Here to return to
AN EXCITING FORENOON
IT is with birds as with places and people; some are endeared to us by one quality, and some by a different or even an opposite quality. The phalaropes are trustful. They swim about us almost within hand’s reach; we like them for that. Other birds are wary to the last degree; we must match our wits against theirs, or we shall never have them within comfortable eye-reach; and we like them for that, and pursue them the harder. And others, a few, are never so highly appreciated as when we gaze at them afar off. Such are the common carrion-eating vultures, turkey-buzzards we call them; almost disgusting near at hand, but miracles of grace as they float in wide circles far above us under the great blue dome.
For me, and I suppose for every one, there is a peculiar satisfaction in coming unexpectedly close upon any shy creature, be it larger or smaller, bird or beast. Thus I recall my sensations a year ago when after standing a long time motionless on the brim of a deep, steeply walled cañon, admiring one of the most beautiful of all our Santa Barbara prospects, I heard something stir just below me, and the next instant saw a wildcat emerge from the chaparral and, oblivious of my proximity, though there was nothing but the air between us, mount a boulder like the one I was myself standing on, and look leisurely about him.
Of the same nature, though less startling, is the satisfaction I take in surprising, or, better still, in being surprised by, some more or less ordinary bird at an extraordinarily near range. And this is what befell me yesterday.
I had been making my daily morning round of the Estero, and, having been rewarded by nothing out of the common run, was turning city-ward, when I bethought myself, as a last resort, to look into one other pool, in which I had occasionally found something of interest.
Here, as throughout the Estero, a goodly number of Western sandpipers were feeding, and near them was a comparatively infrequent and therefore better-appreciated visitor, a single yellow-legs, or telltale.
This I saw at a glance was of a medium size, neither one thing nor another, as I expressed it to myself, so that I was uncertain whether to take it for a small example of melanoleucus or a large example of flavipes, these being two species of the genus Totanus which differ only in the matter of size, showing, so far as I have ever heard, no appreciable difference in the way of plumage.
The worst of it was that the longer I studied the fellow, the worse off I found myself. One minute it was large enough for the larger species; the next minute it was small enough for the smaller one, which latter, I must confess in the interest of truth, I was rather desirous of calling it, since that is much the less common of the two on the Pacific coast. As an honest observer, desiring to play fair with myself, I was bound to stand on my guard against being influenced by any such unscientific consideration.
On the other hand, however, I reminded myself that I had been looking for the last hour at hosts of very small sandpipers, and indeed was looking at them now in this very pool; naturally, almost inevitably, therefore, by force of unconscious comparison, (a force that I have often found myself laboring under), this larger bird would strike me as larger than it really was.
Tossed thus, like a shuttlecock, between contrary opinions, I felt increasingly foolish, as a man sensitive about his standing in his own eyes of necessity will in such a predicament, though as a matter of fact I was simply manifesting a commendable spirit of scientific caution. If I had been a younger hand at the business, I could probably have decided the question on the instant. Given a certain measure of inexperience, and certainty is about the easiest thing in the world. Why bother one’s head with second thoughts? What a man knows, he knows, and there’s an end on lt. Alas, I have found that too often what a man knows he doesn’t know; and so with age comes slowness of decision with all its disagreeable concomitants.
At last I determined to hear the bird’s voice. That might furnish a clue, though I believed that the two species were practically one in this respect also. In any event, the experiment was worth trying. I stepped briskly forward, therefore, with as much bluster as I could conveniently command on so narrow a stage, expecting the bird as a reasonable being to take alarm and make off, giving voice as it flew.
But even when I had come as near it as I could without wading into the black, muddy water, the long-legged creature simply stalked a little farther out, and, having nodded a few times after its manner, resumed its feeding. “Who’s afraid?” it seemed to say. “You’re only fooling.”
Well, a half-minute or so passed; my glance fell upon a narrow mud-bar, say thirty or forty feet from where I stood; and there, directly under my eye, between me and the yellow-legs, in open space, stood a splendid black-bellied plover in elegant plumage, the lower parts from the chin downward jet-black.
Through the field-glass the big fellow was almost in my hand, the second of its kind that I had ever seen in Santa Barbara, and as well as I could remember, the only one I had ever seen anywhere in adult summer dress, the very great majority of autumnal “beetle-heads,” as gunners call them, having the lower parts white, and the upper parts largely gray, whence another of their common names, the “gray plover.” Indeed, I believe it is true that the birds put on their summer garb so late and take it off so early that specimens in really perfect plumage — which even my bird could not be said to wear — are almost never seen so far south as any part of the United States.
The thing was like a miracle. A moment ago he was not there. I had not seen him arrive, large as he was and so near. I had not moved or turned away my head; there was no cover from behind which he could have stepped into sight; and now there he stood, there on a narrow neck of land, perfectly secure, had he but known it, but by no means insensible. His bearing and action proved conclusively that he had just alighted.
However, this was but half the story. The real miracle was yet to come.
From the first instant the plover was evidently much disturbed in his mind. Most likely he had never before found himself so closely cornered. I think he was as much surprised to see me as I was to see him. As he came over the Estero, his eyes probably fell upon the yellow-legs and small sandpipers feeding so quietly. “This is a promising place,” he said to himself; “suppose I drop in.” And behold, as his feet touched the mud, here, standing over him, was this terrible monster.
