Trolley-Car Ornithology

IF one may profitably study botany from a car-window, a fact which was set forth in an entertaining and widely-read article in the Atlantic, not many months ago, it has also been proved to the satisfaction of the present writer, that at least enough of ornithology may be studied, while whizzing through the country on a trolley-car, to add materially to one’s enjoyment — if he be ornithologically inclined — and at least something to his fund of knowledge.

In the note-book in which for several years I have kept a record of the birds seen each month, I find over thirty varieties recorded under the heading, “ Seen from the N. and H. Trolley.”

The particular trolley-road referred to is in central Connecticut, and the particular portion over which I oftenest travel, and from which my notes were taken, is a stretch of track extending a distance of ten miles, from one town to another.

The road runs partly on public highways, but for much of the distance out across the fields, and at one point through a bit of woodland.

It is a delightful little journey to take, on which one may get a succession of pleasant views, of wide meadows, of fine old trees standing out in groups here and there, or in dignified procession following the lines of distant roads, with glimpses of villages and scattered houses, and, far away, outlines of blue hills against the sky; but it is a route offering no especial advantages to the ornithologist.

There is no water in sight, though there is a swamp of small extent. We cut across the corner of an old orchard, there are places where for some distance the track is bordered by low bushes, there are the fields, and the little stretch of woodland, still mercifully preserved from the clutches of the real-estate agent, but, all things considered, one might reasonably expect to see as great a number of birds on almost any suburban trolley-route, as on this.

Try noting the birds on your ordinary routes, you trolley-riders, if you have n’t already, and see if you are not surprised at the variety of bird-life that will come so easily to your attention, and at the interest the observation of it will bring to you. Just to recognize the birds is a pleasure, and more of their habits can be noted from a rushing trolley-car than one would at first thought deem possible.

I never could decide with certainty, in the days of my youth, when a piece of frosted cake stood for a blissful experience, whether to “ keep the best till the last ” or to eat my frosting first, while my appetite was at its keenest. I am inclined to think that I found the latter principle the more satisfactory one to work on, as a rule, and so now, in offering my tempting list of birds seen from the trolley, to those who care to read about them, I find myself inclined to begin with the rarest one that I have noted.

It was late in the afternoon of January 24, 1904,— a cold, gray day, — that, as we entered the woods, a flash of black and white and bright yellow suddenly caught my eye, and there flew along beside us, for a distance of eight or ten rods, a bird that filled my soul with amazement and delight.

I had never seen one at all like him, and I could scarcely believe my eyes. I got a good look at him. He was about the length of a bluebird, the upper parts dark with olive tints, the wings and tail bright black, the former showing a broad band of pure white and probably other lesser bands. The clear yellow color was underneath, and there were touches about the shoulders also.

I could hardly wait to get home to look him up in my bird books. I was n’t sure in what group to try to place him, he was so entirely foreign to my imagination, but recalling his shape, I steered for the finch family, and there, among the grosbeaks, I found him clearly described — the evening grosbeak, a “ bird of central North America from Manitoba northward,” the records said, and one that had never but once appeared as far south and east as Massachusetts, and that in the winter of 1889-90.

True, it was marvelous that I should have seen such a rare visitant here in Connecticut, but I knew I could n’t be mistaken, and, within a week, I was rewarded for my credulity by reading in a local paper that Several evening grosbeaks had recently been seen in a neighboring town, for the first time on record. It was a very cold winter and they were probably driven out of their usual course by the extreme weather.

That is the only very rare bird that I have ever seen on my trolley-trips.

I count it great good fortune, however, when, once in several seasons, I catch a glimpse of brilliant color where a scarlet tanager, perching quietly on the branch of a tree, shows like a frosted leaf amid the green. He is not rare in the general region, but seldom seen near the trolley tracks or the highway.

So, too, I count the times when I see the veery or the hermit thrush. My record, extending over nearly ten years, has their names but two or three times, though they have doubtless been near, flitting softly among the low bushes, where my eyes have n’t seen them.

