Here to return to
LAND BIRDS OF THE DUNES
THE sandy and desert character of the dunes would at first sight seem to be inimical to numbers or variety in the bird-life there, but the fact that the seacoast is one of the great highways of bird migration renders this region a particularly favored spot for the ornithologist. The thickets of bushes and trees are so limited in extent that the bird population during the migrations is often much crowded together, instead of being spread out over wider areas as in upland country. The sea on the one side and the marsh on the other are each equally inhospitable to land birds, so that the concentration in the thickets of the dunes is sometimes extreme. Another fact which is of advantage to the bird student is that the trees in the dunes are so low that one can often look down on the tallest of them from the peak of a dune. Besides the great number of migrants, which include practically all the birds that stream along the coast in the spring and fall, and find rest, shelter and food in the dunes, there are a number of interesting birds that spend part or all of the winter there, some of which are rarely found elsewhere than in sand dunes.
The birds that nest in the dunes, and rear their young there, are comparatively few in number and are quickly enumerated. The robin builds in the trees or about the few houses and shanties; the yellow warbler and Maryland yellow-throat are common, and the song sparrow is everywhere in the bushes. Still more common is the Savannah sparrow nesting at the foot of clumps of tall beach grass throughout the dunes and on the edges of the tidal inlets from the marsh. Its song, such as it is, is heard on every hand during the spring and summer, — two chirps, followed by two trills, the first exceedingly high pitched, thin and grasshopper-like, the second rather sweet and musical. The first trill is inaudible to some whose hearing is otherwise good.
A few tree swallows nest in the hollow trees and a few bank swallows in holes in the wind-cuttings of the dunes. Red-winged blackbirds, bronzed grackles and crows are all common nesters, as well as kingbirds and a few black-billed cuckoos and flickers. There are a few other breeding birds of the dunes, but these are the chief ones.
I doubt not that the hummingbird has raised its young there, for I have occasionally seen it among the dunes, although I have not found its nest. One could not wish a more accurate or charming description of this bird than that of William Wood in his “New England’s Prospect.” He says: “The Humbird is one of the wonders of the Countrey, being no bigger than a Hornet, yet hath all the dimensions of a Bird, as bill, and wings, with quills, spider-like legges, small clawes: For colour, she is as glorious as the Raine-bow; as she flies, she makes a little humming noise like a Humble-bee: wherefore shee is called the Humbird.”
Crows are worthy of more than passing notice. They are found in the dunes at all seasons of the year, but in far greater numbers in winter than in summer. In summer they are so hard put to it to find trees of sufficient size for their nest that they sometimes build only six feet from the ground. In winter, when the inland country is frost-bound in ice and snow, crows resort to the seashore in great numbers and live on the varied diet which the beaches and the marshes afford. The character of this diet is well shown in the ejected pellets described in the chapter on tracks and tracking. The nights are spent in roosts in the thickets in the dunes, but chiefly in the pine woods of Cape Ann and Essex. In the morning one may see the crows flying out from their night roosts, starting from half an hour to an hour before sunrise. They fly singly and in groups of from ten to thirty, and by sunrise all are about the day’s business, scattered to feed along the beaches and throughout the marshes of Ipswich, Essex and Rowley. These early morning flights are less direct than are the return flights at night, for the birds are evidently hungry and on the lookout for food.
Most of these crows that spend the winter at the seashore go elsewhere in summer, and on pleasant days in the early spring I have seen the departure of some of them. On a March morning, just as the sun came from behind some clouds, a flock of thirty or forty crows rose from the dunes, circled irregularly upwards until they were mere specks in the sky, when they all started off in a direct course for the northeast. An hour later a flock of twenty-seven rose from the marsh and did likewise. Crows are social beings, and even in the midst of the breeding season flocks of fifteen or twenty adults often feed together.
The crow is commonly accredited with only one note, — the notorious caw. That he possesses this note, no one will deny, but he also has numerous other notes, and indeed his vocabulary is an extensive one. As a songster, however, he is not a success. Conversational notes and tones of every description issue from his throat, and nothing is more entertaining than the varied notes exchanged by a family of these birds, now low and confidential, sometimes pleasing or slightly melodious, again raucous and scolding, even torrential in their abusiveness. The notes are so constantly changing in inflection that one feels sure that each has its meaning. A common spring note is a hoarse rattling, sometimes likened to the gritting of teeth; at other times the birds laugh a loud ha, ha, ha, while a nasal taunting nev-ah, nev-ah and ah, ah, expressive of great relief, as well as wailing cries, are common. Sir John Richardson called this bird “the barking-crow,” and old Chaucer spoke of “the crow with vois of care.”
