Web and Book design,
Copyright, Kellscraft Studio
(Return to Web Text-ures)
| "Tinting the wild grape with her
Till the cool emerald turns to amethyst."
Sarah Helen Whitman.
WITH September begins the first movement of ebb-tide, made apparent partly by the complete disappearance of a few species of birds, but still more by the gradual gathering of the gregarious varieties into large flocks, to wander hither and thither until the full time for migration arrives.
Almost the first
species that we lose
sight of is the summer yellow bird, which leaves very promptly at the
beginning of the month, its departure the more evident because it is
so ubiquitous through the summer. The crow-blackbirds — the
vampires of the Park — disappeared at the same time, not so
tender, however, as to be frightened away by the first autumn
chill, like the yellow warbler, for they are among the first to
arrive in early spring, and are tough birds in every sense; but from
now until late in the fall, when they retire to the South, they are
gathered in even larger flocks than during the summer, and are
leading a tramp's life as they roam about in search of food. One of
the most striking instances of such an assembling of great numbers
preparatory to migration, is that of the white-breasted swallow,
in speaking of which Mr. Maynard says that they gather "upon the
salt marshes during the latter part of August and first of
September, literally by millions: the air is so completely
filled with them that it is almost impossible to discharge a gun
without killing some." Anyone in the country can hardly fail to
notice also the large flocks of red-winged blackbirds flying about at
this time, and in August also,
conspicuous objects both
on account of size and their chattering noise.
.As a general thing (with some exceptions, of course) the earliest migrants in spring are the latest in autumn, and the latest in spring the earliest in autumn, and a little reflection will show the reason of this. Grackles, robins, bluebirds, song sparrows, fox sparrows, and hermit thrushes are among the first to come, and the last to disappear, while the less hardy species, and those whose food-supply is conditioned upon much warmer weather, arrive late and depart early, such as many of the finches and warblers.
From the middle of June to the middle of September the advantages of the Park (and of any other locality similarly circumstanced) for the naturalist are slight. Indeed, one is likely to see more there in mid-winter than in midsummer. For, although the number of winter species is quite inconsiderable as compared with those of summer under equally favorable circumstances, yet such a spot as the Park is a favorite one in the coldest weather, not only on account of the abundance and variety of trees, shrubs, and flowering plants affording varied nutriment in their store of insects, larvæ, seeds, and berries, but because of the quiet that prevails at that season, when pleasure-grounds are free from the throng of promenaders and the shouts of children, and afford that repose of nature without which birds can hardly be induced to frequent any locality, however attractive in other respects. As warm weather approaches, and the walks in all directions become little better than public thoroughfares, and often quite as noisy, the most of the birds very wisely withdraw to more sequestered places, and the current of life runs low until it expands again in the fall. During this period one can find in the Ramble little else than the redstart, the yellow warbler, the robin, catbird, red-eyed and warbling vireos, song sparrow, chipper, purple grackle, and pewee, and must look in the more secluded portions of the Park for the cardinal grosbeak, oriole, goldfinches, and wood thrush.
The fall migrations are in several respects different from, and far less satisfactory than, those of spring. Many of the migrants even in April were in full song, and the exhibition of their powers given by the white-throated and the fox sparrows, the ruby-crowned kinglets, and a few of the warblers, could not be surpassed in their June concerts in the woods of Maine and Canada. But there is almost a touch of sadness in the comparative silence with which these same birds return to us in the fall. The occasional song one hears from them at this time is almost as withered as the dead leaves among which they are continually picking.
And in other ways how different the passage of birds in May from that in September! With what tiny impetuosity the successive squadrons pour in from the south, anchoring here and there for a few days, then up and away. They all seem in the flush of youth, and their extreme delight is manifest in every motion and sound. But by autumn this has become mellowed into quietness and deliberation. Their spirits change with the times. In spring the foliage, too, comes forth with a bound — a spring — and an entire tree will sometimes be decked with verdure or bloom almost in a day. In autumn the leaves fall gradually, with a sort of ripe reflection, just as the summer birds steal away a few at a time, and we hardly know when they are gone; while the migrants from the north come in small and straggling flocks, and in a few days silently go south. There is no spring-ecstasy in the waning year. It is not exactly a mood of melancholy; rather it is like the equanimity and repose of maturity. They are only short-lived little creatures at the longest, and they would burn out quicker than they do, if after a period of such intense life and high pressure they did not annually bank their fires early.
Another reason for the unsatisfactoriness of the fall-passage is the much more limited number of species one is likely to see. My own record for September is less than half the extent of my May list; and while this may not be the average proportion for the two months in all places, the spring observations are always likely to be considerably in excess of those in fall. As before remarked, a few species seem to take a more inland route in one direction than in the other, and among those that follow the same route at both seasons there seems to be more lingering by the way in spring.
Still another difference, making the identification of species far more difficult in fall, is the intermixture of the young on their first journey southward, in their immature and somewhat indeterminate plumage. In some cases the males do not attain "full dress" until the third year, and probably never until the second, and in the process of development the young of both sexes strongly resemble the less characteristically marked female.
