Web Text-ures Logo

Web and Book design,
Copyright, Kellscraft Studio

(Return to Web Text-ures)

Click Here to return to
A World of Green Hills
Content Page

 Return to the Previous Chapter

Kellscraft Studio Logo


STEWART’S POND, on the Hamburg road a mile or so from the village of Highlands, served me, a visiting bird-gazer, more than one good turn: selfishly considered, it was something to be thankful for; but I never passed it, for all that, without feeling that it was a defacement of the landscape. The Cullasajah River is here only four or five miles from its source, near the summit of Whiteside Mountain; and already a landowner, taking advantage of a level space and what passes among men as a legal title, has dammed it (the reader may spell the word as he chooses — “dammed” or “damned,” it is all one to a mountain stream) for uses of his own. The water backs up between a wooded hill on one side and a rounded grassy knoll on the other, narrows where the road crosses it by a rude bridge, and immediately broadens again, as best it can, against the base of a steeper, forest-covered hill just beyond. The shapelessness of the pond and its romantic surroundings will in the course of years give it beauty, but for the present everything is unpleasantly new. The tall old trees and the ancient rhododendron bushes, which have been drowned by the brook they meant only to drink from, are too recently dead. Nature must have time to trim the ragged edges of man’s work and fit it into her own plan. And she will do it, though it may take her longer than to absorb the man himself.

When I came in sight of the pond for the first time, in the midst of my second day’s explorations, my first thought, it must be confessed, was not of its beauty or want of beauty, but of sandpipers, and in a minute more I was leaning over the fence to sweep the water-line with my opera-glass. Yes, there they were, five or six in number, one here, another there; solitary sandpipers, so called with only a moderate degree of appropriateness, breaking their long northward journey beside this mountain lake, which might have been made for their express convenience. I was glad to see them. Without being rare, they make themselves uncommon enough to be always interesting; and they have, besides, one really famous trait, — the extraordinary secrecy of their breeding operations. Well known as they are, and wide as is their distribution, their eggs, so far as I am aware, are still unrepresented in scientific collections except by a single specimen found almost twenty years ago in Vermont; a “record,” as we say in these days, of which Totanus solitarius may rightfully be proud.

About another part of the pond, on this same afternoon (May 8), were two sandpipers of a more ordinary sort: spotted sandpipers, familiar objects, we may fairly say, the whole country over. Few American schoolboys but have laughed at their absurd teetering motions. In this respect the solitary sandpiper is better behaved. It does not teeter — it bobs; standing still, as if in deep thought, and then dipping forward quickly (a fanciful observer might take the movement for an affirmative gesticulation, an involuntary “Yes, yes, now I have it!”) and instantly recovering itself, exactly in the manner of a plover. This is partly what Mr. Chapman means, I suppose, when he speaks of the solitary sandpiper’s superior quietness and dignity; two fine attributes, which may have much to do with their possessor’s almost unparalleled success in eluding the researches of oölogical collectors. Nervousness and loquacity are poor hands at preserving a secret.

Although my first brief visit to Stewart’s Pond made three additions to my local bird-list (the third being a pair of brown creepers), I did not go that way again for almost a fortnight. Then (May 21) my feet were barely on the bridge before a barn swallow skimmed past me. Swallows of any kind in the mountains of North Carolina are like hen-hawks in Massachusetts, — rare enough to be worth following out of sight. As for barn swallows, I had not expected to see them here at all. I kept my eye upon this fellow, therefore, with the more jealousy, and happily for me he seemed to have found the spot very much to his mind. If he was a straggler, as I judged likely in spite of the lateness of the season, he was perhaps all the readier to stay for an hour or two on so favorable a hunting-ground. With him were half a dozen rough-wings, — probably not stragglers, — hawking over the water; feeding, bathing, and now and then, by way of variety, engaging in some pretty spirited lovers’ quarrels. In one such encounter, I remember, one of the contestants received so heavy a blow that she quite lost her balance (the sex was matter of guesswork) and dropped plump into the water; and more than once the fun was interrupted by an irate phoebe, who dashed out upon the makers of it with an ugly snap of his beak, as much as to say, Come, now, this is my bridge.” Mr. Stewart himself could hardly have held stricter notions about the rights of property. The rough-wings frequently perched in the dead trees, and once, at least, the barn swallow did likewise; something which I never saw a bird of his kind do before, to the best of my recollection. For to-day he was in Rome, and had fallen in with the Roman customs.

