Here to return to
WATER BIRDS SEEN FROM THE DUNES
WHILE the seacoast is a favorable region for the observation of land birds, it is doubly so for that of water birds, which stream along the coast during both spring and fall in great numbers. It is much to the advantage of the bird student that the migration period of water birds occupies a very considerable part of the year, for the fall migration begins as early as the first week in July, and extends through December and even into January, while the spring migration extends from February to the middle of June. Not only this, but a large number — not of species, it is true, but of individuals — spend the summer, while in the winter the number both of individuals and of species is large, and there is always a chance of rare visitors from the north at this season.
While a rain or snow storm, or even a wind, makes the observation of land birds difficult or even impossible, the same conditions on the seashore are to a certain extent favorable to the bird student, because birds that habitually stay out at sea may be driven to the beach, or may wing their way in the storm close to the dunes.
There are two main classes of water birds that can be watched from the sand dunes and surrounding beaches, namely those that obtain their food on or in the water, and those that feed on the beaches. The herring gull belongs to both classes, and on this account, and also because it is found at all seasons of the year at Ipswich, and on occasions in enormous numbers, it deserves first place in our consideration.
Although No-Man’s-Land in Penobscot Bay, over a hundred miles northeast, is the nearest breeding place of the herring gull, yet throughout the breeding season this bird is to be found in flocks of several hundred or even several thousand on and near Ipswich beach. Many of these, sometimes as many as ninety per cent., are in the gray and mottled immature plumage, and are probably non-breeding birds. It is possible, however, that some adults, perhaps only a few, are daily excursionists from their breeding places in Maine to the beaches of Essex County.
The moving cause for the accumulation of gulls in summer in this region is the great abundance of dead fish so often found here, and the herring gull is a very useful scavenger. Young herring in their mad flight from larger fish meet their death by thousands on the sands, while hake, haddock and cod, as well as dog-fish — those fierce and ravenous sharks — are often stranded in the shallow water, and, battered by the waves, are cast up on the beach, — pursued and pursuer together. Skates — curious kite-shaped sharks — and the still more curious angler-fish or fishing-frog also furnish food for gulls. The angler-fish is so named because it is supposed to allure its prey within reach of its great jaws by means of a dangling tentacle that resembles a rod, line and bait. One of these fish that I found on the beach was three and a half feet long and had a mouth a foot wide — a singularly open countenance.
While the herring gull feeds principally on dead fish and other refuse on the water and on the beach, it also devours crabs and snails and sea urchins whenever it gets a chance, and, on very rare occasions, plunges like a tern for small living fish.
I treasure in my memory a stormy July day, when the wind was sweeping down cold and wet on to the shore, when a fog-bank lay to the east and great dark cumuli to the north of a gray sea studded with white-caps, when patches of fleecy scud drove overhead, revealing here and there spots of blue sky, and when the surf moaned on the bar. Herring gulls were everywhere, for the sea had cast up for them a bountiful feast. The sand flats were splashed with great patches of young herring, here shining like silver, there looking dark and colorless, while windrows of hake and pollack and schools of dog-fish dotted the shore. The sand was covered with the gulls’ footprints, and marked with great white splashes, while feathers were blowing about as from an open feather-bed. As I stood on the edge of the beach, bracing myself against the wind, I noticed that a bar on one side was so thickly covered with the great birds that no sand was to be seen, while on the other that the broad flat beach for at least a mile was thronged with them, a great army of gray and white. Overhead they were continually passing and re-passing, drifting along before the wind or sailing straight into the teeth of it. Physicists have shown, it seems to me conclusively, that an up-current is needed in these cases, where gulls glide directly against a strong wind, as they often do for miles close to steamers, taking advantage of the up-currents there present. Over land or sea, under other conditions, it is rare that birds are able to glide far, for up-currents, although common for shorter spaces, are not so continuous as they are beside a moving steamer. Headley in his “Flight of Birds” says: “In Algeria I once saw two Eagles sail straight ahead against the wind for about a mile and a half without moving their wings till they reached a high mountain ridge, blowing over which the wind had got an upward trend.”
