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THE PEAT ISLAND.
A SQUARE flat island on Loch Lomond, called Inch Moan, but familiarly known as the Peat Island, (from the people of Luss having liberty to cast peats there,) is a favourite resort of
kind of wild fowl. At a little distance, it appears almost level with the water, on which account, as well as from its mossy formation, it abounds in swamps and morasses. This may partly account for the partiality of the wild fowl to its shores. But there are stronger reasons still; the retired, wild character of the place, seldom visited by man, except for an occasional boat-load of peats, added to which, the shallowness of the water at the edges, growing deep so very gradually, is most favourable to their feeding. In the season, the further end of the island, having a grassy margin and bottom, is much frequented by flocks of wild ducks and wigeon, on many occasions I have put up not less than a thousand in one company. In the severest weather, the sea eagle continually resorts there to prey upon the wild fowl, and so voracious is it at this time, that my father's gamekeeper had his water dog nearly drowned by one of them when retrieving a wild duck. He managed, however, to shoot the erne, the talons of which were long preserved as a trophy. I have seldom done much execution there with my gun, from the difficulty of approaching such a multitude of eyes over a dead level, where there is not a bush or tree to serve as a screen.
When the Hoopers come to the loch they are generally first observed at this part of Inch Moan, but to get a shot is next to impossible, as they can sound the bottom at the distance of several hundred yards from the land, and seldom feed nearer. They are also excellent watchmen for the fowl resting on the banks, and it is astonishing to see the quickness with which the latter notice the slightest sign of alarm shown by their white sentinels. But, although I have had many disappointments from the aforesaid causes, yet by watching them at a distance with my glass, I have taken many a lesson in the habits of the birds, and got useful hints for future operations.
A short distance from the shore, perhaps, may be seen a flock of tufted ducks, diving at longer or shorter intervals, according to the depth of the water; seldom appearing at the top without their mouthful of grass, which is cunningly watched by a stray mallard or two, ready to pounce upon the prize the moment it is seen. The mallard, however, but rarely succeeds in his piracy, as the divers generally manage to gulp down their mouthful. At last, tired of the bootless chase, the plunderers join their comrades at the margin, contenting themselves with what may drift there from the feeding-ground of the divers.
In very severe weather, especially during a snow-storm, both ducks and wigeon are apt to trust to the diving tribe as their purveyors. It would be difficult for any one who has not witnessed it, to imagine the supply left by a flock of dun-birds on a lee shore. I have seen as much as a cart-load drifted on not more than fifty yards of coast.
The wild duck sometimes feeds by diving, but this is only in spring, after pairing. The dives are very short, and it is probable that at this time they are feeding on some water-insect which they could not find at the margin. In winter they never feed farther from shore than they can sound the bottom, by sinking their heads and turning up their tails, like the domestic duck. An artificial supply of food will sometimes cause moss ducks to collect in small flocks on running streams. The river Gala flows sluggishly just below the town of Galashiels, bringing down the refuse from the houses. And here I never missed seeing ducks in hard weather. They stuck to the place most pertinaciously, although I repeatedly fired at them from behind a wall, and killed several. I solved the mystery one morning by finding half a potato, neatly peeled and cut for the saucepan, in the bill of a mallard I had just shot. So I perceived that this spot was a kind of nucleus round which a quantity of the rubbish had collected.
But I have flown far away from my island, where, in summer as in winter, there is always some rare and shy sojourner. At the end of some long point, immersed to the feathers in the clear water, stands the patient, lonely heron, waiting till the shoal of incautious fish, which the warm sun has brought to the shallows, begin curiously to nibble at its silvery legs. When, striking down its harpoon bill, with far greater certainty than a leister thrown by the most skilful hand, it rarely or never fails to draw up its victim. Not far distant, and perched upon an archipelago of rocks, may be seen the snowy-breasted herring gull, while its mate is floating upon the glassy deep. At the sound of a footstep, they both extend their sluggish wings, and soar high into the air with loud and discordant scream, a pretty sure sign that the nest is near. This call, not altogether unlike the barking of a dog, may be heard for miles around, and is to be considered a note of alarm rather than of defiance.
Herons and gulls build every year on this island, or near to it. We have often tamed the young of both, and it would be difficult to say which are the most voracious. I have given half a dozen perch at a time, which have been instantly swallowed, dorsal fins and all, by one of these young gluttons. As soon as their wings grew, they wandered away, and would not suffer themselves to be secured until they were half-famished. The gulls would often be driven back by extreme hunger to the place where they were usually fed: the herons, even in this state, had always to be carried home, tempted by a fish or piece of raw flesh which was held out to them. After getting hold of one by the above stratagem, I was amazed to see it throw up a dead mole, which showed the straits to which it had been reduced. Another, which I winged about the end of November at the foot of a drain, cast up three or four good-sized trout. How it had caught them at that season, I should like to know.
The young gulls are very fond of slugs, &c., and two kept in my father's kitchen garden were of great use in destroying such reptiles. They require more solid food, however, but these dainties appear to come in as a dessert. The nests of the herons are always tree or ruin. Those of the gulls on a dry sandy piece of ground on the island. The red-breasted merganser, and the goosander, may be seen in the summer, but are constant visitors in winter. The latter sometimes scattered along the shore in flocks of fifty and upwards.
But the most interesting summer emigrant is the curlew. There is a melody in its two wild notes, that carries an indescribable charm over the calm waters or the lonely moor. It generally makes its appearance a little after the green plover, and both hatch on the island every year. By imitating the curlew's cry, I have often arrested its flight, even at an immense distance, and brought it wheeling round my head for some minutes together. In early spring it is generally most clamorous, and continues so until it leaves the inland moors and lochs for the sea coast, with its young brood. The chicks run very soon, but are so difficult to find, that upon some of our Lowland moors I have counted at least a dozen pairs of old birds, yet have not stumbled on a single young one. As I was returning one day from fishing, my old dog found and pointed a couple, which I transferred to my kreel, and had dressed for the table. They were nearly full grown, but could not fly a yard. The young curlews are great annoyances to the game-keeper, from the facility with which they elude even the best-trained pointers. The dog is continually touching upon their scent, which distracts his attention from game, but he scarcely ever “ winds” one, to make amends for this waste of time. Before the 12th of August, however, all the curlews have left.
Many years ago, an eccentric man was tempted to raise a house on the Peat Island. He put up four substantial walls, but stopped payment at the roof, and this edifice, so far as it goes, still stands, a monument of his folly. It has often, however, been useful to us as an observatory for wild fowl.
The sheep-pasture of this island is peculiarly rich, and