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Footing it in Franconia
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IN THE LANDAFF VALLEY
THE greatest ornithological novelty of our present visit to Franconia was the prairie horned larks, whose lyrical raptures, falling “from heaven or near it,” I have already done my best to describe. The rarest bird (for there is a difference between novelty and rarity) was a Cape May warbler; the most surprisingly spectacular was a duck. Let me speak first of the warbler.
Two years ago I found a Cape May settled in a certain spot in an extensive tract of valley woods. The manner of the discovery — which was purely accidental, the bird’s voice being so faint as to be inaudible beyond the distance of a few rods — and the pains I took to keep him under surveillance for the remainder of my stay, so as to make practically sure of his intention to pass the summer here, have been fully recounted in a previous chapter. The experience was one of those which fill an enthusiast with such delight as he can never hope to communicate, or even to make seem reasonable, except to men of his own kind.
We had never met with Dendroica tigrina before anywhere about the mountains, and I had no serious expectation of ever finding it here a second time. Still “hope springs immortal;” “the thing that hath been, it is that which shall be;” and one of my earliest concerns, on arriving in Franconia again at the right season of the year, was to revisit the well-remembered spot and listen for the equally well-remembered sibilant notes.
Our first call was on May 17. Perhaps we were ahead of time; at any rate, we found nothing. On the 23d we passed the place again, and heard, somewhat too far away, what I believed with something like certainty to be the zee-zee-zee-zee of the bird we were seeking; but the dense underbrush was drenched with rain, we had other business in hand, and we left the question unsettled. If the voice really was the Cape May’s we should doubtless have another chance with him. So I told my companion; and the result justified the prophecy, which was based upon the bird’s behavior of two years before, when all his activities seemed to be very narrowly confined — say within a radius of four or five rods.
We had hardly reached the place, two days afterward, before we heard him singing close by us, — in the very clump of firs where be had so many times shown himself, — and after a minute or two of patience we had him under our opera-glasses. The sight gave me, I am not ashamed to confess, a thrill of exquisite pleasure. It was something to think of — the return of so rare a bird to so precise a spot. With all the White Mountain region, not to say all of northern New England and of British America, before him, he bad come back from the tropics (for who could doubt that he was indeed the bird of two years ago, or one of that bird’s progeny?) to spend another summer in this particular bunch of Franconia evergreens. He had kept them in mind, wherever he had wandered, and, behold, here he was again, singing in their branches, as if he had known that I should be coming hither to find him.
The next day our course took us again past his quarters, and he was still there, and still singing. I knew he would be. He could be depended on. He was doing exactly as he had done two years before. You had only to stand still in a certain place (I could almost find it in the dark, I think), and you would hear his voice. He was as sure to be there as the trees.
That afternoon some ladies wished to see him, and my companion volunteered his escort. Their experience was like our own; or rather it was better than ours. The warbler was not only at home, but behaved like the most courteous of hosts; coming into a peculiarly favorable light, upon an uncommonly low perch, and showing himself off to his visitors’ perfect satisfaction. It was bravely done. He knew what was due to “the sex.”
On the morning of the 27th I took my farewell of him. He had been there for at least five days, and would doubtless stay for the season. May joy stay with him. I think I have not betrayed his whereabouts too nearly. If I have, and harm comes of it, may my curse follow the man that shoots him.
The “spectacular duck,” of which I have spoken, was one of several (three or more) that seemed to be settled in the valley of the Landaff River. Our first sight of them was on the 20th; two birds, flying low and calling, but in so bewildering a light, and so quick in passing, that we ventured no guess as to their identity. Three days later, on the morning of the 23d, we had hardly turned into the valley before we heard the same low, short-breathed, grunting, grating, croaking sounds, and, glancing upward, saw three ducks steaming up the course of the river. This time, as before, the sun was against us, but my companion, luckier than I with his glass, saw distinctly that they carried a white speculum or wing-spot.
We were still discussing possibilities, supposing that the birds themselves were clean gone, when suddenly (we could never tell how it happened) we saw one of them — still on the wing — not far before us; and even as we were looking at it, wondering where it had come from, it flew toward the old gristmill by the bridge and came to rest on the top of the chimney! Here was queerness. We leveled our glasses upon the creature and saw that it was plainly a merganser (shelldrake), with its crest feathers projecting backward from the crown, and its wing well marked with white. Its head, unless the light deceived me, was brown. The main thing, however, for the time being, was none of these details, but the spectacle of the bird itself, in so strange and sightly a position. “It looks like the storks of Europe,” said my companion. Certainly it looked like something other than an every-day American duck, with its outstretched neck and its long, slender, rakish bill showing in silhouette against the sky.
