To a brain wearied by the din of the city, the clatter of wheels, the jingle of street cars, the discord of bells, the cries of venders, the ear-splitting whistles of factory and shop, how refreshing is the heavenly stillness of the country! To the soul tortured by the sight of ills it cannot cure, wrongs it cannot right, and sufferings it cannot relieve, how blessed to be alone with nature, with trees living free, unfettered lives, and flowers content each in its native spot, with brooks singing of joy and good cheer, with mountains preaching divine peace and rest!
Thus musing one evening, soon after my arrival at a lone farmhouse in the heart of the Green Mountains, I seated myself at the window to make acquaintance with my neighbors. Not the human ; I wished for a time to turn away from the world of people, to find rest and recreation in the world outside the walls of houses.
My room was a wing lately added to the side of the cottage farthest from the life that went on in it, from the kitchen and dairy, from the sight of barns and henhouses. It was, consequently, as solitary as it could be, and yet retain a slight hold upon humanity. It was connected with the family and farm life by two doors, which I could shut at will, and be alone with nature, and especially with the beloved birds.
From my window I looked upon a wide view over the road and the green fields, and across the river to a lovely range of the Green Mountains, with one of the highest peaks in the State as a crown. Close at hand was a bank, the beginning of a mountain spur. It was covered from the road up with clumps of fresh green ferns and a few young trees, — a maple or two, half a dozen graceful young hemlocks, and others.
The top of the bank, about as high as my window, was thick with daisy buds, which I had caught that day beginning to open their eyes, sleepily, one lash at a time ; and on looking closely I saw ranks of them still asleep, each yellow eye carefully covered with its snow-white fringes. When the blossoms were fully opened, a few days later, my point of view — on a level — made even
for I saw only the edges of the flower faces turned to the sky, while the stems were visible down to the ground, and formed a Lilliputian forest in which it were easy to imagine tiny creatures spending days as secluded and as happy as I enjoyed in my forest of beech and birch and maple, which came down to the very back steps of the house.
On the evening when my story begins, early in June, I was sitting, as I said, at my window, listening to the good-night songs of the earlier birds, enjoying the view of woods and mountains, and waiting till tea should be over before taking my usual evening walk. I had fallen into a reverie, when I was aroused by the sound of wheels, and in a moment a horse appeared, trotting rapidly up the little hill. In his wake was a face. There was of course a body also, and some sort of a vehicle, but neither of them did I see ; only a pair of eager, questioning eyes, and an intelligent countenance framed in snow-white curls which streamed back upon the wind, — a picture, a vision, I shall never forget.
I recognized at once my Enthusiast, a dear friend and fellow bird-lover, who I knew was coming to spend some weeks in the village. I rushed to the door to greet her.
“ I ’m delighted to see you ! ” she cried, as we clasped hands across the wheels. “ I arrived an hour or two ago, and now I want to go where I can hear a hermit thrush. I’ve come all the way from Chicago to hear that bird.”
She dismounted, declined the invitation to tea given by my hostess, who stood speechless with amazement at the erratic taste that would forego tea for the sake of a bird song, and we started at once up the road, where I had seen the bird perched in a partially dead liemlock-tree, and heard
From the topmost twig he made his throne.”
Everything was perfectly still. Not a bird peeped. Even the tireless vireo, who peopled the woods as the English sparrow the city streets, was hushed. I began to be anxious; could it be too cool for song ? or too late ? We walked steadily on, up the beautiful winding road : on one side dense forest, on the other lovely changing views of the lulls across the intervale, blue now with approaching night. Crows called as they hurried over; the little sandpiper’s “ ah weet! weet! weet ! ” came up from the river bank, but in the woods all was silent.
Still we went on, climbing the steep hills, loitering through the valleys, till suddenly a bird note broke the stillness, quite near us, a low, yearning “ wee-o ! ”
“ The veery ! ” I whispered.
“ Is that the veery ? ” she exclaimed. (She had come from the home of the wood thrush, where hermit and veery were unknown.)
“ Yes,” I said ; “ listen.”
