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Footing it in Franconia
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ON the second day after our arrival in Franconia we were following a dry, sandy stretch of valley road — on one of our favorite rounds — when a bird flew across it, just before us, and dropped into the barren, closely cropped cattle pasture on our left. Something indefinable in its manner or appearance excited my suspicions, and I stole up to the fence and looked over. The bird was a horned lark, the first one that I had ever set eyes on in the nesting season. He seemed to be very hungry, snapping up insects with the greatest avidity, and was not in the least disturbed by our somewhat eager attentions. It was plain at the first glance1 that he was of the Western variety, — a prairie horned lark, in other words, — for even in the best of lights the throat and sides of the head were white, or whitish, with no perceptible tinge of yellow.
The prairie lark is one of the birds that appear to be shifting or extending their breeding range. It was first described as a sub-species in 1884, and has since been found to be a summer resident of northern Vermont and New Hampshire, and, in smaller numbers, of western Massachusetts. It is not impossible, expansion being the order of the day, that some of us may live long enough to see it take up its abode within sight of the gilded State House dome.
My own previous acquaintance with it had been confined to the sight of a few migrants along the seashore in the autumn, although my companion on the present trip had seen it once about a certain upland farm here in Franconia. That was ten years ago, and we have again and again sought it there since, without avail.
Our bird of to-day interested me by displaying his “horns,” — curious adornments which I had never been able to make out before, except in pictures. They were not carried erect, — like an owl’s “ears,” let us say, — but projected backwards, and with the head at a certain angle showed with perfect distinctness. The bird would do nothing but eat, and as our own dinner awaited us we continued our tramp. We would try to see more of him and his mate at another time, we promised ourselves.
First, however, we paid a visit (that very afternoon) to the upland farm just now spoken of. “Mears’s,” we always call it. Perhaps the larks would be there also. But we found no sign of them, and the bachelor occupant of the house, who left his plough in the beanfield to offer greeting to a pair of strangers, assured us that nothing answering to our description had ever been seen there within his time; an assertion that might mean little or much, of course, though he seemed to be a man who had his eyes open.
This happened on May 17. Six days afterward, in company with an entomological collector, we were again in the dusty valley. I went into the larch swamp in search of a Cape May warbler — found here two years before — one of the very best of our Franconia birds; and the entomologist stayed near by with her net and bottles, while the second man kept on a mile farther up the valley to look for thorn-bush specimens. So we drove the sciences abreast, as it were. My own hunt was immediately rewarded, and when the botanist returned I thought to stir his envy by announcing my good fortune; but he answered with a smile that he too had seen something; he had seen the prairie lark soaring and singing. “Well done!” said I; “now you may look for the Cape May, and incidentally feed the mosquitoes, and the lady and I will get into the carriage and take our turn with Otocoris.” So said, so done. We drove to the spot, the driver stopped the horses opposite a strip of ploughed land, and behold, there was the bird at that very moment high in the air, hovering and singing. It was not much of a song, I thought, though the entomologist, hearing partly with the eye, no doubt, pronounced it beautiful. It was most interesting, whatever might be said of its musical quality, and as we drove homeward my companion and I agreed that we would take up our quarters for a day or two at the nearest house, and study it more at our leisure. Possibly we should happen upon a nest.
In the forenoon of May 25, therefore, we found ourselves comfortably settled in the very midst of a lark colony. The birds, of which there were at least five (besides two pairs found half a mile farther up the valley), were to be seen or heard at almost any minute; now in the road before the house, now in the ploughed land close by it, now in one of the cattle pastures, and now on the roofs of the buildings. One fellow spent a great part of his time upon the ridgepole of the barn (a pretty high structure), commonly standing not on the very angle or ridge, but an inch or two below it, so that very often only his head and shoulders would be visible. Once I saw one dusting himself in the rut of the road. He went about the work with great thoroughness and unmistakable enjoyment, cocking his head and rubbing first one cheek and then the other into the sand. “Cleanliness is next to godliness,” I thought I heard him saying.
So far as we could judge from our two days’ observation, the birds were most musical in the latter half of the afternoon, say from four o’clock to six. Contrary to what we should have expected, we saw absolutely no ascensions in the early morning or after sunset, although we did see more than one at high noon. It is most likely, I think, that the birds sing at all hours, as the spirit moves them, just as the nightingale does, and the hermit thrush and the vesper sparrow.
As for the quality and manner of the song, with all my listening and studying I could never hit upon a word with which to characterize it. The tone is dry, guttural, inexpressive; not exactly to be called harsh, perhaps, but certainly not in any true sense of the word musical. When we first heard it, in the distance (let the qualification be noted), the same thought came to both of us, — a kingbird’s formless, hurrying twitters. There is no rhythm, no melody, nothing to be called phrasing or modulation, — a mere jumble of “splutterings and chipper lags.” Every note is by itself, having to my ear no relation to anything before or after. The most striking and distinguishing characteristic of it all is the manner in which it commonly hurries to a conclusion — as if the clock were running down. “The hand bas slipped from the lever,” I more than once found myself saying. I was thinking of a motorman who tightens his brake, and tightens it again, and then all at once lets go his grip. At this point, this sudden acceleration and conclusion, my companion and I always laughed. The humor of it was irresistible. It stood in such ludicrous contrast with all that had gone before, — so halting and labored; like a man who stammers and stutters, and then, finding his tongue unexpectedly loosened, makes all speed to finish. Sometimes — most frequently, perhaps — the strain was very brief; but at other times a bird would sit on a stone, or a fence-post, or a ridgepole, and chatter almost continuously by the quarter-hour. Even then, however, this comical hurried phrase would come in at more or less regular intervals. I imagined that the larks looked upon it as the highest reach of their art and delivered it with special satisfaction. If they did, I could not blame them; to us it was by all odds the most interesting part of their very limited repertory.
