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Life of a Scotch Naturalist, Thomas Edward
Chapter XII. Rambles among Birds


The Rev. Mr. Smith must have felt surprised at the graphic manner in which Edward described the birds of the district. The truth is, that Edward, though he had acquired his principal knowledge from observation, had also learned something from books. Mr. Smith had lent him such books as he had in his library, and also referred him to the articles on natural history in the Penny Cyclopedia. Although Edward did not accept his friend’s advice as to the study of grammar, yet he learned enough for his purpose. It is not so much by recollecting the rules of grammar that one learns to write, as by the careful reading of well-written books. After that, grammar comes, as it were, by nature. Besides, if a man feels keenly, he will be sure to write vividly. This was precisely Edward’s position.

Mr. Smith thought it unfortunate that Edward’s contributions to natural history should be confined to the local newspaper. He asked permission to send an account of his observations to a scientific journal. Edward expressed his fears lest his contributions might not be found worthy of notice. He was always shy and modest: perhaps he was too modest. There are cases in which shyness is almost a misfortune. A man may know much ; but, because of his shyness, he declines to communicate his information to others. He hides his secret, and nobody is the wiser for his knowledge. He is too bashful. He avoids those who might be friendly to him, and who might help him. Edward often stood in his own light in this way.

Mr. Smith, however, persevered. He obtained from Edward some notes of his observations, and, after correcting them, he offered to send them to the Zoologist, and publish them under his own name. “I have no doubt,” he said, “that the articles would be acceptable to the editor; but, if you do not approve of this plan, I hope you will not for a moment allow me to interfere with you. At all events, I trust that you will have no objection to let the information be known to a much wider circle of readers, and especially of zoologists, than are likely to consult the pages of the Banffshire Journal.”

Edward at last gave his consent; and in the Zoologist for 1850* Mr. Smith inserted a notice of the sanderlings which had been shot by Edward on the sands of Boyndie. In the following year Mr. Smith inserted in the same magazine a notice of the spinous shark which Edward had seen under Gamric Head. I “In order,” says Mr. Smith, “to determine whether it was the spinous shark or not, I sent Mr. Edward the 39th volume of the ‘Naturalist’s Library,’ which contains an account, by Dr. Hamilton, of Edinburgh, of the Squahdjj, or family of sharks, and in which there is a colored engraving of this particular shark. In reply, Mr. Edward observes, "I have now no doubt whatever that the animal discovered and examined by me was the spinous shark.’ ”

In another article Mr. Smith described Edward in the following terms: “I have of tern er than once made mention in the Zoologist of Mr. Thomas Edward, shoe-maker in Banff, who is a zealous admirer of nature and an excellent preserver of animals. Occasionally he tears himself, as it were, from the employment to which necessity compels him, and slakes his thirst for the contemplation of zoological scenes and objects by a solitary ramble amidst the mountains and hills which so greatly abound in the upper portion of the shires of Aberdeen and Banff. Of some of his adventures during a ramble of this description he has sent me an account. This I consider so interesting that I have rewritten it, and now submit it for insertion in the Zoologist. The facts, the ideas, and the reflections are all his own, and in many parts I have retained his own impressions. Upon the accuracy and the minuteness of his observations, and upon his veracity of character, the utmost reliance may at all times be placed.”

The paper that follows consists of the description of a ramble, extending over several days, in the hill districts near Noth and Kirnie. It is not necessary to transcribe the whole paper; but we may select the following passages as showing the keen observation as well as the character of the man. Edward had entered a narrow glen, at the bottom of which runs the burn called Ness Bogie. He was listening to the voice of the cuckoo, and the clap-clap of the ring-pigeons, which rose in great numbers, when an abrupt turn of the road brought him, suddenly and unexpectedly, within a few yards of a beautiful heron.

