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Footing it in Franconia
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IT was a white day, the day of the red cherry, — by the almanac the 20th of May. Once in the hill country, the train ran hour after hour through a world of shrubs and small trees, loaded every one with blossoms. Their number was amazing. I should not have believed there were so many in all New Hampshire. The snowy branches fairly whitened the woods; as if all the red-cherry trees of the country round about were assembled along the track to celebrate a festival. The spectacle — for it was nothing less — made me think of the annual dogwood display as I had witnessed it in the Alleghanies and further south. I remembered, too, a similar New England pageant of some years ago; a thing of annual occurrence, of course, but never seen by me before or since. Then it happened that I came down from Vermont (this also was in May) just at the time when the shadbushes were in their glory. Like the wild red-cherry trees, as I saw them now, they seemed to fill the world. Such miles on miles of a floral panorama are among the memorable delights of spring travel.
For the cherry’s sake I was glad that my leaving home had been delayed a week or two beyond my first intention; though I thought then, as I do still, that an earlier start would have shown me something more of real spring among the mountains, which, after all, was what I had come out to see.
The light showers through which I drove over the hills from Littleton were gone before sunset, and as the twilight deepened I strolled up the Butter Hill road as far as the grove of red pines, just to feel the ground under my feet and to hear the hermit thrushes. How divinely they sang, one on either side of the way, voice answering to voice, the very soul of music, out of the darkening woods! I agree with a friendly correspondent who wrote me, the other day, fresh from a summer in France, that the nightingale is no such singer. I have never heard the nightingale, but that does not alter my opinion. Formerly I wished that the hermit, and all the rest of our woodland thrushes, would practice a longer and more continuous strain. Now I think differently; for I see now that what I looked upon as a blemish is really the perfection of art. Those brief, deliberate phrases, breaking one by one ont of the silence, lift the soul higher than any smooth-flowing warble could possibly do. Worship has no gift of long-breathed fluency. If she speaks at all, it is in the way of ejaculation: “Therefore let thy words be few,” said the Preacher, — a text which is only a modern Hebrew version of what the hermit thrush has been saying here in the White Mountains for ten thousand years.
One of the principal glories of Franconia is the same in spring as in autumn, — the colors of the forest. There is no describing them: greens and reds of all tender and lovely shades; not to speak of the exquisite haze-blue, or blue-purple, which mantles the still budded woods on the higher slopes. For the reds I was quite unprepared. They have never been written about, so far as I know, doubtless because they have never been seen. The scribbling tourist is never here till long after they are gone. In fact, I stayed late enough, on my present visit, to see the end of them. I knew, of course, that young maple leaves, like old ones, are of a ruddy complexion;1 but somehow I had never considered that the massing of the trees on hillsides would work the same gorgeous, spectacular effect in spring as in autumn, — broad patches of splendor hung aloft, a natural tapestry, for the eye to feast upon. Not that May is as gaudy as September. There are no brilliant yellows, and the reds are many shades less fiery than autumn furnishes; but what is lacking in intensity is more than made up in delicacy, as the bloom of youth is fairer than any hectic flush. The glory passed, as I have said. Before the 1st of June it had deepened, and then disappeared; but the sight of it was of itself enough to reward my journey.
The clouds returned after the rain, and my first forenoon was spent under an umbrella on the Bethlehem plateau, not so much walking as standing about; now in the woods, now in the sandy road, now in the dooryard of an empty house. It was Sunday; the rain, quiet and intermittent, rather favored music; and all in all, things were pretty much to my mind, — plenty to see and hear, yet all of a sweetly familiar sort, such as one hardly thinks of putting into a notebook. Why record, as if it could be forgotten or needed to be remembered, the lisping of happy chickadees or the whistle of white- throated sparrows? Or why speak of shad-blow and goldthread, or even of the lovely painted trilliums, with their three daintily crinkled petals, streaked with rose-purple? The trilliums, indeed, well deserved to be spoken of: so bright and bold they were; every blossom looking the sun squarely in the face, — in great contrast with the pale and bashful wake-robin, which I find (by searching for it) in my own woods. One after another I gathered them (pulled them, to speak with poetic literalness), each fresher and handsomer than the one before it, till the white stems made a handful.
