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Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 32.djvu/333

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GLIMPSES OF LIFE ALONG A CORAL REEF.

When a long way off we noticed the birds hovering over the place, and on landing, their numbers increased until the air far above and around us fairly swarmed with the gliding forms of this graceful tern, and the strange medley of their harsh cries, together with the whirring of thousands of wings, was nearly deafening. They were nesting amid a tangle of shrubs three or four feet high, along a low, narrow ridge of one of the islands, a few yards from the water. Parting the bushes aside, we could see the old birds sitting on their eggs, and caught with our hands several which were snared in the vines as they attempted to fly. This tern resembles a large and powerful swallow. It has a sharply-forked tail, snow-white neck and breast, while the rest of the plumage is a dead black. They nest close together under the bushes, laying a single egg on the ground, without nest of any kind. Their eggs are easily distinguished from any others which we saw, being white or creamy and boldly spotted all over with umber and lilac. Even in these remote places the numbers of sea-birds are being yearly lessened by the natives, who persistently collect their eggs for food. The rare flamingo is now reduced to a colony of a few hundred on Abaco, where, as I was informed by an old settler, they numbered thousands several years ago, and similarly the beautiful tropic bird, which is hunted chiefly for food, is being gradually exterminated.

Close beside this key there was a small rock a few yards square, with scarcely a spear of grass upon it, which a party of the Wilson's tern (Sterna hirundo) held in undisputed possession. Their cone tipped, olive-green, and spotted eggs lay in twos and threes on the bare surface of the limestone. Both this bird and the smaller edition of it, the least tern (S. superciliaris), which has similar habits, are called "shanks" by the islanders, while on the North Carolina coast (where we found both species breeding a month before) they are known to the fishermen as "great" and "little strikers." The Wilson's tern has a wide range, and is one of the most beautiful of a large and exceptionally striking family. It has a prominent black crest and coral-red bill and feet. Like many of our most attractive birds, it is shot down each season to satify the widespread demands of a barbarous fashion. Its pearly wings, or as often the whole bird, usually much distorted by the milliner, may be seen almost any day in the streets, pinned on to ladies' hats.

As we approached Paw-paw Key some tall bushes on the island appeared to be draped in deep mourning. Presently, as a large black company of birds rose one after another in the air, we recognized the frigate-bird (Tachypetes aquilus). I counted seventy of them as they soared above our heads. These swarthy giants cut a memorable figure against the sky, with their great angular wings, and long, forked tail. They mount slowly upward in spiral curves, with all the ease and grace of the hawk, until a safe height is reached, when they sail rapidly off to a distant island. The females are recognized by a con-