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From Fox's Earth to Mountain Tarn
Winter


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 multitudinous wild-fowl.

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 were paired.

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, but unmistakable.

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.


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