“I immediately stood still,” he says. “The upright and motionless attitude of the bird indicated plainly that he had been taken by surprise; and for the moment he seemed, as it were, stunned and incapable of flight. There he remained, as if fastened to the spot, his bright yellow eye staring me full in the face, and with an expression that seemed to inquire what right I had to intrude into solitudes where the human form is so rarely seen. As we were thus gazing at each other, in mutual surprise at having met in such a place, I observed his long slender neck quietly and gradually doubling down upon his breast. His dark and lengthened plumes were at the same time slightly shaken. I knew by this that he was about to rise; another moment, and he was up. Stretching his long legs behind him, he uttered a scream so dismal, wild, and loud that the very glen and hills re-echoed the sound, and the whole scene was instantly filled with clamor. The sandpiper screamed its kittie-needie; the pigeon cooed; the pipit, with lively emotion, came flying round me, uttering all the while its peeping note ; the moorcock sprung with whirring wing from his heath lair, and gave forth his well-known and indignant birr birr-hick; the curlew came sailing down the glen with steady flight, and added to the noise with his shrill and peculiar notes of poo-elie poo-elie coorlie coorlie wha-up; and, from the loftier parts of the hills, the plovers ceased not their mournful wail, which accorded so well with the scene of which I alone appeared to be a silent spectator. But I moved not a foot until the alarmed inmates of the glen and the mountain had disappeared, and solemn stillness had again resumed its sway.” On the following day, while crossing the Clashmauch, on his way to Huntly, Edward observed a curlew rise from a marshy part of the hill, to which he bent his steps in hopes of finding her nest. In this, however, he was disappointed; but, in searching about, and within a few feet of the remains of a wreath of snow, he came upon a wild duck lying beside a tuft of rushes. It may be mentioned that there had been a heavy snow-storm, which had forced the plovers and wild ducks to abandon their nests, though then full of eggs, and greatly interrupted the breeding season in the Northern counties. Edward proceeds:

“As I imagined she was skulking with a view to avoid observation, I touched her with my stick, in order that she might rise; but she rose not. I was surprised, and on a nearer inspection I found that she was dead. She lay raised a little on one side, her neck stretched out, her mouth open and full of snow, her wings somewhat extended, and with one of her legs appearing a little behind her. Near to it there were two eggs. On my discovering this, I lifted up the bird, and underneath her was a nest containing eleven eggs ; these, with the other two, made thirteen in all: a few of them were broken. I examined the whole of them, and found them, without exception, to contain young birds.

This was an undoubted proof that the poor mother had sat upon them from two to three weeks. With her dead body in my hand, I sat down to investigate the matter, and to ascertain, if I could, the cause of her death. I examined her minutely all over, and could find neither wound nor any mark whatever of violence. She had every appearance of having died of sutfocation. Although I had only circumstantial evidence, I had no hesitation in arriving at the conclusion that she had come by her death in a desperate but faithful struggle to protect her eggs from the fatal effects of the recent snow-storm.

“I could not help thinking, as I looked at her, how deep and striking an example she afforded of maternal affection. The ruthless blast had swept with all its fury along the lonesome and unsheltered hill. The snow had risen higher, and the smothering drift came fiercer, as night drew on; yet still that poor bird, in defiance of the warring elements, continued to protect her home, and the treasure which it contained, until she could do so no longer, and yielded up her life. That life she could easily have saved, had she been willing to abandon the offspring which nature had taught her so fervently to cherish, and in endeavoring to preserve which she voluntarily remained and died. Occupied with such feelings and reflections as these, I know not how long I might have sat, had I not been roused from my reverie by the barking of a shepherd’s dog. The sun had already set, the gray twilight had begun to hide the distant mountains from my sight, and, not caring to be benighted on such a spot, I wrapped a piece of paper, as a winding-sheet, round the faithful and devoted bird, and, forming a hole sufficiently large for the purpose, I laid into it the mother and the eggs. I covered them with earth and moss, and over all placed a solid piece of turf; and having done so, and being more affected than I should perhaps be willing to acknowledge, I left them to molder into their original dust, ‘and went on my way.”

Having thus related an instance of maternal affection on the part of the wild duck, let us cite a still more remarkable instance of brotherly sympathy and help on the part of the common tern (Sterna hirunclo), called piekietars in the neighborhood of Banff.

