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The Angler's birds


Birds of the Estuary - Summer Migrants - Winter Visitors - An Outdoor Naturalist.
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E'en in he spring and playtime of the year
That calls the -.wonted villager abroad
With all her little ones, a sportive train
To gather kingcups in the yellow mead
And prank their hair with daisies. (Cowper.)

As it is almost impossible for anyone to take up trout fishing without noticing the birds that haunt rivers, swamps, and estuaries, I have transcribed the following notes relating to those which anyone may hope to see after a few seasons' observation, either during his summer sport with rod and creel, or his winter walks with dog and friend.

It need hardly be said that when speaking of birds'-nesting, one does not mean the robbing of nests. Any careful person, who wishes to take a specimen egg for a collection, naturally prides himself upon being able to do so without causing the bird to desert; while should he even want the nest itself he can wait until the parents have placed it in the agents' hands.

Some few birds an angler is not only certain to see, but is liable to catch. The swallow, martin, sand martin, and swift will all take his fly as it blows out in the wind - a most distressing experience. In the case of the swift it is painful to both parties, for in holding the poor bird to release the hook he drives his sharp claws into the tender ski 1 between your fingers until the pain is almost unbearable. Another experience, which it is pretty to watch and does no harm to the bird, is to see a swallow lift your mayfly off the surface, carry it just a yard, and drop it again. It may even have occurred to some angler that the fly was dropped in front of a good fish out of casting distance.

On some, days the most familiar birds are the sandpiper, the water ousel, and the kingfisher. On others, the peewits circling over the meadows or the marshes. Perhaps the most ubiquitous of all is the moorhen; though not all anglers can pretend to be specially pleased with its company. Their sudden starting out of the rushes at your feet, with the totally unnecessary splashing and skurry of their flight across stream, leaves a wake of general disturbance and anathema. It most effectually puts down the fish you have been watching; besides causing a general uneasiness to all others within sight and hearing. Moorhens too are always deceiving one as to a real rise. You think the noise you heard, or the ring you saw, was a trout, whereas it has been caused by a moorhen suddenly diving. Where you cannot actually see the water under your own bank, the ' plop ' of a rat or a moorhen is annoyingly deceptive.

The Merlin.

For several years in succession, I have tried to discover a merlin's nest upon the heaths and moors of South East Devon, hut have not as yet succeeded; although, from the persistent manner that two birds frequented one spot during the latter end of May, it is certain that their eggs could have been found by anyone able to devote time to watching them through good field glasses.

I found a nest once as a boy - or rather a stable lad named Jesse did, who was with me, and who was the arch bird's-nester of the holidays - at the edge of the Hermitage Wood, near Woking. He merely called it a little hawk, but I bad no difficulty later on in identifying both nest and eggs as a merlin's. The eggs I have still, though rather faded from the rich red brown they were when freshly taken and blown. The merlin breeds far more freely in the north, the bird being by no means uncommon in Derbyshire; but during winter it is forced, like many others, to follow its food supply and migrate Southward even to the sea coast during severe weather.

Only a few years ago a friend showed me two birds which he had brought down with one shot, neither of which, he said, he had ever seen before. The one was a merlin, and the other a lesser spotted woodpecker. This was in the second week of July. They were, he said, scuffling upon the ground on the East Devon Golf Course fully a quarter of a mile from any copse, so that the woodpecker must have been chased and flown down in the open.

In winter, the merlin can be counted as one of the rarer birds to be seen near the estuary. More than once I have come across its shambles or larder - a flat stone halt way up the hillside, where odd feathers and bones bear evidence to the varied nature of Its victims. It is a graceful little falcon, hardly to be mistaken for any other species if seen in near flight. On Woodbury Common, Black Hill, and the high ground between Sidinouth and Honiton, the sight of a merlin will often be one of the rewards of a morning's walk. The tail, when extended, has a broad dark bar at the end while the upper parts are not unlike a house-sparrow in colouring. All the under parts, the throat and belly, incline to creamy white.

The Marsh Harrier.