“Oh,” said a man on the piazza, as I returned to the hotel, “I see you have nosebleed.” I was putting my hand to my pocket, wondering why I should have been taken so childishly, when it came over me what he meant. He was looking at the trilliums, and explained, in answer to a question, that he had always heard them called “nosebleed.” Somewhere, then, — I omitted to inquire where, — this is their “vulgar” name. In Franconia the people call them “Benjamin,” which has a pleasant Biblical sound, — better than “nosebleed,” at all events, — though to my thinking “trillium” is preferable to either of them, both for sound and for sense. People cry out against “Latin names.” But why is Latin worse than Hebrew? And who could ask anything prettier or easier than trillium, geranium, anemone, and hepatica?
The next morning I set out for Echo Lake. At that height, in that hollow among the mountains, the season must still be young. There, if anywhere, I should find the early violet and the trailing mayflower. And whatever I found, or did not find, at the end of the way, I should have made another ascent of the dear old Notch road, every rod of it the pleasanter for happy memories. I had never traveled it in May, with the glossy-leaved clintonia yet in the bud, and the broad, grassy golf links above the Profile House farm all frosty with houstonia bloom. And many times as I had been over it, I had never known till now that rhodora stood along its very edge. To-day, with the pink blossoms brightening the crooked, leafless, knee-high stems, not even my eyes could miss it. Our one small pear-leaved willow, near the foot of Hardscrabble, was in flower, its maroon leaves partly grown. Well I remembered the June morning when I lighted upon it, and the interest shown by the senior botanist of our little company when I reported the discovery, at the dinner table. He went up that very afternoon to see it for himself; and year after year, while he lived, he watched over it, more than once cautioning the road-menders against its destruction. How many times he and I have stopped beside it, on our way up and down! The “Torrey willow” he always called it, stroking my vanity; and I liked the word.
Now a chipmunk speaks to me, as I pass; it is not his fault, nor mine either, perhaps, that I do not understand him; and now, hearing a twig snap, I glance up in time to see a woodchuck scuttling out of sight under the high, overhanging bank. So he is a dweller in these upper mountain woods!2 I should have thought him too nice an epicure to feel himself at home in such diggings. But who knows? Perhaps he finds something hereabout — wood-sorrel or what not — that is more savory even than young clover leaves and early garden sauce. From somewhere on my right comes the sweet — honey-sweet — warble of a rose-breasted grosbeak; and almost over my head, at the topmost point of a tall spruce, sits a Blackburnian warbler, doing his little utmost to express himself. His pitch is as high as his perch, and his tone, pure z, is like the finest of wire. Another water bar surmounted, and a baybreast sings, and lets me see him, — a bird I always love to look at, and a song that I always have to learn anew, partly because I hear it so seldom, partly because of its want of individuality: a single hurried phrase, pure z like the Blackburnian’s, and of the same wire-drawn tenuity. These warblers are poor hands at warbling, but they are musical to the eye. By this rule, — if throats were made to be looked at, and judged by the feathers on them, — the Blackburnian might challenge comparison with any singer under the sun.
As the road ascends, the aspect of things grows more and more springlike, — or less and less summerlike. Black-birch catkins are just beginning to fall, and a little higher, not far from the Bald Mountain path, I notice a sugar maple still hanging full of pale straw-colored tassels, — encouraging signs to a man who was becoming apprehensive lest he had arrived too late.
Then, as I pass the height of land and begin the gentle descent into the Notch, fronting the white peak of Lafayette and the black face of Eagle Cliff, I am aware of a strange sensation, as if I had stepped into another world: bare, leafless woods and sudden blank silence. All the way hitherto birds have been singing on either hand, my ear picking out the voices one by one, while flies and mosquitoes have buzzed continually about my head; here, all in a moment, not a bird, not an insect, — a stillness like that of winter. Minute after minute, rod after rod, and not a breath of sound, — not so much as the stirring of a leaf. I could not have believed such a transformation possible. It is uncanny. I walk as in a dream. The silence lasts for at least a quarter of a mile. Then a warbler breaks it for an instant, and leaves it, if possible, more absolute than before. I am going southward, and downhill; but I am going into the Notch, into the very shadow of the mountains, where Winter makes his last rally against the inevitable.
And yes, here are some of the early flowers I have come in search of: the dear little yellow violets, whose glossy, round leaves, no more than half-grown as yet, seem to love the very border of a snowbank. Here, too, is a most flourishing patch of spring-beauties, and another of adder’s-tongue, — dog-tooth violet, so called. Of the latter there must be hundreds of acres in Franconia. I have seen the freckled leaves everywhere, and now and then a few belated blossoms. Here I have it at its best, the whole bed thick with buds and freshly blown flowers. But the round-leaved violet is what I am chiefly taken with. The very type and pattern of modesty, I am ready to say. The spring-beauty masses itself; and though every blossom, if you look at it, is a miracle of delicacy, — lustrous pink satin, with veinings of a deeper shade, — it may fairly be said to make a show. But the violets, scattered, and barely out of the ground, must be sought after one by one. So meek, and yet so bold — part of the beautiful vernal paradox, that the lowly and the frail are the first to venture.
