Bird Haunts and Nature Memories/Chapter 5


WET sands, crossed here and there by shallow gutters, stretched seaward and across the wide Dee estuary far as the eye could reach; the Welsh shore, five miles distant, was hidden in thick mist. Nearly a mile from the land runs a long sandstone ridge or reef, which at high tide splits into the three islets of Hilbre; the smallest and most southerly, the Eye, was our destination, as three hours before full flow we splashed bare-foot through the remnants of the last tide. Gulls were drifting up the main, but the tide had not yet begun to fill the gutters, which are seldom if ever empty before the next inflow refills them. Away seaward a line of foam marked the advancing waters, breaking over the East Hoyle; the red and black buoys in Hilbre Swash heeled landward; the big tide was coming, but there was still time to cross comfortably from the mainland.

Then between the two larger islands the lapping water crept in swift trickles, first filling the ripple marks, then swamping them altogether. Bare-footed cocklers trudged back towards West Kirby, and two belated visitors to the main island raced knee deep through the swelling strait which now separated the two. We were left in sole possession of our observatory, a few square yards of turf clinging to the rocky outcrop, wave-washed in storm, wind-swept at all times, but a great gathering-place for birds. The advancing tide, running swiftly over the flats of Liverpool Bay and the "sands o' Dee," drives flocks and lines of gulls and waders before it; reluctantly they leave each bank and spit, but with a 30-foot tide there is no sand left for them. Some seek the Dee banks and marsh, where they must keep a sharp look-out for danger; but others wisely repair to the rocks round the islets, where they are safe, for shooting is here illegal.

When from Hilbre to the Red Rocks was one unbroken sheet of water and the gutter which cut us off from the land a rushing torrent, our sport began. Our weapons, no deadlier than field-glass and telescope, were at hand; our costs, fortunately superfluous, spread behind a sandy rampart, we peeped over the bank, levelling glasses on the noisy crowd which lined the ever swelling Swash. Middle Hilbre was alive with birds; they crowded, black masses over its lower rocks, whilst herring, common gulls, and black-heads flitted uneasily over the racing waters, wailing and scolding, as if annoyed that their hunt for food was deferred. A twittering flock of linnets danced in the air round the Eye for a few minutes, then made for the Cheshire shore, but two land birds, a young wheatear and a song thrush, were on the island when we arrived, and we left them there; they were reluctant to leave their island oasis. Both, doubtless, had selected it as a resting-place on their southward journey.

The oyster-catcher, better known to the Dee shrimpers as the "sea-pie," has a single note, described in the books as peep or kleep, which is shortened to an angry pic when the bird is disturbed on its breeding-ground. When twenty or thirty of these beautiful black-and-white birds fly past, calling in harmony, the combined peeps are very musical, though feeble and uninteresting compared with the concert of three or four hundred individuals singing together over their meal at the edge of the tide. No word picture can adequately describe the thrilling music of the sand-banks; the curlew's wild clear call, the triple note of the whimbrel, the sharp bark of the godwit, the liquid whistle of the grey plover, the purr of the dunlin, and the noisy yelp of the redshank were mingled continually with the music of the sea-pies, whilst the laugh of the herring-gull and the rook-like complaints of black-heads introduced harsher though not discordant notes. Hour after hour the sound swelled or died down, but the birds were never silent; the difficulty was to pick out individual calls.

High tides in early October are perhaps the best of the year from the bird-watcher's point of view, for though large numbers of northern waders arrive in September, and even in August, there are in the later month hosts of winterers added to the birds of passage. These last are here for a few days, or at the most weeks, and in winter have passed far to the south; in the warmer months they are at their breeding haunts when the short Arctic summer uncovers the luxuriant tundras. But the great southward tide of northern birds is not always regular in its visits; the shores may be lined in September and vacated in October, for the autumn crowds ebb and flow, and a poor day may be followed by one of great abundance.

The first waders which sought the still uncovered rocks which fringe the grass-grown portion of the Eye were dunlins and ringed plovers; these and numerous noisy and very wide-awake redshanks had been feeding as long as possible upon the sand. The redshanks, always nervous, were quick to see that the islet was not untenanted; each as it approached went off yelling blue murder towards Middle Hilbre, and we were glad to see the spoil-sports depart. The dunlins arrived in flocks of from a score to several hundred birds, wheeled round, flashing silvery white as they all turned their underparts towards us, swept past with a rustle as of many silken skirts, and then settled almost at our feet. Immediately some tucked their bills into their scapulars, raised one leg, and dozed; others attended to their plumage, but whether awake or, apparently, asleep, they hopped nearer and nearer as the water pushed them up the sloping rocks. The ringed plovers did not pack with the dunlins, but ran in the shallow water, snapping up the tiny shrimp-like crustaceans which came ashore with every ripple. Sanderlings, already in grey winter garments, came to join the throng, for the love of companionship is strong in small waders; the Deeside fisherman classes all three, and any strangers such as stints, as "little birds"; they are hardly worth powder and shot, unless he can rake a crowd and pick the victims up by the dozen.

A few yards away, on the red rock, a single knot, grey-backed, black-billed and olive-legged, dozed unconcernedly, and soon some fifty or sixty of these inhabitants of the Far North, breeders in Greenland or the little known Taimyr, swept past, followed immediately by many hundreds, which, after a sharp swing, dropped on the sand, each in alighting holding its pointed wings erect for a noticeable interval. They crowded, as they always do, and ran, a little grey cloud on the ruddy sand, calling a chorus of sharp notes, knut, knut. Fanciful writers connected the bird which wades and runs back before the advancing waves with the tradition of Canute, but the longshore man, who named the bird before Linnæus invented canutus, knew more about its voice than such writers as Camden and Drayton, and perhaps had never heard of King Canute.

