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The Strange and Beautiful Sheldrake

At the head of the Cheddar valley, a couple of miles from the cathedral city of Wells, the Somerset Axe is born, gushing out noisily, a mighty volume of clear cold water, from a cavern in a black precipitous rock on the hillside. This cavern is called Wookey Hole, and above it the rough wall is draped with ivy and fern, and many small creeping plants and flowery shrubs rooted in the crevices; and in the holes in the rock the daws have their nests. They are a numerous and a vociferous colony, but the noise of their loudest cawings, when they rush out like a black cloud and are most excited, is almost drowned by the louder roar of the torrent beneath—the river's great cry of liberty and joy on issuing from the blackness in the hollow of the hills into the sunshine of heaven and the verdure of that beautiful valley. The Axe finishes its course fifteen miles away, for 'tis a short river, but they are pleasant miles in one of the fairest vales in the west of England, rich in cattle and in corn. And at the point where it flows into the Severn Sea stands Brean Down, a huge isolated hill, the last of the Mendip range on that side. It has a singular appearance: it might be likened in its form to a hippopotamus standing on the flat margin of an African lake, its breast and mouth touching the water, and all its body belly-deep in the mud; it is, in fact, a hill or a promontory united to the mainland by a strip of low flat land—a huge, oblong, saddle-backed hill projected into the sea towards Wales. Down at its foot, at the point where it touches the mainland, close to the mouth of the Axe, there is a farmhouse, and the farmer is the tenant of the entire hill, and uses it as a sheep-walk. The sheep and rabbits and birds are the only inhabitants. I remember a delightful experience I had one cold windy but very bright spring morning near the farmhouse. There is there, at a spot where one is able to ascend the steep hill, a long strip of rock that looks like the wall of a gigantic ruined castle, rough and black, draped with ancient ivy and crowned with furze and bramble and thorn. Here, coming out of the cold wind to the shelter of this giant ivy-draped black wall, I stood still to enjoy the sensations of warmth and a motionless air, when high above appeared a swift-moving little cloud of linnets, seemingly blown across the sky by the gale; but quite suddenly, when directly over me, the birds all came straight down, to drop like a shower of small stones into the great masses of ivy and furze and bramble. And no sooner had they settled, vanishing into that warm and windless greenery, than they simultaneously burst into such a concert of sweetest wild linnet music, that I was enchanted, and thought that never in all the years I had spent in the haunts of wild birds had I heard anything so fairy-like and beautiful.

On this hill, or down, at the highest point, you have the Severn Sea before you, and, beyond, the blue mountains of Glamorganshire, and, on the shore, the town of Cardiff made beautiful by distance, vaguely seen in the blue haze and shimmering sunlight like a dream city. On your right hand, on your own side of the narrow sea, you have a good view of the big young growing town of Weston-super-Mare—Bristol's Margate or Brighton, as it has been called. It is built of Bath stone, and at this distance looks grey, darkened with the slate roofs, and a little strange; but the sight is not unpleasant, and if you wish to retain that pleasant impression, go not nearer to it than Brean Down, since on a closer view its aspect changes, and it is simply ugly. On your left hand you look over long miles, long leagues, of low flat country, extending to the Parret River, and beyond it to the blue Quantock range. That low land is on a level with the sea, and is the flattest bit of country in England, not even excepting the Ely district. Apart from the charm which flatness has in itself for some persons—it has for me a very great charm on account of early associations—there is much here to attract the lover of nature. It is the chief haunt and paradise of the reed warbler, one of our sweetest songsters, and here his music may be heard amid more perfect surroundings than in any other haunt of the bird known to me in England.

