The Zoologist/3rd series, vol 1 (1877)/Issue 3/Occasional Notes

Occasional notes (March, 1877)
various authors, editor James Edmund Harting

Published in The Zoologist, 3rd series, vol 1, issue 3, p. 100–109

4140123Occasional notesMarch, 1877various authors, editor James Edmund Harting


On the Breeding of the Otter.—Although Otters, like other animals, appear to breed most commonly in the spring, yet instances of the capture of young Otters that must undoubtedly have been born during the autumn seem to be nearly as common, and I think a series of instances would show that there is no month in the year during which a newly-born litter could be considered extraordinary. On November 12, 1873, a male cub, picked up in the Isis a few days before, weighed (at a guess) barely 2 ℔s.: he had milk canines and molars, but no incisors cut (it may be worth mentioning that he did not lose the first of these milk canines until a day or two, at most, before January 22); he had probably not many days before emerged for the first time from the nest, and if it be correct, as stated by Brehm ('Illustrirtes Thierleben') and quoted by Lilljeborg, that the young are suckled by the mother for a couple of months in the nest before they are taken out and instructed by her in the art of catching fish, nine weeks would be somewhere about his age. Two other cubs, male and female, were captured a few days after the first, making a probable total of three to the litter. On March 31, in the same year, a female cub, picked up about the 20th, in Wales, weighed 2¾ ℔s.; she had incisors, evidently not long cut. Two cubs, weighing about 3 ℔s. each, were killed on October 24, 1875, while trying to scramble up a willow-tree in the floods near Oxford. Two others were caught from a fishing boat when swimming with their mother in the sea, off Megavissy, Cornwall, on February 4th, 1873 (as reported in 'Land and Water' at the time); one of these, which I found lying dead in its cage at the Zoological Gardens on the 24th, weighed then, at a guess, about 3½ ℔s. On July 10th of the same year I caught a young female Otter in the Thames, weighing somewhere about 5 or 5½ ℔s., and on comparing it with the specimen mentioned above as received from Wales in March of this year, it appeared to be from a month to six weeks younger. Two cubs were caught with Major Hill's otter-hounds in Wales in 1870; one, a female, weighed on July 23, 5 ℔s. 14 oz. Four young Otters, from different localities, appeared to be of much the same age—averaging about 9 ℔s.—(one weighed 8 ℔s. 6 oz., and was 3 feet 2 inches long, another 9¼ ℔s., length 3 feet 1 inch) in the months of June, August, May, and December. The friend who sent me these wrote me word that he had tried to procure a cub, caught a few days previously, which was not much more than half the size of the specimens sent. The mother of another of these had, according to the fisherman who shot her, three teats used, as if that were the number of young in the litter. Three small cubs were killed, together with their mother, in their nest under a stack of osiers on one of the eyots on the Thames; I do not know the time of year. A female Otter, trapped on the Thames, was found by the man who skinned her to contain three young; I regret that in this instance, as in two or three others of single cubs being picked up, I have no note of the time of year. One of the two Otters now in the Zoological Gardens, received in February last, must undoubtedly, I think, have been born during the previous autumn. Two female Otters, which I have in captivity, come in season pretty nearly every month, and would, I believe, pair at almost any time of year, especially perhaps November, but unfortunately I cannot get hold of a male; the only individual I ever possessed (the first cub mentioned) died from inflammation of the lungs before he was full-grown.—Alfred Heneage Cocks (5, Radnorplace, Hyde Park, W.).

Hybrid between the English Hare and the Scotch Hare.—At a recent meeting of the Glasgow Natural History Society Mr. Lumsden exhibited a Hare, hybrid between Lepus timidus and Lepus variabilis, which was shot in December last near Dumbarton moor, where blue Hares were turned out a few years ago. He remarked that "the editors of the new edition of Bell's 'British Quadrupeds' do not seem to have been at all sure of hares of this description occurring in this country, and state that hybrids are reported to be known in Switzerland, but that the statement requires further confirmation. It is reported, however, that they are not uncommon in some places in Perthshire." Mr. John Cordeaux, of Great Cotes, Ulceby, informs us that when shooting in Perthshire last September, he killed a hare which he had no doubt was a cross between Lepus timidus and Lepus variabilis. This example, which he compared the same day with pure specimens of both species, exhibited very distinctly a mixture of the colours of both parents, that of the Common Hare predominating. It differed, also, in some respects from the Mountain Hare, being generally larger, with larger head, larger ears, and broader forehead. The head keeper on this moor, an experienced man, stated that there was no doubt whatever about the inter-breeding of the two species, but that the progeny was infertile.—Ed.

