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Following The Water Birds

( Originally Published 1910 )

MOST bird-lovers feel a distinct sense of achievement, a peculiar satisfaction, in experiences with the water birds. They represent a much larger and more varied group than the raptores, and like them are mostly inaccessible and hard to find. Owing to their size or edible qualities most of them have greatly diminished in numbers through shooting. Quite a number are found only out at sea, either in winter, or passing in migration far off the coast. The majority of them breed in northern latitudes. The nature of their haunts makes it difficult for most people to study them. However, all these things attach to them an interest of sentiment and mystery, which, when felt, makes one all the more determined to know them. For my-self, the fever attacked me in its most malignant (or beneficent) form. Since I could not find all these types of water-fowl at home, I had to go where they were, until now, after chasing them from Newfound-land to Florida and Louisiana, and from Virginia to Saskatchewan, I feel that I can rightly number most of them among my intimate friends.

To mention first the seasons in which to look for them, there are comparatively few which spend the summer and breed in middle latitudes. The only group which is well represented is the herons, and all of those which occur at all are summer residents. We have regularly the green, black-crowned night, and great blue herons, also the American and least bitterns. Look for the bitterns in reedy bogs, the herons in wooded swamps or along shores. The herons nest in trees or bushes, the bitterns on the ground. In the South are many other species. Next in numbers come the marsh-dwellers, a small group, of which we have in summer the sora and Virginia rails, while from the Middle States south the clapper and king rails and the Florida gallinule are found. Of the shore-birds only the spotted sandpiper, our familiar " teeter," is at all common as a summer resident. The piping plover, kildeer, and upland plover were once familiar residents, but now they have almost disappeared.

Of the swimming birds, only the dusky or " black " duck and the wood duck are at all widely distributed in the Eastern States, but by the prairie lakes and in the sloughs of the western interior, a number of others breed, as well as terns, grebes, gulls, coot, rails, and some shore-birds, and, well to the north, cormorants and white pelicans. In the inland waters of Maine and eastern Canada one may find breeding the loon, the horned and pied-billed grebes, the goosander and hooded merganser, and a few other ducks, and on the coasts of these districts the herring gull, black guillemot, eider duck, red-breasted merganser, common and arctic terns, Leach's petrel or " Mother Carey's chicken," and double-crested cormorant. On islands from Massachusetts south the common, roseate, and least terns and the laughing gull breed locally and sparingly, the pitiful remnant of the millinery 'traffic. The black tern comes as a migrant, breeding in the sloughs of the Northwest. A few other terns may be met as rare stragglers. The species found in winter have been mentioned in the chapter on winter birds.

The periods of migration are the best times of all. In spring, April is the month for ducks and geese, and May for the shore-birds. On the southward flight the shore-birds begin to return in July, but the height of migration is in August for most of the smaller species and September for the others. One small species, the red-backed sandpiper, or dunlin, is very late, seldom appearing before the middle of September and being common in October on the beaches, after all the other small fry have moved on. October is the great month for ducks, and late October and November for geese and the hardier ducks, like the oldsquaw, mergansers, and eiders.

Inland, the migration of water-birds is, of course, not nearly as conspicuous as on the coast. Very little is seen of late years on Eastern inland waters of the shore-birds. Most frequently seen of this class of migrants is the solitary sandpiper, found alone or at most in pairs, by any little pool or larger body of water. Now and then a flock of least sandpipers, or possibly others, may appear on lake or river margin. In meadows there may be seen an occasional single greater or lesser yellowlegs, or a small flock of them. More numerous in such places is the Wilson's snipe, one of the favorite game-birds. It will flush from the grass before us, sometimes quite close, and dart off rapidly, with a peculiar squeaking cry. The best inland region for shore-birds, however, is the Mississippi valley and adjacent districts, through which there is still a considerable migration, both in spring and fall.

In meadow or morass the rails become much more abundant than in summer, particularly in early autumn on frosty mornings, and even into October. As we wade about, they flutter up feebly before us, with dangling legs, looking like young birds that can hardly fly. They only fly a few yards and then drop back into the tangle, where they run like witches, it being almost impossible to flush them again for the present. The Virginia rail can be distinguished from the sora by being slightly larger, with a much longer bill and reddish-tinted under-parts. The American coot and the Florida gallinule are mostly seen swimming in some wet morass among the reeds, or on a marshy pond among lily-pads. In wading the bogs in autumn one will flush the American bittern more often than at any other time, and also the green heron, and see the solitary great blue heron, an enormous bird, flap warily off beyond gunshot.