As I come down to the lakeside, — making toward the lower end, whither I always go, because there the railroad is least obtrusively in sight and the mountains are faced to the best advantage, — two or three solitary sandpipers flit before me, tweeting and bobbing, and a winter wren (invisible, of course) sings from a thicket at my elbow. A jolly songster he is, with the clearest and finest of tones — a true fife — and an irresistible accent and rhythm. A bird by himself. This fellow hurries and hurries (am I wrong in half remembering a line by some poet about a bird that “hurries and precipitates”?),3 till the tempo becomes too much for him; the notes can no longer be taken, and, like a boy running down too steep a hill, he finishes with a slide. I think of those pianoforte passages which the most lightninglike of performers — Paderewski himself — are reduced to playing ignominiously with the back of one finger. I know not their technical name, if they have one, — finger-nail runs, perhaps. I remember, also, Thoreau’s description of a song heard in Tuckerman’s Ravine and here in the Franconia Notch. He could never discover the author of it, but pretty certainly it was the winter wren. “Most peculiar and memorable,” he pronounces it, like a “fine corkscrew stream issuing with incessant tinkle from a cork.” “Tinkle” is exactly the word. Trust Thoreau to find that, though he could not find the singer. If the thrushes are left out of the account, there is no voice in the mountains that I am gladder to hear.
Near the outlet of the lake, in a shaded hollow, lies a deep snowbank, and not far away the ground is matted with trailing arbutus, still in plentiful bloom. One of the most attractive things here is the few-flowered shadbush (Amelanchier oligocarpa). The common A. Canadensis grows near by; and it is astonishing how unlike the two species look, although the difference (the visible difference, I mean) is mostly in the arrangement of the flowers, — clustered in one case, separately disposed in the other. Today the “average observer” would look twice before suspecting any close relationship between them; a week or two hence he would look a dozen times before remarking any distinction. With them, as with the red cherry, it is the blossom that makes the bush.
So much for my first May morning on the Notch road and by the lake: a few particulars caught in passing, to be taken for what they are,
“Samples and sorts, not for themselves alone, but for their atmosphere.”
In the afternoon I went over into the Landaff Valley, having in mind a restful, level-country stroll, with a view especially to the probable presence of Tennessee warblers in that quarter. One or two had been singing constantly near the hotel for two days (ever since my arrival, that is), and Sunday I had heard another beside the Bethlehem road. Whether they were migrants only, or had settled in Franconia for the season, they ought, it seemed to me, to be found also in the big Landaff larch swamp, where we had seen them so often in June, ten or twelve years ago. As I had heard the song but once since that time, I was naturally disposed to make the most of the present opportunity.
I turned in at the old hay barn, — one of my favorite resorts, where I have seen many a pretty bunch of autumnal transients, — and sure enough, a Tennessee’s voice was one of the first to greet me. This fellow sang as a Tennessee ought to sing, I said to myself. By which I meant that his song was clearly made up of three parts, just as I had kept it in memory; whereas the birds near the hotel, as well as the one on the Bethlehem road, divided theirs but once. No great matter, somebody will say; but a self-respecting man likes to have his recollections justified, even about trifles, particularly when he has confided them to print.4
The swamp had begun well with its old eulogist; but better things were in store. I passed an hour or more in the woods, for the most part sitting still (which is pretty good after-dinner ornithology), and had just taken the road again when a bevy of talkative chickadees came straggling down the rim of the swamp, flitting from one tree to another, — a morsel here and a morsel there, — after their usual manner while on the march. Now, then, for a few migratory warblers, which always maybe looked for in such company.
True to the word, my glass was hardly in play before a bay-breast showed himself, in magnificent plumage; then came a Blackburnian, also in high feather, handsomer even than the bay-breast, but less of a rarity; and then, all in a flash, I caught a glimpse of some bright-colored, black-and-yellow bird that, almost certainly, from an indefinable something half seen about the head, could not be a magnolia. “That should be a Cape May!” I said aloud to myself. Even as I spoke, however, he was out of sight. Down the road I went, trying to keep abreast of the flock, which moved much too rapidly for my comfort. Again I saw what might have been the Cape May, but again there was nothing like certainty. And again I lost him. With the trees so thick, and the birds so small and so active, it was impossible to do better. I had missed my chance, I thought; but just then something stirred among the leaves of a fir tree close by me, on the very edge of the swamp, and the next moment a bird stepped upon the outermost twig, as near me as he could get, and stood there fully displayed: a splendid Cape May, in superb color, my first New England specimen. “Look at me,” he said; “this is for your benefit.” And I looked with both eyes. Who would not be an ornithologist, with sights like this to reward him?