Again, besides being more easily observed in the leafless shrubbery and trees of spring, they are more approachable at that season than at any other time. The white-throated sparrow, so shy in summer as often to elude the most careful search, and revealing itself only by its song, is very unsuspicious in the spring. The instinct of all animals impels them to be especially on their guard during the season when their young are produced, and the fate of the species peculiarly hangs in the balance. But by a glorious contradiction, while most timid and seclusive during the nesting period, this is also the time when threatened danger to their young will make them most fearless. With a bravery that is pathetic, they will endeavor to protect the birdlings, often utterly forgetful of their own safety in anxiety for their more helpless offspring. How resolutely the female sticks to the nest during incubation, showing her intense alarm only in the wild glance of the eye and a paralyzed motionlessness. Probably, at such times death itself would not be more painful than the living terror they often experience. There would be something extremely comical in the puny rage sometimes manifested by the tiny creatures toward their giant foes, did not the impulse prompting it command our noblest admiration.
In musical phrase, the period from January to July is a crescendo — that from July to January, a decrescendo. In many ways the record of the last six months is the same as that of the first six, read backward; the second half of the year saying of the first half, "It must increase, I must decrease." Nature shows a grand climax and anti-climax, as the sun annually creeps up from its low southerly circuit to the zenith and back again, making the coldness, desolation, and stillness of January culminate in the warmth, the exuberance of plant and animal life, and the full chorus of birds in June, only to relapse again into the frozen and dreary silence of mid-winter. It is the balmy breath of spring that wafts hither the migrants from the south — the sharp chill of autumn that summons them from the north. The fall-transit is in the mood of the season; only a faint reminder of the holiday procession in May; and the volume of life suddenly but faintly swelling and disappearing at that time, is like the last expiring brightness of the candle, except for the few and welcome species that tide us over the winter.
The procession of returning migrants seems to have been led this year by the black-throated green warblers, which I found quite abundant on the 17th, eagerly exploring the branches of pine trees, and uttering their musical chirp that is in such marked contrast to the commonplace note of the sparrow. The males are not such glittering beauties as in spring, for they fade somewhat as doth the leaf: the golden yellow is tarnished, and the jet-black restricted and shabby, and all in all they look quite en déshabillé. The largest part of the troop consists of females and the young, which to ordinary observation are quite indistinguishable, and lack the characteristic features of the males. A single "black-throated blue" was in their company. A few days later came the black-and-white creeper, the Blackburnian, and a flock of yellow-rumped warblers. At one of the pools the "solitary" sandpiper was bobbing his head, much like the spotted sandpiper which was here for a week in spring, but with the under parts, excepting breast, a clear white. I think these are the only two species of freshwater sandpipers in this region.
I exchanged glances with the Maryland yellow-throat, as beautiful as in spring, and near him was a "blue yellow-back," somewhat dingy, but evidently a mature male. At this time also came the ruby-crowned kinglet, but it was the crownless female, and our monotonous friend the brown creeper, who with the perseverance of the saints has begun his winter's work just where he left it off, at the bottom of the ladder. There is very little interest in watching any creature supposed to have a mind and will of his own, when you always know just what he is going to do. On the 23d I was glad to find the white-throated sparrow, for he has come to spend the winter, if not individually, at least specifically. Those now here will doubtless be replaced by later arrivals from the north.
There is a noticeable lack of timidity in the young of all birds, with less than six months' experience of the world, as compared with their elders, but such innocent trustfulness wears off by the second season.
The golden-winged woodpecker, another winter resident, came back the last of the month, and at their old resort on the Island I found the night herons, old and young. It would add to the interest of seeing all these returning migrants, if they only bore a legible and precise record of their summer wanderings, carrying our minds back to the White Mountains, the forests and lakes of Maine, the scenery of the St. Lawrence, or the colder regions of Labrador.
The oven-bird, strutting about in mock dignity like a child in his father's boots, is resting here on his long journey, and migrant thrushes are becoming numerous. The red-eyed vireo is abundant, but I can no longer criticise his song, and the redstart carries himself with his jaunty air, seeming to think he is making a great impression.
Several cold and cloudy days, such as spur the birds southward, followed by a bright, warm morning that limbered their muscles and lightened their spirits, gave the Ramble a touch of spring liveliness on the 28th, when I found seventeen species — the olive-backed thrush, thrasher, robin, song, white-throated, and chipping sparrows, five species of warblers, flicker, snow-bird, red-eyed vireo, brown creeper, and the two kinglets. As far as zips and chirps can go they were voluble enough, but otherwise utterly silent, excepting a single white-throat, who seemed to be ejecting the remains of a last season's song, which, if an index of his feelings, proved him to be in a most doleful state of mind. The golden-crowned kinglet, appearing to-day for the first time, is the little creature on whom, next to the chickadee, the hilarity of the Park chiefly depends during the bleak, stern months to come. He radiates an atmosphere of friendliness and good cheer which must be evident to any attentive observer. He is readily distinguished from the other winter birds, whose notes are commonly uttered singly, by his fine and sibilant see, see, zee, which is much more frequent than the single note.
