C. A. (Charles Alexander) Johns.

British birds in their haunts online

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among miners. Building is an art of which they are wholly ignorant,
yet few birds are lodged more securely. With their strong beaks, they
excavate for themselves holes in the face of the cliff to the depth of
about three feet, and at the extremity the female lays a solitary
egg - solitary, that is to say, unless another bird takes shelter in
the same hole, which is not unfrequently the case. Puffins generally
show no overweening partiality for their own workmanship; sloping
cliffs which have been perforated by rabbits are favourite places of
resort; and here they do not at all scruple to avail themselves of
another's labour, or, if necessary, to eject by force of beak the
lawful tenant. If the soil be unsuited for boring, they lay their eggs
under large stones or in crevices in the rock. The old bird sits most
assiduously, and suffers herself to be taken rather than desert her
charge, but not without wounding, with her powerful beak, and to the
best of her ability, the hand which ventures into her stronghold.
Myriads burrow on Lundy Island. _Lunde_ means Puffin, and _ey_ Island,
the name being given by the old Scandinavian rovers who settled there.

The young are fed by both parents, at first on half-digested fish, and
when older on pieces of fresh fish. At this period they suffer their
colonies to be invaded without showing much alarm, and are either
shot, knocked down with a stick, or noosed without difficulty. As soon
as the young are fully fledged, all the Puffins withdraw to southern
seas, where they pass the winter, and do not approach land until the
return of the breeding season. "A small island near Skye, named
Fladda-huna, is a great breeding haunt of Puffins, a species which
arrives in the earlier part of May, literally covering the rocks and
ledgy cliffs with its feathered thousands. Although these have no
concern with our Grouse-shooting season, they almost totally disappear
on the twelfth of August."[56] It was just about this period (August
7) in the present year (1861) that I observed several large flocks of
Puffins, floating with the tide through the Sound of Islay, and was
told by an intelligent gamekeeper that "these birds habitually _swim_
through the sound at this season, but always _fly_ when returning".
The reason probably is that the young are not at the former period
sufficiently fledged to undertake a long flight, though they find no
difficulty in swimming. By spring they have attained their full
strength, and are able to adopt the more rapid mode of progress. In
Scotland there are many large colonies, also in the cliffs by
Flamborough Head, and on the Farne Islands.

Puffins and some other sea-birds appear to be either liable to a fatal
epidemic or to be surprised by some atmospheric disturbance, being
unable to resist which, they perish in large numbers. I have seen a
portion of the sea-shore in Cornwall strewed for the distance of more
than a mile with hundreds of their remains. All the softer parts had
been apparently devoured by fishes and crustaceous animals, and
nothing was left but the unmistakable parrot-like beaks. A friend
informs me that he witnessed a similar phenomenon in Norfolk, in
September, 1858; but in this instance the carcases of the birds were
not devoured, and the birds were of different kinds. He estimated that
about ninety per cent. were Guillemots, and the remainder Puffins,
Razor-bills, Scoters, and a sprinkling of Black Throated Divers. A
similar mortality among sea-birds is recorded in the _Zoologist_ as
having taken place on the coast of Norfolk, in May, 1856. On this
occasion they were so numerous as to be thought worth collecting for

Other names by which the Puffin is known are Sea Parrot, Coulterneb,
Mullet, Bottlenose; and, in Scotland, Ailsa Parrot, Tammie-Norie, and

[56] Wilson's _Voyage round the Coast of Scotland_.



Bill, with the upper mandible, nearly straight, upwards of four
inches in length; head and neck violet-black, with a double
gorget white, barred with black; upper parts black, spotted
with white; under parts white; bill black; irides brown; feet
dusky, the membranes whitish. _Young_ very like the next, but
distinguishable by their superior size and the direction of the
bill. Length thirty-three inches. Eggs dark olive-brown, with a
few spots of purplish brown.