Among the really rare birds of the estuary and marshes, the Marsh Harrier may occasionally be seen usually towards evening; a large but sombre grey form, diligently beating over the ground in a methodical manner on the outlook for a young rat, moorhen, or even a frog. As I have only twice seen it - once so close within gunshot that it could not have been missed - the species is probably very uncommon excepting in the fens of East Anglia. A little more drainage, with a little more pheasant preserving, and the Marsh Harrier in company with the bittern will exist only in museum cases.

The first time I saw the bird, he was sitting motionless on a small mound in an open part of the swamp. It was a dull forenoon with a suspicion of mist across the marshes. I took it at first to be a huge pigeon, but managed to get so close that its identification was certain, apart from the opinion of others who had seen the bird on previous occasions. As it rose, and beat away, it looked very large, its fan shaped tail being a distinguishing feature. It is very probable that a single pair of Marsh Harriers continue to frequent the estuary; and, I only hope, manage to breed there.

On the second occasion, I was walking up the ditches with a dog who was doing his best to turn something out of the rushes. Some distance behind him a large grey bird was beating along in his track, but it suddenly dropped to the ground behind a tall stack of dry rushes and never reappeared. I have no doubt it was my friend or his mate.

The Wagtails.

The Pied Wagtail. - Of the three species which are most commonly seen while fishings the pied wagtail is almost too familiar to describe. Although migratory birds, they are found, at any rate in the South of England all the year round. As the wagtails are insect feeders they may be taken as a good omen in the matter of fly upon the water; their hovering and undulatory flight across the stream often directing one's attention to a place where flies are playing round an overhanging willow, and where as a consequence a watchful trout is lying in wait below them.

The nest is not at all difficult to find being usually on the side of a bank, or an ivy-clad wall to a cart shed, or against a hay rick; containing four or five eggs of an opaque white finely speckled with pale grey or greeny brown. If, on looking out of the inn window on an April morning, the familiar pair of wagtails are hawking at flies in the road, you may expect a good day. If on the other hand you see them drop into the small dyke that skirts the garden, and paddle among the gravel and stones, do not be surprised at a blank forenoon.

The Grey Wagtail. - Some confusion often arises over the name chosen for this bird whose dominant colouring on all the under parts of the body is a pronounced, but not a bright, yellow. The term Sulphurea so well expresses it, that the Sulphur Wagtail would be a far easier term of recognition.

Although a partial migrant the Grey Wagtail is to be found on trout streams all the year round, more particularly in the winter and spring. Indeed the Grey Wagtail and the Dipper are usually the two first birds to greet you in March, as you stand on the bridge and take your rod from its case, the one dropping you a feminine curtsey and the other bobbing a bachelor bow.

This species is the most truly aquatic of the three, seldom leaving the immediate vicinity of the water, which it crosses and recrosses with the same joyous and jerky flight. Not only will they wade out freely in the shallows looking for minnows, but will move about like yellow mice on floating masses of weed and rubbish where they can only obtain an insecure foothold.

In Devonshire I have not come across the nest, although I know a certain ledge teeming with primroses, on the other side, where a pair build every year. It is too deep to wade across and too far round to prompt the walk in early spring. On the banks of the Itchen a young fellow who used to walk up the river with me found several, both in May and June, which shows that two broods must often he hatched out. These nests were Invariably among the tangled herbage on the steep bank and could not possibly have been mistaken for those of either the pied or the yellow wagtail. Besides which the' birds themselves were in constant evidence, feeding busily on the small islands of cut weed that floated downstream day after day. The eggs number five or six; whitish, clouded and mottled with olive colour.

The Yellow Wagtail. - This is Ray's Wagtail, as he is properly termed, quite unmistakable from the preceding bird when once both of them have been seen, being from throat to the under part of the tail a brilliant canary yellow. Apart from this it is altogether more delicately formed having somewhat the appearance of a yellow swallow or martin ill fitted for any north wind or rigorous frost.

