Among the Birds in Northern Shires

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Rivelin Valley. These flocks soon disband; in a day or so they break up, and the birds scatter themselves in pairs over all the suitable breeding-places. We may illustrate this by a comparison of the cheery Wren with these Pipits, and then the reader will quite understand our meaning. The melancholy complaining note of the Meadow Pipit is one of the most characteristic small-bird notes on the moors between April and October.

Every marshy spot is almost certain to contain a pair or more of them, and their nests are the favourite nursery of the Cuckoo. The song of this species is a pleasing one, uttered as the bird descends from a short flight into the air. All through the genial days of a moorland spring the birds may be watched rising and falling, shuttlecock-like, from the heath and cotton-grass. Then, when the nesting season is past, the young and old join into flocks of varying size and betake themselves to the lower ground, appearing in autumn in large numbers in turnip-fields and potato patches.

The breeding season of this Pipit varies considerably according to latitude. On the southern uplands, in Devonshire for instance, the nest is made in April; in the Highlands it is from one to two months later.


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The migrational movements are about the same date in Yorkshire as they are in Devonshire; and the journey extends in both [48] localities from the high inland moors down to the marshy meadows and saltings of the coast. We have found nests of this Pipit in the Rivelin Valley built absolutely in shallow pools of stagnant water, the moss of the foundation being saturated with moisture.

These nests contained the usual complement of eggs and the birds were sitting upon them. Another characteristic bird of the moors, and one with almost exactly the same migrational movements as the Meadow Pipit, is the Twite. This unassuming species is the one Finch of the wide undulating expanses of heather. It may be readily identified by the merest novice. Like a Linnet in general appearance, but wanting the exquisite carmine flush that adorns the more homely bird, as well as the ruby-coloured patch on the crown, its distinction is its bright yellow bill.

It will thus sit and call monotonously until our nearer approach disturbs it, and it rises and flits in a drooping manner just above the heather to another perching-place [49] a little farther on, to repeat its call and again to await our advance, when once more it rises to drop upon some twig and renew its plaint. The Twite gains an additional interest when we remember how rare a bird it is in the south; we know it as a by no means common winter visitor in Devonshire, notwithstanding the fact that there are many localities where one might expect to find it in summer; whilst even in treeless Cornwall—a wild rugged land enough—the [50] bird is so rare that Rodd knew of but a single example, and that was obtained near Penzance.

Then again the bird is confined during the breeding season exclusively to the British moors, with the exception of the coast districts of Norway. From the midlands of England northwards to the Shetlands, the Twite has its only summer residence with us. We fear that we never appreciated the Twite sufficiently when we lived so close to its haunts and considered him too common for any special notice or admiration.

It is only after we have dwelt in districts where he is unknown that we have begun to regard him with exceptional attention; and now, profiting by past experience, we never see him flitting about the heather without giving a thought to his localness. It is a cup-shaped structure, made externally of grass bents, twigs, and moss, the inside warmly lined with down from willow catkin and cotton-grass, wool from the sheep that graze upon the moors, and feathers.

The five or six eggs are very similar to those of the Linnet, pale bluish-green spotted with reddish-brown and gray. The Twite gets back to the moors in April, and its domestic duties, accompanied by its weak little song, are performed [51] in April and May. In the Highlands the birds nest later than in Yorkshire, but not much, for we have seen flocks of young birds strong on the wing in Scotland in June. The moorlands are finally deserted for the winter during September and October—a vertical migration as interesting, if not so extensive, as the Swallows' flight to Africa.

A passing glance should also be given at the Wheatear. This bird is by no means confined to the moors, yet it is very characteristic of many parts of them, especially in the far north. In Yorkshire it is by no means uncommon about the old quarries and pits on the moors; farther north it becomes more numerous, although scarcely attached to the heather in the same way as the Twite.

This may possibly be because his note resembles the clicking noise made by two pebbles struck together, as well as from his propensity for the rocks and stones. On the Scottish moorlands we have found this bird specially common about the peat-pits and stacks, and in these latter we have often found its nest—a somewhat untidy structure made of dry grass and sometimes lined with hair and feathers, usually containing five or six pale-blue eggs.

