Twelve Months’ Notes on Birds in the South Hams District (1912)

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Author(s): Elliot. E. A. S.; Year published: 1912; Origin: DA Transactions; Pages: 605-610
Topic(s): ornithology; Location(s): 

By E. A. S. Elliot, M.R.C.S., M.B.O.U. (Read at Exeter, 25th July, 1912.)

There is no doubt the Wild Birds Preservation Act is having some effect in increasing certain species of birds, and whether these birds are of use to man or not is a moot point. For instance, the Common Buzzard is largely on the increase, which preys mainly on rabbits – now a somewhat valuable asset to the tenant farmer, in spite of what he may say to the contrary, for in some cases I have known the rent paid by the sale of rabbits alone – therefore it is not surprising to find that, in spite of this increase, numbers of the birds are destroyed, as evidenced by our local taxidermist having three of these birds in hand at the same time during the winter. It is possible some of these birds were migrants from the north, driven south by the severity of the winter: let us hope so, for a more interesting bird of prey to watch than a Buzzard is hard to find, circling round and round in ever-widening circles high over head in calm or storm, on the look-out for the unsuspecting bunny.

An interesting pheasant was shot off a hedge close to the precincts of the town last January, and was brought to me for identification. It proved to be a cross between a Reeves’s Pheasant and a Chinese. A brief description of the plumage will show this. There was a broad white stripe over the orbit on each side, a broad white ring around the neck, the supra-scapular feathers were broadly edged buff and the upper tail-coverts buff, tipped with green, but the tail was barred, characteristic of the species known as Hagenbeckers. The tail was broadly barred and considerably longer than in a common pheasant. The nearest place where any Reeves’s occurred in a wild state was six miles away, so that we may reasonably suppose the bird that strayed was a female, as a male bird would have been spotted and shot long before it got so far with its six-foot-long tail. I would have liked to have said a word or two upon the general subject of hybridism and its effect on the origin of species, but the time at my disposal is too short. I can only relate my experience with a friend of mine. I was talking to a farmer once about hybridism in fowls, but he evidently misunderstood me, for his answer was, “Why, bless ‘e, sir, there baint no high breeds in fowls; us only find they in the haristocracy.”

A specimen of the White-eyed Duck was shot between the quays at Kingsbridge the end of January. The history of this duck is somewhat interesting, as only two have ever been shot in the county before. This freshwater duck is a summer migrant to the South and Central parts of Europe only, from Kashmir and Northern India, and it is a rare occasional visitor to our Eastern Counties in the spring months, while its appearance anywhere in the West Country can only be regarded as accidental, and it is singular that the only three instances of its occurrence should have been in winter. These winter occurrences of a duck which is, in general, only a summer migrant from the far South, may be compared with the appearance of the Red-footed Falcon, also a summer migrant from the South, in the West of England in the winter months, and are not a little puzzling. The scientific name of the bird is somewhat interesting to trace, for the first naturalist who described the bird in 1788 failed to recognize the peculiar colour of the iris, and was struck only by the rusty colour of its plumage, thus giving it its specific name as that of Ferruginea, retaining the generic title of Anas, thus placing it in the same genus as the Wild Duck, with which it has no affinity whatever. The generic name as now recognized, Nyroca, is an abortive and Latinized name from the Russian name Ootna Nyrok, which is equivalent to white eye.

It is somewhat curious that two of the rarest of the Anatidae that have ever been obtained in the neighbourhood in the last forty years have so narrowly escaped the fate of falling victims to the cooking-pot. The first instance was that of a Pink-footed Goose, and now this bird was ordained for a Sunday dinner, but was rescued just in time, to “cast its shadow on the rungs of fame, and leave its feathers to proclaim the same”, rather than descend to the depths of Avernus or the pot. At the end of February I was brought a Scaup Duck which had been shot on Torcross Ley. This bird must not be considered a rare bird in the general acceptation of the word, as it occurs in countless thousands at this time of the year off the East Coast, where it finds abundant sustenance on the scalp (whence the name) or mussel beds so frequently met with in the German Ocean. It is incredible to what depths these birds dive to obtain their food – various species of mollusca – specimens of the bird having been found in nets or crab-pots as deep as thirty fathoms. To enable the bird to keep below the surface of the water for so long a period – often exceeding five minutes – Nature has perfected a curious yet wonderful means to an end, namely, a dilatation of the windpipe capable of expansion, just before its entrance into the lungs, enabling the bird to store its supply of air in the same way the ship of the desert does its water. Again, this species is singularly tolerant of sound, and it almost seems as if Nature in allowing the bird to descend to such great depths had abrogated the bird’s hearing apparatus to a great extent, for many years ago I came across a small flock of these duck feeding just off the northern end of the Salt Stone, and on firing two barrels into the flock, killed some, yet the others kept on feeding as if nothing had happened, enabling the gun to be charged twice more, until the whole flock were secured. A wild-fowler has no ––––– inside.

