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

Wild Geese: Arrival of; Different kinds of; Anecdotes of Shooting Wild Geese — Feeding-places —Wariness — Habits — Breeding-places — Blackheaded Gull — Birds that breed on the River-banks.

On the 2d of March a flock of twelve wild geese passed over my house, flying eastwards towards the Loch of Spynie : these are the first birds of the kind I have seen this spring. On the 6th I hear of the same flock being seen feeding on a clover-field to the eastward, in the flat country between this place and Loch Spynie. This flock of geese are said to have been occasionally seen during the whole winter about the peat-mosses beyond Brodie, there having been no severe frost or snow to drive them southward.

The first wild geese that we see here are not the common grey goose, but the white-fronted or laughing goose, Anas albi-frons, called by Buffon I'Oye rieuse. This bird has a peculiarly harsh and wild cry, whence its name. It differs in another respect also from the common grey goose, in preferring clover and green wheat to corn for its food. Indeed, this bird appears to me to be wholly graminiferous. Unlike the grey goose too, it roosts, when undisturbed, in any grass-field where it may have been feeding in the afternoon, instead of taking to the bay every night for its sleeping quarters. The laughing goose also never appears here in large flocks, but in small companies of from eight or nine to twenty birds.

Though very watchful at all times, they are more easily approached than the grey goose, and often feed on ground that admits of stalking them. I see them occasionally feeding in small swamps and patches of grass surrounded by high banks, furze, or trees. The grey goose appears to select the most open and extensive fields in the country to feed in, always avoiding any bank or hedge that may conceal a foe.

On the 10th of March last year, when out rabbit-shooting in a small furze cover, I saw a flock of some fifteen or sixteen white-fronted geese hovering over a small clover-field not far from where I was. My attendant, who has a most violent liking for a " wild-goose-chase," immediately caught up the dogs, and made me sit down to watch the birds, who presently pitched, as we expected, on the clover-field. I was for immediately commencing the campaign against them, but this he would not admit of, and pointing out a part of the field sheltered by a bank overgrown with furze, where the clover was greener than elsewhere, he told me that in ten minutes the birds would be there. Knowing his experience and cunning in these matters, I put myself entirely under his orders, and waited patiently. The geese, after sitting quietly for a few minutes, and surveying the country around, began to plume their feathers, and this done, commenced feeding in a straight line for the green spot of grass, keeping, however, a constant watch in all directions. "They will be in that hollow in a minute, Sir," said Simon; "and then, Sir, you must just run for it till you get behind the bank, and then you can easily crawl to within thirty yards of where they will pass." Accordingly, the moment they disappeared in the hollow, I started literally ventre a terre. One of the wary birds, however, evidently not liking that the whole flock should be in the hollow at once, ran back and took up her station on the rising ground which they had just passed over, where she stood with her neck erect and looking in all directions. I was in full view of her, and at the moment was crossing a wet rushy spot of ground; nothing was left for it but to lie flat on the ground, notwithstanding the humid nature of my locale ; the bird appeared rather puzzled by my appearance, and my grey clothes not making much show in the rushy ground and withered herbage which I was lying in, she contented herself with giving some private signal to the rest, which brought them all at a quick run up to her side, where they stood looking about them, undecided whether to fly or not. I was about two hundred yards from the birds; we remained in this manner for, I dare say, five minutes, the birds appearing on the point of taking wing during the whole time : suddenly I heard a shout beyond the birds, and they instantly rose in confusion and flew directly towards me. As soon as they were over my head I stood up; the effect of my sudden appearance was to make them break their line and fly straight away from me in all directions, thus giving me what I wanted, shots at them when flying away from me, in which case they are easy to kill. My cartridges told with good effect, and I killed a brace, one dropping perfectly dead and the other extending her wings and gradually sinking, till she fell on the top of a furze-bush three or four hundred yards off, where I found her lying quite dead. It appeared that Simon, seeing that the birds had observed me, ran round them, and then setting up a shout, had luckily driven them nolens volens over my head. They were the white-fronted goose, with pure white spots on their foreheads. About three weeks after this time, at the end March, large flights of grey geese appear here, feeding on the fresh-sown oats, barley, and peas during the day, and passing the night on the sands of the bay, whither they always repair soon after sunset.

