IT was nearing the solstice.
The shallow arc of day, no deeper than the crescent moon, told of nearness
to the border of night. At noon, it barely topped the low ridge. A subdued,
flushed light, with a certain magic of its own, lay over the land.
In a series of short, jerky
flights, a shadow kept pace with me. It was a tiny shadow, a hopo’-my-thumb
of a bird. He picked me up about a mile out, where the church steeples of
the town were dipping out of sight, in the hollow, by the stream. The air
and the road were just crisped with frost. Far in the south-west, the sun
was dipping over the left shoulder of the Falkland Hill, into Loch Leven.
The hill forms the eastern
end of a short, abrupt range. For no special reason it rises from Strath
Eden to break the horizon and hide the winter sun half an hour before the
set. Such sudden heights are characteristic of the coal-bearing area of
Scotland, sometimes as solitary laws, seldomer as abrupt ranges. None are
quite so complete, so self-contained as the Lomonds. In their very
unexpectedness, they are dramatic. Seen in one glance, their rugged features
lend themselves to the play of imaginative conceit. Edinburgh is proud of
Arthur’s Seat. To her partial gaze it is a lion couchant watching over the
city. To what the Lomonds, with the height at either end and the level
connecting ridge, may be likened it were hard to say. There is the strong
head facing west, the flat back, and the weak flank of the Falkland Hill. It
may well be a royal beast watching over Fife. A lion in shade. Over all
flowed the tawny light of the setting sun that dipped into Loch Leven.
The ridge alone hid the
sunset on the water. To the eye, which could remove or look through, the
lake shone in the chill glow of warmly-coloured light, suggestive of a
winter life unfretted by anglers—of spawning trout, busy pike, and
Together, we passed down the
gentle incline; the wren silent under the fence, I making crisp music on the
frosty road, and casting a long winter shadow behind. Where a stone had
rolled out of the dyke, he went into the hole and did not come out again. He
may have had his beat, which he did not overpass. A cunning tunnel may have
led to the back, or a windless shelter offered itself for the coming night.
So we parted.
From the hedge on the far
side came the sharp, melancholy piping so characteristic among winter
sounds. Beyond, was more piping. One seemed to ask if the other was there,
and the answer came back. For about the length of half a field, the piping
went on. The male is a dusky bird. So charmingly dark is he, that when I
hear of "dusky" I think of the hedge-warbler. Like the wren, they are
companionable, but not quite so pleased to see you, nor so loth to part. So
far as they go, they keep talking to each other. They are in pairs, which
may be one reason why they are less dependent on the chance passer-by.
The crackling of a robin was
somewhere about. He is not silent like the wren. Usually he is heard before
seen. No mate is within hearing. He is alone—the most solitary of winter
birds. Yet the crackling is on the frosty air. It may be half a challenge,
for he is impatient and irascible, notwithstanding his good character about
Christmas time. H is note is independent, as himself. It is original among
the sounds made by familiar birds. No manner of explanation will turn it
inside out. One may only guess at its meaning. He is not much given to
following. Not that he will let you pass without notice. He will drop to the
road, jerk in his characteristic way, and hop on in front.
Further along the hedge came
the blackbird’s chirpy scream. It is a voice of the twilight, summer as well
as winter—heard at other times, but always then. It is not a call. Like the
robin, he is self-sufficient, with perhaps this little difference, that he
is not so solitary. Half a dozen male blackbirds are often so near together
as to suggest a certain bachelor party. The scream has been vaguely referred
to some state of excitement. It is uttered every night, almost as matter of
emotional routine. The light was fading down the steep gradient of winter
twilight. The day’s activities were over. It was on its way to roost. The
suggestions were all of quiet and rest.
The grey-green of the
lapwings blends, very perfectly with the neutral-tinted air and the hue of
the field. The eye wanders over the scene more than once, ere it picks them
out. They were very quiet, mostly resting. A grey-green shadow shifted its
place only to rest again. The running was hard to follow against the soil.