AN ANGLER FISH THROWN UP ON THE BEACH
TRACKS OF HERRING GULL MADE ON ALIGHTING ON THE BEACH
It is a difficult matter to estimate the numbers of gulls in these large flocks, — it is impossible to count them, — and I have adopted several expedients in order to arrive at some idea of their magnitude. For example I have measured the size of a sand bar on which a flock had been so closely packed that the birds stood for the most part shoulder to shoulder. Again I have paced the distance occupied by a flock on the beach, or the distance along which the birds stretched when alighted in the water opposite the beach. Even allowing one bird to a square yard or eight or ten to each linear yard, the numbers sometimes went up as high as twenty-five thousand birds. I have never dared to record an estimate of over six thousand birds, for fear of exaggeration, but perhaps it is as unscientific to underestimate as to overestimate.
It would take long to write down all the interesting traits of this splendid gull. A few of them have incidentally been set down in the chapter on tracks. In these days, when young men dream dreams and see visions of themselves in aeroplanes, they cannot do better than to study the flight of this bird, and the marvelous manner in which it uses its aeroplanes. I believe that there is much to be learned by this study, much that will prove of immense interest and value to aviators, and they are even now discovering that by skilful management aeroplanes, like birds, can remain in the air for a considerable period of time and move in various directions without motive force.
HERRING GULLS IN THE IPSWICH DUNES
While herring gulls in calm weather often flap along like herons, in stormy days they are totally different creatures, and appear to delight in the blasts, sometimes sailing, with wings slightly bent, straight into the wind.
One can but admire the ease with which they circle and sail in calm weather or in storm, sometimes rising with imperceptible effort to a great height, their white plumage flashing in the sunlight.
“Now shaves with level wing the deep, then soars.”
In the descent they circle slowly down, or drop with great rapidity, tipping frequently from side to side to spill the wind in order to quicken the pace, and often slowly sinking the last twenty or thirty feet with outstretched legs and upraised wings. It will be a long time before human aeroplanes can compete with these past masters in the art.
One March day I noticed a gull rise from the water and fly with all speed directly at a golden-eye duck who was peacefully swimming not far off. The duck dove to avoid the blow that seemed imminent, and the gull took its place on the surface of the water. In a few seconds he was off to repeat the game on another duck, and so it went on. The victim always dove in time, the gull never picked up any food or appeared to be looking for anything the duck might have dropped, and the other ducks swam close to the marauding gull without any show of fear on their part or of malice on the part of the gull. I believe that the whole performance was in the nature of play between the different species living in a familiar and friendly manner in the same region.
I was once watching an immature herring gull as it flew slowly close to the water at Ipswich, when a great fish, possibly a shark, threw itself completely out of the water at the bird. The gull flew up quickly, but soon circled down and dipped close to the water where the fish had disappeared, as if to satisfy its curiosity as to the cause of the strange disturbance.
The great black-backed gull is a fine fellow, larger than the herring gull, and is distinguished by black wings and back that contrast well with his snow-white head and tail. To this arrangement of plumage he also owes his name of “saddle-back.” His bill is of a bright lemon hue, excepting the front part of the lower mandible, which is washed with brilliant carmine that shades out on the edges. When he opens his mouth his gape is seen to be orange and his tongue salmon in color. His eyes are pale straw colored stenciled with delicate gray lines, and his eyelids are edged with vermilion. A close acquaintance is needed before all these charms are revealed.
In the migrations and during the winter the saddle-backs are common birds on this shore, and, although their nearest breeding place is Nova Scotia, two or three generally spend the summer. Their cries are generally deeper than those of the herring gull and wonderfully varied and expressive. This is particularly the case during the breeding season on their home grounds. On the Labrador coast I have listened many times to these splendid birds, whose voices seemed almost human as they suggested anger, grief or derision. They often spoke in low conversational tones to each other as they sailed by, and at other times they scolded in no uncertain manner. I remember watching a pair of them eating a fish; their manners were extremely good; they ate in turns, never interfered greedily, and never quarreled. Saddle-backs are apt to be tyrannical, however, and chase and harry other gulls.
It is indeed a red-letter day for the ornithologist when he sees a glaucous or burgomaster gull, or an Iceland gull on this coast. These two species, denizens of the north, can be distinguished on close scrutiny from the herring gull by the absence of black tips to the white wings. The glaucous gull is slightly larger, the Iceland gull slightly smaller than the herring gull. Both have a mantle of slaty blue covering their backs when adult, but the immature are of a uniform creamy white above and below.
