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A SHOWER OF GOSSAMERS.
On September the 21st, 1741, being then on a visit, and intent on field-diversions, I rose before day break : when I came into the enclosures, I found the stubbles and clovergrounds matted all over with a thick coat of cobweb, in the meshes of which a copious and heavy dew hung so plentifully, that the whole face of the country seemed, as it were, covered with two or three setting-nets drawn one over another. When the dogs attempted to hunt, their eyes were so blinded and hoodwinked that they could not proceed, but were obliged to lie down and scrape the encumbrances from their faces with their fore-feet; so that, finding my sport interrupted, I returned home, musing in my mind on the oddness of the occurrence.
As the morning advanced, the sun became bright and warm, and the day turned out one of those most lovely ones which no season but the autumn produces,-cloudless, calm, serene, and worthy of the South of France itself.
About nine an appearance very unusual began to demand our attention,
,--a shower of cobwebs falling from very elevated regions, and continuing, without any interruption, till the close of the day. These webs were not single filmy threads, floating in the air in all directions, but perfect flakes or rags ; some near an inch broad, and five or six long, which fell with a degree of velocity that showed they were considerably heavier than the atmosphere.
On every side, as the observer turned his eyes, might he behold a continual succession of fresh flakes falling into his sight, and twinkling like stars as they turned their sides towards the sun.
How far this wonderful shower extended, it would be difficult to say ; but we know that it reached Bradley, Selborne, and Alresford, three places which lie in a sort of triangle, the shortest of whose sides is about eight miles in extent.
At the second of those places there was a gentleman (for whose veracity and intelligent turn we have the greatest veneration) who observed it the moment he got abroad ; but concluded that, as soon as he came upon the hill above his house, he should be higher than this meteor, which he imagined might have been blown, like thistle-down, from the common above : but, to his great astonishment, when he rode to the most elevated part of the down, 300 feet above his fields, he found the webs in appearance still as much above him as before ; still descending into sight in a constant succession, and twinkling in the sun, so as to draw the attention of the most incurious.
Neither before nor after was any such fall observed ; but on this day the flakes hung in the trees and hedges so thick, that a diligent person sent out might have gathered baskets full.
The remark that I shall make on these cobweb-like appearances, called gossamer, is that, strange and superstitious as the notions about them were formerly, nobody in these days doubts but that they are the real production of small spiders, which swarm in the fields in fine weather in autumn, and have a power of shooting out webs from their tails so as to render themselves buoyant, and lighter than air. But why these apterous insects should that day take such a wonderful aërial excursion, and why their webs should at once become so gross and material as to be considerably more weighty than air, and to descend with precipitation, is a matter beyond my skill. If I might be allowed to hazard a supposition, I should imagine that those filmy threads, when first shot, might be entangled in the rising dew, and so drawn up, spiders and all, by a brisk evaporation into the regions where clouds are formed : and if the spiders have a power of coiling and thickening their webs in the air, as Dr. Lister says they have, then, when they were become heavier than the air, they must fall.
Every day in fine weather, in autumn chiefly, do I see
those spiders shooting out their webs and mounting aloft : they will go off from your finger if you will take them into your hand. Last summer one alighted on my book as I was reading in the parlour ; and running to the top of the page, and shooting out a web, took its departure from thence. But what I most wondered at was, that it went off with considerable velocity, in a place where no air was stirring ; and I am sure that I did not assist it with my breath. So that these little crawlers seem to have, while mounting, some locomotive power without the use of wings, and so move in the air faster than the air itself.
THE sand-martin, or bank-martin, is by much the least of any of the British hirundines ; and, as far as we have ever seen, the smallest known hirundo.
It is much to be regretted that it is scarce possible for any observer to be so full and exact as he could wish in reciting the circumstances attending the life and conversation of this little bird, since it leads a wild life, at least in this part of the kingdom, disclaiming all domestic attachments, and haunting lonely heaths and commons where there are large lakes ; while the other species, especially the swallow and housemartin, are remarkably gentle and domesticated, and never seem to think themselves safe but under the protection of
Here are in this parish, in the sand-pits and banks of the lakes of Wolmer Forest, several colonies of these birds ; and yet they are never seen in the village ; nor do they at all frequent the cottages that are scattered about in that wild district. The only instance I ever remember where this species haunts any building is at the town of Bishop's Waltham, in this county, where many sand-martins nestle and breed in the scaffold holes of the back-wall of William of Wykeham's stables : but then this wall stands in a very sequestered and retired enclosure, and faces upon a large and beautiful lake.
It is curious to observe with what different degrees of architectonic skill Providence has endowed birds of the same genus, and so nearly correspondent in their general mode of life ; for while the swallow and the house-martin discover the greatest address in raising and securely fixing crusts or shells of loam as cradles for their young, the bank-martin terebrates a round and regular hole in the sand or earth, which is serpentine, horizontal, and about two feet deep. At the inner end of this burrow does this bird deposit, in a good degree of safety, her rude nest, consisting of fine grass and feathers, usually goosefeathers, very inartificially laid together.
Perseverance will accomplish anything : though at first one would be disinclined to believe that this weak bird, with her soft and tender bill and claws, should ever be able to bore the stubborn sand-bank without entirely disabling herself ; yet with these feeble instruments have I seen a pair of them make great dispatch ; and could remark how much they had scooped that day by the fresh sand which ran down the bank, and was of a different colour from that which lay loose and bleached in the sun.
In what space of time these little artists are able to mine and finish these cavities I have never been able to discover, for reasons given above; but it would be a matter worthy of observation, where it falls in the way of any naturalist to make his remarks. This I have often taken notice of, that several holes of different depths are left unfinished at the end of summer. To imagine that these beginnings were intentionally made in order to be in the greater forwardness for next spring, is allowing perhaps too much foresight to a simple bird. May not the cause of these retreats being left unfinished arise from their meeting in those places with strata too harsh, hard, and solid for their purpose, which they relinquish, and go to a fresh spot that works more freely? Or may they not in other places fall in with a soil as much too loose and mouldering, liable to founder, and threatening to overwhelm them and their labours ?
The sand-martin arrives much about the same time with the swallow, and lays, as she does, from four to six white eggs. But as this species carries on the business of nidification, incubation, and the support of its young in the dark, it would not be easy to ascertain the time of breeding, were it not for the coming forth of the broods, which appear much about the time, or rather somewhat earlier than those of the swallow. The nestlings are supported in common like those of their congeners, with gnats and other small insects ; and sometimes they are fed with dragon-flies almost as long as themselves. In the last week in June we have seen a row of these sitting on a rail near a great pool as perchers ; and so young and helpless as easily to be taken by hand: but whether the dams ever feed them on the wing as swallows and house-martins do, we have never yet been able to determine ; nor do we know whether they pursue and attack birds of prey.
When they happen to breed near hedges and enclosures, they are frequently dispossessed of their breeding-holes by the house-sparrow, which is on the same account a fell adversary to house-martins.
These hirundines are no songsters, but rather mute, making only a little harsh noise when a person approaches their nests. They seem not to be of a sociable turn, never with us congregating with their congeners in the autumn. Undoubtedly they breed a second time, like the house-martin and swallow, and withdraw about Michaelmas.
Though in some particular districts they may happen to abound, yet on the whole, in the south of England at least, is this much the rarest species. For there are few towns or large villages but what abound with house - martins ; few churches, towers, or steeples, but what are haunted by some swifts ; scarce a hamlet or single cottage chimney that has not its swallow; while the bank - martins, scattered here