The Zoologist/4th series, vol 5 (1901)/Issue 719/Notes and Queries

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Notes and Queries  (May, 1901) 
various authors, editor W.L. Distant

Published in The Zoologist, 4th series, vol 5, issue 719, p. 184–190

NOTES AND QUERIES.


AVES.

White Wagtails near Southport.—While walking along a bridle-road within about two hundred yards of the shore on the north side of Southport, on April 20th last, I noticed a pair of White Wagtails (Motacilla alba) running about. Observing their fearlessness of my approach, I sat down on a sand-hill close by, and watched them feeding only a few feet from me. I noticed that one was a female, having much less black on her head than the other. Suddenly a Pied Wagtail appeared, and drove the white ones farther away. At high-water mark (the tide being out) I noticed, within a distance of two or three hundred yards, more than half a dozen White Wagtails scattered about, and concluded that a migration of them was proceeding along the coast.—G. Townsend (Polefield, Prestwich, near Manchester).

[Several instances have been recorded of interbreeding between the White and Pied Wagtails.— Ed.]

The Vibrating Sounds of the Lesser Spotted Woodpecker.—I have been much interested in reading the note by Mr. C.H. New respecting the tapping sound of this species (Dendrocopus minor), (ante, p. 107). It is fairly common in this district, and I have often wondered how such a mysterious noise could be produced by the bird tapping with its bill on a branch or trunk of a tree. In April of last year I was attracted to an orchard on Milton Hill, Wells, by the sound in question. I located the bird in the branches of an apple-tree, which it left, and flew to an oak in an adjoining field. Here exactly the same sound was produced, but the bird left the tree again as soon as I got within a few yards, and flew to an elm growing in a hedge bordering the roadway, on the other side of which is a plantation known as the Coombe. I went down into the road, and watched the bird several minutes before it flew away; here the same sound was produced as from the apple- and oak-trees. I also noticed that whilst it shifted restlessly about the very small branches at the top of the tree the noise did not vary, resembling somewhat in miniature the sound uttered by the Nightjar, or drawing a stick with great rapidity along iron railings. I am inclined to believe the sound is uttered from the bird's throat, and used as a call- or mating-note during nesting-time. I have never to my recollection heard it in autumn or winter, the exceptional sound of which has evoked a remark from Mr. New. If the sound was caused by tapping, would it not be heard at all seasons? Again, it can be heard a considerable distance; but, if a tap, would it not be lost at thirty or forty yards? — Stanley Lewis (Wells, Somerset).

[Seebohm, on the Petchora, relates a different appreciation of this sound. He writes of the " Three-toed Woodpecker" (Picoides tridactylus): "On another occasion we heard the tapping sound of the Woodpecker's beak; a tap, then a slight pause, followed by a rapid succession of taps, and, after a second slight pause, a final tap. I imitated the sound as well as I could with a cartridge on the stock of my gun. The bird immediately flew to a dead larch-trunk close to where we were standing, and perched, its head thrown back, listening, some fifty feet from the ground. In this position it fell to my companion's gun. It was a female" ('The Birds of Siberia,' p. 110).— Ed.]

Glossy Ibis in Durham.—An example of the Glossy Ibis (Plegadis falcinellus) was shot by a farm-servant at Billingham Bottoms, near Stockton-on-Tees, on the 25th of November last. I am informed by a naturalist friend, who has seen the specimen, that it is "apparently an adult, with the beautiful shot-green reflections on the back; unfortunately the sex was not noted." Of other records in the north-eastern counties, I have three for Yorkshire, and one is mentioned by Hancock in Northumberland, on the river Coquet ('Birds of Northumberland and Durham,' p. 130). — T.H. Nelson (The Cliffe, Redcar).

Early Breeding of Wood-Pigeon and Snipe.—Two instances of early breeding of birds in West Suffolk in an unusually cold and backward season seem worth recording. On April 3rd a fully-fledged young Wood-Pigeon fluttered down from a nest in an ivy-covered tree in our grounds; and on April 16th my son found a clutch of four newly-hatched Snipe. The eggs in this nest must have been laid in March.—Julian G. Tuck (Tostock Rectory, Bury St. Edmunds).