The procession moved on, by the air line, impossible for me to follow. The Cape May, of course, had departed with the rest. So I assumed, — without warrant, as will presently appear. But I had no quarrel with Fate. For a plodding, wingless creature, long accustomed to his disabilities, I was being handsomely used. The soul is always seeking new things, says a celebrated French philosopher, and is always pleased when it is shown more than it had hoped for. This is preeminently true of rare warblers. Now I would cross the bridge, walk once more under the arch of willows, — happy that I could walk, being a man only, — and back to the village again by the upper road. For a half mile on that road the prospect is such that no mortal need desire a better one.
First, however, I must train my glass upon a certain dark object out in the meadow, to see whether it was a stump (it was motionless enough for one, but I didn’t remember it there) or a woodchuck. It turned out to be a woodchuck, erect upon his haunches, his fore paws lifted in an attitude of devotion. The sight was common just now in all Franconia grassland, no matter in what direction my jaunts took me. And always the attitude was the same, as if now were the ground-hog’s Lent. “Watch and pray” is his motto; and he thrives upon it like a monk. Though the legislature sets a price on his head, he keeps in better flesh than the average legislator. Well done, say I. May his shadow never grow less! I like him, as I like the crow. Health and long life to both of them, — wildings that will not be put down nor driven into the outer wilderness, be the hand of civilization never so hostile. They were here before man came, and will be here, it is most likely, after he is gone; unless, as the old planet’s fires go out, man himself becomes a hibernator. I have heard a hunted woodchuck, at bay in a stone wall, gnashing his teeth against a dog; and I have seen a mother woodchuck with a litter of young ones playing about her as she lay at full length sunning herself, the very picture of maternal satisfaction: and my belief is that woodchucks have as honest a right as most of us to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
As I walked under the willows, — empty to-day, though I remembered more than one happy occasion when, in better company, I had found them alive with wings, — I paused to look through the branches at a large hawk and a few glossy-backed barn swallows quartering over the meadow. Then, all at once, there fell on my ears a shower of bobolink notes, and the birds, twenty or more together, dropped into the short grass before me. Every one of them was a male.
A strange custom it is, this Quakerish separation of the sexes. It must be the females’ work, I imagine. Modesty and bashfulness are feminine traits, — modesty, bashfulness, and maidenly discretion. The wise virgin shunneth even the appearance of evil. Let the males flock by themselves, and travel in advance. And the males practice obedience, not for virtue’s sake, I guess, but of necessity; encouraged, no doubt, by an unquestioning belief that the wise virgins will come trooping after, and be found scattered conveniently over the meadows, each by herself, when the marriage bell strikes. That blissful hour was now close at hand, and my twenty gay bachelors knew it. Every bird of them had on his wedding garment. No wonder they sang.
It took me a long time to make that half mile on the upper road, with the narrow, freshly green valley outspread just below, the river running through it, and beyond a royal horizonful of mountains; some near and green, some farther away and blue, and some — the highest — still with the snow on them: Moosilauke, Kinsman, Cannon, Lafayette, Garfield, the Twins, Washington, Clay, Jefferson, and Adams; all perfectly clear, the sky covered with high clouds. A sober day it was, sober and still, though the bobolinks seemed not so to regard it. While I looked at the landscape, seating myself now and then to enjoy it quietly, I kept an ear open for the shout of a pileated woodpecker, a wildly musical sound often to be heard on this hillside; but to-day there was nothing nearer to it than a crested flycatcher’s scream, out of the big sugar orchard.
On my way down the bill toward the red bridge, I met a man riding in some kind of rude contrivance, not to be called a wagon or a cart, between two pairs of wheels. He lay flat on his back, as in a hammock, and, to judge by his tools and the mortar on his clothing, must have been a mason returning from his work. He was “taking it easy,” at all events. We saluted each other, and he stopped his horse and sat up. “You used to be round here, didn’t you?” he asked. Yes, I said, I had been here a good deal, off and on. He thought he remembered me. He had noticed me getting out of Mr. Prime’s carriage at the corner. “Let’s see,” he said: “you used to be looking after the birds a good deal, didn’t you?” I pleaded guilty, and he seemed glad. “You are well?” he added, and drove on. Neither of us had said anything in particular, but there are few events of the road more to my taste than such chance bits of neighborly intercourse. The man’s tone and manner gave me the feeling of real friendliness. If I had fallen among thieves, I confide that he would have been neither a priest nor a Levite. May his trowel find plenty of work and fair wages.