This low level strip of country is mostly pasture-land, and is drained by endless ditches, full of reeds and sedges growing in the stagnant sherry-coloured water; dwarf hawthorn grows on the banks of the ditches, and is the only tree vegetation. Standing on one of the wide flat green fields or spaces, at a distance from the sandy dyke or ditch, it is strangely silent. Unless a lark is singing near, there is no sound at all; but it is wonderfully bright and fragrant where the green level earth is yellowed over with cowslips, and you get the deliciousness of that flower in fullest measure. On coming to the dyke you are no longer in a silent land with fragrance as its principal charm—you are in the midst of a perpetual flow and rush of sound. You may sit or lie there on the green bank by the hour and it will not cease; and so sweet and beautiful is it, that after a day spent in rambling in such a place with these delicate spring delights, on returning to the woods and fields and homesteads the songs of thrush and blackbird sound in the ear as loud and coarse as the cackling of fowls and geese.

It is in this district, from Brean Down westwards along the coast to Dunster, that I have been best able to observe and enjoy the beautiful sheldrake—almost the only large bird which is now permitted to exist in Somerset.

The sheldrake of the British Islands, called the common sheldrake (or sheld-duck) in the natural history books, for no good reason, since there is but one, is now becoming common enough as an ornamental waterfowl. It is to be seen in so many parks and private grounds all over the country that the sight of it in its conspicuous plumage must be pretty familiar to people generally. And many of those who know it best as a tame bird would, perhaps, say that the descriptive epithets of strange and beautiful do not exactly fit it. They would say that it has a striking appearance, or that it is peculiar and handsome in a curious way; or they might describe it as an abnormally slender and elegant-looking Aylesbury duck, whiter than that domestic bird, with a crimson beak and legs, dark-green glossy head, and sundry patches of chestnut-red and black on its snowy plumage. In calling it "strange" I was thinking of its manners and customs rather than of the singularity of its appearance.

As to its beauty, those who know it in a state of nature, in its haunts on the sea coast, will agree that it is one of the handsomest of our large wild birds. It cannot now be said that it is common, except in a few favoured localities. On the south coast it is all but extinct as a breeding species, and on the east side of England it is becoming increasingly rare, even in spots so well suited to it as Holy Island, and the coast at Bamborough Castle, with its great sand-hills. These same hills that look on the sea, and are greener than ivy with the everlasting green of the rough marram grass that covers them, would be a very paradise to the sheldrake, but for man—vile man!—who watches him through a spy-glass in the breeding season to rob him of his eggs. The persecuted bird has grown exceedingly shy and cautious, but go he must to his burrow in the dunes, and the patient watcher sees him at a great distance on account of his conspicuous white plumage, and marks the spot, then takes his spade to dig down to the hidden eggs.

On the Somerset coast the bird is not so badly off, and I have had many happy days with him there. Simply to watch the birds at feed, when the tide goes out and they are busy searching for the small marine creatures they live on among the stranded seaweed, is a great pleasure. At such times they are most active and loquacious, uttering a variety of wild goose-like sounds, frequently rising to pursue one another in circles, or to fly up and down the coast in pairs, or strings of half a dozen birds, with a wonderfully graceful flight. If, after watching this sea-fowl by the sea, a person will go to some park water to look on the same bird, pinioned and tame, sitting or standing, or swimming about in a quiet, listless way, he will be amazed at the difference in its appearance. The tame bird is no bigger than a domestic duck; the wild sheldrake, flying about in the strong sunshine, looks almost as large as a goose. A similar illusion is produced in the case of some other large birds. Thus, the common buzzard, when rising in circles high above us, at times appears as big as an eagle, and it has been conjectured that this magnifying effect, which gives something of sublimity to the soaring buzzard, is caused by the sunlight passing through the semi-translucent wing and tail feathers. In the case of the sheldrake, the exaggerated size may be an effect of strong sunlight on a flying white object. Seen on the wing at a distance the plumage appears entirely of a surpassing whiteness, the dark patches of chestnut, black, and deep green colour showing only when the bird is near, or when it alights and folds its white wings.

When the tide has covered their feeding-ground on the coast, the sheldrakes are accustomed to visit the low green pasture-lands, and may be seen in small flocks feeding like geese on the clover and grass. Here one day I saw about a dozen sheldrakes in the midst of an immense congregation of rooks, daws, and starlings feeding among some cows. It was a curious gathering, and the red Devons, shining white sheldrakes, and black rooks on the bright green grass, produced a singular effect.