Varieties of the Dunlin (Tringa alpina).—The remarks of Mr. Backhouse under the above heading (ante, p. 91) caused me to measure carefully the birds in my collection, as well as some kindly lent me by Mr. N.F. Ticehurst. Although these measurements, to a certain extent, bear out Mr. Backhouse's remarks—viz. that the short-billed form is rather different in its habits to the large-billed form, and is found in different situations, or, if the same locality, under different conditions of weather, &c.—yet, on the other hand, one can hardly take the view that there should be two distinct species so closely allied, having—for, at all events, a great portion of their range—a similar distribution. As far as one can judge, the questions of age and sex may be disregarded, as the sexes are the same size, and, once the young are able to fly, their bills and wings appear to reach their normal adult development. As will be seen on reference to the list of measurements, almost all the specimens were obtained in two localities a few miles apart, namely, between Dungeness and Littlestone in Kent, and at Rye Harbour in Sussex. At Littlestone there are no drains, and the shore is merely a flat stretch of sand and shingle; while at Rye there is a large extent of shore, a river with high banks uncovered at low water, and a small sailing intersected by drains. Of the ten birds from Littlestone, only one is of the small form; and of twelve specimens from Rye, half of them belong to the short-billed race—a result which certainly tends to confirm Mr. Backhouse's remarks. It is unfortunately not noted which of the Rye birds were shot on the shore, and which in the drains, or possibly the results might be of a still more confirmatory character. Of two birds, however, shot on the fjeld near Vadsö, in Norwegian Lapland, one belongs to the large race and one to the small, and these birds were at that time breeding near the same place, and in a precisely similar situation, viz. a wet swamp on the fjeld some two miles from the coast. Mr. Barrington, in his recent work on the Migration of Irish Birds, gives the measurements of the wings of twenty-four examples, showing all variations from 4·87 in. to 3·95 in., neither form preponderating at any particular station. If these forms were in reality distinct races, we should expect to find either (1) that there was a distinct break in the continuity of the measurements, or (2) that their geographical distribution was different—at any rate, during some period of the year. But, as neither of these tests is borne out by the facts, and wherever the species is found both forms occur in fairly equal numbers, they can only be considered as the extremes of a very variable species. It is at the same time interesting to note that the difference in length of the bill is to a certain extent correlated with different habits, and, if one may be permitted to theorise, it seems probable that in this case the bill has influenced the habits, and not vice versâ, as is generally the case.

Large Form.
Bill. Wing.
Dungeness ♂ adult, September 1·46 in. 4·75 in.
Dungeness ♂ young, September 1·22 4·86
Dungeness young September 1·24 4·75
Dungeness young September 1·26 4·74
Dungeness young September 1·26 4·51
Dungeness young September 1·47 4·75
Dungeness young September 1·26 4·5
Dungeness young September 1·22 4·52
Dungeness young September 1·18 4·51 (doubtful)
Rye Harbour young September 1·34 4·75
Dungeness young January 1·24 4·7
Dungeness young September 1·35 4·75
Rye Harbour ♂ young, September 1·37 4·75
Dungeness young September 1·23 4·7
Dungeness young September 1·28 4·25
Boston, Lincolnshire adult, October 1·27 4·37
Vadsö, Norway young June 1·31 4·63
 
Small Form.
Dungeness ♀ young, September 1·2 4·25
Dungeness young January 1·13 4·5
Rye Harbour ♂ adult, January 1·1 4·5
Dungeness young August 1·1 4·15
Dungeness ♂ young, September 1·18 4·5
Dungeness young January ·98 4·5
Dungeness ♀ adult, August 1·12 4·25
Dungeness ♀ young, September 1·09 4·36
Boston, Lincolnshire October 1·14 4·5
Dungeness January 1·12 4·0
Hunstanton, Norfolk ♂ young, January 1·16 4·5
Vadsö, Norway ♂ adult, June 1·12 4·0

J.L. Bonhote (Ditton Hall, Cambridge).

