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THE WATER OUZEL.
Sturnus cinclus, Linn. Inhabits suitable localities throughout the island. WHERE such prevail, it is as common in Ireland as in Scotland, Wales, and England.* This species might well be designated the bird of the water-fall, so constantly is it to be seen in connection with this fine feature of natural scenery. Once only did this bird come under my notice, on the Rhine from Cologne to Schaffhausen, and then it was at the great fall near the latter city. It is always attendant on the torrents rushing through the sublime alpine defiles of Switzerland, and though Acerbi tells us that the species is not found in Italy, I at one view observed three or four individuals at the surpassingly beautiful cascade of Velino, the admirable description of which occupies four stanzas of Childe Harold's Pilgrimage. But,—to return homewards,-it may be seen about the humble water-falls in the glens and ravines of the Belfast mountains every day throughout the year. Such, however, are not its only haunts, for with the romantic and picturesque in scenery, we may, as a general rule, associate this species. When the stream descends to the lowlands, and
“Drags its slow length along," with a placid surface, unbroken by rock or stone, the water ouzel ceases to accompany it, and returns towards its upland source.
It is remarked by Mr. Selby, that these birds are seen "always on the margin of the stream, or perched in their particular attitude on some projecting stone in the middle of the water.” Thus are they characteristically represented in his splendid Illustrations of British Ornithology, as well as by Bewick, whose vignette more especially exhibits the species in its “rightful place” in connection with the scenery depicted. About the ponds at Wolf-hill, an elevated situation near Belfast, where these birds have chiefly come under my observation, the willows that fringe the bank, are, however,--owing to the absence of stones,—their constant perch. Contiguous to these ponds are rocky mountain streams, by which they are supplied.
* Mr. Selby having remarked that the water ouzel is “probably” met with in Derbyshire, it may be stated, that I never saw the species more plentiful any where than in that county, especially about the romantic Dove, and the river at Matlock.
The water ouzel is described by Montagu and Selby, merely as a very early songster. In the north of Ireland, its song is occasionally heard at all seasons; and more especially when other birds are silent, as in the autumnal, and still more frequently, in the winter months. The bright mornings and forenoons that occur during the most severe frost and snow, have always seemed to me its favourite time for song, which it pours forth when quickly flying at a great height, as well as when perched just above the water.
The first nest of this bird that came under my observation, was placed in a hole in the clayey bank of a pond, where, owing to the shelter afforded, there was no occasion for the display of the ordinary domed architecture, and it was consequently dispensed with. This nest contained four eggs, from which three young were produced. So soon as these were fledged, they were to be seen accompanied by their parents, early every morning about the same pond, some singing, others diving into the water from the rail on which they were perched, none of them being for one moment at rest. When neither diving nor singing, they went through the most grotesque and amusing evolutions; and were a highly interesting group, presenting quite a picture of social happiness. I have frequently witnessed similar playfulness of manner; though from the fact of these birds being generally seen singly, the species is regarded as unsocial. In autumn, at a favourite haunt, I was once much amused by observing a water ouzel singing and perking about its head most ludicrously as it sat on the top of a huge stone, around the base of which a second individual at the same time was skipping in a comical manner.
The following note by an accurate observer, also illustrates the same trait : “On the 26th of Sept., * a pair of water ouzels, at
* The date is mentioned, to show that they are not any of the captivating arts preceding the nuptial season.
the upper pond, Wolf-hill, plunged several times into the water, which was some feet deep, and remained, moving about in it with only their heads above the surface; twice one of them disappeared altogether, but each time for only two seconds; they then pursued each other round the pond, alighted each on a separate stone, when one of them sang: and several times they repeated all these manæuvres.” Early in the morning of the 9th of October, 1843, when driving down the wildly picturesque Glenapp, in Ayrshire, a couple of water ouzels appeared flying in company over the river, into which one of them suddenly dropped and disappeared. This was apparently done through mere playfulness, the water being very muddy from a long and heavy shower which had just fallen, and the food of the bird, it was conjectured, could hardly be seen, except upon the surface. It proceeded for several yards concealed by the water, excepting now and then, when it came so near the surface as to be visible: the river was shallow at the place, and rushing over a very rough stony bed. On emerging, it flew down the river after its companion. I have often, when a boy, seen the water ouzel dive into a pond of clear spring-water at Wolf-hill ten feet in depth; but did not give attention to its motions beneath the surface; it dived from a pipe placed about a foot above the water. Only by a quick plunge, or quiet dive from a little height have I seen this bird enter deep water; but into shallow water, I have observed it walk gradually just so far as to enable a thorough ablution to be performed, after which it returned to the land like any other species.*
But to return to the nests. Of five other sites observed to be
* The water ouzel is descanted on in an interesting manner in St. John's Wild sports, &c., of the Highlands, chapter 25, p. 198, and the author remarks: — “Despite of Mr. Waterton's strong opinion of the impossibility of the feat, he (the
scratching with his feet among the small stones, and picking away at all the small insects and animalcula which he can dislodge. On two or three occasions I have witnessed this act of the water ouzel, and have most distinctly seen the bird walking and feeding in this manner, under the pellucid waters of a Highland burn.” Mr. Dillwyn, too, observes : “I have often seen this bird run rather than dive from the edge of a stream ; and while under water by some motion of the wings as well as
Swansea, p. 4.
