It was on the 26th of July, 1833, that the Ripley, with every sail set, was gently bounding over the waves, towards the Harbour of Bras d'Or. A thin mist covered the surface of the surrounding waters, so that, although it was already full day-light, scarcely could any of the party distinguish the coast of Labrador, which was only about a mile distant from the vessel, that so trippingly moved toward its shores. The person who had undertaken to act as pilot, proved so inadequate to the task, that, notwithstanding his having fished for many years in sight of the harbour we were desirous of entering, he could not afford the least aid to our captain in navigating the schooner. We neared the land, however, and through the mist at last discovered the slender spars of several vessels at anchor. A signal was instantly run apeak, and to our great joy was immediately answered. Over the waves now came dancing one of those buoyant crafts used by whalers. In a few moments it was alongside the Ripley, when my old acquaintance, the sturdy cod-fisher BILLINGS of Eastport, offered his services, and soon guided us into port, in entering which we passed through an aperture, guarded by two dangerous rocks, so narrow that one might have leaped ashore from our bark. Once entered, our nostrils were assailed by odours that were anything but agreeable. I was surprised to find so much bustle in such a place: perhaps more than a hundred fishing-barks lay at anchor, in so regular array that they might remind one of the disciplined order of a squadron ready for action, although the business-like appearance of the fishermen would soon remove the illusion. Every deck was heaped with fish, the value of which has, for many years back, brought vessel after vessel to these inhospitable shores. Each "Pickaxe" had its "Hampton boats" well manned and ready to sail towards the shallows, where the cod is obtained. Some, in search of bait, were plying their oars and nets, while others were strewing the salted cod over the naked rocks around, there to lie under the drying rays of the sun. Stacks of fish, nearly cured, stretched along to the view, in as close and regular array as haycocks in a meadow. A continued splash was produced by the garbage as it was thrown overboard, and you may judge, if you can, how many thousands of cod and ling have been destroyed, before the whole bottom of this harbour has been paved with their heads.
The thick fog rolled around us, impelled by the chill breeze of the east. Mountains high and bleak we knew were near, but as yet the landscape, was concealed from our view. At length the mist disperses, reft by the northern blasts, the sun appears riding among the fleeting vapours, and now the curtain rises, when lo! what a magnificent prospect presents itself! craggy cliffs, with masses of snow still hanging to their sides, and from whose summits, under sheets of ice, cataracts rush in fury towards the plain. The dismal table-lands form a striking contrast with the beautiful verdure below. Turning towards the south-west, where lay my cherished land, I beheld the precipitous shores of Newfoundland, with masses of ice between, fixed to the foundations of the deep, their everchanging prismatic tints dazzling the eye. But hark! the song of the Shore Lark fills the air, as the warbler mounts on high. "Man the whale-boat," cries the watchful captain; "young friends, let us off to the shore," say I; and soon were we all at the place where we had seen the bird alight.
Although in the course of our previous rambles along the coast of Labrador, and among the numberless islands that guard its shores, I had already seen this Lark in the act of breeding, never before that day did I so much enjoy its song, and never before I reached this singular spot, had I to add to my joys that of finding its nest. Here I found the bird in the full perfection of plumage and song, and here I had an opportunity of studying its habits, which I will now, kind reader, endeavour to describe.
The Shore Lark breeds on the high and desolate tracts of Labrador, in the vicinity of the sea. The face of the country appears as if formed of one undulated expanse of dark granite, covered with mosses and lichens, varying in size and colour, some green, others as white as snow, and others again of every tint, and disposed in large patches or tufts. It is on the latter that the Lark places her nest, which is disposed with so much care, while the moss so resembles the bird in hue, that unless you almost tread upon her as she sits, she seems to feel secure, and remains unmoved. Should you, however, approach so near, she flutters away, feigning lameness so cunningly, that none but one accustomed to the sight can refrain from pursuing her. The male immediately joins her in mimic wretchedness, uttering a note so soft and plaintive, that it requires a strong stimulus to force the naturalist to rob the poor birds of their treasure.
The nest is imbedded in the moss to its edges, which are composed of fine grasses, circularly disposed, and forming a bed about two inches thick, with a lining of Grouse's feathers, and those of other birds. In the beginning of July, the eggs are deposited. They are four or five in number, large, greyish, and covered with numerous pale blue and brown spots. The young leave the nest before they are able to fly, and follow their parents over the moss, where they are fed about a week. They run nimbly, emit a soft peep, and squat closely at the first appearance of danger. If observed and pursued, they open their wings to aid them in their escape, and separating, make off with great celerity. On such occasions it is difficult to secure more than one of them, unless several persons be present, when each can pursue a bird. The parents all this time are following the enemy overhead, lamenting the danger to which their young are exposed. In several instances, the old bird followed us almost to our boat, alighting occasionally on a projecting crag before us, and entreating us, as it were, to restore its offspring. By the first of August many of the young are fully fledged, and the different broods are seen associating together, to the number of forty, fifty, or more. They now gradually remove to the islands of the coast, where they remain until their departure, which takes place in the beginning of September. They start at the dawn of day, proceed on their way south at a small elevation above the water, and fly in so straggling a manner, that they can scarcely be said to move in flocks.
