Bird Haunts and Nature Memories/Chapter 4


A NARROW ridge of sandhills, a natural breakwater for Grimsby, Immingham, and other ports, runs for some three miles between the Humber and the sea. A little to the north the restless waves are eating their way into the crumbling brown cliffs, which scarcely rise 20 feet above the shore. A fine beacon, a day landmark, stands over 500 yards inland of its submerged predecessor, and dated houses are also marked with the distance from the sea when they were built. One of these near the beacon now stands empty and condemned; the tide broke through its frail barriers, burst open its door, and forced the occupants to seek refuge in the upper story, whence they were rescued through a window. During exceptional tides the sea and Humber meet north of Kilnsea, and for three days practically all communication was cut off from the mainland during one of my visits, for the tide is landlocked by the walls, and another tide is up before the water has drained off. The walls, though broken in places, permitted passage for the energetic postman, but no one else troubled to go through. The clay beach, thinly covered with drift sand and gravel, shows where cliffs once stood; in the Humber miles of level "clays," slippery and often sticky to walk on, cover the sites of the lost villages of Holderness; the curlew and grey plover whistle where once the fields were tilled and a large population travelled dryshod and were securely housed.

At Spurn Head, where the ridge widens out and ends, there is a small but important official colony, familiar in summer to visitors from Cleethorpes, but in autumn cut off from all but business connection. The fine lighthouse, whose powerful "mantle" light throws a white beam every few seconds upon the Kilnsea houses, three miles distant, has its keepers, the signal station its watchers and workers. Ten cottages house the resident lifeboat crew and families, men who add to their retaining fees by crab-fishing. Two coastguards are stationed there, or were a few years ago; a publican provides for the needs of the thirsty, and a schoolmaster attends to the upbringing of the youth of the little colony, for the nearest school is at Easington, beyond Kilnsea. There is a post ofice and telegraph station, from which the wires run along the ridge; at intervals beneath these wires in autumn lie the bodies of many migratory birds; for in their incoming flight on dark or misty nights the deadly wires take frequent toll. Traders' carts follow no regular route on their journey to the Head; they must adapt themselves to the height and state of the tide. At low tide they travel across the "clays" or even on the firm seaward beach, but often they are driven on to rough pebbles, and at the end of the journey through deep-rutted, shifting sandy tracks amongst the dunes.

For many weeks in autumn the fields round Kilnsea, the ridge of Spurn, and the Humber clays are the feeding-ground and resting-place for an innumerable army of migratory birds. Southbound summer visitors converge upon the narrow neck, whilst others reach it by following the coast from further north; by far the greatest number come from oversea, landing from northern Europe at or a little north of Spurn, where they often halt, as at a hostelry, before continuing the journey. In early October the rough coast-fields were white with the seeding heads of sea-aster, and in September the show of this maritime Michaelmas daisy was a sight for the gods; on either side of the ridge prickly saltwort and sea-rocket were in seed, yellow berries richly adorned the sea-buckthorn, and the hedges further inland were bright with hips and haws. Provision for seed-eating birds was ample, and they did not neglect the lavish feast; linnets, redpolls, greenfinches, sparrows in dense packs swarmed over the aster, saltwort, and rocket; blackbirds, thrushes, and the lately arrived redwings on the larger fruits. Multitudes of snails crawl amongst the marram, and the thrushes have no lack of this. their favourite food; but on the ridge itself there are no stones to use as anvils for shell-smashing, but a stiff bent branch of sea-buckthorn is just as good; every few yards a litter of broken shells marks the abattoir and dining-table of some migratory thrush. Grass seed, insects, and molluscs supply all that the lapwings, larks, and pipits need in the efilds, whilst the abundant animal life of tidal mud and the refuse from the ports attracts waders and gulls to the Humber.

Daily the bird population alters in numbers and composition; birds arrive during the night and next morning skulk in the bushes or join their fellows in the fields. All day long diurnal movements of certain species may be noticed. Out of the void specks appear, high above the sea, and in a few moments these can be recognised as approaching larks, lapwings, hooded crows, or gulls. With a favourable wind they come in untired, dropping towards the beach, but seldom alight at once; but when they have been contending with a contrary wind these fresh arrivals are often so weary that it is almost impossible to flush them from the bushes or long grass in which they have taken refuge. I could one day have again and again kicked a lark which refused to move when I almost stepped upon it, and I sat on a balk of timber a foot or two away from a panting, palpitating sterling. One morning the ridge and every hedgerow was alive with goldcrests, on another robins, dunnocks, wrens, and a few belated warblers filled the bushes. Redstarts, stonechats, blue tits, even a couple of pied woodpeckers, were amongst the night arrivals; for two days a great grey shrike rested on the wires, darting down occasionally to reduce the insect population of the ridge, and a water-rail slunk along a drain as we passed. Predatory birds followed the migrating hosts and took toll. Along the ridge were many heaps of feathers where the merlin had dined; a peregrine was travelling with the redwings, and a rough-legged buzzard quartered the fields, passing within a few yards of where I lay to watch it.