This was on May 22. The next three days were occupied with all-day excursions to Mount Agassiz, to Streeter Pond, and to Lonesome Lake path. With so many hands beckoning to me, the Cape May warbler was well-nigh forgotten. On the morning of the 26th, however, the weather being dubious, I betook myself again to the Landaff swamp, entering it, as usual, by the wood road at the barn. Many birds were there: a tanager (uncommon hereabout), olive- bided flycatchers, alder flycatchers (first seen on the 23d, and already abundant), a yellow-bellied flycatcher (the recluse of the family), magnolia warblers, Canada warblers, parula warblers (three beautiful species), a Tennessee warbler, a Swainson thrush (whistling), a veery (snarling), and many more. The Swainson thrush, by the way, although present, in small numbers apparently, from May 22, was not heard to sing a note until June 1, — ten days of silence! Yet it sings freely on its migration, even as far south as Georgia. Close at hand was a grouse, who performed again and again in what seemed to me a highly original manner. First he delivered three or four quick beats. Then he rested for a second or two, after which he proceeded to drum in the ordinary way, beginning with deliberation, and gradually accelerating the beats, till the ear could no longer follow them, and they became a whir. That prelude of four quick, decisive strokes was a novelty to my ears, so far as I could remember.
I had taken my fill of this pleasant chorus, and was on my way back to the road, when suddenly I heard something that was better than “pleasant,” — a peculiarly faint and listless four-syllabled warbler song, which might be described as a monotonous zee-zee-zee-zee. The singer was not a blackpoll: of that I felt certain on the instant. What could it be, then, but a Cape May? That was a shrewd guess (I had heard the Cape May once, in Virginia, some years before); for presently the fellow moved into sight, and I bad a feast of admiring him, as he flitted about among the fir trees, feeding and singing. If he was the one I had seen in the same wood on the 22d, he was making a long stay. Still I did not venture to think of him as anything but a migrant. The Tennessee had sung incessantly for five days in the Gale River larches near the hotel, as already mentioned, and then had taken flight.
The next morning, nevertheless, there was nothing for it — few as my days were growing — but I must visit the place again, on the chance of finding the Cape May still there. And he was there; sitting, for part of the time, at the very tip (on the terminal bud, to speak exactly) of a pointed fir. There, as elsewhere, he sang persistently, sometimes with three zees, sometimes with four, but always in an unhurried monotone. It was the simplest and most primitive kind of music, to say the best of it, — many an insect would perhaps have done as well; but somehow, with the author of it before me, I pronounced it good. A Tennessee was close by, and (what I particularly enjoyed) a tanager sat in the sun on the topmost spray of a tall white pine, blazing and singing. “This is the sixth day of the Cape May here, yet I cannot think he means to summer.” So my pencil finished the day’s entry.
Whatever his intentions, I could not afford to spend my whole vacation in learning them, and it was not until the afternoon of the 31st that I went again in search of him. Then he gave me an exciting chase; for, thank Fortune, a chase may be exciting though the bird is not a “game bird,” and the man is not a gunner. At first, to be sure, the question seemed in a fair way to be quickly settled. I was hardly in the swamp before I heard the expected zee-zee. The bird was still here! But after half a dozen repetitions of the strain he fell silent; and he had not shown himself. For a full hour I paced up and down the path, within a space of forty rods, fighting mosquitoes and awake to every sound. If the bird was here, I meant to make sure of him. This was the tenth day since I had first seen him, and to find him still present would make it practically certain that he was here for the season. As for what I had already heard, — well, the notes were the Cape May’s, fast enough; but if that were all, I should go away and straightway begin to question whether my ears had not deceived me. In matters of this kind, an ornithologist walks by sight.
Once, from farther up the path, I heard a voice that might be the one I was listening for; but as I hastened toward it, it developed into the homely, twisting song of a black-and-white creeper. Heard at a sufficient distance, this too familiar ditty loses every other one of its notes, and is easily mistaken for something else, — especially if something else happens to be on a man’s mind, — as I had found to my chagrin on more than one occasion. Eye and ear both are never more liable to momentary deception than when they are most tensely alert.