Again it came, more plaintive than before; once more, in an almost agonized tone; and so it continued, ever growing higher in pitch and more mournful, till we could hardly endure to listen to it. Then arose the matchless song, the very breath of the woods, the solemn, mysterious, wonderful song of the bird, and two listeners, at least, lingered in ecstasy to hear, till it dropped to silence again.
Then, slowly and leisurely, we went on. The dead hemlock, the throne of the hermit, was vacant. On a bank not far off we sat down to wait, talking in hushed tones of the veery, of the oven bird whose rattling call was now just beginning, of the mysterious “ see-here ” bird whose plaintive call was sounding from the upper twig of another deadtopped tree, of the hermit himself, when, to our amazement, a small bird soared out of the woods, a few feet above our heads, flew around in a circle of perhaps fifteen feet in the air, and plunged again into the trees, singing all the time a rapturous, thrilling song, bewitching both in manner and in tone.
“ The oven bird ! ” we exclaimed in a breath. That made our walk noteworthy. We should not regret, even if the hermit refused to bless us.
Silently on up the road we passed, till the deepening shadows reminded us of the hour and the long drive before my friend, and we turned back. By this time the sun had set, and the sky was filled with gorgeous rosy clouds floating above the richest red-purple of the mountains. This surely crowned our walk.
We were sauntering homeward, lingering, wailing, we hardly knew for what, since we had given up the hermit, when a single bird note arrested me. Then, as his first rich clause fell upon the air, I turned to my companion, who was a few steps behind me. She stood motionless, both hands raised, but dumb.
“ Glorious ! ” she whispered when she recovered her voice. “Wonderful! ” she added, as he warmed into fuller song.
Quietly drawing as near as we dared, we dropped upon the bank and listened in spellbound silence to our unseen melodist. Slow, rapturous, entrancing, was his song, and when it ended we came reluctantly back to earth, stole in the growing darkness down to the farm, and my friend resumed her place in the carriage and drove away, saying with her good-by, “ I am already paid for my long journey.”
Yet after the first surprise and wonder were over, she swung loyally back to her first love, the wood thrush, of whose sublime voice she says, “ The first solemn opening note transports you instantly into a holy cathedral.”
For myself, I have never been able to choose permanently between these two glorious singers, and at that time I had been under the spell of the hermit song for days. Morning after morning I had spent in the woods, listening to the marvelous voice, and trying to discover its charm.
The bird began to sing his way down to us about ten o’clock in the morning. I heard him first afar off, then coming nearer and nearer, till he reached some favorite perch in the woods behind and very near the farmhouse, before noon, where he usually sang at intervals till eight o’clock in the evening. I studied his song carefully. It consisted of but one clause, composed of a single emphasized note followed by two triplets on a descending scale. But while retaining the relative position of these few notes he varied the effect almost infinitely, by changing both the key and the pitch constantly, with such skill that I was astonished to discover the remarkable simplicity of the song. A striking quality of it was an attempt which he frequently made to utter his clause higher on the scale than he could reach, so that the triplets became a sort of trill or tremolo, at the very extreme of his register. Sometimes he gave the triplets alone, without the introductory note, but never, in the weeks that I studied his song, did he sing other than this one clause.
It was only with an effort that I could force myself to analyze the performance. Far easier were it, and far more delightful, to sit enchanted, to be overwhelmed and intoxicated by his thrilling music. For me, the hermit voices the sublimity of the deep woods, while the veery expresses its mystery, its unfathomable remoteness. A wood warbler, on the contrary, always brings before me the rush and hurry of the world of people, and the wood pewee its undercurrent of eternal sadness. Into the mood induced by the melancholy pewee song breaks how completely and how happily the cheery optimism of the chickadee ! Brooding thoughts are dissipated, all is not a hollow mockery, and life is still worth living.
Often, when listening to the hermit song, I wondered that at the first note of the king of singers all other birds were not mute. But evidently the birds have not enthroned this thrush. Possibly, even, they do not share human admiration for his song. The redstart goes on jerking out his monotonous ditty ; chippy irreverently mounts a perch and trills out his inane apology for a song ; the vireo in yonder tree spares us not one of his neverending platitudes. But the hermit thrush goes on with sublime indifference to the voices of common folk down below. Sometimes he is answered from afar by another of his kind, who arranges his notes a little differently. The two seem to wait for each other, as if not to mar their divine harmony by vulgar haste or confusion.
