and sedges, and so forming a slight concavity. The number of
eggs in each nest is generally three, and as a large number of birds
often resort to the same spot, the collecting of these eggs becomes an
occupation of importance. By some persons they are considered a
delicacy, and, with the eggs of the Redshank, are substituted for
Plovers' eggs; but to a fastidious palate they are not acceptable, and
far inferior to an egg from the poultry yard. Willughby describes a
colony of Blackcaps on a small island in a marsh or fish pond, in the
county of Stafford, distant at least thirty miles from the sea. He
says that when the young birds had attained their full size, it was
the custom to drive them from the island into nets disposed along the
shore of the lake. The captured birds were fattened on meat and
garbage, and sold for about fourpence or fivepence each (a goodly
price in those days, 1676). The average number captured every year was
1200, returning to the proprietor an income of about £15. In _The
Catalogue of Norfolk and Suffolk Birds_, it is stated that precisely
the same sum is paid for the privilege of collecting the eggs from
Scoulton Mere, in Norfolk. Towards the end of July, when the young are
fully fledged, all the birds, old and young, repair to the sea, and
scatter themselves in small flocks to all parts of the coast,
preferring a low sandy shore, or the mouth of a tidal river, as the
Thames and the Clyde, where they are of common occurrence. They also
accompany shoals of herrings and other small fish, often congregating
with other species in countless numbers.

Before winter the distinctive character afforded by the brown plumage
of the head and neck has entirely disappeared. These parts are now of
a pure white, and the red legs afford the best distinguishing feature.
Persons residing on the coast, who are familiarly acquainted with the
habits of the bird, but are unaware of the periodical change in its
colour, consider the two forms of the bird as distinct species. Thus I
have received from a marsh on the coast of Norfolk the eggs of the
'Black-headed Gull', and have had the same bird pointed out to me in
winter as the 'Red-legged Pigeon-Mow' (Mew). One flock of about thirty
thus pointed out to me presented a very pretty sight. They had
detected either a shoal of small fishes, or a collection of dead
animal matter floating among the breakers, and were feeding with
singular activity.


In _spring_ the head and neck of this species are white and the
mantle is a pale grey, a little darker in _summer_, the head,
tail and under parts white; primaries comparatively long, and
the three outer pairs dull black on the lower portions, with
large white 'mirrors' near the tips in mature birds - in the
rest the predominant tone is a pale grey, the black only
forming a bar, and all but the first primary broadly tipped
with white; bill a rich yellow towards the point; legs and feet
greenish yellow in _summer_, darker in _winter_. In _winter_
the head and neck are streaked and spotted with ash-brown.
Length eighteen inches.

This is a species resident in Great Britain, but it is not known to
breed south of the Solway. It nests, however, in the west of Ireland;
grassy sides and islands of lochs or slopes that face the sea, not far
often above high-water, are its favourite resorts, where it breeds in
colonies, the nest of sea-weeds, heather and dry grass being fairly
large. In it will be, as a rule, three eggs, an olive-brown, spotted
and streaked with a blackish tone; but pale blue, light green and
straw-coloured varieties are found often. This Gull is the first to
seek the shore on the approach of 'coarse' weather; and it may often
be studied in the fields as it picks up grubs among the furrows in the
company of Rooks, or by the town-tied Cockney, from his own standpoint
of Westminster Bridge.

The 'Blue Maa', as this species is called in the north, breeds in
abundance on the Scottish coasts as well as the moors of the
fresh-water lochs, including the Hebrides, Orkneys and Shetlands. The
Black-headed Gull is generally the Common Gull of the peasantry in
Ireland, but the underside of the wing in the young of the Common Gull
is mottled with brown, whereas it is greyish-white in the Black-headed

Gulls are, moreover, of material service, for they perform for the
surface of the sea the same office which crustaceous animals do for
its depths. Most of their time is spent in either flying or swimming
about (they are no divers) in quest of food, which is of that nature
that, if suffered to accumulate, more than one of our senses would be
offended. All animal matter which, when life is extinct, rises to the
surface, it is their especial province to clear away. To perform this
necessary work, they have need of a quick eye and a voracious
appetite. That they have the former in an eminent degree, any one may
convince himself who, when taking a sea voyage, sees the vessel
followed, as he often will, by a flock of Gulls. Let him fling
overboard, into the foaming track of the ship, where his own eye can
distinguish nothing, ever so small a portion of bread or other kind of
food. That some one individual at least among the flock will have seen
it fall and be able to descry it is certain; now, probably, a general
scramble will ensue, and the prize will be secured by the swiftest.
Having tried this several times with the same result, let him throw
over, instead of meat or bread, a bit of wood. Not a bird will come
near even to examine it. I have often tried this experiment, and have
met with but one result. To prove that the Gull is capable of
consuming a large quantity of food, as well as quick-sighted, a single
anecdote will suffice: - "A man who was shooting on the banks of the
river Yare, seeing something, which had the appearance of an eel
half-swallowed, hanging from the mouth of a Gull which was flying
overhead, fired at the bird, and on taking it up, found, not an eel,
but - five tallow candles attached to a piece of thread, to the other
end of which was fastened a sixth, the latter having been _almost
entirely swallowed_. The candles were about twelve inches in length,
with cotton wicks, such as are used on board the fishing boats, from
the deck of which he had probably taken them". The Gull, then, is not
choice in its diet; it is, in fact, omnivorous. It skims the deep for
dead animal matter, follows the ship for offal thrown overboard, paces
the shore in quest of molluscs and marine insects, flies inland in
stormy weather (a specimen was once brought me which had been shot in
Hertfordshire, twenty miles from the nearest navigable river) in
winter and spring, and follows the plough along with Rooks and
Jackdaws, alights on fields which have been manured with decomposed
fish, resorts to marshes for frogs and worms, and after an inundation
repairs to the lately submersed ground, and picks up the small
quadrupeds which have been drowned. It usually flies at no great
elevation above the water, but when repairing inland and returning it
frequently rises to a very great height.


