Chapter XX - Birding In The Marshes

Visiting the marshes--Pajonales and Juncales--Abundant bird life--A Coots' metropolis--Frightening the Coots--Grebe and Painted Snipe colonies--The haunt of the Social Marsh Hawk--The beautiful Jacana and its eggs--The colony of Marsh Trupials--The bird's music--The aquatic plant Durasmillo--The Trupial's nest and eggs--Recalling a beauty that has vanished--Our games with gaucho boys--I am injured by a bad boy-- The shepherd's advice--Getting my revenge in a treacherous manner--Was it right or wrong?--The game of Hunting the Ostrich.

At this time of my boy-life most of the daylight hours were spent out of doors, as when not watching the birds in our plantation or asked to go and look at the flock grazing somewhere a mile or so from home, in the absence of the shepherd or his boy, I was always away somewhere on the plain with my small brother on egg-hunting or other expeditions. In the spring and summer we often visited the lagoons or marshes, the most fascinating places I knew on account of their abundant wild bird life. There were four of these lagoons, all in different directions and all within two or three miles from home. They were shallow lakelets, called _lagunas,_ each occupying an area of three or four hundred acres, with some open water and the rest overgrown with bright green sedges in dense beds, called _pajonales,_ and immense beds of bulrushes, called juncales. These last were always the best to explore when the water was not deeper than the saddle-girth, and where the round dark polished stems, crowned with their bright brown tufts, were higher than our heads when we urged our horses through them. These were the breeding-places of some small birds that had their beautifully-made nests a couple of feet or so above the water, attached in some cases to single, in others to two or three, rush stems. And here, too, we found the nests of several large species-- egret, night-heron, cormorant, and occasionally a hawk--birds which build on trees in forest districts, but here on the treeless region of the pampas they made their nests among the rushes. The fourth lakelet had no rush-or sedge-beds and no reeds, and was almost covered with a luxuriant growth of the floating _camalote,_ a plant which at a distance resembles the wild musk or mimulus in its masses of bright green leaves and brilliant yellow blossoms. This, too, was a fascinating spot, as it swarmed with birds, some of them being kinds which did not breed in the reeds and rushes. It was a sort of metropolis of the coots, and before and after the breeding season they would congregate in flocks of many hundreds on the low wet shore, where their black forms had a singular appearance on the moist green turf. It looked to me like a reproduction in small size of a scene I had witnessed--the vast level green pampa with a scattered herd of two or three thousand black cattle grazing on it, on a large cattle estate where only black beasts were bred. We always thought it great fun when we found a big assembly of coots at some distance from the margin. Whipping up our horses, we would suddenly charge the flock to see them run and fly in a panic to the lake and rush over the open water, striking the surface with their feet and raising a perfect cloud of spray behind them.

Coots, however, were common everywhere, but this water was the only breeding-place of the grebe in our neighbourhood; yet here we could find scores of nests any day--scores with eggs and a still greater number of false nests, and we could never tell which had eggs in it before pulling off the covering of wet weeds. Another bird rarely seen at any other spot than this was the painted snipe, a prettily-marked species with a green curved bill. It has curiously sluggish habits, rising only when almost trodden upon, and going off in a wild sacred manner like a nocturnal species, then dropping again into hiding at a short distance. The natives call it dormilon--sleepy-head. On one side of the lagoon, where the ground was swampy and wet, there was always a breeding-colony of these quaint birds; at every few yards one would spring up close to the hoofs, and dismounting we would find the little nest on the wet ground under the grass, always with two eggs so thickly blotched all over with black as to appear almost entirely black.

There were other rushy lagoons at a greater distance which we visited only at long intervals, and one of these I must describe, as it was almost more attractive than any one of the others on account of its bird life. Here, too, there were some kinds which we never found breeding elsewhere.

It was smaller than the other lagoons I have described and much shallower, so that the big birds, such as the stork, wood-ibis, crested screamer, and the great blue ibis, called _vanduria,_ and the roseate spoonbill, could wade almost all over it without wetting their feathers. It was one of those lakes which appear to be drying up, and was pretty well covered with a growth of camalote plant, mixed with reed, sedge, and bulrush patches. It was the only water in our part of the country where the large water-snail was found, and the snails had brought the bird that feeds on them--the large social marsh hawk, a slate-coloured bird resembling a buzzard in its size and manner of flight. But being exclusively a feeder on snails, it lives in peace and harmony with the other bird inhabitants of the marsh. There was always a colony of forty or fifty of these big hawks to be seen at this spot. A still more interesting bird was the jacana, as it is spelt in books, but pronounced ya-sa-NA by the Indians of Paraguay, a quaint rail-like bird supposed to be related to the plover family: black and maroon-red in colour, the wing-quills a shining greenish yellow, it has enormously long toes, spurs on its wings, and yellow wattles on its face. Here I first saw this strange beautiful fowl, and here to my delight I found its nest in three consecutive summers, with three or four clay-coloured eggs spotted with chestnut-red.