As I have said already, his presence was unexpected. His name is not included in Mr. Brewster’s North Carolina list, and I saw no other bird like him till I was approaching Asheville, a week later, in a railway train. Then I was struck almost at the same moment by two things — a brick chimney and a barn swallow. My start at the sight of red bricks made me freshly aware with what quickness the mind puts away the past and accustoms itself to new and strange surroundings. Man is the slave of habit, we say; but how many of us, even in middle age, have altered our modes of living, our controlling opinions, or our daily occupations, and in the shortest while have forgotten the old order of things, till it has become all like a dream, — a story heard long ago and now dimly remembered. Was it indeed we who lived there, and believed thus, and spent our days so? This capacity for change augurs well for the future of the race, and not less for the future of the individual, whether in this world or in another.

In a previous chapter I have mentioned as provocative of astonishment the ignorance of a North Carolina man, my driver from Walhalla, who had no idea of what I meant by swallows.” His case turned out to be less singular than I thought, however, for when I spoke of it to an exceptionally bright, well-informed farmer in the vicinity of Highlands, he answered that he saw nothing surprising about it; he didn’t know what swallows were, neither. Martins he knew, — purple martins, — though there were none hereabout, so far as I could discover, but “swallow,” as a bird’s name, was a novelty he had never heard of. Here on Stewart’s bridge I might have tested the condition of another resident’s mind upon the same point, but unfortunately the experiment did not occur to me. He came along on horseback, and I called his attention to the swallows shooting to and fro over the water, a pretty spectacle anywhere, but doubly so in this swallow-poor country. He manifested no very lively interest in the subject; but he made me a civil answer, — which is perhaps more than a hobby-horsical catechist, who travels up and down the world cross-examining his busy fellow mortals, has any good reason for counting upon in such a case. With so many things to be seen and done in this short life, it is obvious that all men’s tastes cannot run to ornithology. “Yes,” the stranger said, glancing at the swallows, “I expect they have their nests under the bridge.” A civil answer I called it, but it was better than that; indicating, as it did, some acquaintance with the rough-wing’s habits, or a shrewd knack at guessing. But the man knew nothing about a bird that nested in barns.

A short distance beyond the bridge, in a clearing over which lay scattered the remains of a house that had formerly stood in it (for even this new country is not destitute of ruins), a pair of snowbirds were chipping nervously, and near the same spot my ear caught the lisping call of my first North Carolina brown creeper. No doubt it was breeding somewhere close by, and my imagination at once fastened upon a loose clump of water-killed trees, from the trunks of which the dry bark was peeling in big sun-warped flakes, as the site of its probable habitation. This was on my first jaunt over the road, and during the busy days that followed I planned more than once to spend an hour here in spying upon the birds. A brown creeper’s nest would be something new for me. Now, therefore, on this bright morning, when I was done with the swallows, I walked on to the right point and waited. A long time passed, or what seemed a long time. With so many invitations pressing upon one from all sides in a vacation country, it is hard sometimes to be leisurely enough for the best naturalistic results. Then, suddenly, I heard the expected tseep, and soon the bird made its appearance. Sure enough, it flew against one of the very trees that my imagination had settled upon, ducked under a strip of dead bark, between it and the bole, remained within for half a minute, and came out again. By this time the second bird had appeared, and was waiting its turn for admission. They were feeding their young; and so long as I remained they continued their work, going and coming at longer or shorter intervals. I made no attempt to inspect their operations more nearly; the tree stood in rather deep water, and the nest was situated at an altitude of perhaps twenty feet; but I was glad to see for myself, even at arm’s length, as it were, this curious and highly characteristic abode of a bird which in general I meet with only in its idle season. I was surprised to notice that the pair had chosen a strip of bark which was fastened to the trunk at the upper end and hung loose below. The nest was the better protected from the weather, of course, but it must have been wedged pretty tightly into place, it seemed to me, unless it had some means of support not to be guessed at from the ground. The owners entered invariably at the same point, — in the upper corner. The brown creeper has been flattening itself against the bark of trees for so many thousand years that a very narrow slit suffices it for a doorway.