selected for nidification, in the neighbourhood of Belfast, three were in the fissures of rocks close to the finest cascades of our mountain streams. One (in 1832) was at the side of the Cavehill waterfall, the highest in the extensive parish in which the town just named is situated; the brood duly appeared ; and five or six birds, old and young, were often, through the autumn, seen in company about the place. Another was tastefully built on a niche near the summit of a waterfall of 30 feet in the Crow glen, the rock directly above rising to such an elevation as to render it inaccessible. Here the nest was very large, formed of moss, and of the regular domed structure, upon which the spray from the cascade seldom ceased to beat, the water flowing over the rock being only about two feet distant. This circumstance, however, apparently caused the desertion of the nest, as it was abandoned before the production of a brood; it was not completed until the 20th of April, upon which day one of the birds was for some time observed pulling the growing moss off the moist rocks to add to the structure, while the other remained idle at the base of the cascade. During a flood, the water would have fallen in a sheet over the nest, and left it uninjured. On the 27th of April, in a subsequent year, a nest containing young was observed at the side of a rock bordering a mountain stream, above the surface of which it was elevated only a foot; the lining consisted of the dried stalks of grasses, and a few leaves of trees. In the hole of a wall beside an artificial fall of the river Lagan, another was placed. Throughout the breeding season of 1832, a pair of these birds frequented a dark shed erected over a large mill-wheel of nearly forty feet diameter, at Wolf-hill, where it was presumed they had a nest. Their appearance, perching on the arms of the wheel, and again emerging from this gloomy abode, often caused surprise, more especially when they sallied forth from between the arms of the gigantic wheel in motion, a state in which it was almost constantly.
The last nest of this species which came under my notice, was observed, at the end of May, 1842, near a cascade of Carnlough river (county of Antrim), above the great fall. It was very large, fully the size of a man's head, composed externally of moss, and placed on the shelf of a rock rising from the river, which flowed about seven feet beneath. The aperture was close to the base, the thickness of the nest merely being between it and the rock; it was eaved so, that from particular points of view only could any entrance be observed. This bird breeds in the glens around Clonmel ;* and apertures in the arches of the bridge, over the Shannon at Killaloe, are occupied by its nests. Thus, where there is a deficiency of natural breeding-places, the water ouzel can accommodate itself to artificial structures.
As several authors, to whose works I have referred, differ in their descriptions of the colour of the legs of this species, it may be remarked, that two mature specimens killed on the 25th July, had the entire front (and it only) of the tarsi and upper side of the toes of a whitish colour, like the clouded or opaque part of a quill; all the rest was blackish.
The stomachs of two individuals I examined, in the month of December, contained the remains of the larvæ of aquatic Coleoptera, and one in January exhibited the fragments of insects only. The stomach of one looked to in October was entirely filled with the remains of crustacea, excepting two full-sized dorsal spines of a three-spined stickleback (Gasterosteus). A person who has had ample opportunities of observing the species, states, that from shallow water he has often seen it bring the larvæ of Phryganea, and break their cases on a stone to get at the contained animal. Sir Wm. Jardine, in the second volume of his British Birds, gives a full and admirable account of this species, as Mr. Macgillivray likewise does in his second volume; the latter description, however, being marred by unnecessary reflections on other ornithologists. Both these authors state, that they never found the ova of fish in water ouzels dissected by them, nor do they think that these birds ever seek or use such food, although, from an ignorant belief that they destroy the ova of the salmon, they are unrelentingly persecuted in some parts of the north of Scotland.
* Mr. R. Davis.
+ Rev. T. Knox.