I had passed a great part of several days in endeavouring to get at these wary birds, and had occasionally killed a stray one or two, but some ill luck or error on my part (Simon would never admit that his own tactics were wrong) had always prevented my getting a good shot at the flocks. As for Simon, he protested that " his heart was quite broken with the beasts." One morning, however, I got up at daylight and went to the shore ; a heavy mist was rolling over the bay, and I could see nothing, but heard the wild and continued cry of hundreds of geese answering each other, and apparently consulting as to what direction they should seek their morning's repast in. Presently I knew from their altered cry that the birds were on wing, and were coming directly towards where I was : I sat down, and very soon a long line of geese came cackling and chattering within fifteen yards of me, and I killed a brace with no trouble. In the afternoon, while walking on the shore, I saw a large flock of geese rise off the sea and fly inland, in a long undulating line, evidently looking for a place to feed on. I watched them with my glass, and saw the field in which they alighted, at the distance of at least two miles from me. I sent for Simon, and started in pursuit. We came within two fields of the birds, and could advance no nearer without risk of putting them up. On two sides of the field " in which they were feeding," was a deep open drain ; and once in this we were nearly sure of a shot. Luckily a farmer was ploughing in an adjoining field, and though at every turn he approached the ditch of the oatfield where the geese were, the birds, according to their usual custom, took no notice of him. We joined the ploughman, and keeping behind the horses, slipped unperceived by the geese into the ditch, which, by the by, had in it about a foot of the coldest water that I ever felt. It was deep enough, however, to conceal us entirely, and following Simon, I went about three hundred yards down the drain, till we came to another which ran at right angles to the first; we turned along this ditch, which, not being cut so deep as the other, obliged us to stoop in a manner that made my back ache most unmercifully. Simon appeared to understand exactly what he was at, and to have a perfect knowledge of the geography of all the drains in the country. Putting on a nondescript kind of cap, made of dirty canvas, exactly the colour of a ploughed field, he peered cautiously through a bunch of rushes which grew on the edge of the ditch ; then looking at me with a most satisfied grin, floundered on again till he came to another ditch that crossed us at right angles. Up this he went, and of course I had nothing to do but to follow, though as I occasionally sank above my knees into cold spring water, I began to wish all the wild geese were consigned to his black majesty : we went about a hundred yards up this last drain, till we came to a part where a few rushes grew on the banks ; looking through these we saw about fifty geese coming straight towards us, feeding; we got our guns cautiously on the top of the bank and waited till the birds were within twenty-five yards of us, they then began to turn to cross the field back again. Some were within shot, however, and on our giving a low whistle they ran together, preparatory to rising; this was our moment: only one of my barrels went off, the other having got wet through, copper cap and everything, during our progress in the ditch. We, however, bagged three birds, and another flew wounded away, and at last fell close to the sea-shore, where we afterwards found her. Having collected our game, I was not sorry to walk off home in double-quick time to put a little caloric into my limbs, as I felt perfectly benumbed after wading for such a distance in a cold March wind.

On our way home we saw an immense flock of geese alight to feed on a small field of newly-sown peas. Simon was delighted, and promised me a good shot in the morning, if I left him at the nearest farm-house to take his own steps towards ensuring me the chance.

Accordingly the next morning, at daylight, I went with him to the spot: the geese were still resting on the sands, not having yet made their morning meal. In the very centre of the pea-field Simon had constructed what he called an "ambush;" this was a kind of hut or rather hole in the ground, just large enough to contain one person, whose chin would be on a level with the field. The ground was rather rough, and he had so disposed the clods of earth that I was quite invisible till the geese came within a yard or two of me. Into this hole he made me worm myself while he went to a hedge at some distance, for the chance of the birds coming over his head after I had fired. The sun was not yet up when I heard the cackle of the geese, and soon afterwards the whole flock came soaring over my head; round and round they flew, getting lower every circle. I could several times have fired at single birds as they flew close by me, and so well concealed was I with clods of earth, dried grass, etc., that they never suspected my presence in the midst of their breakfast-table. Presently they all alighted at the farthest end of the field from me, and commenced shovelling up the peas in the most wholesale manner. Though the field was small, they managed to feed from one end to the other without coming within sixty yards of me; having got to the end of the field, they turned round, and this time I saw that they would pass within shot. Suddenly they all halted, and I saw that something had alarmed them; I looked cautiously out, and saw, in the direction in which their heads were turned, a large fox sitting upright and looking wistfully at the geese, but seeming quite aware that he had no chance of getting at them. The morning sun, however, which was just rising, and which, shining on his coat, made it appear perfectly red, warned him that it was time to be off to the woods, and he trotted quietly away, passing my ambuscade within forty yards, but always keeping his head turned towards the geese, as if unwilling to give up all hope of getting one of them. The distant bark of a dog, however, again warned him, and he quickened his pace and was soon out of sight. The geese seemed quite relieved at his departure, and recommenced feeding. I cocked my gun and arranged my ambuscade, so as to be ready for them when they came opposite to me; presently one or two stragglers passed within ten yards; I pulled the dead grass in front of my face, so that they could not see me, and waited for the main flock, who soon came by, feeding hurriedly as they passed ; when they were opposite to me, I threw down part of the clods and grass that concealed me, and fired both barrels at the thickest part of the flock: three fell dead, and two others dropped before the flock had flown many hundred yards. Simon ran from his hiding-place to secure them; one was dead, the other rose again, but was stopped by a charge from his gun. Our five geese were no light load to carry home, as they had been feeding on the corn for a fortnight or three weeks, and had become very fat and heavy.

