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Our Feathered Friends

The Moors

In the wild desolation of our moorlands and upland wastes there is such sublimity of scenery, and among those billows of rolling heather such a boundless sense of freedom, that we feel in their very loneliness a fascination irresistible as the torrents which sweep their mountain sides. How cool and refreshing, in this sultry month of August, is the breath of the mountain breeze as it steals through glen and gorge and over the fragrant hills—those hills which are now one mass of purple glory—

The hills, where the heather-cock springs
From his nest in the bracken, with dew on his wings!

It seems like an insult, now that the fateful Twelfth has dawned, to include the grouse among our feathered friends. And yet what would the moorlands be without this splendid bird of the heather, whose mottled plumage seems part and parcel of the heather itself. His whirring flight is as inseparable from the moorlands as the loud whistle of the curlew or the breezy cry of the plover: indeed, much more so, for when the cold of winter has driven the curlew and the plover to the seashore, and when the other moorland birds have either migrated to the warmer lowlands and pastures, or left the country altogether, the red grouse remains still faithful to his native heather. He is, par excellence, the bird of the moors. For size and brilliancy of plumage he must yield the palm to his cousin the blackcock. But the latter, in England at least, is comparatively rare, and, instead of frequenting the higher heath lands like the red grouse, resorts to the lower parts of hills and valleys, where there is water, and where there is woodland as well as heather.

On the lower heath lands, near marshy swamp, where dense masses of bulrush and water-flags raise their heads upon a sea of hopeless desolation, we are sure to meet with the beautiful lapwing, or green plover—better known, perhaps, as the "peewit," from its peculiar cry. But it is its easy buoyant flight that most arrests our attention. In the nesting season especially its gyrations in the air are interesting and pleasing in the extreme. Soaring without an effort, it suddenly flaps its wings, and, wheeling round and round, tumbling, tossing, twisting, darting, reeling, it utters incessantly its well-known cry, endeavouring by every wild inventive love can think of to lure us from its nest. The golden plover is another bird we are sure to meet with in the boggy places on our hills and moorlands, and is almost as interesting as the lapwing in its aerial devices to draw us away from its young. In the autumn both the golden plover and the peewit collect into large flocks, and as winter advances retire southward and to the seacoast. In the same haunts that we find the plovers, and among the pools and tares of our hills and moorlands, we shall scarcely fail to come across the water-rail and moor-hen, the coot and the common snipe.

But we must leave these marshy wildernesses, where reels and tumbles in mid-air the pretty peewit, where from the margins of reedy pools rise up on rapid wing the snipe and whistling curlew. These are not our moorlands proper. Let us ascend to the dry upland wastes, and we shall find in the haunts of the wild red grouse some smaller birds than those we have alluded to.

There are few more interesting birds than three little creatures, of the redbreast kind, which are suit to claim our attention in our rambles amongst the heather—the chats. Merry, active, restless, trustful, they are most engaging little things. The colouring, too, of their plumage is very attractive, especially the stonechat's, whose rich orange - chestnut breast, black head, and sprinklings of snowy white, make him a conspicuous object as he flits to and fro amongst the heather and the gorse, and on the loose stones and boulders, "fragments of an earlier world." The vivacious little whinchat, so often seen perched on the top of the gorse or "whin" bushes, is a trifle smaller than the stonechat. The plumage of this dainty creature is also very pleasing to the eye; the upper parts are mottled with light and dark brown, the under parts being of a pale buff tint. The largest of the chats, the wheatear, has also distinctive markings—the back is a bluish grey, the wings black, and the breast and under parts a pale yellowish brown merging into white towards the tail. Unfortunately for the wheatear, gastronomists hold it in high repute. It is the English ortolan; and when the autumn migration sets in, and the wheatears, fat and in good condition, having winged their way from our northern moors to the downs of Surrey and Kent, are congregating for their long final flight, large numbers are trapped for the London markets. The whinchat, too, is a migratory species. But the little stonechat never leaves us, only shifting its quarters in severe weather to more sheltered situations.