The migrations of the Wheatear must be performed very [52] quickly. In Devonshire we note its arrival towards the end of March, and yet by the first half-dozen days of April it has penetrated even as far as the Orkneys and the Hebrides! Passing mention should here also be made of the Sky-lark and the Stonechat—neither bird strictly a moorland one, yet both found in the locality.

The Stonechat, we remember, used to be, and may be now, fairly common on the rough broken ground, not exactly true moorland, in the valley of the Rivelin at Hollow Meadows, half a dozen miles west of Sheffield. This bird always impressed us to a remarkable degree, possibly because it is such a bold and assertive one. Mountain Ouzel—we should unhesitatingly state that it is commonest in the district of the Peak. He breeds upon the Cornish uplands, and in Devonshire upon Dartmoor, as we have repeatedly remarked; then we find him on the uplands of Somerset, and increasingly common over the Welsh mountains northwards to the vast solitudes of the Pennine chain.

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Farther north in Scotland he is found, but our experience is that the bird is local, [53] and common nowhere in the latter country. The moors west of Sheffield, for some reason or another, are specially sought by the Ring-ouzel; and nowhere in that district is the bird more abundant than in the Rivelin Valley and between Stanage Edge and Derwent Edge, and on the Bamford and Bradfield moors.

South of Sheffield we may meet with this Ouzel in fair numbers about Dore, Owler Bar, and westwards over the Hathersage uplands. As most readers may know, the Ring-ouzel is a [54] spring migrant to the British Islands, and the only migratory Thrush that comes to that area to rear its young. Like some other northern migrants, its passage is by no means a slow one. It arrives in South Devon sometimes as early as the end of March, more usually the beginning of April, and what is rather remarkable, this date is practically coincident with its arrival in South Yorkshire. For many years we paid special attention to the migrational movements of this bird, and should give its date of arrival as the first week in April in that district.

This seems to indicate beyond question that Ring-ouzels migrate direct to their breeding areas after landing on our southern coasts. They journey in flocks, often of considerable size, and several seasons we were fortunate enough to observe them in companies numbering several hundreds of birds, on the very day of their appearance in the Rivelin Valley. These flocks soon disband; in a day or so they break up, and the birds scatter themselves in pairs over all the suitable breeding-places.

The cock bird is not only a handsome one, but very distinctively marked, easily recognized as far as the eye can reach by his pure white gorget; otherwise he very closely resembles the Blackbird in general appearance. The resemblance does not end here, though, and in its habits and movements generally, as well as in the nest and eggs, we have an equal similarity.

Whilst in flocks the birds are wary and wild enough, but when breeding they become bold and venturesome to an astonishing degree—in these respects exactly resembling their ally, the Missel-thrush. Soon after their arrival, but never, so far as we have observed, before the flocks or travelling parties have disbanded, the cock birds regain their vernal music characteristic of the love season.

With the resumption of song the bird loses a good deal of its wariness, a fact we may notice in not a few other species. He will sit and warble on the big boulders of granite or millstone grit, or when perched on the top of a rough wall or some bending spray of ling or gorse, just as sweetly as when sitting in the higher branches of some birch or mountain-ash. His music is not of that rich excellence that marks the song of the Blackbird, nor has it the variety so characteristic of the Thrush; yet there is a wild beauty in harmony with the surrounding scene that makes ample recompense for its failings in other ways.

Unfortunately the bird continually spoils his music by introducing a series of inharmonious harsh notes. To our mind, the Ring-ouzel always increased in interest during the breeding season. Many scores of nests of this bird have we kept under observation, not a few of them from the time the first twig was laid until the four or five nestlings left them for ever.

The birds are much attached to certain spots, and return to nest in them with wonderful pertinacity. Then, again, how often have we remarked their absurd attachment to a nest in the course of building. We have known Ring-ouzels show more concern for a handful of nest material—by no means a finished nest—than scores of other species display over the absolute loss of a nest and eggs. The Ring-ouzel is the Stormcock of the moor—ready to do battle with much noisy clamour the moment its nest is approached.

This nest is not always made amongst the ling and heather; numbers are placed in low bushes on the outskirts of the moor, and on the banks of the streams and by the sides of the roughly-formed cart-tracks, especially where the banks are steep. In early autumn Ring-ouzels again become more or less social and gregarious; they then begin to wander off the moors to the nearest fruit-gardens, and so gradually work south in parties and flocks.

