The Zoologist/4th series, vol 6 (1902)/Issue 736/Sea-birds and Plovers noticed in Lancashire and Cumberland

Sea-birds and Plovers noticed in Lancashire and Cumberland
Thomas Hepburn

Published in: The Zoologist, 4th series, vol 6, issues 736 (October, 1902), p. 374–383


By Thomas Hepburn.

The primary object of this trip—Walney Island, June 1st–3rd; Ravenglass, June 4th–5th; Boot, June 6th–9th; and Arnside, June 10th–12th, 1901—was to make myself better acquainted by actual observation with the breeding habits of some of our sea-birds and Plovers. There are numerous colonies of Black-headed Gulls and Terns in the sand-hills and marshy parts of Walney Island, and in the same style of country on either side of the mouth of the Esk at Ravenglass. At Foulshaw Moss, near Arnside, there is a large colony of Lesser Black-backed Gulls; and the margins of the tidal estuaries at Ravenglass and Arnside, and the sea beaches at all three places, form suitable haunts for various Waders and shore-loving birds. I found, however, that I had timed my visit too late for the birds breeding in the hills round Boot.

Ringed Plover (Ægialitis hiaticula).—Walney Island. Pairs of this bird were fairly numerous along the stretches of shingle beach which form part of the coast-line of the island.

Ravenglass. I found a nest in the sand-hills here, not far from the sea, containing three eggs; a cockle-shell, 1½ in. diameter, apparently taking the place of the fourth egg. The nest was a careless hollow scratched out of the sand, 5½ in. diameter by 1½ in. deep, with a few pieces of broken shell in the bottom. A nest was also shown me, which was made close under the shelter of an overhanging sand-hummock, and from which the young had just been hatched. The nest-hollow was scraped out of the sloping side of the hummock, with its projecting top about a foot over the nest, completely covering it from the sky, while some coarse grass drooping over partly concealed it in front. I could see the footprints of the young birds going away from the edge of the nest, and picked up a piece of a Ringed Plover's egg-shell within five yards of it. The fisherman who showed it to me said that it had only contained three eggs.

Golden Plover (Charadrius pluvialis).—I saw a single bird of this species on the hills near Boot.

Lapwing (Vanellus vulgaris).—There were scattered pairs of these birds all over Walney Island; also at Ravenglass, and on the hills round Boot. At Arnside there were several fair-sized flocks feeding on the sands, as well as breeding pairs.

Oystercatcher (Hæmatopus ostralegus) .—Walney Island. I examined four nests of this species on Walney Island, where the birds were fairly common. Two of these nests were on patches of shingle, one being a little way above high-water mark, and the other in the centre of the sand-hills (amongst which there are a good many flat stretches covered with shingle). They were shallow hollows scratched out amongst the stones, with a few pieces of broken shell round the rims. They both contained three eggs. The hollows measured about 7 in. in diameter and 1½ in. deep. Of the other two nests, one was on a hillock covered with short turf, and the hollow, which measured 7 in. diameter by 2 in. deep, was thickly lined with bits of dead thistle-stems, and contained two eggs; the second was a shallow depression amongst some heather, 4 in. diameter by 1 in. deep, and also contained two eggs. One of these clutches of two eggs I blew, and found to be very hard-set; they must therefore have been the full complement of eggs in that case. In another case of one clutch of three I found one egg quite fresh, one with a distinct chicken formed in it, and one in a condition midway between the two; this would lead one to suppose that the bird must have started sitting as soon as the first egg was laid. I found a nestling in one part of the beach; it was crouched down on the pebbles, with its head stretched straight out in front. The general colour of the down was almost black, with a few streaks and mottlings of brown. The bill was black, and the feet flesh-coloured. There were several large flocks of these birds round the coast of the island, and these I took to be non-breeders.

Ravenglass. The Oystercatcher was if anything even commoner at Ravenglass than on Walney Island. In an hour's walk among the sand-hills on the south side of the Esk I found no fewer than four nests, one containing three eggs, two but two eggs, and the fourth only one egg. Three of these nests were hollows scratched in the sand (in two cases amongst the débris thrown up by the tide), with a few little pieces of broken shell scattered over the bottom of the hollow; the fourth nest was in a patch of shingle, and was carefully paved all over with small flat stones. These nests were all practically the same size, about 7 in. diameter by 1½ in. deep.

Arnside. I saw one pair of Oystercatchers here, which had either young birds or eggs, near some marshy land along the estuary of the Kent.

