The Zoologist/4th series, vol 1 (1897)/Issue 668/Ornithological Notes from the Rhine

Ornithological Notes from the Rhine  (1897) 
by John Henry Salter

Published in The Zoologist, 4th series, vol 1, issues 668 (February, 1897), p. 61–70


By J.H. Salter.

Having spent the first nine months of the year 1896 at Bonn, and made numerous notes upon the birds of that neighbourhood, it seemed that some of the facts observed might be worth recording. The chief interest lies in the few species which one does not meet with in an ordinary way in England, and it is easy to understand why they are not more numerous when one reflects that the distance from our own shores is not greater than that from London to Edinburgh. The physical features of this part of the Rhineland are too well known to need description. The river itself, though much disturbed by traffic, affords an occasional sight of Wild Duck or Teal, while Herons come to fish in it at dusk. The Gulls, a few of which may be seen at any time, though they are more numerous in severe weather, are probably of the Black-headed species. The river-plain, with its endless patches of root-crops, potatoes, and rye, yields little of interest. It is hemmed in by the vineyard slopes, above which we reach the general level of the country to find an almost limitless stretch of forest-land, principally Scotch fir, beech, oak, and birch on a gravel soil. Of this nature is the Kotten Forst, which stretches for eight or ten miles behind Bonn; also the wooded hills and dales of the Seven Mountains, and of the neighbourhood of Rolandseck and Remagen. Only in a few spots does the wood become well-grown timber. Roe are everywhere numerous. Foresting is much more of a science than with us; woodmen and keepers abound, and the larger hawks stand no better chance of survival than in this country. Thus, though the Buzzard was common, I never met with the Goshawk; there are local specimens, however, in the Schloss Museum, with eggs and young.

The town itself, with its fine avenues of elm and horse-chestnut, the large walled gardens attached to the older houses, and, above all, the Botanic Garden, offers many attractions to birds. Nor should one omit to mention the Sieg, which flows into the Rhine on its right side some three miles below Bonn. Its oak woods (English in everything save the absence of bluebells and primroses), its poplar groves, osier-beds, hazel and alder copses, have the characteristic, rare enough abroad, of sheltering as many small birds as one would meet with anywhere under similar conditions in this country.

The woods were lifeless in mid-winter, except for large parties of Tits, in which the Marsh, Great, Blue, and Coal species were generally represented numerically in the order named. The first and last showed the slightly distinctive characters of the continental races. A spirited trill sometimes led to the detection of the Crested Tit in their company, but it was less numerous than any of the others. A small flock of eight or ten Crested Tits, seen on May 24th in a grove of Scotch firs on forest-land near Siegburg, was probably a family party.

At New Year the mountain-ashes which bordered one of the chaussées were thronged with Fieldfares, Chaffinches, Goldfinches, Greenfinches, Bramblings, and Bullfinches, all busily engaged upon the berries. A Grey Shrike watched them, ready to pick up a weakling or a straggler. A few Starlings wintered in the suburbs, but this bird never became numerous, and was much less prevalent and obtrusive than in England. I only once noted a fair-sized flock, to wit, near Siegburg on July 5th. The Nuthatch spent the winter upon the Schloss elms, but left to breed elsewhere.

Every slight frost brought Crested Larks into the suburban streets, singly or in pairs. About the beginning of March they began to sing, often from some rubbish-heap, or from the ground amongst turnips and cabbages. On March 1st the first White Wagtail appeared, shortly followed by others. On the 15th I noted Meadow Pipits, no doubt on passage; Song Thrushes sang well, though much less numerous than in England. The 17th, the first warm spring day, brought the Black Redstart. In a couple of days they were everywhere, singing from the housetops, and evidently finding the spires, vanes, and turrets, which form such a marked feature of a German suburban street, much to their liking. The Black Redstart is one of the few continental institutions which the Englishman will regard as comparing favourably with his own. It sings cheerily and industriously from dawn to dark, often commencing, in fact, some time before daybreak. I have heard it at 3.15 a.m. In the Botanic Garden the label-stands formed a favourite perch, and were also much resorted to by Spotted Flycatchers. On May 23rd a pair of Black Redstarts were leading fledglings about the shrubbery with twittered encouragement and anxious scolding at the intruder. So late as July 9th a noisy brood emerged from behind the rainwater pipe on the Schloss. On Aug. 6th I noticed that the males were coming into song again after scarcely three weeks of silence, and from that time onwards they sang constantly till I left on Sept. 11th.

On March 18th, with warm southerly wind, came a "rush" of Chiffchaffs, and there was undoubtedly a large arrival of Robins about this date. In the woods they were to be heard at every turn, while in winter scarcely one was to be seen. Wood Larks began to sing about the open heath-land on the edge of the forest. On the 20th hybernating butterflies, such as Brimstones and Camberwell Beauties (Vanessa antiopa) were flying. Woodpeckers were jubilant, and amatory Jays vented their feelings in a variety of uncouth notes. Two days later Stonechats returned, and on March 24th the first Blackcap reached the Botanic Garden; colder weather set in, and there was no further arrival of this species for ten days.