A Freshwater Breeding-Haunt of the Sandwich Tern.—A correct list of the breeding stations of some of our rarer sea-fowl would be both interesting and useful to those who are fond of studying the habits of our native birds; for in many instances the localities chosen are not those where the casual observer might be induced to look for them. Few, indeed, would expect to find the Sandwich Tern nesting on a little moorland lough some miles from the sea, and totally unconnected with it; yet such was the locality selected by the Sandwich Terns frequenting Killala Bay and the estuary of the River Moy. On the 7th of April, 1851, near the island of Bartragh, I first became acquainted with this beautiful Tern. Having previously resided in the South of Ireland it was quite unknown to me, and when the attention of my brother and myself was first attracted by its very peculiar cry (which if once heard can never be mistaken or forgotten) we were very much puzzled, as for a long time we could not make out what bird uttered it, or from what direction it proceeded. The sound appeared to come from all points of the compass, yet no birds appeared in sight: after some time we chanced to look upwards, and were only just able to perceive some birds wheeling about and soaring at an immense height, and all the while screaming loudly. This wild flight and strange cry, so unlike that of any other bird we knew, induced us to watch them closely, and after some time they gradually lowered their flight to the water, and we then saw that they were some species of Tern. We got into our boat, and succeeded in shooting a couple, and found they were the Sandwich Tern. This peculiar habit of soaring to a great height (almost out of sight) and wheeling about in wide circles, occasionally chasing each other and screaming loudly, is more often to be witnessed early in the season, before they begin to sit, although occasionally in autumn a pair may be seen acting in a similar manner, but almost invariably on fine bright days. As these Terns remained feeding about the bay and estuary, we were most anxious to find their breeding ground, but although we made many enquiries and searches we were unable to discover it. About the time we supposed the females were hatching, the male birds were daily seen flying inland towards Lough Conn, with sand-eels in their bills to feed their mates. Lough Conn, however, was visited twice without our seeing any trace of the Sandwich Terns, the only members of the Laridæ met with being Black-headed Gulls and Common Terns. Our search for the breeding haunt having thus failed I gave it up for a time, but in May, 1857, I was told of a small lough upon which a number of small gulls bred, and which is situate near the residence of the late Mr. Gardiner, of Cloona, two miles from the town of Ballina, and about three miles from the estuary. This lough, nearly surrounded by a bog, is about twenty or thirty acres in extent, and has a wooded island in the centre, with a quantity of reeds and bulrushes at one end. On visiting the spot I found a large colony of Black-headed Gulls breeding amongst the reeds, and a smaller colony of the Sandwich Terns located on a low flat mud-bank scarcely above the level of the water. Some of these Terns had no nests to speak of, but had laid their eggs in a slight depression of the soil, thinly lined with a few blades of dried grass, and (as well as I can remember now) I think three was the average number of the eggs in each nest. When returning I brought five or six of the eggs back with me, and at that date (the last week in May) some were nearly hatched, and too far advanced for blowing, which shows that this species breeds much earlier than the smaller terns. The following winter and spring being unusually wet, the level of the lake was raised so high as to cover the mud-bank upon which the Terns had had their nests, and as the bank continued under water during the summer of 1858, the Terns deserted this lake altogether. They have now moved to the little moorland lough of Rarouem, situated midway between Ballina and Killala, and within sight of the high-road between those towns. This lough is considerably larger than that of Cloona, but is nearly surrounded by bog, with very swampy shores, and a large quantity of reeds growing on the margin: in some places these reeds grow far out towards the centre, where there is a small circular island about twenty yards in diameter, whereon a large number of Black-headed Gulls make their nests, as they do also among the reeds, but the Terns have theirs on a bare part of the island, a little away from those of the Gulls. This lake, with the adjoining land, is the property of Sir Charles Knox Gore, who, with the spirit of a true naturalist, strictly preserves it, and does not permit either Gulls or Terns to be disturbed; last season he had the bushes and long grass cut off the island, in order to give the birds more space for their nests, so that now, being well protected, there is every likelihood of this beautiful species increasing every year. When visiting this lough in June, 1876, it presented a most pleasing sight from the number and variety of the birds frequenting it; the Gulls and Terns sitting on their nests, the male Terns continually coming from the sea with sand-eels to feed their mates. Wild Ducks, Teal, Coots, and Waterhens swimming in and out amongst the reeds, Ring Plovers running along the shores of the lake, and Black-headed Buntings and Sedge Warblers flitting about the stunted bushes which grow on the drier parts of the swamp. Altogether it presented as pretty a picture of lake life as could well be imagined, and one of which a naturalist could never tire. The Sandwich Terns arrive in the bay and estuary of the Moy much earlier in the spring than the smaller terns, generally making their appearance between the last week of March and the middle of April; sometimes, however, I have seen them arrive as early as the 20th of March, and as late as the 26th of April.— Robert Warren (Moyview, Ballina).

