Here to return to
BIRDS OF THE SALT MARSHES
“TH’ Eele-murthering Hearne,” or, as Chaucer has it, “the ele’s foo, the heroune,” is perhaps the most characteristic, certainly the most spectacular bird of the salt marshes. There are several different kinds of these hearnes or herons. The smallest, the little green heron, prefers fresh water, yet it is common enough in the marshes, especially on the muddy edges of the creeks at low tide, where the hunting is good. As it stands or walks it may draw in its head until it appears to have no neck, or it may extend it as long as its body. If one has ever blown a blade of grass stretched tightly between the thumbs side by side, one will recognize the voice of this bird, which mimics exactly the music of the grass blade.
The night heron, half as large again as the green heron, is a familiar bird in these regions. Although, as its name would imply, it is largely a bird of the night, yet, when it has insatiable young in the nest clamoring for food, it must needs work by day. Indeed at all seasons it is commonly seen by day, but, when the young shift for themselves, it generally spends the hours of light in slothful ease, dozing in companies on the tops of bushes or trees. At dusk it is all alert, and flies to the beach and the marshes, squawking as it goes. It delights most in the lowest tides, for then it can fish in the pools and meandering streams of the sand flats. As one pushes a canoe along a winding creek in the darkness and silence of the night, there is nothing more startling than the uncanny cries with which these birds suddenly pierce the gloom.
The adult night heron is a handsome bird, with its pearl-gray back and white breast and with its black crown and slender drooping plumes. It is very conspicuous as it stands like a sentry in the green marsh, but on the white sands it is far less noticeable. The most striking pictures made by these birds are to be seen some five miles away in the heronry — the source of supply for the whole region. The parent birds on the tree-tops, in a setting of graceful larch sprays against a clear blue sky, make up a scene which in beauty contrasts strangely with the hideous blackness and nakedness, as well as with the reptile-like actions of the young birds in the nests and on the branches below, and with the filth that assails the eyes and nostrils, and with the discordant cries that rend the air. Perhaps it is no more fair to judge of the family life and customs of night herons from a trip below the trees in which they are nesting, than it would be to judge of the customs of the Parisians by a journey through their sewers. Be this as it may, the noise and the stench of a large heronry remain long in the memory.
The great blue heron is indeed a splendid bird, for it stands more than four feet high, and it is full six feet from tip to tip of its extended wings. Although it formerly bred in these regions, it does not do so now as far as I can discover, yet it may be seen there throughout the summer. It is most common, however, in April and May and after the middle of July. Exceedingly picturesque it is as it stands motionless in the green marsh, or stalks sedately along the edge of a creek, or flaps majestically over the water.
Herons were one of the favorite quarries in the days of falconry, and Hamlet showed his familiarity with this fact, as well as his sanity, in stating that he knew “a hawk from a hernshaw.” It has never been my fortune to see a hawk fly at a heron, but I once saw a common tern attack a great blue heron in a way that brought to mind some of the old hawking pictures. The screaming tern darted at the noble bird from above and behind, as it was winging its course high above the marsh. The heron screamed hoarsely, partly dropped its legs from their extended position behind, and, erecting the feathers on its head in anger, stretched and turned around its long neck in the endeavor to reach its tormentor.
John Shaw wrote in 1635 “that the heron or hernsaw is a large fowle that liveth about waters,” and that “hath a marvellous hatred to the hawk, which hatred is duly returned. When they fight above in the air, they labour both especially for this one thing — that one may ascend and be above the other. Now, if the hawk getteth the upper place, he overthroweth and vanquisheth the heron with a marvellous earnest flight.”
In the spring and early summer one of the most characteristic sounds of the marsh is the booming or pumping of the bittern, a sound that always recalls to me many pleasant memories of a camp in the fresh water marshes of the Ipswich River, where bitterns are more abundant. The curious sound, which seems to come from nowhere in particular, is in reality the love song of the bittern, and it so exactly resembles the working of an old pump that one expects to hear the grateful sound of gushing water. The unk-a-chunk is repeated from three to eight times. At a considerable distance the last syllable only is audible, and this chunk so closely resembles the driving of a stake into a bog that the bird is sometimes called by the country people the “stake-driver.”
