One story is told about the Kingfisher, which I commend to those who study the varying effects of colours on the eye. Thompson, the famous Irish naturalist, was out shooting when snow was lying on the ground, and repeatedly saw a small brown bird in flight, which entirely puzzled him; at last he shot it, and found it to be a Kingfisher 16 in its full natural plumage. It nearly always frequents streams of clear water and rather gentle flow, where its intense brightness would surely discover it, even as it sits upon a stone or bough, if its hues as seen through a liquid medium did not lose their sheen.
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The island which I have mentioned is joined to Mesopotamia by another bridge just below the weir; and here is a second post of observation, with one feature that is absent at the upper bridge. There all is silent, unless a breeze is stirring the trees; here the water prattles gently as it slides down the green slope of the weir into the deep pool below.
This motion of the water makes the weir and this part of the Cherwell a favourite spot of a very beautiful little bird, which 17 haunts it throughout the October term. He is content with sluggish water if he can find none that is rapid; but the sound of the falling water is as surely grateful to his ear as the tiny crustaceans he finds in it are to his palate. It is always a pleasure to watch them; and though all Wagtails have their charm 18 for me, I give this one the first place, for its matchless delicacy of form, and the gentle grace of all its actions.
The Gray Wagtail is misnamed, both in English and Latin; as we might infer from the fact that in the one case it is named from the colour of its back, and in the other from that of its belly. All other Wagtails may be seen in meadows, ploughed fields, and uplands; but though I have repeatedly seen this one within the last year in England, Wales, Ireland, and Switzerland, I never but once saw it away from the water, and then it was for the moment upon a high road in Dorsetshire, and within a few yards of a brook and pool.
Those who wish to identify it must remember its long tail and its love of water, and must also look out for the beautiful sulphur yellow of its under parts; in the spring both male and female have 19 a black chin and throat, like our common Pied Wagtail. How can you successfully draw or stuff a bird whose most remarkable feature is never for a moment still? While I am upon Wagtails, let me say a word for our old friend the common Pied Wagtail, who is with us in varying numbers all the year round. It is for several reasons a most interesting bird. We have known it from our childhood; but foreign bird-lovers coming to England would find it new to them, unless they chanced to come from Western France or Spain.
Like one or two other species of which our island is the favourite home, it is much darker than its continental cousin the White Wagtail, when in full adult plumage. Young birds are indeed often quite a light gray, and in Magdalen cloisters and garden, where the young broods love to run and seek food on the beautifully-kept turf, almost every variety of youthful plumage may be seen in June or July, from the sombrest black to the brightest pearl-gray. Last summer, I one day spent a long time here watching the efforts of a parent to induce a young bird to leave its perch and join the others on the turf: the nest must have been placed somewhat high up among the creepers, and the young bird, on leaving it, had ventured no further than a little stone statue above my head.
The mother flew repeatedly to the young one, hovered before it, chattered and encouraged it in every possible way; but it was a long time before she prevailed.
The mother flew repeatedly to the young one, hovered before it, chattered and encouraged it in every possible way. Let us now return towards the city, looking into the Parks on our way. The Curators of the Parks, not less generous to the birds than to mankind, have provided vast stores of food for the former, in the numbers of birches and conifers which flourish under their care.
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They, or their predecessors who stocked the plantations, seem to have had the particular object of attracting those delightful little north-country birds the Lesser Redpolls, for they have planted every kind of tree in whose seeds they find a winter subsistence. A nest was taken from the branch of a fir-tree here in , and in this present year, if I am not mistaken, another nest was built.
I failed to find it, but I several times saw a pair of sportive Redpolls at the south-east corner of the Parks. These tiny linnets at work in the delicate birch-boughs. It is one of the prettiest sights that our whole calendar of bird-life affords, to watch these tiny linnets at work in the delicate birch-boughs. They fear no human being, and can be approached within a very few yards.