A still more peculiar note I have heard from the mouth of a crow. This was at sunrise on a frosty December day close to my house at Ipswich. Near my bedroom window sat a crow that from time to time emitted two low clucks, followed by a single booming sound, the whole a phrase of unknown meaning, which I wrote down thus: cluck-cluck, whoooo. Between these phrases the crow cawed in an orthodox manner.
If one should attempt to describe all the birds that pass through the dunes in the spring and fall, he would be obliged to write a general book on ornithology. An illustration of the abundance and variety of the migrants is the fact that on a day in May my friend, Mr. Ralph Hoffmann, saw within the space of three minutes eleven different members of the warbler family pass through a single tree in the dunes. Besides these I have myself seen ten other species, or a total of twenty-one warblers in the dunes, as follows: black and white, Nashville, parula, yellow, black-throated blue, myrtle, magnolia, chestnut-sided, bay-breasted, black-poll, Blackburnian, black-throated green, pine, yellow palm, prairie, Wilson’s, and Canadian warblers, and oven-bird, water-thrush, Maryland yellow-throat and redstart.
It is difficult to describe the feelings of a bird lover on a perfect May day in such an environment as these Ipswich dunes, especially if he has come from a long confinement in the city.
One’s every sense is appealed to, and every sense must be on the alert that he may enjoy the full beauty of the scene, recognize all his bird and flower friends, and distinguish each note and song and perfume. While he is endeavoring to catch a glimpse of an elusive warbler that persists in dodging about on the far side of a bush or tree, he distinguishes half a dozen songs or call notes and catches glimpses of as many more birds. It is a great satisfaction for him to recognize a call note which perhaps he last heard two or three years before in Cape Breton or Labrador, and, after as skilful stalking as that of any hunter, bring the bird plainly into the field of his glasses and thus confirm the diagnosis.
But it is not merely the rare birds that gladden the heart of the bird-lover in these wonderful spring days; it is the meeting with old friends — birds that return with each spring and sing their familiar songs — that satisfies so deeply his soul. Have I not felt thrills run up and down my back when the first brown thrasher of the season has mounted a swinging branch of barberry and carolled forth his jolly song, so well emphasized by repetitions of each theme, and have I not almost wept for joy on hearing for the first time “Hear me, Saint Theresa” coming from the pines, for I knew, although I saw him not, that the black-throated green warbler had arrived from the south again.
The older one grows the more he appreciates these days, and each successive spring appears more divinely wonderful, more of a miracle than he has ever thought it in the past. One can but hope that the same joy and the same enthusiasm for this glorious feast spread by nature’s hands will continue for all of us for many years to come.
There is one migrant land bird that is rarely seen in the spring, but is very abundant in the dunes and about the marshes in the fall from the middle of September to the end of the first week in November. This is the pipit, sometimes called titlark, a slender bird dressed in delicate shades of buff and gray. While with us it utters nothing but its call notes — seet-see-whit — but in its summer home in Labrador it revels in a flight song. This is a simple refrain, a vibratory che-whee, which is rapidly repeated both as the bird flies up into the heights and as he descends to earth.
THE ROAD TO THE LIGHTHOUSE
At Ipswich pipits appear in flocks in the fall, and walk about the sand dunes with dovelike motions of the head and neck. They frequently wag their tails up and down, a nervous trick which makes their recognition in the field an easy one. It is rare that they alight anywhere but on the ground, yet I have occasionally seen them on old stumps and fence rails, and a very few times in the branches of trees.
Swallows are at some seasons so abundant in the dunes that they deserve a separate chapter and will be considered later.
The most characteristic birds of the sand dunes, however, are the migrants from the north that spend the whole or a greater part of the winter. The myrtle warbler is one of these and is considered in some detail in the twelfth chapter. It is the only warbler that spends the winter so far north, and one has an opportunity to watch it changing by the spring molt to the brilliant summer dress. The process begins as early as the last of March, and the birds sing before the molt is finished. As early as April 7th, I have heard a myrtle warbler, who was in extensive molt and very shabby, sing a feeble warbling song.
