The Bird Watcher in the Shetlands/Chapter XXII

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CHAPTER XXII

CHILDREN OF THE MISTS

IT was to-day that I saw that pursuit by an Arctic skua of a rock-pipit to which I have before alluded. It was over the heath, though near the cliffs. As to the rock-pipit never leaving the seashore (as I find stated), or any other bird or animal never varying its usual habits, that is a proposition which I will never accept, it being altogether against my experience. The skua pursued for some time, with murder, I thought, printed upon every feather of him; but the pipit was too quick, and by turning and doubling in a space proportionate to his own small size, eluded every sweep of the enemy, who, at last, gave up. It would appear, therefore, that this smaller skua preys on small things, for one cannot suppose him sinking so low as to rob a rock-pipit—who, besides, carried nothing that I could see. Possibly, however, the chase was for mere amusement.

These skuas bathe every day, and at all times of it, in the two little meres, or pools rather, amidst the heather, not far from the hut. Sometimes there are a dozen or more together, of all shades of coloration, and generally it is a social gathering. They seem very exclusive, for I have never seen a gull bathing in the same pool with them. This, however, is nothing, as gulls do not breed on this part of the ness, and but seldom fly over it, being chased by the skuas when they do. Elsewhere I have seen them both bathing at the same time; but always, I think, a little apart. I never remember to have seen the great skua bathing; but then there is no special pool in his territory, and partly for reasons given, and also because of the hilly and bumpy character of the ground, it is difficult to watch him. I have done my best, however, and most of what I have to say about him I have said in Bird Watching; but it does not amount to very much.

These Arctic skuas bathe together very prettily. They sit high and light on the water, duck their heads under it, and throw it over them with their wings. Between their ablutions they often sport in the air, swooping at and chasing one another. Their motions are such as one might imagine those of elemental spirits to be, and their wild cry adds to this imaginary resemblance. Oh, that cry, that wild, wild cry, that music of the winds, the clouds, the drifting rain and mist—like them, free as them, voicing their freedom, making their spirit articulate! Who can describe it, or put down into poor, paltry syllables the glory that lives in it? Let none try. Let no clumsy imitation disfigure it, but let it live for ever in the memory of him who has sat on the great ness-side, on the dividing-line of sea and sky, and heard it pealing so clearly, so cheerly, so gladly wild, so wildly, madly glad. So let it come to him again in his own soul's music, scudding with the clouds, driving with the driving mists, ringing out like "the wild bells to the wild sky." And never let that sky be blue that it rings to, unless in pale, moist patches, drowning amidst watery clouds; and never let there be a sun, to be called one, but only a glint and a gleaming, a storming of stormy light, a wet beam flung on a rain-cloud. Child of the mists, of the grey-eyed and desolate north-land, what hast thou to do with the robes of the vine and the olive? To be brief, I know of no cry, of no voice so exhilarating as that of this poetic bird.

If the guillemot is less poetic, he is still more interesting as a close study—or ar least one can study him more closely. Coming to my ledge again this afternoon, I find both the little chicks reposing beneath the parental wing, as described in the last chapter. It is a misty and mist-rainy day, which may incline them all the more to take shelter, if, indeed, they are open to such influences. But whether they are or not, they are not afraid to come out, and in about ten minutes there is an interesting scene. The partner of one of the two birds that have chicks flies on to the ledge with a fish that looks like a large-sized sardine in his bill. Instantly two or three of the birds standing about begin to utter their curious cry—a kind of shrieking Swiss jodel, ending in barks—till it swells into a full chorus. Full of importance, and with a very paternal look, the new-comer bustles up to wife and child, and the latter, emerging with great vivacity, receives the fish and gulps it down whole, showing in the process such a receptive power as I have hardly seen excelled, even in a snake. He looks like a little bag that the fish goes comfortably into, and that with a little swelling might hold another, but hardly more. After this there is a matrimonial greeting scene between the two parents. They make little playful tilts at each other with their stiletto-like bills, and both utter the curious yapping note with which the jodel commonly ends. With this the effusion is over, and things settle down into their old course. The chick is now ready to go to sleep again, and, with the fish inside him, toddles to his mother, and pecks at, or, rather, rams with his bill, amongst just those feathers that make his accustomed awning. She, however, is not yet ready for him. She is preening herself, and for a few minutes she keeps her wing close. After that he is admitted, and the two repose in the accustomed way. In about a quarter of an hour the chick is out again, and this time goes a little farther afield than usual. He is alone comparatively—about a foot from the sheltering wing—when all at once the other parent—the father—opening his bill, and jodel-ing, comes walking up to him, bends his head over him, jodel-ing still, then tenderly probes and preens him with the point of his bill. He acknowledges this by burrowing into his new guardian's side, upon which the paternal wing opens and closes upon him. It does not, however, seem to go so well as it did just before with his mother, and in a little while he comes out and goes over to her again. She meets him, jodels over him a little, and soon they are lying close pressed together, as before.