While I was occupied with this interesting bit of household economy, I heard a clatter of wheels mingled with youthful shouts. Two boys were coming round a bend in the road and bearing down upon me, seated upon an axle-tree between a pair of wheels drawn by a single steer, which was headed for the town at a lively trot, urged on by the cries of the boys, one of whom held the single driving-rope and the other a whip. “How fast can he go?” I asked, as they drew near. I hoped to detain them for a few minutes of talk, but they had no notion of stopping. They had never timed him, the older one — not the driver — answered, with the merriest of grins. I expressed wonder that they could manage him with a single rein. “Oh, I can drive him without any line at all.” “But how do you steer him?” said I. “I yank him and I pull him,” was the laconic reply, which by this time had to be. shouted over the boy’s shoulder; and away the crazy trap went, the wobbling wheels describing all manner of eccentric and nameless curves with every revolution; and the next minute 1 heard it rattling over the bridge. Undoubtedly the young fellows thought me a green one, not to know that a yank and a steady pull are equivalent to a gee and a haw. “Live and learn,” said I to myself. It was a jolly mode of traveling, at all events, as good as a circus, both for the boys and for me.

On my way through the village, at noon, I passed the steer turned out to grass by the roadside, and had a better look at the harness, a simple, homemade affair, including a pair of hames. The driving-rope, which in its original estate might have been part of a clothes-line or a bed-cord, was attached to a chain which went round or over the creature’s head at the base of the horns. The lads themselves were farther down the street, and the younger one nudged the other’s elbow with a nod in my direction as I passed on the opposite sidewalk. They seemed to have sobered down at a wonderful rate since their arrival in the “city.” I should hardly have known them for the same boys; but no doubt they would wake the echoes again on the road homeward. I hoped so, surely, for I liked them best as I saw them first.

As far as the pleasure of life goes, boys brought up in this primitive mountain country have little to complain of. They may lack certain advantages; in this imperfect world, where two bodies cannot occupy the same space at once, the presence of some things necessitates the absence of others; but most certainly they have their full quota of what in youthful phrase are known as “good times.” The very prettiest sight that I saw in North Carolina, not excepting any landscape or flower, — and I saw floral displays of a splendor to bankrupt all description, — was a boy whom I met one Sunday morning in a steep, disused road outside of the town. I was descending the hill, picking my steps, and he was coming up. Eleven or twelve years old he might have been, cleanly dressed, fit for any company, but bare-legged to the knee. I wished him good-morning, and he responded with the easiest grace imaginable. “You are going to church?” said I. “Yes, sir,” and on he went up the hill, “progressing by his own brave steps; “a boy, as Thoreau says, who was “never drawn in a willow wagon; “straight as an arrow, and with motions so elastic, so full of the very spirit of youth and health, that I stood still and gazed after him. for pure delight. His face, his speech, his manner, his carriage, all were in keeping. If he does not make a good and happy man, it will be an awful tragedy.

This boy was not a “cracker’s “child, I think. Probably he belonged to one of the Northern families, that make up the village for the most part, and have settled the country sparsely for a few miles round about. The lot of the native mountaineers is hard and pinched, and although flocks of children were playing happily enough about the cabin doors, it was impossible not to look upon them as born to a narrow and cheerless existence. Possibly the fault was partly in myself, since I have no very easy gift with strangers, but I found them, young and old alike, rather uncommunicative.