On the Habits of the Golden Eagle.—I have never known the Golden Eagle to eat fish, even when quite fresh, much less in a putrid state. The Sea Eagle, on the contrary, is a foul feeder, and will eat all kinds of fish; he also watches the fords over which salmon leap in ascending rivers, and often makes them his prey. Few have enjoyed better opportunities than I have for studying the habits of the Golden Eagle, for they frequent the hills around my house, and for the last twenty-four years I have had a tame one, which seems to attract the wild ones, who sometimes sit on the top of her cage. In 1875 she laid two eggs, and last year four. She is much attached to me, and will allow me to handle her in any way. So far from being afraid of anything alive, I may state that she has killed a Peregrine Falcon, which was so tame that I allowed it to fly about, besides several Merlins, Gray Crows, and other pets that I had, which went into her cage attracted by the meat. Only last month she killed a large cat in the same way. I could furnish many other anecdotes of her did space permit. The mode of hunting by the Golden Eagle is most interesting to watch. Generally speaking two of these birds hunt together, a hare being the favourite prey. When the hare is started one of them follows it as near the ground as possible; the other poises in the air, or as a falconer would say "waits on," and watches intently. If a rock or anything else intervenes, and the bird in pursuit loses sight of the hare, the other at once stoops and takes up the running; the first then "waits on," and so on. The hare has little chance of life unless there is a hole in which to hide.—William Pike (Glendarary, Achill Sound, Co. Mayo).

Notes from the West of England.—A Rough-legged Buzzard is reported to me as having been trapped on Exmoor this winter; it is described as having been very light-coloured in its plumage, so may prove an adult. At the beginning of November a Green Sandpiper made its appearance by a warm drain close to my house, and was to be noticed there daily for some six weeks, when it disappeared, and I feared it had been shot; however, after a fortnight's absence it returned, and one day I flushed from the same drain a smaller Sandpiper, which seemed tamer than the other bird, rising with a feeble "weet," and flying over the field at a short distance from me. I am pretty positive that it was a Wood Sandpiper. About Christmas a Curlew Sandpiper was shot on the moors a little to the east of Taunton, and is, I should judge, in almost complete winter dress, in which state it is but rarely obtained in this part of the kingdom. It is not so gray on the back as the Dunlin in its winter plumage, and still shows many of the crescentic markings which characterize the young birds shot in September and October; but all the under parts from the bill to the vent are pure white, and the upper wing-coverts are very hoary, being dark gray spotted with white, not a little resembling the summer plumage of the Wood Sandpiper. Whilst on the subject of Sandpipers I may add that last summer, when fishing on the moors, I saw a Common Sandpiper rise a few feet into the air from off a bank adjoining the stream, and while it rose and slowly descended again it warbled a very agreeable little song; a clump of furze separated me from the bird and the stream by an interval of a few feet, so that the bird did not see me, while I was sufficiently near to see it clearly and to catch what was to me a hitherto unknown song. It is on record that the Wood Sandpiper also pipes a few pleasing notes.—Murray A. Mathew (The Vicarage, Bishop's Lydeard).