Varieties of the Dunlin.—Seventeen or eighteen years ago the late Mr. Blackett Greenwell, of Alston, gave me the skin of a very small Dunlin, and told me that it was one of the Crossfell race, which I am sufficiently familiar with in life, though I never shot a breeding Dunlin on the fells. I have seen many hundreds of Dunlins on the Solway Firth in the breeding season, and with a good glass examined them at their nests as closely as if I had held them in my hand, but I never met with a bright-coloured Dunlin on the marshes of the Solway Firth. The Solway Firth birds lack the broad dorsal margins of chesnut which exist in the typical "fell" Dunlin, and which are likewise characteristic of the large Dunlin, which Dr. R.B. Sharpe has separated as Pelidna americana (Cat. Birds, vol. xxiv. p. 608). I think that the breeding Dunlins of the Solway Firth would average rather larger than the fell Dunlin. They have longer bills than my Crossfell bird, which is the typical bright-coloured "drain Dunlin" of some east-coast ornithologists. The Dunlins which swarm on the Solway Firth in the latter part of August and September are principally birds of the larger British race, possessed of far shorter bills than the typical American Dunlin, but easily distinguished from our small breeding Dunlins. I can match the Dunlin, which Mr. Greenwell considered to be the typical fell-side Dunlin, with two east-coast birds—one, a male obtained at Great Yarmouth on May 12th, 1875; and the other, a female procured at Greatham on May 28th, 1866. These three agree in having very short bills, and in having the feathers of the upper parts broadly fringed with chesnut, a feature which is not characteristic of the marsh-loving Dunlins of the Solway Firth. Though at one time I had occasion to shoot a good many Dunlins, I never, so far as I can recollect, shot a Dunlin in the breeding season; I therefore, cannot say, that the larger race of Dunlin may not occur with us in nuptial dress; but I have known for many years that the fell-side Dunlins were our smallest and brightest coloured birds, while the birds of the marshes are rather larger, and lack the bright colour of the Dunlins of the fells, being probably intermediate between the birds of our mountainous areas and the larger Dunlin which comes to this country in tens of thousands as an autumn and winter visitor. But as to the smallest race of Dunlin being separated as a valid species, I should certainly vote against any such decision. It would be quite as easy to make several species of the common Goldfinch as of the European Dunlin. There is the greatest difference in size and plumage between the smallest race of Goldfinch found in the Mediterranean sub-region and the very large Goldfinches which are procured in some parts of Russia. But so many intermediate specimens can be found that bridge over the differences between the extreme types, that it is much more satisfactory to recognize the various races as being merely local variations from the original type.—H.A. Macpherson (Pitlochry, N.B.).

Black Tern in Cheshire.—On June 4th last year, when at Budworth Mere, with Mr. P.G. Ralfe, we saw three birds of this species (Hydrochelidon nigra) in breeding plumage. They were very tame, and we had a good opportunity of watching them; they were evidently feeding, as they were beating up the mere against the wind, and from time to time, after a slight check in their flight, would dash on to the water, and again resume their search. They often settled for a short time on the uprights of an old fence which ran into the water.—Frank S. Graves (Alderley Edge).

Black Tern in Cornwall.—A flock of Black Terns (Hydrochelidon nigra) has for some days frequented the Marazion Marsh, which is a considerable stretch of marsh-lands containing one large pool and several smaller ones, about two and a half miles from Penzance. I first observed a pair on Friday, April 19th, and, on visiting the spot on the next day with my brother, Mr. P.G. Harvey, we found from twenty-five to thirty hawking over the "main" marsh. By the aid of a field-glass we made out that they were in an advanced state of plumage, most of them being in practically full summer dress. They are most active about 5 p.m., when they regularly quarter the marsh in their search for food, which they snatch from the surface of the water, uttering their shrill cry incessantly, and forming such a sight as to attract the attention of the most unobservant. They rest in the middle of the day on any convenient bank surrounded by water, and in the evening, about 7 p.m., they bathe before settling down for the night. I have never seen or heard of this bird in West Cornwall for many years, though probably some are to be seen in the fall of the year.—Arthur W. Hext Harvey (Penzance).

