The Zoologist/4th series, vol 5 (1901)/Issue 722/The Rarer Birds of the Solway Firth, Macpherson

The Rarer Birds of the Solway Firth  (1901) 
by Hugh Alexander Macpherson

Published in The Zoologist, 4th series, vol 5, issue 722 (August, 1901), p. 281–285


No. 722.—August, 1901.


By the Rev. H.A. Macpherson, M.A.

The region which lies around the upper waters of the Solway Firth has experienced important changes since the days when Roman legions manned the forts that overlooked the channels of this great Firth against the attacks of northern warriors. Great forests of oak and other indigenous timber then extended from the base of the hills to the sea-beach. The foreign garrisons must have needed trustworthy guides when they sent out parties in search of forage, for so difficult was the country, and so dangerous were the watery depths of its reed-fringed morasses, that the utmost care must have been needed to avoid ambushed parties of the enemy. The forest glades in which the hind cropped the coppice-wood have long since been furrowed by the plough; the pedigree Shorthorn grazes on pastures over which herds of Aurochs once stampeded. Even the Bittern has no abiding-place among the bogs that still linger in the Abbey Holme. It is the preservation of such isolated tracts of broken moorland as we find in Salta Moss or Weddholm Flow that help us to picture this area as it existed in the days of our distant forefathers. The romance that once invested this wild country has well-nigh disappeared. Only here and there can we find the Merlin or the Short-eared Owl feeding their downy young among the heather; even the Red Grouse is scarce as a breeding bird upon the moors which lie adjacent to the foreshores. The numbers of the very Dunlins that nest in the tussocks of the salt-marshes have grown fewer within our own recollection.

But there is no material change in the numbers of migratory birds which appear in the neighbourhood of the Firth at different seasons of the year, and close study has enabled us to gauge of their movements with greater accuracy than would have been possible formerly.

Ornithologists have their share of "hopes deferred," and the writer has to own to many disappointments. Though it is believed that Anthus cervinus has twice occurred in the neighbourhood of the Firth in spring plumage, no specimen has ever been secured. A Black-throated Wheatear of some description has visited the vicinity of the Solway Firth in three different springs, but no final proof of its identity has been obtained. Several other species are still excluded from the ornis of this region, because their identification, in spite of much labour, is still lacking. But the data at the disposal of the writer extend over so long a period, that he feels justified in offering for consideration the following observations:—

1. The Absence, or exceptional Presence, of North American Birds.—The arms of the Solway Firth extend in a south-westerly direction into the Irish Sea, an area swept by heavy gales and frequent hurricanes. It would not be unreasonable to expect that such common Passerine forms as Turdus migratorius or Loxia leucoptera might occasionally be transported by some ocean liner to within a reasonable distance of the Firth, and be driven ashore; but the only species that have been reported to the writer as captured at sea represented such familiar Palæarctic species as Fringilla cœlebs, F. montifringilla, or Turtur communis. We cannot even claim that Tringa maculata has occurred within our precise limits, often as that bird has been killed in Britain. Macrorhamphus griseus and Tryngites rufescens have occurred in single instances, but very far up the Firth, and only in the month of September. Of the Anatidæ, Œdemia perspicillata has only once been obtained in the vicinity of the Solway. Querquedula discors has once occurred in Dumfriesshire, at no great distance from the Solway Firth.

2. Birds from Eastern Europe.—Mature reflection favours the belief that comparatively few species visit the shores of the Solway Firth from Eastern Europe. We have no local finds of Turdus varius or T. sibiricus: no rare Phylloscopi; no notes of Lanius minor or Muscicapa parva; no Asiatic Buntings; and not one occurrence of Falco vespertinus. It is true that Saxicola isabellina, Tadorna casarca, Glareola pratincola, Cursorius gallicus have visited us at long intervals; but what are these among so many absent species? It must be admitted that Anthus richardi and Pastor roseus are believed to have occurred repeatedly, the former species in both spring and autumn. Ruticilla titys has only twice occurred, yet it cannot be easily overlooked, as it occurs so late in the season. In vain have we searched, year after year, for such birds as Totanus stagnatilis, Charadrius fulvus, Recurvirostra avocetta, or Numenius tenuirostris. It is conceivable that some of the commoner British birds visit us from the east, such as Garrulus glandarius; but an incursion of Jays is at least as likely to owe its fons et origo to the pine-woods of Norway. Certain birds, of which Anthus richardi is the safest example, do appear to visit us from the east; but most eastern Palæarctic birds are chiefly remarkable for their absence.