Such northern birds as the two species of crossbills, the pine grosbeak, the redpolls and the pine finch, that come here only when the food supply fails them in the north, or perhaps when the wanderlust strikes them, are at times familiar birds in the dune groves. They are always interesting, and much could be said of their charming ways. All are but little afraid of man, for they have come from northern wildernesses where he does not disturb them. I believe it was Buffon who said that the crossbills were deformed by the severe climate in which they lived, but if one has watched them extracting the seeds from a pine cone, he realizes what a perfect instrument for that purpose their “deformed” bill is. They often hang from the branches and the cones by bill and feet like parrots, and their red and green and yellow plumage enhances the illusion. Sometimes one breaks off a cone and flies with it in its bill to a convenient perch, where it holds the cone with its foot while extracting the seeds.
With their small and ordinary bills the little pine finches are able to accomplish the same thing. A flock of these birds hanging to the cones and branches is a pretty sight. The seeds are deftly extracted, the meat is eaten and the dry wings left to flutter down to the ground.
All of these northern birds have distinct and characteristic call notes, whose recognition in the field is a great pleasure. As a flock of crossbills passes overhead in undulatory flight, a shower of notes, sounding like the skipping of stones on the ice, tells us that they are red crossbills, while if the notes have a rattling or chinking character, we know that the birds are the white-winged species.
One is rarely treated in Essex County to the spring song of these birds, but they may be heard on the northern breeding grounds. Of all their songs nothing exceeds in beauty the joyous carolling of the white-winged crossbill in the height of his courtship. Perched on the top of a spruce, he begins his lay, but its vehemence is such that it generally lifts him up into the air, and as he flies about slowly, he pours forth his soul. The song is a wonderful succession of trills, now low and deep, now swelling into a loud all-pervading melody which resembles that of the canary-bird; now it dies away to a low warbling, and again bursts out into a joyous trill which takes the bird exhausted to his perch.
The song of this bird, as of many others in this country, is worthy of the poet’s pen. Many people suppose that our song birds are few and inferior as compared with those in England, with whose ways and songs they are familiar from poems and from references in literature. A songster, no matter how commonplace, that has been praised by Chaucer and Shakespeare and Tennyson, has a prestige that our unheralded birds lack, be their voices ever so fine. Some day they will come into their own and be as much appreciated as their relatives over the water.
Entirely different from these song birds are two species of owls occasionally seen in the dunes. One of these, the short-eared owl, a bird widely distributed throughout the world, is rare in winter but not uncommon during the migrations. I have seen it but seldom, however, during the last half dozen years. Colored like the sand and the leafless bushes, it is rarely noticed until it mounts into the air and flaps, and sails away.
I have thrice been so fortunate as to see a snowy owl in the Ipswich dunes. On the first occasion I had nearly walked by the bird, as it sat in its characteristic attitude, bent at an angle of forty-five degrees, when I discovered that the gray stump about seventy yards away was a snowy owl. His eyes were narrow slits more than twice as long as broad, but he kept one of them on me, and he occasionally turned his head so that one eye relieved the other. After watching him in return for fifteen minutes I relaxed my “frozen” posture, and dropping to the ground, endeavored to stalk him. Notwithstanding all my care, he took alarm at once, and, spreading his great wings and throwing his feathered feet out behind, he flew off with broad wing sweeps.
Both of these owls are well able to see by day in the broad glare of the sun, and are not birds of the night alone. Both are great mousers, and as such are of service to agriculture. It is recorded that in the year 1580 there was a “sore plague of strange mice” in Essex, England, but that owls thronged from all sides and helped to exterminate the pests. Occasionally these owls vary their diet with a bird, and I once started a short-eared owl in the dimes who had been feasting on a robin. A snowy owl in my collection smells strongly of skunk. But the odor of skunk on one’s clothes does not necessarily mean that one has eaten the animal!
One of the characteristic bird notes heard in the dunes in the fall is the sibilant squeaky note of the horned lark. This northern bird takes the place of the prairie horned lark which in smaller numbers spends the summers. Indeed it begins to come during the last of September before its smaller relative is gone, and in November and December flocks of fifty or a hundred are not uncommon in the dunes. Toward the end of January and in February and early March comparatively few are to be found, while in the latter half of March they again increase in numbers, but are never so common as in the fall. Early in April the last survivors of the winter leave for the north.