Bonaparte’s gull, one of the smallest gulls, is a common migrant, and kittiwakes and ring-billed gulls, although less common, are far from rare.
The common tern, often called mackerel gull, is easily identified by its swallow-like flight, its bill pointing downwards as it flies, and by its habit of hovering and plunging for fish, as well as by its loud cries of te-arr. Its bill is red with a black tip, its cap is black, its back of a lovely pearl gray, its lower parts white, and its tail long and forked. Not so many years ago various fragments and the whole skins of these beautiful birds were fastened on women’s hats, just as scalps and feathers are fastened in the head-dresses of savages. Thousands of the birds were shot down where they could be most easily obtained, namely, on their breeding grounds, for they are plucky little birds and valiantly attack any marauder who intrudes on their homes, and they do not seek to escape. These, as well as other species of terns, were greatly reduced in numbers by this cold-hearted combination of fashion and slaughterers, when, through the strenuous efforts of the Audubon Society and of other bird lovers, the killing was stayed, and, to the great joy of all naturalists, the graceful birds are again increasing. I have hopes that the least tern, which bred at Ipswich over forty years ago, and has been brought almost to extinction in the same way, may return again to its old haunts, now that fashion has been curbed by law.
The arctic tern closely resembles the common tern, but lacks the black tip to its bill, and has a somewhat different voice. It is far less common. Still rarer are the roseate and the great Caspian tern, but the little black tern is a fairly common migrant. All of these, I believe, are happily increasing in numbers since they have been afforded better protection.
It is a great pleasure to watch the graceful terns as they sport along the shore, now covering some sand bank as with a great white sheet composed of many hundreds of individuals. now rising and wheeling first one way and then another, all screaming loudly, now scattering and plunging for fish. Every now and then the bird watcher will notice a brown or mottled or jet black bird, lithe and graceful as a hawk, dart in amongst the snowy terns, and scatter them to the right and left. Now he singles out one bird and chases it vigorously as it twists and turns in a vain effort to escape. Wearied at last, the tern drops a fish, which is at once seized by the intruder before it strikes the water. This is the way the jaegers, as these hunters are called, obtain their daily food, for they are robber barons, not laboring men. But “there are as good fish in the sea as ever were caught,” and the terns do not suffer much, I suppose, from this tyranny. Occasionally, however, the victim appears to lose its temper and turns and chases the jaeger. The screaming is incessant and the two twist about in a bewildering way, as each tries to rise above the other, but I have never seen any harm result. There are three kinds of jaegers to be seen at Ipswich, the Pomarine, the parasitic and the long-tailed, and all have a light and a dark plumage, which are as different from each other in appearance as the red fox is from the black fox.
Perhaps the most spectacular performance by birds along this coast is the herring fishing in which the gannets indulge. Gannets are migrants only, birds of passage, and are often common in the fall when herrings swarm in Ipswich Bay. I have counted over two hundred gannets, all busily engaged in fishing, which with them is a lively and not a contemplative occupation. When a large flock are throwing themselves from considerable heights at the water, one bird after another in quick succession, or a number at once, sending the water up in great spouts, one is reminded of a naval battle, or at least of its counterfeit presentments. The fishing process in detail is as follows: the gannet flies rapidly over the water and begins to soar at a height of from thirty to a hundred feet, often rising just before the plunge. At the plunge the head is pointed down, while the wings are partly spread, so that the bird appears like a great winged arrow. The speed of the descent is great, and the wings are closed just before the bird enters the water, which spurts up to a height of five feet or more. After the waters have subsided, following the splash, and all is still, the bird suddenly and buoyantly comes to the surface, the head and neck stretched out first. It then sits quietly on the water for half a minute or so, to finish swallowing its prey and to rest, when it slowly and laboriously rises to windward, with its long neck and tail stretched to their full extent. Gaining a sufficient height, it swings round to leeward, and is soon soaring and plunging again.
THE WRECK OF THE SAND SCHOONER
THE WRECK A YEAR LATER
The adult gannet is chalky white all over except for the outer halves of the wings, which look as if they had been dipped in ink. The shape of the bird is characteristic with its long neck and tail, but the spectacular plunging makes its recognition an easy one.