In the short, lazy flights, the green appeared as black. One rose hastily
and flew further. It had found some food. Two black-headed gulls were in
pursuit. Quiescent as they looked, the gulls were watching the lapwings.
They always do. Notwithstanding these movements, the aspect of the field was
that of rest. It was a siesta.
From a little strip of wood
running down the fieldside, I could hear the "pink, pink," of chaffinches,
and see them rising to the branches with that peculiar climbing flight of
theirs. Now this "pink, pink" is a call; one hears it in the springtime.
Does it remain a call? Is it addressed to a mate? The chaffinch is said to
be a winter bachelor. On that assumption he is called Frincilia coelebs.
What has a bachelor to do with a call? Nature seldom deceives, nor
permits a confusion of her symbols. To put doubt to rest, hen and cock were
sitting on the road, picking side by side. Together they rose to the branch;
together they vanished into the shade of trees. So other chaffinches about
An ash tree near at hand, an
elm on the far side, flank the wood. Both were hanging as with living
leaves, the slender outer twigs swaying with the weight of pendent birds.
Two flocks of heavier and lighter build, differed as the heavy ash from the
graceful elm, to which, respectively, they clung. Most of the grain-eating
birds flock. They choose just such a perch for the day, dropping down on the
field, to rise again on the least alarm.
In a cloud the heavier flock
left the ash. Several things told what they were. The wavelike flight, the
rise and dip was shared with the finches and buntings. The motion, so
shallow and even, that neither rose very high nor dropped very low, belonged
to the greenfinch. Each wave, each hollow, was as that before and after. The
flight note too was characteristic. In rising on the wave, these seed birds
use a single, double, or treble note, as a sailor might say, "Yee-ho."
In the absence of
song—soprano and contralto solos—these flight notes are our winter music.
Save for the trilling redbreast, it is mainly in undertones. It is all very
sympathetic; sound softened to the turning down of the light. Any day, and
all day long, these sounds are on the crisp air. The flight note of the
greenfinch is sweet and low, very much of the nature of an undertone. The
cloud was lost among the stubble.
The lighter birds left the
elms. On uneven and jerky wing they crossed the fence. The higher waves of
flight had the broken crests of a gusty day. Nothing could be more unlike
the measured rise and dip of the greenfinch.
As the ringing of rare bells
in the air, were the flight notes. Whether double or triple, let those tell
who can separate out a tinkling sound. This ringing of bells in the linnet’s
throat is the most charming of winter undertones. Sweet as distant church
bells on Christmas morn. The flock drifted down among the stubble where the
green-finches were already busy.
Beyond the Lomonds, the sun
had dipped into the Loch among the trout. Swift twilight fell. The afterglow
rose from beneath the water, and came up over the hill. The birds flew to
their roost. To rest? Not quite yet. Rather, to spend the liveliest and
noisiest quarter of an hour. In a mixture of flight note and song, they all
give tongue together. There is no method, only the desire to get enough of
sound out. Not music, neither is it discord. It is noise; pleasant enough,
Each night they break forth
in this way, about this time. A most strange vesper, to be gone through,
just before the light within and without is turned down, and the inmate of
the feathery tent puts head under cover and goes to sleep. It is hard to
tell what stirs them. Unaided incursions from the human standpoint, into
bird psychology, are usually unprofitable. Far better to make one thing
interpret another. If not conclusive, it is as near the truth as we are
likely to get.
A wonderful interest is in
the suggestiveness. Sidelights are often better than direct lights, and
always more charming. Is not the brightness of the setting the most dazzling
of the day, and the afterglow clearer than the hour before sundown? This
rude, indefinite interpretation runs through all nature.
When the concert or chorus is
at its loudest, the scattered voices are sounding. As the band of linnets
are noising, for all they are worth, the blackbird is screaming by the
copse, the robin crackling from the mountain-ash, the hedge-warbler piping
in the shadow of the fence, one spirit is at work throughout. The energy of
sunset, the afterglow which steals up from below the western slope of the
world, sets, or finds everything astir.
The vesper is universal.
