Sedge-Birds

YEARS ago, when there was time enough, and when nobody had rheumatism except very old people, the “Fresh Pond marshes” was a name that called up far other associations than any that can attach, I should think, to the dreary waste of brickfields, shanties, and ice-ponds now occupying that region. In those days it was a wilderness, encompassed to be sure on all sides by civilization, yet of indefinite extent, full of mystery, of possibilities, and invaded only by the Concord turnpike, — a lonely road with a double row of pollard willows causewayed above the bog. Here the Florida Gallinule had been seen ; here were the haunts of the Rails, the Least Bittern, the Shortbilled Wren, then newly discovered and perhaps seen only here, — a saucy, chuckling sprite, flitting from bush to bush in front of you ; and here was his nest, a ball of grass with no apparent opening, snug-hid in a tussock of sedge, in the midst of treacherous depths patiently waded over by feet not wonted to such punctual assiduity at more accredited tasks. Did a more heartfelt rapture hail the adventurer’s first or greatest nugget in Californian or Australian gold-fields than welcomed, after uncounted disappointments, the rounded wisp that at last did not deceive ? Here, also, in the remote recesses of the marsh was the ancient heronry of the Kwabirds, the Jew’s quarter of the feathered community, where this persecuted tribe made their nests, and huddled in shady seclusion and squalid comfort during daylight, sallying forth at dusk in quest of prey. Perhaps I am dwelling too much upon what to most of us was, after all, a secondary interest for the off-seasons, or the intervals of more regular pursuits. These the brook allured, with its steady, tranquil stream — then, alas ! curtained with stooping alders and willows — of devious course, allowing the silent paddler, cautiously peeping round the point, to surprise the black-duck or wood-duck with upstretched neck for an instant before, spurning the surface, she rushed into the air. An enchanted stream, not the dull ditch that now meets the passer-by, but broad and deep, leading to Menotomy Pond, to Mystic River, to the ends of the world ! For had not “the old Captain ” passed down this way in his sailboat to the Harbor, to Cape Cod ? So, at least, it was said, and we believed it. Though how he passed the bridge at the Fresh Pond outlet ? No doubt his masts unshipped, or perhaps at that day Concord turnpike was not. At this outlet, where the brook left the pond, all attractions centred. What it was then is easier imagined without seeing it now. Not merely are all the objects changed, but there is not room enough on the ground for what it then contained. Where now is a meagre bit of mangy pasture and a row of icehouses, a vast army of reeds and bulrushes and wild rice encompassed the shore, tenanted throughout the year by muskrats (for the water was deep at the edge), and at the right times by throngs of feathered visitors. The height of the season was about the end of October, when the pond-holes began to skim over and the mud to stiffen in the marsh. Then of some clear, frosty morning, the youth whose eyes, sometimes heavy at prayer-bell, had unclosed that day punctual as the second-hand of his watch, shouldering with an alacrity in itself deserving of all praise his manifold impediments, made his way by starlight up the white, stony turnpike, — all silent and deserted save, perhaps, a slow-moving wain creaking placidly along like some cosmic phenomenon regardless of village times and seasons, — past the lonely farm-house, last outpost on the bleak hill overlooking the pond (now the centre of a village), and so on to the boat and the ambush at the edge of the reeds, there to crouch expectant in the hay while the steel-blue heavens begin to detach themselves by a lighter, almost phosphorescent shimmer from the hills and tree-tops eastward. On the water all is darkness, yet here in the reeds the inhabitants are already astir ; and after the first preparations are made, and the first moment of hushed attention over, — your left-hand decoy, quacking slowly in a measured, tentative way, making ready for business, and the other responding irregularly, as if incurious and intent rather upon the surrounding possibilities of duckweed, — you feel at liberty to attend to these more speculative interests. First of all, a Song Sparrow in the willows by the road begins to sing, in a cheerful, confident way, having, it is like, just waked from a dream of daylight, and then, fairly getting his eyes open, ends rather abruptly and inconclusively, and dives into the shelter beneath. He is an outsider, and ought to keep village hours, but the proper marsh community are earlier risers. From the pines behind comes the hoo, hoo-hoo of the owls, like the toot of a distant horn preluding the full blast, and out of the darkness overhead the bark of the Kwa-birds or Night Herons. A most characteristic marsh sound earlier in the season is the strange note of the American Bittern, like a heavy echoed axe-stroke upon a post in the swamp. At our sides all is rustling and creaking. Are they two-footed or four-footed these invisible forms that set the reeds a-shaking and a-whispering ? In the wilderness, everywhere, the night is the time of noises. In the woods at midday Pan sleeps, but at night the forest is full of stir and bustle, the rabbits and all the tribes of mice are abroad, and the prowlers that prey upon them. We hear the squeaking and croaking of Rails, stragglers perhaps, and uneasy at being left behind by their migrating brethren. One flutters across the bit of open water, with loose bat-like flight and hanging legs, ready to take the ground again when he can. The wedgelike body and long legs and feet are perfectly fitted for running over the floating stalks and making way unseen through the matted blades, and he will not fly when he can run. A similar habitat gives something of the same air and build to the Swamp Sparrow. He has one foot on firm land also ; his plumage is like that of the Song Sparrow, but of richer and purer tints, unbleached by dust and sunshine, and he can sing sweetly too. But now he appears in the character of sedge-bird, silent, skulking, rat-like, not afraid, but shy and burrowing out of daylight.

