John Joseph Briggs
My dear Sir,
I read with interest your comments about the Northern Willie in your masterful work The Compleat Listershire Birds (volume the three) in which you report that this bird is found in these parts "a long way out, really". I would humbly beg your permission, however, to describe the finding of this species (commonly known as guillemot by the natives who display their close ancestry to the French) on the cliffs near St Margaret's Bay in Listershire. You may be assured that I procured eggs as befits a devoted naturalist. It was to my surprise, however, that the species has not been seen at the location since.
I have had the honour of having this report published in the Zoologist, volume the tenth 1852.
St Margaret's Bay is situated perhaps four miles from Dover near the South Foreland lighthouse on the Kentish coast. It is buried in a deep recess between high and prominent chalk cliffs and contains a few houses occupied chiefly by fishermen and the coast guard stationed there for the prevention of smuggling.
During the month of May in the present year I paid a visit to this remote spot and picked up the following gleanings in Natural History. On the most inaccessible parts of the cliffs overlooking the sea between St Margaret's and Dover I found the guillemot breeding but I was told that this bird existed there in much more limited numbers now than formerly.
The eggs were found resting lightly on the shelves of the cliffs without nest and I can bear testimony to the truth of the assertions which naturalists have made that the eggs of this bird vary greatly both in ground colour and markings. Of the three which 1 was able to procure one had its ground colour greenish white and its broad end banded with a ring of deep black blotches its sides varied with a few spots but none at the smaller end. Another egg had a large black blotch on the centre of the broad end from which diverged numerous spots which became smaller in size as they approached the narrow end ground colour white. A third had some well defined but irregularly shaped black spots scattered over it upon a greenish white ground. These eggs were procured on the 26th of May and incubation had just commenced.
Another species of bird which I found breeding on these cliffs more especially near the Foreland lighthouse was the common gull. I procured fourteen eggs on the 26th of May. The nests were situated on the cliffs composed of marine plants and usually contained two eggs occasionally three. These eggs were procured by a person who was suspended over the face of the cliff by a rope like a spider hanging by his web an operation which has frequently been described.
Common as these gulls are there is something very pleasing in their habits and manners. How delightful is it to stand on some prominent crag with the ocean rolling at its base and watch these birds of snowy whiteness winging their spirit like flight through the deep deep space which intervenes between us and the unresting waters. Or to see a party chasing each other over the bright blue waves one perchance picking up a glistening mackerel whilst the others are endeavouring to steal away his prize and are pursuing him so unweariedly that is generally obliged to drop it in order to escape the annoyance pursuit.
Nor is it less pleasing to see the solicitude which they manifest for the safety of their young as they fly round and round nests with restless anxiety uttering their low plaintive cry of distress occasionally alighting on the hoary scalp of some prominent crag for a few moments standing motionless like statues cut from the chalk.
On the ledges of the cliffs before alluded to the sparrow-hawk breeds and in my rambles I met with several pairs of these birds. The merlin too inhabits these cliffs in summer and is said to breed there. Of the truth of this I have no doubt as I frequently a pair which haunted a particular part of the cliff and from their partiality to one spot their manner and also from their being seen there at that period June 23rd I think they must have had a nest in the neighbourhood. Instances of this bird breeding so far south are I believe considered by naturalists extremely rare.
On the sea shore I met with the stonechat, the hooded crow and the raven. The latter bird I am told breeds annually on the highest parts of the cliffs generally on the same rock but not on the same ledge The common skylark was most abundant on the high grounds above the cliffs and I never remember to have heard the song of these birds so sweetly delivered.
St Margaret's Bay furnishes the botanist with many interesting plants amongst which the various species of Orchis stand most conspicuous.
I remain, Sir,
Your most obedient servant
John Joseph Briggs