I have now to mention that the parent who, up to the present, has taken most charge of the chick, and which I have therefore been calling the mother, has the curious narrow white circle, or rather ellipse, round the eye, with a straight line, also white, projecting backwards from the backward corner of it. The other one has no such mark, or rather he has it without the white feathers, for, as I believe is the case with all these birds, the same thing is represented by a depression or groove in the plumage, which is especially noticeable along the backward-running line. If we suppose the white mark to be an adornment gained by sexual selection, what are we to think of the depression which preceded it? Is it sufficiently obvious to be noticed by the birds in each other, and if so, can it be supposed to be pleasing to them? Considering how close together guillemots stand on the ledges, I should think it must be as plain to their observation as a parting down the hair is to ours. Hair-partings are admired by us, and so, too, are gashes on the face, even in intellectual Germany. But though the mark may not represent any special sexual adornment, the white colour which so powerfully emphasises it may, and this, perhaps, has come about owing to the nipping in of the feathers, along the line of depression, having stopped the flow of the colouring pigment.

The little chick, now, pushing, as it seems, against his mother, stretches his legs straight out behind him on the rock, and lies like this for a few seconds, as we sometimes see a cat or a dog do. Then he comes out, preens himself, and voids his excrement, and I cannot but record—for indeed it was very funny—that this hits exactly in the eye, and over the face generally, another guillemot standing about two feet from him on the edge of the ledge. The poor bird thus distinguished stands with a comical look, and for some while shakes its head very vigorously. Later, when it comes somewhat near to the chick, the latter's mother utters the jodel in a warning tone of voice, seeming to say, "Thus far, but no farther." The chick, having preened itself a little, goes again to its mother, and is received this time beneath her other wing, which is the farther one. I look down upon them now a little more perpendicularly, so that he seems almost to have disappeared altogether.

It is really wonderful—and the incident just given illustrates it—what a power all these sea-birds have of ejecting their excrement to a distance. Not only is it propelled with great force forwards, but also upwards, so that its course is crescentic; and in this, perhaps, we may look back to a time when the guillemot and fulmar petrel made nests, for it is by this arrangement that the nest of the shag is kept clean whilst the rock all about it is coated with excrement. I mention the fulmar petrel as well as the guillemot, because, whatever may be the case elsewhere, here these birds lay on the bare rock without a shadow of a nest.

I remark now what in my slaughterous days I remember noticing, without attaching any meaning to it, viz. that there is a particular line or scroll or outswelling of feathers on each side of the guillemot's body, all along the lower breast and ventral surface. They are longer than the close feathers in front, and begin to be flecked with grey. It is just into this zone of deeper plumage that the young guillemot insinuates itself when wishing to go "seepy-by." Also, when the old bird flaps its wings I seem to notice a little depression or alcove just underneath them—the chick's cradle, boudoir, or dormitory, as I am inclined to think—like a sleeping-bunk in the wall of a Highland cottage. Similar depressions I thought I saw once on the back of the dabchick, when I watched her domestic arrangements; but I will not be sure in either case.

Once again the chick comes out and walks to a little way from its mother. Having preened itself, it goes back to her, and then flaps its little wings. The quill feathers are growing and look just about an inch long. They are a good deal separated from one another, and have a very feeble appearance. Still, they might serve to make a fall a long fall, which is all that would be required of them to take their owner to the sea. The preening over, the chick, with considerable insistence, burrows once more under its mother's wing, and I now leave, it being all mist and raining into mist. I had meant to see the fulmar petrels again before returning, but by the time I get to the top of the path leading down to them it is nearly six, the drizzle increasing, and the mist on the hills thickening. The hut stands sufficiently high for it to be always enshrouded when a mist comes on, and it may then be difficult to strike. However, from the round house where the signals are shown, each morning, to the lighthouse on the great stack opposite, by a man who walks up from the village at the foot of the ness, there winds a foot-track with posts stuck at long intervals beside it. When one gets near to the fifth post one should see the hut if the mist is not very thick, and even if it is, one has then a good chance of striking it. The signal-house, or rather shed, one may strike by going constantly upwards till the highest point is reached; but it is possible to miss it, and also the track between post and post. As the gulls and the two kinds of skuas have each their separate breeding-place upon the ness—thus, as it were, mapping it out—they, too, are of some assistance in finding one's way. Still, the possibility of a night out at the end of any day is not a pleasant thing to think of, and I am always very glad when I see the hut through the mists, and still gladder when there are no mists to see it through.