Now the surface of the water begins to appear, and the dim reflection of the more distant shores. On the left the high pines of the promontory stand tree and shadow one black mass, like a black cavern cut into the sky, — close at hand or miles away, you could not tell. Suddenly from the dim distance of reeds on the right a sparkling line of ripple comes cutting across the open water in front. Not a muskrat, for as it crosses the lighter space a slender neck shows for a moment upright above the water. It might be a Teal, but the decoys take little notice of the stranger, who moves athwart our system in a cometic way, neither seeking nor avoiding, as if of imperfect affinities with the duck-kind. Perhaps a Coot, or more likely a Pied-billed Grebe, and where the ripple ceased he dived for food. By and by he may come nearer, and if a Grebe may be worth shooting, if nothing better offers. The Coot is only a larger Rail set afloat, with the thighs planted farther back, and the lobes of the toes furnished each with its fringe of membrane to aid in swimming. The Grebe, too, has divided toes, but the fringe is continuous instead of being scalloped out as in the Coot, and in other respects the adaptation to an aquatic life has gone much further ; the body slender, cylindrical, the plumage compact and glossy, the legs so good for swimming as to be good for no other purpose, — all as befits the typical diver or “dipper,” who gets his living under water. Just as the flush of morning begins to tinge upwards into the sky and to show the swirl of mist lying low over the water on the other side of the pond, there is a sudden whistle of wings and a rush overhead, and a little flock of Teal stoop swiftly down upon the decoys, then as swiftly glance upwards again, and with a beautiful wheel, the white under-coverts of their wings twinkling an instant in the eastern light, dash into the water, sending it up far in front of them. Both barrels roar at once, and as the echoes come bellowing back, a vast swarm of Blackbirds, who for some time have been chattering and whining in the reeds to the right, now start into the air, and swoop about awhile confusedly with a crackle of complaint, and then, not being able to make up their minds to settle again, make off for their feeding-grounds. Now the birds in the rice and reeds at our side begin to show themselves more ; not the Rails, they are unseen still, and multiply themselves by their ventriloquism ; now near, now far, whether one or a hundred no one could say. But the Swamp Sparrows come into sight, and a Chickadee tilts lightly on to the edge of the boat with a day-day of recognition, like an old acquaintance met in an out-of-the-way place, thence to the level gun-barrel along which he hops, twisting right or left at each hop, peeps into the muzzle, and, finding nothing attractive there, makes his way with one sideways glance under the rail of the gunnel, to the marsh again. He is not a sedgebird, yet he is not out of place there. His close cousin in Europe bears the name of Marsh Tit, and he himself has been passing the summer in a thicket at the edge of the swamp, where in the side of a slanting birch ruined by last winter’s snow and now falling to decay, he chiselled a hole for his soft-felted, purse-like nest, and drawled phœbe to his mate the season long. Now his villeggiatura is ended, and the sentimental fit past ; he has resumed his brisk winter accent, and is coming back again to the pine-groves and gardens. While we are seeing him off, the sound of a paddle comes from behind the point to the right, and gradually a punt emerges and makes leisurely way to-

wards us, its broad-shouldered occupant sinking the stern deep in the water. At last he heaves to off our stand, and the voice of “ the old Captain ” hails us, asking whether we have seen a decoy of his. We have not, but he edges in, still unsatisfied, and flings out in a short growling way that it looked much like a wild one, &c., &c., evidently thinking we have shot his bird, perhaps knowingly. Indeed, what do these young scamps come here for, to spoil what little shooting is left ? There never was much, and now there’s none. All this inside the teeth, however, for he manages to consume his own smoke, though with some rumbling. He still keeps edging in until he gets fairly alongside, where we dispel the doubt which native delicacy would not allow him openly to express, even to such miscellaneous-looking individuals as we. Satisfied that his pet is not among the slain, he softens up, becomes chatty, at length hearing a name which he will not directly ask, he looks up sharp and fairly overflows with friendly talk and stories of the olden time, until we, warned by the sunbeams that now begin to gild the woods on the western point, with some difficulty make our escape. A kindly old giant, — beneath all his gruffness as tender as true. He has vanished with the bit of wilderness and the game he almost survived, and now men are levelling off the oak-clad knolls that hid his trig cottage from the north and from the Concord road ; the railway runs where the curving edge of the bank met the waters of the bay, and the swale where his little greenhouse stood open to the pond and the sun is blocked across by a line of ice-houses. They have turned his place round, to suit the requirements of a new era. He dwelt there sunning himself in the old memories, among his flowers or in his boat, silent, introverted, brooding over the old New-England times to which he belonged. But now the present has come in with its far-reaching schemes, its cosmopolitan interests, and must live on the street, and has no time to think of the sunshine or the want of it.