The horned lark is a handsomely marked bird with its black patches below the eyes and on the breast, and its yellow throat and eye lines. At times, especially in the spring, the long black feathers extending from the forehead above the eyes appear to stand out as horns. It is a swift walker and picks at the seeds of weeds and grasses from the ground, never alighting on them as do longspurs, Ipswich sparrows and snow buntings, its three other companions of the winter. It sometimes flies up from the ground, seizing the seeds on the tall grass or weed-stalks, at the same time shaking many off on to the ground, which it picks up before repeating the process.
It is a persistent fighter or extremely playful, and is constantly engaged in chasing its fellows. I have seen two face each other for a moment, with heads down like fighting cocks, the next instant twisting and turning in the air, one in hot pursuit of the other.
In a rough turf field horned larks are particularly difficult to see, as they are apt to squat in depressions behind stones or sods, and their colors harmonize well with the ground. It is probable that they spend the night in these situations, for in crossing a field, one dark November night, my dog started up two or three horned larks that flew off emitting their characteristic notes.
The flight song of the horned lark I have heard in Labrador. The bird springs up from the ground and mounts silently into the air, rising in irregular circles or almost vertically until it appears but a little speck in the sky, or perchance is lost to sight in the scudding fog. Then it soars and pours forth in great ecstasy a song that begins with one or two notes followed by a series of squeaks, high notes and fine trills, suggestive at times of distant sleigh bells and again of un-oiled gates. The song finished, the bird flaps its wings a few times, closes them and then sails again, and again repeats its song. One bird I timed remained in the air three minutes, during which it repeated its song thirty-two times. When the bird has finished singing it silently and very rapidly plunges back to earth. The performance is well worth hearing and, although not highly musical, is very pleasing and decidedly spectacular.
The snow bunting is indeed a bird of the snows, and as a flock of these white birds whirl about in their fitful manner, now rising, now falling, as if blown by gusts of wind, they are very suggestive of a snow flurry. On their arrival in late October their bodies are largely “veiled” in chestnut brown, for many of the feathers look as if they had been dipped in a brown wash. As the winter season advances and spring approaches, the brown tips are more and more frayed and worn away, and without any molt the birds become in the spring beautifully black and white. The nuptial dress, therefore, is present in the fall but is concealed beneath a brown duster. It is thought by some that the brilliant spring dress of male birds is due to the exuberant life and passion of the male at that season, but in the case of the snow bunting, as well as of the Lapland longspur, to be presently described, and of a number of other birds, the nuptial dress is in reality produced at the end of the previous summer, when the passions are at their lowest ebb.
The call notes of the snow bunting are sweet and melodious whistles, interspersed with rippling trills, but changed to rasping tzees when the birds chase each other. Early in April, before they leave us, they indulge at times in low warbling songs, suggestive of those of the purple finch, and when a flock of a hundred or more are singing together the effect is very pleasing. This song is doubtless as inferior to the songs heard on the breeding grounds, as that of the fox sparrow heard here is inferior to the wonderful bursts of melody it pours forth in more northern regions in the presence of its nesting mate.
THE DUNES IN SUMMER
THE DUNES IN WINTER
The Lapland longspur has long spur-like hind claws, and breeds throughout the arctic parts of the northern hemisphere, including Lapland. From these two facts the bird takes its name. It is not as common as the snow bunting, but is sometimes found in flocks of from twenty-five to fifty. It often associates with both the snow bunting and the horned lark, while the Ipswich sparrow is occasionally added to the company. The Lapland longspur arrives from the north early in October and is common in December and often throughout January. In February, March and April it is rare, but more have been seen in these spring months of late years than ever before. Although fluctuations of this sort in bird-life occur, it is possible that the increase is only apparent, and is due to the growing number of acute bird students.
Sir John Richardson wrote that the Indians on the Dease River, near the Arctic Ocean, believed that the Lapland longspur “availed itself of the strength of wing of the Hutchins Goose, and nestled among its feathers during its flight. When a goose is shot, they often see the small bird flying from it.” And he naïvely adds: “Neither Mr. Rae nor I noticed such an occurrence, nor did I obtain a confirmation of it from the personal observation of any of the gentlemen resident in the country, but it is generally affirmed by the Indians.”