While the gannet is sometimes called a “Solon goose,” its cousin, the shag or cormorant, is called in the South a “nigger goose” on account of its black color. The derivation of cormorant, namely from corvus marinas, also points to its dusky hue. There are two kinds of cormorants seen along this coast in the migrations, the commoner of which is the double crested cormorant, and the rarer bears, paradoxically, the name of common cormorant. The latter bird in small numbers sometimes passes the winter here. They are uncanny looking birds, veritable imps of darkness.
The double crested cormorant has two little tufts of feathers, one on either side of its head, and while its whole plumage is black with a purple metallic sheen, it is provided with several points of brilliant color. Thus its throat is bare of feathers and is of an orange color, as is also the bare skin at the base of the bill and in front of the eye. The eyelids are jet black with a beading of blue spots, while the eyes themselves are an emerald green, and the inside of the mouth is painted a vivid blue. Its neck is long and snake-like, while its great feet are like bats’ wings with webs connecting all the toes. Perched on a spar buoy, a favorite spot, it sits upright, resting on its tail with its neck curiously curved. It frequently sits in spread-eagle style, with wings stretched widely, the head turned to one side and upward, looking for all the world like the eagle on an old mirror. This position is sometimes held for ten minutes at a time, and is occasionally indulged in by the birds even when they are sitting on the water.
That cormorants in flight are sometimes mistaken for geese is not surprising, yet their uniform black color, their broader and more slowly flapping wings, as well as the slight curve in their necks, makes their recognition easy. They fly in flocks of from ten to a hundred or more, and may stretch out in a long line abreast or one behind the other, or the flock may even assume the typical V shape which is supposed to belong only to flocks of ducks and geese. On the water they look like loons, except for their blackness, and they are most expert in diving and catching fish. Occasionally they alight on the beach, where their attitudes and motions may be watched and their footprints examined. One pair in rising into the air made five hops before they could clear the beach, a distance of four yards. Another bird, with a stronger wind to help him, pushed the beach back only three times.
Wood in his “New England Prospect,” written in 1634, says of these birds: “Cormorants bee as common as other fowles, which destroy abundance of small fish ... they used to roost upon the tops of trees, and rockes, being a very heavy, drowsie creature, so that the Indians will go in their Cannowes in the night, and take them from the Rocks, as easily as women take a Hen from roost.” Old Josselyn, however, says: “I cannot commend them to our curious palats.” I have ventured so far as to eat their eggs, but that was in Labrador.
In thick stormy weather Mother Carey’s chickens or petrels — either Wilson’s or Leach’s — sometimes fly close to the beach. They are black birds nearly the size of robins, with white patches on their rumps. Leach’s petrel has a forked tail and short legs, while in Wilson’s petrel the tail is not forked, and the legs are so long that when stretched out behind, as the bird is flying, they reach beyond the tail. While the Leach’s petrel breeds along the Maine coast and farther north, Wilson’s petrel breeds in the antarctic regions in the summer, our winter, and comes north across the equator to spend the northern summer with us.
Much might be said about various loons, auks, and grebes that can be seen from the dunes, but many of these prefer rocky shores. The loon — that splendid great diver that advances more rapidly below the water than on the surface — the smaller red-throated loon, and the horned and Hoelbell’s grebes are, however, familiar birds along these sandy shores.
In the duck family the first on the list is the red-breasted merganser or sheldrake, he with the saw-like bill, the bec-scie of the Acadians. Of late years this bird appears to have increased in numbers, owing, I believe, to the stopping of spring shooting, and also, I am inclined to think, to the action of M. Meunier, the chocolate king of France. This gentleman has acquired the great island of Anticosti in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, and has excluded all guns from his realms. Anticosti is a wonderful breeding ground for various water-fowl, and among them the sheldrake abounds.
On a late October day in 1910 the water outside of Ipswich beach for its entire length seemed to be filled with sheldrakes. Everywhere one looked were small and large flocks of these birds, either sitting on the water, swimming about and diving, or restlessly rising up and flying to and fro. It was a wonderful sight, and my companion, a most cautious and conscientious observer, estimated in his enthusiasm at least fifty thousand birds. There may have been many more. But it can safely be said that there were at least twenty-five thousand.