Common Snipe (Gallinago cœlestis).—I put up a single bird of this species near Ravenglass in some marshy land; and I also saw the bird at Arnside.

Common Sandpiper (Totanus hypoleucus).—Boot. There were a pair or two of these birds round the edges of most of the tarns in the hills. On the edge of Devoke Water I found an old bird with nestlings just able to run. The down of the young was a reddish sandy-brown colour, with sepia streaks and spots; the bill was black, and the feet and legs were a dull greyish flesh-colour. The old bird made a great fuss while I was looking at the young ones, coming within two or three yards of me, and uttering a loud piping note all the time.

Arnside. I found a nest of this species in some marshy ground near Foulshaw Moss. The bird sat very close, and only flew off when I was within a pace of the nest. It flew straight away, and did not come back either while I was examining the nest, or was in the vicinity of it. The nest was rather a deep hollow scratched out amongst a thick growth of sorrel and grass, which quite concealed the eggs when the bird flew off. It measured 4 in. diameter by 2 in. deep, was lined with a few pieces of dead grass, and contained four eggs.

Redshank (T. calidris).—I saw a few pairs of these birds at Ravenglass and at Arnside, where they had evidently been breeding; but there were no great numbers at either place.

Common Curlew (Numenius arquata).—There were flocks of Curlews on the coast of Walney Island and at Ravenglass.

Boot. There were here several pairs of breeding birds about the hills. One pair which I watched for some time had young which could fly quite well. The old birds flew round at a safe distance, very often settling on opposite side of me, keeping just out of sight over the rise of the hill, calling to each other with a soft musical whistle all the time. At another spot a pair were particularly noisy and bold, coming quite close to me, and whistling loudly. Several times I noticed one of these birds flying at a great height, apparently crossing from one hilltop to another, uttering a prolonged and varied whistle, which might almost be called a song.

Arnside. The keeper at Foulshaw Moss told me that when the Curlews flew around, as in the two instances mentioned above, and as a bird was doing while I was speaking to him, it was a sure sign that the eggs were hatched out, and that their young were somewhere near. When they had eggs, they were much quieter in their behaviour. There were three or four pairs breeding about Foulshaw Moss.

Sandwich Tern (Sterna cantiaca).—The Sandwich Tern was breeding in the sand-hills at Ravenglass. It is said to breed also on Walney Island, but I was unable to find it there, although I searched carefully for it.

Ravenglass. I was told here by one of the fishermen that there were about fifty pairs of these Terns breeding in the sandhills, in eight or nine separate clumps, amongst the large colony of Black-headed Gulls. During one afternoon I found four nests in one spot, and ten nests in another. They were placed very close together, the clump of four covering an area of about one square yard, and the ten nests covering a proportionately small area. In every nest the young were just coming out of the eggs, the clutch having been either three or two eggs. The down of the young was a light grey colour speckled with black. The nests were very slight hollows made in the loose sand, a few of them having a few pieces of dry grass arranged round the edge. The sand was so loose and dry that in many cases almost all trace of nest had disappeared; but where the shape of the nest could be made out, it measured about 5 in. diameter by ½ in. deep. Both these clumps of nests were surrounded by Black-headed Gulls' nests and eggs. The cry of this bird was quite different to that of the Common or Arctic Tern, being shorter, sharper, and stronger. The old birds were very bold, and swooped quite close to my head while I was examining their nests.

Common Tern (S. fluviatilis); Arctic Tern (S. macrura).—Both these Terns were breeding on Walney Island and at Ravenglass. I found them most difficult to distinguish from each other, and of course when they were flying overhead in numbers, even although one thought to distinguish individual birds, it was quite impossible to tell which eggs belonged to them.

The Terns' nests on Walney Island were in close proximity to those of the Black-headed Gull, some being in the sand-hills, and some on the marsh, or "moss"; but there were a few small colonies in secluded spots of turf and shingle, quite separated from the large colonies. The Terns' nests at Ravenglass, except the Sandwich Terns, were on a stretch of dry grassy land at the foot of the sand-hills, and some distance from the Black-headed Gulls. I found that the nests which were made on the sand generally had a tolerably thick pad of coarse grass as a lining (there is a quantity of coarse grass growing on the sand-hills both on Walney Island and at Ravenglass, of which the dead blades seem to be found a useful article by the Terns and Gulls), the hollow thus lined measuring about 4 in. diameter by ½–¾ in. deep. Most of the nests made on the shingle had no lining at all, the nest-hollow being of about the same dimensions. The nests made on the short turf exhibited rather deeper hollows, with sometimes the lining of a few blades of the surrounding grass, but as often no lining at all.

