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The Parents' Review

A Monthly Magazine of Home-Training and Culture

Edited by Charlotte Mason.

"Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life."
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Sea-Birds

by S. Hirtzel.
Volume 14, 1903, pgs. 221-225


A bitter east wind was blowing "great guns," and I stood on the long-break water, all "wimbly" with the cold, yet those gulls were bathing. Yes, actually indulging in a cold tub, and seemingly enjoying the process. There were half-a-dozen black headed gulls and a few big grey-backed gulls in the pool made by a sand-bank, into which every seventh wave or so came swishing, filling it with foam. The black-caps were the most vigorous bathers; indeed, they appear to be more lively than the bigger gulls. Amongst the group of birds on the beach were several of a darker hue, and, at first, I thought they belonged to another species altogether. But after watching them for some time I found them to be young gulls of the year—one a black-cap and the others grey-backs. They were quite a dark brown colour, and had a mottled appearance in the distance, owing to the stripping of the feathers. The beak was a dirty yellow (colour) with black markings. Somehow they looked bigger than the old birds; perhaps their colouring had something to do with it.

The black-cap gull at this time of the year belies its name, for its head is snowy white. The feathers undergo some peculiar change as the winter approaches. This change is not the same as the ordinary autumn moult, but takes place in the pigment cells. The colouring of this gull in winter is almost exactly the same as that of the big grey-backed gull, with the exception of two crescent-shaped black patches behind the eye, which give the bird quite a peculiar appearance. Its legs are also slender and blood-red as is the beak, while the bigger gull has pale orange-coloured legs and beak. As I stood on the break-water, the birds rose in the air and took their stand over the stream which enters the sea at this point. I say, took their stand, for that is exactly what they seemed to do. They appear to have the power of remaining poised in one place, and to tread air as they do so often tread the water. Their feet are not drawn up as with land-birds, but are carried stretched under the tail, and are occasionally used like an oar. Their mode of rising from the ground is rather peculiar; instead of using the crouch and spring action of a land-bird, they take three or four big strides with the wings uplifted, and then, with a vigorous take-off of the left foot spring into the air like a man jumping sideways over a bar.

These gulls do not swim much, except in very calm weather, but are generally seen just skimming the water with wings outspread and feet treading water. They are not dainty feeders, indeed you generally find them hovering over a stream into which the rubbish of a town is poured, or crowding round the spot where the scavenger dumps his cart, lifting dainty feet, and looking strangely out of place like little white sepulchres.

It is only in the winter that the black-cap frequents the shore; in summer he goes inland or to the estuaries along the coast. Most sea-birds are voracious feeders, like their foster-mother the all-devouring sea, and, like her, they are unceasingly on the move. I saw a pretty sight one day. Walking down to the cliffs, past low-lying meadows, whose high thorn hedges make a shelter from the wind, we came across a flock of sea-gulls sitting on the grass. There was an off-shore breeze newly sprung up, which was beginning to break up a wall of fog, day-long on the sea. The gulls, disturbed, rose in the air all silent, till they caught the lift of the wind, the "sho-ooo" down they sailed with still, outspread wings and the joy of a small boy on a toboggan, right into the mist-curtain and out of sight, leaving a picture as haunting as that of the Gowbarrow Park daffodils.

Often as we go down to the sea we stop to watch the gulls as they follow the plough, and very handsome they look against the "good red earth," which, by the way, is blackish yellow in this eastern county. The gull haunts the plough as the robin haunts the gardener's spade and with the same object in view—worms.

More graceful than the gull with many of the same characteristics is the dainty tern with his slender flashing wings and black bonnet, fitly named "in the vulgar tongue" the sea-swallow. Seen on the wing he is like a tiny wind driven grey and white cloud come down to touch Mother-earth at the gathering together of the waters.

At Blakeney, in Norfolk, you may see hundreds of these birds in the brooding season, for it is one of their chosen havens. Not much of a haven now, poor birds, haunted as it is the "collector." If they would only collect stones (there are plenty on the pebble ridge), or buttons, or even taxes instead of birds' corpses and eggs! In spite of many enemies, however, the tern continues to visit Blakeney and to scrape holes above high-water mark for her eggs. She makes no nest, but just deposits them in a little hollow, and they are so cunningly coloured that a Philistine has hard work to discover them. The birds leave their eggs a good deal in hot weather, sitting on them at night and when it is chilly. If you go near the terns' breeding-ground, you are at once made aware that your presence is undesirable, for the parents fly round overhead and scream at you just as a green plover does.