I recall a family group that I overtook toward the end of an afternoon; a father and mother, both surprisingly young-looking, hardly out of their teens, it seemed to me, with a boy of perhaps six years. They were resting by the roadside as I came up, the father poring over some written document. “You must have been to the city,” said I; but all the man could answer was “Howdy.” The woman smiled and murmured something, it was impossible to tell what. They started on again at that moment, the grown people each with a heavy bag, which looked as if it might contain meal or flour, and the little fellow with a big bundle. They had four miles still to go, they said; and the road, as I could see for myself, was of the very worst, steep and rugged to the last degree. Partly to see if I could conquer the man, and partly to please myself, I beckoned the youngster to my side and put a coin into his hand. The shot took effect at once. Father and mother found their voices, and said in the same breath, “Say thank you!” How natural that sounded! It is part of the universal language. Every parent will have his child polite. But the boy, poor thing, was utterly tongue-tied, and could only smile; which, after all, was about the best thing he could have done. The father, too, was still inclined to silence, finding nothing in particular to say, though I did my best to encourage him; but he took pains to keep along with me, halting whenever I did so, and making it manifest that he meant to be with me at the turn in the road, about which I had inquired (needlessly, there is no harm in my now confessing), so that I should by no possibility go astray. Nothing could have been more friendly, and at the corner both he and his wife bade me good-by with simple heartiness. “Good-by, little boy,” said I. “Tell him good-by,” called both father and mother; but the boy couldn’t, and there was an end of it. “He’s just as I was at his age; bashful, that’s all.” This little speech set matters right. The parents smiled, the boy did likewise, and we went our different ways, I still pitying the woman, with that heavy bag under her arm, having to make a packhorse of herself on that tiresome mountain road.

However, it is the mountain woman’s way to do her full share of the hard work, as I was soon to see farther exemplified; for within half a mile I heard in front of me the grating of a saw, and presently came upon another family group, in the woods on the mountain side, — a woman, three children, and a dog. The woman, no longer young, as we say in the language of compliment, was at one end of a cross-cut saw, and the largest boy, ten or eleven years old, was at the other. They were getting to pieces a huge fallen trunk. “Wood ought to be cheap in this country,” said I; and the woman, as she and the boy changed hands to rest themselves, answered that it was. In my heart I thought she was paying dearly for it; but her voice was cheerful, and the whole company was almost a merry one, the younger children laughing at their play, and the dog capering about them in high spirits. The mountain family may be poor, but not with the degrading, squalid poverty of dwellers in a city slum; and at the very worst the children have a royal playground.

Mountain boys, certainly, I could never much pity; for the girls it was impossible not to wish easier and more generous conditions. Here at Stewart’s Pond I detained two of them for a minute’s talk: sisters, I judged, the taller one ten years old, or thereabout. I asked them if there were many fish in the pond. The older one thought there were. “I know my daddy ketched five hundred and put in there for Mr. Stewart,” she said. Just then the younger girl pulled her sister’s sleeve and pointed toward two snakes which lay sunning themselves on the edge of the water, where a much larger one had shortly before slipped off a log into the pond at my approach. “They do no harm?” said I. “No, sir, I don’t guess they do,” was the answer; a strange-sounding form of speech, though it is exactly like the “I don’t think so” of which we all continue to make hourly use, no matter how often some crotchety amateur grammarian — for whom logic is logic, and who hates idiom as a mad dog hates water — may write to the newspapers warning us of its impropriety.

Then the girls, barefooted, both of them, turned into a bushy trail so narrow that it had escaped my notice, and disappeared in the woods. I thought of the villainous-looking rattlesnake that I had seen the day before, freshly killed and tossed upon the side of the road, within a hundred rods of this point, and of the surprise expressed by a resident of the town at my wandering about the country without leggins.

As to the question of snakes and the danger from them, the people here, as is true everywhere in a rattlesnake country, held widely different opinions. Everybody recognized the presence of the pest, and most persons, whatever their own practice might be, advised a measure of caution on the part of strangers. One thing was agreed to on all hands: whoever saw a “rattler “was in duty bound to make an end of it; and one man told me a little story by way of illustrating the spirit of the community upon this point. A woman (not a mountain woman) was riding into town, when her horse suddenly stopped and shied. In the road, directly before her, a snake was coiled, rattling defiance. The woman dismounted, hitched the frightened horse to a sapling, cut a switch, killed the snake, threw it out of the road, remounted, and went on about her business. It is one advantage of life in wild surroundings that it encourages self-reliance.

In all places, nevertheless, and under all conditions, human nature remains a paradoxical compound. A mountain woman, while ploughing, came into close quarters with a rattlesnake. To save herself she sprang backward, fell against a stone, and in the fall broke her wrist. No doctor being within call, she set the bone herself, made and adjusted a rude splint, and now, as the lady who told me the story expressed it, “has a pretty good arm.” That was plucky. But the same woman suffered from an aching tooth some time afterward, and was advised to have it extracted. She would do no such thing. She couldn’t. She had a tooth pulled once, and it hurt her so that she would never do it again.