The birds are not so common in that area now; times have changed and many species are gone, for in the same letter No. VII he tells us that there are Bustards on the wide downs near Brighthelmstone! Perhaps we might here take the opportunity of mentioning that flocks of Snow Buntings sometimes appear on the Highland moors, but our own experience of this charming arctic stranger relates to more southern shires, and where we hope to meet with it again later on in the present work.

The birds of prey that haunt the moors are all more or less migratory in their habits, as might naturally be expected, because the species upon which they depend for food are non-resident too. The Red Grouse, it is true, is sedentary, but no raptorial bird frequents the moors that preys exclusively upon that species, and it chiefly suffers during the breeding season when the young chicks and poults are about. The Merlin is the most deadly enemy of these. It is a spring migrant to the moors, and is not known to breed with certainty [58] south of Wales. It may just possibly do so on Exmoor, but certainly does not on Dartmoor; in fact, to Devonshire it must be regarded as a rare visitor in autumn and winter.

We have always [59] found the Merlin to be fairly common throughout the moors of North Derbyshire and South Yorkshire. It is ruthlessly persecuted by the gamekeeper, and its numbers consequently have declined almost to the vanishing point in not a few districts. We never saw much of the Merlin on the moors between Castleton and Sheffield before April. There are many favourite haunts on these moors in which the bird may be found breeding every summer; and curiously enough, although pair after pair may be destroyed, others come and settle in the district the following season.

We are glad to be able to record that the bird has not been so severely hunted down in one or two places, and consequently its numbers seem to be on the increase. The spirited dash of this pretty little Falcon is not exceeded by that of the Peregrine itself. Times without number have we witnessed its fatal chase of the smaller birds of the moor—Twites, Ring-ouzels, Meadow Pipits, and less frequently of Plovers, Grouse, and occasionally Cuckoos.

In the higher valley of the Rivelin, we once watched an exciting chase by this bird of a Common Sandpiper, which had been flushed from the heath-clad bank of one of the reservoirs at Hollow Meadows. Pursuer and pursued strove their utmost, the Sandpiper doubling, rising, and turning from side to side, and the relentless Merlin following closely every movement as though each [60] bird were guided simultaneously by a common impulse.

The Sandpiper, after the water was crossed, gained a brief respite by hiding amongst the rushes on the opposite bank; but the Falcon, undeterred, hovered above the spot and once more flushed its quarry. Like most, if not all the smaller Falcons, it subsists largely on certain insects. Perhaps in this case they do not, for the insects caught can do little or no damage in such localities; but on the other hand, we must remember that the Falcon assists in keeping up the Grouse to a strong and vigorous standard by killing off—if amongst others—a certain percentage of weakly and unfit birds.

There is some evidence to show that Grouse disease appears in regular cycles on most moors—say every seven years—and competent observers [61] have attributed it to old birds spreading the contagion. Now, had the larger Raptores not been so ruthlessly exterminated in these localities, surely it is only reasonable to suppose that they would have thinned out many of these birds, not perhaps preventing an epidemic, but thus assisting in rendering it of a milder character than otherwise prevails.

Depend upon it, man seldom or never meddles with the delicately-adjusted balance of nature without unfortunate results in some direction. But to return to the Merlin and its economy. Like the Sparrow-hawk and many other raptorial birds, this pretty species selects some spot or spots in its haunts to which it conveys its captures to devour them in peace. These haunts, as previously remarked, are tenanted yearly with wonderful regularity, and the nest each season is made in much the same locality as in previous years. This nest is of the simplest, and always, so far as we know, upon the ground.

Our [62] experience is that it is invariably upon the ground, and generally on a rather bare spot amongst the heather or ling, often on an eminence of some kind.

Among the Birds in Northern Shires

Here in a slight hollow, with no lining as likely as not, the four or five pretty red eggs of the Merlin are laid. They are absolutely indistinguishable from those of the much commoner Kestrel, but their terrestrial resting-place should prevent the novice confusing them in situ.

