Twelve Months’ Notes on Birds in the South Hams District (1899)

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Author(s): Elliot. E. A. S.; Year published: 1899; Origin: DA Transactions; Pages: 326-330
Topic(s): ornithology; Location(s): 

Full title: “Twelve Months’ Notes on Birds in the South Hams District (August, 1898–1899)

By E. A. Savage Elliot, M.R.C.S., Member British Ornithologists’ Union. (Read at Great Torrington, August, 1899.)

Towards the end of last August I received from Salcombe a Crossbill, which was picked up dead, having flown against some wire netting. On inquiry I found a considerable flock frequenting the gardens and fir plantations around the town, and I found evidence of the birds’ work on the fir cones strewing the ground in many places, and also on the early apples in the gardens. This flock remained in the neighbourhood till the beginning of October, and during the same time flocks were observed at Modbury, Barnstaple (in the cherry orchards), at Honiton, and in many other places in the southern counties, so the irruption was very large and extensive. These birds are the nomads of avian life, wandering, as their food-supplies fail, to pastures new, whether they be in the dense forests of Scandinavia or the olive groves of sunny Spain; local forms, not entitled even to sub-specific rank, occur all over the world, except Australasia, with similar nomadic habits. After losing sight of the Salcombe flock for some weeks, they were discovered early in December working the apples in an orchard at Beeson, a village near the Start, and making such havoc that many were shot in the hope of driving the rest away. Unfortunately large duck-shot was used, so the birds were cut to ribbons, and it was found impossible to save any. However, I was able to examine the crops, which all contained apple-pips, with the brown outer husk carefully rejected; and as in the last specimen I examined the mouth, whole (esophageal tract, and crop were stuffed full of pips, either whole or in halves, I had the curiosity to count them. There were seventy-two whole pips. Assuming that an apple has its average quota of five pips, the amount of damage done by the vast flocks recorded as visiting England in the years 1251 and 1593 may be well imagined. You are all doubtless acquainted with the beautiful German legend which accounts for the name crossbill, derived from the curious formation of its beak, and for its crimson-tinted breast, which has been rendered into verse by Longfellow, of which the following are some lines:–

“At the ruthless nail of iron,
A little bird is striving there.
And that bird is called the crossbill,
Covered all with blood so clear.”

Towards the end of September two White Storks frequented the estuary, and one was shot in Aveton Gifford marshes on September 28th. It proved to be an adult male.

On account of the openness of the weather during the past winter no wild fowl of note were observed, but large numbers of Common Wigeon were shot, principally at night, on the estuary. One subject of interest occurred during the winter, and that was a large flock of Fieldfares that frequented the hills above Sorley. I never knew this species to occur in the South Hams except in severe weather; yet these birds came to us in an exceptionally mild winter, and remained till April 10th, when I saw the last of them. At all times they were very shy, and latterly became quite unapproachable. They had assumed their beautiful nuptial dress ere they departed for their Scandinavian breeding quarters.

As is usually the case, the Wheatear heralded the advent of the spring migration, three or four being noticed on the rabbit warren at Thurlestone as early as March 13th. On April 12th I met with an immense flock of Golden Plover in full summer plumage at Huish Ley. By the aid of binoculars it was interesting to watch the male birds sparring one with the other, and running round in a circle birds presumably of the opposite sex. These birds left on the 14th for their breeding quarters. On the 15th an adult male Night Heron was brought me, which had been shot on the estuary. As is the case with all rare and strange birds, the usual question was asked me: “Please, what is it?” – showing how curiosity prompts the fatal shot. The story of the attempts of the night heron to become acclimatised in Devon is indeed a sad one.

Early in the month, whilst perambulating the moor, I found, some distance away out, in the heart of the moor,

“Where the fox loves to kennel, the buzzard to soar
All boundless and free, o’er the rugged Dartmoor,”

three Common Buzzards’ nests, built, as is always the case, in a most substantial manner, but placed in these instances in low thorn bushes about eight or ten feet from the ground, and not a hundred yards apart from each other. One was a very ancient structure, another was of more recent date, whilst the third appeared to me to be of this year’s building, but it contained no eggs.

I am glad to report an increase in the number of Goldfinches in our district; I have noticed a good number myself, and have had several reports of small flocks seen in the neighbourhood.

On May 18th a Hoopoe was caught in a trap set for hawks at Halwell. The Hoopoe is a most luckless bird and is always getting into trouble, either being shot because it is thought to have escaped from some aviary, or else putting its foot into it in some other way. These birds occur with some regularity every spring in our district. Last year three were seen together near Batson, and one has frequented a rectory garden in the neighbourhood three seasons in succession, but has unfortunately found no mate wherewith to pair and nest.