I came upon two small outlying colonies, consisting of about half-a-dozen pairs of birds, in different parts of Walney Island, and spent some time watching them with my glasses until I satisfied myself that all the Terns breeding in these two spots were Arctic Terns. One of the small colonies was on a stretch of short turf close to the sea-front, and the other was on a small patch of shingle about one hundred yards inland. I examined four nests of those on the grass, and found them to contain two and three eggs, the nest-hollows being generally as already described. The eggs of one clutch which I took measured 1·6 in. by 1·15 in. In the colony on the patch of shingle I examined three nests, two of which contained three eggs, the other only two. One of the nests containing three eggs had also a stone about the size of an egg placed in the middle of it. A clutch of three averaged 1·61 in. by 1·16 in.; but measurements of two isolated clutches are not much on which to base arguments. I did not notice any nestling Terns.

Lesser Tern (S. minuta).—Walney Island. I found one colony of these birds on a part of the beach. I examined two nests containing two and three eggs respectively. Both nests were on the shingle, just above high-water line; and the clutch of two eggs was amongst some large pebbles, really only just lying in the depression caused by the shape of the stones, without any attempt at scratching out a hollow. There was no kind of lining in either case, the eggs being laid on the bare stones.

Ravenglass. Here there was also a colony of Lesser Terns breeding on a shingly piece of beach to the north of the estuary of the Esk. I did not search for nests, but I accidentally found a single egg laid on the pebbles in a small hollow just above high-water mark.

I saw no nestlings of this species.

Black-headed Gull (Larus ridibundus).—Walney Island. There are large colonies of these birds at each end of the island, both on the sand-hills and on the moss. The coarse grass growing on the sand-hills forms little ridges and steps on the sides of the hummocks, and make a favourite resting-place for the Gulls' nests, which are thus built, as it were, in terraces. The dead blades of the grass give the bulk of the building material that the birds require, and with it they make, as a rule, a fairly substantial but shallow cup-shaped nest, resting directly on the sand. Amongst the colonies on the moss there will often be nests with a considerable foundation of rubbish and dead sticks, varying from a few inches to a foot in height. The biggest I noticed measured fully two feet across the base, and was a good twelve inches high. The rule with the nests on the moss was to have a foundation of sticks under the cup of grass, while the method in the sand-hills was for the cup of grass to be laid right on the sand without any materials underneath it. The inside measurements of the nests varied from 6–7 in. diameter by 1½–2 in. deep. Most of them had clutches of three eggs. There were fresh eggs, eggs in all states of incubation, and also young birds to be seen, sometimes running about, but more generally skulking under the grass. The down of the nestlings is a sandy brown colour, with yellowish streaks and mottlings, and they have the beaks black and the feet flesh-coloured. I found one clutch of abnormally coloured eggs—a very pale washed-out blue, with a few faint brown smudges on them, and one or two thin streaks almost black in colour. Standing over, and looking at them as they lay in the nest, they had the appearance of being pale blue eggs without any markings, and were of course most conspicuous.

The old birds make a considerable noise as one walks through their nests. About ten feet or so overhead fly a crowd of the Gulls, continually chattering, and occasionally swooping downwards at the intruder. Flying at a higher level are the Terns, also uttering all the time their long-drawn cries; and as an occasional Oystercatcher is disturbed, it will fly rapidly round, continually repeating its shrill whistle. The whole place is pervaded by a faint smell somewhat resembling a fowl-house. Visiting a large colony like this is of course full of interest to an ornithologist, but at the same time it rather gives him a feeling of surfeit, and is not to be compared for a moment to the satisfaction and pleasure to be derived from finding an isolated Ringed Plover's nest, after having exercised the patience necessary to watch the old bird on to its eggs.

Ravenglass. Except that all the nests here were situated among the sand-hills, the description of the colonies on Walney Island will do equally well for those at Ravenglass. There are, I should say, rather a larger number of Gulls at Ravenglass, and the process of incubation seemed there to be rather more forward. I caught a young bird in this colony which had strong quill-feathers in its wings, and could almost raise itself off the ground as it fluttered along. All the young birds I handled, at both places, were in capital condition, their bodies being almost round. They looked decidedly ludicrous when running (which they could do well, with a rather waddling action), especially if you got them silhouetted against the sky-line, when they appeared as a round ball with a neck stretched out in front, and two legs moving at top speed underneath. There was nothing whatever in the picture to remind one of their elegant, and almost slim, parents flying overhead.

