Here to return to
WHILE walking through a piece of pine wood, three or four days ago, I was delighted to put my eye unexpectedly upon a hummingbird’s nest. The fairy structure was placed squarely upon the upper surface of a naked, horizontal branch, and looked so fresh, trimmed outwardly with bits of gray lichen, that I felt sure it must have been built this year. But where now were the birds that built it, and the nestlings that were hatched in it? Who could tell? In imagination I saw the mother sitting upon the tiny, snow-white eggs, and then upon the two little ones — little ones, indeed, no bigger than bumble-bees at first. I saw her feeding them day by day, as they grew larger and larger, till at last the cradle was get ting too narrow for them, and they were ready to make a trial of their wings. But where were they now? Not here, certainly. For a fortnight I had been passing down this path almost daily, and not once had I seen a hummingbird.
No, they are not here, and even as I write I seem to see the little family on their way to the far south. They are making the journey by easy stages, I hope—flitting from flower-bed to flower-bed, now in Connecticut, now in New Jersey, and so on through Pennsylvania and the Southern States. Will they cross the water to the West Indies, as some of their kind are said to do? or, less adventurous, will they keep straight on to some mountain-side in Costa Rica, or even in Brazil? I should be sorry to believe that the parent birds took their departure first, leaving the twin children to find their way after them as best they could — as those who have paid most attention to such matters assure us that many of our birds are in the habit of doing. But how ever they go, and wherever they end their long journey, may wind and weather be favorable, and old and young alike return, after the winter is over, to build other nests here in their native New England.
This passing of birds back and forth, a grand semi-annual tide, is to me a thing of wonder. I think of the millions of sandpipers and plovers which for two months (it is now late in September) have been pouring southward along the sea coast. Some of them passed here on their way north no longer ago than the last days of May.
They went far up toward the Arctic circle, but before the end of July they were back again, hastening to the equator. The golden plover, we are told, travels from Greenland to Patagonia.
All summer the golden warblers were singing within sound of my windows. As I walked I saw them flitting in and out of the roadside bushes, beautiful and delicate creatures. But before the first of September the last of them disappeared. I did not see them depart. They took wing in the night, and almost before I suspected it they were gone. They will winter in Central or South America, and, within a week of May-day, we shall have them here again, as much at home as if they had never left us.
They were gone before the first of September, I said. But I was thinking of those which had summered in Massachusetts. In point of fact, I saw a golden warbler only ten days ago. He was with a mixed flock of travelers, and, in all likelihood, had come from the extreme north; for this dainty, blue-eyed warbler is common in sum mer, not only throughout the greater part of the United States, but on the very shores of the Arctic Ocean. So he voyages back and forth, living his life from land to land, as Tennyson says, led by who knows what impulse?
“Sweet bird, thy bower is ever green,
Thy sky is ever clear;
Thou hast no sorrow in thy song,
No winter in thy year.”
It is worth giving a little time daily to what is called ornithology to be able to greet such wanderers as they come and go. For some days now a few Western palm warblers have been paying us a visit, and, though the town has never commissioned me to that office, I have taken it upon myself to do them the honors. They have met me halfway, at least, as the everyday expression is; yielding readily to my enticements, and more than once coming near enough to show me their white lower eyelids, so that I might be quite sure of their identity. A little later the Eastern palm warbler will be due, and I hope to find him equally complaisant; for I wish to see his lower eyelid, also; which is yellow instead of white.
At this time of the year, indeed, there is no lack of such interesting and well-dressed strangers, no matter where we may go. The woods are alive with them by day, and the air by night. There are few evenings when you may not hear them calling overhead as they hasten southward. Men who have watched them through telescopes, pointed at the full moon, have calculated their height at one or two miles. One observer saw more than two hundred cross the moon’s disk in two hours. The greater part passed so swiftly as to make it impossible to say more than that they were birds; but others, flying at a greater altitude, and therefore traversing the field of vision less rapidly, were identified as blackbirds, rails, snipe, and ducks. Another observer plainly recognized swallows, warblers, goldfinches, and woodpeckers.
All over the northern hemisphere to-night, in America, Europe, and Asia, countless multitudes of these wayfarers will be coursing the regions of the upper air; and to-morrow, if we go out with our eyes open, we shall find, here and there, busy little flocks of stragglers that have stopped by the way to rest and feed: sparrows, snowbirds, kinglets, nuthatches, chickadees, thrushes, warblers, wrens, and what not, a few of them singing, and every one of them evidently in love with life, and full of happy expectations.