Although it is not uncommon to find two or three red-breasted mergansers spending the summer, none breed here, but in the autumn great hordes come from the north. After the first or middle of November they fall off greatly in numbers but are still abundant throughout the winter, while in the spring they again increase. In the early autumn all these mergansers appear to be in the modest dress of the female and young, — brown heads, ashy gray backs and white breasts. Towards the end of November it is evident that some of them, perhaps a quarter, are changing into the beautiful dress of the adult drake, while by the last of December and throughout January and February it is very rare to see a bird in female attire. In March the females put in an appearance, and courting begins, and by the last of April and in May the birds are largely paired, although flocks of either or both sexes are common. Both the drake and the duck have crests, but while that of the duck is dull brown, the crest of the drake is colored like the whole of his head and neck, a dark metallic green. The drake has also a white ring around his neck and a band of reddish brown streaked with black on his breast, while his flanks and wings show much more white than is to be seen in the duck. His bill is colored red.
The explanation of the seasonal distribution is interesting. It is evident that the great multitudes in the fall — all in somber plumage — are made up of young of both sexes and of adult females; but it is not so clear, although it is a fact that the flocks also contain adult males which are in the so-called eclipse plumage. The males of nearly all species of ducks, soon after the period of courtship is over, change, by moulting, from their conspicuous nuptial dress to the quiet and dull-colored dress of the female. This is what is meant by going into the eclipse plumage, and the fact is in itself a strong argument in favor of the theory of sexual selection.
In the case of the eider, the drakes in nuptial plumage are wonderfully brilliant in their dress of creamy white, jet black, deep blue and pale green. It is evident that they appreciate their own beauty, for during courtship they display their charms by various antics, including the rising up from the water so as to show the splendid black belly shield otherwise hidden. In all situations, whether on the open sea or on land, among ice, rocks, spruces or mosses, they are extremely conspicuous, while the duck, in the modest but tasteful dress of brown, is always difficult to distinguish. Immediately after the courtship period the drake also assumes this dress, which becomes for him an eclipse plumage in very truth.
Now, in the case of the mergansers, the drakes emerge from their eclipse in late November, but their charms are wasted for a time, because the ducks with their young, as sometimes happens with the females of the human species, betake themselves to a warmer climate. The males are left to fight the battle alone in the north, until the more genial weather of the spring brings back the females and young from the south.
The southern side of this picture, which rounds out and corroborates my northern observations, has been given me by Mr. William Brewster, who says that in Florida in winter he has seen large flocks of female and immature red-breasted mergansers, and by Mr. Arthur T. Wayne, who, in his “Birds of South Carolina,” says of this species: “From the time when the fish-eating ducks arrive until the first week in February the adult drakes are seldom, if ever, seen, but towards the second week in February they make their appearance in large numbers.”
The old males brave the rigors of the northern climate, while the females and young seek warmer regions during the winter, but it would seem as if some of the impatient suitors were unable to await the return of their partners from the south, and must needs go and fetch them.
The red-breasted merganser has a spectacular and distinctive courtship display, which varies somewhat in its details but is essentially as follows: the drake begins by stretching up his long neck so that the white ring is much broadened, and the metallic green head, with its long crest and its narrow red bill, makes a conspicuous object. After a preliminary bow, the bill is opened wide and the bird stiffly bobs or teeters as if on a pivot, in such a way that the breast and the lower part of the neck are immersed, while the tail and the back part of the body swing upward. This motion brings the neck and head from a vertical position to an angle of forty-five degrees. All the motions are stiffly executed, and suggest a formal but ungraceful courtesy. When the bill is opened, a loud, rough or purring and slightly double note is emitted, a note that remains long in the memory after one has heard it repeated over and over again by a number of merganser suitors.
Although the female may remain passive and coyly indifferent to the ardent actions of the male, as is the habit of her sex, she sometimes responds by a bobbing which is similar to that of the male, but of considerably less range, and sometimes she emits a single note which is louder than that of her partner but of a different quality and less rasping. The nuptial performance is always at its best when several drakes are displaying their charms of movement, voice and plumage before a single duck, and each vies with the others in the ardor of the courtship.