Here, too, was the breeding-place of the beautiful black-and-white stilt, and of other species too many to mention. But my greatest delight was in finding breeding in this place a bird I loved more than all the others I have named--a species of marsh trupial, a bird about the size of the common cowbird, and like it, of a uniform deep purple, but with a cap of chestnut-coloured feathers on its head. I loved this bird for its song--the peculiar delicate tender opening notes and trills. In spring and autumn large flocks would occasionally visit our plantation, and the birds in hundreds would settle on a tree and all sing together, producing a marvellous and beautiful noise, as of hundreds of small bells all ringing at one time. It was by the water I first found their breeding-place, where about three or four hundred birds had their nests quite near together, and nests and eggs and the plants on which they were placed, with the solicitous purple birds flying round me, made a scene of enchanting beauty. The nesting-site was on a low swampy piece of ground grown over with a semi-aquatic plant called durasmillo in the vernacular. It has a single white stalk, woody in appearance, two to three feet high, and little thicker than a man's middle finger, with a palm-like crown of large loose lanceolate leaves, so that it looks like a miniature palm, or rather an ailanthus tree, which has a slender perfectly white bole. The solanaceous flowers are purple, and it bears fruit the size of cherries, black as jet, in clusters of three to five or six. In this forest of tiny palms the nests were hanging, attached to the boles, where two or three grew close together; it was a long and deep nest, skilfully made of dry sedge leaves woven together, and the eggs were white or skim-milk blue spotted with black at the large end.

That enchanting part of the marsh, with its forest of graceful miniature trees, where the social trupials sang and wove their nests and reared their young in company--that very spot is now, I dare say, one immense field of corn, lucerne, or flax, and the people who now live and labour there know nothing of its former beautiful inhabitants, nor have they ever seen or even heard of the purple- plumaged trupial, with its chestnut cap and its delicate trilling song. And when I recall these vanished scenes, those rushy and flowery meres, with their varied and multitudinous wild bird life--the cloud of shining wings, the heart-enlivening wild cries, the joy unspeakable it was to me in those early years--I am glad to think I shall never revisit them, that I shall finish my life thousands of miles removed from them, cherishing to the end in my heart the image of a beauty which has vanished from earth.

My elder brother occasionally accompanied us on our egg-hunting visits to the lagoons, and he also joined us in our rides to the two or three streams where we used to go to bathe and fish; but he took no part in our games and pastimes with the gaucho boys: they were beneath him. We ran races on our ponies, and when there were race-meetings in our neighbourhood my father would give us a little money to go and enter our ponies in a boys' race. We rarely won when there were any stakes, as the native boys were too clever on horseback for us, and had all sorts of tricks to prevent us from winning, even when our ponies were better than theirs. We also went tinamou, or partridge, catching, and sometimes we had sham fights with lances, or long canes with which we supplied the others. These games were very rough, and one day when we were armed, not with canes but long straight pliant green poplar boughs we had cut for the purpose, we were having a running fight, when one of the boys got in a rage with me for some reason and, dropping behind, then coming quietly up, gave me a blow on the face and head with his stick which sent me flying off my pony. They all dashed on, leaving me there to pick myself tip, and mounting my pony I went home crying with pain and rage. The blow had fallen on my head, but the pliant stick had come down over my face from the forehead to the chin, taking the skin off. On my way back I met our shepherd and told him my story, and said I would go to the boy's parents to tell them. He advised me not to do so; he said I must learn to take my own part, and if any one injured me and I wanted him punished I must do the punishing myself. If I made any fuss and complaint about it I should only get laughed at, and he would go scot free. What, then, was I to do? I asked, seeing that he was older and stronger than myself, and had his heavy whip and knife to defend himself against attack.

"Oh, don't be in a hurry to do it," he returned. "Wait for an opportunity, even if you have to wait for days; and when it comes, do to him just what he did to you. Don't warn him, but simply knock him off his horse, and then you will be quits."