“Being on the sands of Boyndie one afternoon at the end of August, I observed several parties of pickietars busily employed in fishing in the firth. As I was in want of a specimen of this bird, I loitered about on the beach, narrowly watching their motions, and hoping that some of them would come within range of my gun. The scene around was of no common beauty. In the azure heaven not a cloud was to be seen, as far as the eye could reach ; not a breath of wind was stirring the placid bosom of the firth. The atmosphere seemed a sea, as it were, of living things; so numerous were the insects that hummed and fluttered to and fro in all directions. The sun, approaching the verge of the horizon, shot long and glimmering bands of green and gold across the broad mirror of the deep. Here and there several vessels were lying becalmed, their whitened sails showing brightly in the goldened light. An additional interest was imparted by the herring-boats which were congregating in the bay; their loose and flagging sails, the noise of the oars, and the efforts of the rowers, told plainly enough that a hard pull would have to be undergone before they could reach their particular quarters for fishing, in the north-eastern part of the firth.

“While I stood surveying with delight the extended and glorious prospect, and witnessing with admiration the indefatigable evolutions of the terns in their search for food, I observed one of them break off from a party of five, and direct his course toward the shore, fishing all the way as he came. It was an interesting sight to behold him as he approached in his flight — at one moment rising, at another descending — now poised in mid-air, Ins wings expanded but motionless, his piercing eve directed to the water beneath, and watching with eager gaze the movements of their scaly inhabitants—and now, as one of them would ever and anon come sufficiently near the surface, making his attack upon the fish in the manner so thoroughly taught him by nature. Quick as thought, he closed to his side his outspread pinions; turned off his equilibrium with a movement almost imperceptible; and, with a seeming carelessness, threw himself headlong into the deep so rapidly that the eye could with difficulty keep pace with his descent. In the least space of time he would be seen sitting on the. water, swallowing his prey. This being accomplished, he again mounted into the air. He halts in his progress. Something has caught his eye. He lets himself down ; but it is only for a little, for his expected prey has vanished from his sight.

“Once more he soars aloft on lively wing; and, having attained a certain elevation, and hovering, kestrel-like, for a little, with quick-repeated strokes of his pinions he rapidly descends. Again, however, his hoped-for victim has made its escape; and he bounds away in an oblique direction, describing a beautiful curve as he rises without having touched the water. Shortly after, he wings his way nearer and nearer to the beach; onward he advances with zigzag , flight, when suddenly, as if struck down by an unseen hand, he drops into the water within about thirty yards of the place where I am standing. As he righted and sat on the bosom of the deep, I was enabled distinctly to perceive that he held in his bill a little scaly captive, which he had snatched from its home, and which struggled violently to regain its liberty. Its struggles were in vain; a few squeezes from the mandibles of the bird put an end to its existence.

“Being now within my reach, I stood prepared for the moment when he should again arise. This he did so soon as the fish was dispatched. I fired, and he came down with a broken wing, screaming as he fell into the water. The report of the gun, together with his cries, brought together the party he had left, in order that they might ascertain the cause of the alarm. After surveying their wounded brother round and round, as he was drifting unwittingly toward the shore with the flowing tide, they came flying in a body to the spot where I stood, and rent the air with their screams. These they continued to utter, regardless of their own individual safety, until I began to make preparations for receiving the approaching bird. I could already see that it was a beautiful adult specimen; and I expected in a few moments to have it in my possession, being not very far from the water’s edge.