I have records of some thirty other different kinds of ducks of this region, but it is possible to speak of only a few and that but briefly. Of these there are three species that go by the name of “coots,” and their pursuit is termed “although the name coot belongs properly to that species of rail which is commonly called a mud hen. With such confusion of popular epithets it is no wonder that scientific names are preferred by those who wish to be exact. These “coots” that I speak of are really ducks, and they are known as the American scoter or butter-bill, the surf scoter or skunk-head, and the white-winged scoter.
UPPER FIGURE — COURTSHIP POSE OF SHELLDRAKE.
LOWER FIGURES — COURTSHIP POSES OF WHISTLER.
During October and November they pour along the coast, sometimes in great numbers, and at times flock succeeds flock as far as the eye can see off the beach at Ipswich. On days of great flights it is a fascinating study to watch these birds from the top of a tall dune near the beach as they sweep by with irresistible energy. On reaching the angle at Annisquam where Cape Ann juts boldly out, the birds often appear at a loss what to do. Sometimes they fly first one way and then another, rising higher and higher all the time, finally to strike out towards the end of the Cape, over which they resume their southerly course. Another flock will turn at the angle without pausing and skirt the shore around the Cape, but occasionally a flock will become discouraged on reaching the solid barrier and will turn back to drop in the water and talk it over. All this shows the dislike of the scoter to fly over the land, yet in stormy weather they fly directly over the base of the Cape.
Ducks are not famous as songsters, but there is a somewhat musical duck that appears in these waters, namely the old squaw, oldwife, or long-tailed duck. This handsome bird comes with the winter in a livery of snow white and jet black, and he bears a long and slender tail which he jauntily cocks up at an angle. In Labrador these ducks were spoken of as “hounds” by Cartwright over a hundred years ago, and they still bear this name there, and it is an appropriate one, for the voice of a flock is like the music of a pack of hounds in full cry. According to Preble the Cree Indians along the Athabasca call this bird ca-ca-wee, the Chipewayans of the Mackenzie River refer to it as a-ha-lik; while the Eskimos give it the name a-hau-lin. All of these names are very fair attempts to repeat some of the notes used by these birds. William Wood in his “New Englands Prospect” says “The Oldwives, be a foule that never leave tatling day or night.”
Occasionally one may see in May a few old squaws that have changed to the summer dress in which they appear like negatives of their winter plumage. Instead of having a white neck and a dark spot about the eye, they have a black neck and a light spot. The color of the feathers near the eye remains in reality nearly the same — a mouse gray — but it appears dark with a white neck, and white with a black neck.
By far the most characteristic frequenters of the beach are the shore birds, a charming group in plumage, habits and call notes, a group that includes sandpipers and plovers. Up to half a dozen years ago the piping plover bred regularly in the dunes and raid its eggs in the sand. It belongs to a dying race, and although it is protected by law at all seasons, I fear this is not sufficient to stop its path to extinction. So long as the law permits the shooting of other plovers of the same size and the small sandpipers, one cannot expect the ordinary gunner to discriminate, as in fact he is unable to do, and the piping plover is shot with the rest. Only by stopping all shooting, or by the creation of bird refuges, can the tendency to extinction of this and other shore birds be prevented. Would that the Ipswich dunes, beaches and marshes could be made a bird refuge! It would be the greatest blessing to the birds and to bird-lovers alike, and incidentally to sportsmen elsewhere. At present a land owner prohibits the shooting of shore birds around the shores of a small pond at Ipswich Great Neck. The results are extraordinary and are well worth imitation, for the shore birds resort there in great numbers, both of individuals and of species. More than all this they become so tame and so much at home, that one can watch at close range traits and habits that are rarely seen on the open beaches, where the wary bird is constantly on the alert lest it lose its life.
The piping plover, meloda, has one of the sweetest and saddest notes I know, — a clear double whistle. It generally prefers to hunt its food in the dry sand, which it matches closely in color.
While the piping plover matches the dry sand, the ring-neck or semi-palmated plover matches the wet sand where it generally hunts, and its notes are cheerful and business-like in comparison with those of its piping cousin. It is a robust bird, always on the alert for food and for the prowling gunner, and it still holds its own in considerable numbers. An advantage that plovers have over sandpipers is that they scatter when they alight on the sand to feed, while sandpipers hurry along in close ranks. Consequently the pot-hunter spends many anxious moments waiting for a chance to get a large number of plovers in a line with his aim, and often misses them altogether as the frightened birds take wing. As we have already seen, the habits of these two groups of shore birds in this respect can be discovered by their tracks.