A party of Lesser Redpolls on April 1st, and Redwings a week later, were no doubt working northward. I heard the Willow Wren on the 9th, and the next day the first Swallows were skimming over the Rhine at Königswinter. I found the Grey Wagtail in pairs frequenting the streams of the Seven Mountains and at Rolandseck, and noted Waterhens and Dabchicks haunting the reedy pool at Heisterbach Abbey. April 14th was noteworthy for the arrival of the Serins. I scarcely expected to meet with this species so far north; possibly it is extending its range. In a few days its artless jingle of a song, more suggestive of a Bunting than a Finch, was to be heard everywhere in suburban gardens. In the Botanic Garden I had full opportunity of watching its fussy and energetic ways. Its usual callnote is a sibilant trill. At pairing-time the males have a wavering flight, like that of a Sand Martin, and often sing upon the wing. One of them constantly sang while perched on the roof of the Schloss. No doubt two broods are raised, as they were in song until Aug. 5th.

Though surrounded by suburban streets, the Botanic Garden was visited by Jays, and occasionally by the Green Woodpecker; while I have heard the Tawny Owl within five minutes' walk of the busiest part of the town. Kestrels frequented the Minster, and I noted a pair nesting in the transept tower of Cologne Cathedral. A Sparrowhawk daily "worked" the Botanic Garden and adjoining streets. The Hawfinches, constantly seen till April, left the Garden to breed elsewhere, returning in August to feed on the hornbeam seeds.

The Tree Pipit arrived on April 14th. On the 19th I heard the Wryneck in the Friesdorf orchards; two days later Cuckoos were calling and chasing in the more open parts of the forest, and Common Redstarts had settled down to breed in numbers in holes in the pollard beeches. The Wheatear was only represented by an odd bird or two seen on passage; none stayed to breed. On the 25th a change from a long spell of cold weather at once brought the Swift and Lesser Whitethroat. Leafing made as much progress in one night as in the previous month, and Nightingales sang in the Botanic Garden and in the grounds of the villas along the Coblenzer Strasse. Next day I noted the arrival of the Blue-headed Yellow Wagtail and of the Common Whitethroat.

May came in with cold drying winds, so that some of the migrants were late; but the first week of the month brought the Whinchat, Garden Warbler, Spotted Flycatcher, Turtle Dove, and Common Sandpiper. I met with the Sandpiper from time to time during June and July, so that a few pairs probably remained to breed; in the middle of August the return migration took place, and parties of six or eight were common upon the river. On May 7th the Golden Oriole's flute-like call announced its arrival. Next day, in a hazel-copse on the banks of the Sieg, I was in close proximity to at least half a dozen of these bright-plumaged new-comers. It was perhaps a migratory party. Oaks in young leaf were scattered through the copse, and from one or another of them, sometimes from several different directions at once, came the loud clear call, often interrupted by the harsh grating alarm-note. I made a careful approach, but there was something mysterious about the way in which the birds stole from tree to tree without showing themselves. Finally, however, amongst the yellow of the young oak-leaves, I got a glimpse of brighter gold, as two male birds, hopping and fluttering from branch to branch, came into the field of my pocket-telescope. After this the Oriole soon became common, and was distributed all through the woods wherever oaks occurred. I could hear half a dozen in a short evening walk along the margin of the forest. But they were invariably shy and wary to the last degree. Time after time I have followed up the call, only, as the result of a patient and noiseless stalk, to hear it give place to a harsh rasping alarm-note as the bird went off. When most successful, I got a hasty glimpse of the bird as it changed its whereabouts in the tree; a good leisurely view of it, never. But I learnt during these stalks that the call-note is merely thrown in as an accompaniment to a low chattering song, rather suggestive of the Starling. This song is not heard until one gets close to the performer, who whistles, sings, and squalls by turns. The Oriole was constantly to be heard in the Botanic Garden, and a pair of them doubtless bred there. In the latter half of July I frequently heard a rippling hawk-like call, which I supposed to be the note of the young. The male was in song up to Aug. 6th, on which date I heard all the different notes well.

A noteworthy feature in the forest was the scarcity of Wood Pigeons. In ten square miles of woodland there were fewer than in most English plantations of as many acres. Ants swarmed, and consequently Green Woodpeckers were numerous. Some of them were probably the grey-headed Gecinus canus, but I never identified it with certainty. Pied Woodpeckers preferred the more remote part of the forest. I was always on the look-out for Dendrocopus medius, but of the few which I saw at close quarters all appeared to be the Greater Spotted, D. major. The Wood Wren occurred sparingly in the forest, always where beech timber prevailed.