It is a summer visitant; arriving in Devon towards the middle of April and departing in September. They are far less dependent upon streams, or indeed upon water of any kind for obtaining their food supply, than the Grey Wagtail. So far as I have noticed they are Usually attendant upon cattle, running backwards and forwards with a great many unnecessary airs and graces, every now and then stopping to let their tails nearly wag them off their legs, as they hawk the insects that surround fat and lazy cows. In ' Yarrell's British Birds,' the yellow wagtail is stated to be pretty numerous in summer; and, with the exception of Devonshire and Cornwall, to be found in suitable places throughout England. Yet it is in Devonshire that I chiefly associate the birds on the meadows on hot June and July afternoons, which shows how the partial migration of birds changes according to certain seasons. As a matter of fact for the last few summers they have not been ir. the meadows referred to. I cannot remember ever having seen the three species actually together, although it must often occur.

The nest of the yellow wagtail is always upon the ground, and usually softly lined. It contains four to six eggs of a gray white colour very closely mottled with brown and olive green, and occasionally streaked at the thick end after the manner of a. yellow hammer's. Two broods are reared as a rule.

The Water Rail.

A long, wet, wounded bird trying to escape up a ditch, is the impression given by the first sight of a water rail. Even if a stone manages to induce him to rise as he is slipping through the rushes, he still does so in a bedraggled manner, with legs hanging down, taking the first opportunity of dropping into cover. You may drive one under a long low cattle bridge which crosses a boggy dyke, but if you have no dog with you, it will never come out the other side. On the water too he will plop under the surface as soon as he sees you - generally before you have seen him and apparently never come up again. If there is anything in sexual selection, it seems difficult to account for a water rail ever attracting a mate. lie has the demeanour of an unsuccessful felon with the plumage of an unfashionable dowdy.

The Water Rail is an all the year resident on the estuary, skulking about the marshes at all times and seasons; seldom seen, and seldom molested. Its nest, like itself, is inconspicuous besides being very well concealed, a loose bulky structure composed of all the surrounding rubbish; placed just where foothold on the ooze- bank is treacherous and evil smelling, and is additionally protected by an overhanging tussock of grass or rush - just the place in fact which one would pass by. The eggs are smaller than a moorhen's, in number six or seven, the colouring being almost identical, buff white, speckled with darker brown or mauve. As nests with fresh eggs can be found in June it is probable that two broods are reared in the season.

At the end of May, a few years back, I came across a mother with her young chick? on the lower Itchen among some rushes in a shallow embayment. In her desperate hurry to collect them all and escape observation, one was left behind, a little fluffy black urchin, which took a wrong turning and struck out into the current, cheeping dolefully. The mother made a half turn towards it, hut catching sight of me, retreated after her family leaving the straggler to its fate.

Once in the swift current it could do nothing, so I got the landing net and ran down the bank meaning to intercept it at the next bend: but, unluckily, it had sufficient strength and sense to paddle away just out of reach as the net made a sweep for it. As I watched it carried away I wondered whether a Jack would take it, but the keeper afterwards said a rat probably swam out and seized it within the first hundred yards.

In adult plumage the water rail is a dull bird, its back a decayed brown and its under parts a muddy grey, both blending exactly with the rotted rushes above and the bare swamp beneath. It must furnish poor sport with a gun and cannot be very appetising at table. Altogether it is a depressing and low spirited bird, given to freakish flights in the dark just when the solitary angler is picking his way home between the sleeping cattle on the path and the iris clumps at the river bank. These circular flights both of water rails, and coots, can be for nothing but exercise, as they never appear to leave the swamp.

The Little Greebe. - Imagine what our life would be like, if a Krakatoa eruption, a Naini-tal landslip, a San Francisco earthquake, or a Are of Chicago, were weekly occurrences or contingencies. Yet the daily life of a Little Grebe (or Dabchick) may offer any of these diversions. A weed-cutting machine may tear its home up by the roots, or a flood carry it down through a hatch hole; to say nothing of the hourly terrors of dogs, pike, hen-harriers or water rats.

The desperate and self sacrificing courage of this bird, displayed at any moment, puts all human exploits of bravery in the shade. To pause when flushed by a spaniel, gather four tiny chicks under its wings, and then dive off the nest with them, is as ordinary an action as a man stepping aside to avoid a motor car.

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Pictures for The Angler's birds


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