It seems wonderful that any corner of the United Kingdom can hold a summer like this—little as I mistake the United Kingdom for paradise. It is like a bad November in England, but with more of the spirit of youth and freshness in it; always thought that the wind is perpetual and multiplied by about a hundred. I am told this summer is unprecedented, even in the Shetlands, but bad weather precedents are seldom remembered by the seasoned inhabitants of a place. I, as a visitor, can remember the June and July of two years ago, and "if it was not Bran, it was Bran's brother," as the Highlanders say.

I forgot to mention that whilst watching the guillemots on the ledges, one of them flew down into the sea, just below, which was like a great, clear basin, and thus gave me the first opportunity I have yet had of seeing a guillemot under water. It progressed, like the razorbill and puffin, by repeated strokes of its wings, which were not, however, outspread as in flight, but held as they are when closed, parallel, that is to say, roughly speaking, with the sides, from which they were moved outwards, and then back, with a flap-like motion, as though attached to them all along. Thus the flight through the water is managed in a very different way from the flight through the air.

The descent to these guillemot ledges—for they represent the first only, and lowest, of the up-piled strata of which the entire precipice is formed—seems to me, who am no particular cragsman, to get worse every day. There are parts of it which I very much dislike—a green edge, and not much of it, above a well-nigh precipitous slope of the same lush grass, starred, here and there, with points of rock, and ending in nothing—sheer vacuity. How one would fly down this, and then over!—but not like a guillemot. It is horrid to think of, and the little painted puffins seem waiting to see it take place—grouped as they are on every rock and all over the green spongy turf, honeycombed everywhere with their breeding-holes—a vast amphitheatre of impassive spectators. Lower down, when it gets to the rock, it seems safer, but I doubt if it really is. The path then leads over a great jagged spur of the precipice, made up of its down-tumblings from the heights above, which are piled very loose, so that the blocks are sometimes hardly held together by the soil between them, this having been formed entirely out of their own crumblings and disintegration. I was appalled, the other day, by displacing a huge one just above me, which I had been going to climb up. It looked as firm as it was massive, and I have been very careful since. That boulder, which, had it really fallen, would have brought down an avalanche with it, has a nasty look to me now, and I have to pass it each time, descending and returning, the whole path being a razor's edge, though the mere climbing is easy enough.

As I halted and looked back, this afternoon, in the midst of my ascent, I was struck by the figure of a shag, or smaller cormorant, standing in the exact centre of the highest ridge of one of those great isolated piles of rock that the sea has cut off from their parent precipice, and which are called here "stacks." It had the wings spread out, after its fashion, and looked thus, and in its "pride of place," absurdly like the heraldic eagle of some cock-crowing nationality or other: American, Austrian, Russian, or any of them—for they all crow and will all, one day, "yield the crow a pudding."

What month in the year was it that King Lear was turned out into the storm? This is August, but what a night! I can see no farther than a few paces outside the hut. All is mist, with spit-fire storms of rain, and a wind that seems as though it would blow the ness into the sea. "A brave night to cool a courtesan in," and so it was, last night; nor did it greatly differ the night before.

The wind is not so pleasant to hear at night-time here as it is in England. I cannot lie and listen to it with the same feelings. It has not the same poetry, for there are no trees for it to sigh and moan through, and therefore it cannot produce those sad, weird, mysterious sounds which appeal so powerfully to the imagination. Instead, it strikes the hut with sudden bangs and blows which upset one's nerves and have an irritating effect upon one. There is noise, racket, and bluster, but no mystery, no haunting mournfulness. It plays no "eolian harps amongst the trees." No, the wind here is "the fierce Kabibonokka" that—

"Shouted down into the smoke-flue,
Shook the lodge-poles in his fury,
Flapped the curtain of the doorway,"

but not the wind that one knows so well in England and hears for ever in those lines of Maud

"And out he walked when the wind like a broken worldling wailed,
And the flying gold of the ruined woodlands flew through the air."

There can never be a wind like that here, where there are no leaves when "summer woods are leafy" and no trees "when winter storms sing i' the tree."

Plague take the wind! It is like a bombardment.