“ We must find the ‘ see-here ’ bird,” said my friend the next morning, when she appeared at the door of the farmhouse, and I joined her for our second tramp. This was a bird whose long, deliberate notes, sounding like the above words, had tantalized me from the day of my arrival.
We resolved this time to go into the woods we had skirted the night before. A set of bars admitted us to a most enticing bit of forest, a paradise to cityweary eyes and nature - loving hearts. From the bars rose sharply a rough wood road, while a few steps to the right and a scramble up a rocky path changed the whole world in a moment. We were in a perfect nook, which I had discovered a few days before : with a carpet of dead leaves, a sky of waving branches, the fierce sun shut out by curtains of living green, the air cooled by a clear mountain stream, and the “ priceless gift of delicious silence ” — silence that had haunted my dreams for months — broken only by the voices of birds, whispers of leaves, and ripple of brook. In this spot,
Of man unknowing, and to man unknown,”
(as I tried to persuade myself) I had established my out - of - door study, and here I had spent perfect days, watching the residents of the vicinity, and saturating my whole being with the delights of sight and sound and scent till it was thrilling happiness just to be alive. Would that I could impart the freshness, the fragrance, the heavenly peace of those days to this chronicle, to comfort and strengthen my readers not so blessed as to share them !
The dwellers in this delectable spot, where I persuaded my friend to rest a moment, I had not found altogether what I should have chosen ; for, unfortunately, the place most desirable for the student is not always the best for birds. They are quite apt to desert the cool, breezy heights charming to wood lovers, to build in some impenetrable tangle, where the ground is wet and full of treacherous quagmires, where mosquitoes abound and flies do greatly flourish, where close-growing branches and leaves keep out every breath of air, and there is no solid rest for the legs of a camp-stool. Such a difference does it make, as to a desirable situation, from which side you look at it.
The principal inhabitant presented himself before we were fairly seated, a chipmunk, who came out of his snug door under the roots of a maple-tree and sat up on his doorstep — one of the roots — to make his morning toilet, dress his sleek fur, scent the sweet fresh air, and enjoy himself generally. In due time he ran down to the little brook before the door, and then started out, evidently after something to eat; and he went nosing about on the ground with a thoroughness to make a bird-lover shudder, for what ground bird’s nest could escape him !
I recognize the fact that, from his point of view, chipmunks must live, and why should they not have eggs for breakfast ? Doubtless, in squirrel philosophy, it is a self-evident truth that birds were created to supply the tables of their betters in fur, and the pursuit of eggs and nestlings adds the true sportsman’s zest to the enjoyment of them. So long, therefore, as the law that “ might makes right ” prevails in higher quarters, we are forced to acknowledge, however grudgingly, his “ right ” to his game ; but for all that I should like exceedingly to protect it from him.
I could not long keep a bird-lover studying a chipmunk. In a few minutes we started again on our way up the mountain. Each side of our primitive wood road was bordered with ferns in their first tender green, many of them still wearing their droll little hoods. Forward marched the Enthusiast; breathlessly I followed. Up one little hill, down another, over a third we hastened.
“ See! ” I said, hoping to arrest the tireless steps ; “ on that tree I saw yesterday a scarlet tanager.”
“ Oh, did you ? ” she said carelessly, pausing not an instant in her steady tramp.
Then rose the note we were listening for, far to the left of the road.
“ He’s over there ! ” she cried eagerly, leaving the path, and pushing in the direction of the sound. “ But I’m afraid I shall tire you,” she added. “ You sit down here, and I ’ll just go on a little.”
“ No, indeed ! ” I answered hastily, for I knew well what “ just go on a little ” meant, — I had tried it before : it meant pass out of sight in two minutes, and out of hearing in one more, so absorbed in following an elusive bird note that everything else would be forgotten. “ No, indeed ! ” I repeated. “ I shall not be left in these woods; where you go I follow.”
“ But I won’t go out of sight,” she urged, her conscience contending with her eager desire to proceed, for well she knew that I did not take my woods by storm in this way.
