Bird watching in FebruaryDifficult as it is to find any constant traits to characterise bird watching in January, not less of an uncertain quantity is the second month in the year's chaplet. On the one hand, its days, so evidently lengthening, may be full of hopeful tokens, in the shape of budding shrubs and thickening tree-tops, that the sap is on the rise, while in a less genial season its sullen skies, with a cold damper and more penetrating than that of frosty January, may bring the worst of the winter.
Not only is there no advance, but it seems at times as if spring had recalled its pickets and ceased even to threaten winter's reign.
How sere and colourless are the landscapes under drear February skies before the grass shows any new growth and when one must search the most sheltered hollow for half a dozen stray primroses. Look on this picture and then on that of a February, sunny throughout, and practically rainless in the London district.
Yet, apart from extremes, the month has a character of its own. Its place is between the frost and the east winds. The sun which tempers its humid airs draws a daily inincreasing volume of song from the thrushes and brings the first bees to the crocuses. A change of colour and of consistency passes over the tree-tops as they begin to show the purples and browns of swelling buds. The month of general awakening is to come, but is anticipated by the first sporadic revivals.
Blindworms and newts still sleep in heaps of loose stones and piles of rubbish, but the toad is once more abroad at dusk and the surface of the pond is rippled by spawning frogs, which puff out their lily-white throats and croon a resonant double bass. The running spiders which race over bank sides are always the first to respond by their re-appearance to the revivifying warmth of the sun. Down at the brook we welcome the "skaters" (Hydrometra), which run upon the surface of the water, and the whirligig-beetles, which again weave their mazy dance,-foretokens of the great stirring and quickening which is now at hand.
Snugly stowed away in winter-quarters insects have nothing to fear from the frost. Split open this dry and hollow stem of hemlock or cow-parsnip, and we shall be surprised at the variety of its tenants--lanky, transparent-looking spiders, delicate gauze-winged gnats, and a fat caterpillar which has spun a white web for his greater comfort. So little ground is there for the supposition, so generally held, that a hard winter is fatal to noxious insects. As a matter of fact they suffer much more when unseasonable warmth tempts them out before their time.
Almost all the happenings in the bird world of February are linked together by their connection with the nesting-season, which, in the case of the Heron and Raven, may be in full swing by the end of the month, while with a number of others the earlier stages of courtship or nest-building are reached. Anyone who has a rookery under observation will know the various stages by which its occupants settle down to this, the most serious business of the year. Thus they visit their winter-worn tenements with increasing frequency, spend more time daily in considering the needful repairs, and finally take full possession, henceforth roosting at the rookery and only going as far afield to forage as may be necessary.
A knowing ear may at once judge by the increased and altered clamour when this climax has been reached. A February of open weather is tuneful with Thrushes piping to good Saint Valentine and challenging each other from tree to tree. Mistle Thrushes scold harshly and sing in more boisterous stanzas. Robins interrupt their flirting with bouts of fighting. At the very end of the month both they and the thrushes sometimes commence nest-building with ill-considered precipitancy, for few of these early nests come to any good.
A late snowfall causes them to be deserted, or, too evident in the absence of leafy cover, they are laid waste by magpies or jays. It is noticeable that the birds responsible for these early efforts are those which are domiciled in private grounds, where the lawns afford constant food and the shrubberies ample shelter. No thrush would think of building in the bare hedge-rows for a month to come. Watching the flocks of Peewits on moor or fallow, we may notice that many a wanton lapwing who now "gets himself another crest" has also selected a mate.
A pair of Water Ouzels, earlier than the rest, may already be carrying moss to the nest which they repair each spring. They work only in the early morning and are not seen in its vicinity during the day. Song Thrushes, Fieldfares and Skylarks have come straggling back since the frost took its departure, only to shift their quarters if a February snowfall occurs, bringing the Golden Plovers again to the coast. Linnets, which we so seldom saw in midwinter, are again in evidence, and in the fields are the first returning parties of Meadow Pipits and Pied Wagtails.
If the winter has been a severe one, food supplies are now at a low ebb. All the more welcome are the ivy berries, which ripen in late February or early March. Blackbirds eat them, scattering their undigested seeds broadcast, and from the ivied elm in the lane Wood Pigeons, which have been thinning the blue-black clusters, crash out as we pass. The back of a hovering Kestrel, seen from above, shows as a bright chestnut spot against the hill-side. Magpies pass from orchard to orchard by easy stages, halting now in a hedge-row and now alighting in a field.
