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

Migration of Birds in October — Wild Swans: Pursuit of; Manner of Getting a Shot; Two Killed — Habits of Wild Swan.

October 1st.—There is no month more interesting, or productive of more amusement, both to the naturalist and the sportsman, than this — many new birds now appear, on their route from their more northern breeding-places, wending their weary way to the southern shores of the kingdom, where vast numbers fall victims to the guns which are brought to bear upon them — some for pleasure and some for profit.

Most migratory birds take advantage of the moonlight to help them on their journey; for example, woodcocks, snipes, fieldfares, etc., generally arrive in this country during the lightest nights in October and November. The water-fowl seem more independent of the moon, and to be chiefly guided in their arrival by the weather.

October 6th. — To-day we saw in the bay as many as fifty or sixty wild swans, evidently just arrived ; we went home for swan-shot, Eley's cartridges, and other munitions of war, but by the time we had got all in readiness to open a campaign on the fleet of snow-white birds, they all took flight. After sailing two or three times round the bay, and after an amazing deal of trumpeting and noise, they divided into separate parties, and flew off, some to the east, and some to the west, towards their different winter-quarters.

October 7th. — My old garde-chasse insisted on my starting early this morning, nolens volens, to certain lochs six or seven miles off, in order, as he termed it, to take our "satisfaction" of the swans. I must say that it was a matter of very small satisfaction to me, the tramping off in a sleety, rainy morning, through a most forlorn and hopeless-looking country, for the chance, and that a bad one, of killing a wild swan or two. However, after a weary walk, we arrived at these desolate-looking lochs: they consist of three pieces of water, the largest about three miles in length and one in width; the other two, which communicate with the largest, are much smaller and narrower, indeed scarcely two gunshots in width; for miles around them the country is flat, and intersected with a mixture of swamp and sandy hillocks. In one direction the sea is only half-a-mile from the lochs, and in calm winter weather the wild fowl pass the day-time on the salt water, coming inland in the evenings to feed. As soon as we were within sight of the lochs we saw the swans on one of the smaller pieces of water, some standing high and dry on the grassy islands, trimming their feathers after their long journey, and others feeding on the grass and weeds at the bottom of the loch, which in some parts was shallow enough to allow of their pulling up the plants which they feed on as they swam about, while numbers of wild ducks of different kinds, particularly widgeons, swarmed round them and often snatched the pieces of grass from the swans as soon as they had brought them to the surface, to the great annoyance of the noble birds, who endeavoured in vain to drive away these more active little depredators, who seemed determined to profit by their labours. Our next step was to drive the swans away from the loch they were on; it seemed a curious way of getting a shot, but as the old man seemed confident of the success of his plan, I very submissively acted according to his orders. As soon as we moved them, they all made straight for the sea. "This won't do," was my remark. "Yes, it will, though; they'll no stop there long to-day with this great wind, but will all be back before the clock chaps two." "Faith, I should like to see any building that could contain a clock, and where we might take shelter," was my inward cogitation. The old man, however, having delivered this prophecy, set to work making a small ambuscade by the edge of the loch which the birds had just left, and pointed it out to me as my place of refuge from one o'clock to the hour when the birds would arrive.

In the meantime we moved about in order to keep ourselves warm, as a more wintry day never disgraced the month of October. In less than half-an-hour we heard the signal Cries of the swans, and soon saw them in a long undulating line fly over the low sandhills which divided the sea from the largest loch, where they all alighted. My commander for the time being then explained to me that the water in this loch was everywhere too deep for the swans to reach the bottom, even with their long necks, in order to pull up the weeds on which they fed, and that at their feeding-time, that is about two o'clock, they would, without doubt, fly over to the smaller lochs, and probably to the same one from which we had originally disturbed them. I was accordingly placed in my ambuscade, leaving the keeper at some distance, to help me as opportunity offered — a cold comfortless time of it we (i.e. my retriever and myself) had. About two o'clock, however, I heard the swans rise from the upper loch, and in a few moments they all passed high over my head, and after taking a short survey of our loch (luckily without seeing me), they alighted at the end of it farthest from the place where I was ensconced, and quite out of shot, and they seemed more inclined to move away from me than come towards me. It was very curious to watch these wild birds as they swam about, quite unconscious of danger, and looking like so many domestic fowls. Now came the able generalship of my keeper, who seeing that they were inclined to feed at the other end of the loch, began to drive them towards me, at the same time taking great care not to alarm them enough to make them take flight. This he did by appearing at a long distance off, and moving about without approaching the birds, but as if he was pulling grass or engaged in some other piece of labour. When the birds first saw him, they all collected in a cluster, and giving a general low cry of alarm, appeared ready to take flight: this was the ticklish moment, but soon outwitted by his manoeuvres, they dispersed again and busied themselves in feeding. I observed that frequently all their heads were under the water at once, excepting one — but invariably one bird kept his head and neck perfectly erect, and carefully watched on every side to prevent their being taken by surprise; when he wanted to feed, he touched any passer-by, who immediately relieved him in his guard, and he in his turn called on some other swan to take his place as sentinel.