I said nothing in reply, but I had no intention of being left, for I did not know what dwellers the forest might contain, and I had a vivid remembrance of being greatly startled, only a day or two before, by unearthly cries in these very woods ; of seeing a herd of young cattle rushing frantically away, turning apprehensive glances toward the sounds, and huddling in a frightened heap down by the bars, while the strange cries came nearer and nearer, till I should not have been surprised to see any sort of a horror emerge ; of calling out to the farmer whom I met at the door, “ Oh. there ’s something dreadful up in the woods! ” and his crushing reply, “ Yes, I heard it. It’s a fox barking ; we hear one now and then.”
I cast no doubts on the veracity of that farmer, though I could not but remember the license men sometimes allow themselves when trying to quiet fears they consider foolish; nor did his solution seem to account satisfactorily for the evident terror of the cattle, which had lived in those woods all their lives, and had no reason to fear the “ bark ” of a fox. I preferred, therefore, not to encounter any such eccentric “ fox ” alone ; hence I refused to listen to my friend’s entreaties, but simply followed on, over fallen treetrunks, under drooping branches, and through unyielding brush : now sinking ankle-deep in a pile of dead leaves, now catching my hair in a broken branch, and now nearly falling over a concealed root; wading through swamps, sliding down banks, cutting and tearing our shoes, and leaving bits of our garments everywhere. On we went recklessly, intent upon one thing only, — seeing the bird who, enthroned on his treetop, calmly and serenely uttered his musical “ see-e he-e-re ! ” while we struggled, and scrambled, and fought our way down below.
We reached a steep bank, and paused a moment, breathless, disheveled, my interest in the beguiler long ago cooled.
“There’s a brook down there,” I said hastily ; “we can’t cross it.”
Could we not ? But we did, at the expense of a little further rending, and the addition of wet feet to our other discomforts. But at last! at last ! we came in sight, of our bird, a mere black speck against the sky.
“ It’s a flycatcher ! ” exclaimed my companion eagerly. “ See his attitude ! I must get around the other side! ” and on we went again. A fence loomed before us, a fence of brush, impossible to get through, and almost as impossible to get over. But what were any of man’s devices to an eager bird-hunter ! Over that fence she went— like a bird, I was going to say, but like a boy would perhaps be better. More leisurely and with difficulty I followed, for once on the other side I should be content. I knew the road could not be far off, and through the tangled way we had come I was resolved I would not pass again.
Well, we ran him down. He was obliging enough to stay in one spot, indifferent to our noisy presence on the earth below, while we studied him on all sides, and decided him to be the olivesided flycatcher (Contopus borealis). We entered his name and his manners in our notebooks, and we were happy, or at least relieved.
The habit of this bird, as I learned by observation of him afterward, was to sit on the highest twig of a tree dead at the top, where he could command a view of the whole neighborhood, and sing or call by the hour, in a loud, drawling, and rather plaintive tone, somewhat resembling the wood pewee’s, though more animated in delivery. I found that the two notes which syllabled themselves to my ear as “ see-e he-e-re! ” were prefaced by a low, staccato utterance like “ quick ! ” and all were on the same note of the musical scale. Occasionally, but not often, he made a dash into the air, flycatcher fashion, and once I saw him attempt to drive away a golden-winged woodpecker who took the liberty of alighting on a neighboring dead treetrunk. Down upon him like a small tornado came the flycatcher instantly, expecting, apparently, to annihilate him. But the big, clumsy woodpecker merely slid one side a little, to avoid the onslaught, and calmly went on dressing his feathers, as if no small flycatcher existed. This indifference did not please the olive-sided, but he alighted on a branch below and bided his time ; it came soon, when the golden-wing took flight, and he came down upon him like a kingbird on a crow. I heard the snap of the woodpecker’s beak as he passed into the thick woods, but nobody was hurt, and the flycatcher returned to his perch.