Meanwhile, it had put its head partly out of sight in the top of the chimney, as if it had a nest there and were feeding its young. Then of a sudden it took wing, but in a minute or two was back again, to our increasing wonderment; and again it dropped the end of its bill out of sight below the level of the topmost bricks. Now, however, I could see the mandibles in motion, as if it were eating. Probably it had brought a fish up from the river. The chimney was simply its table. Again, for no reason that was apparent to us, it flew away, and again, after the briefest absence, it returned. A third time it vanished, and this time for good. We kept on our way up the valley, talking of what we had seen, but after every few rods I turned about to put my glass upon the chimney. Evidently that was the duck’s favorite perch, I said; we should find it there often. But whether my reasoning was faulty or we were simply unfortunate, the fact is that we saw it there no more. On the 26th, at a place two miles or more above this point, we saw a duck of the same kind — at least it was uttering the same grating, croaking sounds as it flew; and a resident of the neighborhood, whom we questioned about the matter, told us that he had noticed such birds (“ducks with white on their wings”) flying up and down the valley, and had no doubt that they summered there. As to their fondness for chimney-tops he knew nothing; nor do I know anything beyond the simple facts as I have here set them down.
But I am glad of the picture of the bird that I have in my mind. Enthusiasm is a good painter; it is not afraid of high lights, and it deals in fast colors. And to us old Franconians, enthusiasm seems to be one of the institutions, one of the native growths, one of the special delectabilities, if you please, of that delectable valley. The valley of cinnamon roses, we have before now called it; the valley of strawberries, blueberries, and raspberries; the valley of bobolinks and swallows; but best of all, perhaps, it is the valley of hobbyists. Its atmosphere is heady. We all feel it. The world is far away. Worldly successes, yea, dollars and cents themselves, are nothing, and less than nothing, and vanity. A new flower, a new bird, the hundred and fiftieth spider, these are the things that count. We are like members of a conventicle, or like the logs on the hearth. Our inward fires are mutually communicative and sustaining. We laugh now and then, it may be, at one another’s peculiarities. Each of us can see, at certain moments, that the other is “a little off,” to use a “Francony” phrase; not quite “all there,” perhaps; a kind of eighth dreamer, “moving about in worlds not realized;” but at bottom we are sympathetic and appreciative. We would not have each other different, unless, indeed, it were a little younger. A grain of oddity is a good spice. If we are not deeply interested in the newest discovery, at least we participate in the exultation of the discoverer.
“That’s a good fly,” said the entomologist. We were driving, three of us, talking of something or nothing (we are never careful which it is), when the happy dipteran blundered into the carriage, and into the very lap of its admirer. Ten seconds more, and it was under the anæsthetic spell of cyanide of potassium, which (so we are told) puts its victims to sleep as painlessly, perhaps as blissfully, as chloroform. It was an inspiration to see how instantly the lady recognized a “good” one (it was one of a thousand, literally, for the day was summer-like), and how readily, and with no waste of motions, she made it her own. I was reminded of a story.
friend of mine, a truly devout woman, of New England birth, and
churchly withal (her books have all a savor of piety, though all the
world reads them), is also an enthusiastic and widely famous
entomological collector. One Sunday she had gone to church and was on
her knees reciting the service (or saying her prayers — I am not
sure that I remember her language verbatim), when she noticed on the
back of the pew immediately in front of her a diminutive moth of some
rare and desirable species. Instinctively her hand sought her pocket,
and somehow, without disturbing the congregation or even her nearest
fellow-worshiper (my helpless masculine mind cannot imagine how the
thing was done) she found it and took from it a “poison bottle,”
always in readiness for such emergencies. Still on her knees (whether
her lips still moved is another point that escapes positive
recollection), she removed the stopple, placed the mouth of the vial
over the moth (which had probably imagined itself safe in such
ecclesiastical surroundings), replaced the stopple above it, slipped
the bottle back into her pocket, and resumed (or kept on with) her
prayers. All this had taken but a minute. And who says that she had
done anything wrong? Who hints at a disagreement between science and
faith? Nay, let us rather believe with Coleridge
— especially small church-going lepidoptera of the rarer sorts.
zealots like this about you, as I have intimated, you may safely
speak out. If you have seen an unexpected, long-expected warbler, or
a chimney-top duck, or a skyward soaring lark, you may talk of it
without fear, with no restraint upon your feelings or your phrases.
Here things are seen as they are; truth is cleared of false lights,
and Wisdom is justified of her children. Happy Franconia!
Happy Franconia! “Nested and quiet in a valley mild!” I think of her June strawberries and her perennial enthusiasms, and I wish I were there now.