During this month (June) and up to the end of it, three Scaup Duck, two males and a female, frequented the estuary, a very late date for these birds to be so far south.

Of course many of you must have seen the correspondence in the Western Morning News about the Nightingales in Devonshire. It is wise to receive statements of this bird’s occurrence in the county with caution, as the bird has not, for reasons still unknown, spread its range to the south-west peninsula – that is, not in numbers like one is accustomed to in the home counties. However, I convinced myself, by a personal visit to the spot, that the bird heard and seen at Bovey Tracey was a Nightingale. At the time of my visit the foliage of the elm trees in which the bird was singing was so thick that I found it impossible to get a glimpse of the songster, but can the practised ear ever mistake the water-bubble note of the Nightingale? And now (June 24th), in further confirmation, I hear from the observers at Bovey that the nest was found containing young, and that they left the nest on the 14th inst, and were seen being fed by the parent birds. The nest, being of no further use to the birds, was sent to me, and I in turn submitted it to the authorities at the Natural History Museum, South Kensington, who write corroborating the identity beyond the shadow of a doubt. It is curious what mistakes people make about this bird. Some imagine because they hear a bird singing after dark that it must be a Nightingale; but many species of warblers during the breeding season sing at night. A young clergyman once reported a number of Nightingales singing at Torcross; they turned out to be Reed Warblers, and these birds go by the name of Torcross Nightingales to this day. Again, at Woolacombe last year a spot was pointed out to me in a gully close to the new hotel, with no tree within miles, where a Nightingale was stated to have sung nightly the previous year. No one who knows the habits of the bird could think of its frequenting such a spot; doubtless it was a Sedge Warbler.

The spring migration proved somewhat disappointing, as no Waders visited the estuary except a large flock of Dunlin, very few Yellow Wagtails were seen, and no Whinchats.

Towards the end of May two Sheldrakes occurred at Bantham; though male and female they were not quite fully adult, and I do not think breeding birds. I hear on reliable authority that there is a large increase of this species at Braunton Burrows this summer, which is a matter for congratulation, for, although worthless for the table, this is one of the most beautiful of British ducks.

It was of general remark that the Cuckoo was more numerous than usual this season, his familiar note being heard almost incessantly through the day and far into the night; and what is more remarkable, his note has not cracked this month, and is still heard up to the time of writing (June 25th).

As regards birds in their breeding haunts, only two or three instances call for remark. In one stretch of furze I found three Linnets’ nests; all containing perfectly white eggs, except one egg which was slightly spotted with brown, this is, I believe, a unique experience, and can only be accounted for, I think, by the assumption of a local race laying an aberrant type of egg.

The eggs laid by Marsh Hens of Slapton Ley will be found larger, paler in ground colour, and with spots smaller in size, more evenly distributed over the whole surface, and darker in colour than in the usual type, thus assimilating the Coot’s egg. Such cases of mimicry are not unusual in bird life, where a species of feeble protective habits assimilates itself to a species of somewhat similar habits, but with a stronger protective influence.

The Reed Warblers, after being very scarce the past two years both on Slapton and Thurlestone Leys, have returned in greater numbers than ever, and their nests contained the full complement of eggs by the end of May.

A keeper drew my attention to a curious instance of a Sparrow Hawk’s nesting. As is well known, not only sparrow hawks, but other birds of prey as well as other species, repair to the same site year after year for nesting. This knowledge is valuable to the keepers, who look up these haunts and try to shoot the old birds before they hatch out their eggs. On this occasion he shot the female as she came off the nest, and this satisfied him, but on visiting the spot later he was surprised at another female flying off; on climbing to the nest he found that the male must have found another mate, as they had built a second nest over and into the old one, which contained four eggs, whilst the freshly—built nest contained five. This shows the inherent proclivity of this species to build on old remains of a nest, also a sad lack of discretion unless we assume an overpowering attachment to a long-used nesting site.

In a paper recording the century’s work in Ornithology in the Kingsbridge district and contributed two years since, I regretted the fact that the last resting-place of the Father of British Ornithology, Colonel Montagu, who lived and died here in 1815, could not be ascertained.

Kingsbridge Church is now being restored and reseated, and the workmen, by the merest chance, on removing the soil over a vault in the south aisle, close to the altar, came across a breastplate with the following inscription:–

“George Montagu, Esq.,
Born the 8th of June, 1755,
Died June the 20th, 1815.
Aged 62.”

Thus all doubts as to where the mortal remains of this distinguished naturalist lie are set at rest. The fact of the plate not being in the vault gives point to the ugly stories afloat as to the despoiling of the coffins of their leaden shells when the church was restored forty years ago.

A discrepancy will be noticed between the dates and age stated, which is probably the fault of the undertaker. The Colonel was in his sixty-first year when he died.

Other writings by E. A. S. Elliot