“While matters were in this position, I beheld, to my utter astonishment and surprise, two of the unwounded terns take hold of their disabled comrade, one at each wing, lift him out of the water, and bear him out seaward. They were followed by two other birds. After being carried about six or seven yards, he was let gently down again, when he was taken up in a similar manner by the two who had been hitherto inactive. In this way they continued to carry him alternately, until they had conveyed him to a rock at a considerable distance, upon which they landed him in safety. Having recovered my self-possession, I made toward the rock, washing to obtain the prize which had been so unceremoniously snatched from my grasp. I was observed, however, by the terns; and instead of four, I had in a short time a whole swarm about inc. On my near approach to the rock, I once more beheld two of them take hold of the wounded bird as they had done already, and bear him out to sea in triumph, far beyond my reach. This, had I been so inclined,- I could no doubt have prevented. Under the circumstances, however, my feelings would not permit me; and I willingly allowed them to perform without molestation an act of mercy, and to exhibit an instance of affection, which man himself need not be ashamed to imitate. T was, indeed, rejoiced at the disappointment which they had occasioned, for they had thereby rendered me the witness of a scene which I could scarcely have believed, and which no length of time will efface from my recollection.”

On another occasion Edward exhibited the same closeness, minuteness, and patience of observation with regard to the turn-stone (Stregosilas interpers), a bird which is an inhabitant of the sea-shore, and has a wide geographical range, though it has rarely been seen on the shores of the Moray Firth. In Edward’s ornithological excursions, it was not so much his object to kill birds as to observe their manners and habits. He very often made his excursions without a gun at all. In a letter to the author, he observes: “ In looking over my printed articles, you will find a great number of notices of the habits and workings of various species. I spent so much time in observation, that I had little time to spare to write out the results; and what I did write did not seem to be much appreciated. Perhaps this is not to be wondered at. It appears that the compilers of works on natural history in this country do not care for details of the habits of the animals they treat of. They rather glory in the abundance of technical descriptions they can supply. These may seem scientific, but they are at the same time very dry. In fact, natural history is rendered detestable to general readers. We want some writers of the Audubon and Wilson class to render natural history accessible to the public at large.”

If Edward himself could have been rescued from his shoe-maker’s seat, we might probably have had the book which he indicates. He was full of love for his subject; he was patient and persevering in his observations; and, notwithstanding his great disadvantages, it will be observed that his style of writing was vivid and graphic. With respect to the turn-stone, which Edward described in 1850, it does not appear that any ornithological writer, excepting Audubon, had particularly described it, although Edward had never read Audubon’s work. The Rev. Mr. Smith observed: “It is consistent with my knowledge that Mr. Edward lias never read the account given by Audubon of the habits of the turn-stone. I mention this as a proof, among others, of the accuracy and minuteness with which he makes his observations. He is the only European, so far as I have the means of ascertaining, who has described the efforts which arc put forth by the bird in question in cases of difficulty, not only with its bill, but with its breast also.” The following is Edward’s description of the bird:

“The turn-stone is a very interesting bird, from its peculiar form and singular habits. It is a strong, thick bird, with rather short, thick legs; long expanded toes ; and full, broad breast. Its bill is in the form of an elongated cone, strong at the base, on the culmen rather flattened, and with a curve inclining upward toward the tip. The habits of the bird are singular, more particularly with respect to the method which it adopts to procure food—which is, as its name denotes, by turning over small stones in search of the insects beneath them, on which it feeds. When the object which it wishes to turn over is too large for the bill to do so, the breast is applied; and it would seem that the birds arc willing to assist each other, just as masons or porters will do in turning over a stone or a bale of goods. I may here take the liberty of mentioning an incident concerning the turnstone which came under my own observation.

"Passing along the sea-shore to the west of Banff I observed on the sands, at a considerable distance before me, two birds beside a large-looking object. Knowing by their appearance that they did not belong to the species which arc usually met within this quarter, I left the beach and proceeded along the adjoining links, an eminence of shingle intervening, until I concluded that I was almost opposite to the spot where the objects of my search were employed.

Stooping down, and with my gun upon my back prepared for action, I managed to crawl through the bents and across the shingle for a considerable way. At length I came in sight of the two little workers, who were busily endeavoring to turn over a dead fish which was fully six times their size. I immediately recognized them as turn-stones. Not wishing to disturb them, and anxious at the same time to witness their operations, I observed that a few paces nearer them there was a deep hollow among the shingle, which I contrived to creep into unobserved.

