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Sketches of the Wild Sports & Natural History of the Highlands
Chapter XVIII

Sheldrake: Nest; Food — Teal: Breeding-places; Anecdotes — Landrail: Arrival of — Cuckoo — Nightjar: Habits of — Quail — Grebe: Arrival; Account of Nest and Young — Baldcoot — Water-Hen —Water-Rail.

Besides the birds mentioned in the last chapter there are several others which come here to breed, such as the sheldrake, the corncrake, the cuckoo, etc.

I should certainly call the sheldrake the most beautiful bird of the duck tribe that visits this country. His clear black and white plumage, the beautiful bronze on the wing, and the bright red bill, give it a particularly gay and at the same time neat appearance. They arrive here in March or the end of February. They float in large flocks in the sheltered creeks and bays, swimming high in the water and making a great show. When the tide recedes, they take to the sands in search of their food, which consists of shell-fish, the sea-worms, etc. Their manner of catching the latter is curious. When the sheldrake perceives that he is above the hole of one of these insects, which he knows by the worm casts similar to those of a common earthworm, he begins patting the ground with his feet, dancing as it were over the hole. This motion on the sands generally brings the worm out of his abode. My tame sheldrakes, when they come to ask for food, pat the ground in an impatient and rapid manner, their natural instinct evidently suggesting this as the usual way of procuring food. Though among the most wary of birds when wild, their sharp eye detecting the least movement, yet they become extremely fearless and bold when once domesticated, and certainly no bird is more ornamental. They breed freely in a tame state, if allowed a certain degree of liberty, and I have no doubt would be quite as good eating as a common duck when fed on corn and clean food. In their wild state they have a rank fishy flavour, but so would any duck that lived on the same food as they do. My tame birds eat anything, and will take their food out of my hand without the least hesitation. They are pugnacious creatures, and the drakes are always the masters of the poultry-yard, pursuing the other birds with a peculiar croaking quack. The sheldrakes breed in old rabbit-holes, laying their eggs several feet under ground. When I am on the sandhills in May, early in the morning, I frequently see their tracks in and out of the holes. It is curious to watch the male bird standing and strutting in the sun on some hillock waiting for the female, who is employed in her domestic duties underground. When she appears, the drake goes to her, and after a short flirtation they fly away together to the sea-shore. When the hen is sitting, she leaves the nest during the time of low water, appearing to have an instinctive knowledge of when that time arrives, as it is the part of the day in which she can most quickly procure her food. This done, she returns to her nest, and after wheeling several times over it to see that nothing is amiss, she alights and walks to her hole. The sheldrake has a quick, smart step, quite unlike the waddling gait of most ducks. When hatched, the young take at once to the sea, and never seem to leave it or the sand-banks till their plumage is complete: I have occasionally found a large flock of young birds nearly full-grown on the sands, but never could manage to catch one, as they run with great rapidity and dash into the sea before I can get up to them.

The flight of the sheldrake is not so rapid or easy as that of other ducks, rather resembling the heavy flapping of a goose than the quick flight of a wild duck. I cannot understand why this beautiful bird is not oftener kept on ornamental pieces of water, as his fine plumage, his boldness, and familiarity render him peculiarly interesting and amusing.

The teal can scarcely be called a winter bird with us, although occasionally a pair or two appear; but in the spring they come in numbers to breed and rear their tiny young in the swamps and lochs. Nothing can exceed the beauty and neatness of this miniature duck. They fly with great swiftness, rising suddenly into the air when disturbed, and dropping as quickly after a short flight, much in the same manner as a snipe. In the spring the drake has a peculiar whistle, at other times their note is a low quack. A pair of teal, if undisturbed, will return year after year to the same pool for the purpose of breeding. Like the wild duck, they sometimes hatch their young a considerable distance from the water, and lead the young brood immediately to it. I once, when riding in Ross-shire, saw an old teal with eight newly-hatched young ones cross the road. The youngsters could not climb up the opposite bank, and young and old all squatted flat down to allow me to pass. I got off my horse and lifted all the little birds up and carried them a little distance down the road to a ditch, for which I concluded they were making, the old bird all the time fluttering about me and frequently coming within reach of my riding-whip. The part of the road where I first found them passed through thick fir-wood with rank heather, and it was quite a puzzle to me how such small animals, scarcely bigger than a half-grown mouse, could have got along through it. The next day I saw them all enjoying themselves in a small pond at some little distance off, where a brood of teal appeared every year. In some of the mountain lakes the teal breed in great numbers. When shooting in August I have seen a perfect cloud of these birds occasionally rise from some grassy loch. The widgeon never breeds with us, but leaves this country at the end of April.