The golden plover is rarely found on this shore, and then only when it is blown out of its usual course, some two hundred miles or more to the eastward, for it has the extraordinary habit, after coming from its arctic breeding grounds, of migrating from Nova Scotia to South America, a distance of 2,400 miles over the ocean. From the northern coast of South America it journeys to Argentina, where it spends our winter, the South American summer. In the spring it migrates up the Mississippi valley, and finally reaches its home by the Arctic Ocean.
The black-bellied plover or beetle-head is, however, more a bird of our coast, for it migrates along our shore both spring and fall. It is a little bigger than the golden plover and is indeed a splendid bird with a body as large as that of a pigeon. It differs from the golden plover also in having a little knob of a hind toe, while the golden plover has no hind toe at all, and its under wing feathers or axillaries are black, while those of the golden plover are ashy. Its white rump is, however, its most distinguishing mark when it flies.
I know of no more interesting shore bird to watch than the stately black-bellied plover, as it runs hither and thither on the sand, dabbing here and there with its short bill, or standing pensively, slowly folding its great wings after alighting. In the spring one may study all phases of plumage in a single flock, from those in winter dress with pure white breasts and bellies, through the slightly and profusely spotted ones, to those with splendid jet black breasts that contrast well with their white sides and necks. Thus on May 21, 1905, a flock of sixty-six of these birds ran by me as I lay concealed on the beach within a hundred yards, and I made the following census: nineteen were full black bellies; twenty-seven were in various stages of incompleteness; twenty were pale bellies.
Their whistle is somewhat like that of the piping plover, but is deeper and longer and differs in accent. As a flock flies over, their voices come down as a shower of sweet yet mournful sounds.
The commonest sandpiper of the beach is the gentle little peep, a term that includes both the mud-peep or least sandpiper, which is more often found in the marsh, and the sand-peep or semi-palmated sandpiper, a typical sandy colored beach bird. In flocks large and small they eagerly glean the sand, running all together up the beach when threatened by a wave and following it as it recedes. Again they spring into the air and twist and turn like one bird with military precision, displaying now their gray backs, now like a flash their white breasts. The young, with the faint smoky wash on their breasts, come about the middle of August, a month or so later than the earliest arrivals among their elders, and at first are very tame and confiding, not having yet learned the depravity of the human race ‘or the range of their guns. They soon learn, or pay the penalty with their lives. One never tires of watching these birds, and desolate indeed would be the beach without them, — yet their extermination still goes on.
In the spring one is sometimes treated to their flight song, a musical quavering trill, which the bird pours out continuously as it rises on quivering wings. The song ends with a few sweet notes that suggest some of those of the goldfinch, and, after the excited bird has fallen to the ground, it emits a few low clucks. The whole performance is altogether delightful and unexpected.
The sanderling, locally known as “whitey” on account of its white appearance, is an abundant bird on the migrations both in spring and fall. It is somewhat larger than the peep, and its gray and white plumage makes it a conspicuous object as it flies in closely crowded ranks. In full breeding plumage it has a ruddy brownish throat and upper breast, but many go north in the spring still in the white of their winter plumage. The early arrivals in August or late July on the journey south are often ruddy-throated, but the change to winter plumage by moulting soon spots the throat with white until all the red feathers are gone.
In the middle of August the young, sadly inexperienced, arrive, and in their tameness fall an easy prey to the gunner. They are beautiful birds, with faint smoky bands across their white breasts. It is a great pleasure to watch a flock as they crowd together along the shore, probing every spot of sand for the small molluscs and crustaceans which constitute their food. As the season advances our pleasure is somewhat dimmed by the fact that cripples, with a foot shot away or bloodstained sides, are common in their ranks.
Josselyn in his “Account of two voyages to New England,” published in 1675, says of sandpipers: “There are little Birds that frequent the Sea-shore in flocks called Sander-lins, they are about the biggness of a Sparrow, and in the fall of the leaf they be all fat; when I was first in the Countries the English cut them into small pieces to put into their puddings instead of suet, I have known twelve score and more kill’d at two shots.”
