30 MAY 1903, Page 11


PREMISING that not even trout-fishing leads to such familiarity with the beauties of the country at the best season of the year as does the quest for the eggs and nests of birds, it remains to explain how it comes about that a grown man can retain the taste, or justify what seems rather like a relapse into the amusements of boyhood. As such it needs no particular defence ; but the pursuit itself takes on a larger growth with years. It may be that the devotee of the pursuit which the late Sir William Flower described as being "just as good as any other form of sport "—a recom- mendation which it never loses—wishes to make a representa- tive collection of the eggs of all the birds which nest in a certain county. The many-sided pleasure of such an effort may be imagined. Local and topographical interest is greatly to the front. After searching for the eggs of the common species, and carefully labelling the date and place, comes the inquiry as to where the rarer birds breed. This leads to the hunting up of old records, correspondence and acquaintance with other naturalists, and expeditions to different and distant parts of the county, with the excitement and uncertainty of watching the birds, and searching for, and perhaps the satisfac- tion of finding, the nest. It may be that the bird is one of those scheduled for protection. In that case the modern naturalist will probably photograph the nest and eggs, make careful notes of the appearance and markings of the latter, and leave them to hatch. But the excellent results of protecting the birds themselves have caused such an increase in the numbers of what were very scarce species locally that the regular breeding-grounds are now nearly always tenanted, while a great number of new nesting-places have been added. The writer remembers when in one county there was only one nesting-place of the great crested grebe. A whole day was devoted to an excursion to the big reservoir on which the nest was placed, and hours were spent, not in endeavouring tc take the eggs, but in watching the habits of what was then a very scarce, and is always a very interesting, bird. They now nest regularly in Richmond Park, and on dozens of private lakes in the South.

To be given "a•day's bird's-nesting" on one of the Norfolk meres or on a Nottinghamshire lake is in its way as great a pleasure as being invited to a day's shooting. The beauty of the mere itself is at its height. The sweet fresh waters with their myriad plants, the dancing ephemerae, and the many-coloured water-birds swimming on the surfaces, or taking their early hatched broods into the shallows, are first carefully scanned with the telescope to see what rarities have remained to breed on this side of the North Sea instead of crossing tc the Lapland tundras or Norwegian fells, or whether the rarer resident species have increased. It is probable that in such a spot the keeper will have discovered previously many of the nests, and be able to take the visitor from one to the other, showing here the sitting bird, there the clutch of olive eggs under the blossoms of the butterburrs, or the

spreading tussock set with the starry blossoms of the little flowers that grow on its peaty pillar; or the visitor may wade in the shallow waters of the mere, and uncover the eggs of dabehick and coot, or search the flat marsh where the waders build. There is always a sense of achievement in finding a nest, much enhanced by the beauty of the eggs in their circular cup, and by: the surroundings which the bird has itself chosen as the en- vironment of its home. It is this mental exchange of thought between the bird and the man, in which the latter for the moment appreciates what he imagines must be in the mind of the former when occupying its home and engaged in its family cares and early domestic pleasures, that makes the real charm of studying birds' nests. Few people are insensible to this even at South Kensington, where the birds and their eggs are shown in their natural setting. But when the reality is presented the interest is naturally enhanced. From the pool to the bill is a very natural exchange for the bird's-nester. He may be in search of a nest of the stone curlew, breeding on the barest sheep-walks or summits of the Downs, and spend the early hours after dawn in watching the fallow on some part of which the atone curlews have laid their almost invisible eggs.