Sometimes we meet with large and excited gatherings of from eight to a dozen, the subject under discussion being evidently connected with matters matrimonial. Two jack-hares chase madly over the springing corn, scuffling and boxing, so blind in their rivalry that they will run right up to the feet of an onlooker. A squirrel in his winter coat of brownish-grey, not red as in summer, hunts with quick jerky movements amongst the leaves for a chance acorn, carrying his brush curled up over his back as if to keep it clean and dry.
Here by the lake side we come upon a heap of loose, peaty soil nearly a yard across, so much bigger than the mole's ordinary hillocks that it evidently marks the site of his fortress. Opening it up, w e find the whole of the mound crossed and recrossed by a connected system of galleries or tunnels, which, however, exhibit none of the beautifully symmetrical arrangment so often figured. At a depth of ten or twelve inches is the central chamber which contains the nest, a double handful of oak-leaves and pieces of sedge, beautifully dry inside, but untenanted.
On the coast the air is full of the cries of the Curlews after dark, this unusual stir always marking the time of the year when they leave for their breeding-haunts in the hills. The Black-headed Gulls begin to acquire their black hoods, and the Herring Gulls circle slowly round at a great height, uttering their jubilant spring cackle.
It is not want but rather the taste for a dainty spring salad, which brings the Bullfinches every February to the kitchen garden and orchard, where they nip off the buds of the fruit-trees. Year after year we have to lament this exasperating habit of a favourite bird. Carefully they go over the lilacs, cutting off all hope of a good show of blossom; the cherry-plum and the pyrus japonica fare no better.
It is useless to plead that they are in quest of insects concealed in the buds ; their crops contain a puree of green stuff, without a trace of grub or larva.
Equally vain is it to urge that they only take the leaf-buds and leave the fruit-buds ; the reverse appears rather to be the case. Our own fondness for the bullfinch would lead us to try anything possible in the way of preventive measures, such as scaring him away or netting the trees, before sending a charge of shot after him, but others no doubt will be disinclined to carry toleration so far. Sometimes a little male Sparrow-hawk with slaty-blue back, sweeping silently through the orchard, spies the offender and gives him short shrift. In town-gardens the House Sparrow now adds to his misdeeds by attacking the crocuses and pecking them to shreds. Is this pure mischief, or does it arise from a desire to sample any early vegetable produce which comes to hand ? Some would have us observe that it is only the yellow crocuses which are thus treated, while the white and purple ones are spared, whence they infer in the sparrow the early dawnings of an aesthetic appreciation of colour.
But the snowdrops are, sometimes ill-used in the same fashion, so that further data seem to be needed before we can reach a conclusion.
Bird-song gathers strength and volume as the month. proceeds. The Blackbird, Chaffinch, and Skylark, whose voices were only occasionally heard in January, now come into full song. The blackbird's notes, quiet, leisurely and mellow, have none of the quick, eager change of phrase characteristic of the thrush, but we have known one individual to be constant to a curious variation, much like the piping of the ring ouzel. Many a dripping February morning is enlivened by the skylarks, which sing madly as the sun gets through the fog. The Yellow-hammers now begin to join in from the hedge-tops, and the Corn Bunting grinds out his monotonous refrain, like the jingling of a bunch of keys. Starlings collect in the tops of the elms and warble in concert. On sunny days the short, shrill song, of the Tree Creeper is heard every-where amongst the old timber, whence also comes the Nuthatch's loud spring whistle.
Meanwhile the Stonechat sings as he flits, all animation, about the tops of the furze, sometimes hovering for a moment like a whitethroat, then perching again as he scolds, with quick, nervous movement of wings and tail. In parts of the country where it occurs, the Woodlark flutes a soft, musical accompaniment to the skylark's rapturous trill, usually as it flies to and fro overhead, but sometimes from the ground or from the branch of a tree. Other songs which are less familiar attract our notice from time to time.