When we had rested a little after our mad rush through the woods, we found that the hours were slipping away, and we must go. Passing down the road at the edge of the woods, we were about to cross a tiny brook, when our eyes fell upon a distinguished personage at his bath. He was a rose-breasted grosbeak, and we instantly stopped to see him. He did not linger, but gave himself a thorough splashing, and flew at once to a tree, where he began dressing his plumage in frantic haste, as if he knew he was a “ shining mark ” for man and beast. He stayed half a minute on one branch, jerked a few feathers through his beak, then flew to another place and hurriedly dressed a few more ; and so he kept on, evidently excited and nervous at being temporarily disabled by wet feathers, though I do not think he knew he had human observers, for we were at some distance and perfectly motionless. He was a beauty, even for his lovely family, and the rose color of his wing-linings was the most gorgeous I ever saw.
Moreover, I knew this bird, later, to be as useful as he was beautiful. He it was who took upon himself the care of the potato patch in the garden below, spending hours every day in clearing off the destructive potato beetle, singing as he went to and from his labors, and, when the toils of the day were over, treating us to a delicious evening song from the top of a tree close by.
In that way the grosbeak’s time was spent till babies appeared in the hidden nest, when everything was changed, and he set to work like any hod-carrier ; appearing silently, near the house, on the lowest board of the fence, looking earnestly for some special luxury for baby beaks. No more singing on the treetops, no more hunting of the beetle in stripes; food more delicate was needed now, and he found it among the brakes that grew in clumps all about under my window. It was curious to see him searching, hopping upon a stalk which bent very much with his weight, peering eagerly inside ; then on another, picking off something ; then creeping between the stems, going into the bunch out of sight, and reappearing with his mouth full ; then flying off to his home. This bird was peculiarly marked, so that I knew him. The red of his breast was continued in a narrow streak down through the white, as if the color had been put on wet, and had dripped at the point.
The third tramp with my Enthusiast was after a warbler. To my fellow birdstudents that tells a story. Who among them has not been bewitched by one of those woodland sprites, led a wild dance through bush and brier, satisfied and happy if he could catch an occasional glimpse of the flitting enchanter !
This morning we drove a mile or two out of the village, hitched our horse, — a piece of perfection, who feared nothing, never saw anything on the road, and would stand forever if desired, — and started into the pasture. The gate passed, we had first to pick our way through a bog, which had been cut by cows’ hoofs into innumerable holes and pitfalls, and then so overgrown by weeds and moss that we could not always tell where it was safe to put a foot. We consoled ourselves for the inconvenience by reflecting that a bog on the side of a mountain must probably be a provision of Mother Nature’s, an irrigating scheme for the benefit of the hillside vegetation. If all the water ran off at once, we argued, very little could grow there. So we who love to see our hills covered with trees should not complain, but patiently seek the stepping-stones sometimes to be found, or meekly resign ourselves to going in over boot-tops without a word.
Our first destination was the nest of a hermit thrush, discovered by my friend the day before, and we stumbled, and slipped, and picked our way a long distance over the dismal swamp, floundering on till we reached a clump of young hemlocks, on ground somewhat more solid, where we could sit down to rest. There was the nest right before us, a nicely made, compact bird home, exquisitely placed in one of the little trees, a foot from the ground.
While waiting for the owners to appear, I was struck with the beauty of the young hemlocks, so different from most evergreen trees. From the time a hemlock has two twigs above ground it is always picturesque in its method of growth. Its twigs, especially the topmost one, bend over gracefully like a plume. There is no rigid uniformity among the smaller branches, no two appear to be of the same length, but there is an artistic variety that makes of the little tree a thing of beauty. When it puts out new leaves in the early summer, and every twig is tipped with light green, it is particularly lovely, as if in bloom.
How different the mathematical precision of the spruce, which might indeed have been laid out upon geometrical lines! When a baby spruce has but three twigs, one will stand stiffly upright, as if it bore the responsibility of upholding the spruce traditions of the ages, while the other twigs will duly spread themselves at nearly right angles, leaving their brother to represent the aspirations of the family, and thus even in infancy reproduce in miniature the full-grown, formal tree.
When, after waiting some time in vain for the birds to appear, we examined the nest before us, we found that it held two thrush eggs and one of the cowbird. The impertinence of this disreputable bird in thrusting her plebeian offspring upon the divine songster, to rear at the expense of her own lovely brood, was not to be tolerated. The dirty speckled egg looked strangely out of place among the gems that belonged to the nest, and I removed it, careful not to touch nest or eggs. So pertinacious is this parasite upon bird society that my friend says that in Illinois, where the wood thrush represents the charming family, almost every woodthrush nest, in the early summer, contains acowbird’s egg; and not until they have reared one of the intruders can the birds hope to have a brood of their own. Fortunately they nest twice in the season, and the cowbird does not disturb the second family.