The name Divers is, on the sea-coast, loosely applied to a _tribe_ of
sea-birds, including the Grebes, Cormorants, and other birds, which,
when pursued, place their safety in diving rather than in flying. In
works on natural history the term is, however, employed to designate
the genus COLYMBUS, and with great propriety; for, however skilled any
of the above birds may be in this mode of progression, the true divers
surpass them immeasurably. First among these in size and dignity is
the Great Northern Diver, a native of high latitudes in both
hemispheres, never perhaps coming farther south than the Shetlands for
breeding purposes, and visiting our waters only during winter.[57] The
Northern Diver, or Imber or Ember Goose, appears to be tolerably
frequent in British waters. In Scotland it prefers salt-water lochs and
sandy bays to the open sea, though occasionally seen some miles from
land. It swims deep in the water, but advances rapidly. When in
pursuit of prey it sinks beneath the surface without plunge or splash,
the head disappearing last, and it traverses perhaps two or three
hundred yards of water before it rises again. Montagu says that it
propels itself by its feet alone; Audubon, on the contrary, states
that it uses the wings under water. The latter author is most probably
correct, for it dives more swiftly than the Grebes, and these birds
undoubtedly make a vigorous use of their wings. Where shoals of small
fish, such as sand-eels and sprats, abound, or where fish even of a
much larger size are numerous, the Northern Diver finds a rich
harvest. Occasionally while thus engaged it meets its death by dashing
into the herring nets, and there getting entangled. A fine specimen
was recently shown to me in the island of Islay, which had been thus
captured. Though it has never been known to take wing in attempting to
elude pursuit, it is often seen flying with strength and rapidity,
outstripping even the Grebe, which, in proportion to its size, is
furnished with far larger wings than itself.

The adult male, which is a very handsome bird, is of rare occurrence,
most of those which visit our shores being young birds.

The nest is usually placed near the edge of a reedy lake or large
river, having a well-beaten track leading to it from the water's edge.
This is formed by the bird in its clumsy effort to walk, a feat which
it only performs on such occasions. The nest itself is bulky, and is
formed of the vegetable substances found in the immediate vicinity,
such as grasses and other herbaceous plants. It contains two, and
sometimes three, eggs. The young are able to swim and dive very soon
after they are hatched, and are fed for about a fortnight by their
parents, at the expiration of which time they have to hunt for

[57] Mr. Yarrell, vol. iii. p. 426, quotes Sir Thomas Browne as
an authority for the fact that Divers formerly bred in the
Broads of Norfolk. A careful examination of that author will
show, however, that Sir Thomas Browne had seen only a single
specimen of the Northern Diver, his 'Divers', or 'Dive-fowl',
being the Crested and Lesser Grebes, etc., which, as we have
seen above, continue to breed in the Broads.


Bill slightly curved upwards, with the middle of the lower
mandible equal in width to the base, exceeding three inches in
length; head ash-grey; throat and front of the neck black,
lustrous with violet and green; beneath the throat a narrow
band streaked with white and black; sides and front of the neck
streaked with white and black; back black, with a longitudinal
patch of white and black bars on the upper part; scapulars with
twelve or thirteen transverse white bars; bill dusky; iris
brown; feet dusky, with whitish membranes. _Young birds_ have
the head and back of the neck greyer and the upper plumage dark
brown, edged with bluish ash; under plumage white; cheeks
white, spotted with ash; upper mandible ash-grey, lower dull
white. Length twenty-four to twenty-eight inches. Eggs dark
olive-brown, spotted with purplish brown.

This Diver differs from the preceding species principally in being of
inferior size. The predominant tints of the plumage are the same, and
the habits of the two are so similar that a separate description is
unnecessary. The present species is, however, far less common, though
it breeds in the Outer Hebrides and in Scotland, where both eggs and
young birds have been observed, and migrates southward in winter. It
lays two eggs, near the edge of a fresh-water loch; and Mr. Selby
observed that a visible track from the water to the eggs was made by
the female, whose progress upon land is effected by shuffling along
upon her belly, propelled by her legs behind. In the breeding season
the old birds are often seen on the wing, at which time also they have
a peculiar and loud cry, which has been compared to the voice of a
human being in distress.


Red Necked Grebe.

Black Necked or Eared Grebe.

Slavonian Grebe.

Great Crested Grebe [F] Winter [M] Summer

[_face p. 298_.]]