There is always a chance of seeing less common or even rare shore birds on the beach, but it is out of the question to more than mention some of them here.
One beautiful Sunday morning in May, I heard the discharge of a gun, and immediately after a flock of knots — canutus, named after King Canute — flew by me on the beach. I looked to see who was breaking two laws by shooting on Sunday and in the spring, when I perceived that the offender had broken also a third law by shooting from a sailing dory off the beach. It was evident that his conscience was too guilty to allow him to look a man with binoculars in the face, for he put about and soon disappeared in the morning mists, leaving, however, three beautiful specimens dead on the beach. They were not wasted. The knot in the full nuptial dress is a handsome bird with breast like that of a robin and a steel gray back. In this stage it is called a red-breasted plover, while the fall birds in winter dress and the young with their white breasts and bluish gray backs are locally known as “blue plover.” By these marks is the knot known, but especially by his short legs and squatty form.
The dunlin, with his curved bill, is a marked bird in the spring, on account of his bright chestnut back and black belly, while in the fall he retires into obscurity with a mouse-colored back and white under-parts.
One would hardly connect the family of Napoleon with a sandpiper, but the nephew of Napoleon the First, Charles Lucien Bonaparte, was an ardent worker in American ornithology, and the white-rumped sandpiper is also known as Bonaparte’s sandpiper. It is not much larger than a peep, but its white rump, noticeable in flight, furnishes a ready means of identification.
WATCHING WATER BIRDS AND SEALS FROM THE WRECK
SKULL OF DOG AND OF SEAL. — GRASS BALLS
The Eskimo curlew — the dough bird of old New England gunners — is a bird of the past, for it is now close to extinction, although in former days it sometimes visited this coast in the fall in large flocks. The last record I have in this region is of two shot at Newburyport in August, 1908. Audubon in his “Birds of America” says: “Previous to my voyage to Labrador I had seen only a single bird of that species, which was kindly given me by my learned friend William Oaks Esq. of Ipswich, Massachusetts, who had procured it in his immediate neighborhood, where as I have since ascertained, the Esquimaux curlew spends a few days in early autumn while on its way southward.”
The Hudsonian curlew, however, is a not uncommon migrant. It is an interesting fact that young males of this species have such short bills that they are mistaken for Eskimo curlews, while old females have such long bills that gunners report them as sickle-bills, the very rare large curlew of that name. I have a young male in my collection with a bill 2.25 inches long and an adult female whose bill measures 3.65 inches. It is evident that the males in this race are hen-pecked!
The Hudsonian godwit with upturned bill, the willet, the Baird’s and the stilt sandpipers, I must merely mention by name, but the turnstone or chicken plover compels more than passing notice. His coral red legs and his black and tan and white “calico” back make him a marked bird, and his great variety of call notes adds to his distinction. He derives his name “turnstone” from the singular but useful habit he possesses of turning over stones for the small crustaceans concealed there. But he does not stop at turning stones, for he is particularly adept at turning over masses of seaweed, sometimes almost as large as himself. In fact he literally “roots” in the seaweed like a pig, and like a pig he grows inordinately fat.
Although very shy when pursued with a gun, I have found the turnstone a delightful bird to study with a glass, for he appears to grasp the situation and to recognize the friendly attitude so well that I have been able to approach within a few feet of the “rooting” bird and watch every motion.
What a joy it would be to have a return of the old conditions, when terns and piping plover bred in the dunes, and when shore birds large and small thronged the beaches, and when the sea teemed with water fowl. Many of the birds I have mentioned in this chapter are on the way to extinction, some have already disappeared forever; a few, happily as a result of protection, are increasing. In Japan it is said that when travelling artisans see an eagle, they take out their sketching tablets and record its beautiful shape and attitudes. The barbarians of this part of the world try to shoot it, a fate they have often meted out to every large or unusual bird they came across, even if it were of no value to them, and they left it to rot where it fell. Fortunately times are changing and the people are gradually awakening to the idea that money value in food or plumage, or even in work done for man, is not the only thing for which birds should be protected. We are also beginning to realize that the interest which finds pleasure in the sport of bird destruction is a very limited and a very selfish one, and that the claims of the sportsman are not paramount to those of the nature student or even of the lover of natural beauty.