Sometimes from the tops of the ash-poles in the copse by the low watermeadows, comes a monotonous piping, "trui, trui, trui," like a poor imitation of the thrush's notes. It is the Redwing's song, little heard or noticed in England, but said to be a tuneful and much appreciated accompaniment of the Northern summer. And one bright February day, genial as April, we heard proceeding from the alders by the brook, a merry, rippling string of notes ending with a long drawn out " tze-e-e." The glass showed the gold-banded wing and green back of a cock Siskin. There was quite a party of them, some hanging from the twigs extracting the seed from the alder-cones.
From one, then from another, sometimes from three at once, would come the brisk linnet-like song with, as finish, the squeal which attested its authorship. It was the only occasion upon which we have heard the siskin singing in a state of freedom ; as a cage-bird its song is familiar enough:
In February, the spring notes of the various tits resound through the woods, most persistent of bird voices. Heard at intervals in the late autumn, then silenced by the frost, they now break out into a hundred variations of the same refrain, with all the spirit and energy inspired by the milder weather and the lengthening days. On all hands they are tinkering at kettles, and tiny anvils ring under their sounding strokes. The loudest performer is naturally the Great Tit, whose note is said to resemble the sound produced by sharpening a saw with a file, an operation to which, it must be confessed, chance has never given us the opportunity of listening. The Coal Tit reiterates his " sista-weet, sista-weet " ; a like spring-fever seizes the Blue Tit, and amongst the pollard willows by the weir the Marsh Tit is taking his turn as a variety artiste. For an individual tit of any one of these four species will invent some fresh variation and practise it all day long, to forget it completely next morning and hark back to its more familiar note. So much is this the case that anything novel in call-notes incessantly repeated, and especially if having about it the resonance of hammered metal, seldom puzzles us, being at once attributed to the versatile genius of a tit, either large or small. It is true that we have been deceived once or twice into imagining that the chiff-chaff or the tree pipit has arrived before its time, till a sight of the author proved that it was merely a tit favouring his woodland audience with the latest addition to his repertoire.
Thus, many as are the tunes and impossible as it is to remember them in detail, they may usually be recognised by their family likeness and taken together they form a tinkling accompaniment to the minstrelsy of the still leafless woods.
The epithet of " fill-dyke," applied to the month of February, carries us back to a time when the undrained land lay sodden after the winter rains and every watercourse was filled to overflowing by the melting of the snow. A chilly, damp, cheerless England of agues and marsh-fevers it was, but not without its picturesque features, of which the march of improvement has spared us but scant trace in the fen-levels of Cambridgeshire and in the Broad District of Norfolk.
It is a land of wide-stretching horizons, compared with which the skies of hilly and mountainous districts seem strangely circumscribed, and your true fenman would not exchange his quiet waters, in their gay setting of yellow flags, arrowhead and flowering-rush, for the livelier humours of North Country trout-stream or Highland torrent. To drink in the spirit of the land, its wide spaciousness and peaceful stillness, we must traverse the vast marsh-pastures, fed over by numberless horses and cattle, amongst which glide the brown sails of boats which move on unseen waterways, or stand in the midst of the one stretch of untamed fen still left to us, whence the towers of Ely cathedral are seen, vast and dim, to the northward.
Elsewhere, only the pumping station-engine house or wind-mill-with the straight silver line of the " lode " or " level " into which it pours its contribution of surface waters, shows how much of the black land, now so firm and dry, and bearing such heavy crops of corn and potatoes, was once part and parcel of the deep fen. Its very level has sunk many feet since the epoch when it was a spongy morass. But picture it as it was, when for league upon league the frozen meres gleamed cold in their setting of hoary reeds all tagged with ice, or later when the green feathered spears rustled and bent before the summer breeze which transformed the dreary waste into a jungle of lush and tall-growing herbage, where, side by side with the loosestrifes purple and yellow, the hemp agrimony and the meadow-rue, grew rare marsh plants, which drainage has almost banished from our flora. Still, at the end of June, the bulrushes give off their clouds of golden pollen, but, with the disappearance of their food plants, some of the insects characteristic of our English Low Countries have become scarce or extinct, a notable example of the latter being the great-copper butterfly, formerly the glory of the Whittlesea fens.
Happily, we may still, in one locality at least, see the strong-winged swallow-tail dash across the levels or find its larva, in its brilliant livery of clear green with jet-black stripes spotted with orange red, feeding upon the marsh-parsley or fennel.