On one occasion I was so fortunate as to have a very good view of a bittern engaged in the production of this extraordinary song. By paddling my canoe vigorously while the bird was absorbed in his performance, and by remaining motionless while he was resting, I had eluded observation and had approached within a short distance. This method is similar in plan to that employed in the murderous stalking of the capercaillie. As a preliminary, the bittern opened wide its bill, which it held straight up, and audibly gulped the air six or eight times. Then the “pumping” began, and with each pump the throat was swelled and the head ducked, as if the bird were terribly nauseated, and were endeavoring to rid its stomach of the air. It was not a graceful performance, or one that would seem to be especially attractive to a lady bittern, — but I suppose it was.
Besides this curious song the birds have an interesting courtship display of soft fluffy white feathers which are ordinarily concealed, but which on this occasion are spread conspicuously on each side of the breast while the gallant cock-bird struts before the hen.
Another interesting trait possessed by the bittern is its power of concealment. This is due partly to the streaked brown and pale buff plumage which matches admirably the dead tufts of grass, but chiefly to the motionless and un-bird-like posture, with upward pointing bill, assumed by the bird. It is sometimes almost impossible to point out a bird in this position that one has been fortunate enough to see, to another who has not seen it, so perfect is the protection afforded by the colors and the posture. I once started a bittern from the black-grass region of the marsh on a June day, and soon after realized that four objects that I had supposed were the stakes of a dilapidated gunner’s blind were, in reality, the outstretched necks of four young bitterns. When closely approached they abandoned this method of deception, snapped their bills loudly in anger, erected the feathers of their necks, spread their feeble pin-feathered wings and, emitting faint hissing snarls, sprang defiantly at me. Their deserted nest was near at hand, a thin, flat platform of dry grasses. The assumption of this posture-concealing habit early in life shows its antiquity and long inheritance.
Although I have described the beautiful evolutions of herring gulls as seen from the dunes, they must again be mentioned here, for the marsh in the autumn is a favorite resort for these birds. Then it is that one sees an acre or more of brown marsh become white like snow with these splendid gulls. Suddenly they rise, the snow vanishes as they turn in shadow, again to flash out in a brilliant white cloud high in the air. As they circle about, first one way then another, all calling and talking together, they rise higher and higher, when with a common impulse they descend with great rapidity, circling sharply and tipping their wings from side to side, and the patch of snow reappears in the brown marsh.
At all seasons the herring gulls are fond of feeding in the creeks and estuaries at low tide, and one can often float in a canoe within close range of these wary birds. They are adepts at picking from the surface of the water any edible flotsam and jetsam, and they often do this without wetting a feather, save only the tip of the tail, which they spread and curve downwards to check their course. Occasionally, however, they throw themselves at the water in order to obtain food below the surface, and, on rare occasions, actually disappear for a moment, bobbing up later to swallow their prey.
Although herring gulls often spend the night on the beach, I have sometimes seen them collect on the marsh in the latter part of the evening, as if they were preparing to sleep there. One June day, between five and six o’clock in the afternoon, I counted over nine hundred of these birds slowly winging their way, singly and in small bands to a narrow island of green marsh, where they settled in closely crowded ranks. They were still coming in undiminished numbers when I stopped counting.
A long list could be made of the ducks that have been seen in the salt marshes, but alas, in these degenerate days, most of those on the list are of but rare or accidental occurrence. The early days are long passed when, in the words of William Wood, writing in 1634, “The Duckes of the countrey be very large ones and in great abundance, so is there of Teak likewise; the price of a Ducke is six pence, of a Teale three pence. If I should tell you how some have killed a hundred Geese in a weeke, 50. Duckes at a shot, 40. Teales at another, it may be counted impossible, though nothing more certaine.” The red-breasted merganser or sheldrake is still common enough in winter, and I have already described at some length this interesting bird. The whistler or golden-eye and the black duck are the only others sufficiently common to be included here. The whistler comes from the north early in October and remains with us until the last of April. The drake is a handsome bird, with its iridescent green head, a round white spot below its golden eye and its snowy breast and flanks. The duck is considerably smaller and has a dull brown head. They are shy birds and are always on the lookout for danger, and like the “fearefull Gull” are quick to “shunne the murthering Peece.” As they fly by or overhead they make loud whistling music with their wings, and it is from this that they get their common name.