The little birds were soon joined by a motley band, for variation in age and season makes the turnstone a harlequin in dress; happy the man who first names them "tortoiseshell plovers." There was no weed on the rocks to be thrown over, no pebbles to be turned, so the little party rested at the edge of a sandstone ridge. With them were one or two purple sandpipers, stout little waders who find the companionship of rock hunters more to their taste than the birds which haunt the sandy shore; there are usually some of these two species on the weed-fringed rocks of Hilbre. The curlew sandpiper, a bird with a long, slightly curved bill and conspicuous white upper tail-coverts, was not present, nor was that diminutive dunlin, the little stint; the majority of these two species had no doubt passed in August or September. A few often appear amongst the Dee little birds, but they are never really common.

Curlews, easily distinguished by their size and note from the whimbrels, constantly passed in parties, their long curved bills outlined against the sky; on Middle Hilbre they gathered until, from the Eye, three-quarters of a mile away, it looked as if the grass was browsed by innumerable tiny brown sheep. They left the Eye severely alone; the curlew's sight is too sharp. Not so the pies, for when the sand-browned water lapped the red rocks below us they began to settle, first a single bird, then a score, then hundreds at a time. They saw us and were nervous, but they clung, from habit, to this high-tide roost, and though at times all rose at once and flew round the rock, the scare soon abated and peace reigned once more. Peace? No, they were hardly peaceful, for as each fresh party arrived it drove the first comers into the tide. The reefs at the Red Rocks on the Cheshire shore were one by one submerged, and party after party of pies and godwits, which had used this rest so long as the tide allowed, came swinging, with much conversation, across the water. The godwit flies with the neck drawn back, its bill held straight, but when these barking bar-tails passed the slight uptilt of the beak showed clearly. The bar-tailed godwits settled with the oyster-catchers, swelling the uneasy crowd; they leapt out of the waves, and with a flutter of wings dropped where the crowd was thickest. Thus the congested area upon the rocks, now thousands strong, was in constant unrest; birds from the outside dropped into the crush and pushed the outer members into the water, where the pies, at any rate, swam comfortably, though the bird, it is affirmed, only swims when wounded! With one lot of bar-tails, always a numerous autumn visitor to this coast, were five larger birds, standing higher on their darker legs, whose tails at once gave them away as the rarer black-tailed godwits.

Few wader notes are more beautiful than the liquid tluie of the grey plover, known to the local gunners as the silver plover to distinguish it from the golden and green plovers. Both these species are common on the marshes, but seldom come far seaward; the silver is the real shore bird. One or two "wings" passed, but did not settle; in winter dress as in summer the grey is one of the most beautiful of our many waders. Cormorants passed on strong wing, flying straight and with businesslike determination; they pass up to the edge of the marsh and hunt the gutters on the ebb. Away over Hilbre clouds of little birds and knots, too far off to distinguish species, turned and twisted, flashing like silvery rain as they swooped suddenly down; high tide for some means rest, for others aerial recreation. Away in the main wigeon, pintail, and a few mallard drifted up on the tide, avoiding the bustling tugs which thrust their way seaward, the flowing tide curling against their straining bows; here and there a scoter, black upon the water, allowed itself to be carried upstream, but the majority of these sea-ducks were diving over the submerged banks in the Bay. We neither saw nor heard the geese, pink-footeds and white-fronteds, which had arrived before September ended; they were up on the marshes or the Sealand fields.

Then came a lull. The last bank of empty cockle shells was covered in the little muddy inlets, cut deep in the

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blue clay; the last sea-pie deserted the rocks at our feet. It was high tide, and the birds had moved to make the most of the ebb; the only avian companion left, beside the wheatear and thrush, which were sheltering somewhere out at sight, was a lively fly-catching rock pipit, who absolutely ignored our presence. We rose and looked seaward. The tide had turned, and soon the scoters came back, and odd gulls, less visible than a black duck on the glistening water, drifted past towards the Bay. A guillemot returned from an unconscious up-river trip; a line of wet glacial clay fringed the rocks, a patch of sand, a wet whaleback, hove in sight, the top of a bank; the water was receding as fast as it had come. The pies raced to each bank as it appeared, competing with the curlews and knots for the marine worms, the crustaceans, and molluscs which strove to bury themselves in the sand. The birds know that it is a race against time; they must catch these fugitives before they realise that they are stranded high and dry. The gulls and waders distributed themselves over miles and miles of freshly exposed banks; only a few redshanks now came near the islands, probing the sands. The larger gulls went seaward towards the great banks of Liverpool Bay, the common gulls and black-heads scattered over the ever widening stretch between us and the land, picking up cockles before they burrowed. These the common gulls smashed by carrying them into the air and dropping them from a height, repeating the performance time after time, until their purpose was achieved. We had a long wait until the gutters were shallow enough for us to cross, but the waiting time was not tedious; the common gulls smashing cockles, and the black-heads dancing in the shallows to bring up the retreating worms kept up our interest. Once, too, the gulls rose with cries of alarm, for that scourge of the flats and marshes, the peregrine falcon, passed over; it passed near enough for us to see the markings on its breast and its strong moustachial patch. It sailed over flocks of startled waders and then began to mount; it had singled out a victim, a straggling dunlin or sanderling. Down it came with a magnificent swoop, but the scared wader dodged and the pursuer missed. Up it went again, then down once more, and four or five times the fugitive eluded the deadly stoop. Then the falcon changed its plans, and, following every turn and twist of its quarry, actually flew it down. As it passed, flying landward, we could see it plucking its victim, getting ready for the meal.

When the gutter was fordable, a huge expanse of sand stretched once more towards the Welsh shore, and to the anchored fishing-boats, now heeled over, in the gutter off the stranded port of Parkgate.