Boot. I was astonished at the number of these Gulls to be seen round Boot, mostly scattered about the pasture lands in the valleys, but often also right out on the moors. Their chief occupation seemed to be a search for food, and it was interesting to watch them beating slowly backwards and forwards over the meadows, hunting like a Dog, and now and again dropping on to the ground to pick something up. I was rather inclined to conclude that these birds were non-breeders, and had no connection with the colony at Ravenglass.

Arnside. There were very few Black-headed Gulls to be seen here.

Herring-Gull (L. argentatus).—I saw a few of these Gulls round Walney Island. The bigger Gulls obtain no encouragement from their smaller relatives to frequent any of the colonies. I saw an immature bird, either this species or a Lesser Black-backed, being chased by a mixed mob of Black-headed Gulls and Terns, who gave it a very rough time indeed, until they had driven it out of their own sphere of influence.

I have seen it stated that these birds are to be found breeding on Foulshaw Moss, but I could not find any myself, and the keepers told me that there had been none breeding there for some years.

Lesser Black-backed Gull (L.fuscus).—I saw a few birds of this species round Walney Island.

Arnside. This Gull is here very numerous round the coast, most of those seen being, no doubt, members of the colony on Foulshaw Moss. Foulshaw Moss is rather an interesting stretch of country to visit for the first time. It is a considerable extent of perfectly fiat low-lying land, which has evidently at one time been very wet and boggy, but is now intersected by ditches and drains cut into the peaty soil, which must carry off much of the superfluous moisture. I have no doubt, however, that in a wet winter it is still very soft. A great part of the ground is covered by a thick growth of heather, and some other small shrubs which I did not know, while running all through the heather is a thick undergrowth of long moss. There are other stretches of ground overgrown with thick tussocky grass, and in various directions there are belts, and thin patches of small stunted trees and bushes from six to fifteen feet high. This has somewhat the effect of dividing the whole tract into separate open plains, each of which would be dotted over with single small trees or bushes, quite a number of which I noticed to be dead and bare of leaves. Over this area are scattered the Lesser Black-backed Gulls' nests. They are not by any means placed close together, the distance between the nests averaging from forty to fifty yards. As there are a great number of birds, the area covered by their nests is considerable. I found most of the eggs were hatched out, and there were many of the young ones skulking about in the undergrowth. The colour of the down of these was a sandy yellow with black mottlings, the bill black with a white tip, and the legs and feet lead colour. The down of a bird only just out of the egg was grey with black mottlings, which points to a possibility of the colour of the down altering as the age of the bird increases. I examined many nests, which, although tolerably easy to find, required to be looked for. The keeper who was with me found them so rapidly that I scarcely had time to find any myself. He told me that what he looked out for as he walked through the heather was the white downy feathers of the old birds stuck on the heather-bushes. In most cases there were one or more runs or passages up to the nest itself, and, as the bird passes through these, it leaves odd feathers hanging on twigs and branches, and by the quantity of feathers around the nest you can form a rough idea as to the state of the incubation of the eggs. There were a few nests with two eggs, but the majority had three in them. All that I blew contained fully-formed chickens, and the keeper told me that there were birds laying as early as the beginning of April. At the same time none of the young birds I saw were able to make any attempt at flight. There was a considerable similarity in the construction of the nests, which showed signs of much more care than in those of the Black-headed Gull, the material forming them being almost felted together into concave pads, the hollows measuring roughly 9 to 10 in. diameter, by 1½ to 2½ in. deep. One nest I examined was placed between some big tussocks of coarse grass, the materials used for the pad being moss, grass-blades, small twigs, and a few white feathers, which made a thick and soft bed for the eggs. The shallow cup measured 9 in. diameter, by 2½ in. deep. While I was looking at this nest the old bird was making very vigorous swoops unpleasantly close to my head, uttering an angry cry each time it descended. Another nest, which was placed on bare ground in one of the clumps of small bushes and trees, was made of moss, twigs, and dead leaves, formed into a fairly solid mass, which measured at the base 15 in. diameter, the cup being the same dimensions as the other one, the top edge of the rim of the cup 5 in. high from the ground. The nests amongst the heather were much the same as those already described. In several places I noticed heaps of a small pink bivalve shell.

Guillemot (Uria troile).—I found a dead body of a Guillemot on the beach at Walney Island.

This work was published before January 1, 1928 and is anonymous or pseudonymous due to unknown authorship. It is in the public domain in the United States as well as countries and areas where the copyright terms of anonymous or pseudonymous works are 95 years or less since publication.

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