To speak of the swimming birds, there is probably no more familiar sight in this line than to see a grebe, or a small, scattered party of them, bobbing around in a pond among the lily-pads. Most persons call them ducks, but one can readily distinguish them by their practice of frequently diving and remaining about a minute under water. It is a very pretty sight to watch them. Two kinds are ordinarily seen in East-ern waters: the little brown fellow with a bill like a hen is the pied-billed grebe or dabchick, the other is the horned grebe, which in autumn has a white breast, but in spring quite a gay plumage with noticeable tufts of reddish-brown and black on the head.

In the longitude of the Dakotas we find the west ern, Holboell's, and eared grebes nesting in the sloughs. The advent of the great loon and the some-what smaller red-throated loon into the larger ponds or lakes is a not uncommon and interesting event. How wonderfully they can swim and dive, and what strange sounds are the laughter-like cries! Almost any of the numerous species of the ducks are liable to stop in the larger lakes, or even the smaller ponds. In the hunting season the gunning-stands keep pretty good track of the occurrence of the various ducks, but in the spring hardly anyone is watching for them and they slip through largely unnoticed. Persecution has rendered them so shy that they are, in populous parts of the country, very timid about showing themselves.

The best way to see wild ducks inland in fall is to watch in a gunning stand with the hunters and their live decoys. More ducks are shot just at daybreak than at any other time. This involves either sleeping in the " bunk-house " or rising very early and going out when it is dark. In the latter case one must enter from the rear and not be seen by ducks which have come in. Evening dusk is also a good time, when the ducks begin to fly about to feed. In the East our common staple at such times is the dusky or black " duck, with a smattering of wood duck, mallard, pintail, blue and green-winged teals, ruddy duck, redhead, and less frequently the shoveller, bald-pate, gadwall, bufflehead, canvasback, or others. In the West and South most of these are much more common. The flocks of Canada geese are due in late October or early November.

The sea-coast, of course, gives much the best opportunity to see the migration of water-birds of nearly all kinds. Shore-birds are a delightful group. What is finer than the sight of a flock of sandpipers, chased by the surf, scurrying up the beach, or the band of plovers or curlews feeding on the salt marsh or flat! Unfortunately most of them have been shot off, and the larger kinds are seldom seen. It is a crime against Nature which makes the blood of the bird-lover fairly boil. What right have ignorant, thoughtless people to exterminate our bird-lifer! If hunting cannot be regulated, better no hunting at all, for there can be none anywhere when the game is all destroyed. The question now is how to save the remnant and secure its increase back to normal abundance.

To mention a few of the shore-birds which one is likely to meet, the most numerous are some of the sandpipers, especially the little semipalmated sand-piper, which one will see in flocks on beaches and flats. The least sandpiper resorts more to marshes, but both go together at times. They are hard to tell apart at a distance, but the latter is smaller, browner, and has no partial webs between the toes. With these are often a few white-rumped sandpipers, distinguished by what the name implies. The sanderling is a larger species, quite pale in color, but not as much so as the little piping plover which races along the beach, almost the color of the sand. All plovers, too, are stouter in build. The turnstone prefers stony shores.

The knot is the largest sandpiper, a beautiful bird with pencilled markings on its back. The pectoral sandpiper, distinguished by a heavily marked breast from the sanderling, though of the same size, prefers the salt marsh, as does the dowitcher, which latter will attract instant attention by its very long straight bill. The two species of yellow-legs are also birds of the marsh. The main difference between them is one of size, and both have long yellow legs and show a white rump as they fly. Their clear piping calls, consisting of three or four quickly-repeated, resounding whistles, are very striking and easily imitated, by doing which the birds are very easily decoyed. The willet is another large wader, with white bars on its wings. Occasionally a Hudsonian curlew appears.

Of the plovers, the little ring-neck or semipalmated plover is by far the most common, to be found on flats and beaches. The large black-bellied plover, while not really rare, is too good eating to be abundant, as it formerly was. It is especially fond of muddy or sandy flats and is extremely shy. Its near relative, the golden plover, is scarce now on the Atlantic coast, as it has learned to migrate in the fall from the Maritime Provinces straight south over the ocean, to make its wonderful and famous flight to Argentine and Patagonia. Some, however, are deflected in to us in late August and September by easterly winds or storms. During the autumn of 1909 more of them were observed and taken about New Haven, Connecticut, than for many years, suggesting that protective laws may be having real effect.