Daily the swallows and martins coasted south, following the ridge; they never passed in large numbers, but the stream, though thin, was continuous. Occasionally a big party of starlings passed, flying with businesslike determination, not hawking from side to side and occasionally returning over the same ground for a few yards like the hirundines; the starling, whether bound for feeding-ground, for roost, or winter quarters, always means to get there with as little delay as possible. But the most noticeable migrants were the gulls, chiefly of two species, greater and lesser black-backs. There were black-headed gulls in the Humber, and some with common gulls following the plough; there were a few herring-gulls about, but the numbers of these species which were passing was trifling compared with the darker mantled brethren. Occasionally some of the larger gulls went out seaward to seek a shoal of fish, but as a rule all day and every day the stream steadily flowed south. How many thousands passed each day? Some travelled in irregular order, some in well-fanned chevrons, or in long lines, those to the rear benefiting by the air disturbance of the advance wings. At times only a dozen might be in sight at one moment; then party followed party in quick succession; alike in wind or calm the stream flowed on towards the south. Many times we counted, and found that the average rate of passage was about fifty birds per minute, or, for eight or nine hours per day, 3,000 per hour. Whence came they? Whither bound? Who shall say?

Redwings, a few fieldfares, many blackbirds and song thrushes occupied the red-berried bushes all one day, but by evening they were restless. At dusk several parties rose, mounting higher and higher as they circled round, but finally, when a mere group of specks, heading for the south. On the same evening the woodcock came; they had been anxiously watched for by men with guns, for they gather a woodcock harvest at times. Only a few arrived, however; the big passage, so I was informed, came later. As I crossed the ridge that night, stumbling in the dark and the momentary blinding beam of light, I heard the curious paper-ripping sound of their wings as they rose at my feet, and occasionally, before the lighthouse beam swung round and pitchy darkness followed, caught a glimpse of the shadowy retreating forms. A few snow buntings haunted the beach, and a brambling or two accompanied the chaffinch flocks round the farms, forerunners of later immigration.

Round the landmark, where the tide has left a wide stretch of sand, the waders gathered, ringed plovers and dunlins in countless packs, restlessly swinging to and fro in may aerial evolutions, or packing closely on the sand, every bill tucked into back plumage, and hopping forward on one leg when the water reached them. Early in September, when the last of the terns were passing, the knots monopolised this beach, covering it as with a grey carpet, so closely do they crowd together. In that month, too, warblers, pied flycatchers, redstarts, and other summer visitors were trailing south; but in October the winter visitor was more in evidence.

Birds come and go; the watcher can never guess what he may see any morning, nor how many thousands have drifted by during the night unseen, unheard. The grey geese, in small skeins, passed at sea; ducks of many kinds floated by, or took flights close to the water; the first of the Brent geese was spotted by three or four gunners, but was intercepted on a water hole by one of the oldest inhabitants and his ancient muzzle-loader. On dark or foggy nights the southward flight of many individuals is checked by the dazzling rays from the lighthouse; even in November the list of casualties may number two or three hundred birds of a dozen different species; before me is one night's report when knots, redwings, fieldfares, blackbirds, starlings, lapwings, golden plovers, a rail, and a goldcrest struck in a fog. But the numbers slain at the lantern are as nothing when compared with the disaster caused by strong contrary winds. Dead goldcrests on the tide line were far too common, and some even reached land safely and perished from fatigue; it was almost possible to pick them from the bushes and marram when they first reached land.

Fatal, too, are the wires which run along the ridge. After a big arrival of knots we enjoyed knot pie, all our victims being unfortunates which were running about the sand and road with broken wings or other injuries. With a wind behind them birds would strike so violently that a wing would be torn off or both legs shattered; it was a kindness to end their pain, though the attendant hawks and the hooded crows did not leave them neglected for long.