The Zoologist/3rd series, vol 1 (1877)/Issue 8/On the Occurrence of the Marsh Warbler near Taunton

On the Occurrence of the Marsh Warbler near Taunton (1877)
by Murray Alexander Mathew

"On the Occurrence of the Marsh Warbler near Taunton" by Murray Alexander Mathew was published in: The Zoologist, 3rd series, vol 1, issue 8 (August, 1877), p. 333–338

4454185On the Occurrence of the Marsh Warbler near Taunton1877Murray Alexander Mathew


By the Rev Murray A. Mathew, M.A.

Ever since Mr. Howard Saunders detected the Marsh Warbler, Acrocephalus palustris, in the collection of Dr. Woodforde, of Amberd House, near Taunton, and identified the nest and egg preserved with the birds as undoubtedly belonging to that species (vide 'Zoologist,' 1875, p. 4713), I have been very anxious to procure more examples in the same neighbourhood, the more so as Professor Newton, exercising a wise caution, has not, with the evidence which was then before him, felt himself justified in admitting the bird into the list of occasional visitants to England. So very closely allied is this aquatic Warbler to the Reed Warbler that it is very difficult indeed to separate skins or mounted specimens which have been any time dry. The habits, song, nest and eggs of the two birds are widely different, and the observation of these furnishes the best test for discovering the presence of the hitherto reputed scarcer bird. I was sanguine that, if the bird still visited the country near Taunton, I should be able to discover it, as I was able to secure the services of Coates, the birdstuffer, who, some twenty years ago, accompanied Dr. Woodforde when his birds with their nest were taken. Coates was well acquainted with the peculiar song of the male Marsh Warbler, which is very sweet and of considerable power, and also with the bird's more lively habits and more generous display of itself, in comparison with the Reed Warbler, which keeps itself for the most part concealed among rank herbage, where it creeps about like a mouse.

This spring Coates was told to keep a keen watch for the bird, and I am now able to describe the success of his search, which has resulted in the detection of four nests and the capture of one fine adult male Marsh Warbler. The first nest discovered was less than a quarter of a mile distant from the field where Dr. Woodforde's examples had been obtained, and the song of the male bird led to its detection. Accompanied by Coates, Mr. John Marshall, of Belmont, Taunton, went to view this nest in situ on the 22nd June last. The place chosen by the birds was a small withy-bed adjoining the turnpike-road connecting Taunton and Milverton, by the side of a small trout-stream, and almost opposite a roadside public-house. The nest was composed externally of dry bents, into which were woven one or two poultry feathers, doubtless obtained from the fowls belonging to the aforesaid hostelry, and very neatly lined with an abundance of horse-hair, gray and brown. It was very compact, of a cup-shape, and was dexterously attached to three stems of Spiræa (meadow-sweet), which the birds had drawn together with grass bents, and was about a foot and a hall from the ground. It contained four eggs, very different in character from the eggs of the Reed Wren, with a number of which they were compared. These Marsh Warbler's eggs were larger; their ground colour was a creamy white, slightly tinged with green; a few olive blotches were scattered over them, chiefly at the larger ends, where in some of the eggs they formed a dark zone; the pointed ends of the eggs were spotless. An attempt was made, after taking the nest, to secure the old birds; but they kept themselves hidden in the herbage and among the withies, which formed a thick cover as high as a man's shoulder, and it was not until a long time had been spent in waiting that they showed themselves, and afforded a chance to the gun. Both birds were fired at, and fluttering down among the roots of the tall grass could not be secured; and Mr. Marshall finally left the withy-bed under the idea that the birds had been either killed or wounded; but this did not happen to be the case.

Ten days later Coates again visited the spot and detected the male bird, and after a short search found that the persevering pair had constructed another nest but a few feet from where the first had been placed, and that already an egg had been deposited. On hearing this good news, I waited a few days until the complement of eggs would be laid, and then, early on a beautiful July morning, paid another visit to the withy-bed. A cautious tap dislodged the hen bird from her nest, and by the movements of the tops of the withies I could see where she was creeping off through the cover, and could hear her harsh clacking note. She would not expose herself, and a shot fired where the undulations were noticed was not aimed low enough and failed to secure her. After waiting some time the male bird was suddenly seen perched on a willow overhanging the stream and was brought down. Although the presence of the female was made apparent once or twice subsequently by movements of the herbage, I failed to obtain a chance at her, and went away very contented with the male and the beautiful nest, which now contained four very richly-marked eggs. This second nest was placed exactly as the first had been, and was supported on three stalks of Spiræa, which the birds had laced together with dry bents. It was not so closely lined with horse-hair as the first, and altogether less material had been employed by the birds, who doubtless built with great haste with a view to repair the fortunes of their house. No poultry leathers were on the exterior, which was constructed of dry bents only. Still it was a very elegant little nest, exhibiting great ingenuity, and when cut from its position with the three rods of Spiræa laden on the top, with the sweet-scented white blossoms, it made a charming picture.