September closed with
one of those
perfect autumn days — bright, cool, and vigorous, the air clearer
than crystal, and seeming doubly charged with every healthful and
inspiriting quality — as rare as a day in June, and more glorious.
It brought back another winter-resident, the downy woodpecker
(the crimson-headed male), which I have not seen since April — not
one of the dainty varieties, but a busy, honest sort of bird, that
always appears to mind his own affairs in an interested way, without
meddling with his neighbors. In getting a living after their
peculiar fashion, the woodpeckers have flattened their bodies against
the trees for so many generations that it has become chronic in
their physique, giving them a high-shouldered, long-waisted
appearance that is far from beautiful. All of which counts for little
in comparison with their interesting habits, cheerful manner,
and winter companionship. Near him was the phoebe, lingering
about the water, quite an idler as compared with "downy,"
and still with a melancholy eye to business. Among the shrubbery a
single wren was darting about, and the chewink was trying to
escape observation in the underbrush. The Park is now flooded
with white-throated sparrows, with their clean white bibs on,
probably driven hither by the untimely cold and snow to the north,
while yellow rumps are
numerous, with a
sprinkling of the black-throated blue warblers. I cannot refrain from
again expressing admiration for the chaste and simple coloring of
this delicate specimen, of pure white, blue, and black exquisitely
combined. Its quiet elegance makes one half-ashamed that he should be
so infatuated by the "gold, and purple, and scarlet, and fine
twined linen" in which many of the species are arrayed.
Bright colors are like whip and spur to the eye — exhilarating, but
The most picturesque view in the famous Central Park is to be had from the foot-bridge over the lake at its upper extremity. On one side of the bridge is the tip-end of the lake, forming a secluded basin with steep, rocky embankments, hedged about by overarching trees and luxuriant shrubbery, and enriched in the season with purple and pink masses of wistaria and azalea, while on the other side the eye ranges over the whole expanse of the irregular lake, flanked on the right by the massive and turreted "Dakota," its farther shore revealing a majestic row of poplars and cypresses, and beyond them a line of lofty buildings looming up like castle walls for a solid background, and with the two white spires of the Cathedral pricking the sky in the blue distance. A pair of large night herons, coursing hither and thither over the water, give the requisite and poetic touch of animation.
The fashionable world, luxuriously parading in elegant equipages along the great driveways, has doubtless been the chief means whereby the Park has attained its national repute as a triumph of landscape gardening; but its finest effects are scattered along the less frequented ways, and wealth will never see them until it goes afoot. Somehow, too, one never seems to get into that responsive mood wherein Nature can make her best revealments, until he comes down from all artificial elevation, and becomes an integral part of all his surroundings by actual contact with the ground, feeling a brotherhood in the trees, and a subtle kinship to everything in the heavens above, in the earth beneath, and in the waters under the earth. Pedestrianism is a method of humbling one's self that quickly brings its own peculiar exaltation, thereby "the eyes of our understanding being opened," and our ears unstopped. In this connection that gorgeous floral display is worthy of mention, that every summer meets the eye at the Pond, hidden among trees and shrubbery — a floating acre of Indian scarlet water-lilies (Melumbium speciosum), some of whose blossoms are nearly a foot in diameter, with peltate "pads" from one to two feet across.
One is sometimes in that mood wherein science is simply an abomination unto him — when he is fully content to enjoy the beauty of what he sees and hears, without asking or caring for its cause, or effect, or relationship — itself its own sufficient reason. Such a person feels that six days are sufficient for the secularities of knowledge, he must have a seventh wherein, with uninterrogative contentment, he may luxuriate in that which satisfies purely the sentiment. Some people seem able to see only the scientific side of beauty; and when looking at a flower, its color, form, and fragrance are of little account in comparison with the all-important questions, "Is it exogenous or endogenous — is it monopetalous or polypetalous?" Should they chance to behold a rich display of autumn foliage, they at once fall to inquiring whether it is an evidence of decay produced by the action of frost, or the legitimate ripening of the chlorophyl; or with great satisfaction assert the latest dictum of science on that point. To them a rare crystal means a certain mathematical form and cleavage; while the gorgeous coloring of sunset clouds is chiefly a neat illustration of the absorption of certain prismatic rays by the dense lower stratum of air. Such folks are cold-blooded analysts, and they have their place. Taken in small doses they are very instructive, but as constant companions they are wearing.
By the close of the month the landscape had that peculiar unkempt appearance of fall, as of an old man beginning to look untidy. In the Ramble and elsewhere, the bloom was almost confined to the masses of composite flowers, white, and purple, and yellow, that run riot among the trees, in defiance of all rules of landscape-gardening. How strangely these autumn flowers quietly bide their time through all the enticing warmth of spring and stronger heat of early summer, until, after the year's decline has begun, as if startled out of their absent-mindedness, they suddenly shoot up their tall stems, to be quickly laden with rank foliage and coarse blossoms. It is a sort of carnival of golden-rods and multitudinous asters that hold full sway in this belated season, as if they had an instinct of congruity in both herding together, and also in keeping themselves apart from the more delicate forms of life prevailing in spring and summer — playing the part of the picturesque rabble that brings up the rear of the great annual procession of vegetation.