Anthropology and ornithology were very agreeably mingled for me on the Hamburg road, — though it seems impossible for me to stay there, the reader may say, — where passers-by were frequent enough to keep me from feeling lonesome, and yet not so numerous as to disturb the quiet of the place or interfere unduly with my natural historical researches. The human interview to which I look back with most pleasure was with a pair of elderly people who appeared one morning in an open buggy. They were driving from the town, seated side by side in the shadow of a big umbrella, and as they overtook me, on the bridge, the man said “Good-morning,” of course, and then, to my surprise, pulled up his horse and inquired particularly after my health. He hoped I was recovering from my indisposition, though I am not sure that he used that rather superfine word. I gave him a favorable account of myself, — wondering all the while how he knew I had been ill, — whereupon he expressed the greatest satisfaction, and his good wife smiled in sympathy. Then, after a word or two about the beauty of the morning, and while I was still trying to guess who the couple could be, the man gathered up the reins with the remark, “I’m going after some Ilex monticola for Charley.” “Yes, I know where it is,” he added, in response to a question. Then I knew him. I had been at his house a few evenings before to see his son, who had come home from Biltmore to collect certain rare local plants — the mountain holly being one of them — for the Vanderbilt herbarium. The mystery was cleared, but it may be imagined how taken aback I was when this venerable rustic stranger threw a Latin name at me.

In truth, however, botany and Latin names might almost be said to be in the air at Highlands. A villager met me in the street, one day, and almost before I knew it, we were discussing the specific identity of the small yellow lady’s-slippers, — whether there were two species, or, as my new acquaintance believed, only one, in the woods round about. At another time, having called at a very pretty unpainted cottage, — all the prettier for the natural color of the weathered shingles, — I remarked to the lady of the house upon the beauty of Azalea Vaseyi, which I had noticed in several dooryards, and which was said to have been transplanted from the woods. I did not understand why it was, I told her, but I couldn’t find it described in my Chapman’s Flora. “Oh, it is there, I am sure it is,” she answered; and going into the next room she brought out a copy of the manual, turned to the page, and showed me the name. It was in the, supplement, where in my haste I had overlooked it. I wondered how often, in a New England country village, a stranger could happen into a house, painted or unpainted, and by any chance find the mistress of it prepared to set him right on a question of local botany.

On a later occasion — for thus encouraged I called more than once afterward at the same house — the lady handed me an orchid. I might be interested in it; it was not very common, she believed. I looked at it, thinking at first that I had never seen it before. Then I seemed to remember something. “Is it Pogonia verticillata?” I asked. She smiled, and said it was; and when I told her that to the best of my recollection I had never seen more than one specimen before, and that upwards of twenty years ago (a specimen from Blue Hill, Massachusetts), she insisted upon believing that I must have an extraordinary botanical memory, though of course she did not put the compliment thus baldly, but dressed it in some graceful, unanswerable, feminine phrase which I, for all my imaginary mnemonic powers, have long ago forgotten.

The same lady had the rare Shortia galacifolia growing — transplanted — in her grounds, and her husband volunteered to show me one of the few places in the neighborhood of Highlands (this, too, on his own land) where the true lily-of-the-valley — identical with the European plant of our gardens — grows wild. It was something I had greatly desired to see, and was now in bloom. Still another man — but he was only a summer cottager — took me to look at a specimen of the Carolina hemlock (Tsuga Caroliniana), a tree of the very existence of which I had before been ignorant. The truth is that the region is most exceptionally rich in its flora, and the people, to their honor be it recorded, are equally exceptional in that they appreciate the fact.

A small magnolia-tree (M. Fraseri), in bloom everywhere along the brooksides, did not attract me to any special degree till one day, in an idle hour at Stewart’s Pond, I plucked a half-open bud. I thought I had never known so rare a fragrance; delicate and wholesome beyond comparison, and yet most deliciously rich and fruity, a perfume for the gods. The leaf, too, now that I came really to look at it, was of an elegant shape and texture, untoothed, but with a beautiful “auriculated” base, as Latin-loving botanists say, from which the plant derives its vernacular name, — the ear-leaved umbrella-tree. The waxy blossoms seemed to be quite scentless, but I wished that Thoreau, whose nose was as good as his eyes and his ears, could have smelled of the buds.