In autumn the Merlins quit the moors. It is difficult to say how far these birds indigenous to our own moorlands migrate; there is evidence to suggest that the movement is limited to a trip to the lowlands, extending even to the coast. On the other hand, the bird is certainly a species with a strongly marked and regular passage in most parts of its extra British range.

A word as to the plumage of this interesting Falcon. The cock bird, with his slate-gray upper parts, rufous nape, more or less distinctly barred tail, dark wings, and rufous under parts streaked with dark brown, is possibly familiar to most readers. The hen bird, so far as we can determine, is not only slightly bigger than her mate, but much less handsome in colour. She is dark rufous-brown on the upper parts, each feather with a paler margin, the buff nape patch is paler and much less distinctly defined, the tail is browner, and the under parts are dirty white streaked with brown.

This plumage closely resembles that [63] of the young male. During the past quarter of a century we have examined a great many skins of the Merlin, and almost without exception the sexual differences in colour were as described above. There are authorities, however, that maintain that the adult plumage of the female of this Falcon is very similar to that of the male. In this we are disposed to concur, for we have examined an adult female obtained by Dr. Scully in Gilgit and his sexing of specimens is most reliable, as every naturalist who has had the pleasure of seeing them will agree, the sexual organs being in most cases sketched on the labels attached to the skins , in which the sexual differences of colour were most trifling.

It is said that the females are shot off in this country before they can obtain their fully adult dress. In fairness, however, we must state that there is always the possibility of very old females assuming the male plumage, and their apparent rarity may be due to this fact. Unfortunately the other moorland birds of prey are now rare almost to the verge of extinction; indeed, we regret to say the Merlin itself in not a few localities is fast approaching the same condition.

The species that we shall allude to here is the Hen Harrier. This bird, like nearly all the other birds of the moors, is a migratory one, although there is some evidence to suggest that in our islands the movement is to some extent confined to a journey [64] to the lowlands and the southern counties. Montagu cleared up the confusion by rearing a brood doubtless from a Devonshire nest , and clearly demonstrated that the two supposed species were in reality the opposite sexes of one.

About the South Yorkshire moors the Hen Harrier is practically unknown. Our limited experience of the bird was obtained on the moors of Skye, where we believe it still continues to nest. We have there seen it beating along the hillsides in a slow deliberate manner just above the tall ling, amongst which, in this island, it almost invariably makes its nest, placing it upon the ground.

The four or five very pale-blue eggs are often destroyed by sheep; in fact, we were assured by an intelligent keeper in Skye that to this cause alone its diminishing numbers must be attributed. This Harrier reaches the moors in April or early May, and nests during the latter month and the first half of June. The cock is a beautiful bird, [65] with gray upper parts, darker on the throat and breast, the remainder of the under parts and the upper tail-coverts pure white, the primaries black.

The hen is somewhat larger, dark-brown above, paler brown below, streaked with rufous-brown; the upper tail-coverts are, however, nearly white as in the male, which fact seems to suggest that they are a recognition mark Conf. Curiosities of Bird Life , p.

The principal food of this Harrier consists of small animals, such as moles, mice; of frogs, lizards, and insects. The bird is also a great egg eater, robbing the nests of other moorland species. There are one or two other Raptores we may just allude to here as dwellers on or fairly regular visitors to the moorlands.

On the South Yorkshire moors the Kestrel is, we are glad to say, still a fairly common bird.

It is fond of the outskirts of the moors, the rough grounds often crowned with ridges—ranges of low cliffs—of millstone grit, and in these it habitually nests. Then the Sparrow-hawk is a frequent visitor to the heath-clad wastes, but chiefly to the borderland and in localities where there are plantations of larch and fir, [66] in which the bird can find seclusion and a suitable nesting haunt. We have often remarked that these moorland Sparrow-hawks quit such areas during winter when small birds are absent. The Rough-legged Buzzard passes over many parts of the South Yorkshire moors on migration, especially in autumn.

We have examined many fine examples of this bird, obtained on the Ashopton moors and about Derwent, chiefly birds of the year. The two species of British Eagles must also be mentioned as visitors to the Highland moors, although not exclusively indigenous to them.

