Edited by Miss Mary L. Armitt.
Volume 11, 1900, pgs. 19-27
"Knowledge Never Learned Of Schools."
At last,--for at last it seems, after days of driving sleet and snow, or mist and rain and darkness--there comes a morning when the whole wintry world of mountain and mere is visible again; and the lost sun appears, blinking with cheerful horizontal rays as his glowing circle peeps, about nine o'clock, above white Wansfell.
At once, and for the first time, the sentient world feels itself to be in a new year. A page in the dreariest chapter of winter is turned. There is an undefined sense of hope in the air, and a certain amount of cheerful bustle prevails among all moving creatures. Hope, yes! and expectation, though over mountain and fell a thin pall of white yet lies, through which rock and scree loom black and drear; though skies--except for the patch whence the sun so kindly smiles for a while--are a pallid grey; though the oak trees grouped majestically upon the rocky slope are as frowningly dark from rugged trunk to myriad cresting tip as the rocks themselves,--not touched with that pinky-brown hue of hope that the higher larch trees carry; though the only sound is the trickling of water about the sodden ground, or the low rumble of the swollen beck, tumbling somewhere over the upper rocks of Loughrigg, or the fall of a stone from the distant quarry, or the bark of a Raven over the scar.
Yet, in face of all these bleak signs of winter's inanimate state, what cheery sights there are among active living things, as soon as we stand to look! Here is the Dipper, that betakes itself so oddly in the winter to a lacustral life, and uses the lake as a feeding-ground almost like a Duck, only that it splashes and wriggles far more than any Duck will do; here it is, winging low along the shore, ready to alight. But where, in all this particular stretch of rushy, slushy margin, so repugnant to its stone-loving claws, will it choose a spot for settling? So! in desperation it has rushed into a large and many-branched bush, which here breaks the monotony of the shore, and is so surprised itself at this action that it chats loud awhile, and then remains ducking its big broad body like a mechanical toy among the interlacing boughs. Its behaviour has not only flustered itself, but a Water-hen also, that was placidly picking on the sedgey shore; and the hen suddenly launches itself on the lake, twisting slightly with each stroke of its unwebbed feet, and jerking upwards with each stroke that pretty, white-lined tail of its--for its adornments are carried at each end of its dark-grey person, in a red neb, and a white-lined tail. Presently the Dipper flies from its strange perch to the placid surface, and begins afresh its rat-like squirmings up and down, above and below.
But there are other birds abroad on the bosom of the lake, in comparison with whose facile evolutions these two birds move but as unpractised amateurs upon the water. Out there by the island, where not the least ripple catches the light, and a bluish sheen tints the opaque dark-grey of the waters, is a perfect school of divers, working with an ease that lends to the getting of a livelihood at the bottom of the lake the appearance of play. It is always worth while to watch a party of winter Golden-eyes, and as this seems a larger party than usual, we idly pause to wonder how many there may be. So we count; then, as more come up--though some go down--we count again, and yet again; count repeatedly, futilely, with growing eagerness, for an arithmetical puzzle is not more baffling nor engrossing than the numbering of hungry Golden-eyes. Five; seven; ten; nine; two; six; five; ten; none! And on, and on, till the number ten being achieved three times over, we rashly conclude ten to be the limit of the party: till a long time later, when there happens to be a temporary lull in the general activity of the group, we catch thirteen birds afloat, and suspect more! The exact number remains a mystery.
Quite as illusory are single individuals as general numbers; for in a wide group of fast-swimming, oft-disappearing creatures, that now dive in a close squad to reappear scattered, or dive scattered to come up nearly upon one another’s backs (how well they must see under water to avoid collision!) it is difficult to follow a single bird’s action. There is, however, one particular drake, so conspicuously brilliant among all the motley band of youngsters and ducks, that it is impossible not to note his movements. We have never done admiring him, as he takes his powerful plunge, or appears again suddenly from the depths. His well set-back head, iridescently black, has a sort of peak or cap, very masterful in effect; he carries below the golden orb of vision that gains for his species its name, a large white spot of feathers ringed in black; his lower neck and breast and high white sides gleam a miracle of whiteness, and the black feathers of his back are finished off with a deep fringe of alternate black and white, most elegant and effective; a beautiful bird indeed! When, lo! all at once, after long watching there are two such drakes upon the water! Nay, we even suspect three, but prefer, in a natural irritation at having taken three persons to be one, not to go into the matter further. The birds, in fact, are spending a longer time below the water just now than above it. Actually, when we have left the group for a few restful moments, we return to it again to find not a single bird upon the surface, and only three pale rings of light to show where the last ones went down, and to prove that below that vacant surface there are many air-breathing creatures in active motion. But before these three rings fade, some of the earlier divers are back. In fact, I have never timed the length of a Golden-eye's disappearance to last appreciably longer than half a minute, or from 27 to 31 seconds, and it goes without saying that the experiment has been made when the birds were single or close at hand; but then, its stay above, when feeding actively, lasts not a tenth of that time. Indeed, the bird comes up only to breathe. Its feeding ground is the bottom of the lake, even the deepest bottom of it, where who (that shoots not nor dissects) shall say on what it feeds? Down there lies hidden many an organicatom, vegetable or animal; dormant seeds of water-plants, such as the air-loving water-lily, that will strike upwards when the time for growing comes, of the soft trailing, translucent pondweeds that live submerged; whole acres of the flowerless, bottom-growing quillwort, that multiplies by spores, whose stiff, spiny foliage it is possible ducks may relish; myriads of tiny bivalve shells, Cyclas corneum by name, that nestle in the dark quillwort and stud the bottom like little golden stars; and a host of living things besides. To reach this tempting place, the bird goes down, if we may judge by the initiatory movement, by an; most perpendicular descent of great speed
A powerful spring is made that turns its body over in a somersault; the neck strikes the water in a stiff arc(straightended, no doubt below), and the tail, the last point above water, is seen to be fanned out stiffly. Considering the strength of the plunge, there is an astonishingly small amount of commotion in the water. With what ease and speed, too, do the birds swim, oft close together and in varying courses, yet never in each other's way!
Then, when that partial lull comes in their meal-getting, what a pretty sight it is to scan the large and varied brood! The pretty sober ducks, all brown and grey-white, with russet-brown upper neck showing ruf-like above the grey, and grey and dappled sides, and but one narrow streak of actual white upon the wing; the young drakes, with breast and ring showing fairly white, but with but a small white wing-patch yet, that gives them no claim to the bird's local name of Whitesides; the brilliant drakes, more brilliant than ever when now at ease, and one rises in the water to shake his wet wings, and another shows in preening his back feathers the alternating stretch of white neck generally hidden between his black set-back head and black back. So many differences, in sex and age, but all alike, in ease and speed, masters of their native element !
It is worth a January day's while to watch these happy winter Ducks, that nest in northern climes, It is difficult to leave them, to push farther, and find the Coots,--not as agile as they, but beyond the Water-hen and Dipper in water-power--diving just beyond the dead reed-stems. And here is another Dipper, too, squirming in the water! As we began with Bessie Douker at one end of the lake, so we finish with him--or her, at the other.
Mary L. Armitt
Proofread Nov. 2023, LNL
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