They almost outdo the Titmice in the amazing variety of their postures. They prefer in a general way to be upside down, and decidedly object to the common-place attitudes of more solidly built birds. Before we leave the Parks I must record the fact that an eccentric Jack-snipe, who ought to have considered that he is properly a winter bird in these parts, was several times flushed here by the Cherwell in the summer of , and the natural inference would be that a pair had bred somewhere near.
Montagu, the most accurate of naturalists, asserted that it has never been known to remain and breed in England; yet the observer in this case, a well-known college tutor who knows a Jack-snipe when he sees it, has assured me positively that there was no mistake; and some well-authenticated cases seem to have occurred since Montagu wrote. There are plenty of common birds to be seen even in winter on most days in the Parks, such as the Skylark, the Yellow-hammer and its relative the Black-headed Bunting, the Pied Wagtail, the Hedge-sparrow, and others; though lawn-tennis, and cricket, and new houses and brick walls, are slowly and surely driving them beyond the 25 Cherwell for food and shelter.
But there are some birds which may be seen to greater advantage in another part of Oxford, and we will take the short line to Christchurch Meadow, past Holywell Church, doubtless the abode of Owls, and the fine elms of Magdalen Park, beloved by the Woodpigeons.
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All this lower part of the Cherwell, from Holywell mill to its mouth at the barges, abounds in snug and secure retreats for the birds. They are tree-climbing birds, but they climb in very different ways: the Creeper helping himself, like the Woodpeckers, with the downward-bent feathers of his strong tail; while the Nuthatch, having no tail to speak of, relies chiefly on his hind claw. These birds are now placed, on account of the structure of their feet, in a totally different order to that of the Woodpeckers, who rank with the Swifts and the Nightjars.
One is apt to think of the Creeper as a silent and very busy bird, who never finds leisure to rest and preen his feathers, or to relieve his mind with song.
PREFACE TO THE SECOND EDITION.
When he does sing he takes us a little aback. I had to turn the glass upon him to make sure that there was no mistake. This is the only occasion on which I have ever heard the Creeper sing, and it seems strange that a bird with so strong a voice should use it so seldom.
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I have never but once seen the Green Woodpecker in Oxford, and that was as he flew rapidly over the Parks in the direction of the Magdalen elms. If he lives there, he must be known to the Magdalen men, but I have not had intelligence of him. The fact is that he is a much wilder bird than his near relation, the Lesser Spotted Woodpecker, who is, or was, beyond doubt an 27 Oxford resident. Macpherson of Oriel, whose eye is not likely to have erred, believed that he saw one in the Broad Walk a few years ago. I myself have not seen the bird nearer Oxford than Kennington; but I am pretty sure that it is commoner and also less shy than is generally imagined, and also that the ornithologist who sees it is not likely to mistake it for another bird: its very small size—it is not so large as a sparrow—its crimson head, and its wings, with their black and white bars, making it a conspicuous object to a practised eye.
A blackbird proceeded calmly to take his bath in the fountain. Christchurch Meadow is a favourite home of the Titmice. I believe that I have seen all the five English species here within a space of a very few days: English, not British, for there is one other, the Crested Tit, of which I shall have more to say in another chapter.
A family of Longtails, or Bottle-tits, flits from bush to bush, never associating with the others, and so justifying its scientific separation from them. Another family is to be seen in the Parks, where they build a nest every year. These delightful little birds are however quite willing to live in the very centre of a town, indifferent to noise and dust. A Marsh-tit was once seen performing its antics on a lamp-post in St. A Great-tit built its nest in the stump of an old laburnum, in the little garden of Lincoln College, within a few yards of the Turl and High Street; the nest was discovered by my dog, who was prowling about the garden with a view to cats.
I took great interest in this brood, which was successfully reared, and on one occasion I watched the parents bringing food to their young for twenty minutes, during which time they were fed fourteen times. The ringing note of this Great-tit or his relations is the first to be heard in that garden in winter-time, and is always welcome. The little Blue-tit is also forthcoming there at times.