They are better described as mountain birds, and shall receive more detailed notice in our chapter devoted to the avine characteristics of such localities. So also may we remark that the Raven will be dealt with in the same chapter. In Devonshire the Raven is still to be found on Dartmoor—one of the few inland localities that it frequents in England nowadays; but elsewhere on the English moors, so far as our experience goes, the bird is but a casual visitant.

The moorlands, being as they are the least changed districts in the British area, continue to be the resort of a large number of shy birds of the Plover and Sandpiper tribe during the breeding season. In some places no doubt the number of these birds is visibly diminishing, but in the wilder districts there still remain sufficient to constitute a decided [67] ornithological feature.

One of the best-known of these is the Lapwing. Fortunately we can still class the Lapwing as a common and even abundant bird in suitable districts, and now that its eggs are protected by law in not a few spots we may hope to see a welcome increase. This beautiful Plover—one of the handsomest of the entire group—is by no means confined to the moors; it is a most adaptive species, and makes itself at home on arable land as readily as in wilder areas, still it is a prominent feature in not a few moorland scenes. Who does [68] not know the sad mewing cries and the restless uneven flight of this Plover, as it rises startled from the ground and commences its plaintive protest against our intrusion?

Large numbers of Lapwings breed on the North Derbyshire and South Yorkshire moorlands, as well as on the rough grounds in their vicinity. We remember on one occasion—we have a note recording the fact—seeing a pair of Lapwings drop quietly to the ground just behind a stone wall that separated the moor from the highway. Creeping carefully up to the spot we looked through a chink in the wall and saw the two old birds with four chicks which could not have been hatched many hours.

The scene was a charming one. The downy long-legged little creatures were running about picking here and there, their parents standing guard, alert and watchful, yet totally unconscious of prying human eyes not a dozen feet away from them. After watching this family party for some time we intentionally came into view, when the scene instantly became more interesting than it was before. Both old birds rose into the air and commenced wheeling and rolling about just above our head, the female by far the most venturesome of the two.

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Then she alighted a yard or so away, and with both her broad wings sweeping the ground dragged herself along for a few paces, striving her hardest to get us to follow. But we confined our [69] attention for a time to the chicks. All four of these artful youngsters at the first alarm scattered in as many different directions and hid themselves amongst the heath and grass almost with the rapidity of thought. Search as we might we could find but two, although we knew full well the others were concealed on a patch of ground no larger than an ordinary table.

These two chicks we pocketed for specimens, but we were so touched by the way the old Lapwings followed us over the moor crying so plaintively that more humane feelings got the better of us, and we returned to the spot and placed both young birds where we had found them.

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Such little episodes as these go so far, we always think, in making ornithology so very attractive. Another allied species breeding on most of our northern moors and in some few instances in the south-western counties is the Golden Plover. There are few more handsome birds of this order than the Golden Plover in wedding plumage. The upper parts—as they are all the year round—are thickly spotted with golden yellow on a dark-brown ground, the under surface is black as jet.

We begin to see these Plovers back upon their moorland breeding-places in March; in April they become more numerous. Like most of the other birds found on these moors in summer they spend the winter upon the lowlands; in this case frequenting the flat coasts and [70] marshy meadows and saltings near the sea. They love the swampy portions of the moors—the spacious hollows between the hills, where the wet ground is clothed with a dense growth of rushes, cotton-grass, and sphagnum, amongst which the heath and ling in scattered patches mark the drier portions of the ground.

At the first alarm the ever-watchful Plovers rise one after the other from all parts of the waste, and then begins a chorus of flute-like whistling cries, bird after bird taking up the chorus and alarming all other and less demonstrative species within hearing.

Here and there a Golden Plover may be seen quietly standing upon the spongy ground. But it needs sharp eyes to see them, so closely does their spangled backs harmonize with the golden sphagnum and other vegetation. May is their breeding season, and their four large pear-shaped eggs are deposited in a scantily-lined hollow, often beneath the shade of a tuft of rushes or cotton-grass. These eggs are very much the same in general appearance as those of the Lapwing, but the tints are richer and brighter. Of the Sandpiper or Snipe tribe there are at least half a dozen more or less common species that visit the moors in spring to breed.