3. Birds from Scandinavia.—A number of species appear to visit the Solway Firth from Scandinavia, including Turdus pilaris, T. iliacus, Lanius excubitor, Bombycilla garrulus, Acanthis linaria, Fringilla montifringilla, Chrysomitris spinus, Corvus cornix, Otocorys alpestris, Dendrocopus major, Buteo lagopus, Asio brachyotus, Columba palumbus, Clangula glaucion, Mergus merganser, Strepsilas interpres, Scolopax rusticula, Gallinago gallinula, Machetes pugnax, Totanus canescens, Limosa lapponica, Colymbus septentrionalis. But of these, Machetes pugnax only occurs—normally, at any rate—in autumn; while Otocorys alpestris and Buteo lagopus have hitherto proved to be very rare visitors. Possibly Chrysomitris spinus and Mergus merganser visit the neighbourhood of the Solway Firth from the north of Scotland. Acanthis linaria is relatively rare in the neighbourhood of the Solway Firth, or at any rate appears to be; possibly, if there were any London birdcatchers at work with clap-nets near the Solway, we might hear of the capture of various small species which at present are overlooked.

4. Icelandic Forms.—It is reasonable to argue that Cygnus musicus, Bernicla leucopsis, Tringa striata, T. canutus, Calidris arenaria, Numenius phæopus, Colymbus glacialis, Motacilla alba, and possibly Plectrophenax nivalis, Dafila acuta, and Chaulelasmus streperus visit the Solway Firth from Iceland, and the continents or islands lying north or north-west of Iceland, as their breeding-grounds in several cases must be looked for in Iceland. Calidris arenaria sometimes arrives on the sands of the Solway late in May in thousands, though in autumn this species only occurs in small parties on the same foreshores. It is also a winter visitant.

5. North European Forms.—Great interest attaches to certain species which appear to visit us from their breeding-grounds in the extreme north of Europe, east of the Varanger Fiord, including Cygnus bewicki, Bernicla brenta, Tringa minuta, Squatarola helvetica, Totanus fuscus. The last named is not obtained annually on the Solway Firth, but few seasons, if any, pass without its note being recognized. It occurs between August and November, in immature dress. S. helvetica often appears on the estuaries in autumn in almost perfect nuptial garb, and full-dressed birds are seen in May. This species appears to be very rare in Western Britain north of the Solway Firth. It has been said that few, if any, Grey Plovers leave England in spring from any point north of the Humber basin; but this is a mistake. The fork of the Solway may act like a funnel, to catch up such individuals as have made their way up the Irish coasts, and desire to migrate in an easterly direction. But this Plover does not occur on the open coast of Cumberland, except as a straggler; it is not until the higher reaches of the Firth are attained that the Grey Plover checks its flight to alight upon the wet sands that it haunts so assiduously. Tringa minuta has occurred in every month from August to January, and exceptionally in June; but September is the month in which it usually appears, and at that season only young birds have been procured. As for Cygnus bewicki, it has occurred as early as October, and as late as April; but is usually met with in winter. Adults largely outnumber the cygnets, for Swans are very long-lived.

6. Pelagic Birds.—The wanderings of the various species of Laridæ ought, strictly speaking, to be recorded by some seafaring naturalist. Larus minutus occurs in almost every month in the vicinity of the Solway Firth. It has been obtained in January and February, seen in March, shot in April, shot in June; we have no knowledge of its presence in May or July, but it has been reported in August, and obtained in all the four remaining months of the year. We have seen nestlings a few weeks old, before they had lost first plumage; others in the plumage of the first winter; another in its second summer; another in its second winter; as well as (in single cases only) adults obtained locally in full winter and summer garb. Larus glaucus has not occurred in quite full plumage, and only in winter. L. icelandicus has only occurred in immature dress, and that in winter. Stercorarius pomatorhinus has generally appeared in October, but once as late as Dec. 22nd. This Arctic bird has never appeared in spring. S. parasiticus, on the other hand, has once appeared in spring or early summer; October is the month in which it normally occurs. Mergulus alle occurs fairly often between November and February.

This work was published before January 1, 1928, and is in the public domain worldwide because the author died at least 100 years ago.

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