THE BLACK LIKE.
AT this time of the year the interest for the naturalist and botanist ceases, in a certain degree, for awhile. Birds have hardly begun their nests, the summer migrants have not arrived, flowers and ferns are still unfurled, the
buds of trees are folded in mystery, and Nature is hardly awake. She is gathering up all her strength to blossom into life, and even in the garden the coming glories have all to be taken on trust. It is only by the river or water-side that we can study life, and just before sunset is the time to visit the Surrey ponds. Some of the ponds are on the open heath, but a small one—near the present writer's house—is worthy of note. Down a red sandy lane, with overhanging root-bound banks, and over the Wey—by the side of which an almond-tree too eager for leaf has burst into blossom, and the palm is fast turning her silver to gold—a gate is reached
which leads to the wild-fowl's private haunt. The way from the gate to the Black Lake winds through a fir-wood, and little heaps of white sand burrowed out by rabbits shine like mile- stones through the brilliant green fern-moss and on the dusky-brown pine-needles. The stillness, broken only by the creak of branches or occasional songs of birds, accentuates the solitude of the spot, which becomes almost oppressive, until suddenly, between the trunks, the shine of water gleams in silvery whiteness, all the whiter for the deep, intense shadows cast by the blue firs, relieved here and there by the pencilling purple of a silver birch-stem. Spring is casting soft pink and shadows over the woods, and the red flower of the elm—so seldom seen in perfection—which the warmth of the past winter has wooed into blossom, glows in the sunset across the vale. Evidently peace reigns on the Black Lake, for no alarm - note is heard as a seat under a twisted fir is reached, behind a tracery of young birch- boughs by the water's edge. Across the water the herons are flying to and fro, keeping guard over the pale-green eggs, and wondering to themselves where their next fishing-ground should be. This year they have shifted their nests from one end of the lake to the other—no one knows the reason why and they dare not venture far from home, for they have not yet tested the wisdom of their move. Herons always look like boats which carry too much sail, for their huge wings appear unmanageable, but owing to the weight of food they carry home from their fishing expeditions they require this extra power. A score or so of the "grey sentinels" are stand. ing by the water's-edge in profound meditation, waiting for an unwary eel or frog to come within reach. From under the shelter of the bank at our feet several coots swim out into the open and make for a line of reeds half-way across. Why Skelton should call this bird mad, and Drayton "The brain- bald coot, a formal witless ass," we know not, for he is the most wide-awake of all water-fowl, and is always the first to sound his alarm-note as a warning, not only to his own com- panions, but to all other birds in his vicinity. Sir Thomas Browne writes, in 1635 :—" Coots are in very great flocks. Upon the appearance of a kite or buzzard I have seen them unite from all parts of the shore in strange numbers, when, if the kite stoop near them, they will fling up and spread such a flash of water with their wings that they will en- danger the kite, and so keep him off again in open oppo- sition : "—this, again, hardly proves he is a witless ass I Bald of course he is, but that may be a sign of brains, and though some may admire the "dark, sooty bird," he is too sombre to please those who have an eye for the beautiful. But he acts as a foil for the mallards who are waiting to receive him by the reeds. Properly speaking "mallard" is the name of both male and female, but in sporting language it is only the male of the wild-duck. Certainly the male is a splendid bird when he dons his spring dress and his plumage is in perfection,—the green of his neck shines like emeralds, his white-collar is spotless, and the varied colour of his back and breast make a brilliant picture. When the coots told the wild-duck of our presence they feigned alarm and flew along the surface in a line, then wheeled into the air above the trees uttering their cry, but thinking they were not justified in their want of trust they returned to the coots who swam about superior to such flights of fancy. Moor-hens abound on the Black Lake, and are even tamer than the rest of the water-fowl. The red patch on his forehead and red beak with the yellow tip relieve his dark plumage, while the under coverts of his tail are white, as Drayton notices :— " The coot bald, else clean black, that whiteness it doth wear Upon the forehead starr'd, the water-hen doth wear Upon her little tail, in one small feather sc t."
With the dark-coloured coots and wild-ducks two beautiful
swans bow and bend to their own reflections, and turn their graceful long necks this way and that as if it amused them to watch their smaller companions, though they feel it quite beneath their dignity to join in their amusements. Then-
" This swan with arched neck Between her white wings mantling, proudly rows Her stato with oary feet" to the other end of the lake to see why the peewit is crying so in the air. Perhaps his swan-like majesty was not feeling well, and believed in the old saying of Pliny that "a sight of a lapwing cures one of the jaundice." No bird has so many nicknames as the peewit. " Lymptwigg " in Devonshire, " Peweep " in Norfolk, "Phillipene" in Ireland, and "Pease- weep" in Scotland ; bat in Scotland he is not a prime favourite, for by his cries and movements he is supposed to have guided the troopers of Claverhouse to the hiding-places of the Covenanters. But the legends about this bird are too well-known to bear repetition. Soon a pair of teal join the merry throng from the end of the lake, having heard of the assembly from the swans ; the night is coming, and they are getting hungry, for this bird rests during the day on the water, with his head drawn back between his shoulders or hidden under the feathers, and feeds at night, as do others of his kind. They are handsome birds in spring, but, like the mallard, the male loses all his beauty in the summer.
All the while we are watching the water-fowl, an amorous
frog barks incessantly at our feet ; certainly his love-making is not carried on in silence, and he would have the birds and fishes know his secret. It is impossible to prevent a smile when the wide mouth opens and so much sound issues from such a small creature half hidden in the water. Another frog in the reeds will not be outdone in the serenade, and barks and croaks violently, as if to prove he is the better lover of the two. As the sun sinks gently behind the firs, and the shadows grow longer between the trees—the fir-trunks reddened by the soft glow—we hear the evening hymn taken up by Nature's many voices. It is springtime, and the notes of birds are different and sweeter than in the other seasons of the year. Love lends a new note and teaches another key. Wood-pigeons coo softly, and weave wonderful dream-nests into their song ; herons bark with blissful anticipation of the morrow, for the eggs are nearing the cracking stage ; jays call across the opening, and think more of their coming young than their neighbour's eggs, for the moment forgetting their thievish tricks ; woodpeckers laugh with joy at having found a hole in an old oak, which will save them the trouble of boring; all the wild-fowl rest content and cry to one another from gladness of heart at having found such a
peaceful spot; and as our "Good evening" reaches them they hardly consider it worth their while to turn and listen, for they have heard of our love for birds from the feathered tenants in the garden on the hill.