The Bird Watcher in the Shetlands/Chapter XXV

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WHEN I saw eider-ducks eating seaweed off the coast of my island I was aware that they were doing something which they had no business to be doing; for it is stated in works of authority that they are purely animal feeders. I have had misgivings, therefore, ever since making the observation, but now, having seen a black guillemot also eating a piece of this same brown seaweed, I feel more comfortable about it, for surely this bird should be as exclusively a fish-eater as the eider-duck is supposed to be a devourer of shell-fish, crustaceans, etc. It was certainly, I think, a piece of this seaweed—short, brown, bunchy, and covered with little lobes—that this particular bird had in its bill. Through the glasses I could see it distinctly, and most distinctly it swallowed it. I doubt myself if there is any bird that feeds exclusively on anything, or that is absolutely confined to an animal or vegetable diet. They seem ever ready to enlarge their experience according to their opportunities of doing so, thus illustrating one of Darwin's most pregnant remarks.

When this "tysty" dived it presented a beautiful appearance under the water, owing to the snow-white patches on its wing-coverts, which flashed out distinguishably for some time. Besides this—whether or not this had anything to do with it—it became all at once of a lovely glaucous green colour, luminous, and with bubbles flashing about it. Gradually the form became lost, but the luminous green was never lost, and after becoming dimmer and dimmer began to get brighter and brighter again, till the bird reappeared out of it on the surface at some distance off. It seems just possible that this effect may be due in some measure to the white patches, since when the shag dives nothing of the sort, or, at any rate, nothing so marked, is to be seen, nor do I remember noticing it either in the guillemot, razorbill, or puffin, which are all dark above and only white underneath. On second thoughts, however, the colouring can have little or nothing to do with it, since the effect is very marked in the eider-duck of both sexes, and the female is uniformly dark. But how is the effect produced? by the clinging of innumerable small air-bubbles to the bird's plumage? If so, they may not cling equally to that of all species. The seal presented the finest appearance of all, but his size may perhaps have had something to do with this. Whatever may be the cause, I do not remember to have remarked the same thing in river-birds when diving. It is more difficult, indeed, to follow them under water when they dive, on account of the absence of cliffs to look down from. Still, one sees them sometimes, and, as I say, I do not remember noticing this luminous effect, so that it must be, at any rate, much less striking. I have seen the same thing with a shark at sea.

This morning the ravens again flew over the ness, going the other way, however, and I only saw three of them. As before, it was the skuas who informed me of this, but, in spite of their shrieking, they did not seem to meddle much with the grim, black birds. Though there is an impressiveness about the raven's whole appearance which, with the knowledge of what it is, sets the imagination working, yet there is nothing majestic in its actual flight, and these three, with their measured, laboured flappings, offer a clumsy contrast to the arrow-like grace of the skuas.

The chick is still upon the ledge, so I have still a chance of seeing him leave it; but even with two plaids, on one of which I lie and in the other wrap myself, like an embalmed mummy, it is cold work waiting—and still more when one has the lumbago. I was awakened early this morning by nasty pains, more right on the hip—the very bone of it—than in the true lumbagoey region; but it plays right lumbago music—"'tis enough, 'twill serve." This comes of lying on the rocks for six hours at a time in a Shetland summer. I was a fool, I think, to come here; but is there any one who is not, either in thinking or acting at any time ici bas?

When we are born we cry that we are come
To this great stage of fools.

Now I have the lumbago, with very little for it, and had I not come here I should be regretting the loss of ten times as much as I have found, with no thought of the lumbago thereby avoided. Thus each way would have had its own particular foolery; and which way has not? Does not this apply to much greater matters, and often where there might seem to be no doubt as to where the foolery lay? The way of sin, for instance, that leads to remorse, has always been thought a foolish way, and that of virtue and clear conscience a wise one. Nevertheless, he who goes the first gains such knowledge by experience as can never be acquired in any other way, and is therefore to this extent the superior of the other unless he has already gained it, either in a life before this or in some other manner. If he has not, it seems probable that he will have to do so at one time or another, by the laws of development—assuming that personal life and personal development survive the thing called death. Who, then, if we make these assumptions, stands the better off, he who has learnt a great truth through his sinning, or he who, often owing to circumstances merely, has neither the sin nor the truth? Quite possibly, as it seems to me, the former; for what do we really know except through our own actual experience? What a dream must this life soon become to us if we are born, through death, into another one widely different fom it! and seeing what death does to this body of ours, how can it be other than widely different? If, therefore, we could pass from life to life, or rather from stage to stage of life, keeping the knowledge gained in each to help us in the next, such knowledge, however bitterly, or, as we call it, evilly gained, would be really all in all good. The gain would be eternal and the pain transient as well as necessary. We may suppose, too, that it would become an ever-lessening quantity, as "John Brown went marching on." But somewhere and somehow all deep, essential knowledge—as the knowledge of good and evil—must, I believe, be individually gained if the individual is to advance. Innocence, though so highly recommended, is really a very trumpery thing.