After waiting some little time, and closely watching the birds in all their graceful movements, sometimes having a swan within half a shot of me, but never getting two or three together, I thought of some of my assistant's instruction which he had given me en route in the morning, and I imitated, as well as I could the bark of a dog : immediately all the swans collected in a body and looked round to see where the sound came from.. I was not above forty yards from them, so gently raising myself on my elbow I pulled the trigger, aiming at a forest of necks. To my dismay the gun did not go off, the wet or something else having spoilt the cap. The birds were slow in rising, so without pulling the other trigger, I put on another cap, and standing up, fired right and left at two of the largest swans as they rose from the loch. The cartridge told well on one, who fell dead into the water; the other flew off after the rest of the flock, but presently turned back, and after making two or three graceful sweeps over the body of his companion, fell headlong, perfectly dead, almost upon her body. The rest of the birds, after flying a short distance away, also returned, and flew for a minute or two in a confused flock over the two dead swans, uttering their bugle-like and harmonious cries, but finding that they were not joined by their companions, presently fell into their usual single rank, and went undulating off towards the sea, where I heard them for a long time trumpeting and calling.

Handsome as he is, the wild swan is certainly not so graceful on the water as a tame one. He has not the same proud and elegant arch of the neck, nor does he put up his wings while swimming, like two snow-white sails. On the land a wild swan when winged makes such good way, that if he gets much start it requires good running to overtake him.

Their feathers are so strong, and they have so much down beneath the breast-feathers, that when coming towards you over your head, no shot makes the least impression unless you aim at their head and neck.

If such constant warfare was not declared against these (now only occasional) visitors to this country, as well as against many others, our lakes and woods would have many more permanent winter and summer occupants than they have. I have no doubt that many birds who now only pass a few months here, would domicile themselves entirely if left in peace; and swans, instead of returning to the deserts and swamps of Russia, Siberia, or Norway, would occasionally at least remain here to breed, and by decrees become perfectly domiciled during the whole year in some of the large marshes and lakes of Scotland or Ireland, where proper food and feeding-places could always be found by them. At present they visit us generally about the middle of October. On their first arrival in Findhorn Bay they are sometimes in immense flocks. Last year I saw a flock of between two and three hundred resting on the sands. After remaining quiet till towards evening, they broke off into different smaller companies, of from twenty to three or four birds in each, and dispersed in different directions, all of them, however, inclining southwards.

They probably return year after year to the same district of country, taking with them either their own broods of the season or any others that are inclined to join them. In the large flock that I mentioned having seen last year, I could not distinguish a single young bird. The cygnets of the wild swan, like those of the tame one, are during the first season of a greyish white, and are easily distinguished amongst the dazzling white plumage of the old birds. When swans frequent any loch near the sea, or any chain of fresh-water lakes, if they are disturbed and fly either to the sea or to some adjoining piece of water, they keep always about the same line. When once you have taken notice of the exact line of their flight, it is easy to get shots by sending a person to put them up when seen feeding, having previously concealed yourself in the direction of their course.

It is useless shooting at them when coming towards you, and the best chance of killing them is either to allow them to pass before you fire, or, just as they are over your head; by jumping up and showing yourself, you may make them turn off to the right and left, in this way affording a fair chance to your shot, which easily penetrates them when flying straight away.

When in the water, a wild swan is not easy to kill, unless hit in the head or neck, as they swim very flat and low, and their feathers sit so close that shot will scarcely penetrate, unless you can fire from above the birds.

I once winged a wild swan, who fell into a large and deep loch. The rest of the birds flew away towards another piece of water about a mile off. I had no retriever with me, but profiting by the advice of my keeper, instead of attempting to get at the bird in any way, I took a circuit, keeping myself concealed towards the line of flight taken by the rest of the flock. The winged bird, after swimming about uneasily for a short time, seeing no enemy at hand, and finding that her companions did not return, went to the edge of the water, and having taken a careful survey of the country around, scrambled out, and commenced a journey after them on terra firma. I allowed her to walk to some distance from the loch, and then running up, cut her off from returning to it. As soon as she saw me she made over a hillock in. their line of flight; I ran up, and not seeing her, tracked her a little way in the sand, and presently found her lying stretched out flat on the ground amongst some long grass, endeavouring to hide herself. When she found that I had discovered her she again made off, but was soon caught.

I mention this for the benefit of any one who may be in the predicament of having winged a swan on a lake, as this bird, if left alone and not seeing an enemy, will invariably make for the bank, and most probably leave the water to follow in the track of her companions if they have gone to any adjoining water.

Though, as I have said, not so graceful in the water as their tame relatives, nothing can be more splendid than the flight of a flock of wild swans, as they pass over your head with their transparently white pinions, and uttering their far-sounding and musical trumpeting, which is often heard before the birds come into sight.

I never ate a wild swan, but am told that their flesh, though dark-coloured, has not the least rank taste, like that of some waterfowl, but, on the contrary, is very palatable, and worthy of being cooked. From their food, which consists wholly of flavourless grasses, I can easily suppose that they may be as good, if not better eating than the mallard or any other kind of wild duck, who all, more or less, feed on rank weeds, as well as on worms and a variety of other unclean food.

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