It adds zest to one’s observations to think that some shy, rare visitant may at any time be awaiting one’s coming.

There are, however, from early spring to late October, a goodly number of birds to be depended upon on every journey.

The crows are always in evidence, summer and winter, and are by no means undecorative as they shine out, glossy black, against a blue sky, or drop lo fields of snow beneath. Meadow larks, too, I have seen in some years, during every month, though I am not sure of them usually in January and February.

In early March I know in just what field the crow blackbirds will be walking about with arrogant steps and creaking like rusty pump-handles, — do they imagine that they are singing ? — and that soon, in the bit of swampland, will be seen the red-wings.

The old orchard is a delight to the eyes, from blossom-time till late fall sees the last red globes of fruit disappear from the trees; and the birds appreciate it, too.

Here come the first robins, and among the trees, in early May, heavenly bits of color show where the bluebirds are Hitting about; and here, too, as soon as the blossoms come, are gay flashes of orange, where the Baltimore oriole, blithest of bird-visitors, is drinking a merry health to all the world, from the dainty cups of the apple-blossoms.

Orchard orioles, handsome fellows, too, but much less conspicuous in their coats of chestnut and black, I see occasionally, during the season.

Not far away is a great barn, and phœbes fly out from under the eaves, and soon barn swallows may be seen darting in and out of the wide-open doors, and off across the fields. We see many swallows: treeswallows, by the hundreds, sit in lines on the telegraph wires, facing the wind, their breasts shining white in the sun.

Meadow larks become abundant in April, the white spots on their tails marking them plainly, as they sail off in flocks of half a dozen or so across the meadows. Soon tame little chippies sit on the fencerails, and song sparrows pour their hearts out in song from low bushes, on sweet May mornings. Vesper sparrows flit ahead of us; they are never quite so sure of our entire friendliness as the song sparrows seem to be. The white quills in their tails distinguish them from their similarly-colored cousins.

Late in May the kingbirds become extremely common, and remain our most frequent neighbors, excepting perhaps the meadow larks, until early fall. They are sleek, handsome birds, with their glossy backs and the pretty white trimming that edges their tails so neatly. Not infrequently they entertain us for quite a distance by chasing a crow, always a ludicrous performance to watch, the enemies are so unevenly matched in size. As far as I have observed, the little antagonist always comes out ahead, — at least he always keeps on top, — flying just above the crow, and darting down to peck at his enemy’s neck or back; but as we usually see him, he looks as if he might be a member of a Peace Conference.

It is always delightful to catch a glimpse of a brown thrasher or a catbird among the thickets, and always tantalizing not to be able to stop to listen for their songs.

Sometimes I see a long brown bird flying stealthily from bush to bush, or perched absolutely motionless among the branches of an apple tree; that is the yellow-billed cuckoo, with his soft coloring of olive-brown on the back, and with the peculiarly lovely white fluffiness of the feathers on the sides and breast.

Occasionally, refined and elegant cedar waxwings come in flocks to a group of evergreens which we pass. Goldfinches bound happily over the fields when seeds are ripening, and an occasional yellow warbler adds a bit of lovely color.

Sometimes, in June, a bobolink flies a race with us, and then there is excitement throughout the car — even people who do not recognize themselves as bird lovers turn a sympathetic eye toward that incarnate spirit of happiness; and we can hear him sing, too, even above all the rattle and whizz and hum of the car itself.

“ Don’t he sing just like a cherubim ? ” one enthusiastic woman exclaimed, the last time that a car full of people was treated to an exhibition of his vocal and athletic powers.

I see nothing prettier, throughout the year, than the indigo birds, which are not at all uncommon and do not seem in the least disturbed by the commotion that we make in passing.