“I was now distant from them about ten yards, and had a distinct and unobstructed view of all their movements. In these there was evinced that extraordinary degree of sagacity and perseverance which comes under the notice only of those who watch the habits of the lower creation with patience and assiduity, and which, when fully and accurately related, is not unfrequently discredited by individuals who, although fond of natural history, seem inclined to believe that every thing in regard to animals must necessarily be false, or at least the result of ignorance, unless it has been recorded in books which are considered authorities on the subject.

“But to return. Having got fairly settled down in my pebbly observatory, I turned my undivided attention to the birds before me. They were boldly pushing at the fish with their bills, and then with their breasts. Their endeavors, however, were in vain: the object remained immovable. On this they both went round to the opposite side, and began to scrape away the sand from beneath the fish. After removing a considerable quantity, they again came back to the spot which they had left, and went once more to work with their bills and breasts, but with as little apparent success as formerly. Nothing daunted, however, they ran round a second time to the other side, and recommenced their trenching operations with a seeming determination not to be baffled in their object, which evidently was to undermine the dead animal before them, in order that it might be the more easily overturned.

“While'they were thus employed, and after they had labored in this manner at both sides alternately for nearly half an hour, they were joined by another of their own species, which came flying with rapidity from the neighboring rocks. Its timely arrival was hailed with evident signs of joy. I was led to this conclusion from the gestures which they exhibited, and from a low but pleasant murmuring noise to which they gave utterance so soon as the new-comer made his appearance. Of their feelings he seemed to be perfectly aware, and he made his reply to them in a similar strain. Their mutual congratulations being over, they all three set to work ; and after laboring vigorously for a few minutes in removing the sand, they came round to the other side, and, putting their breasts simultaneously to the fish, they succeeded in raising it some inches from the sand, but were unable to turn it over. It went down again into its sandy bed, to the manifest disappointment of the three. Resting, however, for a space, and without leaving their respective positions, which were a little apart the one from the other, they resolved, it appears, to give the work another trial. Lowering themselves, with their breasts close to the sand, they managed to push their bills underneath the fish, which they made to rise to about the same height as before. Afterward, withdrawing their bills, but without losing the advantage which they had gained, they applied their breasts to the object. This they did with such force and to such purpose that at length it went over and rolled several yards down a slight declivity. It was followed to some distance by the birds themselves, before they could recover their bearing.

“They returned eagerly to the spot from whence they had dislodged the obstacle which had so long opposed them ; and they gave unmistakable proof, by their rapid and continued movements, that they were enjoying an ample repast as the reward of their industrious and praiseworthy labor. I was so pleased, and even delighted, with the sagacity and perseverance which they had shown, that I should have considered myself as guilty of a crime had I endeavored to take away the lives of these interesting beings at the very moment when they were exercising, in a manner so happily for themselves, the wonderful instincts implanted in them by their Creator. When they appeared to have done and to be satisfied, I arose from my place of concealment. On examining the fish, I found it to be a specimen of the common cod. It was nearly three feet and a half long, and it had been imbedded in the sand to the depth of about two inches.”

One of Edward’s greatest pleasures was in rambling along the sea-sliore, to observe the habits of the sea-birds. The multitude of birds which frequent the shores of the Moray Firth are occasioned by the shoals of herrings, which afford food not only for thousands of fishermen, but for millions of sea-birds. To show the number of birds that frequent the coast, it may be mentioned that during the storm that occurred in December, 1846, Edward counted between the Burn of Boyne and Greenside of Gamrie, a distance of about nine miles, nearly sixty of the little auk, which had been driven ashore dead, besides a large number of guillemots and razor-bills. Numbers of these birds were also found lying dead in the fields throughout the county.