The most interesting part, I mean, of that which appealed to the ear; for, as will readily be imagined, the ear’s part was really much the smaller half of the performance. The wonder of it all was not the music by itself (that was hardly better than an oddity, a thing of which one might soon have enough), but the music combined with the manner of its delivery, while the singer was climbing heavenward. For the bird is a true skylark. Like his more famous cousin, he does not disdain the humblest perch — a mere clod of earth answers his purpose; but his glory is to sing at heaven’s gate.
His method at such times was a surprise to me. He starts from the ground silently, with no appearance of lyrical excitement, and his flight at first is low, precisely as if he were going only to the next field. Soon, however, he begins to mount, beating the air with quick strokes and then shutting his wings against his sides and forcing himself upward.
“Diving upward,” was the word I found myself using. Up he goes, — up, up, up, “higher still, and higher,” — till after a while he breaks into voice. While singing he holds his wings motionless, stiffly outstretched, and his tail widely spread, as if he were doing his utmost to transform himself into a parachute — as no doubt he is. Then, the brief, hurried strain delivered, he beats the air again and makes another shoot heavenward. The whole display consists of an alternation of rests accompanied by song (you can always see the music, though it is often inaudible), and renewed upward pushes.
In the course of his flight the bird covers a considerable field, since as a matter of course he cannot ascend vertically. He rises, perhaps, directly at your feet, but before he comes down, which may be in one minute or in ten, he will have gone completely round you in a broad circle; so that, to follow him continuously (sometimes no easy matter, his altitude being so great and the light so dazzling), you will be compelled almost to put your neck out of joint. In our own case, we generally did not see him start, but were made aware of what was going on by hearing the notes overhead.
One grand flight I did see from beginning to end, and it was wonderful, amazing, astounding. So I thought, at all events. There was no telling, of course, what altitude the bird reached, but it might have been miles, so far as the effect upon the beholder’s emotions was concerned. It seemed as if the fellow never would be done. “Higher still, and higher.” Again and again this line of Shelley came to my lips, as, after every bar of music, the bird pushed nearer and nearer to the sky. At last he came down; and this, my friend and I always agreed, was the most exciting moment of all. He closed his wings and literally shot to the ground head first, like an arrow. “Wonderful!” said I, “wonderful!” And the other man said: “If I could do that I would never do anything else.”
Here my story might properly enough end. The nest of which we had talked was not discovered. My own beating over of the fields came to nothing, and my companion, as if unwilling to deprive me of a possible honor, contented himself with telling me that I was looking in the wrong place. Perhaps I was. It is easy to criticise. For a minute, indeed, one of the farm-hands excited our hopes. He had found a nest which might be the lark’s, he thought; it was on the ground, at any rate; but his description of the eggs put an end to any such possibility, and when he led us to the nest it turned out to be occupied by a hermit thrush. Near it he showed us a grouse sitting upon her eggs under a roadside fence. It was while repairing the fence that he had made his discoveries. He had an eye for birds. “Those little humming-birds,” he remarked, “they’re quite an animal.” And he was an observer of human nature as well. “That fellow,” he said, speaking of a young man who was perhaps rather good-natured than enterprising, “that fellow don’t do enough to break the Sabbath.”
And this suggests a bit of confession. We were sitting upon the piazza, on Sunday afternoon, when a lark sang pretty far off. “Well,” said the botanist, “he sings as well as a savanna sparrow, anyhow.” “A savanna sparrow!” said I; and at the word we looked at each other. The same thought had come to both of us. Several days before, in another part of the township, we had beard in the distance — in a field inhabited by savanna and vesper sparrows — an utterly strange set of bird-notes. “What is that?” we both asked. The strain was repeated. “Oh, well,” said I, “that must be the work of a crazy savanna. Birds are given to such freaks, you know.” The grass was wet, we had a long forenoon’s jaunt before us, and although my companion, as he said, “took no stock” in my explanation, we passed on. Now it flashed upon us both that what we had heard was the song of a prairie lark. “I believe it was,” said the botanist. “I know it was,” said I; “I would wager anything upon it.” And it was; for after returning to the hotel our first concern was to go to the place — only half a mile away — and find the bird. And not only so, but twenty-four hours later we saw one soaring in his most ecstatic manner over another field, a mile or so beyond, beside the same road.
present was a good season for horned larks in Franconia, we told
ourselves. Two years ago, at this same time of the year, I had gone
more than once past all these places. If the birds were here then I
overlooked them. The thing is not impossible, of course; there is no
limit to human dullness; but I prefer to think otherwise. A man, even
an amateur ornithologist, should believe himself innocent until he is
1 This and the two succeeding chapters are records of a vacation visit in May, 1901.