At Blakeney, too, you may see the shore-haunting snipe and his many relations—sanderlings, greenshanks, oystercatchers, &c. In fact almost any bird which is classed as "rare" or a "straggler" may haply come to this part of the East coast. It is as favourite a halting-place for migratory birds, as is Waterloo or Victoria station for migratory human beings. Many a rare sea-bird has come to Blakeney marshes, to be wiped of the face of the earth by the gun of some rabid "collector." It is a melancholy task to walk through some of our big museums and to read the tickets on the bird cases. Here is a treasure—a great auk or gare-fowl, stuffed, with this device attached—"now extinct." The strange creature, so agile in the water, yet so helpless and floppy out of its element, which fell such an easy prey on land, where cold-blooded sailor men did their utmost to exterminate him and unhappily succeeded. Strange stories are told of the last gare-fowl living in a cave or on a deserted island, lonely, aged, and disreputable.

Just opposite the great auk, in a big case, is the albatross, his enormous wigs outstretched as if in protest at the indignity thrust upon him. Like a huge gander, with wings that measure nearly fourteen feet from tip to tip, he must indeed be a welcome sight far out at sea, no land within many miles, swinging over the grey water, tireless, friendly. No wonder the Ancient Mariner was devoured by remorse after his foolish murder. Who but a very young or very idle salt would have destroyed the friendly "Sheep of the Cape"? In spite of his mild disposition, however, the gulls don't like him. Like the cuckoo, or a bedayed owl, he is often pursued by small sea-birds which torment him so that he is obliged to drop into the water and make a fight for it.

One of the most interesting of our sea-birds is the cormorant or cormorant. He is very much like his relation, the untidy pelican, out of the water—in build, that is; but in the water no living creature could be more graceful and agile than this bird with an ugly name. Lithe, swift as a streak of greased lightning, as brilliant as the flashing dragon-fly, he is a sight to be thankful for. Only one other creature have I seen to equal him in the water, and that is another fish-thief, the much abused otter; in fact, when I first saw a cormorant in the water, shooting along with a wake of bubbles behind him, I thought an otter had taken to the sea. This bird sits very low in the water, only showing head and neck and appears rather to shoo along than to swim. The plumage of an adult bird is very handsome. A white collar goes half way round the neck, starting from under the beak and turning behind the eyes. The cheeks are greenish-yellow. The top of the head, neck, breast, and under parts lustrous greenish-black like a rook in full plumage. The feathers of the back and wings are brownish, bordered with the same lustrous tint as the rest of the body. The beak is blackish. The spring plumage is even more beautiful, but this I have not seen. The male bird develops a crest of metallic feathers and tufts of white feathers on the top of the head, neck, and thighs. The cormorant has a peculiarly constructed head and beak to enable him to catch and hold large fish, the muscles of the upper mandible being remarkably strong and attached to an additional bone at the back of the head; the muscles of the lower mandibles are weak which enables the bird to drop it right back in swallowing large fish. The cormorant will sit for hours at a time, drying himself in the sun and panting. He throws his head right back until it touches the wings and squats on a rock, basking like a dog, with the beak slightly open, blowing out the guttural pouch, and sticking out his wet feathers—a most ludicrous sight. The young birds are very ugly, being hatched naked, and having the skin of a purplish-black colour. They are nearly as clever in the water at about six days as their parents. Cormorants are enormous feeders like all sea-birds, and there is a quaint old French rhyme which runs:—

"Le Cormorant est oyseau bieu cognu,
Hantant les eaux tant douces que salces,
C'est luy par qui rivieres sont pillees,
Et des estangs l'annuel revenu."

Like the gulls, the cormorant is not entirely devoted to the sea, frequenting rivers and lakes sometimes quite a distance from the coast. But, like Proctor's Ocean-child, they must come back to the wild water sooner or later.

There is no space to speak of the many other sea-birds which frequent our coasts, not to mention those who do not, and their name is legion. Here is a picture of Allfowlsness from the dear old Water Babies:—

"After a while the birds began to gather at Allfowlsness in thousands and tens of thousands, blackening all the air; swans and brant geese, harlequins and eiders, harolds and garganeys, smews and goosanders, divers and loons, grebes and dovekies, auks and razor-bills, gannets and petrels, skuas and terns, with gulls beyond all naming or numbering; and they paddled and washed and splashed and combed and brushed themselves on the sand till the shore was white with feathers; and they quacked and clucked and gabbled and screamed and chattered and whooped as they talked over matters with their friends, and settled where they were to go and breed that summer, till you might have heard them ten miles off."



Proofread by Leslie Noelani Laurio, December 2008