And yet the little auk has a wonderful power of resisting the fury of the waves. “ It is a grand siglif,” says Edward, “ to see one of these diminutive but intrepid creatures manoeuvring with the impetuous billows of a stormy sea. Wave follows wave in rapid succession, bearing destruction to every thing within reach; but the little auk, taught by nature, avoids the threatened danger, either by mounting above the waves or by going beneath them, re-appearing unhurt as they spend their fury on the shore. The eye for a time wanders in vain among the turbulent surge to catch another sight of the little sailor bird. One unaccustomed to such a scene would be apt to exclaim, ‘Poor little thing! It is buried amidst the foam!’ Have a little patience. See ! there it is, once more, as lively as ever, and ready to master the approaching billow. Its descent among the waves may have been merely in search of food, for it is only betwixt the waves, while inshore during a storm, that the bird can descend for that purpose. The bird is known in our locality by the curious term of the ‘ nor-a-wa-wifie,’ from the supposition that it comes from Norway.”

The rocky coasts along the cast shore were the most attractive scenes for our naturalist. Not only the wildest scenery, but the wildest birds, were to be found in that quarter. Gamrie Mohr and Troup Head were especially favorite places. We have already described Edward’s adventures near the former headland. Here is his description of his visit to Troup Head:

“Sailing in a little bark, with a gentle breeze blowing, 1 had ample opportunities of viewing the various birds as they approached, and as they flew past. Passing in front of the several sea-fowl nurseries of Troup, I beheld scenes truly magnificent—scenes which could not have failed to create feelings of the deepest interest in a mind capable of appreciating the sublime and beautiful workings of nature. Having landed at the most famed of these nurseries, in order to view the scene with advantage—here, I thought, as I gazed at the white towering cliffs which had laughed to scorn the angriest scowl of the most might)' wave that ever spent its fury at their base, and defied the stormiest blast from the icy north ; where the largest gull in its midway flight appears no larger than the smallest of its kind ; where the falcon breeds beside and in perfect harmony with the other inhabitants of the rocky cliffs; where multitudes of birds, of various forms and hues, from the snowy whiteness of the kittiwake to the sable dye of the croaking raven, have found a resting-place whereon to build their nests and deposit their young—here, I thought, as I was about to leave the busy throng — even here, man, the noblest creature, though too often degrading himself beneath the lowest of animals, might learn lessons of industry and affection from these humble monitors of nature.”

During breeding-time the clamor of the sea-birds is tumultuous, though the lashing of the sea at the foot of the cliffs tends to a great extent to lull their noise; but toward evening all becomes still again. Edward frequently ascertained this by personal experience. Being in the neighborhood of Pennan one day, he went along the Head, in order, if possible, to get a sight of the far-famed eagles of the promontory. He was unsuccessful on the occasion. He had loitered by the way, and the declining day at length warned him to leave the place without seeing the coveted sight. His road westward lay along the coast. With disappointed hopes, he trudged along, scarcely thinking how the hours were flying. At length it became dark as he approached the broom braes of Troup. He found himself fairly be-nighted. At the same time, he was tired and weary. He had endured many outs and ins, ups and downs, that day. His intention was to have gone to the house of his old shop-mate at Gardenstown and spend the night; but now he felt, from his worn-out condition, that it would have taken him nearly two hours’ walking to reach the place. He therefore determined to stay where he was, or rather, to go down to a sleeping-place near Troup Head, to ascertain how his feathered friends conducted themselves during the night-time.

His sleeping-place was a very wild one. It was no other than Hell’s Lum. He knew the place well. He had entered it both from the sea-side and from the land-side. He had been in it in storm and calm, in clouds and sunshine. And now he was about to spend the night in it. The weather was, however, calm; the sea was like a sheet of glass; so that he had little fear of getting a wetting during his few hours’ stay. While in the “Lum,” he was at the back of the cliffs, and in close proximity with the breeding-places of the myriads of sea-fowl. It was now the busiest part of the season. The birds had been very clamorous during the day, but as night came on their clamor ceased. With the exception of a few screams—while, perhaps, the birds were being displaced in their nests—the night was silent, though Edward kept awake and listened for nearly the whole time.

But with the first glimmerings of daylight, and just as he was beginning to move and to creep out of the pit, Edward thought that he heard some of the birds beginning to whimper and yawn, as if ready for another day’s work; and bv the time he had rounded Crovic Head, he beheld the cliffs alive, and the multitude of sea-birds again in full operation.


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