Rare Birds on the Exe.—An adult specimen of the Little Gull (Larus minitus), in winter plumage, which had been shot near Woodbury, was shown to me in the flesh on the 29th November last. On the 12th January two immature specimens were shot on the Exe, below Topsham, by Mr. Douglas Hamilton and Mr. Benjamin Cleave, who have kindly presented them to this Museum. Another immature specimen has also been shot within the last few days at Turf, on the Exe. This species has occurred three times previously on the same river, once at Teignmouth, twice in Torbay, and twice at Plymouth. A Great Crested Grebe (Podiceps cristatus) in winter plumage was shot at Powderham, on the Exe, on the ] 5th January, by Mr. A. K. Hamilton, who has presented it to this Museum; it is not common on the Exe, but has been obtained in various stages of plumage, principally in the early months of the year. On the 18th December last a young male Long-tailed Duck (Harelda glacialis) was brought to me in the flesh; it had been killed on the Exe. We have now a fine series in this Museum killed on this river: an adult male in summer plumage (1847), an adult male in winter plumage, a young male (1851), another young bird (1865). A small flock of these ducks was seen on the Exe in November, 1867.—W.S.M. D'Urban (Albert Memorial Museum, Exeter).

Rooks Attacking Acorns.—Your remarks on Rooks attacking acorns (page 21) reminds me of what came under my observation some twenty years since, when residing in Morayshire. I made some notes on the subject at the time, and now give an extract, thinking it will go far to prove that the Rooks you saw carrying off acorns were doing so to get at the grubs. The past autumn having been unusually mild, the thermometer in November frequently as high as 55°, grubs and worms were unusually abundant, consequently Rooks could not have been pressed by hunger to feed on acorns. Seeing that the Nuthatch breaks the hazel-nut, we need not wonder at the Rooks breaking the shell of the walnut. The note to which I refer is as follows:—"November, 1858. Observing a number of Rooks flying in and out of a fir plantation, and remarking that they were more than usually clamorous, I was induced to watch them; I then found that on emerging from the wood they held in the beak something of considerable size, but what it might be I could not imagine. Snails were thought of, but it being late in November they were hybernating, so I endeavoured by a closer inspection to ascertain what could have been found of an eatable kind in the fir-trees, but the closely-matted branches effectually screened them. On leaving the wood they were observed to alight on an open space dotted with furze, under cover of which I was enabled to watch them unobserved; I then saw that what they were pecking and tearing at were fir-cones; the operation over—and it took but a few minutes—they returned to the trees for a fresh supply. On examining several of the cones strewn over the ground in different stages of decay, a grub, or maggot, was found in some of them near the core, showing clearly on what the Rooks had been feeding."—Henry Hadfield (Ventnor).

Rooks Attacking Acorns.—Like Mr. R.M. Barrington I had never noticed that acorns were not included by the authorities on British Birds in the category of the Rook's food. I have repeatedly seen them eat acorns, but was under the impression that they eat all but the outside shell. Rooks and Carrion Crows begin to come to our walnut trees on or about the 28th September every year. They wrench off the nut, and sometimes carry it to a great distance before they commence to eat it. They generally take it to the middle of some large field, and holding the nut down firmly by one claw, proceed to peck it open by aid of their powerful beak. It is impossible to make one drop the coveted morsel when flying over, however much they are frightened. I never saw them bury a walnut, as related by Mr. Jesse.—C. Matthew Prior (Bedford).