Their courtship is still more spectacular than that of the sheldrake and would take long to tell. Suffice it to say that the drake bobs his head back so that it rests on the rump, — a most singular and undignified position for a suitor, — that he displays his orange-red legs with a spurt of water, and that he emits an extraordinary double note which is loud and rasping. In fact, he is perfectly irresistible, and the ladies all succumb, and each drake finds a duck.1
At sunset all the whistlers leave the marshes, where they have been feeding during the day, and fly out to sea to spend the night. It would be manifestly unsafe for ducks to sleep on the surface of the narrow creeks, for they would either be carried by the wind or tide against the banks or stranded on the flats, whereas on the surface of the ocean they can rest undisturbed. In the daytime I have noticed that sleeping ducks, with their bills buried in the feathers of the back, head up into the wind, and that they paddle gently so as to keep in the same place. Sometimes, with one leg tucked under a wing, the bird paddles with the other, so that it revolves in a circle.
The black duck has a different outlook on life, for he prefers to feed by night, and when the whistler goes to sleep on the sea, he arises from his daytime slumbers in the same region and repairs to the marshes. These two ducks are the Box and Cox of the marshes. I have seen great flocks of black ducks floating in a long line off the beach in the bright sunlight, most of them fast asleep. They are alert birds, however, and cannot be caught napping, for there are always some on the watch, and even the sleepiest awake from time to time, stretch their wings and yawn, as they look about before settling down for another nap. Occasionally, and especially in stormy weather, one may be fortunate enough to find a great black mass of these birds sleeping on the beach. They present a curious sight, and loud is the roar of their wings as they rise into the air. Unlike the sheldrake, the black duck does not need a run to launch his aeroplane into the air, but has strength of wing enough to rise straight up even in a dead calm. Unlike the sheldrake, also, the black duck is present in the summer as well as the winter, for it breeds in near-by swamps, and visits the salt marshes for food. There are reasons for believing that our summer black duck is a different race from the winter one, which comes from the north and is a larger bird, with a thickly spotted throat, yellow bill and bright red legs.
IN THE UPPER REACHES OF THE CASTLE NECK RIVER
Rails are familiar birds in certain salt marsh regions. Not so at Ipswich, for only during the migrations are they found in these marshes, and then only at rare intervals, for they seem to prefer fresh-water swamps. I have several times found sora rails in the fall there; once I heard what I believed to be a black rail; and once I was treated to a very near view of the rare clapper rail, as he ran crouching along a mud flat and disappeared into the thatch. I quickly landed from my canoe and ran into the grass, when he arose from under my very feet with feeble wings and dangling legs, and flew off a few yards into the marsh. His large size, long curved bill and gray color made his identification certain. The king rail is uncommon but less rare here than the clapper rail, which it resembles closely except that it is of a rich brown color.
Although many shore birds are nearly as much at home on the marsh as on the beach, most of those that are found on the marsh are distinct from the beach-loving birds. The smallest sandpiper of all, the mud-peep or least sandpiper, has the manners and customs of its cousin of the beaches already described. It is a gentle, confiding bird and when it is intently feeding one can almost catch it under one’s hat. From the sand-peep it is distinguished by its slightly smaller size, by its browner back, by its slightly decurved bill and by the greenish-yellow legs. A sand-peep in a flock of these birds of the marsh looks decidedly sandy-colored and out of place.
A larger edition of the least sandpiper, as Ralph Hoffmann has well called it, is the pectoral sandpiper or grass bird, a bird I have never seen outside of salt marshes. Unlike most of the members of the sandpiper family, the male grass bird is larger than the female. It is a bird that at times visits the marshes in numerous flocks, pouring down in great flights from the north in the fall, but in the spring it is not to be seen here, for it goes to its breeding grounds by an inland route. Its note is a rolling whistle like that of the peep, but it also emits a characteristic grating kriek.