The common grey goose, after having fed for some time in the fresh-sown corn-fields, is by no means a bad bird for the larder. But before they can procure grain to feed on, their flesh is neither so firm nor so well-flavoured. In this country there are three kinds of geese, all called by the common name of "wild geese," namely, the white-fronted goose, already mentioned ; the common grey-leg goose, Anas Anser; and the bean-goose. The latter kind differs from the grey goose in having a small black mark at the end of their bill, about the size and colour of a horse bean. This bird, too, differs in being rather smaller and more dark in its general colour than the grey goose. It is a great libel to accuse a goose of being a silly bird. Even a tame goose shows much instinct and attachment; and were its habits more closely observed, the tame goose would be found to be by no means wanting in general cleverness. Its watchfulness at night-time is, and always has been, proverbial; and it certainly is endowed with a strong organ of self-preservation. You may drive over dog, cat, hen, or pig; but I defy you to drive over a tame goose. As for wild geese, I know of no animal, biped or quadruped, that is so difficult to deceive or approach. Their senses of hearing, seeing, and smelling are all extremely acute; independently of which they appear to act in so organised and cautious a manner when feeding or roosting, as to defy all danger. Many a time has my utmost caution been of no avail in attempting to approach these birds; either a careless step on a piece of gravel, or an eddy of wind, however light, or letting them perceive the smallest portion of my person, has rendered useless whole hours of manoeuvring. When a flock of geese has fixed on a field of new-sown grain to feed on, before alighting they make numerous circling flights round and round it, and the least suspicious object prevents their pitching. Supposing that all is right, and they do alight, the whole flock for the space of a minute or two remains motionless, with erect head and neck reconnoitring the country round. They then, at a given signal from one of the largest birds, disperse into open order, and commence feeding in a tolerably regular line. They now appear to have made up their minds that all is safe, and are contented with leaving one sentry, who either stands on some elevated part of the field, or walks slowly with the rest—never, however, venturing to pick up a single grain of corn, his whole energies being employed in watching. The flock feeds across the field; not waddling, like tame geese, but walking quickly, with a firm, active, light-infantry step. They seldom venture near any ditch or hedge that might conceal a foe. When the sentry thinks that he has performed a fair share of duty, he gives the nearest bird to him a sharp peck. I have seen him sometimes pull out a handful of feathers if the first hint is not immediately attended to, at the same time uttering a querulous kind of cry. This bird then takes up the watch, with neck perfectly upright, and in due time makes some other bird relieve guard. On the least appearance of an enemy, the sentinal gives an alarm, and the whole flock invariably run up to him, and for a moment or two stand still in a crowd, and then take flight; at first in a confused mass, but this is soon changed into a beautiful wedge-like rank which they keep till about to alight again. Towards evening I observe the geese coming from the interior, in numerous small flocks, to the bay ; in calm weather, flying at a great height; and their peculiar cry is heard some time before the birds are in sight. As soon as they are above the sands, where every object is plainly visible, and no enemy can well be concealed, flock after flock wheel rapidly downwards, and alight at the edge of the water, where they immediately begin splashing and washing themselves, keeping up an almost incessant clamour. In the morning they again take to the fields. Those flocks that feed at a distance start before sunrise; but those that feed nearer to the bay do not leave their roosting-place so soon. During stormy and misty weather, the geese frequently fly quite low over the heads of the work-people in the fields, but even then have a kind of instinctive dread of any person in the garb of a sportsman. I have also frequently got shots at wild geese by finding out the pools where they drink during the daytime. They generally alight at the distance of two or three hundred yards from the pool; and after watching motionless for a few minutes, all start off in a hurry to get their drink. This done, they return to the open field or the sea-shore.

