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UPON THE WOOD ROAD
THE way to the woods on this Island was by an old road that wound around between the rocks to the top of the ledge, so long unused that it was given over to grass and flowers. Tall feathery meadow-rue peeped out from the bushy growth of alders on one side; white-faced daisies, and buttercups with "tiny polished urns held up," waved over the old wheel-track; while wild roses perfumed the air, and a little farther in,
"Beneath dim aisles,
in odorous beds,
The slight Linnζa hung its twin-born heads."
"An unkempt zone
Where vines and weeds and spruce-trees intertwine,
Safe from the plough."
Thanks to the difficulties with which it was surrounded and the little temptation it offered for clearing, it was absolutely untouched by man, excepting here and there in a more practicable spot, where he had made a small inroad. It was a paradise for birds and bird-lovers, though the latter were obliged to content themselves with what they could see on the edge and by looking in.
Up that delectable path was my morning walk. Along its rugged sides certain approximately level rocks made resting-places on which to pause and look about. The first halt was under a low cedar-tree and in a warbler neighborhood. As soon as I became quiet my ears were assailed by faint notes almost like insect sounds, "pip" or "tic," sometimes whispered "smacks" or squeals, and I watched eagerly for a stirring leaf or a vibrating twig. Many times I was not able, with my best efforts, to see the least movement, for spruce-boughs respond but slightly to the light touch of these tiny creatures. But usually silence and absolute quiet had their reward. Here I saw the magnolia warbler in his gorgeous dress of black and gold, calling an anxious "Davy-Davy! which is it?" and bustling about after a restless youngster the size of a walnut, with the nestling's down still clinging to his head; and more rarely the yellow warbler looking like a brilliant new blossom among the dark old spruces, or dropping like a yellow leaf to the ground.
Into a low tree across the pathway came often the black-and-white creeper, tiptoeing his way up the trunk and uttering his sibilant "ziz-zle, ziz-zle."
On one side appeared once or twice a redstart prancing over the ground in his peculiar "showing-off" manner, and in his brilliant orange and black looking as much out of place in the simplicity of the woods as a fine lady in full dress. This was also the haunt of a myrtle warbler in sombre black and white, quaintly decorated with four patches of bright yellow, and very much concerned about a nest somewhere in that lovely green world.
In this nook I was visited daily by a chickadee family, "droll folk quite innocent of dignity," as Dr. Coues says, who fascinated me with their pretty ways and the many strange utterances of their queer husky voices. At first, on finding an uninvited guest in their quarters, they were very circumspect, and carried on their conversation overhead in the oddest little squeaky tones, not to be heard ten feet away. Once an elderly bird got the floor and gave an address, perhaps pointing out the dangers to be feared from the monster sitting so silent under the cedar. The burden of his talk sounded to me like "chit-it-it-day! day!" but there were varied inflections, and it evidently meant something very serious, for every twitter was hushed, while the discourse was loud, urgent, and snapped out in a way I never thought possible to the
" Merry little fellow
with the cheery little voice."
So long as you do only what you have done every day, though it be to sit within three feet of their nest, most birds accept you as a necessary evil, but if you vary from your usual programme you shall have every bird within sight and hearing excited, calling in warning tones, anxious and angry "phit's," "tut's," and "chack's" on every side.
As the chickadees grew accustomed to my presence they became more demonstrative and voluble, showing me unsuspected capabilities of chickadese. Such squeaks and calls and remarkable notes, such animated discussions, and such irrepressible baby-talk, all in the husky voice of the family, were altogether enchanting. One infant sometimes came alone, talking to himself, and at intervals essaying in a feeble, unsteady manner the "pe-wee" note of his race.
Again I have many times heard curious soliloquies in whispered tones. They could not be called songs, they were more like talk.
On one occasion the head of the family as I suppose flew down toward me, alighted just before my face not two feet away, and looked at me sharply. I spoke to him quietly in attempted imitation of his language, but my little effort at conversation was not a complete success, for after a short, not too civil answer, he flew away.
The crowning delight of my chickadee study was the song to which I was treated one day. A bird was singing when I arrived, so that I stopped short of my seat and listened. The song was so low that it could not be heard unless one were very near, and in a tone so peculiar that I could not believe it came from a chickadee until I saw him. It consisted of the usual utterances differently arranged. There seemed to be, first, a succession of "dee-dee's" followed by a solitary "chick" a third lower, then the same repeated and interrupted by the "pe-wee," but all slurred together and given in tremolo style utterly unlike any chickadee performance I had ever heard. It was most bewitching, and was kept up a long time.