But it is in the matter of their bird population that the by-gone glories of the fens contrast most strongly with present-day conditions. Every stage in the reclamation of the drowned levels has still further unfitted them to be the haunt of the great hosts of wild-fowl which formerly made them their home. True, the tide of disaster has sometimes turned when the dykes have burst and the waters have for a time reclaimed their own, but otherwise the remnants of the marsh-land have, in the opinion of the birds, become year by year more unsuited to their requirements, and they have been driven to seek in Holland or Jutland the congenial solitudes which our own land now fails to provide.
The times are indeed changed since Sir Thomas Browne could sally out of Norwich and return in a few hours with his pockets filled with eggs of the crane and great-bustard; when Fulham, on the Thames was, as its name implies, the fowls'-home where, amongst other wild-fowl, the spoonbills bred, and when the fenman could count upon a bittern for his Sunday's dinner. The booming of the Bitternone of the most weird sounds in nature-is no longer heard, though with every spell of keen frost bitterns from the Continent revisit the Welsh bogs, and show such a tendency to linger till spring in favourite spots in other parts of the country that it seems probable that, if unmolested, an occasional pair would breed with us even at the present day. But a century has elapsed since the Grey Geese ceased to linger to nest in the Lincolnshire fens, and nearly as long since the last colony of noisy Avocets gave way before persecution, though a stray specimen still crosses, not unfrequently, from Holland, to scoop its food with flexible, upturned bill from the surface of East Anglian mud-flats.
And it is not so long since a naturalist watched fourteen Spoonbills running about restlessly on a sandy pit, shovelling up the mud with their "spoons." They spent most of the day there, and were actually not molested. Gone, too, as a breeding species, is the Black-tailed Godwit ; gone more recently the Black Terns, " blue darrs " of the fenmen, which used to hawk dragonflies above the lily-grown shallows and breed in colonies about the meres, as the Black-headed Gull continues to do at the present day.
Old fenmen remember when the Marsh Harrier or Bald Buzzard used to quarter the wet meadows regularly like a pointer, and describe having seen the ducks make for the river when pursued by it, and dive as it stooped at them. Gone are the Ruffs which used to meet in tourney, trampling bare their favourite " hills," as with heads down and shields erected they sparred at each other like angry bantam-cocks, each taking as his share as many of the plainer Reeves as his prowess might win. A few harassed birds may still linger, for eggs were taken in 1884, and perhaps later.
So much for our losses, and now for the brighter side of the picture. The exquisite little Bearded Tits, once brought to a low ebb, seem to be no longer in danger of extinction. Their chief peril lies in the fact that every marshman knows that collectors will pay well for their eggs. Savi's Warbler, which used to reel from some tall reed even more loudly and persistently than the grasshopper-warbler, visits us no more, but the Reed Warbler still slings its cradle between the upright spears in every ditch, and from similar shelter comes the grunting squeal of the Water Rail, whose narrowly compressed body seems made to slip between the tussocks of sedge from which only a good water-dog will dislodge it.
The silvery-breasted Grebes still hold their own; we hear of twenty-three in sight at once upon a single broad. Owing to protection afforded by one or two landed proprietors, ducks such as the Gadwall, Pochard and Tufted Duck, breed in Norfolk in much larger numbers and greater variety at the present day than was the case fifty years ago. In one district it is stated that the Garganey nests even more commonly than the Teal. There is still the buzzing of multitudinous Snipe and the piping of unnumbered Redshanks. The blue-grey Montagu's Harrier, with his darker " ring-tail " mate, still at least attempts to nest annually. The Short-eared Owl lays its eggs upon a heap of cut reeds, and the Kestrel, in the absence of trees, has been known to nest upon the ground in the middle of the fen. Thus there is still left no small residue of the wild life of the waterside.
Let us leave the broad reach of Bure or Yare, where the wherrymen " quant " toilsomely, and push our punt up this narrow side-stream between the tall and thick-set reeds, giving place here and there to tumps of sedge between which are unknown depths of mire. A black-capped Reed Bunting chirps from a bending osier twig.