Whether social, or solitary, life is abnormally noisy and active. It is even
startling, this sudden awakening from the drowsiness of the afternoon. At a
certain hour of the winter day, just before sleep, a wave of influence,
subtle as the flow of magnetism, passes through nature; an unseen hand runs
over the strings of life and awakens them to octaves of sound.
Feeding in the same field,
with greenfinch and linnet, were a vast number of starlings. In and out, on
their restless way, they ran among the stubble. Just when the linnets left
for the roost the starlings rose. Then came a time of merry madness. As
though suddenly possessed they scurried from fence to fence. They turned. In
midfield they spread out like a fan. They dropped again, to re-form and dart
away afresh. There was no purpose in their flight, only a series of mad
antics. No two motions were alike. Each wild whim was on the wing; each bird
seemed bent on letting himself go; and that as a prelude to a concert at the
roost, to which the vesper of the linnets is as silence.
In a flock of many hundreds,
the lapwings came up against the red glow of the burning frost. They, too,
had a wild fit, of a slightly soberer character, as became their greater
bulk. High up, as though bent on a distant roost, they held on their way.
They wheeled and returned; they mingled in a maze. They came lower down,
just over the dimming fields. They rose and dipped, crossed and recrossed,
broke and re-formed, and so put more into the last hour of the winter day
than all the hours that went before. Suddenly they dropped within the
curtain of the fence, to the darkness of the field, and all was still.
So was a riot of motion as of
sound; a wild whirl as a noisy vesper, only another phase of that wave of
excitement, which trembles through nature, at the setting of the sun and the
coming on of sleep.
No four-footed creatures were
abroad. A few signs, alone, told of their presence. Little piles of fresh
earth, over the pasture field, were cast up by an underground world of
moles. In snug corners the hedgehog was asleep. Only the other day a terrier
turned two out of the undergrowth. There is no naturalist like the terrier,
so long as you confine his energies to the finding. He will cause a barren
scene to teem. Other forms are asleep. Hibernation is a common phase,
lessening the winter numbers and variety. Even the water vole, on the banks
of the Eden, keeps within doors.
For the rest, the habits of
the earth mammals are crepuscular, or nocturnal. Even in summer only late
wanderers may meet with them. Persecuted by day, they seem to find more
peace in the dark. Where the persecution is greatest, the late habits are
more pronounced. There are transition phases in the same district.
A solitary sportsman,
preceded by a melancholy-looking dog, came through the fence. He was in hope
of a hare. No hare scudded before him; not even a rabbit. He came slowly up
the incline. In the glow of sunset he was picturesque, touched with the same
tawny shade as the Lomonds. Otherwise unlionlike—save in that he was a beast
of prey. The picturesqueness was all. His bag remained empty.
An hour later another hunter
will quarter the stubble. It will be the hour of the fox. The shadow falls
across the moonlit fields, the yelp comes from the pitchy dark of the
moonless night. Vision and sound are less familiar than they were wont to
be. Three days a week, barring frost, all winter long have the hounds been
out and done next to nothing. Coverts once so reliable have drawn blank. A
general search made, in view of certain fixtures, revealed but one fox. One
covert had a single tenant. Something is wrong; some one has sinned; so it
is whispered. Foxes are being destroyed by those who are impatient of
pleasures, which they do not share. A thing most unreasonable, but intensely
human. It is by no means a new experience, this dearth of foxes.
Many years ago, that popular
master of the hunt, Colonel Anstruther Thomson, declared that only four
foxes were left in the east of Fife, of which he had killed three. There
have been merry hunts since. The remaining fox has been killed many times.
It may not be so bad as it seems. But when a skilled master and a trained
pack cannot find a fox, the presumption is that none are there.
Huntsmen are complaining,
ladies are getting soured. There has been serious talk of abandoning a
sport, whose fitful but fairly continuous history dates back to the
eighteenth century. That were a pity, alike for the honour and manhood of
the county. The catastrophe has been postponed. After all, what is a hunt
without a fox? Patience, and there will be merry hunts yet. The fox in the
covert may be killed as often as that left by Colonel Thomson.