In some parts of Sutherland—for instance on Loch Shin, and other lonely and unfrequented pieces of water—the wild goose breeds on the small islands that dot these waters. If their eggs are taken and hatched under tame geese, the young are easily domesticated; but, unless pinioned or confined, they always take to flight with the first flock of wild geese that passes over the place during the migrating-season. Even when unable to fly, they evince a great desire to take wing at this season, and are very restless for a few weeks in spring and autumn. In a lonely and little-frequented spot on the banks of Loch Shin, where the remains of walls and short green herbage point out the site of some former shealing or residence of cattle-herds, long since gone to ruin, I have frequently found the wild goose with her brood feeding on the fine grass that grows on what was once the dwelling of man. The young birds do not fly till after they are full grown; but are very active in the water, swimming and diving with great quickness.

March is a month full of interest to the observer of the habits of birds, particularly of those that are migratory. During the last week of February and the first week in March thousands of pewits appear here: first a few stragglers arrive, but in the course of some days the shores of the bay are literally alive with them.

The black-headed gulls also arrive in great numbers. This bird loses the black feathers on the head during the winter, and at this season begins to resume them. I see the birds with their heads of every degree of black and white just now; in a fortnight their black cowl is complete. In the evenings and at nighttime thousands of these birds collect on the bay, and every one of them appears to be chattering at once, so that the whole flock together make a noise that drowns every other sound or cry for a considerable distance round them.

March 6th.—I observe that the herons in the heronry on the Findhorn are now busily employed in sitting on their eggs, the heron being one of the first birds to commence breeding in this country. A more curious and interesting sight than the Find-horn heronry I do not know : from the top of the high rocks on the east side of the river you look down into every nest, the herons breeding on the opposite side of the river, which is here very narrow. The cliffs and rocks are studded with splendid pines and larch, and fringed with all the more lowly but not less beautiful underwood which abounds in this country. Conspicuous amongst these are the bird-cherry and mountain-ash, the holly and the wild rose ; while the golden blossoms of furze and broom enliven every crevice and corner in the rock. Opposite to you is a wood of larch and oak, on the latter of which trees are crowded a vast number of the nests of the heron. The foliage and small branches of the oaks that they breed on seem entirely destroyed, leaving nothing but the naked arms and branches of the trees on which the nests are placed. The same nests, slightly repaired, are used year after year. Looking down at them from the high banks of the Altyre side of the river, you can see directly into their nests, and can become acquainted with the whole of their domestic economy. You can plainly see the green eggs, and also the young herons, who fearlessly, and conscious of the security they are left in, are constantly passing backwards and forwards, and alighting on the topmost branches of the larch or oak trees, whilst the still younger birds sit bolt upright in the nest, snapping their beaks together with a curious sound. Occasionally a grave-looking heron is seen balancing himself by some incomprehensible feat of gymnastics on the very topmost twig of a larch tree, where he swings about in an unsteady manner, quite unbecoming so sage-looking a bird. Occasionally a thievish jackdaw dashes out from the cliffs opposite the heronry and flies straight into some unguarded nest, seizes one of the large green eggs, and flies back to his own side of the river, the rightful owner of the eggs pursuing the active little robber with loud cries and the most awkward attempts at catching him.

The heron is a noble and picturesque looking bird, as she sails quietly through the air with outstretched wings and slow flight; but nothing is more ridiculous and undignified than her appearance as she vainly chases the jackdaw or hooded crow who is carrying off her egg, and darting rapidly round the angles and corners of the rocks. Now and then every heron raises its head and looks on the alert as the peregrine falcon, with rapid and direct flight, passes their crowded dominion; but intent on his own nest, built on the rock some little way farther on, the hawk takes no notice of his long-legged neighbours, who soon settle down again into their attitudes of rest. The kestrel-hawk frequents the same part of the river, and lives in amity with the wood-pigeons that breed in every cluster of ivy which clings to the rocks. Even that bold and fearless enemy of all the pigeon race, the sparrowhawk, frequently has her nest within a few yards of the wood-pigeon, and you see these birds (at all other seasons such deadly enemies) passing each other in their way to and fro from their respective nests in perfect peace and amity. It has seemed to me that the sparrowhawk and wood-pigeon during the breeding-season frequently enter into a mutual compact against the crows and jackdaws, who are constantly on the look-out for the eggs of all other birds. The hawk appears to depend on the vigilance of the wood-pigeon to warn him of the approach of these marauders; and then the brave little warrior sallies out, and is not satisfied till he has driven the crow to a safe distance from the nests of himself and his more peaceable ally. At least in no other way can I account for these two birds so very frequently breeding not only, in the same range of rock, but within two or three yards of each other.

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