Bird Haunts and Nature Memories/Chapter 12

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OYSTER-CATCHERS in hundreds—many thousands altogether—each with orange bill tucked in its scapulars, snoozed or pretended to snooze on the frozen tide margin. Though really conspicuously pied—"seapies" the fishermen call them—they appeared black; the white under parts were lost against the white background. Common gulls flapped idly down the estuary or drifted, tail foremost, on the flow. "Grey-duck" (the Solway name) came up with the tide, and with them white call-ducks, birds which, for the time, had thrown over restraint of domesticity on some frozen inland pool to seek the open life of the estuary. Curlews wailed across the frozen flats; cormorants, with solemn, purposeful flight, passed up ahead of the tide, flying close to the water.

Bare hedgerow and tree, and the green grass in the fields, were white with hoar-frost; even the sheep-cropped marsh pastures glistened with rime; everything was transformed with fairy decorations. The stiff upstanding stems of last summer's nettles, the withered seedless knapweed heads, the wilted nipplewort, and the untidy willow-herb, still flaunting tattered white awns, each had its edges and borders bedecked with diamonds. On the marsh itself, where the ditches cut deep into the sticky soil, water still flowed; snipe and wideawake redshank probed in the only soft mud to be found, wading recklessly in the shallow trickle close to the road. Titlarks had found these food-supplying spots, and blackbirds rattled their alarm cry as they rose from the depth at our approach; the birds were hungry, for supplies were limited. Where the peat-stained water debouched upon the sand all was glazed with ice; the tide pools, where the fresh-water gammarid meets the salt-water mysid, were closed to all crustaceans, and no marine worm could force its way through the frozen surface cake; naturally the waders had left them to other bipeds, the sliding, cheerful village children. An odd disconsolate dunlin here and there, a ringed plover with its plumage puffed out like a robin, wandered unprofitably along the high tide mark, but most of their fellows were with the oystercatchers at the edge of the incoming tide.

The sand itself was firm as a macadam road and far more slippery, for the receding, shallowing waves froze as they slipped seaward, and the wet surface became a film of ice. Ice, too, had filled the tiny valleys between the iron-hard ridges of the ripple marks, and all along the highest tide line was a broad ice border, inches deep and several yards in width. The flowing tide had stripped the ice film from the shore, pushing it forward, piling layer upon layer; film had frozen to film, forming a cake; cake upon cake had made an ice-floe. Crushed and up-ended, this mass had been forced landward by the resistless power behind until the shore resembled an Arctic scene.

When the tide turned the steady beat of powerful wings and the clanging cries of swans drowned the crinkling of the disturbed ice; five whoopers, with necks outstretched, came one behind the other from the upper marsh. They passed quickly, for the slow beats are wonderfully strong; in a few seconds they vanished into the seaward haze.

Next day the wind hacked to the west, and warmer sea-breezes brought a thaw and clearer air, and we looked out on a fine range of snow-clad hills, behind Dumfries

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The Grey Lag, goose of Solway.

and far to the westward, those hills which the exiled Stevenson remembered so well:

"Grey recumbent tombs of the dead in desert places,
   Standing stones on the vacant wine-red moor,
Hills of sheep, and the homes of the silent vanished races,
   And winds, austere and pure:
Be it granted me to behold you again in dying,
   Hills of home! and to hear again the call;
Hear shove the graves of the martyrs the peewees crying,
     And hear no more at all."

Where the Wampool empties its waters geese and ducks were in thousands, but the fowler, whether tramping the slub or gliding cautiously down the gutters, found his quarry hard to approach; the wary spoil-sport curlew was ever ready to sound the alarm. Wigeon, drifting seaward on the ebb, were distinct enough, but the grey geese, far away on the sands, were impossible to identify, though some at closer quarters were undoubtedly grey-lags. On the marsh were a few barnacles, finding the saltings provided a substitute for half-frozen zostera; hooded crows were lifting shellfish to drop them from a height on the hard sand, smashing the tightly shut valves. The winter range of the hoodie and carrion overlap at Solway, and we found the latter bird gorging on a mallard which some sportsman had failed to gather.

Bar-tailed godwits, occasional winterers on Solway, were with the oyster-catchers, or flying in little parties with sharp, barking cries; twice or three times we heard the triple note of the whimbrel, a much rarer bird as a winter visitor. With the thaw the golden plover and lapwings returned to the fields, hunting the softening sods; during the frost they joined the more maritime waders. Fieldfares and redwings, larks and starlings were all in the fields, and the last fed with rooks and daws on the marsh as well as inland.

Each afternoon, when the light faded all too early, the starlings rose and took a bee-line across to the Scottish side. A geographical barrier, even a natural one so wide as the Solway estuary, was to them no obstacle; at mealtimes they were English, at night they roosted in Scotland; the two or three miles between were crossed in a few minutes.

This was in the early days of 1914; much has happened since then. The starlings, versatile birds, may, like the dandy, have changed their habits; the old horse, whatever war service it accomplished, must surely have passed; travel, speed, and manner of travel received many unexpected jolts in the years which have intervened. Port Carlisle ceased to function, the canal emptied, the dandy vanished, but the Solway remains practically unchanged; the tide sweeps over its miles of sands, fills the gutters of its marshes, and brings its hordes of fowls. Away to the north are those wine-red moors, the eternal hills, which the hand of Time seems unable to alter. What do we know of Time? What are our three score years and ten, what indeed the whole history of our race, compared with the ages which have passed since those hills were formed?