There is some reason to think this bird has unsuspected musical abilities. A friend and long-time bird-student had a chickadee who flew into the house and insisted upon staying, becoming perfectly tame and friendly with the family. One day one of his kind outside the window gave some calls which seemed rather peculiar to the listeners within. Upon hearing them, the bird inside, who was sitting quietly upon a picture-frame, burst into a really wonderful melody, such as the observer had never dreamed a chickadee was capable of. Though not loud, it seemed to fill the room, and not till she watched and saw the throat swell could she be convinced it was the performance of her bird.
Having at last settled myself in my usual place, and while waiting for the next caller to show himself, I had leisure to notice and admire the peculiar character of the woods; for Nature has infinite resources at command, and no two spots are arranged on the same plan. Spruces were most prominent, with birches and maples to soften their severity, lighten their sombreness, and give a needed touch of grace. The mixture was felicitous. The white stems of the birch, "most shy and ladylike of trees," stood out finely against the dark spruces, just then decked with fresh tips to every twig, which gave somehow a rich velvety appearance to the foliage. The picturesque irregularity of the birch-trunks was very noticeable. Hardly one was straight. Some leaned to one side, as if it had been hard to get the delicate branches in between the stiff and angular boughs of the spruces among which they grew; others had turned this way and that, in wavering uncertainty, as if they had been unable to decide which way they would go, till they were full grown, and the indecisions of youth were perpetuated in a crooked trunk.
There was no appearance of indecision, past or present, about the spruces. Each stem stood as straight as a fresh West Point cadet. There was never an instant's doubt in what direction one of those sturdy trees had set its heart. Straight up was the aim of every one, and straight up it went; stern, unbending, self-willed, like some of our own race, with branches at right angles on every side, let neighbors less strong of purpose fare as they could.
The beauties and idiosyncrasies of these woods might be enjoyed at leisure, for they possessed one great advantage over any other I have found east of the Rocky Mountains. Through all this month of July which I spent among them, not a fly showed his impertinent head, and mosquitoes appeared but rarely. When any of the latter did make themselves obvious, they presented their little bills in the most modest manner. They asked so very, very little, and asked it so gently, no one could refuse or resent it. It was darkly whispered by those who in the past had outstayed July, that the whole season was not so blessed; that insect hordes were simply biding their time, and later they would come out in force. But later one need not be here.
Warblers, however bewitching, and I admit their claims, and woods, however suggestive and delightful, could not content me long; for voices were calling from above, voices most potent of all, thrushes. After an hour under the cedar I resumed my stony way up the hill to the edge of an opening where trees had been felled, a "cut-out," as it is called, and there, on a conveniently placed rock, I waited for who might come. One day, as I sat there, a royal guest in rich warm brown and white appeared, alighted on a small tree, and threw up his tail in characteristic fashion; then his eye fell on me, perhaps thirty feet away. I remained motionless while the bird a hermit-thrush took a long and close look at the intruder upon his grounds. Quiet as I might be, it was plain the beautiful creature was not for a moment deceived. He recognized me as one of the race against whom he must be on his guard. He wished to pass on, but panic or even vulgar haste is not in his nature. He stood a few moments, calmly answered a hermit-call from the woods then without hurry flew to the ground, ran lightly along to a rock, on the highest peak of which he paused again, tossed his tail, and looked at me; then on again to the next rock, where he repeated the programme. And so he proceeded, greeting me gracefully from the top of every eminence before he ran on to the next, until he gained the cover of the woods across the open, all in the most dignified way.
This experience seemed to give the bird courage, for the next time he found me in my customary seat he mounted a stump, sang a snatch of his song, ran to a low bush and added a few more notes, came to the ground, where he foraged among the dead leaves a minute, then up again on a bent sapling, bubbling over in joyous notes; and thus he went on singing and eating in the most captivating way, and in apparent indifference to his unobtrusive but delighted spectator on the rock. I was surprised; this bird being one of our greatest singers, I had a feeling that a certain amount of "dress parade" must accompany his performance. Indeed, those of his kind I had seen before had always taken a "position" to sing.