That the path of individual advance should be through evil to good seems, in itself, likely, since it has been that of the race, and, moreover, what other can be imagined? Perhaps, however, it should rather be said to be through ignorance to knowledge. Evil is a misleading word. We speak of it as though it were something fixed and unchangeable, whereas there is no thing, however evil it may be in one set of circumstances, that may not be good in another. Murder, for instance, is good amongst bees, and sometimes also—so statesmen who make wars must think—amongst ourselves. Knowledge of good and evil consequently is knowledge of conditions; and how can one learn the conditions of anything better than by acting in disaccord with them? Putting aside, therefore, the question of inherited experience—another perplexing element in this perplexing problem—is it not possible that sometimes, at any rate, a sinner may be in a state of advance whilst a virtuous person is stagnating merely, or that the former at any rate—for most virtuous persons sin pettily—may be advancing more quickly than the latter? I feel sure of it myself. "My dukedom," however (if I had one), "to a beggarly denier," that said virtuous person would think very differently—which makes him, perchance, just a little more but one of the "fools" on "this great stage," where there are so many.

It might well be argued, I think—at any rate, I have seen many such arguments—that Shakespeare, in the lines I have quoted, intended to convey all this, in which case I have his great authority to shelter under. Goethe, however—at least, I am told so—supports me, if not more plainly, yet more categorically. He thought—or somebody, perhaps Eckermann, thought he thought—that we became good by sinning out our evil, and that evil still in us, in the shape of desire, was like prurient matter which ought to be discharged, and, at some time, would have to be, to the consequent benefit of the constitution. Given, as I say, a continuance of life and advance—I cannot, for myself, imagine the one without the other—there seems to me much force in this doctrine, and I commend it—as that sort of physic which Lady Macbeth so much needed—to the members of any cabinet that has made any war, and to politicians and millionaires generally, and to South African millionaires in particular.

All this must be the effect of lumbago, which is the effect of the Shetlands; but let me shake it off. The chick has been fed once, but I was taken by surprise, and almost missed it. Now, at only a quarter of an hour's interval, he is fed again, and over this there is quite an interesting little scene. The chick, when a very substantial fish is brought in for him, is asleep under his mother's wing, and both parents seem averse to disturbing him. The plain one with the fish seems quite embarrassed. He approaches, stands still, looks at his partner as if for advice, shuffles about, turns this way and that, and several times, bending his head, gives a choked and muffled jodel, for his mouth is almost too full to speak. Still the chick sleeps on and still the parents seem to doubt the advisability of waking him. At length, however, they admit it to be necessary. The father shuffles up into his usual position, the mother rises by slow and reluctant stages, as though apologetically, and finally stirs the chick several times with her bill till at last he rouses. Then, in a moment, he brisks up, and, seizing the large fish, swallows it in one good whole-hearted gulp. Perhaps there may have been a second, but it was a weak one if there was, and hardly necessary. It was more like the grace after the meal, that can very well be dispensed with. Instantly then the father, having done his business, flies off, the mother sinks down, and the chick, retiring with the taste of the fish still in his mouth, there is peace on the ledge again. The eye of the guillemot is very bright, and seems to beam with intelligence. No bird, I believe, ever looked more intelligent, albeit embarrassed, than the one just gone as he stood with the fish in his bill waiting for the chick to wake up. He, it will be remembered, was the plain bird; and such are very greatly in the majority. The white mark round the eye impairs this look of intelligence. It is lost in strangeness, and the bird so adorned has something the appearance of one of those queer kind of demons that one sees in Japanese drawings. The eye itself is black.