I have in mind a picture quite pretty enough for a valentine (and not at all unsuitable) of a pair of indigo birds sitting close together on the top rail of a fence, in the utmost contentment. Did they know how becoming they were to each other — he in his gleaming, iridescent blue coat and she in her dress of a particularly sunny shade of golden brown ? Nature never arranged a prettier combination of colors, I know.

Among the larger birds which I see the flicker is the most common. I have practically learned all of the markings of the flicker from the frequent glimpses I have had of him from the trolley. When he flies off across the fields, the big white patch on his back is very noticeable, and when we pass close by, while he clings to the trunk of a tree in the wood, the scarlet patch on the nape of his neck and the beautiful markings of the wings and tail can easily be seen, and even the golden lining of the wings, when he suddenly takes flight.

I learned to know the sparrow-hawk, too, from the glimpses I caught of him from the trolley. His colorings of russet brown and grayish blue above, with bright touches of black and white, and the creamy buff beneath, are very beautiful.

I see him, usually, sitting upon a bare twig, watching for his prey — probably a harmless grasshopper in the field below.

A flash of steel-blue and a great crested head proclaim the presence of an occasional kingfisher; what he can be expecting to find in our waterless region, I always wonder. He is the halcyon-bird of the ancients, and indeed I count it a halcyon day myself when I catch sight of one.

Sometimes there is a flash of blue through the air, and a bold, bright bird, with crest erect, jumps heavily (I know of no other word that expresses his manner of alighting) on a branch of a hemlock tree, and surveys the world with a haughty glance.

Ah, my blue jay, I can’t help having a certain admiration for you, in spite of your bad reputation among other birds and bird-fanciers; there is something very fascinating about your dashing, reckless air, and how handsome you are against the dark hemlock green!

I note him oftenest in winter, and then I welcome flocks of juncos, plump little gray fellows, flying merrily about the thickets, and nuthatches, creeping head downwards on the trunks of the orchard trees, and chickadees, looking as if they were blown about the apple-branches, so lightly do they perch and fly.

These, then, are the thirty and more birds that I have noted on this one little trolley-route; and if I transfer, and take an excursion of a few miles in another direction, I may easily add to my list. On this extended route, I may be sure, on almost any morning of early summer, of three varieties of vireos, the yellowthroated, the red-eyed, and the warbling. When we stop in a village street to make connections with another line, we may be pretty certain to hear at least two of these vireos, and possibly all three. The yellow-throated is easiest to see, partly on account of his more pronounced markings. The red-eyed is quite as tame, I think. I know of nothing that will cure a fit of the blues quicker than the cheery philosophy of the yellow-throated vireo’s song, persistently repeated, “ Cheer’-up, cheer-ree’, cheer-up' ”

A little farther along on the same route, I know a clump of bushes where I can be almost certain of catching a glimpse of a tricksy sprite, peering out through a little black mask, and calling, “ Witchery , witchery, witchery ” — the Maryland yellow-throat, that; and in the elms overhead, I am often rewarded for my little excursion aside, by the sight and song of a rose-breasted grosbeak, a bird I have never seen on my regular ten-mile route, though I am fairly certain of him in May and June, on this other road a few miles away.

There is often solace for would-be travelers in such lines as those of Thoreau :

If with fancy unfurled,
You leave your abode,
You may go round the world
By the old Marlboro’ road.

So when I read soul-stirring accounts of bird-rambles in distant states, or of bird-songs heard under foreign skies, I cheer myself up, knowing that I may not easily have such experiences myself, with the thought that on a ten-mile trolley ride, starting from my own door, I may be sure of the sight of at least more than a dozen charming feathered friends, on any summer day, and that there is always a chance of adding a rare one to my list.

I never forget that once I almost saw a Blackburnian warbler in a bush. That is, I probably really saw him, but it was such a tiny, confusing flash, only the most uncertain impression of black and white and orange, that I did not dare make a note of it in my conscientiously kept recordbook; but on any May morning, I may really see that Blackburnian warbler!