If the hermit-thrush could be persuaded to end his chant with the second clause, he would be unapproachable as a musical performer, as he and his near relations are already in quality of voice. But he seems to be possessed of an unfortunate desire to sing higher than his register, and invariably, so far as I have heard, he persists in this effort, and goes all to pieces on the high note. At least so his song sounds to one listener who finds the heavenly first clauses sadly marred by the closing one.
The most exquisite, and altogether extraordinary exhibition of hermit-thrush possibilities I have heard, strange to say, from a captive. A bird who had flown against a house in the fall migration had been picked up, stunned. He was plainly a young bird of the year, not in the least afraid of people, and he soon became perfectly tame, while he solaced the long hours of idleness with the glorious full song of the species. But the exhibition that captivated my soul was his low undertone notes, so liquid and bubbling in character, so inexpressibly sweet and thrilling, and so evidently out of a joyous heart.
Somewhere on this attractive wood road was hidden an oven-bird's nest which I wanted much to see. I never thought, however, of undertaking the hopeless task of hunting for it; but one day, when I happened upon one of the birds with worms in her mouth, prepared to feed her brood, I was seized with the hope that she would be simple enough to point it out to me, and at once devoted my whole attention to watching her movements. Her tactics were admirable. When she first saw me she stood on a low bush and stared at me, head-feathers erected like a crest, showing plainly the golden crown that gives the name, "golden-crowned warbler," and uttering her curious "smack." In a few minutes she was joined by her mate, also with a mouthful of squirming provisions.
For some time the pair stood still, doubtless waiting for me to pass on; but finding that I did not leave, they grew impatient and began moving about. The female would go to the ground with an air of the greatest caution, run about among the leaves and fallen sticks as if she had important business, every moment glancing at me, till she came to a slight ridge of earth, or a small rock or log, behind which she would straightway vanish. In vain did I watch intently for her to reappear on the other side. No doubt, as soon as she found herself out of my sight she ran like a mouse, keeping the stone or log well between us as a screen. Meanwhile her mate aided her efforts nobly by making himself most conspicuous, fidgeting about on his bush, mounting a stump and singing "teacher! teacher! teacher!" at the top of his voice, as if calling for help, and in every way trying to keep my attention fixed upon him. After a while the other party to the little game would fly up from a point far away from where she had disappeared, with an empty beak and an innocent air of never having dreamed of a nest, and begin to "smack," as when she first discovered me. Then it was her turn to keep me diverted while her mate slipped away. Sometimes they embarrassed me further by separating widely, so that I could not keep my eyes on both. In fact, after some hours given to the beguilements of this brave pair, and much searching among the dead leaves in places they had apparently pointed out, I was obliged to confess myself outwitted by the clever little actors.
"All birds have some traits," says a lifelong bird-student, "that it is impossible to understand."
A friend, a daughter of Maine, who has watched the birds of her state for several years, had an interesting experience with a pair of oven-birds, which she gives me permission to tell.
She was walking in the woods when her eyes always looking for birds fell upon an oven-bird on the ground before her. He was walking jauntily along as if he had nothing particular on his mind, and wonderful to say singing as he went. It was not the ordinary "teacher! teacher!" but a sweet, low song like his charming flight-song, evidently a love strain. On he walked in his dainty way, and on followed his enraptured listener. She had no doubt he was leading her away from his nest, but so long as he sang she did not care what was left behind. Nothing could be more bewitching than the song and his manner, sometimes half concealed by a patch of leaves, again coming out into the sunshine, showing his golden crown.
When at last the bird had flown, and his follower had recovered her senses and returned, she had the unprecedented luck to come upon the mate as she supposes of the beguiling singer. By her demonstrations the nest was easily located by a trained nest-hunter who knew where to look, and visited daily from that time. The mother-bird, though never in a panic, did not enjoy her presence, and had various ways of showing her displeasure. Sometimes she walked around in a circle, of which the nest was the centre; again she flew up to a tree and waited for her visitor to leave; once she tried the well-worn trick of leading an unwelcome guest away, by walking off as if a nest were the last thing she thought of, leading her willing follower a long way from the precious spot before she flew. The nest was a little mound of leaves and grass, to look into which the student was obliged to get on to her knees, and bring her face to a level with the entrance. But she was well repaid, for there was the treasure, the cozy cradle with its three eggs.