Head and neck white, streaked in summer with light brown; tail
and lower parts white; back and wings bluish ash; primaries
dusky, passing into black, the shafts black and extremities
white; secondaries edged and tipped with white; bill, orbits,
and irides, yellow; feet flesh-colour. In _young birds_ the
white is mostly replaced by dark grey, mottled with brown;
wings and tail brown, the latter reddish yellow towards the
end; bill dusky; irides, orbits, and feet, brown. Length
twenty-three inches. Eggs olive-brown, spotted with dark brown
and dusky.

If, among a flock of Common Gulls, seen either following a vessel at
sea or attending on the movements of a shoal of fish, one be observed
which greatly surpasses the rest in size, it will probably be this
species, provided that it have a grey and not a black back. In the
latter case it may either be the Great or Lesser Black-backed Gull.

The Herring Gull is a large and powerful bird, thoroughly competent to
dispose of a herring or even a more bulky fish. It is common on most
parts of the British coast, and remains with us all the year, building
its nest on steep cliffs, or rocky islands. In the south of England it
is very abundant, and is more frequently seen inland, in
newly-ploughed fields, than any other species. Like the other Gulls,
it may easily be tamed if taken young; and, when kept in a garden,
earns its maintenance by keeping down slugs and other vermin.


Wings reaching two inches beyond the tail; head and neck white,
streaked (in _winter_) with brown; lower parts pure white; rest
of the upper plumage blackish grey; primaries black, the first
two with an oval white spot near the tip; secondaries and
scapulars tipped with white; bill, irides, and feet, yellow;
tarsus two and a quarter inches long; orbits red. In _young
birds_ the white plumage is mostly replaced by grey mottled
with brown, and the black by dusky edged with yellowish; the
primaries have no white spots, and the bill is dusky. Length
twenty-three inches. Eggs brownish grey, spotted with brown
and black.

This is a generally diffused species, occurring in considerable
numbers, not only on various parts of our coast, but in the Baltic,
the Mediterranean, the Black Sea, the Red Sea, and the northern parts
of America. It repairs in spring either to rocky islands, steep
cliffs, or sometimes to inland lakes, where it builds a rather large
nest of tufts of grass, and lays two or three eggs. When the young are
hatched it is very impatient of having its stronghold invaded, and
resents molestation by darting at the head of the intruder. The Lesser
Black-backed Gull breeds habitually on many parts of the coast,
especially such as are frequented by the Herring Gull. Its food and
habits are much the same as those of the Common Gull. In the South of
England, the nesting-places are confined to Devon and Cornwall, but
there are colonies on the Farne Islands, the Isle of Man and Wales.


Wings extending but little beyond the tail; legs pale
flesh-colour. Length thirty inches; breadth about five feet
nine inches. In most other respects resembling the Lesser
Black-backed Gull. Eggs stone-buff, blotched and spotted with
dusky brown.

Of the two Black-backed Gulls, the Greater, or 'Cobb', is by far the
less frequent on our coasts, and when seen generally occurs in pairs.
It remains with us all the year, but is most frequent in the south
during winter. In spring, Great Black-backed Gulls for the most part
withdraw to cliffs and rocky islands far north, as, for instance, the
Orkneys and Hebrides, where they are numerous, a few only nesting
southwards. Unlike most other Gulls, birds of this species are
unsociable even in the breeding season. They build their nests on the
most inaccessible parts of the rocks, and reserve the situation
entirely to themselves, not even permitting birds of their own species
or any other intruders to settle there. They are exceedingly wary, and
give notice of the approach of danger to other animals. Consequently,
they are held in dislike by the gunner, whether in pursuit of
sea-birds or seals. Like the rest of the Gulls, they are omnivorous,
but are, more than any others, addicted to carrion, in quest of which
they often wander inland; hence, they are sometimes called Carrion
Gulls. 'If a floating prize presents itself', says Mr. St. John, 'such
as the remains of a large fish or dead bird, it is soon discovered by
one of the large Gulls, who is not, however, allowed to enjoy his
prize alone, for every one of his fellows within sight joins in
tearing it to pieces. When I have winged a Duck, and it has escaped
and gone out to sea, I have frequently seen it attacked, and devoured
almost alive, by these birds.'

Stations occur here and there on the coast of England in which the
Great Black-backed Gull builds. It sometimes resorts to a marsh at the
breeding season, but retains its habit of driving away all intruders.
Its eggs are prized as dainties, being thought to resemble Plovers'


General plumage white; back and wings bluish grey; tail and
terminal portion of the quills white; bill strong, yellow; legs

Online LibraryC. A. (Charles Alexander) JohnsBritish birds in their haunts → online text (page 35 of 39)