Notes from Shetland.—On March 26th I caught a Song-Thrush (Turdus musicus) in the garden. This is the second one, only, I have seen, since coming here in October, 1898. The first one was brought to me alive on Nov. 15th, 1898, and was immediately set at liberty. During the winter six Short-eared Owls (Asio accipitrinus) have resided in the plantation, and it has often amused me to see three or four of them at a time flushed and mobbed by numbers of Hooded Crows, the Owls not seeming to mind much, and quite able to hold their own. On Jan. 11th last I picked up from among some shrubs a mangled specimen of a Long-eared Owl (Asio otus). There was a large wound on the back of the neck and head, probably inflicted by a large Hawk. A White-tailed Eagle (Haliaëtus albicilla) has been frequently seen during the winter. On March 4th a large flock of Rooks (Corvus frugilegus) arrived here. April 11th was the date of their arrival last year. Though I am informed that the Rook breeds in the neighbouring islands of Orkney, I am unable to ascertain that it has ever done so in Shetland, though numbers remained here during last summer.—T. Edmondston Saxby (Halligarth, Unst, Shetland).

Some March Notes from Aberdeen.—The first appearance here of the Curlew (Numenius arquata) was on March 3rd, and on the same date I heard the spring notes of the Golden Plover (Charadrius pluvialis). I also heard a Bleater-Snipe (Gallinago cœlestis) bleating in the manner peculiar to these birds on March 6th. The Pied Wagtail (Motacilla lugubris) made its appearance at the same time. The Common or Green-billed Gull (Larus canus) came inland on the 11th, while a flock of Wild Geese crossed over here on the 20th of the month. A specimen of the Common Redshank (Totanus calidris) appeared on the 22nd. This bird only visits here by turns, and it is doubtful whether it breeds in the neighbourhood, though I believe that a pair have occasionally done so; but they only appear occasionally in this immediate locality. A prominent observation of the month has been the severe privations of birds caused by the very cold and stormy weather. I noticed a heavy death-rate among Lapwings (Vanellus vulgaris), which fall easy victims to severe weather at this season of the year. In fact, these birds seem very deficient in caution, as any genial weather leads them inland to their proposed summer haunts, and when a snowstorm, such as we have recently experienced occurs, they are reduced to extreme privations, and many succumb. There has been a heavy death-rate here; the remains of the unfortunate birds are numerous, generally near fresh water, where they had congregated in want of food and shelter. They constitute a forcible example of a species of birds which, although now protected during the nesting season, and should thus increase in number, still receive at times such a check from severe weather as considerably diminishes their ranks.—W. Wilson (Alford, Aberdeen, N.B.).

ANIMAL INTELLIGENCE.

In this magazine (1897, p. 29) I ventured to repeat the statement made to me in the Transvaal, that the Chacma Baboon can count up to three, but not higher. I have just read in the recently published Seebohm's 'Birds of Siberia,' in connection with the Grey Plover (p. 154):—"Our[1] little manœuvre of walking away from the nest in a body, leaving one behind lying flat on the ground to watch, under the impression that the bird could not count beyond three, and would think that we had all gone, was clearly so much artifice wasted." The two impressions are so very similar that it would be not only interesting, but important, if any of our contributors could add further suggestion or information on the question.

With all our increasing bionomical information, we know practically little as to the intelligence of animals other than ourselves. We teach them to obey, and in some cases make them understand what we want them to do, but never seek to put ourselves in real communication with them. Recently much has been said and written as to our opening communications with the inhabitants (?) of Mars. Would it not be more feasible to try and communicate with the animal life of this planet? Language is not necessarily articulate, and it has been proved that the gesture language, when acquired by deaf and dumb mutes, is understood by other primitive races. We know that animals do communicate with each other. How do they do it, and how may we participate in the process?—W.L. Distant.


  1. Mr. J.A. Harvie-Brown was the comrade of Seebohm in this expedition.