A pike goes out from the shallows with a swirl, and here floats a dead roach, with a wound in its shoulder where it has been stabbed by the Heron's bayonet. Our boatman tells how the bill of a fine old male heron turned orange and crimson with sudden flushes of rage as it fought with a dog when wounded. On either hand one hears Coots, quarrelsome as always, scuffling in the reeds. A Water Rail, surprised amongst the sedge, takes wing, showing its red bill as it flies. As our lane of water opens out upon a quiet expanse, coots scatter hastily for cover, dabchicks bob beneath the surface and moorhens splash away, leaving silvery tracks, or oar their way more quietly to the shelter of the reeds. They show some sagacity in the choice of sites for their nests, sometimes building them up to a height of eighteen inches to be prepared for a sudden rise of the water, or even, after repeated losses on account of floods, nesting in the bushes overhanging the stream. After dark the air is full of quackings and of the calls of various wading birds then upon the move.
The "broad" in question is rapidly becoming filled up by a tangled mass of the stiff-leaved floating plant known as the water-soldier. Its further end, where it branches into three or four secluded arms, is the site of a duck decoy. Here, enclosing and following the course of one of these branches, is a decoy pipe, a long, curving framework of light arches, covered in with strong wide-meshed netting, and becoming lower and narrower the further we go from its mouth, though, as we stand by its wide-arched entrance, some ten feet high and fifteen arcoss, the far extremity is unseen by us as by the hapless duck which swims in, unwotting of sudden and violent death awaiting it not a hundred yards away. One side of the pipe is merely sheltered by a straight reed-fence, the other, upon which it is intended to be worked, by the well-known arrangement of reedscreens placed obliquely, the open ends being about a yard apart.
Between each pair of these open ends is a low connecting piece of boarding, the " dog-jump " over which the decoy-man's canine assistant leaps to arouse the curiosity of the ducks. Viewed from the mouth of the pipe, these screens give the impression of a continous reed-wall, the openings, of course, fronting the other way. The pipe is fifty or sixty yards long, and at its far end not more than two feet wide. Further round the margin of the lake are three similar pipes, each following the course of a shallow reedy inlet.
A decoy must consist of several, as the ducks will only swim to windward. Beside a small hut near at hand are hanging up four of five of the tunnel nets which are fixed on at the narrow end of the pipe when a haul is made. These are ordinary bow-nets, eight or ten feet in length. T he hut is intended for the temporary disposal of the fowl after a successful working. The decoy-man tells of fourteen hundred ducks having once been taken in a week.
Apart from the special features of the Fen Country as a limited area, much of the old waterside life of bird and insect and plant is still to be found, but we must search for it more widely-by rippling brooks of the southern shires, about the quiet upper reaches of the Thames, or on the banks of slow midland streams, whose sluggish surface is only disturbed by the plunging of a water-vole or the rising of a fish. We shall find it where the mill-water forms a still lakelet, water lilygrown, or beside the moats which encircle the old timbered houses of the western shires.
Even commercial activity and increase of population have had the unforeseen result of providing new haunts for aquatic birds. There is scarcely a sea-bird-gull, tern or wader-which does not visit at one time or another the great canal reservoirs near the watershed of Trent and Severn. The Crested Grebes have in fact made themselves as much at home there as in the Broad district itself. Moreover, the vast waterschemes of Liverpool, Birmingham and other great cities have furnished a series of noble lakes which hold out fresh and increasing attractions to water-fowl. Sewage farms, too are much frequented by gulls and by wading birds, such as redshanks, ringed plover, and dunlin, especially in time of frost, when they do not readily freeze. So that the prospect of our retaining as British birds all the more interesting elements of the Fenland avifauna still left to us may be said to have distinctly improved within the past few years.
BIRD WATCHING CALENDAR FOR FEBRUARY
5th.-Blackbird begins to sing more regularly
7th.-Pied Wagtails begin to return.
10th.-Skylark sings more frequently.
12th.-Grey Wagtail returns to its nesting-haunts in the hills.
15th.-Coal Tit's spring note heard.
16th.-Some Long-tailed Tits paired.
20th.-Yell ow-hammer sings.
20th.-Water Ouzels begin to build. Nuthatch's spring whistle heard.
21st.-Some Lapwings paired.
27th.-Curlew leave the coast for the hills. Meadow Pipits begin to return.
28th.-Golden Plover return to the moors. Rooks build. Early pairs of Ravens have eggs.