The chick, therefore, has had two good fish—one a particularly large one—within twenty minutes. There is now an interval of near three hours, and then the father flies in again with yet another fish—a very long sand-eel it looks like, even bigger than the last—and the chick seizing it as it is let drop, before it touches the ledge, it disappears by a process which looks like magic. They are like little bag-purses, these guillemot chicks, and when they are full of money—i.e. fishes—it is difficult to think that there is room for anything more inside them—anatomy seems out of the question. Just before this, this particular one has lain in the queerest way under his mother's wing, flat upon the rock, with his legs stretched straight out behind him as one sometimes sees dogs lie. He has lain like this several times altogether, but never for long at a time. Now, after his surfeit, he has retired again. By the way, the inside of the little chick's mouth is pinky-flesh-coloured merely, whereas that of the old bird is of a fine lemon. Why should we, in so many species, find this difference in coloration between young and old in such a region —the mature tint being, in all of them, so vivid and so often exposed—unless sexual selection has been the operating cause? We would not, I suppose, find a corresponding difference in the colour of the internal organs, according to the age of the bird.

The mother guillemot, now, for the first time whilst I have been here, utters that guttural, yet sharp "ik, ik, ik," note, which, two years ago, in June and early July, was the only one I ever heard on the ledge I watched so closely. When another fish is brought in there is some more of it, mixed with the jodel-ing; so that it seems now to be becoming more frequent. But never have I been able to make out with anything like clearness that the chick has uttered any note at all. No undoubted sound from it has reached me. The time before last that it was fed, however, I thought I heard a sharp little cry, but it was impossible to be sure whether this was from the chick or some of the thronging and clamouring kittiwakes perched and flying all about. In any case, it was nothing particular.

On the ledge, where there were fifteen birds yesterday, there are now only eight; on my ledge, which from here I see in its entirety, only the mother and chick, another bird—not the father—having just flown off. On all the others together I make out only thirty-six. I see but one other chick, but a bird is sitting as if she might have one under her. Nothing can be plainer than that the old birds have stayed behind on the ledges after the young ones have left them, though whether the latter went by themselves or were conducted by their parents, who afterwards returned, I cannot tell. As the ledges, when I first came, were thick with guillemots, and as both sexes were represented, there being still a considerable amount of coquetry and dalliance, carried sometimes to an extreme length, there is no room for the hypothesis that the great majority had gone with their chicks, leaving only a few, who, for some reason, had not reared one. Had I got here to-day only I might have thought this, but, as it is, I should rather think that, full as the ledges were on my arrival, they were fuller still a few days earlier, and that the proportion of chicks was not much greater. The statement, therefore, which is made in works of authority, that, at the end of the breeding season, the young and old guillemots go off together for good, seems not to be in accordance with the facts of the case. Certainly it does not apply to the state of things here, in this particular year.

The chick is again stretched out quite flat on the rock with its legs behind it, looking most funny. Well, funny as you are, I must leave you for a little, for I've the cramp, as well as lumbago, so

I am gone, sir, and anon, sir,
I will be with you again.

And I am back at about seven, and find my little Sir still on the ledge, clasped by his mother's wing. I almost expected he would be gone, but have still a chance now to see the flight down—if it should not take place in the night—a parlous fear. I was away for some four hours, and during this time had a splendid sight of seals. Quite near to where I watch the guillemots there is a little iron-bound creek or cove, walled by the precipice, guarded by mighty "stacks," and divided for some way into two by a long rocky peninsula running out from the shore. On the rocks in one of these alcoves were lying eight seals, which were afterwards joined by another, making nine, whilst in the adjoining one were four—also, as it happened, joined by another whilst I watched—making fourteen in all: such a sight as I had never seen before, except something like it as the steamboat passed a small rocky islet on my way to Gutcher. Here lay, indeed, some nine or ten seals; but oh, the difference in the conditions! The horrid, vulgar steamboat, with the whistle blowing to frighten them; the men, the women, the remarks—a stick pointed gunwise—oh, dear! Oh, the difference, the difference! They were soon all in the water and, with their little oasis, left far behind. The sooner the better. Worse than "crabbed age and youth" "together" is wild nature seen from amidst vulgar surroundings, in vulgar company—like a drive through paradise with the Eltons "in the barouche-landau." But here—ah, here it is different. Not one human being save myself (and one excuses oneself), no tiresome prosaic figure—"godlike erect"—to break the sky-line above the mighty towering precipice that rises just behind this dark, still, frowning bay. I can gloat on what I see here.