Nevertheless, with all his wavering he held his ground for a few moments, long enough for me to scan him again and again from bill to tail. Then, “This will never do,” he thought; “high time I was going”; and away he went, sounding that resonant musical whistle, so very sweet, alas! in the ears of all the large and honorable tribe of shore-bird destroyers; for this “beetle-head,” the prince of plovers, breeding on the arctic shores of both continents, wanders at one time and another over nearly the whole earth, and wherever he goes, or wherever men are sufficiently civilized to enjoy such refined, gentlemanly amusement, he is treated as a target. He does well to be wary, the warier the better. I could wish that he would never allow a man to come within a mile. So magnificent and innocent a creature to be massacred for sport!
For a minute, possibly, my attention was fastened upon the flying bird and his voice as he dwindled out of sight. Then my eyes again rested by chance upon the bar of mud — perhaps two rods in length and a foot or two wide — whence he had flown, and behold, a second wonder! There stood another bird of pretty much the same dimensions and general color, but of a darker shade, and plainly not a plover.
For the second time within five minutes I was struck with amazement. By what magic had the bird got there, and, far more important, what in the name of ornithology was I to call him?
His black bill was rather stout and somewhat longer than the plover’s, yet still of only middling length for a shore-bird of his size. Evidently he did not probe mud for a livelihood. His fore neck and upper breast were jet-black, curiously divided (“curvingly divided” my pencil put it, with greater exactness) as it ran down upon the white breast; and his legs were of a bright orange!
To my eye he was utterly strange. He had somewhat the look and build of an oyster-catcher, I said to myself, though the bill was not long enough nor stout enough, nor the bird himself large enough. Certainly he was neither of the oyster-catchers that I knew.
But there was a third one, Frazar’s by name, rare and not rightfully falling within our limits, a bird that I had never seen, and had never expected to see, and of which I remembered not a word of description. Could the bird before me be by any possibility of that species? On all accounts this was most unlikely, or better to say, impossible. But if he was not an oyster-catcher, what could he be?
In plain words, I was at my wits’ end. The one thing I was sure of was that here was something the like of which I had never set eyes on till this minute.
Like the plover he stayed a brief while, extremely restless, too, like the plover, as he had abundant reason to be; and then, as soon as he could pull himself together, it seemed, off he went, with harsh cries not in the least resembling the plover’s smooth, melodious whistle.
What would turn up next on the few square feet of that prolific mud-bar, out of which birds seemed actually to be born for my delectation and puzzlement? A flamingo, perhaps.
But when I had waited long enough, and the age of miracles seemed to be for the time being past, I took my way homeward, pondering over what I had seen.
Once there, I had recourse to the Handbook. My first turn of the leaves was to Frazar’s oyster-catcher. Nothing fitted. I knew it would be so, I protested to myself. The idea was absurd. For one thing, no oyster-catcher would ever be found in so unlikely a place.
But on the margin of the same leaf (so near a shot had I made) under a description of the ruddy turnstone I saw written in my own hand, supplying the book’s too frequent lack, “Legs bright orange-red.” “Here we have it,” said I; and on reading the account of that bird’s juvenile plumage I found my stranger faithfully portrayed.
I had never seen a ruddy turnstone before without more or less of those conspicuous, highly distinctive, irregularly disposed reddish patches which give the wearer so odd, almost clownish, an appearance, as they give it also sundry of its popular names, “calico-back,” “checkered snipe,” and “ruddy turnstone.”
I had clean forgotten those bright-colored legs (“red-legged plover” is another of the names it is said to go by), an excusable lapse, I try to persuade myself, since I had seen only two such birds (unusual on the Pacific coast, where the black turnstone mostly replaces them) in more than twenty years.
After all, as I consider the matter, I see no great reason to lament this bit of forgetfulness. It furnished me with an hour or two of pleasurable excitement, a thorough waking-up, of a sort not to be enjoyed every day by any means at my time of life.
But I still ask myself, “How in the world did those birds land, one after the other, at my very feet unobserved?” I cannot believe that they sprang into being there and then, new-made like Adam out of the dust of the earth, a pitch of faith that St. Francis, holy man and greater brother of the birds, would have experienced no difficulty in exercising.
Perhaps it would be enough to say, though such an explanation may sound ludicrously simple after all the talk I have made about it, that they happened to drop in while my eyes were unconsciously directed elsewhere. It is a common saying among wise men, though little in favor with the vulgar, that the simplest explanation is apt to be the truest.
My morning’s adventure brought to mind an incident in no wise connected with ornithology. Many years ago I was present with a small company of friends who had assembled to hear one of the most widely known of American novelists read a play which she had recently completed and was hoping to have presented upon the stage. She read it well, with no attempt at that tiresome “accomplishment” known as “elocution”; we were all deeply interested; and at the close there was a general chorus of praise and hearty congratulation.
But a journalist and critic of long experience entered one slight objection. If the play was to be acted, there must be a change in the opening scene. “As the scene stands,” he said, “the heroine is on the stage with others when the curtain rises. That will never do. The heroine must have an entrance.”
That last remark was what my morning’s adventure called to mind. My two birds would have missed nine parts of their dramatic effect if, like the yellowlegs, they had been on the stage when the curtain rose.
They had an entrance, and I had the excitement and the wonder of it. I think nothing more like wizardry ever happened to me than the appearance of that turnstone, a very sizable, sturdily built body, it must be remembered, standing at my feet where but an instant before there had been nothing.
And after this I think I shall not forget in a hurry that the ruddy turnstone’s legs are of a bright orange color. That bit of knowledge, I flatter myself, is for one while burned in.