In the fall Lapland longspurs are inconspicuous and sparrow-like, especially the females and young, but in the latter part of the winter and spring the male acquires a jet black bib, by the simple process of wearing off the gray veiling tips of the feathers. This can be shown by a series of specimens extending from the fall to the spring, and it is no more wonderful than the process which any one may watch in our city streets — in fact it is exactly similar. The adult male English sparrow in the fall has a gray shirt-front with scarcely a suspicion of the black bib or shield that forms his chief adornment in the spring. It is present, however, but concealed by the veil which gradually wears away and reveals his charms. Not only is the black shield revealed in the English sparrow by this process of wear, but the black and chestnut markings on the back and neck become more distinct, while the white of the sides of the throat and abdomen becomes whiter. How few there are who have any idea of these changes in the common English sparrow, yet they are constantly going on before our eyes!
The call notes of the longspur are very similar to those of the snow bunting, except that they are slightly sibilant, and that a hoarse rattle or chirr replaces the pleasing trill of the bunting.
The last and most interesting of this group of winter birds is the Ipswich sparrow, a bird rarely found outside of sand dune regions. Breeding on Sable Island off Nova Scotia, it spreads along the coast in winter from Nova Scotia to Georgia, wherever sand dunes are found. Its relationship to the Savannah sparrow is interesting and is discussed in the last chapter of this book.
On December 4, 1868, Mr. C. J. Maynard shot at Ipswich one of these birds. It was at first thought by Professor Baird to be the rare Baird’s sparrow, but in 1870, after two more specimens had been taken, the fact was discovered that this was a bird entirely new to science. Mr. Maynard called it the large barren-ground sparrow, but the name Ipswich sparrow has always clung to it, and the former name has been forgotten. As soon as the bird had been pointed out by Mr. Maynard, ornithologists began to discover it all along the sandy coasts. It is common at Ipswich during November and December, very rare during January and February, but not uncommon during the latter part of March and the first part of April. My extreme dates are October 11th and April 12th.
It is natural that ornithologists, after discovering the winter haunts, should wish to know the breeding home of this bird. The presence in the National Museum at Washington of a series of eggs from Sable Island, Nova Scotia, labelled “Savannah sparrow,” but somewhat larger than the eggs of that bird, strongly suggested the possibility that they might belong to the nearly related but larger Ipswich sparrow. To settle this point, Dr. Jonathan Dwight, Jr., made an ornithological pilgrimage to this island in May, 1894, and discovered the Ipswich sparrow breeding there in numbers. Indeed the bird has never been found breeding anywhere else, although diligent search has been made.
The first descriptions of the Ipswich sparrow stated that it was very wild, that it rose at a considerable distance, flew wildly and far and at once concealed itself on alighting, so that collectors were obliged to shoot the bird on the wing. This method of pursuit was not very favorable for observation. I must confess that my first Ipswich sparrow was found and shot in this mariner, but I very soon learned that if treated properly the bird could be studied at close range. In fact I have often watched them within a few yards for long periods of time, and have therefore been able to note every peculiarity. The beach, where the view is unobstructed by grass, is the best place for the study of Ipswich sparrows. It is moreover one of their favorite resorts, as they are fond of the small flies that abound on the seaweed and thatch thrown up there.
Ipswich sparrows very rarely hop; they almost invariably walk or run. In walking the head and shoulders move back and forth in a charmingly dove-like manner, while in running the head is held low and the bird disappears behind a clump of grass or a dune in exceedingly quick time. As a catcher of torpid flies in the sea-wrack they are fairly expert, and they occasionally jump into the air after their game, usually without success, however, as far as I have observed. Like many other sparrows they occasionally scratch for food, and they do it in such a vigorous manner that they fairly make the litter fly. This sparrow-scratching is done in a different manner from the scratching of barn-yard fowls. The latter scratch with one foot and then the other alternately, while sparrows jump forward and scratch with both feet together, as if they were on springs. Why they do not fall forward on their heads, I never could understand.
The call note of the Ipswich sparrow is a sharp tsip, to my ears exactly like that of the Savannah sparrow. They rarely sing while with us, but Dr. Dwight says the song on their breeding grounds is like that of the Savannah sparrow but “more polished and tuneful.” I have been so fortunate as to hear the Ipswich sparrow sing once on an April day at Ipswich, but unfortunately the song was rather imperfect, certainly not a “polished” one. Birds rarely sing their best away from their breeding grounds.
In appearance the Ipswich sparrow resembles its cousin, the Savannah sparrow, but is larger and is protectively colored for a sandy habitat. One does not realize how gray or sandy-colored it is until one is so fortunate as to come across it in the marsh. The contrast with the color of the background then emphasizes the true color of the bird so that it seems almost white.