I watched these seals of mine on this, my first meeting with them, for a considerable time from the top of the cliffs—the glasses giving me a splendid view—and soon knew more about them than I had before, and got rid of some popular errors. For instance, I had always imagined that seals had one set attitude for lying on the rocks—viz. flat on their bellies—a delusion which every picture of them in this connection had helped to foster. Imagine my surprise and delight when it burst upon me that only some three or four were in this attitude, and that even these did not retain it for long. No; instead of being in this state of uninteresting orthodoxy, they lay in the most delightful free-thinking poses, on their sides, or much more than on their sides, showing their fine portly columnar bellies in varying degrees and proportions, whilst one utter infidel was right and full upon his broad back—yet looked like the carved image of some old crusader on the lid of his stone sarcophagus. Then every now and again they would give themselves a hitch, and bring their heads up, showing their fine round foreheads and large mild eyes; a very human—mildly human—and extremely intelligent appearance they had, looking down upon them from above. Again, they had the oddest or oddest-appearing actions, especially that of pressing their two hind feet or flippers together, with all their five webbed toes spread out in a fan, with an energy and in a manner which suggested the fervent clasping of hands. Then they would scratch themselves with their fore feet lazily and sedately, raising their heads the while, looking extremely happy, having sometimes even a beatific expression. And then again they would curl themselves a little and roll more over, seeming to expatiate and almost lose themselves in large luxurious ease—more variety and expression about them lying thus dozing than one will see in many animals awake and active.

Even in this little time I learnt that they were animals of a finely touched spirit, extremely playful, with a grand sense of humour and—once again—filled "from the crown to the toe, top-full" of happiness. Thus one that came swimming up the little quiet bay, in quest of a rock to lie upon, seemed to delight in pretending to find first one and then another too steep and difficult to get up on to (for obviously they were not) and would fling himself off from them in a sort of little sham disappointment, gambolling and rolling about, twisting himself up with seaweed, and, generally, having a most lively solitary romp. A piece of bleached spar, some four or five feet long, happened—and I am glad that it happened—to be floating in the water at quite the other side of the creek, and, espying it, this delightful animal swam over to it and began to play with it as a kitten might with a reel of cotton or a ball of worsted. More frolicsome, kitten-hearted, and withal intelligent play I never saw. He passed just underneath it, and, coming up on the opposite side, rolled over upon it, cuffed it with one fore-foot, again with the other, flipped it, then, with his footy tail as he dived away, and returning, in a fresh burst of rompiness, waltzed round and round with it, embracing it one might almost say. At last, going off, he swam to a much steeper rock than any he had made believe to find so difficult, and, scrambling up it with uncouth ease, went quietly to sleep in the best possible humour.

What intelligence all this shows! Much more, I think, than the sporting of two animals together. This seal was alone, saw the spar floating at a distance, and swam to it with the evident intention of amusing himself in this manner. That spar may be a piece of a shipwreck, may have floated out of the crash and confusion of human agony, hands may have grasped it, arms clung around it, to be washed off, stiffened in death. Now, in these silent dream-pools of the sea's oblivion, it is played with by a happy animal. And of all those influences that cling about a thing life-touched, and tell their several tales to the clairvoyant, I would choose to feel and breathe this last.

Later, another seal played with this same spar in much the same way; yet both of them seemed to be

quite full-grown animals. Then I saw something which looked like a spirit of real humour, as well as fun. Three seals were lying on a slab of rock together, and one of them, raising himself half up, began to scratch the one next him with his fore-foot. The scratched seal—a lady, I believe—took it in the
A Seal's Plaything.jpg


most funny manner—a sort of serio-comic remonstrance, shown in action and expression. "Now do leave off, really. Come now, do leave me alone"—and when this had reached a climax the funny fellow left off and lay still again; but as soon as all was quiet, he heaved up and began to scratch her again. This he did—and she did the other—three times, at the least, and if not to have a little fun with her I can hardly see why.

On my last return from the guillemots, the tide was rising, and most of the rocks where the seals had been lying were covered. I was in time, however, to see one—an immense parti-coloured seal—gradually floated off. He lay upon a great mass of seaweed, and as long as he could stay there, he did; but little by little, as the waves came in, he rose unwillingly, seeming to cling to it to the last. Whether he really did grasp the seaweed with his hind feet, and stay, thus anchored, as long as he possibly could, I cannot say; but certainly, for a good many minutes, and keeping in much the same place, he stood, or rather floated, perpendicularly in the water, even including his head, so that his nose, which projected just a little above the surface, pointed straight up into the air. This was, at once, seen to be the case when he brought it down and stood with head in the usual position, as he did at intervals. Finally, he rolled slowly over and sought the depths in a vanishing blue streak. Another seal clung, in like manner, to the smooth rock he was on, letting the rising waves wash him about till at last he swam off.