Meanwhile, nothing had been heard of the Tennessee, and it became evident that he had moved on. The customary water thrush was singing at short intervals; gayly dressed warblers darted in and out of the low evergreens, almost brushing my elbows, much to their surprise; and an olive-sided flycatcher kept up a persistent pip pip. Something was troubling his equanimity; I had no idea what. It had been one of my special enjoyments, on this vacation trip, to renew my acquaintance with him and his humbler relative, the alder flycatcher, — the latter a commonplace body, whose emphatic quay-quéer had now become one of the commonest of sounds. The olive-side, by the bye, for all his apparent wildness, did not disdain to visit the shade trees about the hotel; and once a catbird, not far off, amused me by whistling a most exact reproduction of his breezy quit, quee-quée-o. If the voice had come from a treetop instead of from the depths of a low thicket, the illusion would have been complete. It is the weakness of imitators, always and everywhere, to forget one thing or another.
Still the bird I was waiting for made no sign, and finally I left the swamp and started up the road. Possibly he had gone in that direction, where I first saw him. No, he was not there, and, giving over the hunt, I turned back toward the village. Then, as I came opposite the barn again, I heard the notes in the old place, and hastened up the path. This time I was lucky, for there the bird sat on the outermost spray of a fir-tree branch. It was his most characteristic attitude. I can see him there now.
As I quitted the swamp for good, a man in a buggy was coming down the road. I put on my coat, and as he overtook me I said, “I was putting on my coat because I felt sure you would invite me to ride.” He smiled, and bade me get in; and though he had been going only to the post office, he insisted upon carrying me to the hotel, a mile beyond. Better still, we had a pleasant, humanizing talk of a kind to be serviceable to a narrow specialist, such as I seemed just now in danger of becoming. The use of tobacco was one of our topics, I remember, and the mutual duties of husbands and wives another. My host had seen a good deal of the world, it appeared, and withal was no little of a philosopher. I hope it will not sound egotistical if I say that he gave every sign of finding me a capable listener.
Once more only I saw the Cape May. His claim to be accounted a summer resident of Franconia was by this time moderately well established; but on my last spare afternoon (June 3) I could not do less than pay him a farewell visit. After looking for him in vain for twenty years (I speak as a New Englander), it seemed the part of prudence to cultivate his acquaintance while I could. At the entrance to the swamp, therefore, I put on my gloves, tied a handkerchief about my neck, and broke a stem of meadow-sweet for use as a mosquito switch. The season was advancing, and field ornithology was becoming more and more a battle. I walked up the path for the usual distance (passing a few lady’s-slippers, one of them pure white) without hearing the voice for which I was listening. On the return, however, I caught it, or something like it. Then, as I went in pursuit (a slow process, for caution’s sake), the song turned„ or seemed to turn, into something different, — louder, longer, and faster. Is that the same bird, I thought, or another? Whatever it was, it eluded my eye, and after a little the voice ceased. I retreated to the path, where I could look about me more readily and use my switch to better advantage, and anon the faint, lazy zee-zee-zee was heard again. This was the Cape May, at all events. I was sure of it. Still I wanted a look. Carefully I edged toward the sound, bending aside the branches, and all at once a bird flew into the spruce over my head. Then began again the quicker, four-syllabled zip zip. I craned my neck and fanned away mosquitoes, all the while keeping my glass in position. A twig stirred. Still the bird sang unseen, — the same hurried phrase, not quite monotonous, since the pitch rose a little on the last couplet. That was a suspicious circumstance, and by this time I should not have been mightily astonished if a Blackburnian had disclosed himself. Another twig stirred. Still I could see nothing; and still I fought mosquitoes (a plague on them!) and kept my eye steady. Then the fellow did again what he had done so often, — stepped out upon a flat, horizontal branch, pretty well up, and posed there, singing and preening his feathers. I could see his yellow breast streaked with jet, his black crown, his reddish cheeks, with the yellow patch behind the rufous, and finally the big white blotch on the wing. We have lovelier birds, no doubt (the Cape May’s colors are a trifle “splashy” for a nice taste, — for my own taste, I mean to say), but few, if any, whose costume is more strikingly original.
I stayed by him till my patience failed, the mosquitoes helping to wear it out; and all the while he reiterated that comparatively lively zip-zip, so very different from the listless zee-zee, which I had seen him use on pre viola occasions, and had heard him use today. He was singing now, I said to myself, more like the bird at Natural Bridge, the only other one I had ever heard. It was pleasant to find that even this tenth-rate performer, one of the poorest of a poor family, had more than one tune in his music box.