Curlews breeding near Salisbury.—I can quite credit the paragraph in 'The Marlborough Times,' mentioned at page 38, concerning the true Curlew (Numenius arquata) breeding occasionally on the Aldbourne Downs. One or two pairs have bred regularly on the downs some seven miles from Salisbury for many years past. My little boys taking a great interest in Natural History, I asked a friend, in the spring of 1875, to procure for me a pair of the eggs of the Stone Curlew, or Thick-knee, which bird breeds annually with us. He did so, but they unfortunately arrived when I was away from home, and were broken. He very kindly sent me a second pair on May 25th,—rather late in the season for them,—and told me whence he had procured them. On making enquiries of a person he mentioned, I was told that they were not uncommon, and that some Curlew's eggs could be obtained from the same downs if I wanted them, as one or two pair bred there every year. I was surprised at hearing it, but size and colour and shape of the egg were described so accurately that I was convinced of the truth of their doing so. Last year (1876) I asked the person to look out for me and procure me some; but this spring none were found, it being the first season they had missed breeding there. Upon this I referred to Meyer's book on 'British Birds and their Eggs,' and asked the person to point out to me which eggs were meant when "Curlew's eggs" were spoken of; and the right egg was pointed out without the slightest hesitation. I have not the least doubt of the fact of these birds breeding on the downs, as the Thick-knee's eggs are comparatively common about here, and could not be mistaken for the eggs of Numenius arquata by one who was perfectly acquainted with the eggs of both species.— A.P. Morres (Britford Vicarage, Salisbury).

Variety of Sand Martin.—This species breeds not uncommonly in several places in the neighbourhood of Ringwood, such as old gravel-pits or railway banks. Near one of the latter situations I have often sat for hours watching their untiring and happy motions and listening to their twittering notes. Last season, during their nidification, I noticed a peculiarly coloured individual flying amongst its darker relations—in fact, it seemed to be snowy white, and was consequently very conspicuous. On the 6th of September, however, I saw a specimen which had been killed as it was flying over the river, but it was terribly battered with large shot, its head being smashed and almost severed from the body. Its general colour was a pale yellowish white, the body tinged with gray, and the feathers of the wing-coverts were each bordered with bright rust-colour, so that it would have been a peculiar variety if it had been worth preservation. This was probably the bird I had watched during the summer, for although the man who shot it said he saw another at the same time similarly coloured, no such specimen was seen afterwards.—G.B. Corbin.

Gray Shrike and Goosander in County Antrim.—A female specimen of the Great Gray Shrike was shot at Carnmoney, County Antrim, on January 13th; the stomach contained fragments of the bones of some small bird, but of what species I could not determine. On the 9th of the same month a young male Goosander was killed on the six-mile water near Randalstown, and came into my possession the following day.—Thomas Darragh (Belfast Museum).

[In Thompson's 'Birds of Ireland' the Goosander is characterised as "probably an annual winter visitant to Ireland, but in very limited numbers; and chiefly to fresh water."—Ed.]

Owls Washing.—I have a pet Barn Owl flying at large in the yard, and on several occasions I have seen him wash in a tub of water. I have also a Long-eared Owl, but never knew him to wash, although he sits outside in rain and wind both night and day, and seldom seeks shelter or even a dark corner; it is quite the contrary with the Barn Owl, as he does not seem to like the light, and seeks the cellar in the day-time. It would be of interest to me to know if others have observed Owls washing, and if so, of what species?—Thomas Darragh (Belfast Museum).

[That Owls have no antipathy to water is evidenced by the fact that they have been observed to catch fish, and in their love of bathing, when opportunity serves, they probably do not differ from other birds of prey.—Ed.]

Remarkable Variety of the Wild Duck.—On the 11th January a strange specimen of the Mallard was submitted to my inspection. The head was yellowish green, the white collar absent from the neck, very slight traces of the rufous band on the breast, speculum ashy black instead of brilliant green. It was shot below Topsham, on the Exe, a day or two before I saw it.—W.S.M. D'Urban (Curator, Albert Memorial Museum, Exeter).

[Our first impression on reading this note was that the bird must have been a drake in the plumage of a duck, still undergoing that remarkable seasonal change of plumage to which we know the Mallard is liable at the close of the nesting season. But looking to the date at which it was obtained, this could scarcely have been the case. The Mallards begin to assume the duck's plumage about the third week in May, and retain it until August, when they again undergo a gradual change towards their own richly-coloured plumage, which is fully re-assumed about the second week in October. The bird in question, therefore, ought to have been in the full plumage of the drake at the date named, and it must accordingly be regarded as an abnormal variety, if our correspondent has satisfied himself that it is not a hybrid, or an escaped wanderer from some poultry yard.—Ed.]