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One Sunday morning I saw a Blue-tit climbing the walls of my College quadrangle, almost after the manner 30 of a Creeper, searching the crannies for insects, and even breaking down the crust of weathered stone. Here it is more especially that the Thrush tribe makes its presence felt throughout the autumn.
In the Gardens the thrushes and blackbirds have become so tame from constant quiet and protection, that, like the donkeys at Athens of which Plato tells us, they will hardly deign to move out of your way. A blackbird proceeded calmly to take his bath, in the fountain at the lower end near the meadow, one morning when I was looking on, and seemed to be fully aware of the fact that there was a locked gate between us.
Missel-thrushes are also to be seen here; and all these birds go out of a morning to breakfast on a thickly-berried thorn-bush at the Cherwell end of the Broad Walk, where they meet with their relations the Redwings, and now and then with 31 a Fieldfare. The walker round the meadow in winter will seldom fail to hear the harsh call of the redwing, as, together with starlings innumerable, and abundance of blackbirds, they utter loud sounds of disapproval. There is one bush here whose berries must have some strange ambrosial flavour that blackbirds dearly love.
All the blackbirds in Oxford seem to have their free breakfast-table here, and they have grown so bold that they will return to it again and again as I teasingly walk up and down in front of it, merely flying to a neighbouring tree when I scrutinize them too closely in search of a lingering Ring-ousel. Who ever heard of a flock of blackbirds?
Here, however, in November, , was a sight to be seen, which might possibly throw some light on the process of developing gregarious habits. Rooks, Starlings, Jackdaws, and Sparrows, which abound here and everywhere else in 32 Oxford, every one can observe for themselves, and of Sparrows I shall have something to say in the next chapter; but let me remind my young readers that every bird is worth noticing, whether it be the rarest or the commonest.
But I tell her that it was a strictly accurate scientific observation; and I only wish that I had followed it up with others equally unimpeachable. But more out-of-the-way birds will sometimes come to Oxford, and I have seen a Kestrel trying to hover in a high wind over Christchurch Meadow, and a Heron sitting on the old gatepost in the middle of the field.
Herons are often to be seen by the river-bank in Port Meadow; and it was here, some years ago, that Mr. Arnold, of University College, was witness of an extraordinary attack made by a party of three on some small birds. Port Meadow constantly entices 33 sea-birds when it is under water, or when the water is receding and leaving that horrible slime which is so unpleasant to the nose of man; and in fact there is hardly a wader or a scratcher to use Mr.
Sometimes they come on migration, sometimes they are driven by stress of weather.
A YEAR WITH THE BIRDS.
During the spring and early summer of , our visitors from the sea-coast were constant and numerous. Even the beautiful and graceful little Tern Sterna Minuta 34 more than once found his way here; and on the second occasion saved his own life by the confidence which he seemed to repose in man. Specimens of almost all such birds are to be seen in the bird-cases of the Museum, and occasionally they may be seen in the flesh in the Market.
Both Market and Museum will give plenty to do on a rainy day in winter:—. All the birds mentioned in the last chapter are residents in Oxford, in greater or less numbers according to the season, except the Fieldfares 36 and Redwings, the Grey Wagtail, and the rarer visitors: and of these the Fieldfares and Redwings are the only true winter birds. They come from the north and east in September and October, and depart again in March and April. When we begin our Summer Term not one is to be seen. They do not however leave the country districts till later.
There they assemble together in immense flocks, showing all the restlessness and excitement of the smaller birds that leave us in the autumn; suddenly the whole mass rises and departs like a cloud. Accounts are always forthcoming of the departure of summer migrants, and especially of the Swallows and Martins, and there are few who 37 have not seen these as they collect on the sunny side of the house-roof, or bead the parapet of the Radcliffe building, before they make up their minds to the journey.
But few have seen the Fieldfares and Redwings under the same conditions, and I find no account of their migration, or at least of what actually happens when they go, in any book within my reach as I write.
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