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Nether Lochaber
Chapter X


Birds—Contest between a Heron and an Eel.

"With the exception of a slight drizzle on Saturday the last ten days have been wonderfully fine for the season [February 1870]. Seldom, indeed, have we been so near realising the "ethereal mildness" of Thomson's "Spring" so early in the year. And, in sooth, it was high time that some such pleasant change in the weather should take place, for no living wight can remember anything so incessant and persistent as were the rain and the storm of the previous six weeks.

"When frost and snow come both together,
Then sit by the fire and save shoe leather,"

quoth Jonathan Swift, the honest Dean of St. Patrick's, being evidently no curler, and more given to satire than to snow-balling; but really for the six weeks above specified nothing less than the direst necessity could tempt one to any other pastime than the prudential and prosaic one recommended in the couplet. Grant him but license to grumble, however, and man can endure, and that scathlessly, much more than he wots of. And how easily is he after all restored to equanimity and even cheerfulness ! Here we are already, placid and pleased, enjoying the fine weather ; the cold and the wet and the boisterous gales of January and December altogether forgotten, or, if remembered, remembered only to give zest to the bright and sunshiny present. And never, we believe, were song-birds in such free and full song on St. Valentine's day. Morning and evening (the interval, you must know, dear reader, is as yet passed in tender dalliance and nest-building), from copse and woodland, ring out tbe richest strains of our native warblers, thrush, redbreast, blackbird, throstle, white-throat, wren (whom the Germans, on account of his indomitable pluck and pre-eminence as a songster, term the kingbird), and a score of other " musical celebrities," vie with each other in the richness and the melody of their incomparable song. Within a month, should the weather continue favourable as at present, most of our wild-birds will have finished their nests, and commenced the labours of incubation. We trust that our readers "will do all they can this season to prevent children and others from what is called "birds'-nesting," one of the most cruel pastimes to which any one could turn himself. All good men, and most great ones, have been remarkable for their attachment to animals, both domesticated and wild, and particularly to song-birds. Listen to Virgil's passing allusion to the subject in his Georgies, a magnificent poem, of itself sufficient to immortalise the name of any one man :—

"Qualis populea moerens Philomela, sub umbra," &c.,

thus rendered into English :—

''Lo, Philomela from the umbrageous wood,
In strains melodious mourns her tender brood,
Snatch'd from the nest by some rude ploughman's hand,
On. some lone bough the warbler takes her stand;
The live-long night she mourns the cruel wrong,
And hill and dale resound the plaintive song."

And hear our own matchless "ploughman bard," in one of his sweetest lyrics, The Posie :—

"The hawthorn I will pu', wi' its locks o' siller grey,
Where, like an aged man, it stands at break o' day,
 

But the songster's next within the bush I winna tab air ay—
 
't And a to be a posie to my ain dear May."

Verily, dear reader, he who wrote that verse, despite the pious murmurings of the rigidly righteous, and the cold shudderings of religious fanaticism at his shortcomings, must have been a man of largest heart and widest sympathies; and, properly understood, there is much truth, and no irreverence, in his own finding, that even

"The light which led astray
Was light from heaven."

"We were much amused the other day at seeing a heron, a long-necked, long-legged bird, doubtless familiar to the reader, for once in a "fix." We say "for once," for it is a most sagacious bird and thoroughly master of its own particular role, which, it is needless to say, is principally fish-catching. "We were amusing, ourselves on the seashore during low-water, watching the habits of periwinkles, hermit-crabs, star-fish, &c., when we observed a heron at some hundred yards distance, leaping about, wriggling its body, and performing other strange and unheron-like antics, as if it had suddenly gone mad. Knowing the staid and sober habits of the bird in general, we at once came to the conclusion that something extraordinary " was up," and determined, if possible, to discover what it was. Making a slight detour to avoid alarming him—for it was a he, a very handsome, full-crested male—we easily managed' to creep within fifty yards or so of him, and the cause of his excitement and unwonted posturings became at once apparent. He had caught an eel (a great dainty with the heron family) of about two feet in length, and of girth like a stout walking-stick, notwithstanding which, however, Mr. Heron would soon have satisfactorily dined upon it, had he not made a slight mistake in the mode of striking his prey. The eel was held in the heron's bill at a point only some three or four inches from the extremity of its tail, the greater part of its body and its head being thus left at liberty to twist, and wriggle, and wallop about ad libitum. To swallow the eel in this position the heron knew was impossible, and to let it go, even for an instant, for the purpose of getting a better "grip" of his slippery customer was altogether out of the question. The heron was standing on the very margin of the sea, into which the eel, if for a moment at liberty, would have shot like an arrow. It was too large to be tossed into the air and recaught in its descent, as herons frequently do with other fish; and in short the heron was at his wit's end, and wist not what to say or do. To make matters worse, the eel was wriggling and twisting about its captor's legs, breeehless and exposed legs be it observed, and might, for all we or the heron knew, take one of them at any time between its teeth, and sharp and cruel, as probably the heron knew, are an eel's teeth when any part of an enemy has the misfortune to get between them. Apprehensive, doubtless, of some such danger, the heron danced and shuffled about, lifting now one leg and now another, as if he had been practising a new and somewhat complicated hornpipe. He would at one time leap a foot or two to one side, and immediately after spring into the air as many inches, attempting the while to strike his prey against the stones, but always failing in doing this effectually, owing to want of sufficient "purchase" and the insecurity of his hold. Having watched this novel combat for some time, we made a rush to the scene of action, hoping to succeed in surprising, perhaps, both the spoiler and his prey. We were disappointed. The heron instantly took wing, carrying the eel for some instance in his sharp-edged and powerful bill, but finally dropping it into the sea, doubtless confessing to himself, as he indignantly winged his flight to another fishing ground, that once in his life at least he had caught a Tartar.


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