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being on the spot before sunrise, you may see both male and female mount high in a spiral manner, now with continuous beats of the wings, now in short sailings, until more than a hundred yards high, when they whirl round each other with extreme velocity, and dance as it were to their own music; for at this juncture, and during the space of four or five minutes, you hear rolling notes mingled together, each more or less distinct, perhaps, according to the state of the atmosphere. The sounds produced are extremely pleasing, though they fall faintly on the ear. I know not how to describe them; but I am well assured that they are not produced simply by the beatings of their wings, as at this time the wings are not flapped, but are used in sailing swiftly in a circle, not many feet in diameter. A person might cause a sound somewhat similar, by blowing rapidly and alternately from one end to another across a set of small pipes consisting of two or three modulations. This performance is kept up till incubation terminates; but I have never observed it at any other period.” In this respect the Snipe differs from the Woodcock, whose nocturnal flights I have not witnessed except in April and perhaps the early part of May. The time occupied by the Woodcock in the air is never more, I am confident, than fifteen seconds, and the notes uttered by him while poised at the summit of his ascent sound exactly like chip, chip, chip, chip, chip, chip, about as rapidly as we might utter them in a loud whisper.
THE VIRGINIA RAIL.
The shyness and timidity of the Virginia Rail, and the quickness of its movements, its peculiar graceful attitudes, and the rare occasions on which we can obtain sight of one, combine to render this bird highly interest
ing. It is so seldom seen on account of its habit of concealment during the day and of feeding at evening and morning twilight, that many persons have never met with it. It is in fact quite a common bird, and breeds in the thickets in the immediate vicinity of our rivers and ponds. I have seen numbers of this species in the meadows surrounding Fresh Pond in Cambridge when hunting for aquatic plants and flowers; but I have not discovered their nests. Samuels says the eggs, which are from six to ten in number, are of a deep buff color, and that their nest “is nothing but a pile of weeds or grass which it arranges in a compact manner, and hollows to the depth perhaps of an inch or an inch and a half.”
This is a very pretty species. The upper parts are brown, striped with deeper shades of the same color; the feathers on the breast are of a bright brown deepening into red; the wings black and chestnut with some white lines. It resembles somewhat a miniature hen with long legs and short tail, and is very nimble in its movements. This species is most commonly found in those fresh meadows into which the salt water extends or those salt marshes which are pervaded by a stream of fresh water. They feed more on worms and insects than upon seeds and grain, though they do not refuse a granivorous diet.
THE CLAPPER RAIL.
I have so seldom seen the Clapper Rail, though I have many times heard its clattering notes, that I have nothing to
say of it from my own observation. But as it is not unfrequent on the New England coast, it seems a fit subject to be introduced in my descriptions of picturesque birds. I shall, therefore, in this case deviate from my general practice of writing from my own experience, and insert in this place a brief abstract of an essay on
“The Clapper Rail,” by Dr. E. Coues, published in the “American Naturalist,” Vol. III. pp. 600 - 607.
The Clapper Rail, or Salt-water Marsh Hen, inhabits the inarshes all along our coast, within reach of the tides, rarely, if ever, straying inward. It goes as far as Massachusetts, where it is rare; but is found abundantly in the Middle States, and in countless numbers on the coast of North Carolina, where it spends the whole year. The young birds while in their downy plumage are jet black, with a faint gloss of green, resembling newly hatched chickens. Rails live in the marshes, and are not very often seen except when they fly up.
The eggs of the Clapper Rail are of a pale buff or cream color. They are dotted or splashed with irregular spots of a dull purple or lilac color; and the number found in a nest is from six to nine. They raise two broods in a season, and some idea of the countless numbers of Rails in the marshes may be gained from the fact that baskets full of eggs are gathered by boys and brought to the Beaufort market.
The Rails' nests are sometimes floated away and destroyed by an unusual rise of the tide caused by a storm. A great tragedy of this kind happened at Fort Macon on the 22d of May, 1869, when the marsh, usually above water, was flooded, - only here and there a little knoll breaking the monotony of the water. There was a terrible commotion among the Rails at first, and the reeds resounded with their hoarse cries of terror. But as the waters advanced and inundated their houses the birds became silent again, as if in unspeakable misery. They wandered in listless dejection over beds of floating wrack, swam aimlessly over the water, or gathered stupefied in groups upon projecting knolls. Few of the old birds probably were drowned, but most of the young must have perished.
As if to guard against such an accident, the Rails generally build their nests around the margins of the marsh or in elevated spots, at about the usual high-water mark. The nest is always placed on the ground, in a bunch of reeds or tussock of grass or clump of little bushes. It is a flimsy structure made of dry grasses or reed-stalks broken in pieces and matted together, but not intertwined. Sometimes it is barely thick enough to keep the eggs from the wet.
The Rail, though not formed like a natatorial bird, swims very well for short distances. Dr. Coues has often seen it take to the water from choice, without necessity, and noticed that it swam buoyantly and with ease, like a coot. But the bird is a poor flyer, and it is surprising, therefore, that some of the family perform such extensive migrations. The Rails, in fact, are not distinguished either as flyers or swimmers. But as walkers they are unsurpassed; and have the power of making a remarkable compression of their body, that enables them to pass through close-set reeds. The bird indeed, when rapidly and slyly stealing through the brush, becomes literally as "thin as a rail."
Rails are among the most harmless and inoffensive of birds. But when wounded or caught, they make the best fight they can and show good spirit. In this case they use their sharp claws for a weapon rather than their slender bill. A colony of Rails goes far towards relieving a marsh of its monotony. Retiring and unfamiliar as they are, and seldom seen, considering their immense numbers, they have at times a very effective way of asserting themselves. Silent during a great part of the year, or at most only indulging in a spasmodic croak now and then, during the breeding-season they are perhaps the noisiest birds in the country. Let a gun be fired in the marsh, and like the reverberating echoes of the report a hundred cries
come instantly from as many startled throats. The noise spreads on all sides, like ripples on the water at the plash of a stone, till it dies away in the distance.
In the evening and morning particularly, the Rails seem perfectly reckless, and their jovial if unmusical notes resound till the very reeds seem to quake. Dr. Coues compares them to the French claqueurs. Unobtrusive, unrecognized except by a few, almost unknown to the uninitiated, the birds steadily and faithfully fulfil their allotted parts; like claqueurs they fill the pit, ready at a sign to applaud anything that may be going on in the drama of life before them.
No family of birds is possessed of more of those qualities which are especially regarded as picturesque than the Herons. This family comprehends a great many species, distinguished by their remarkable appearance both when flying aloft and when wading in their native swamps. They are generally seen in flocks, passing the day in sluggish inactivity, but called forth to action by hunger in the evening when they take their food. It is at the hour just after twilight that their peculiar cries are heard far aloft as they pass from their secluded dayhaunts to their nocturnal feeding-places. Their flight deserves attention from their slow and solemn motion on the wing. Their flying attitude, however, is uncouth, with the neck bent backwards, their head resting against their shoulders, and their long legs stretched out behind them in the most awkward manner.
Among the Heron family we discover a few birds which, though not very well known, have ways that are singular