We have great numbers of landrails here in their breeding-season. I have for several years first heard them on the 1st of May. Hoarse and discordant as their voice is, I always hear it with pleasure, for it brings the idea of summer and fine weather with it. Oftentimes have I opened my window during the fine dewy nights of June to listen to these birds as they utter their harsh cry in every direction, some close to the very window, and answered by others at different distances. I like too to see this bird, as at the earliest dawn she crosses a road followed by her train of quaint-looking, long-legged young ones, all walking in the same stooping position; or to see them earlier in the year lift up their snake-like heads above the young corn, and croak in defiance of some other bird of the same kind, whose head appears now and then at a short distance. At other times, one hears the landrail's cry apparently almost under one's feet in the thick clover, and he seems to shake the very ground, making as much noise as a bull. How strange it is that a bird with apparently so soft and tender a throat can utter so hard and loud a cry, which sounds as if it was produced by some brazen instrument. I never could ascertain whether this cry is made by the male or female bird, or by both in common: I am inclined to suppose the latter is the case, as in endeavouring to make this out I have watched carefully a small piece of grass and shot four landrails in it in as many minutes, every bird in the act of croaking. Two of them were larger and of a redder plumage than the others, and were apparently cock birds : this inclines me to think that the croaking cry is common to both sexes. Their manner of leaving the country is a mystery. Having hatched their young, they take to the high corn-fields, and we never see them again, excepting by chance one comes across a brood at dawn of day, hunting along a path or ditch side for snails, worms, and flies, which are their only food, this bird being entirely insectivorous, never eating corn or seeds. By the time the corn is cut they are all gone; how they go, or whither, I know not, but with the exception of a stray one or two I never see them in the shooting-season, although the fields are literally alive with them in the breeding-time. You can seldom flush a landrail twice; having alighted, he runs off at a quick pace, and turning and doubling round a dog, will not rise. I have caught them more than once when they have pitched by chance in an open wood, and run into a hole or elsewhere at the root of a tree : they sometimes hide their head, like the story of the ostrich, and allow themselves to be lifted up. Unlike most other migrating birds, the landrail is in good order on his first arrival, and being then very fat and delicate in flavour, is very good eating. Their nest is of a very artless description, a mere hollow scratched in the middle of a grass field, in which they lay about eight eggs. The young ones at first are quite black, curious-looking little birds, with the same attitudes and manner of running as their parents, stooping their heads and looking more like mice or rats than a long-legged bird.

Besides those already mentioned, I can only call to mind two other birds that visit us for the breeding-season—the cuckoo and the nightjar.

The cuckoo, like the landrail, is connected in all my ideas with spring and sunshine, though frequenting such a different description of country; the landrail always inhabiting the most open country, while the cuckoo frequents the wooded glades and banks of the rivers and burns; flitting from tree to tree, alighting generally on some small branch close to the trunk, or chasing each other, uttering their singular call. So much has been written respecting their habit of laying their egg in the nest of some other bird, that I can add nothing to what is already known. In this country they seem to delight in the woods on the hill-sides by the edge of loch or river, where I constantly hear their note of good omen. When the young ones are fledged, they remain for a week or two about the gardens or houses, perching on the railings, and darting off, like the flycatcher, in pursuit of passing insects.

The nightjar is a summer resident here, building its nest—or rather laying its eggs, for nest it has none—in some bare spot of ground, near the edge of a wood, and seldom quite within it. The eggs are of a peculiarly oval shape. The nightjar, during the daytime, will lie flat and motionless for hours together on some horizontal branch of a tree near the ground, or on some part of the ground itself which exactly resembles its own plumage in colour. In this manner the bird will allow a person to approach nearly close to it before it moves, although watching intently with its dark eye to see if it is observed. If it fancies that you are looking at it, up it rises straight into the air, and drops again perpendicularly in some quiet spot, with a flight like that of an insect more than of a bird. With the shades of evening comes its time of activity. With rapid and noiseless flight the nightjar flits and wheels round and round as you take your evening walk, catching the large moths and beetles that you put into motion. Sometimes the bird alights in the path near you, crouching close to the ground, or sits on a railing or gate motionless, with its tail even with its head. Frequently, too, these birds pitch on a house-top, and utter their singular jarring noise, like the rapid revolving of a wheel or the rush of water, and the house itself appears to be trembling, so powerful is their note. It is a perfectly harmless, indeed, a useful bird; and I would as soon wantonly shoot a swallow as a nightjar. I admire its curiously-mottled plumage, and manner of feeding and flying about in the summer and autumn evenings, which make it more interesting when alive than it can possibly be when dead. Often, when I have been fishing late in the evening, has the nightjar flitted round, or pitched on a rock or bank close to me, as if inclined to take an interest in what I was at—confident, too, of not being molested. Its retreat in the daytime is usually in some lonely wild place. Though feeding wholly at night, I do not think that it is annoyed by sunshine, as it frequently basks in an open spot, appearing to derive enjoyment from the light and glare which are shining full upon it; unlike the owl, whose perch in the daytime is in some dark and shady corner, where the rays of the sun never penetrate.

The quail is sometimes killed here, but very rarely. I once shot a couple on the Ross-shire side of the Moray Firth, but never happened to meet with one on this side, though I have heard of their being killed, and also of their having been seen in the spring-time, as if they came occasionally to breed.

