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Stonechat, occasionally remains with us throughout the year. It is a noticeable fact that those which stay the winter are far less shy in their habits, and will suffer a much nearer approach.
The name Wheatear may have been derived either from the season of its arrival, or from its being taken in great numbers for the table at wheat harvest. Or, again, it may be a corruption of whitear, from the white car which is very conspicuous in the spring plumage of this bird. Many instances are on record of Wheatears having come on board vessels several miles from land at the period of migration, and from the observations of naturalists in various parts of the country it would appear that these birds travel by night, or at early dawn. I do not remember any recorded instance in which they have been seen to land upon our shores in the daytime.
In Ireland, according to Mr. Thompson,1
1 " Nat. Hist. Ireland;" Birds, i pp. 176, 177.
the Wheatear arrives much later than in England, and does not stay the winter. With regard to Scotland, Macgillivray states' that it is nowhere more plentiful than in the outer Hebrides, and in the Orkney and Shetland Islands; and from the fact of his having observed the species near Edinburgh on the 28th of February, we may infer that a few, as in England, occasionally remain throughout the year.
The number of Wheatears which used to be taken years ago upon the South Downs in autumn was a matter of notoriety.
"Hereabouts," says an old chronicle of Eastbourne, "is the chief place for catching the delicious birds called Wheatears, which much resemble the French Ortolans;" and Wheatears play an important part in the history of this town., Squire William Wilson, of Hitching, Lord of the Manor of East-Bourne, was in Oliver Cromwell's time vehemently suspected
1 " Hist. Brit. Birds," ii. p. 292
of loyalty to the Stuarts; and one Lieutenant Hopkins, with a troop of dragoons, swooped down on Eastbourne to search the squire's house, and, if needful, arrest him as a Malignant. The squire was laid up with the gout; but Mistress Wilson, his true wife, with the rarely-failing shrewdness of her sex, placed before Lieutenant Hopkins and his troopers a prodigious pie filled with Wheatears, "which rare repast," the chronicle goes on to say, "the soldiers did taste with so much amazement, delight, and jollity," that the squire upstairs had ample time to burn all the papers which would compromise him, and when Lieutenant Hopkins, full of Wheatear pie, came to search the house, there was not so much treasonable matter found as could have brought a mouse within peril of a prcemunire. At the Restoration the Lord of the Manor became Sir William Wilson of Eastbourne, a dignity well earned by his devotion to the Royal cause; but the chronicle goes on to hint that Charles II. was passionately fond of Wheatears. and that possibly the liberality of the squire, in supplying his Majesty's table with these delicacies, may have had something to do with the creation of the baronetcy.
The abundance of Wheatears at certain seasons on the Hampshire downs was noticed by Gilbert White in a letter to the Hon. Daines Barrington in Dec. 1773. Since this excellent naturalist penned his observations, however, many changes in the haunts and habits of birds have been remarked. For example, the Hawfinch, which he referred to as "rarely seen in England, and only in winter," is now found t^ oe resident throughout the year, and nesting even in the proximity of London and other large cities. The Landrail, which he noted as "a bird so rare in this district that we seldom see more than one or two in a season, and those only in autumn," is now so plentiful in the same neighbourhood that I have shot as. many as half a dozen in one day in September, within a few miles of Selborne. The Common Bunting, which in 1768 was considered to be a "rare bird" in the district referred to, may now be heard there in full song—if song it can be called—throughout the month of May. Whilst walking from Liss to Selborne, I have on two occasions met with a bird which Gilbert White had not observed—the Cirl Bunting; and, to return to the Wheatears, these birds, which were formerly so plentiful in autumn that the shepherds trapped them by dozens, are now far less numerous at the same season, and the practice of snaring them has perceptibly declined.1 It was remarkable that, although in the height of the season—i. e., at wheat harvest —so many hundreds of dozens were taken, yet they were never seen to flock, and it was a rare thing to see more than three or four at a time; so that there must have been a perpetual flitting and constant progressive succession.