While we sat watching the hermit’s nest, we were attracted by another resident of that cozy group of hemlocks and maples. He appeared upon a low shrub within twenty feet of us, and began to sing. First came a long, deliberate note, of the clearest and sweetest tone, then two similar notes, a third higher, followed by three triplets on the same note. Though dressed in sparrow garb, his colors were bright, and he was distinguished and made really beautiful by two broad lines of buff-tinted white over his crown, and a snowy white throat. He was the white-throated sparrow, one of the largest and most interesting of his family. The charm of his song is its clearness of tone and deliberateness of utterance. It is calm as the morning, finished, complete, and almost the only bird song that can be perfectly imitated by a human whistle. I never shared the enthusiasm of some of my fellow birdlovers for the sparrows till I knew the white-throat and learned to love the dear little song sparrow. It is unfortunate that the song of the former has been translated into a word so unworthy as “ peabody,” and that the name “peabody bird ” has become fastened on him in New England. Far more appropriate the words applied by Elizabeth Akers Allen to an unknown singer, — possibly this very bird, —embodied in her beautiful poem The Sunset Thrush. For whatever bird it was intended, the syllables and arrangement correspond to the whitethroat’s utterance, and the words are, “ Sweet! sweet! sweet! Sorrowful! sorrowful ! sorrowful ! ”
A white-throat who haunted the neighborhood of my farmhouse did not confine himself to the family song ; which, by the way, varies less with this species than with any other I know. At first, for some time, he entirely omitted the triplets, making his song consist of four long notes, the fourth being in place of the triplets. Then, later, he dropped the last note a half tone below the others, still omitting the triplets, which, in fact, in three or four weeks of listening and watching, I never once heard him utter. In July of that year, in passingover the Canadian Pacific Railway on my way West, I heard innumerable songs by this bird. Every time the train stopped, white-throat voices rang out on all sides, and with considerable variety. Many dropped half a tone at the end, and some uttered the triplets on that note, while others began the song on a higher note, and gave the rest a third below, instead of above, as usual.
But to return to the singer before us on that memorable day. After singing a long time, he suddenly began to utter the first two notes alone, and then apparently to listen. We also listened, and soon heard a reply of the same two notes on a different pitch. These responsive calls were kept up for some time, and seemed to be signals between the bird and his mate ; for neither she nor her nest could be found, though the pair had been startled out of that very bush on the preceding day. We searched the clumps of shrubs carefully, but without success.
I long ago came to the conclusion that the ability to find nests easily is as truly a natural gift as the ability to become a musician, or the power to see a statue in a block of marble. That gift is not mine. I have an almost invincible repugnance to poking into bushes and thrusting aside branches to discover who has hidden there. Moreover, if a bird seems anxious or alarmed, I never can bear to disturb her. Nor indeed do I care to find many nests. A long list of nests found in a season gives me no pleasure ; how many birds belong to a certain district does not concern me in the least. But if I have really studied one or two nests, and made acquaintance with the tricks and manners of the small dwellers therein, I am satisfied and happy.
While we lingered in the little hemlock grove, enraptured with the whitethroat, and feeling that
On shadowed grass, beneath the blessed trees,”
a distant note reached our ever-listening ears. It was the voice of a warbler, and a most alluring song. Such indeed we found it, for on the instant the Enthusiast sprang to her feet, alert to her finger-tips, crying, “That’s the bird we’re after ! ” adding as usual, as she started across the field, “ You sit still! I won’t go far,” while as usual, also, I snatched my things and followed.
The song was in the tone of one of the most bewitching as well as the most elusive of warblers, the black-throated green ; a bird not so big as one’s thumb, with a provoking fondness for the tops of the tallest trees, where foliage is thickest, and for keeping in constant motion, flitting from twig to twig, and from tree to tree, throwing out as he goes
A warbler’s throat.”