The best thing that I found at the pond, however, by long odds the most interesting and unexpected thing that I found anywhere in North Carolina (I speak as a hobbyist), was neither a tree nor a human being, but a bird. I had been loitering along the riverbank just above the pond itself, admiring the magnolias, the silver-bell trees, the lofty hemlocks, — out of the depths of which a “mountain boomer,” known to simple Northern folk as a red squirrel, now and then emitted his saucy chatter, — and the Indian’s paint-brush (scarlet painted-cup), the brightest and among the most characteristic and memorable of the woodland flowers; listening to the shouts of an olive-sided flycatcher and the music of the frogs, one of them a regular Karl Formes for profundity; and in general waiting to see what would happen. Nothing of special importance seemed likely to reward my diligent idleness, and I turned back toward the town. On the way I halted at the bridge, as I always did, and presently a carriage drove over it. Inside sat a woman under an enormous black sunbonnet. She did me, without knowing it, a kindness, and I should be glad to thank her. As the wheels of the carriage struck the plank bridge, a bird started into sight from under it or close beside it. A sandpiper, I thought; but the next moment it dropped into the water and began swimming. Then I knew it for a bird I had never seen before, and, better still, a bird belonging to a family of which I had never seen any representative, a bird which had never for an instant entered into my North Carolina calculations. It was a phalarope, a wanderer from afar, blown out of its course, perhaps, and lying by for a day in this little mountain pond, almost four thousand feet above sea level.

My first concern, as I recovered myself, was to set down in black and white a complete account of the stranger’s plumage; for though I knew it for a phalarope, I must wait to consult a book before naming it more specifically. It would have contributed unspeakably to my peace of mind, just then, had I been better informed about the distinctive peculiarities of the three species which compose the phalarope family; as I certainly would have been, had I received any premonition of what was in store for me. As it was, I must make sure of every possible detail, lest in my ignorance I should overlook some apparently trivial item that might prove, too late, to be all important. So I fell to work, noting the white lower cheek (or should I call it the side of the upper neck?), the black stripe through and behind the eye, the white line just over the eye, the light-colored crown, the rich reddish brown of the nape and the sides of the neck, the white or gray-white under parts, the plain (unbarred) wings, and so on. The particulars need not be rehearsed here. I was possessed by a recollection, or half recollection, that the marginal membrane of the toes was a prime mark of distinction (as indeed it is, though the only manual I had brought with me turned out not to mention the point); but while for much of the time the bird’s feet were visible, it never for so much as a second held them still, and as the water was none too clear and the bottom muddy, it was impossible for me to see how the toes were webbed, or even to be certain that they were webbed at all. Once, as the bird was close to the shore, and almost at my feet, I crouched upon a log, thinking to pick the creature up and examine it; but it moved quietly away for a yard or so, just out of reach, and though I could probably have killed it with a stick, — as a friend of mine killed one some years ago on a mountain lake in New Hampshire,1 — it was happily too late when the possibility of such a step occurred to me. By that time I was not on collecting terms with the bird. It was “not born for death,” I thought, or, if it was, I was not born to play the executioner.

Its activity was amazing. If I had not known this to be natural to the phalarope family, I might have thought the poor thing on the verge of starvation, eating for dear life. It moved its head from side to side incessantly, dabbing the water with its bill picking something, — minute insects, I supposed, — from the surface, or swimming among the loose grass, and running its bill down the green blades one after another. Several times, in its eagerness to capture a passing insect, it almost flew over the water, and once it actually took wing for a stroke or two, with some quick, breathless notes, like cut, cut, cut. One thing was certain, it did not care for polliwogs, shoals of which darted about its feet unmolested.