A familiar bird of the marshes, and one that visits also the upper regions of the beaches, is the spotted sandpiper or teeter-peep, so named because the adults are spotted and because they all, young and old, have a nervous trick of teetering the body, sending the tail up and down as if it were on springs, and jerking the head and neck in and out. When this is accompanied by short walks back and forth, and by frequent turnings of the body, the effect is almost ludicrous. Their flight with vigorous down-curved wings and alternate scaling, is as characteristic as their teetering and their loud double whistle. In the spring they often repeat their whistle rapidly while they are flying about on quivering wings — a nuptial song and dance, no doubt. They are interesting birds and would doubtless increase if the boy with the gun would leave them alone, for they breed back of beaches and on the islands along the coast.
A near relative of the spotted sandpiper, one that resembles it in many ways, is the solitary sandpiper, frequenter of mud holes in the marsh as far removed as possible from salt water. It teeters, but in a much less exuberant manner than its spotted cousin, and, when it flies, its beautiful tail with white feathers veined with black and its pointed black wings make it easy of recognition. Both spring and fall, on its journeys to and from its breeding place in the north, the solitary sandpiper is to be found in the marsh in small numbers, for it generally lives up to its name and is solitary, although occasionally two or three are seen together. Only within a few years have its eggs been found, and, like the redshanks of England, it lays them in the deserted nest of some other bird in a low tree or bush.
The dowitcher resembles the snipe, but it lacks the robust, almost corpulent form of that bird, for it is decidedly more slender. While the snipe bears the name of English, the dowitcher is for some reason named German, for “dowitcher” is believed to be a corruption of deutsche. Owing to its red breast it is commonly called “red-breasted snipe” or “robin snipe,” while from the color of its back it is also known as “brown-back.” The local names for our shore birds are legion. Gurdon Trumbull, in his “Names and Portraits of Birds which interest Gunners,” gives eleven other names besides those already mentioned. He has also collected as many as twenty-seven names for the black-bellied plover!
GROUP OF BIRDS OF THE MARSH
Boston Society of Natural History
The dowitcher is a confiding bird, and is only too anxious to fly in among the gunner’s decoys, so that it has dwindled ominously in numbers of late years. Fortunately most of the birds go south in July and early August, and as the opening of the shooting season is now delayed until the middle of August, there is still a chance that this charming bird may not be totally exterminated.
Another bird that has been in danger of extinction is the upland plover, which is now protected by law at all seasons. Although, as its name implies, it frequents the uplands, it occasionally alights in the black-grass region of the marsh, and, as it extends its wings straight up over its back and then slowly folds them, it is a beautiful object. After this preliminary it stretches its neck and looks carefully about, for it is extremely cautious and shy, and takes alarm at the least sight of man. In walking, the neck and breast are thrust in and out in a dove-like manner, and the short tail is held parallel with the ground. It is a fast runner and generally manages to get some object between it and the prying man. When it stands still, it nods its head like a nervous hen.
Its call note is a delightful bubbling sound that drops down from the sky as the bird flies over. I have heard it by night as well as by day, and its sweet but mournful character, and a certain strange unbirdliness, make it very interesting. One can only hope that this bird — which, by the way, is a sandpiper and not a “plover” — will some day breed here regularly, as in the days gone by.
Perhaps the most characteristic shore birds of the salt marshes, birds that very rarely wander to the beach, are the yellow-legs, both greater and lesser, or, as they are generally called in these Ipswich regions, “winter” and “summer.”
The lesser or summer yellow-leg is very rare in the spring migration, for it goes north by an inland route, but in the fall it is generally an earlier migrant than the greater, as it is rarely seen after the middle of September, while that bird is generally most common in October, and is, moreover, an abundant spring migrant. Both birds have long yellow legs, long necks and bills and white rumps, but the greater, le grand Chevalier a pieds jaunes of the Acadians, is a third larger than the lesser, and is indeed a fine bird. Both birds have long pointed wings, and they alternately scale and fly with down-curved strokes; both lift their wings high over their backs before folding them on alighting, and both nervously teeter. They peck at their food with sudden thrusts, more in the manner of a plover than a sandpiper, and both have call notes, which, although very similar in the two species, are yet easily distinguished. The alarm notes are a series of loud wheus, deep and in volleys of six or eight in the case of the “winter,” but in less number and higher pitched in the case of the “summer.”