Herons near London.—One morning in December, 1876, a Heron was seen by Mr. F. W. Denny fishing in his piece of water in Hanover Park, Peckham.—Henry F. Bailey.

[The spot indicated is about four miles from Hyde Park Corner. On the 10th February last we saw a solitary Heron at Kingsbury Reservoir, which is about six miles from Hyde Park Corner as the bird flies.—Ed.]

Glaucous Gull on the Exe and Teign.—An immature specimen of the Glaucous Gull (Larus glaucus) was shot on the Exe on the 20th January. It had been seen for a fortnight previously, and had been frequently fired at. Another specimen, also immature, occurred on the Teign about the same time. The legs and feet and base of the bill were light pink in the first-named specimen, which is now in this Museum.—W.S.M. D'Urban (Albert Memorial Museum, Exeter).

Singular Nest of the Blackbird.—On the 13th May, 1875, I came across a Blackbird's nest, on the ground, that must have wasted the time and tested the patience of the builders very considerably. It was in the bottom of an old lime quarry, placed on a sloping bank, with too little solid foundation, and the materials of the nest kept slipping down the side of the bank with their own weight, till a queue nearly two feet long and five inches wide was made. At the head of this it was at length triumphantly completed, and on the 17th May contained three eggs.—F.S. Mitchell (Clitheroe).

Occurrence of the Spinous Shark off Plymouth.—On January 25th a Spinous Shark (Squalus spinosus), seven feet six inches in length, was captured in a trawl-net off Plymouth, and on being opened the stomach was found to contain four Picked Dogfish (Acanthias vulgaris). Although considered a rare fish this is the third obtained off Plymouth within the last eight years.—John Gatcombe (8, Lower Durnford Street, Stonehouse, Plymouth).

Spinous Shark in Mount's Bay.—On the 17th January a Spinous Shark was taken on a hook and line off Mousehole Island, in Mount's Bay, just where I observed the first specimen was captured about eight years ago in a similar way. The present specimen was eight feet long, but I had no time to take details. It was too much hacked about the head and gills for preservation. This makes the fourth Mount's Bay specimen that I have seen in eight years.—Thomas Cornish (Penzance).

Tadpole Fish off Penzance.—A small specimen of Raniceps trifurcatus has been captured here. It was taken in a waterhole left by the receding tide, and was captured owing to its pugnacity, which may be common to the species or peculiar to the individual. It was heard splashing about in its hole, a stem of seaweed was thrust in, and the fish laid hold of it and was dragged out by it.—Thomas Cornish.

Asterina gibbosa on the Coast of Banffshire.—While walking along the shore at Banff with some friends in May last, I noticed a lot of rubbish which the fishermen had taken from their lines, and knowing from experience what treasures are sometimes to be met with in such places, I at once began to explore on the chance. The first two heaps yielded nothing new or of much importance; but in the third I was well repaid by the discovery of a fine specimen of the above-named little Starfish, Asterina gibbosa. I am not aware of the exact range of this species, having no book on the subject, nor do I know if it has hitherto been detected as occurring in the Moray Firth. This I know, however, that the specimen here alluded to is the first I have ever met with. If I may offer the advice of an old man, let me urge upon your readers who live by the sea and take an interest in marine forms of animal life, never to pass the spots where the fishermen clean their lines without first searching them well. They will not always be successful, that is not to be expected; but let them persevere, and they will sooner or later be rewarded for their trouble.—Thomas Edward (Banff).

[There seems to be no previous record, so far as we have been able to ascertain, of the occurrence of Asterina gibbosa on the east coast of Great Britain. In Forbes' 'British Starfish' it is said to be "apparently confined to the western and southern shores of Britain," and the localities mentioned are Cornwall, Isle of Man, Ross-shire, Herm, Channel Isles, and all round the coast of Ireland. To these localities, Gray, in his 'Synopsis of Starfishes,' adds Plymouth Sound. The habitatat now assigned to it by Mr. Edward, therefore, is new, and the fact is interesting as establishing the occurrence of this starfish much further to the north and east than has hitherto been supposed.—Ed.]