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ON FAIR CASCO BAY
ON the outer edge of that beautiful bay, lying broadside to the sea, is a long narrow island, not yet much known of the world, but beloved above all by the few who have fallen under its spell. On it is to be found by those who know that rare thing in our busy, bustling world, a quiet corner, a real retreat.
This delightful spot is at the far end of the island, beyond the fisherman's village with its store and post-office, beyond the "Row" standing bare and bleak on the ocean front, beyond the Bathing Cove and the Sunset Rock and the Giant's Staircase and the other regulation show places. The main part of the island is given up to summer cottages, to varied structures of wood and paint, to tennis-courts and bicycle-paths, and the thousand and one things needed by "summer people" to pass away the season.
But hills and distance and lack of attractions had at the time of my study kept every echo of the outside world from the wooded portion, where, close beside the spruces, nestles a solitary, old-fashioned cottage.
Little of the dust of man's coming and going reached that spot. On the only road a half-worn path in the grass horse or vehicle seldom appeared. Days passed without sight of a person, and the woods were almost as deserted as if there were not a soul on the island.
The earnest student who desires to get into close sympathy with the birds and their world, to enter into their lives, to understand them, and be able to interpret them to others, must know how to be happy away from people. Nature will not reveal herself to a crowd. It will cost him the single-hearted devotion of a life. He must be alert day and night, with ears tuned to every bird-note, and eyes always awake to every rustling leaf or flitting shadow. It will cost sometimes the good will of people, who will set him (or more especially her) down as unsocial, not to say eccentric.
Particularly well fitted
for this beautiful work is one naturally gifted with a love of solitude, who
can say with the immortal Hosea
"Theres times when Im unsocial as a stone
And sort o' suffocate to be alone."
Not that he need lead a hermit's life, but he should be contented to spend hours or days, or still better, weeks, entirely absorbed in the little lives he is striving to understand.
I reached this haven of
rest one year at the beginning of June, and settled myself in the comfortable
old homestead where dwelt only the owner and his wife. For one whole month at
least I could count upon idyllic days in exactly the sort of solitude I craved,
Nature, birds, freedom from people,
yet with the comforts of a home about me.
"And here, like roses to the sun,
My bright days opened one by one."
My way to the woods was through the orchard, then in the full glory of blossoms. I always passed that fragrant entrance to the world of spruces as unobtrusively as possible, to avoid arousing the interest or awakening the suspicion of the robin or song-sparrow to be found there, for either of these dear, troublesome birds can spoil the study of a whole day. Let him once take it into his obstinate little head that one is too much interested in the ways of birds, and therefore, from his point of view, dangerous, and he never tires of proclaiming the fact with loud insistent voice to whom it may concern. All birds understand and hasten to conceal themselves, while carefully keeping the suspected under observation. It is hopeless to try to tire out a robin who has set out to mob one, for one bird will relieve another at the work, and to reduce them to silence would be to exhaust the whole robin population.
Swiftly and silently, then, from the orchard I entered what might, from its prevailing inhabitants, be called a Redstart Nook. It was a spot perhaps one hundred feet square, filled with old spruces surrounded by the rising generation, making ready to take their places in the world. The ground was fairly covered with young trees, from infants of two or three inches with top twig already pointed straight up the way it intended to go, to the tall old patriarch far above one's head. Here were little groups of a dozen or more, not one two feet high, and many of them still wearing their yellow baby-caps, though the twigs were several inches long; there a squad of older ones like a party of school-children, and so on through the different sizes up to the aged and infirm, black and ragged, and heavily draped with long gray moss. Two or three, indeed, had lost their hold on Mother Earth and in some winter storm had bowed before the blast, and now lay prone among their young descendants. There were dozens ready to take their places, and if man does not interfere, there is no danger that the spruce family will die out in that place.
The grove was carpeted with its own dead leaves, through which had pushed their way little clumps of bunchberry with innocent white faces turned up to the sky, more delicate star-flowers, and the Canada mayflower, with shining green leaves and torch-like bloom, while just outside in the sunlight were little patches of white violets.
This was the home of those bewitching, elusive, fascinating fellow creatures, the warblers, who make the life of the bird-student at the same time an ecstasy and a despair.
In all the years that I have known birds I have carefully avoided becoming interested in these bewildering atoms, so tantalizing to study. But here, without intention on my part, fate had ushered me into their native haunts. "He strives in vain who strives with fate." After one protest I succumbed to their charms.
The first who attracted my attention was a beauty, like most of his remarkable family, having a bright yellow head, set off by broad black bands beginning at the throat and running far down the sides, and he bore the awkward and undeserved name "black-throated green warbler." A charming and famous singer is this midget in black and gold who
"Trills a wild and wondrous note,
The sweetest sound that ever stirred
A warbler's throat."