This one was tireless, as are all of his tribe, and led us a weary dance over big, steep-sided rocks, through more and more bogs, over a fence, and out of our open fields into deep woods.
Now, my companion in these tramps has a rooted opinion that she is easily fatigued, and must rest frequently; and I have no doubt it is true, when she has no strong interest to urge her on. So she used to burden herself with a clumsy waterproof, to throw on the ground to sit upon ; and in compliance with this notion (which was most amusing to those whom she tired out in her tramps), whenever she thought of it — that is, when the bird voice was still for a moment — she would seek a sloping bank, or a place beside a tree where she could lean, and then throw herself down, determined to rest. But always in one minute or less the warbler would be sure to begin again, when away went good resolutions and fatigue, and she sprang up like a Jackin-the-box, saying, of course, “You sit still; I ’ll just go on a little,” and off we went over brake and brier.
While pursuing this vocal ignis fatuus I made a charming discovery. In one of the temporary pauses in our wild career, I was startled by the flight of a bird from the ground very near us, and, searching about, I soon found a veery’s nest with one egg. It was daintily placed in a clump of brakes or big ferns, resting on a fallen stick, over and around which the brakes had grown.
The bird was not so pleased with my discovery as I was. She perched on a tree over our heads, and uttered the mournful veery cry ; and though I did not so much as lay a finger on that nest, I believe she deserted it at that moment, for several days afterward it was found exactly as on that day, with its one egg cold and abandoned.
If I had not, through two summers’ close study, made myself very familiar with the various calls and cries of the veery, I think I should be driven wild by them ; for no bird that I know can impart such distance to his notes, and few can get around so silently and unobserved as he. A great charm in his song is that it rarely bursts upon your notice; it appears to steal into your consciousness, and in a moment the air seems full of his breezy, woodsy music, his “ quivering, silvery song,” as Cheney calls it.
Not long were we allowed to meditate upon the charms of the veery, for again the luring song began, the other side of the belt of woods, and off we started anew. This time we secured the bird, or his name, which was all we desired. The sweet beguiler turned out to be the warbler mentioned above, the black-throated green, but with a more than usually exquisite arrangement of his notes. Indeed, my friend, who was what I call warbler-mad, — a state of infatuation I have with care and difficulty guarded myself against, — heard in the woods of the neighborhood, during that summer’s visit, no less than four different songs from the same species of warbler.
While slowly and weariedly dragging myself back to where our patient horse stood waiting, I fell into meditation on this way of making the study of nature hard work instead of rest and refreshment, and the comparative merits of chasing up one’s birds and waiting for them to come about one. Without doubt the choice of method is due largely to temperament, but I think it will be found that most of our nature-seers have followed the latter course.
June was now drawing to an end, and the day of my friend’s departure had nearly arrived. One more tramp remained to us. It was a walk up a long, lonely road to a solitary thorn-tree, where I was studying a shrike’s nest.
Just as we left the village a robin burst into song, and this bird, because of certain associations, was the Enthusiast’s favorite singer. We paused to listen. When bird music begins to wane, when thrushes have taken their broods afar, and orioles and catbirds are heard no more, one appreciates the hearty philosophy, the cheerful and pleasing song, of the robin. It is truly delightful then to hear his noisy challenge, his gleeful “ laugh,” his jolly song. We may indeed rhapsodize over our rare, fine singers, but after all we could better spare one and all of them than our two most common songsters, our faithful stand-bys, upon whom we can always count to preach to us the gospel of contentment, cheerfulness, and patience, — the dear common robin and the blessed little song sparrow. No weather is so hot that they will not pour out their evangel to us ; no rain so wet, no wind so strong, that these two will not let their sweet voices be heard. Blessed, I say, be the common birds, living beside our dwellings, bringing up their young under our very eyes, accepting our advances in a spirit of friendliness, coming earliest, staying latest, and keeping up their song even through the season of feeding, when many become silent. These two are indispensable to us ; these two should be dearest to us ; these, above all others, should our children be taught to respect and love.
The robin ceased, and we passed on. One more voice saluted us from the last house of the village : a wren, whose nest was placed in a bracket under the roof, sang his gushing little ditty, and then in a moment we were in a different bird world. From one side came the bobolink’s voice,
And telling whom it may concern that all the world is fair ; ”
from the other, the plaintive notes of the meadow lark.
