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Aature Potes : The Selborne Society's Magazine.
APRIL 15, 1890.
THE MAVIS AND THE MERLE.*
With swiftly broken sentences of song,
'Ere yet the stars had faded to the grey
The Thrush began; he fluted all the day,
Of inexpressible thoughts, from far away
Came a sad voice, a solemn liquid lay,
For ever, though the crocus flame and die,
H. D. RAWNSLEY.
*“Written after careful listening to the note of Thrush and Blackbird."-- Extract
from Author's letter.
DESTRUCTION OF BIRDS OF PREY IN THE
HE true headquarters of the nobler British birds of prey
are in Scotland, on the “rock-bound coast and savage islands of the stormy West.”. Among the islands
especially, almost every species is more abundantly represented than anywhere else. The Kite, indeed, is the only common bird of the group that is wanting, though from time to time a straggler has been found in the Isle of Skye.
The Golden Eagle, though still probably more abundant on the outer Hebrides than anywhere on the mainland, has gradually become very scarce. It may, indeed, at times be seen on any one of the Hebrides, but its eyrie is a sight that rarely gladdens the eyes of the most adventurous amateur. The first opportunity I had of really seeing this noble bird was on the slopes of Ben More in the Isle of Lewis. He was about two hundred yards away, standing on a stone by the side of a pool, completely absorbed in his morning bath. By crouching under a friendly boulder I could follow his every movement through a glass. When first observed, he was rapidly darting his head under the surface of the water and throwing great showers of spray over his back and wings. This done, he shook himself vigorously, flapped his wings several times, struck the surface of the water with them violently, then rose in the air with a shrill cry and flew leisurely towards the top of the Ben, round which he floated in great circles, ascending higher and higher each time, till almost out of sight. In a quarter of an hour he came sailing down to his pool again and re-commenced his bath. This was repeated three times, then he left for the day. Several hours afterwards I could just see him a mere speck in the azure sky, slowly circling round the favoured mountain.
The White-tailed Eagle is much more abundant than its royal relative. Its headquarters are in the island of Skye, where it may, as a rule, be found wherever the scenery is peculiarly wild and savage. It breeds regularly too, in Canna, , Eigg, and North Uist, and on several other rocky islets of the West. Not unfrequently it may also be seen with half expanded drooping wings sitting motionless on the highest ledges of the tremendous cliffs of Cape Wrath and the Mull of Oe in Islay, though the eyries there seem now to be completely deserted.
It was in one of its favourite haunts in the north-east of Skye that I had an opportunity of seeing the bird close at hand. Its eyrie was built on a triangular ledge on the face of a nearly perpendicular mass of basalt, several hundred feet above the sea, which thundered along the base of the cliff. The ascent was difficult and dangerous, but after many trials, was at length achieved. The female sat on the nest till I was within a few
THE DESTRUCTION OF BIRDS OF PREY.
yards of her, then flew screaming away. The nest was very large, measuring over four feet in diameter and consisted of sticks with branches of fir, juniper, and heather twined closely together. The bottom was scantily lined with sphagnum, rushes, some brown-seaweed and a few feathers, upon which lay the two eggs, one of them quite unstained and probably newly laid. Beside the nest were a large quantity of fish débris, some bird claws and the bones of a hare or rabbit.
A few minutes after the departure of the female, she returned with her mate, and both continued circling round at some distance till I descended. Once the female approached courageously and unpleasantly near, but made no attempt to attack me, though I had been assured in the morning before starting that if I went near the nest I should certainly be hurled over the cliff by a well-directed blow from her wings! The male was a splendid bird and must have been of considerable age, as his head and neck were almost white.
Near Loch Lomond in Argyleshire, a curious structure of interwoven sticks and branches in the heart of a tree has been pointed out to me as a deserted eyrie of this bird.
More interesting than the White-tailed Eagle, on account of its amazing dexterity and grace of movement, is the Osprey. Unfortunately, however, it is one of the rarest of our British birds. Only on one occasion in the south of the Sound of Sleat, have I been able to watch it at a distance through a glass, now hovering with motionless wings, now sailing slowly round, or rushing through the air with vigorous beats of its long, powerful wings, suddenly checking itself in its impetuous flight, and darting downwards with the velocity of an arrow to clutch with its strangely adapted claws some unfortunate fish that its piercing eye has detected in the waters beneath.
Probably one of the best known birds amongst our feathered nobility, and notwithstanding the extraordinary persecution to which it has been subjected, still one of the most abundant, is the beautiful Peregrine Falcon. The marvellous rapidity of its flight, the grace of its movements and the magnificent swoop with which it darts upon its prey, have for centuries been celebrated in song and story. Moreover, it is one of the most daring of birds, and by its superior agility and swiftness gives battle successfully to the White-tailed Eagle. Its headquarters are in the Isle of Skye, but it is tolerably abundant in Mull, Inra, Islay, Colonsay and even Arran.
Another graceful bird, almost rivalling the Peregrine in speed, but widely differing from it in the tenacity with which it hunts down its prey, is the Merlin, or Falconet. This bird may be found throughout the whole of Western Scotland. With less tenacity in the chase, but still more incredible rapidity in seizing stationary prey is the Sparrow Hawk, seemingly confined in Western Scotland to Lewis and the North of Harris.
The common Kestril is tolerably abundant over all the
Hebrides. The Buzzard, on the other hand, is either rare or totally a-wanting in the outer islands, though it breeds in Skye, Mull, Inra and probably Islay. The Hen-harrier, last of the common British nobler birds of prey, is found in probably all the larger islands of the Hebrides. On the moors of North Uist I have found four different nests in a single day.
In addition to the birds already named there are, of course, many others belonging to the same group which are certainly British, but they are of too rare occurrence to necessitate special mention at present.
The ceaseless persecution to which our nobler British birds of prey have so long been subjected, has sadly thinned the numbers of all and brought some of them perilously near the verge of extinction.
Save for one or two eyries in the west of Invernesshire the Osprey has now completely disappeared, while our two native Eagles. are gradually dwindling in numbers even in their most favourite haunts. Were it not for the extreme shyness of the White-tailed Eagle, and the protection extended to it by many gamekeepers for the sake of its eggs, this noble bird would in all probability have already become extinct. The Hen-harriers, too, will very soon be completely exterminated, unless their shameless massacre be in some way prevented. As this bird returns daily to the same spot to feed, it is the easiest of all the birds of prey to shoot. In one year alone over fifty were, to my personal knowledge, killed in the Outer Hebrides by agents of dealers and so-called “ sportsmen." The most generally persecuted bird, however, is the beautiful Peregrine Falcon. Throughout the whole of the west of Scotland it is mercilessly slaughtered. During a holiday tour in Skye, an English clergyman shot thirteen, his plea being, “ They do look so beautiful when stuffed !”
Eagles and Hawks, it is true, do occasionally help themselves to a few young lambs and grouse, but the number killed for that reason is very small compared with those destroyed wantonly or for sake of gain.
Lists of prices that will be given for the skins and eggs of various birds are secretly circulated by rapacious dealers among gamekeepers and peasantry. The result of offering as much as £12 to a half-starving villager for a single egg of the Osprey or Golden Eagle, can well be imagined. Such a practice, unless promptly suppressed, must soon lead to the complete extermination of these noble birds.