Once a horseman frightened it as he rode over the bridge, but even then it barely rose from the water with a startled yip. The man glanced at it (I was just then looking carelessly in another direction), and passed on — to my relief. At that moment the most interesting mountaineer in North Carolina would have found me unresponsive. As for my own presence, the phalarope seemed hardly to notice it, though I stood much of the time within a distance of ten feet, and now and then considerably nearer than that, — without so much as a grassblade for cover, — holding my glass upon it steadily till a stitch in my side made the attitude all but intolerable. The lovely bird rode the water in the lightest possible manner, and was easily put about by slight puffs of wind; but it could turn upon an insect With lightning quickness. It was never still for an instant except on two occasions, when it came close to the shore and sat motionless in the lee of a log. There it crouched upon its feet, which were still under water, and seemed to be resting. It preened its feathers, also, and once it rubbed its bill down with its claw, but the motion was too quick for my eye to follow, though I was near enough to see the nostril with perfect distinctness.

I was in love with the bird from the first minute. Its tameness, the elegance of its shape and plumage, the grace and vivacity of its movements, these of themselves were enough to drive a bird-lover wild. Add to them its novelty and unexpectedness, and the reader may judge for himself of my state of mind. It was the dearest and tamest creature I had ever seen, I kept saying to myself, forgetful for the moment of two blue-headed vireos which at different times had allowed me to stroke and feed them as they sat brooding on their eggs.

Another thing I must mention, as adding not a little to the pleasure of the hour. The moment I set eyes upon the phalarope, before I had taken even a mental note of its plumage, I thought of my friend and correspondent, Celia Thaxter, and of her eager inquiries about the “bay bird,” which she had then seen for the first time at the Isles of Shoals — “just like a sandpiper, only smaller, and swimming on the water like a duck.” And as the bird before me darted hither and thither, so amazingly agile, I remembered her pretty description of this very trait, a description which I here copy from her letter: —

“He was swimming about the wharf near the landing, a pretty, dainty creature, in soft shades of gray and white, with the ‘needle-like beak,’ and a rapidity of motion that I have never seen equaled in any living thing except a darting dragon-fly or some restless insect. He was never for one instant still, darting after his food on the surface of the water. He seemed perfectly tame, wasn’t the least afraid of anything or anybody, merely moving aside to avoid an oar-blade, and swaying almost on to the rocks with the swirl of the water. I watched him till I was tired, and went away and left him there still cheerfully frisking. I am so glad to tell you of something you haven’t seen!”

A year afterward (May 29, 1892), she wrote again, with equal enthusiasm: If I only had a house of my own here I should make a business of trying desperately hard to bring you here, if only for one of your spare Sundays, to see the’ bay birds’ that have been round here literally by the thousands for the last month, the swimming sandpipers — so beautiful! In great flocks that wheel and turn, and, flying in long masses over the water, show now dark, now dazzling silver as they careen and show the white lining of their wings, like a long, brilliant, fluttering ribbon. I never heard of so many before, about here.”

The birds seen at the Isles of Shoals were doubtless either red phalaropes or northern phalaropes, — or, not unlikely, both, — sea snipe,” they are often called; two pelagic, circumpolar species, the presence of which in unusual numbers off our Atlantic coast was recorded by other observers in the spring of 1892. My bird here in North Carolina, if I read its characters correctly, was of the third species of the family, Wilson’s phalarope, larger and handsomer than the others; an inland bird, peculiar to the American continent, breeding in the upper Mississippi Valley and farther north, and occurring in our Eastern country only as a straggler.

That was a lucky hour, an hour worth a long journey, and worthy of long remembrance. It brought me, as I began by saying, a new bird and a new family; a family distinguished not more for its grace and beauty than for the strangeness — the “newness,” as to-day’s word is — of its domestic relations; for the female phalarope not only dresses more handsomely than the male, but is larger, and in a general way assumes the rights of superiority. She does the courting — openly and ostensibly, I mean — and, if the books are to be trusted, leaves to her mate the homely, plumage-dulling labor of sitting upon the eggs. And why not?

Nature has made her a queen, and dowered her with queenly prerogatives, one of which, by universal consent, is the right to choose for herself the father of her royal children.

Like Mrs. Thaxter, I stayed with my bird till I was tired with watching such preternatural activity; and the next day I returned to the place, hoping to tire myself again in the same delightful manner. But the phalarope was no longer there. Up and down the road I went, scanning the edges of the pond, but the bird had flown. I wished her safely over the mountains, and a mate to her heart’s liking at the end of the journey.


1 The case is recorded in The Auk, vol. vi. page 68.

Book Chapter Logo Click the book image to turn to the next Chapter.