In Rushes and Reeds
What a thick tangle lines the margin of the river! Tall grass-stems, with their silky plumes of flowers, nod and wave in the sunshine. Where the ground is soft and marshy, clumps of stiff round Rushes are dotted here and there. And in full summer, when the riverside is brightest, there is a vivid riband of gay flowers threaded through the greenery. The river-plants flourish in their boggy, wet home, and would soon die if planted in dry soil.
One of the commonest of them is the Reed. It raises its graceful purple head six feet or more above the water. It is really a monster grass, growing, like. other grasses, in a dense jungle. Beneath the water its roots and hidden stems make a matted tangle; and in the muddy home it loves best it spreads until there is a wide forest of tall stems and waving green leaves. Many timid birds and beasts hide in this welcome shelter.
Though the Rush is less graceful, in olden days it was valued more, and harvested carefully every year; for Rushes were spread over floors. Houses were not then full of comfortable carpets, chairs or couches, as you will see from the following words, written in the year 1528:—"The hall was every day in summer season strewed with green Rushes, and in winter with clean hay, to save Knights' clothes, that sat on the floor, in default of a place to sit on."
Rushes were also used as candles, before the "tallow dip," as it was called, became common. There were no paraffin lamps in those days, and such luxuries as coal-gas or electric light were unheard of. So the Rushes were carefully gathered and prepared. They were peeled, leaving one narrow strip of "rind" to support the white pith. They were then laid in the dewy grass, and afterwards dried in the sun. These dried Rushes, being dipped in grease, were then reedy for use. They gave a fairly steady light, though we should think little of it nowadays. A good long Rush would last for more than one hour; and as they were so cheap, the pool man continued to gather Rushes even after candles could be obtained.
Let us return to the reed-bed, for it contains a little brown fairy well worth knowing, whose voice is as familiar as the soft rustle of the Reeds in the summer wind. You can seldom find the owner of the voice, even if you risk getting wet feet. The more you, try, the farther the voice will sound from the depths of the reedy jungle. We can hardly call it a musical voice. Some of the notes are sweet, others sound as though cracked from too much use! The song is a jangle of such notes, as if to scold you for daring to part the curtain of the fairy's home. If you stand still, a little brown bird may come to see if you have gone. This is the fairy of the Reeds—the Reed Warbler, dancing up and down the stems, chattering and scolding, with a flicker of quick little wings.
No wonder the Reed Warbler is upset when you trespass near his reed-bed, for it is his own home. It provides him with food and shelter. He is a stay-at-home, and seldom goes much farther than the next reed-bed. But in winter, when the dead grey reed-stems shake their dry leaves in the icy wind, the little Warbler is not there. He is far away in the sunshine of Africa. But he will return when the warmth of Spring has called up a fresh green bed of growing Reeds, to cover him, his wife, and their nest.
The cup of the nest is woven with blades of grass, dry water-weed, and reed-tops, with longer pieces of Reed to bind it together. There is a soft lining of grass and horse-hair for the speckled eggs. This pretty, woven nursery, as you see in the picture, is hung up in the reed-stems. Three or four of the stems act as scaffold-poles, and the nest is bound safely to them, a few feet above the water. The cradle rocks and sways as the wind bends the Reeds this way or that. It is well that the little birds make so deep a nest, or the eggs would surely spill out. A high wind catches the reed-bed, and down go the long stems, carrying the precious cradle nearly to the water. But the stems, though thin, are hollow and elastic, and they spring upright again. The little Warbler must be used to this rough treatment, for she remains clinging to her nest.
Sometimes the swinging cradle is filled with a great, gaping Cuckoo. It has pushed the eggs or young over the side of the nest, and the Reed Warblers are busy feeding the stranger. He is so large that he looks as if he could swallow them, and the poor little birds are kept hard at work. Their own family would have been easier to satisfy than this greedy changeling, who is no sooner fed than his bill is wide open for more.
As you walk by the reed-bed, you will probably hear a loud cry sounding like "Wirruk! Wirruk!" This comes from the Moorhen, whose big rough nest is in a clump of sedges near the Reeds. But the Moorhen is not only a Reed-haunter. It seems at home everywhere, even when stealing a meal in your vegetable garden. It can run, fly, walk on water-weeds or on ice, perch in the trees, swim and dive! A Jack-of-all-trades!
It swims in a jerky way, flirting its tail-feathers at each stroke. And on land it is not graceful, its feet seeming to be much too large. Look at the track it leaves in mud or snow. Each big foot-print is in a line with the next, as if a one-legged Moorhen had passed that way. Now why does it place its feet like that? It swims through thick beds of water-weeds; if its legs were widely spread they would soon be tangled in weed. So it wisely uses its legs in one line, and that may account for its peculiar movement.
In late Spring there are seven or eight black fluffy babies with the mother Moorhen. They have a very short nursery-life. Looking into a nest where the young were just beginning life, to my surprise three of them climbed over the edge and into the water. They were scarcely dry out of the egg-shell! In climbing they used the "elbows" of their tiny wings as claws to support their little bodies.
Mrs. Moorhen soon has a second lot of eggs. It is as well that the first babies are so active, for she says in her own way "Be off! I have other business now, and you must look after yourselves!" Rats and herons eat the poor little mites, and the big hungry pike swims near the Reeds when baby Moorhen are about!
The Moorhen's toes are not joined by a web, like those of many water-birds. Those of the Coot (see p. 21) are each flattened into paddles. The Coot has a white patch over the beak—bald-headed Coot he is sometimes called; the Moorhen has a red patch . Otherwise the two birds look much alike as they dodge in and out of the Reeds.