But birds were far less abundant in the forest than in the low-lying district round the mouth of the Sieg. Here, in poplars, was the only rookery which I met with, for while Carrion Crows were ubiquitous, Rooks were few and unobtrusive. In the woods bordering upon several weed-grown creeks which communicated with the river, Nightingales, Common Redstarts, and Tree Sparrows abounded. I twice got a sight of a Hobby in the neighbourhood of one of these quiet back-waters of the Sieg. Before entering the Rhine the Sieg flows parallel with that river for about a mile. The narrow strip of land thus formed, together with the adjacent foreshore of the Rhine, was most noticeable of all for the interest and variety of its bird-life. It is a sandy tract liable to be flooded, planted with osier and various other species of willow, amongst which are water-holes, from which the frogs raise an unearthly chorus. Bare enough in winter, it becomes a veritable jungle by the end of May, as with the growth of the willows comes an upgrowth of nettles and tall weeds of every kind, so matted together with hops, bindweed, and the parasitic dodder that by midsummer it is all but impassable. There are stony tracts at the water's edge, and here on May 8th some small waders drew my attention by a note which seemed unfamiliar. There were three of them in company with Common Sandpipers. It was extremely difficult to see them as they ran over the sand, which they nearly matched in colour, but the telescope soon showed me that I had made the acquaintance of the Little Ringed Plover. They once rose with quite a trill, at another time with a note more like that of their larger relative. I saw a Little Ringed Plover again at the same spot on June 10th, so that a pair may possibly have bred there; but on the 27th, owing, I suppose, to the melting of the Swiss snows, the river was high, and these stony tracts were under water.

A good many Blue-headed Yellow Wagtails were nesting amongst the willow-scrub. The males, in spring dress, perched upon the osier-sprays, or rose from the ground with shrill "chit-ip." Reed Buntings chirped and fluttered into cover. Here and there a patch of willow had been left uncut from the previous year, and every such patch seemed to shelter at least one pair of Reed Warblers. Here they skulked and sang, and here, in default of reeds, they made their nests. I noted that incubation lasted fourteen days. A nest at Nonnenwerth, on May 26th, was about six feet from the ground, in the fork of a small poplar; it was evidently intended to pass for one of the many knots of drift which had caught amongst the twigs. I specially wished to meet with the Marsh Warbler, but it was not till about May 24th, a full fortnight after the Reed Warblers had settled down amongst the willows, that they reached their summer quarters. In a day or two they had taken possession of the fringe of willow-scrub on both banks of the Rhine. I have never before seen a cover so swarming with any one species of Warbler. I found them just as abundant upon similar ground on the island of Grafenwerth, and beside the Moselle at Coblenz. They skulk much less than the Reed Warbler, often singing, in full view, a sweet and charming song with real melody, some notes as liquid as those of a Goldfinch, though delivered in the hurried style of all aquatic warblers. Many pairs settled down to breed in the rye, which was then in the ear. I have found them several miles from the Rhine, on the dryest of corn-land, far from sedge or willow cover, and with no water but a small brook in the neighbourhood. Under such circumstances the song often puzzled me for a moment, so little did the locality suggest the Marsh Warbler. I found a nest with two eggs on May 31st, two more with three and five respectively on June 10th. All were in nettles, meadow-sweet, or similar undergrowth. Early in July the song gave place to a low scolding note, which I heard from time to time in the jungle till Sept. 8th. Curiously, I could never meet with the Sedge Warbler or the Great Reed Warbler; once only with the Grasshopper Warbler.

One other denizen of the willow-scrub remains to be mentioned. It was on May 10th that an unknown song drew my attention to a bird perched upon a willow-spray. The telescope showed a Bluethroat in all his glory of white-spotted blue gorget, with black and chestnut band below. He sat like a Redstart, but with his ruddy tail half spread. I soon found that the Bluethroat was common along the Rhine and Sieg, wherever the right sort of ground occurred,—sandy wastes, with clumps of reed or with willow and other undergrowth. The two islands of Nonnenwerth and Grafenwerth, which the Rhine tourist sees as soon as the Drachenfels is passed, both run out into long sandy willow-grown spits, which I found to be tenanted by several pairs. There is no need to describe the song after the excellent account of it given by Mr. O.V. Aplin (Zool., Nov., 1896, p. 427). The males perched upon a reed-stem or willow-spray, always in spirited attitude, never with the listless manner of a Robin, and sang boldly and sweetly, flirting the half-spread tail with a sort of pump-handle movement, till it was sometimes more than vertical, inclined over the back. They constantly drop down into the herbage to pick up an insect, or dart up into the air for a gnat or daddy-longlegs; or one will jerk up into the air almost like a Whitethroat, and come down in Pipit-fashion, but not so stiffly, singing all the while. Towards the end of May they seemed too busy to sing much. On the 27th I saw one with food in its bill. Its white spot seemed smaller than usual, and was only seen as it gave its scolding note. All this time I saw nothing of the females. On May 31st a male bird scolded and sang in much excitement, so I beat about the scrub, and soon put up a young one which had just left the nest. I soon met with another of the same brood, but even in this supreme crisis of the family affairs the female did not put in an appearance. The young appeared to be spotted like young Robins, but were as red about the tail as the adult. Others were later, or probably two broods were reared, as all through June the males were scolding and carrying food. On the 10th I put up another young one, and for once got a view of the female. Her persistent skulking is in strong contrast to the boldness of the male. I heard the song for the last time on June 27th.

