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Birds Of Cobb's Island, Virginia

( Originally Published Ealry 1900's )



EXTENDING along the coast of Virginia is a series of flat grassy islands, many of them so low as to be covered with water at high tide. Among those high enough to be safe from ordinary overflow is Cobb's Island, a long sand bank which at flood tide is only a few feet above water. In the Autumn of 1896 this island was partially washed away during a storm. Previous to this it was seven miles in length, while in width it exceeded scarcely an eighth of a mile. On its eastern side the ocean broke continuously along the entire length. Stretching along the western shore for perhaps half the distance was a marsh.

Among the matted clusters of marsh grass on this island the beautiful laughing gulls found a summer home. In the spring of the year they came over the sea from the South, many scores in number, and here built their bulky nests. In order to reach them I once put on high rubber boots and waded out into the marsh. There was no difficulty in finding the large piles of grass which served as nests, situated only a foot or two above the water. In each of those examined either two or three large spotted eggs were found. On my first approach to the breeding grounds several of the birds were observed flying along the beach just outside the surf, but only one or two were hovering over the marsh. However, annoyed by my presence they soon came flying about overhead, filling the air with their cries of distress and uneasiness.

This summer gull is a pretty creature. Its head and the quills of its wings are black, the neck and under parts snowy white, and the feathers of its back are pearl gray. It has feet webbed suitable for swimming, and can ride at will upon the waves like a cork.

From the beach an observer might regard the gulls as the only inhabitants of the marsh. But let him once start through it and he will change his mind. Clapper rails, sometimes termed " marsh hens," called constantly to each other from their hidden retreats in the grass. At times some of them must have been within a few yards of where I stood, but so carefully were they concealed in their covered runways beneath the grass, and so closely did the markings of their feathers resemble their surroundings, that, although a dozen of the birds would often be calling near at one time, I was unable to catch sight of a single one. A few of their nests were found. Some of these held as many as twelve spotted eggs, although the most of those examined had been deserted by the young.

The clapper rail is about fifteen inches in length, including its short excuse for a tail. Its body is very slender, which makes it admirably adapted for threading its way through the labyrinthian pathways of its marshy haunts. Its legs are slim and the bird is a good runner. It can also swim with ease. It is a poor flyer and as a result seldom takes to wing. Hunters sometimes set the marsh on fire to start the birds from cover. Then when they rise and fly slowly along in their awkward manner they present a target not easily missed even by an amateur sportsman.

Members of the rail family are found in many parts of the world, and everywhere they are the same excellent runners and poor flyers. On the Mascarene Islands there once lived a rail which stood seven feet high. Its feathers had brilliant hues and were much sought by sailors who chanced now and then to land on the islands. So the natives hunted the birds far and wide to get the feathers for barter. Such a war was waged that in the end they were entirely exterminated. The last one is supposed to have perished over two hundred years ago.

Cobb's Island, at the time of my visit in June, was the home of many birds of the sea. On a strip of sandy beach well up from the reach of the waves the beautiful long winged sea swallows, or terns, had their homes. With them were also associated the black skimmers. These are birds which, with long knife-like bills, skim their food from the waves as they wander along the seacoast. From the habit of coming close to shore during bad weather they are often called by the fishermen " storm-gulls." " Shear-water " is also a popular name in some localities.

One of the prettiest sights of the coast is a tern; in fact, no ocean view is complete without one. Beautifully balancing on wings of pearl he comes floating down the wind as lightly as a fragment of cloud might drift before the breeze. In flight he has the perfection of movement and the embodiment of grace. What human eye can mark his course and not feel the esthetic thrill that ever stirs the mind when in the presence of one of. Nature's master-pieces? His bright eye catches the sunlight glint on the scales of a fish among the tossing waves and swift as an arrow he strikes headlong into the deep. The downward plunge is as sudden as it is swift and seldom does the bird miss his mark.

Sea birds are possessed of great curiosity regarding any strange object they may chance upon in their wanderings. I have seen gulls hover and scream for half an hour over an old basket awash in the surf. Half way along the ocean side of Cobb's Island lay a broken fishing boat where it had been carried and left by some high tide. The long brown roll of dried sea weed extending along the beach and marking the high water line crossed the spot where the boat lay and partially filled it.