Most of them are never met with on our south-western uplands at this season, although the Snipe, the Curlew, and the Dunlin are more cosmopolitan in their choice. The two former species are by far the commonest and [71] most widely dispersed on the Yorkshire moors, the remaining four or five are rarer, more local, or absent altogether. The peculiar drumming or bleating of the Snipe is one of the most characteristic of avine sounds upon these moors in spring; the quavering whistle uttered always, or nearly so, whilst the bird is upon the ground , or the better known and somewhat mournful curlee heard whilst the bird is careering to and fro in mid-air of the Curlew is little, if any, less familiar.

On the Hebridean moors, as well as on those of Orkney and Shetland, in the neighbourhood of the sea, the Whimbrel breeds sparingly. It is extremely local, but its habits and economy generally are very similar to those of the larger and better known Curlew. It differs, however, in its migrations, and is a summer visitor only to the British Islands, the greater number passing over them to still more northern breeding grounds in the Faroes, Iceland, and elsewhere.

The Dunlin, notwithstanding the fact that it nests on some of our south-western uplands, finds its favourite breeding grounds on more northern moors up to the Orkneys and the Shetlands. Here again we have a species donning a jet-black belly for the nuptial season. It also displays a very decided preference for the swampy portions of the moors in which to perform its nesting duties.

Then there are the two species of Totani, the one easily distinguished by its orange-coloured [72] legs the Redshank , the other by its green legs and slightly upturned bill the Greenshank. The latter, however, is much rarer than the former, and is only known to breed in the Highlands. The Redshank is fairly common during summer on our northern moors, but this species, like one or two others, is as much at home in more lowland haunts. You may meet with it during summer amongst scenery of a directly opposite character—the fens and broads of the eastern counties.

Redshanks are alert and noisy birds, rising from their moorland haunts when alarmed, and keeping up their shrill double note with almost irritating persistency. As numbers often breed in the same district, the din from the frightened birds soon becomes general. The Greenshank visits its breeding grounds in April and May, coming from over the sea like all our strictly summer visitors, and departing in September and October with its young. This bird again is a noisy one when disturbed, and careers about the air in excitement until left in peace. All these birds breed upon the ground, lay four eggs possessing very similar characteristics in colour and shape, and their nests are found with some difficulty, owing to the protective tints of their eggs.

Of the Duck family the Mallard is by far the commonest and most widely dispersed. It loves the pools and streams and marshy spots upon the [73] moors, but as it breeds as generally in more lowland localities we can scarcely describe it as a typical moorland bird. The same remarks may be said to apply to the Teal, the Wigeon, and some few others. Then in the moorland fastnesses of the Hebrides, and in some parts of the mainland Highlands, the Gray-lag Goose still finds a haunt sufficiently seclusive, although we are assured that its numbers are decreasing.

We know from personal experience that it breeds amongst the ling and heather on some of the Outer Hebrides, making a huge nest of branches and twigs, rushes, and other dry vegetation which is finally lined with down. The six to eight eggs are creamy-white in colour. This bird again is by no means a typical moorland one, for it formerly bred in the fens of East Anglia, and would do so to this day had it not been exterminated. Of the Gull tribe, perhaps the most characteristic moorland species are the Skuas, two species of which are summer migrants to certain of our wildest Highland moors.

Where the moors extend down to the coast in various northern districts, such birds as Terns, Sheldrakes, and Eider Ducks may be found breeding upon them, but we can scarcely regard such species or such localities to come within the scope of the present chapter. M ountain bird-life, if scarce, is not without its charm. That of the loch, taking one season with another, is more varied and abundant; so that combining the two districts together—and they are in most cases inseparably associated—we shall have abundant material to interest us. The mountain bird-life of England—except, perhaps, in the extreme north—is comparatively limited, especially nowadays when persecution has worked such havoc amongst certain species.

That of the loch is peculiarly of a Scottish type inasmuch as the present chapter is concerned.

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The bird-life of these two districts is essentially of a northern type, belonging, like the mountains and lochs themselves, to a wilder and more rugged scenery than any the southern shires can boast. Many of the avine forms belonging to these localities are strictly boreal or even arctic in their distribution, finding a suitable habitat by altitude rather than latitude; many of them are but winter visitors or abnormal wanderers to the south.

In some cases these particular localities are the home of representative species that take the [75] place of more southern types, and afford us a fine series of ornithological comparisons of the deepest interest.