Another singular bird visits this country regularly in the spring, the lesser grebe (in England commonly called the dab-chick). It is difficult to understand how this bird makes out its journey from the region, wherever it may be, where they pass the winter. No bird is less adapted for a long flight, yet they suddenly appear in some rushy loch. Generally a pair take possession of some small pool, where they build their singular nest and rear their young, till the returning autumn warns them that it is time to return to some country less liable than this to have its pools and lochs frozen. In a small rushy pond in Inverness-shire I had frequent opportunities of observing their domestic economy, and the manner in which they build their nests and rear their young. Though there was no stream connecting this pool with any other larger piece of water, a pair, and only a pair of these little grebes, came to it every spring. After two or three days spent in recruiting their strength and making love to each other, the little birds set about making their nest in a tuft of rushes, at a shallow part of the water, a few yards from the shore. They first collected a considerable quantity of dead rushes, which they found in plenty floating about the edges of the water. Both male and female were busily employed in building, swimming to and fro with the greatest activity. After laying a good foundation of this material, they commenced diving for the weeds which grew at the bottom of the water, bringing up small bunches of it, and clambering up the sides of their nest (the bottom of which was in the water), they made a layer of this, hollowed out in the middle. They worked only in the morning, and very late in the evening. Their eggs were six in number, and, when first laid, quite white, and nearly oval. During the time of sitting, whenever the old bird left her nest, she covered her eggs most carefully. The singular part of this proceeding was that she always dived for a quantity of green weed which grew at the bottom of the pond, and used this, wet as it was, to cover her eggs. By the time that they had been laid for a few days they became green and dirty-looking, having quite the appearance of being addled—and no wonder, as the nest was constantly wet from below, the water coming up through the rushes and weeds of which it was composed; and she gave them a fresh wet covering every time that she left them, arranging it around the eggs, so that the edges of the nest gradually became higher and higher. The bird appeared to be very frequently off during the daytime, remaining away for hours together, playing about on the water with her mate. After a fortnight of this kind of sitting, I one day saw her followed by six little dabchicks, scarcely bigger than large beetles, but as active and as much at home on the water as their parents. A very windy day came on, and the young birds collected in a group behind a floating rail, which being half grounded at an angle of the pool, made a kind of breakwater for them. The old birds swam out of this harbour when I came, but the little ones crept close up to the railing, uttering a feeble squeak like a young chicken. Huddled up in a group, they certainly were the smallest and quaintest-looking little divers that I ever saw. I have heard it argued that it was impossible that eggs could be hatched in a situation constantly exposed to so much wet and damp, but those of this kind of grebe are certainly an exception, as they were continually wet below, and frequently covered with wet green weed. I do not know why the bird should always bring the covering from below the water, but she invariably did so, and the pool being in a convenient place for my watching them closely, I took some trouble to be sure that my observations were correct. It is a pretty, amusing little bird, and quite harmless: I have always much pleasure in watching their lively actions in the water. Where undisturbed, they soon become bold and confident. These little fellows used to swim close to me, and after looking up in my face with an arch cock of their tiny head, turn up their round sterns and dip under the water. They often remained so long under water, that the circles made in the calm pool from their last dive were quite obliterated from the surface before the saucy-looking little fellows would rise again, often in exactly the same spot, when they would look at me again, as if to be sure of who I was; then, turning half over in the water, they would scratch their neck with their curiously formed foot, shake their apology of a wing, and dip under again.

One day my dog jumped into the water for a swim, and the motions of the birds were then very different. They dived rapidly to the other end of the pool, where they rose, showing only the very tip of their bill, which I could distinguish by the small wave in the water made when it first came up. After remaining in this position for a short time, they gradually lifted up more and more of their head, till, seeing that all danger was over, and that the dog had left their pool, they rose entirely to the surface, and shaking their feathers resumed their usual attitudes, keeping, however, at a respectful distance and watching the dog. After the young ones were hatched and full grown, they again disappeared, leaving us for the winter. How or where they went it is difficult to imagine.

If the weather is tolerably open, the bald coot arrives here early in the spring. It is very difficult to make this bird fly unless it happens to be surprised in the open part of the lake when it darts off immediately to the rushes, where, diving and wading with great quickness, it remains so completely concealed that neither dog nor man can put it up again. Its young ones are like a ball of black down, but swim about and dive as cleverly as their parents. They build a very large nest amongst the rushes growing in the water, and sit very close. The coot has an ornamental appearance on a sheet of water, from their constant activity in swimming about, and their loud wild cry adds an interest to the solitude of the Highland lake.

The water-hen is another bird which deserves encouragement and protection, as they repay it by becoming tame and familiar, leaving the water to feed with the poultry, and walking about all day on the grass, with an air of the greatest confidence and sociability. I know nothing prettier than the young ones, as they follow their parents in their active search for flies and insects. When first hatched they are perfectly black, with a small spot of bright red skin on the top of their beaks.

These birds remain with us all the winter, only changing their location from the pools to the open ditches in severe frosts.

The water-rail I only see in the winter, and even then rarely. I do not think that it is a regular visitor to us, for were it so, notwithstanding its habits of concealment, my dogs would when looking through the wet places and ditches for snipes, certainly find it oftener than they do. I sometimes see it in frosty weather, feeding at all hours of the day in a running stream or ditch, busily searching amongst the weeds for its food.

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