Several of the finch family make a home for themselves in our upland wilds. The mountain linnet, closely allied to the common species but more slender in form, is oftener seen on the mountains of Scotland than amongst our English heather: still it is one of the birds of the moor. It is the "heather lintie" of the north, and the "twite" of England. The common linnet, too, whose soft sweet notes betray it into many a snare, and the redpole, may often be seen on the outskirts of the heath lands, especially where there are gorse coverts. And the lovely goldfinch, though not strictly speaking a moorland bird, may frequently be met with, chasing the white thistledown that is borne on the wings of the wind, far up the hill-sides. And one of our titlarks, the soberly-clad little meadow-pipit, chooses far more frequently the moorland solitudes for its summer haunts than, as its name would imply, the rich pastures of the cultivated districts.

In the wildest of our wild purple wastes, on the rugged side of some lonely glen or deep ravine, awed by the stillness reigning all around, and musing, perchance, on his own nothingness, how often has the solitary rambler been startled by the loud and defiant call-notes of the ring-ouzel! The noble bearing of this bird harmonizes well with his romantic surroundings, as does also the song he whistles forth in the love season from his nest on the ledge of some hoary rock—a song which, though at times sweet and almost plaintive, is desultory and wild. His alarm-note is not unlike that of the blackbird, a bird, too, which he somewhat resembles; but his plumage, though black, is not so black as the sable chorister of our shrubberies, and he has a broad white crescent across the upper part of his breast. He belongs to the thrush family, and is often called the moor or mountain blackbird. The Peak of Derbyshire is a favourite breeding-place, but he is common enough on most of the high moorlands of our northern counties, and on Dartmoor, in Devonshire.

The bird we have just mentioned is not the only member of the thrush family that delights in heathery solitudes. On the banks of the moorland streams that come tumbling down over their rocky beds from the high hills above, the dipper, or water-ouzel, is sure to be met with; which quaint little creature, though classed among the thrushes, does not at all resemble, either in appearance or in habits, our sweet-voiced throttle. His short apology for a tail makes us think for a moment of the wren; but he is considerably larger, and prettily marked, his snowy throat and breast contrasting very effectively with the rich brown of his other plumage. And such an engaging little fellow, too! See him perched midstream on some moss-laden stone, jerking his short tail, crouching as is his wont—his head thrown back, and showing us his snow-white breast-diving into the clear water, and running along the bed of the stream—emerging and alighting on some fresh 'vantage ground—diving, swimming, fishing, flying: he is incessantly at something or other! This active, lively little creature is strongly attached to his own special haunt; when the heather's purple flowers are withering, and the bracken and the mountain fern are donning their brown autumnal hues, the ring-ouzel deserts us for the sunny shores of Africa; but the little water-ouzel still keeps to his upland wilds. In the depth of winter we find him still fondly clinging to his mountain stream, even though those mid-stream rocks and stones he loves to fish from are encased with dripping icicles.

Other birds there are upon whom the "power of the hills" is strong. But those we have briefly mentioned are the ones most frequently met with; to whom the breezes that play among the bracken and the ling are sweeter far than the softest of lowland zephyrs, who find amongst the chaotic confusion of boulders and rocky eminences a resting-place for the sole of the foot more soothing than any forest bough, and who, if they must have a tree to fly into, infinitely prefer the birch and the mountain ash and the groves of larch and pine to the stateliest oak or elm. The brambles and the whortleberries, the whin bushes and the yellow broom, the sweet gale and the delicate little blue harebells which twine their slender stalks in and out amongst the bracken, have charms more sweet to them than any flower that blooms in woodland or tangled hedge-row.
W. Oak Rhind.

Source: The Illustrated London News, No.2258—Vol. LXXXI, Saturday, August 12, 1882, p.175

See also: Birds: In the Lanes