Not infrequently in the spring the marshes are filled with sweet and plaintive whistlings, the love song of the greater yellow-legs. If a man appears on the scene, the tone changes to one of loud alarm, which warns not only their own species of danger, but all other shore birds within hearing. At times they give vent to a prolonged roll, like that of a flicker, but the notes follow each other so slowly it is possible to count them, an impossibility in the case of the flicker. This roll is heard at times in the fall, and is also given, but in a more rapid fashion, by the lesser yellow-legs.
So much for the water birds of the salt marshes; they are a charming group and much more could be said of their delightful ways. There are certain land birds to be mentioned, however, that are equally at home in these regions. Chief and most characteristic of these is the sharp-tailed sparrow, a bird that bears the same relation to salt marshes that marsh wrens do to fresh water marshes. The sharp-tails are difficult birds to find, and are generally an unknown quantity to the casual observer. They conceal their nests in the grass of the higher parts of the marshes, and under windrows of dead thatch. They move about like mice running with head low, and, when flushed, fly concealed, if possible, between the banks of a ditch. On alighting they at once disappear in the grass. However, one can become intimate with them by the exercise of due caution and patience, and they will even sit near at hand on a swaying grass blade and pour forth their song. I have heard the song given fifteen times in a minute by an ardent performer, and I suppose that his lady-love appreciated it. There is no accounting for tastes, as the song of the sharp-tail is a peculiar melody that resembles more closely the hiss of a hot iron in water, or the sinking of the foot into the oozy marsh than it does a song. Near at hand one can hear two short notes that follow immediately after the song. Occasionally the bird is so carried away by the rapture of his passion and music that he mounts in the air with quivering wings to the height of thirty or forty feet and pours forth his soul in rapid repetitions of the song as he drops to earth again. He is frequently unable to fly high enough to unwind his complete repertoire in the descent, for he often continues to sing after he has alighted in the grass.
THE GUNNER’S BLIND AND DECOYS AT THE SLOUGH
The sharp-tail sparrows bring forth two broods of young, which wear a very different dress from their parents, and look in their yellow and buff the exact counterpart of female bobolinks, but much smaller.
Closely related to these birds of our marshes is the Acadian sharp-tail, which breeds farther north, along the northern half of the Maine coast and in New Brunswick and Nova Scotia. It passes through the Ipswich marshes late in May and early in June, and has similar habits and song, but can be distinguished by its slightly larger size and by its buffy and faintly striped breast.
The Savannah sparrow, already described in the chapter on dune birds, is a common frequenter of the marsh and one that breeds in the same situations chosen by the sharp-tail. Its famous cousin, the Ipswich sparrow, very rarely strays marshward, and when it does its gray, sandy-colored plumage is very noticeable.
Besides those already mentioned the list of land birds that visit the salt marshes is like that of the plants, somewhat limited. The marsh hawk, with its long tail and flashing white rump, frequently sails close to the surface, and rarely the short-eared owl may be seen there. The kingfisher — almost a water bird — is often there, and, in the absence of dead trees or of masts of boats, watches for its prey from the marsh bank. The crow and all the swallow tribe are very fond of the salt marshes, while the meadowlark, bobolink, red-winged blackbirds and grackles are as much at home there as in the upland meadows. The kingbird, robin, and song sparrow, the pipit, horned lark and, rarely, the snow bunting and Lapland longspur are also to be found there. I have seen yellow warblers drop down into the black grass from the near-by uplands, and several times in February I have found little flocks of myrtle warblers flitting from pile to pile of thatch where it extended above the ice, hunting for dormant spiders and other insects. Strange surroundings for a member of the delicate tribe of wood warblers!______________________
1 For a full account of the courtship action of this bird and of the eider see “A Labrador Spring,” pp. 84-95.