Best of all it is to observe the birds when breeding in May. Brean Down is an ancient favourite breeding-site, and the birds breed there in the rabbit holes, and sometimes under a thick furze-bush on the ground. At another spot on this coast I have had the rare good fortune to find a number of pairs breeding at one spot on private enclosed land, where I could approach them very closely, and watch them any day for hours at a stretch, studying their curious sign-language, about which nothing, to my knowledge, has hitherto been written. There were about thirty pairs, and their breeding-holes were mostly rabbit-burrows scattered about on a piece of sandy ground, about an acre and a half in extent, almost surrounded by water. When I watched them the birds were laying; and at about ten o'clock in the morning they would begin to come in from the sea in pairs, all to settle down at one spot; and by creeping some distance at the water-side among the rushes, I could get within forty yards of them, and watch them by the hour without being discovered by them. In an hour or so there would be forty or fifty birds forming a flock, each couple always keeping close together, some sitting on the short grass, others standing, all very quiet. At length one bird in the flock, a male, would all at once begin to move his head in a slow, measured manner from side to side, like a pianist swaying his body in time to his own music. If no notice was taken of this motion by the duck sitting by his side dozing on the grass, the drake, would take a few steps forward and place himself directly before her, so as to compel her to give attention, and rock more vigorously than ever, haranguing her, as it were, although without words; the meaning of it all being that it was time for her to get up and go to her burrow to lay her egg. I do not know any other species in which the male takes it on himself to instruct his mate on a domestic matter which one would imagine to be exclusively within her own province; and some ornithologists may doubt that I have given a right explanation of these curious doings of the sheldrake. But mark what follows: The duck at length gets up, in a lazy, reluctant way, perhaps, and stretches a wing and a leg, and then after awhile sways her head two or three times, as if to say that she is ready. At once the drake, followed by her, walks off, and leads the way to the burrow, which may be a couple of hundred yards away; and during the walk she sometimes stops, whereupon he at once turns back and begins the swaying motion again. At last, arriving at the mouth of the burrow, he steps aside and invites her to enter, rocking himself again, and anon bending his head down and looking into the cavity, then drawing back again; and at last, after so much persuasion on his part, she lowers her head, creeps quietly down and disappears within. Left alone, the drake stations himself at the burrow's mouth, with head raised like a sentinel on duty; but after five or ten minutes he slowly walks back to the flock, and settles down for a quiet nap among his fellows. They are all married couples; and every drake among them, when in some mysterious way he knows the time has come for the egg to be laid, has to go through the same long ceremonious performance, with variations according to his partner's individual disposition.

It is amusing to see at intervals a pair march off from the flock; and one wonders whether the others, whose turn will come by and by, pass any remarks; but the dumb conversation at the burrow's mouth is always most delightful to witness. Sometimes the lady bird exhibits an extreme reluctance, and one can imagine her saying, "I have come thus far just to please you, but you'll never persuade me to go down into that horrid dark hole. If I must lay an egg, I'll just drop it out here on the grass and let it take its chance."

It is rather hard on the drake; but he never loses his temper, never boxes her ears with his carmine red beak, or thrashes her with his shining white wings, nor does he tell her that she is just like a woman—an illogical fool. He is most gentle and considerate, full of distress and sympathy for her, and tells her again what he has said before, but in a different way; he agrees with her that it is dark and close down there away from the sweet sunlight, but that it is an old, old custom of the sheldrakes to breed in holes, and has its advantages; and that if she will only overcome her natural repugnance and fear of the dark, in that long narrow tunnel, when she is once settled down on the nest and feels the cold eggs growing warm again under her warm body she will find that it is not so bad after all.

And in the end he prevails; and bowing her pretty head she creeps quietly down and disappears, while he remains on guard at the door—for a little while.

W. H. Hudson