And not only the sweetest, but the most unique, and, what is not generally known, the most varied. The song that has been oftenest noticed, and is considered characteristic of the species, is sometimes syllabled as "Trees, trees, beautiful trees," sometimes as "Hear me, Saint Theresa "; but in my intimate acquaintance with some of the family in this nook alone, I have noted down eight distinctly different melodies. One special little neighbor who spent hours every day in a particular old spruce, sang the regulation song of his tribe, but he also indulged in at least one other totally unlike that. These two I have heard and seen him sing, one directly after the other, but he may have had half a dozen arrangements of his sweet notes. Moreover, though the song of this bird may be deliberate and drawled out in an aristocratic way, he is himself just as jerky and restless and plebeian in manner as any of them, he has not a shadow of repose.
Sometimes the mate as I suppose of my bird, whom I soon learned to recognize, appeared on the family tree, going over the branches in a business-like way, and the only note I heard from her was a loud, sharp "chip."
In warbler-land one soon learns when a rapidly moving line crosses his vision to follow it instantly, in the hope that it will materialize on the next tree in the shape of a bird. The usual mode of progression in this remarkable family is a series of flashes in the air, streaks across the landscape, and one must be very alert to see even so much as that. Ordinarily the first intimation of the presence of a new warbler is a new song, a baffling, elusive strain that cannot be placed, that the eager student knows will end abruptly, perhaps before he can see the rustle of a leaf or the sway of a twig. Sometimes he will be so happy as to turn his eyes at once upon the little creature bustling about among the leaves and twigs, and if his lucky star is in the ascendant he may be able to note some conspicuous feature by which the midget may be identified. For happily warblers are so strikingly marked that one can recognize at a glance the brilliant orange of the Blackburnian's throat, the eccentric yellow patches of the myrtle, or the showy necklace of the Canadian. If they were in the dull dress of vireos, or the undecided mixture of sparrow garb, one could never "name the bird without a gun," and that would put them forever beyond the acquaintance of a bird-lover.
One morning I sat in the nook, admiring, as many times before, the beautiful effects of light and shade among the spruces, made by the slanting beams of the sun, not yet very high, when suddenly there broke out in the old spruce before me a great clatter of "ticket! ticket!" in the voice of the nest. I snatched my glass and turned it at once upon a much excited warbler, my black-throated green. He was hopping about in a way unusual even with him, and from every side came the thread-like cries, while the swaying of twigs pointed out a whole family of little folk, scrambling about in warbler fashion, and vociferously calling, like bigger bird-babies, for food. They were evidently just out of the nest, and then I studied my spruce-tree bird in a new rτle, the father of a family.
He was charming in that as in every other, and he was plainly a "good provider," for I often saw him after that day, going about in great anxiety, looking here and there and everywhere, while a small green worm in the beak told plainly enough it was his wandering offspring he sought. Under the pressure of family cares, and harassed by the incessant cries of the youngsters, he remained, I was pleased to see, the same sweet-tempered darling, and whenever there came a lull in his hard work, he poured out his cheery song as enchantingly as ever.
During the remainder of the month I frequently saw and more frequently heard the little family as they followed their busy parents around on neighboring trees. One day I noted the singer flitting about the top of the spruce, singing most joyously, and almost as constantly as before the advent of the nestlings, while the mother was hurrying over the lower branches of the same tree collecting food for one infant. Suddenly the song ceased, and almost instantly the tiny papa joined the family below, and addressed himself with his usual energy to the business of filling that greedy mouth. Over and under and around and between and through the branches he rushed, every few seconds returning to stuff a morsel into the always hungry mouth, till he actually reduced that bantling to silence, and then he slipped away, returned to his tree-top, and resumed his lovely "tee-tee-twe-e-e-tum."
Somewhat later I heard the young black-throats at their practice, droll, quavering little attempts to imitate the musical, incisive song of their father. They soon mastered the notes, but the spirit was as yet far beyond them.
Other baby-cries were all about, for these were hungry days. Juncoes in their light brown suits and delicate spotted bibs, and chickadees in the dress of their elders shouted and called from the old spruce, and always over all "the gossip of swallows filled the air," barn-swallow babies with their squeaky calls, tree-swallows with their louder two-note cries, and the parents of both species teaching, encouraging, and feeding on the wing, preparing their little families for the long journey so soon to be taken.
This happy life went on till almost at the end of July a heavy fog swept in one evening from the ocean, and when the next day a cool north wind blew it away, it seemed to take the whole tribe of warblers with it. No more did the black-throat appear on the spruce, gone were the bustling and scrambling little ones, and ended the sweet beguiling songs.
A new set was heard in the nook, the rapid chitter of the downy woodpecker, the whispers of cedar-birds, the rattle of the grasshopper who goes clacking about as if his internal machinery were out of order, and lastly, alas! the ear-piercing song of the locust, which proclaimed in tones no one could mistake that August was on the threshold.