Manx Shearwater [M]

Stormy Petrel

Fork Tailed Petrel [F]



Bill slightly curved upwards, with the edges of both mandibles
much incurved, not exceeding three inches in length; head,
throat, and sides of the neck mouse-colour; crown spotted with
black; neck both above and below marked with white and black
lines; on the front of the neck a large orange-coloured patch;
back dusky brown; lower parts white. _Young birds_ - upper
plumage mouse-colour, darker on the back, where it is marked by
longitudinal white lines; wings dusky; feathers on the flanks
dusky, some of them edged with white; all the under plumage
pure white. Length twenty-six inches. Eggs chestnut-brown,
spotted with darker brown.

The name 'Loon,' given in some districts to the Crested Grebe, is
elsewhere given to the Red-throated Diver. The term is an old one, for
our countrymen, Ray and Willughby, quoting yet more ancient
authorities, describe the Northern Diver under the name of 'Loon', and
the Black-throated Diver under that of 'Lumme', the latter being the
name of the bird in Iceland and Norway, and the former probably an
English corruption of the same word, which in the original signifies

On no part of our coast must we expect to hear this bird popularly
called by the name of 'Red-throated', for, though common on many parts
of the coast, almost all the specimens observed are young birds of the
year, which have the throat pure white. Several were brought to me by
the sea-side gunners on the coast of Norfolk. In May birds with red
throats are noticed. A writer in the _Zoologist_[58] says that they
are very numerous in winter off the coast of the Isle of Wight,
passing and repassing in small flocks and in two lines about a mile
apart. Of the hundreds which fell under his notice one only had a red
throat, and this was captured under singular circumstances. On April
24, 1839, some fishermen observed an object floating which they
imagined was a keg of spirits, but which proved to be a large fish of
the kind known as the Fishing Frog, or Angler. On hauling it on board
with their boat-hooks, the fishermen discovered that the animal had
nearly choked himself by swallowing, tail foremost, an adult
Red-throated Diver. The head of the bird protruded from the throat
into the mouth of the captor, and, strange to say, it had not only
survived its imprisonment, but was unhurt. It was extricated and
presented to the Zoological Gardens, where it lived for six months.
Another writer in the same magazine[59] says that he saw a large
number in Norway during the breeding season, but not one without the
dark red throat.

This species, like the rest of the genus, obtains its food by diving;
when pursued it rarely tries to escape by taking wing, though it has
the power of flying with great rapidity. During the breeding season
especially, it often flies about over the water with its long neck
outstretched, and uttering a wailing scream.

I am informed by a friend, that while fishing in a boat in calm water
off the coast of North Devon, he has many times seen Divers pass
through the water, at a considerable depth below, propelling
themselves by a free and active use of their wings.

From October to May only these Divers frequent our coast. Towards the
end of spring they withdraw northwards and build their nests, of
coarse grass and other herbs, close to the edge of a fresh-water loch.
They lay two eggs, and the male is said to take his turn in the office
of incubation. Many stay to breed in the Orkneys and Outer Hebrides,
and in Ireland.

[58] Vol. iii. p. 974.

[59] _Zoologist_, vol. ix. p. 3084.



Bill longer than the head, reddish, the tip white; distance
from the nostril to the tip seventeen or eighteen lines; cheeks
white; crest and ruff dark brown and chestnut; upper plumage
dark brown; secondaries white; breast and under parts silky
white; bill brownish red; irides red; feet dull green.
_Female_ - crest and ruff less conspicuous, colours generally
less bright. _Young birds_ have neither crest nor ruff. Length
twenty-one inches. Eggs white.

The Great Crested Grebe is thus described by Sir Thomas Browne, under
the name of Loon: 'A handsome and specious fowl, cristated, and with
divided fin-feet placed very backward. They come about April, and
breed in the broad waters; so making their nest in the water, that
their eggs are seldom dry while they are set on.' Fifty years ago the
Loon continued to be so common on the Broads of Norfolk that eighteen
or twenty might be counted together. It is more or less resident in
England and Wales - in the meres of the Midlands and the lakes of
Breconshire, and has lately bred in the vicinity of the Clyde.