This species returns to Labrador and the adjoining islands in the beginning of June. The males are then so pugnacious and jealous of their females, that the sight of one of their own sex, instantly excites them to give battle; and it is curious to observe, that no sooner does one of these encounters take place, than several other males join in the fray. They close, flutter, bite, and tumble over, as the European Sparrow is observed to do on similar occasions. Several times while in Labrador, I took advantage of their pugnacious disposition, and procured two or three individuals at a shot, which it is difficult to do at any other time. Several pairs breed in the same place, but not near each other. The male bird sings sweetly while on wing, although its song is comparatively short. It springs from the moss or naked rock obliquely, for about forty yards, begins and ends its madrigal, then performs a few irregular evolutions, and returns to the ground. There also it sings, but less frequently, and with less fulness. Its call-note is quite mellow, and altered at times in a ventriloquial manner, so different, as to seem like that of another species. As soon as the young are hatched, the whole are comparatively mute, merely using the call-note. Only one brood is reared each season.
The food of the Shore Lark consists of grass-seeds, the blossoms of dwarf plants, and insects. It is an expert catcher of flies, following insects on wing to a considerable distance, and now and then betaking itself to the sea-shore to search for minute shell-fish or crustacea.
The Shore Larks reach the United States at the approach of winter. When the weather is severe in the north, they are seen in Massachusetts as early as October. Many spend the winter there, in the vicinity of the sea-shore and sandy fields; others retire farther south, but seldom proceed beyond Maryland on the Atlantic, or the lower parts of Kentucky, west of the Alleghany mountains. My friend BACHMAN never saw one near Charleston, and only one have I seen in Louisiana, where the poor thing appeared quite lost, and so fatigued that I caught it.
At this season they fly in their usual loose manner, over the fields and open grounds, in search of food, which now consists of seeds, and the dormant larvae of insects, mixing with the Pipit or Titlark, and now and then with the Cow Bunting and others. They become plump and fat, and afford delicious food, for which reason our eastern markets are supplied with them. Although they at times alight on fences, I never saw one on a tree. The ground, indeed, is their proper place; there they repose, near tufts of dry grass, in small groups, until the return of day, when they run about in a straggling manner. If affrighted, the whole take to wing, perform a few evolutions, and alight on the same ground again.
I have given figures of this beautiful Lark in different stages. The male birds, which, during the love season, have the black tufts of feathers on their head, as represented in the plate, nearly lose them at the approach of winter, when the brightness of their whole summer plumage is also much diminished.
"Early in November," as my friend Dr. T. M. BREWER informs me, "the Shore Lark makes its appearance in Massachusetts, and continues there in large flocks of immature birds through the whole of the winter, and until March. They fly in small flocks, usually of less than twenty, frequenting for the greater part the salt-marshes along the coast. They suffer greatly from the depredations made upon them by Hawks of various kinds, especially the Rough-legged Falcon, the Red-shouldered Hawk, and the Marsh Hawk." "On June 10," says Mr. NUTTALL, "on the plains by the banks of the sweet water of the Platte, we started the Shore Lark from her nest in a small depression on the ground. It was made of bent grass, lined with coarse bison hair. The eggs were olive-white, minutely spotted all over with a darker tinge."
SHORE LARK, Alauda cornuta, Wils. Amer. Orn., vol. i. p. 85.
ALAUDA ALPESTRIS, Bonap. Syn., p. 102.
HORNED or SHORE LARK, Alauda cornuta, Swains. & Rich. F. Bor. Amer.,vol. ii. p. 245.
SHORE LARK, Nutt. Man., vol. i. p. 522. (2nd edition.)
SHORE LARK, Alauda alpestris, Aud. Orn. Biog., vol. ii. p. 570; vol. v.p. 488.
Male with two erectile pointed tufts of feathers on the anterior lateral parts of the head. In winter the upper parts dusky brown, the feathers paler on the edges; on the forehead a recurved crescentic band of brownish-black; another curved downwards, proceeding on each side from the base of the upper mandible; a band of yellowish-white over the eye and forehead; throat pale-yellow, with a broad dusky patch on the lower neck, the rest of the lower parts brownish-white; quills dusky, tail-feathers blackish, excepting the two middle, which are reddish-brown, like the upper tail-coverts. In summer, the brownish-black bands on the head and neck become deep black, the throat and frontal band white, and the upper parts light brownish-red. Female dusky brown above, dull white beneath; the wings and tail as in the male, but the black bands on the head and neck wanting. Young from the nest with the upper parts deep brown, mottled with pale reddish-brown, lower parts pale yellowish-grey.
Male, 7 1/2, 14.
Breeds in Labrador and northwards. Migrates in autumn southward, as far as the Texas. Not uncommon in the Western Country at that season.