The best way to see the shore-birds in these days is to make a trip south in spring.. Quite an army of this tribe pass along the coast of the Carolinas. But to include the golden plover, the trip should be to the Louisiana coast, especially in the delta region of the Mississippi River. For an autumn trip, and not a very distant one either, try the east shore of Nova Scotia, anywhere along the Cape Sable region. On Cape Sable Island and the adjacent Barrington pas-sage there are still fair numbers of shore-birds at times in August and September. On the shores of New England and the Middle States shore-birds are pretty scarce, though on Cape Cod, Nantucket, and Long Island there are some to be seen, especially during and just after an easterly storm.

In August and September it will abundantly repay one to take a trip with a fisherman well off to sea southeast from Chatham, Massachusetts, on Cape Cod, or eastward off Cape Sable Island, Nova Scotia, to observe the birds which live on the open ocean. It is not necessary to embark on an extended voyage. Just hire a sail-boat and run off shore from five to ten miles. The numbers of birds will depend upon where the schools of bait-fish happen to be, but on many days there will be birds, and frequently hundreds of them. There we are more than likely to see plenty of Wilson's petrels, and numbers of greater shearwaters, some of the sooty, and possibly a few Corey's shearwaters. These are all wonderful birds, that breed in the Antarctic regions, and during their winter, which is our summer, wander over our part of the ocean.

In August the jaegers arrive from the North, and, chasing the terns, make them disgorge their fish, often catching it in mid-air. Of these there are the Pomarine, parasitic and long-tailed species. About the middle of August the little northern and red phalaropes migrate down our coast out to sea, and may be encountered in flocks, feeding on drift-weed or flying along. Such a trip is perfectly practicable and one of the most rewarding of ornithological experiences, because of its novelty. Have the skipper of the boat provide fish-livers to toll up the birds. Crumbling the bait up fine, it should be dribbled out astern as the boat sails, and, if there are any birds within miles, they are almost sure to follow up the boat and give great chances for pictures with the reflecting camera.

In October, when the migration of wildfowl is at its height, I would suggest a trip to some one of the projections of land past which the fowl are accustomed to fly each year. There the gunners usually shoot from a line of boats at the passing flocks, anchoring off at daybreak, a gunshot apart. Some days, particularly if the wind be at all easterly, thousands of fowl go by, mostly very early in the morning, but to some extent all day. Here one may see the three kinds of scoters, both the scaup ducks, the red-breasted merganser, oldsquaw, eiders, golden eyes, and occasionally any of the ducks, also the brant, loon, red-throated loon, various gulls, jaegers, cormorants, gannets, sometimes auks, puffin, guillemots, or flocks of Holboell's or horned grebes.

One does not see all of these each day by any means, yet in the course of various trips I have seen them all and others. Such outings are certainly interesting and exciting. For places to go I suggest . Manomet, Cohasset, and the vicinity of Cape Ann, Massachusetts, and Cape Sable, Nova Scotia; there must also be many good spots on the coast of Maine. Points at least as far north as Maine have the advantage that certain species can be seen there which hardly ever come as far south as Massachusetts, not ably the auk family, and some ducks like the king eider and harlequin. The latter are common off the coast of Maine in late fall and winter, but are rare farther south.

The most satisfactory way in these days to gain intimate knowledge of the seabirds is to visit the colonies protected by the Government and the National Association of Audubon Societies. While these must not be allowed to become tourist resorts, students who are responsible persons can secure permission to visit them under the guidance of wardens. They must not keep the birds off their nests or frighten the young into the sea, yet, with very little trespassing upon the privacy of the birds, wonderful sights can be gained. Such a place as Great Bird Rock, off the coast of Newfoundland, in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, will repay any effort to reach. The spectacle of those thousands of birds sitting on their nests on the edges of the cliffs or swarming in the air, while the surf thunders against the rocks below, will cause one to thrill every time it is brought again to mind. The best time to go is in July, when there are both eggs and young. The birds have mostly laid their eggs by ` the middle of June.

It would take too much space even briefly to de-scribe or characterize all the water-birds, but it is hoped that the few hints in this chapter may be enough to stimulate some interest and give at least a start. Such birds as the warblers are exquisitely beautiful, but to the birds of water and ocean there clings a special glamour of the wild which is very fascinating to those who feel at times the spirit of hardihood and adventure luring them afield and afloat.

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