The movements of this bird in the water are described as most
graceful; in swimming it vies with the Swan, and it is a skilful
diver. As seen perched up in a museum its form is ungainly, but in its
native element it might serve as the standard of perfection among
water birds. The legs, compressed so as to present a sharp edge, cut
the water with a minimum of resistance; the webbed feet are placed so
far backwards that they fulfil at once the office of propellers and
rudder; the body is conical and covered with satiny plumage, which
throws off water as perfectly as the fur of the otter; the long neck
tapers to exceedingly narrow dimensions and terminates in a small head
produced into a slender bill. The conformation of the greyhound is not
better adapted for fleet running than that of the Grebe for rapid
diving. The chase, I need scarcely add, consists of fish; but the
Loon will feed on frogs, tadpoles, and any other small animals which
fall in its way. It frequents fresh water during the summer months,
but on the approach of winter repairs to the sea, not, it would seem,
from any desire of varying its food, but to avoid being frozen up. It
builds its nest among rushes or decaying weeds, but little above the
level of the water, and lays four eggs, the male assisting his partner
in the office of incubation.

The young can dive and swim immediately that they are hatched; but if
the mother be suddenly alarmed while they are with her, she takes them
under her wing and dives with them.

The name Loon is supposed to be a corruption of the Finnish
designation, Leomme or Lem, 'lame', given to several of the
_Colymbidæ_ on account of the awkwardness with which they advance on

The Loon is found in lakes throughout a great portion of both the
eastern and western hemispheres, but not very far to the north. It
rarely flies, except at the period of migration, when it passes
swiftly through the air, with neck and feet extended to their full


Bill as long as the head, black, yellow at the base; distance
from the nostrils to the tip eleven lines; crest very short;
head and crest lustrous black; cheeks and throat mouse-colour;
a black band along the nape; breast bright rust-red; lower
parts white; flanks spotted with dusky; feet black, greenish
yellow beneath. _Young birds_ have the head, neck, and back,
dusky; throat, cheeks, breast, belly, and abdomen, silky white;
sides of the breast spotted with grey. Length sixteen inches.
Eggs dirty greenish white.

The Red-necked Grebe is smaller than the Loon, from which it differs
also in wanting the elongated crest, in having a more robust bill in
proportion to its size, and is further distinguished by the grey hue
of its cheeks, on account of which last character it is known in
France under the name of _Grébe Jou-gris_. It is a native of the
north-eastern parts of Europe, and is fairly common along the eastern
coast of Great Britain from autumn to spring. In habits it differs
little from the last described species, but is less common, occurring
both in fresh-water lakes and along the sea-coast.


Bill strong, shorter than the head, compressed throughout its
whole length, black, with the tip red; eyes with a double iris,
the inner yellow, the outer red; distance from the nostrils to
the tip of the bill six or seven lines; head and bushy ruff
glossy black; two horn-like crests orange-red; lore, neck, and
breast, bright chestnut; upper plumage dusky; secondaries and
under parts white; bill black, rose-coloured at the base and
red at the tip. _Young_ - crest and ruff wanting; upper plumage
and flanks dusky ash, under parts white; irides white,
surrounded by red. Eggs dirty white.

The Slavonian, or Horned Grebe, approaches so closely in habits to the
two preceding species that it is unnecessary to say more than that it
inhabits the northern parts of America and Europe, visiting us from
autumn to spring. Audubon describes its nest as a rude structure of
weeds, situated at a distance of about twelve feet from the water's
edge; but other authors state that though it constructs its nest of
these materials, it disposes it among weeds in such a way that it
rises and falls with every alteration in the level of the water. It
lays from five to seven eggs, and the male is supposed to assist in
the office of incubation.


In summer the head and neck of this species are black, with a
triangular patch of long golden-reddish feathers on the
ear-coverts. Breast and belly white - flanks a dull chestnut,
bill black, upcurved slightly. In winter it resembles the last
named Grebe in plumage, excepting that it is white on the
primaries. Length twelve inches.