If a naturalist has undertaken to make a collection of the eggs of the birds of Europe, his bird's-nesting is conducted on the heroic scale. He will find himself on the swamps of the Dobrudscha in search of pelicans' nests, or in the Sierras or Pyrenees seeking the eggs of the lammergeier. He will be careful to go, not to the spots where species once common are now rare, but to places still remaining where the ancient bird population is still so great that his requisitions do no harm. Given time and means, he will have no difficulty in finding those spots. The immense marshes of the Guadal. quiver, the Danube swamps, the fells of Norway, where he can collect and fish alternately, or the North German forests, where buzzards, goshawks, and other large birds of prey still abound, will be his collecting grounds. But he will note that in certain areas abroad once teeming with bird life the local authorities are quite as convinced of the necessity of bird-pro- tection as in England. Thus in the salt marshes of Denmark, once as full of wild fowl as was the English Fen, it is no longer permitted to take eggs, as the rare species were found to be decreasing.

It is no more possible to find birds' nests without practice than to catch trout without training. The season when each species must be sought may be learnt from books. But know ledge of the places in which to look for them comes only from experience. A skilful bird's-nester will take in the probable capacities of a new neighbourhood at a glance. But even he may make mistakes, and find that owing to want of water, or some other local cause, there are few birds where everything looks promising. Generally speaking, in the earlier weeks the nests are more concentrated in distinct areas. Later in the year, when the cover and leaf are thicker, and the food more abundant, nests will be found scattered broadcast in any suitable spot. Usually, both eggs and nests have a distinct character and singular beauty, the former of Nature, the latter of genuine art. Birds' nests are, in fact, almost the only con- scious works of art made by animals with the most ingenious adaptation of general principles by their gifted builders. We have no eggs in England to equal the strange beauty of those of the various races of tinamou, which resemble cut and polished jade, chalcedony, or spar; but their exquisite shape, texture, and markings never fail to give delight. They lie in the nest like jewels in a casket. Often a curious, if unin- tended, effect is produced by the contrast between the exterior of the nest, which is left in a rustic setting, and the interior, which is upholstered in the finest and most finished bird workmanship, just as the polished horse-chestnut, in its bed of milk-white, is enclosed in the rough and prickly exterior of the husk. Thus the nest of a nightingale on the exterior is merely a rough but effective circle of dead leaves and stalks,—the leaves mainly those of the oak. It is one of the very few nests in which even the edge of the cup is often left rough. Yet in this is sunk the most exquisitely finished circular cup, as evenly made as if shaped on the potter's wheel, and lined with a smooth facing of the skeletons of leaves, and other soft, dry, vegetable material, with a few horse-hairs wound round to give a finish. In this russet cup

lie the smooth, symmetrical, polished eggs of olive green. Often, if the nests of the various birds round a home farm are carefully examined, the wagtails' in the cattle- shed, the redstarts' in the orchard, and the robins' and the tits' in the stone walls, the local nature of the material is amusingly evident. These birds, tame and confiding, know where to go for furniture and material, and strictly observe the economic rule that the nearest market is the cheapest. Thus in the nests will be recog- nised hair from the grey farm-horse's tail or from the chestnut pony's mane, feathers from the geese or from some particular spangled hen, or fragments of the local newspaper. In Helmingham Park, in Suffolk, most of the jackdaws' nests were lined with red-deer's hair. We have found the wool of the one black sheep in a flock used in the nest of a missel- thrush built in the orchard where the ewes were placed in lambing time. Most of the sparrows', tits', and other small nests built near Port Meadow, above Oxford, are lined with the feathers of the geese which feed there. Nor is fancy altogether absent from the furnishing operations of some of the larger birds. Californian golden eagles have been known to steal sacks to decorate their nests; Spanish kites steal any- thing which strikes their fancy, from newspapers to socks; and in a starling's nest we once found a number of airings of ootton, with rags and feathers attached, which the previous owner had designed for a scarecrow.

It will be understood that in no case does the self-respecting bird's-nester remove more than a small proportion of the eggs, and that the interest taken in finding the nests often leads to a very effective preservation of the breeding area. Instances could be quoted by the hundred where the owner's or his visitors' taste for bird's-nesting has led to the discovery of the place where some scarce bird has nested year after year, and to measures taken in consequence to ensure its freedom from molestation.