I climbed into this boat one afternoon and lay down on my back to see what the birds would have to say when they saw me. Within five minutes I heard a dry high-pitched squeak and, moving my hat slightly, saw a tern thirty or forty feet above looking down at me. How his little yellow eyes did glisten with curiosity ! In another moment he fell off before the wind, but soon came back, slowly balancing along against the breeze. Again and again his squeaky cry was uttered. Then another tern appeared, and soon a gull joined them. Within fifteen minutes a dozen gulls and more than one hundred terns were flying about, all making a great outcry at the strange figure in the boat. - Any movement on my part was a signal for a louder outburst of sounds as the birds rose higher or hurried away only to return a minute later to hover and stare and scream as before. Not until I arose and walked away were they satisfied to leave the spot where had lain the strange creature which had excited them so much.

Many observers agree that twenty years ago countless thousands of tern annually gathered at Cobb's Island to lay and hatch their eggs. Fishermen told me that bushels of eggs could then be gathered in a few hours' search, and that it was almost impossible to walk along the beach without crushing them. People frequently visited the island to gather eggs to eat. While thus en-gaged the birds would flock about the heads of the intruders with deafening cries, trying to drive them from the beach.

If one of the birds was shot and disabled, dozens of others would gather about the unfortunate comrade with loud notes of distress. Nor would they be frightened away by the repeated discharges of the guns, but would continue to fly excitedly about while one by one they fell bleeding to the ground.

So easily may terns be killed during the nesting sea-son, and so pretty are the silver-gray feathers of their wings, that milliners learned that here was a profitable field for investment. Accordingly hunters were employed to go to the nesting places and shoot the birds. The skins were shipped to the great cities and there made into trimmings for ladies' hats. Ten thousand skins were gathered at Cobb's Island in a single season. All along the coast from Maine to Florida and around the shores of the Gulf of Mexico as far as Texas the hunting was carried on.

Expeditions were fitted out each summer for collecting the birds. Hunters would take a sailing vessel, provide food and ammunition in sufficient quantity to last them for several weeks, and setting sail would cruise from island to island in search of the birds. Upon reaching a beach inhabited by terns the vessel would be brought to anchor, and here the crew would stay shooting and skinning as long as the occupation continued profitable, which was usually until the birds were all dead or driven away.

By 1890 the numbers of the terns along the Atlantic coast of the Southern States had become so depleted that many of the annual expeditions of the feather gatherers were discontinued. Individual hunters here and there still seek out the few remaining breeding places of the sea swallows and keep up the work of extermination.

One day I stood upon the deck of a two-masted sharpie lying at anchor in Bogue Sound on the North Carolina coast. I was talking to an old man whose long thin hair fell in waves on his shoulders. He was a professional bird hunter and in the captain's cabin near which we stood had, with a companion, skinned many thousands of sea birds. " I have hunted the terns in their nesting places," he said, " from New England southward to the West Indies, and I do not believe there is a rookery in all this line of coast that I have not repeatedly visited." He had shipped, he told me, more than one hundred thou-sand skins.

One of the most attractive of the tern family is the small variety known as the least tern. Once they lived by thousands along our coast, but now the birds are rarely seen. I asked the old feather hunter where these might be found nesting, and he replied, " I doubt if there will be a least tern's egg laid this summer within two hundred miles of here."

Before me stood an old man whose eyes had become dim through a life spent in contending with waves, and wandering over the blistering sands of summer beaches. He had never been taught to love and protect the birds, and by killing them he had seen a chance to win his bread. Is he the one to blame for the death of the terns?

The destruction of so many sea birds at length drew public attention, and several States, now when it was al-most too late, passed laws for their protection. On some of the islands along the New England coast inhabited by terns, wardens are stationed whose business it is to keep off intruders. Thus protected the birds in a few places are once more increasing in numbers. Societies for the protection of birds have been formed in many parts of the country and their efforts to arouse interest in bird study and prevent the wearing of bird feathers have met with much success.

But these movements came too late to save the terns of Cobb's Island. Almost as if by magic the vast rookery was destroyed, and as though Nature wished to forget the scene of such bloodshed and suffering, the storm king roared down upon its beaches one autumn, and now nothing is left but a mere strip of sand barely half a mile in length.



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