My spring vacation was planned to be botanical rather than ornithological; but we are not the masters of our own fate, though we sometimes try to think so, and my sketch is turning out a bird piece, after all. The truth is, I was in the birds’ country, and it was the birds’ hour. They waked me every morning, — veeries, bobolinks, vireos, sparrows, and what not;5 and as the day began, so it continued. I hope I was not blind to other things. I remember at this moment how rejoiced I was at coming all unexpectedly upon a little bunch of yellow lady’s-slippers, — nine blossoms, I believe; rare enough and pretty enough to excite the dullest man’s enthusiasm. But the fact remains, if comparisons are to be insisted upon, that a creature like the Cape May warbler has all the beauty of a flower, with the added charm of voice and motion and elusiveness. The lady’s-slippers would wait for me, — unless somebody else picked them, — but the warbler could be trusted to lead me a chase, and give me, as the saying is, a run for my money. In other words, he was more interesting, and goes better into a story.
My delight in him was the greater for a consideration yet to be specified. Twelve or thirteen years ago, when a party of us were in Franconia in June, we undertook a list of the birds of the township, — a list which the scientific ornithologist of the company afterward printed.6 Now, returning to the place by myself, it became a point of honor with me to improve our work by the addition of at least a name or two. And the first candidate was the Cape May.
The second was of a widely different sort; one of my most familiar friends, though more surprising as a bird of the White Mountains than even the Cape May. I speak of the wood thrush, the most southern member of the noble group of singers to which it belongs, — the Hylocichlæ, so called. It is to be regretted that we have no collective English name for them, especially as their vocal quality — by which I mean something not quite the same as musical ability — is such as to set them beyond comparison above all other birds of North America, if not of the world.
My first knowledge of this piece of good fortune was on the 29th of May. I stood on the Notch railway, intent upon a mourning warbler, noting how fond of red-cherry trees he and his fellows seemingly were, when I was startled out of measure by a wood thrush’s voice from the dense maple woods above me. There was no time to look for him; and happily there was no need. He was one of the consummate artists of his race (among the members of which there is great unevenness in this regard), possessing all those unmistakable peculiarities which at once distinguish the wood thrush’s song from the hermit’s, with which alone a careless listener might confound it: the sudden drop to a deep contralto (the most glorious bit of vocalism to be heard in our woods), and the tinkle or spray of bell-like tones at the other extreme of the gamut. As with the Cape May, so with him, the question was, Will he stay?
Two days later I came down the track again. A hermit was in tune, and presently a wood thrush joined him. “His tone is fuller and louder than the hermit’s,” says my pencil, — flattered, no doubt, at finding itself in a position to speak a word of momentary positiveness touching a question of superiority long in dispute, and likely to remain in dispute while birds sing and men listen to them. A quarter of a mile farther, and I came to the sugar grove. Here a second bird was singing, just where I had heard him two days before. Him I sat down to enjoy; and at that moment, probably because he had seen me (and had seen me stop), he broke out with a volley of those quick, staccato, inimitably emphatic, whip-snapping calls, — pip pip, — which are more characteristic of the species than even the song itself. So there were two male wood thrushes, and presumably two pairs, in this mountainside forest!
On the 1st of June I heard the song there again, though I was forced to wait for it; and three days afterward the story was the same. I ought to have looked for nests, but time failed me. To the best of my knowledge, the bird has never been reported before from the White Mountain region, though it is well known to breed in some parts of Canada, where I have myself seen it.
Here, then, were two notable accessions to our local catalogue. The only others (a few undoubted migrants — Wilson’s black-cap warbler, the white-crowned sparrow, and the solitary sandpiper — being omitted) were a single meadow lark and a single yellow-throated vireo. The lark seemed to be unknown to Franconia people, and my specimen may have been only a straggler. He sang again and again on May 22, but I heard nothing from him afterward, though I passed the place often. The vireo was singing in a sugar grove on the 3d of June, — a date on which, accidents apart, he should certainly have been at home for the summer.
Because I have had so much to say about the Cape May warbler and the wood thrush, it is not to be assumed that I mean to set them in the first place, nor even that I had in them the highest pleasure. They surprised me, and surprise is always more talkative than simple appreciation; but the birds that ministered most to my enjoyment were the hermit and the veery. The veery is not an every-day singer with me at home, and the hermit, for some years past, has made himself almost a stranger. I hardly know which of the two put me under the greater obligation. The veery sang almost continually, and a good veery is a singer almost out of competition. His voice lacks the ring of the wood thrush’s and the hermit’s; it never dominates the choir; but with the coppice to itself and the listener close by, it has sometimes a quality irresistible; I do not hesitate to characterize it as angelic. Of this kind was the voice of a bird that used to sing under my Franconia window at half past three o’clock, in the silence of the morning.