May 5. I come in from the garden whilst the tragedy is green in my memory. Sitting outside the greenhouse, a bird glides swiftly over my head low down, with wings fast closed, which I instantly recognize as a male Sparrowhawk; its objective is evidently a few gardens below. Yes! there is a Blackbird singing in a small ash tree, oh, so blithely, to his mate, no doubt sitting on a nest close by, but in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, the songster is dead and being carried over my head again to the hungry progeny of the robber, whose blood I would willingly have shed if I had been given the opportunity; but there! the deepest feelings have the fewest words.

“All is hushed, and nothing that has life is visible during tempestuous weather.” Thus wrote a poet who was not a naturalist, for only this morning (4 Nov., 1911), whilst the gale was at its height, one was able to observe several birds of interest, never seen in the estuary except under exigencies produced by a hurricane of wind and rain. First one observed the common Estuarine Gull, the red-legged, flying low close to the quay walls, seeking any small bits of offal that might be floating from the moored shipping; one could almost touch them as they tried to beat against the gale. Then out by High House Point were seen an innumerable number of various species of sea-gulls on the wing, because, as it was high tide, they seemed not to know where to seek shelter. Numbers of Great Black-backed Gulls and Lesser also were noticed, rare visitors inland except during stormy weather, and, above all, a common Skua, which very seldom enters our estuaries, keeping well out to sea. The Skua family, four in number, which occur on our coasts at certain seasons, is an interesting one, but from exigencies of space we must refer those interested to any text-book on Ornithology for the reason. Their generic title, Stercorarius, will afford a clue – it was an erroneous name given by Linnaeus. The fact is, the Skuas chase the unfortunate Gulls on the wing and make them disgorge their well-earned meal, and catch the fish ere it reaches the water. Their beak is quite raptorial in character. An interesting account is given by Sir Walter Buller. He writes: “As is well known, this bird usually subsists by plunder, pursuing the Gulls and compelling them to disgorge their food. Here, however, the conditions were changed, as I myself had an opportunity of observing from the box-seat. The Skua had alighted in a shallow beach stream, and was ducking its body in the water, when a fine old Hawk (Lucus gouldi), with hoary white plumage, suddenly appeared from the sand-hills and swooped down upon this intruder. The Skua, without making any show of resistance, instantly disgorged from his crop the entire body of a Diving Petrel. The Hawk, balancing himself for a moment with outspread tail, dropped his long talons into the stream, and clutched up his prey without wetting a feather of his plumage, and then disappeared with it among the sand-hills, while the terrified Skua hurried off, only to be pursued again by the clamorous sea-gulls.”

Far away swarmed in the sky are seen a huge flock of wild-fowl, instantly recognized by their colour and flight, which presently, after sundry wheelings, sought shelter under the low cliffs of Decoy Pool. Not often is it vouchsafed to ordinary mortals to see such a collection of seafowl in such a prescribed space, and only under such conditions of weather is it possible.

There were an extraordinary number of wild-fowl in the neighbourhood during the winter, notably the Common Mallard. They mostly flocked in the lower waters of the Avon, and very few were obtained on account of their extreme wariness. There has been a great increase of wood-pigeons in the South Hams this year, in spite of organized shoots and epidemic disease (diphtheria); so that Nature’s apparent attempt to check any great increase of this destructive species in ordaining the laying of two eggs in a clutch is of no avail, especially when we take into consideration that the bird often lays as many as three clutches in a season, the first as early as March, and the last as late as October.

On Sunday, 17 March, I noticed a great gathering of Cormorants (P. carbo) high up in the estuary, over fifty being counted. It was low tide at the time, and the birds seemed restless, diving in the extremely shallow water and coming up again every few seconds, and swimming round and round each other. It requires little stretch of the imagination to believe the birds were collected for the purpose of pairing, the species being early breeders. On 20 March all the birds had left for their breeding quarters.

Another interesting feature of the spring was the nesting of a pair of Greater Spotted Woodpecker in the stump of an old tree just opposite my bedroom window, which is situated in a busy thoroughfare. The incessant tapping of these birds in search of food often woke me at an unseemly hour of the morning. Once I had the curiosity to try to time the strokes of their beak, and found it no easy task, but it panned out at something like 350 strokes a minute, and this with an interval of two seconds between each twelve or fifteen strokes. No wonder, then, the muscles of the neck of this species are extremely well developed. The strokes were so rapid as to be constituted vibratory. A year or two ago a male bird was brought me picked up dead in the same grounds.

In the same compound a pair of Stock Doves nested, and the incessant shoo-shooing note of the male bird, even before dawn, I found most irritating. One can put up with the soft coo-coo of the Cushat Dove, but the other note is absolutely distracting.

May 17. On lifting the blind early this morning, far away in the eastern horizon I noticed a bird which even at that distance loomed large, and presently I identified it as a Peregrine Falcon, probably an old friend, as in previous springs I have noticed this species as nesting in our cliffs. And once I fired at one near its eyrie, and missed, owing to the rolling of the boat; but its mate instantly dashed at me, and I only escaped a nasty scratch by dodging behind the sail. One can always identify a Peregrine or a Buzzard, no matter how far off, for the former has an attenuate wing, the latter a rounded.

June 22. During the summer I have observed not only one, but a pair, quartering the distant hills early in the morning.

Other writings by E. A. S Elliot