Now this shepherd was a good man, much respected by every one, and I was glad that in his wisdom and sympathy he had put such a simple, easy plan into my head, and I dried my tears and went home and washed the blood from my face, and when asked how I had got that awful wound that disfigured me I made light of it. Two days later my enemy appeared on the scene. I heard his voice outside the gate calling to some one, and peering out I saw him sitting on his horse. His guilty conscience made him afraid to dismount, but he was anxious to find out what was going to be done about his treatment of me, also, if he could see me, to discover my state of mind after two days.

I went out to the timber pile and selected a bamboo cane about twenty feet long, not too heavy to be handled easily, and holding it up like a lance I marched to the gate and started swinging it round as I approached him, and showing a cheerful countenance. "What are you going to do with that cane?" he shouted, a little apprehensively. "Wait and see," I returned. "Something to make you laugh." Then, after whirling it round half a dozen times more, I suddenly brought it down on his head with all my force, and did exactly what I had been counselled to do by the wise shepherd--knocked him clean off his horse. But he was not stunned, and starting up in a screeching fury, he pulled out his knife to kill me. And I, for strategic reasons, retreated, rather hastily. But his wild cries quickly brought several persons on the scene, and, recovering courage, I went back and said triumphantly, "Now we are quits!" Then my father was called and asked to judge between us, and after hearing both sides he smiled and said his judgment was not needed, that we had already settled it all ourselves, and there was nothing now between us. I laughed, and he glared at me, and mounting his horse, rode off without another word. It was, however, only because he was suffering from the blow on his head; when I met him we were good friends again.

More than once during my life, when recalling that episode, I have asked myself if I did right in taking the shepherd's advice? Would it have been better, when I went out to him with the bamboo cane, and he asked me what I was going to do with it, if I had gone up to him and shown him my face with that broad band across it from the chin to the temple, where the skin had come off and a black crust had formed, and had said to him: "This is the mark of the blow you gave me the day before yesterday, when you knocked me off my horse; you see it is on the right side of my face and head; now take the cane and give me another blow on the left side"? Tolstoy (my favourite author, by the way) would have answered: "Yes, certainly it would have been better for you--better for your soul." Nevertheless, I still ask myself: "Would it?" and if this incident should come before me half a second before my final disappearance from earth, I should still be in doubt.

One of our favourite games at this period--the only game on foot we ever played with the gaucho boys--was hunting the ostrich. To play this game we had bolas, only the balls at the end of the thong were not of lead like those with which the grown-up gaucho hunter captures the real ostrich or rhea. We used light wood to make balls, so as not to injure each other. The fastest boy was chosen to play the ostrich, and would be sent off to roam ostrich-fashion on the plain, pretending to pick clover from the ground as he walked in a stooping attitude, or making little runs and waving his arms about like wings, then standing erect and mimicking the hollow booming sounds the cock bird emits when calling the flock together.

The hunters would then come on the scene and the chase begin, the ostrich putting forth all his speed, doubling to this side and that, and occasionally thinking to escape by hiding, dropping upon the ground in the shelter of a cardoon thistle, only to jump up again when the shouts of the hunters drew near, to rush on as before. At intervals the bolas would come whirling through the air, and he would dodge or avoid them by a quick turn, but eventually he would be hit and the thong would wind itself about his legs and down he would come.

Then the hunters would gather round him, and pulling out their knives begin operations by cutting off his head; then the body would be cut up, the wings and breast removed, these being the best parts for eating, and there would be much talk about the condition and age of the bird, and so on. Then would come the most exciting part of the proceedings--the cutting the gizzard open and the examination of its varied contents; and by and by there would be an exultant shout, and one of the boys would pretend to come on a valuable find--a big silver coin perhaps, a _patacon,_ and there would be a great gabble over it and perhaps a fight for its possession, and they would wrestle and roll on the grass, struggling for the imaginary coin. That finished, the dead ostrich would get up and place himself among the hunters, while the boy who had captured him with his bolas would then play ostrich, and the chase would begin anew.

When this game was played I was always chosen as first ostrich, as at that time I could easily outrun and out-jump any of my gauche playmates, even those who were three or four years older than myself. Nevertheless, these games--horse-racing, sham fights, and ostrich- hunting, and the like--gave me no abiding satisfaction; they were no sooner over than I would go back, almost with a sense of relief, to my solitary rambles and bird-watching, and to wishing that the day would come when my masterful brother would allow me to use a gun and practise the one sport of wild-duck shooting I desired.

That was soon to come, and will form the subject of the ensuing chapter.