The surpassing glory of the veery’s song, as all lovers of American bird music may be presumed by this time to know, lies in its harmonic, double-stopping effect, — an effect, or quality, as beautiful as it is peculiar. One day, while I stood listening to it under the best of conditions, admiring the wonderful arpeggio (I know no less technical word for it), my pencil suddenly grew poetic. “The veery’s fingers are quick on the harp-strings,” it wrote. His is perfect Sunday music, — and the hermit’s no less so. And in the same class I should put the simple chants of the field sparrow and the vesper. The so-called “preaching” of the red-eyed vireo is utter worldliness in the comparison.
Happy Franconia! This year, if never before, it had all five of our New England Hylocichlæ singing in its woods: the veery and the hermit everywhere in the lower country, the wood thrush in the maple forest before mentioned, the olive-back throughout the Notch and its neighborhood, and the gray-cheek on Lafayette; a quintette hard to match, I venture to think, anywhere on the footstool. And after them — I do not say with them — were winter wrens, bobolinks, rose-breasted grosbeaks, purple finches, solitary vireos, vesper sparrows, field sparrows, white-throated sparrows, song sparrows, catbirds, robins, orioles, tanagers, and a score or two beside.
One other bright circumstance I am bound in honor to speak of, — the abundance of swallows; a state of affairs greatly unlike anything to be met with in my part of Massachusetts: cliff swallows and barn swallows in crowds, and sand martins and tree swallows by no means uncommon. But for the absence of black martins, — a famous colony of which the tourist may see at Concord, while the train waits, — here would have been a second quintette worthy to rank with the thrushes; the flight of one set being as beautiful, not to say as musical, as the songs of the other. As it was, the universal presence of these aerial birds was a continual delight to any man with eyes to notice it. They glorified the open valley as the thrushes glorified the woods.
We shall never again see the like of this, I fear, in our prosier Boston neighborhood. Within my time — within twenty years, indeed — barn swallows summered freely on Beacon Hill, plastering their nests against the walls of the State House and the Athenæum, and even under the busy portico of the Tremont House. I have remembrance, too, of a pair that dwelt, for one season at least, above the door of the old Ticknor mansion, at the head of Park Street. Those days are gone. Now, alas, even in the suburban districts, we may almost say that one swallow makes a summer. An evil change it is, for which not even the warblings of English sparrows will ever quite console me. Yet the present state of things, the reoccupation of Boston by the British, if you please to call it so, is not without its grain of compensation. It makes me fonder of “old Francony.” Skeptic or man of faith, naturalist or supernaturalist, who does not like to feel that there is somewhere a “better country” than the one he lives in?____________________________
1 But the brightness of red-maple groves at this season is mostly not in the leaves, but in the fruit.
2 Yes, he has even been seen (and “taken”), so I am told, at the summit of Mount Washington.
No, the line is Coleridge’s:
4 So I was relieved to find all the Franconia white-throated sparrows introducing their sets of triplets with two — not three — longer single notes. That was how I had always whistled the tune; and I had been astonished and grieved to see it printed in musical notation by Mr. Cheney, aid again by Mr. Chapman, with an introductory measure of three notes: as if it were to go, “Old Sam, Sam Peabody, Peabody, Peabody,” instead of, as I remembered it, and as reason dictated, “Old Sam Peabody, Peabody, Peabody.” I am not intimating that Mr. Cheney and Mr. Chapman are wrong, but that my own recollection was right, — a very different matter, as my present experience with Tennessee warblers was sufficient to show
5 I made the following list of fifty odd species heard and seen either from my windows or from the piazza: bluebird, robin, veery, hermit thrush, olive-backed thrush, chickadee, Canadian nuthatch, catbird, oven-bird, water thrush, chestnut-sided warbler, myrtle warbler, redstart, Nashville warbler, blue yellow-backed warbler, Maryland yellow-throat, warbling vireo, red-eyed vireo, cedar-bird, barn swallow, cliff swallow, sand swallow, tree swallow, goldfinch, purple finch, pine finch, red crossbill, indigo bird, snowbird, song sparrow, field sparrow, chipping sparrow, vesper sparrow, white-throated sparrow, Baltimore oriole, bobolink, red-winged blackbird, crow, blue jay, kingbird, phoebe, least flycatcher, olive-sided flycatcher, alder flycatcher, great-crested flycatcher, wood pewee, hummingbird, chimney swift, whip-poor-will, flicker, kingfisher, black-billed cuckoo.
6 The Auk, vol. v. p. 151.