The Zoologist/4th series, vol 3 (1899)/Issue 696/Notes on Some Birds from North Worcestershire, Howard
NOTES ON SOME BIRDS FROM NORTH
By H.E. Howard.
The following notes were made between the hours of 2.30 and 6, in the morning of May 14th, in those extensive woods which once formed part of the Forest of Feckenham. A short account of these woods would perhaps be useful. They are very undulating, the highest point being about 400 ft. The trees are chiefly oaks, and in places where a year or two before the older ones have been cut down the ground is covered with low bushes of hazel and birch, with plants of various kinds; and here Warblers abound.
It was quite dark when I started on this morning. The first bird to begin singing was a Lark; this was about twenty minutes to three. They nearly always are the first to start, and, even though quite dark, they are high up in the air. A Redstart was next, followed closely by a Cuckoo.
It took me about twenty minutes to reach the wood, and by that time it was beginning to get light. The noise of the different birds singing was almost deafening; there seemed to be a Blackbird, Thrush, or Nightingale in every bush. Going some distance on, I sat down and listened. At first I heard nothing more than Thrushes, Blackbirds, and Nightingales, except a Nightjar, which was some distance in the woods, and a Fox which passed about fifty yards away, filling the wood with his unearthly howling. Now and then a Whitethroat would begin its song, but stop as if it was not quite awake. By 4 o'clock every bird was uttering a note of some sort or other.
Going farther in among the nut-bushes, I found Garden Warblers plentiful, and Blackcaps, of course, for a more jealous couple it would be impossible to find. The Blackcap is generally the aggressor; he flies at the Garden Warbler, and then starts to sing, his tail spread out and his wings drooping; and now is the time when they sing most beautifully, more so even than when the females arrive. At times they positively seem to curse one another, the Blackcap always being the more excitable of the two. A Wood-Warbler was singing among the oaks. You nearly always find them in oaks or birches, and generally on the side of a hill. I always look on the Wood-Warbler as one of the most beautiful birds we have, both in colour and form.
Coming out into a little lane, which passed through the middle of these woods, I saw a pair of Lesser Whitethroats mating. The male Warblers are always worth watching when the females arrive; they have such curious ways of flirting. The Wood-Warbler seems to select two trees, and flies backwards and forwards between them, singing as he gets to each one. The Chiffchaff wanders about in the air like a big moth, flapping his wings very slowly. The Blackcap makes vain attempts to touch the top of his head with his tail. But most curious of all is the Grasshopper-Warbler; for some reason he runs about on the ground with a leaf in his bill—what the object of it was I could never quite tell—the female running about like a mouse, hardly ever uttering a note, though I have heard it once, very much like the young birds when fully fledged. Whitethroats abound in this lane, some in bright plumage, and others so dull you would hardly know them to be the same bird. They arrive in this state; two birds arrive at the same time, one in beautiful plumage, the other quite dull. Why this is I do not know, never having followed them to their winter quarters. The plumage of all Warblers very soon becomes dull, especially that of Whitethroats; I have shot a Wood-Warbler at the end of June in the most lovely plumage, and, when skinned, found it was covered with fat. The same with Yellow Wagtails, and these could only have lately arrived, for their brilliant yellow lasts but a week or two after they come to this country.
Turning into the wood again, among the oaks, I saw a pair of Greater Spotted Woodpeckers playing about, chasing one another from tree to tree; interesting birds to watch, especially when they have young. I have sometimes heard them rattling on a tree nearly a mile away; this particular pair evidently had a nest close by. Farther on in the woods a Green Woodpecker was laughing away to himself. The Greater Spotted is the most common of all the three Woodpeckers we get here. No Pheasants are reared in these woods, so Jays and Magpies are allowed to flourish. The Jay is the worst mimic there is, though at times he warbles to himself very quietly.
Coming to the outskirts of the wood, I saw a Cirl Bunting singing in a little orchard close by. These birds have increased very much the last few years, and breed annually in one or two spots. On the top of an elm a Wryneck was sitting, all huddled up except when he threw his head back and stretched out his neck to utter his curious note. Farther on in the meadows you could hear the Redpolls calling. At this time of year they are very fond of osier-beds to roost in, especially those where a few years ago the trees have been cut down.
The woods are full of Stock-Doves, Turtle-Doves, and Ring-Doves. In a hedge a Grasshopper Warbler was singing; they are fairly common in this part of the county, but do not often sing here after the middle of May till the end of June—that is, during incubation. This one was sitting on the top of a thick bush, like a round ball of feathers. I got close to him, but he saw me, and at once every feather was drawn tight to his body, and he became an ordinary bird as the world knows him; then, climbing down, he hid among the bushes. Waiting for about ten minutes, he presently appeared climbing up the middle of the bush again till he got to the top; there he sat sunning himself, his feathers swollen out, and his form perfect, as beautiful a creature as you could see.
To see them in all their beauty birds must be unconscious of your presence; there is a vast difference between a bird as he is usually seen with his feathers lying flat on his body, and a bird that is really at rest, unconscious of the presence of any human being; then it is the feathers rise and fall in beautiful order, and form the most perfect outline. At the end of five years, if you live amongst them, you will begin to see their beauty; at the end of another five you will have learnt how little you knew at the end of the first five. There are some who seem to think there is no more to be learned about British birds as regards their form and habits. This can never be—the subject is endless.