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I made my selection, but at last I got several tufts, golden eyes, and morillons together. Killed two fine male tufts, and winged a morillon with my first discharge; knocking over a golden eye flying with my second. The winged bird, however, escaped. We now set off at racing speed for the dun-birds in Camstraddan Bay. In taking a passing glance at Galbraith, was surprised to see something like ducks. Took out my telescope, thinking it most unlikely that fowl would be resting there again, especially so late. To be sure, it was a couple of ducks asleep! We, therefore, determined to sacrifice the dun-birds to the ducks. the isle worth two in the bay. Got to them in the same way as before, for they were nearly in the same spot. Had to change my position several times before I could get both in line; this is always dangerous. At last I detected a small opening in the bushes, which gave me the command of them. Fired, and both lay. Rushed down to secure them, but the mallard rose again, so I gave
him his quietus with my second barrel. The duck was dead.
A bird on
This ended my wild-fowl shooting for 1848; in all, fiftyfour head, a heron, and a roe. The gamekeeper gave me able assistance, and is the only one I ever was out with who understands that sport. In January, 1847, I bagged forty-eight head in the same number of days. It is curious that the frost lasted about the same time both years, and, by the merest chance, the thaw began, in both seasons, the very day I had fixed to leave the loch, when the frost was at the hardest. Neither swans nor geese showed themselves either year; but, had the storm been more severe, we should, no doubt, have had some fine chances at them. Inch Tavannach and Inch Connachan were teeming with roe; we seldom passed their shores, especially in the evening, without seeing sometimes seven or eight together.
Ducks and wigeon generally keep the lee-shores; this, however, need not disconcert the stalker, if he only does not let them hear him. I have constantly observed that they wind
you best in calm weather. In high wind never fear their noses, even should it blow direct from you to them. My brother has a gunning-punt upon Loch Lomond, and it was well ascertained, and constantly affirmed, by the boatmen, that the approach with the wind was far “shurer" than when working against it. They always, therefore, tried to advance upon fowl with a favouring gale. From the smallness of the flocks, in comparison with those on the sea-coast, and also from the places where they sheltered being often inaccessible to the punt, it has always been considered a failure on our loch. On looking down upon
your head on a level with the ground, take care that you do not fancy them within range of your duck-gun from the nearest point on the shore, when they are a long way beyond it. I have several times, under these circumstances, selected my pair, made my run down the bank to the beach, and found that the distance had much foreshortened by my constrained view from above. When I got to the level ground, they were quite out of shot.
A wild-fowl gun for Highland lochs should not be very weighty, as a ponderous weapon is so uncomfortable to stalk with. It should be light enough to take smart rights and lefts. The largest charge of mine is one ounce and three-quarters of shot, and I can pull down snipe and woodcocks with it quite readily.
Owls are generally regarded by the common people with a sort of superstitious awe; and, indeed, there is that in their nature and habits which is apt to call forth feelings of pleasure or aversion, according to the temper and circumstances of the observer. For my own part, I have always looked upon them with peculiar favour, whether watching them fitting past in the twilight, with silky, spectre-like flight, or reverently listening, after nightfall, to their melancholy, oft-repeated cry. Even the harsh screech of the white owl is not without its charm; it appears to belong to the stillness of the night.
There are four species of owls which are emphatically British. For although the Snowy Owl has been occasionally seen and shot in the Shetland Isles, and the Great Eagle Owl is sometimes met with in the mountainous districts of the North of England, yet they are so rare as scarcely to deserve the name of British birds. At all events, I know nothing of them except from report, and make it my rule never to run the risk of misleading by borrowed information. The Little Owl, I have been told, occasionally builds near Oxford, but this Lilliputian is quite as scarce as his Brobdignac kin. By our British owls, then, I mean the Tawny or Ivy Owl, the White or Barn Owl, the Long-eared and Short-eared Owls.
Ever since the old tower of my ancestors has been in ruins, a pair of tawny owls have made their habitation there. When a boy, I never failed to search out their nest, and sometimes tamed one of the young, which was pretty sure to be decoyed away by the parents as soon as it was able to fly. I often saw both father and mother come to their young one in the dusk, sometimes with food in their talons. These young owls were not at all particular what they eat, and devoured greedily raw meat of any kind, as well as fish; but I never saw them drink, and when offered water, they showed as much dislike to it as a cat. All day the young owl sat moping, with closed eyes, hissing and snapping his bill if disturbed; but, about nightfall, his visage became full and staring, and so quick was his sight, that I have only been made aware, by the animation of his solemn face, that the indistinct shadow, barely perceptible, was one of the old ones.
A pair of white owls were equally constant to a small cave among the precipitous rocks of Inch Tavannach, the most picturesque of the thirty-three islands on Loch Lomond. I have often climbed to this nest-by no means an easy task—to watch the growth of the young. There were sometimes four or five, whereas the brown owl had seldom more than two or three. Every fine evening the industrious white owl was to be seen, skirting, with noiseless wing, the lawns and fields about Rossdhu, though nearly a mile from its island. I have often admired its expertness. Whenever it saw or heard a mouse, it settled in the air, like the osprey, and then, with its legs hanging down, ready to seize the moment it came to the ground, appeared rapidly to alight on its prey. The ways of the brown owl are different. It does not appear to hunt on the wing, but, perched on the top of the highest tree, hears the slightest rustling among the grass, and instantly descends upon its prey. The grotesquely large head of this bird, which also implies large eyes and ears, are no doubt wise provisions to enable it to see and hear acutely in the darkness from such a height. An instance of the very quick ear of the buzzard once came under my own notice, and is probably still more remarkable in the owl. This buzzard, scarcely-full fledged, was standing, erect as a drill-sergeant, in the midst of a noisy group, all distracting his attention, when a field-mouse was let out of a trap among the grass behind him. He listened, wheeled to the right about, instantly detected the little fugitive, and fastened his claw in its back.
I have been a good deal puzzled by the observations of an ingenious naturalist, which certainly are in direct opposition to my own. This gentleman resolved to see whether some young white owls, in his barn, could remain without food during the long summer day. He watched them for about twelve hours, and avers that in that time the old birds fed them a hundred and fifty times. For my own part, I never saw the white owl hunting in the day-time, and I know a case in point regarding the tawny owl of quite contrary evidence. A pair had reared their young in a magpie's nest, near the top of a thick pine tree. I used often to go to look at the young, and thus drove the old ones from their dwelling. They were instantly pursued by a host of small birds, principally thrushes and blackbirds; and so surely did this happen, that the noise of their chattering was always a signal to me that the owls' nest was disturbed: whereas, if these owls had hunted for prey in