This is essentially a bird of the south, visiting us in spring and
summer, but also now and again in autumn and winter, but this more
rarely. It is said to have bred occasionally in the southern counties,
and more often in Suffolk and Norfolk. To the north it becomes more
scarce, although it has been observed up to the Orkneys. Just a few
instances are recorded from Cumberland, but the bird is rare on our
western side. Very few have been met with in Ireland. In Algeria it is
said to nest in "societies more densely crowded than any rookery," the
nests being raised on islets with stout foundations constructed by the
bird. In Denmark the nests observed were on tussocks at the edge of
the lake, and they were made of moss, part of which the female used to
cover her eggs with on leaving them.


Bill very short, shining, compressed; no crest or ruff;
distance from nostrils to tip of the bill five lines; tarsus
with a double row of serratures behind; head black; cheeks
bright chestnut; breast and flanks dusky, mottled with white;
upper parts dark brown, tinged with green; primaries ash-brown;
secondaries white at the base and on the inner web, under parts
dusky ash, tinged on the thighs with reddish; bill black,
whitish at the tip and base of the lower mandible; irides
reddish brown; feet externally greenish brown, beneath
flesh-colour. _Young birds_ are ash-brown above, slightly
tinged with red; breast and flanks reddish white; belly pure
white; bill brown and yellowish ash. Length nearly ten inches.
Eggs dirty white.

The Lesser Grebe, or, as it is more commonly called, the Dabchick, is
the only species with which it is possible to become familiarly
acquainted in Britain. It frequents rivers, ponds, and lakes, in all
parts of the country, rarely flying, and still more rarely coming to

Rambling by the side of a sluggish river, the sides of which are lined
with reeds or bulrushes, one may often descry, paddling about with
undecided motion, what appears to be a miniature Duck no longer than a
Blackbird. It does not, like the Moor-hen, swim with a jerking
movement, nor when alarmed does it half swim and half fly in a direct
line for the nearest bank of weeds. If you are unobserved, it swims
steadily for a short distance, then suddenly disappears, making no
splash or noise, but slipping into the water as if its body were
lubricated. It is diving for its food, which consists of water
insects, molluscs, small fish and worms. As suddenly as it dives so
suddenly does it reappear, most likely not far from the spot where you
first observed it:

A di-dapper peering through a wave,
Who, being looked on, ducks as quickly in.

Another short swim and it dives again; and so it goes on, the time
spent under the water being far in excess of that employed in taking
breath. Advance openly or make a noise, it wastes no time in idle
examinations or surmises of your intentions, but slips down as before,
not, however, to reappear in the same neighbourhood. Its motives are
different: it now seeks not food, but safety, and this it finds first
by diving, and then by propelling itself by its wings under water in
some direction which you cannot possibly divine; for it by no means
follows that it will pursue the course to which its bill pointed when
it went down. It can alter its line of flight beneath the water as
readily as a swallow can change its course of flight through the air.
But wherever it may reappear, its stay is now instantaneous; a trout
rising at a fly is not more expeditious. You may even fail to detect
it at all. It may have ensconced itself among weeds, or it may be
burrowing in some subaqueous hole. That it has the power of remaining
a long while submerged, I have no doubt. There is in the parish of
Stamford Dingley, Berks, a large and beautiful spring of water, clear
as crystal, the source of one of the tributaries of the Thames. I was
once bending over the bank of this spring, with a friend, watching the
water, some five or six feet down, as it issued from a pipe-like
orifice and stirred the sand around like the bubbling of a cauldron,
when there suddenly passed between us and the object we were examining
a form so strange that we were at first doubtful to what class of
animals we should refer it. In reality, it was a Dabchick, which,
alarmed probably by the noise of our conversation, was making for a
place of safety. As it passed within two or three feet of our faces,
we could distinctly see that it propelled itself by its wings; but it
appeared not to have observed us, for it kept on in a direct course
towards the head of the spring. We searched long in the hope of
discovering it again, but failed; and as there were no weeds among
which it could possibly hide above water, and we could examine the
bottom of the spring almost as thoroughly as if it contained air only,
we could but conclude that our apparition had taken refuge in a hole

Online LibraryC. A. (Charles Alexander) JohnsBritish birds in their haunts → online text (page 37 of 39)