At the same time that Coates had reported his discovery of the first nest, he also announced the fact that another pair of Marsh Warblers frequented a ballast-pit not far from the Tone, and close to the Great Western Railway, about a mile to the east of Taunton. When this spot was visited, a little search resulted in the discovery of the nest, which then contained four eggs. I was anxious that these should be hatched off, in order that Coates might be able to snare the old birds and the young. He was therefore directed to keep careful watch upon it, and after another visit he returned to say that one young bird had been hatched, and that the other three eggs appeared addled, and that a pair of Red-backed Shrikes were in dangerous proximity to the nest. Mr. Marshall therefore had one of the addled eggs taken from the nest, which precisely resembled the eggs I have described above, and appointed a morning for Coates to attempt to snare the old birds. Unfortunately, when this morning arrived, it was discovered that some birds-nesting boys had been beforehand; the herbage was trampled down in all directions, and the precious nest had disappeared.

We were, however, consoled for this misfortune by hearing the next day that Coates had discovered that the other pair of Marsh Warblers had built a second nest. The small withy-bed which was selected for it appears to be a favourite resort for birds. It is barely the eighth of an acre in extent, yet besides the Marsh Warblers it gave shelter to a pair of common Whitethroats and their nest, a pair of Sedge-birds and nest, a pair of Bullfinches and their brood; and high up in a hazel-bush overhanging the stream a dome-shaped nest was found, which on examination proved to be built of hay, in the form of a perfect dome, with a small hole for ingress, and contained three freshly-laid eggs of the House Sparrow. We all agreed that it was a very unusual site for a Sparrow's nest, and a singularly neat nest for the bird. While watching for the Marsh Warblers, a Lesser Spotted Woodpecker suddenly rose from the willows by the stream and almost flew in our faces, and there were numerous Chiffchaffs and Willow Wrens all round us, and doubtless many other nests in the little cover besides those we detected. The male Marsh Warbler captured is a very perfect specimen, and when picked up its breast was suffused with a delicate primrose-yellow, a tint which proved extremely evanescent, and had almost disappeared before the bird was completely cold. We took careful notes of the coloration of the soft parts directly the bird was in our hands, and observed that the upper mandible was a pale horn-colour, the lower mandible primrose-yellow; inside of rictus bright yellow; eyes dark violet, with dark brown irides; legs pale flesh-colour, tinged with brown; soles of feet extremely bright primrose-yellow (this singular characteristic pertains also to the Reed Warbler); claws pale flesh-colour, tinged beneath with yellow.

Mr. Dresser's test of the comparative length of the primaries held good, the second primary being found conspicuously longer than the fourth. I do not think much of this mark of distinction, for on looking at two fine adults of what I have always considered the Reed Warbler,—one shot near Cambridge, the other taken at the spring migration near Brighton,—I find that in both the second primary is much longer than the fourth. It is just possible that both these birds may be A. palustris, for they certainly have backs more of an olive-brown than of a russetbrown; and this is Mr. Howard Saunders' differentiation of the two species. In general coloration the Marsh Warbler and the Reed Warbler are, as I have said, almost identical, and perhaps the shades of colour on the upper parts furnish the only point of distinction between them, and even these shades approach one another very closely as the skins dry and the general tone of colour fades and approximates to what a witty friend of Mr. Dresser well termed "museum colour."

I may add to this account the statement of Coates, that during his experience as a bird-catcher in the environs of Taunton, he has at different times taken more than a dozen nests similar to those described above, and with eggs in them of the same character. Mr. Marshall, however, thinks that he can have taken none during the last thirteen years, or they would have been brought to him, and possibly this statement of the birdcatcher may be an exaggeration.

Since writing the above, Mr. Howard Saunders has kindly lent me a beautiful skin of a male A. palustris, labelled "Astrachan," to compare with my Taunton bird; and although this specimen is in perfect plumage, and mine is rather ragged from moult having set in, after placing the two side by side, I can only detect a perfect resemblance. The olive tints of the back are the same, and so are the white under parts, on which a delicate primrose tinge is still more or less apparent; and in both birds the second primary is the longest in the wing. In 'Our Summer Migrants' (p. 98), I see Mr. Harting says that in A. palustris the tarsi when dry are of a yellowish brown, while those of A. strepera become hair-brown. In Mr. Saunders' skin the tarsi are, as Mr. Harting describes, yellowish; whereas in ray mounted specimen the legs are now as dark as those of a Chiffchaff, the reason for this being the dark-coloured iron wires which are visible through the thin membranes. When my bird was fresh, the legs, as stated above, were pale flesh-colour, slightly tinged with primrose.

This work was published before January 1, 1929, and is in the public domain worldwide because the author died at least 100 years ago.

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