Lovely indeed the lark looked among the buttercups in the pasture, stretching himself up from the ground, tall and slim, and almost as yellow as they ; and very droll his sputtering cry, as he flew over the road to the deep grass of the meadow, to attend to the wants of his family, for the meadow was full of mysterious sounds under the grass, and seemed to give both bobolink and lark much concern.
The call I name the “ sputter,” because it sounds like nothing else on earth, is a sort of “ retching ” note followed by several sputtering utterances, hard to describe, but not unpleasant to hear, perhaps because it suggests the meadow under the warm sun of June, with bobolinks soaring and singing, and a populous colony beneath the long grass. Now night was coining on, and the larks were passing from the pasture, where they seemed to spend most of the day, some with song and some with sputter, over the road, to drop into the grass and be seen no more ;
Sent their slender twitterings down from a thousand throats.”
Sometimes, on that lonely road, which I passed over several times a day, I was treated to a fairy-like sight. It was when a recent shower had left little puddles in the clay road, and the eaves swallows from a house across the meadow came down to procure material for their adobe structures. Most daintily they alighted on their tiny feet around the edge, holding up their tails like wrens lest they should soil a feather of their plumage, and raising both wings over their backs like butterflies, fluttering them all the time, as if to keep their balance and partly hold them up from the ground, — a lovely sight which I enjoyed several times.
Under the eaves of the distant house, where the nests of these birds were placed, and which I visited later, were evidences of tragedies. The whole length of the cornice on the back side of the house showed marks of many nests, and there were left at that time but four, two close together at each end of the line. I cannot say positively that the nests had fallen while in use, but in another place, a mile away, I know of a long row having fallen, with young in, every one of whom was killed. Where was the “ instinct ” of the birds whose hopes thus perished ? And was the trouble with their material or with their situation ? I noticed this : that the nests had absolutely nothing to rest on, not even a projecting board. They were plastered against a perfectly plain painted board.
Another bird whom I caught in a new rôle, apparently giving a lesson in foodhunting to a youngster, was a phæbe. Hearing a new and strange cry, mingled with tones of a voice familiar to me, I looked up, and discovered a young and an old phæbe. The elder kept up a running series of remarks in the tone peculiar to the species, while the infant answered, at every pause, by a querulous single note in a higher key. Every moment or two the instructor would fly out and capture something, talking all the while, as if to say, “ See how easy it is ! ” but careful not to give the food to the begging and complaining pupil. No sooner did the parent alight than the youngster was after him, following him everywhere he went. After a while the old bird flew away, when that deceiving little rogue took upon himself the business of fly-catching. He flew out, snapped his beak, and, returning to his perch, wiped it carefully. Yet when the elder returned he at once resumed his begging and crying, as if starved and unable to help himself.
A friend and bird-student, whose home is in these mountains, assures me that the phæbes in this vicinity do not confine themselves to the traditional family cry, but have a really pleasing song, which she has heard several times. That, then, is another of the supposed songless birds added to the list of singers. I know both the kingbird and the wood pewee sing, not, to be sure, in a way to be compared to the thrushes, though far excelling the utterances of the warblers. But why are they so shy of exhibiting their talent ? Why do they make such a secret of it ? Can it be that they are just developing their musical abilities ?
When we reached the thorn-tree, on that last evening, we seated ourselves on a bank beside the road, to enjoy the music of the meadow, and to see the shrike family. At the nest all was still, probably settled for the night, but the “ lord and master ” of that snug homestead stood on a tall maple-tree close by, in dignified silence, watching our movements, no doubt. We waited some time, but he refused either to go or to relax his vigilance in the least, till the hour grew late, and we were obliged to turn homeward.
The sun had set, and the sky was filled, as on that first evening, with soft, rosy sunset clouds, and the distant mountains, with Jay Peak for a crown, were clothed in gorgeous purple again. With all this beauty before us, we slowly walked back to the village, and I felt it a fitting close to my delightful, if exhausting tramps with an Enthusiast.
Olive Thorne Miller.