There was much to note in the Botanic Garden during May. Nightingales sang fearlessly on all sides, conscious of full security. On June 12th a pair of them, in great excitement, were leading young ones about the Natural Order beds. Others sang, though gradually less fully, all though June, and I heard a few notes so late as July 6th. Blackcaps were equally numerous. Besides their bold rich notes, they improvise at times in an undertone, with wide-gaping bill, the song being then almost unrecognizable. A Spotted Flycatcher placed its nest upon some of the strong thorns against the trunk of a gleditschia. The Wryneck called from the Schloss elms, Turtle Doves cooed, the Golden Oriole whistled, and on May 14th the Icterine Warbler arrived to take its full share in the chorus. About three pairs settled down to breed in the gardens, showing a preference for the neighbourhood of a piece of ornamental water. I listened with peculiar interest to the song of this bird on account of the discussion with reference to it then proceeding in the pages of 'The Zoologist.' Little need be added. The song is wonderful for its extraordinary variety, energy, and, if I may so term it, tense elasticity of tone. As the bird babbled volubly with puffed-out bearded throat and half-erected crest, showing its red gape, one could hear in fancy the alarm-notes of Swallow, Blackbird, and of every other bird in the gardens. Early in June the Icterines seemed to become much quieter, singing only a part of their notes, and I thought with less intermixture of harsh and uncouth variations. On July 1st one was singing again in the best of form, but I heard nothing of them after the 6th. Is it not possible that in the recent discussion some writers have described the song of the nearly allied Hypolais polyglotta in place of that of H. icterina?

The Icterine Warbler was not the last of the migrants to arrive. House and Sand Martins did not put in an appearance till the middle of May, and the Red-backed Shrike was still later. Some of the Sand Martins nested in the outlets of small drainpipes along the Rhine wall.

Some twelve miles up the river from Bonn, and nearly opposite to Remagen, a bold volcanic bluff—the Erpeler Lei—overlooks the Rhine. Its face has been quarried and shows basaltic columns, while in the rocks above, towards the summit, a pair of Falcons breed. As I passed, one or other of them would sail out overhead with angry outcry. At the foot of the cliff were sloping screes, frequented by Stonechats, Black Redstarts, and Linnets. Here I heard a song which completely puzzled me. It was short, but bright and cheerful, of about the same length and compass as a Redstart's. The telescope showed a bird the size of a Yellowhammer, the sides of its head boldly streaked with black on a whitish ground, and with cinnamon -coloured under parts. It was evidently a Bunting, but not the Ortolan which I had long looked for, and it was not till I had the opportunity of consulting a book that I identified it as the Meadow Bunting, Emberiza cia.[1] There were probably half a dozen pairs of them about the screes at the foot of the Lei, and they were common about the adjacent vineyard slopes. On June 21st one of them was carrying food in its bill. I watched a male singing for some time as he sat on a rock in négligé Bunting attitude, flipping his tail in Bunting fashion, and raising his head each time to sing; but who would ever have suspected the song, but for its two or three concluding notes, as of Bunting origin? Again, why Meadow Bunting, surely Rock or Vineyard Bunting, if its habits elsewhere are the same as here? Besides its song, it has a Serin-like trill.

The month of August yielded little of interest. On the 2nd the Willow Wren sang its quiet late summer song, and on the 7th I heard a few notes from the Lesser Whitethroat. The Grey Wagtail came to ditches in the suburbs, and Goldfinches in plenty to the weedy field corners. It may have been "insular prejudice," but it certainly gave one a shock to see bunches of Partridges brought in a fortnight or three weeks before "the First." On Aug. 29th the Chiffchaff sang, and on this and following days numbers of House Martins collected on the University front overlooking the Hofgarten.

In conclusion I may express surprise at the number of species which I failed to meet with. I saw nothing of Woodchat Shrike, Ortolan Bunting, Hoopoe, Quail, or Stork. If my time had been less occupied, however, I might possibly have added some of these to my list.

  1. Emberiza cia is nowadays called 'Rock bunting.' (Wikisource-Ed.)

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