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BEYOND the scene of the little parula drama, farther into the woods, was a remainder of the ancient forest which had somehow escaped the axe, — a group of tall, battered old spruces reaching far up towards the sky, with no branches until near the top, and no undergrowth whatever.
As you approach this wood through the old road, birds scatter hurriedly across the open as if all must get safely home before you reach them, making you feel yourself a monster intruding upon their sacred solitude. As you go on you hear low whispered notes of warning that hardly break the silence, but proclaim as well as a shout that you are discovered and everybody on guard. You shall see but a fluttering leaf, a flitting wing, or a swaying twig, and you know the woods are peopled with the witching folk named warblers, and that you are under surveillance from all sides.
The old grove was to me a
daily joy. When I parted the thick branches at the entrance and passed in, it
impressed me like a grand cathedral. The floor was carpeted with the rich brown
of fallen needles, and the whole shut in by the trees on the borders retaining
their branches down to the ground, in addition to the thick screen of greenery with
which Mother Nature loves to hedge in her groves. Within that magic inclosure
all the lower branches had dropped off, and only those at the top where they
reached the sunlight lived, and formed a roof. It was a great temple with
For true enjoyment of the woods — as already said — silence and solitude are indispensable. You steal in, just within the green walls, quietly, disturbing nothing, taking a seat in reverent silence and remaining so. In a few moments life goes on as before, and you begin to feel the spirit of the woods. A certain awe creeps over you: you could not break the silence with your voice; you dread to snap a twig, or make the human presence felt in any way. You feel that you could sit there forever but for this pampered human body which in spite of all the philosophy you can muster, in spite of Emerson's comforting verse, —
which you know is true, — will resent the onslaughts of mosquitoes and ants, rebel at an uncomfortable seat, and insists upon some unattainable thing for its ease. So that after a few hours only you are forced to drag yourself away from your Elysium and return to human dwellings. If one could only free oneself from these imperative demands of the flesh, what bliss, what inspiration one might find with Nature in her woods alone.
Here and there the fresh
green curtains of the grove appear to open into lanes of alluring promise,
showing vistas which might lead to any wonderland. It was through one of these
as through a familiar highway that the cuckoo on wings of silence took his way,
It seemed that one had simply to follow the bird to reach his hidden home. But alas! what is beautiful and every way delightful to him with wings, is far different to the humble plodder on foot. Pitfalls strew the path; fallen branches, deep holes where once a tree had stood, and rocks that thrust themselves into the way, make it impossible.
It was like the wily warblers to select such a bit of woods for their haunts. The sun touching every prominent point with light, confuses things so that one could not see them if there were forty warblers right before him, and anyway it is no trouble for a bird to hide when one leaf is ample screen.
One year this grove and the woods about was the scene of a remarkable visitation of butterflies. They were nearly all of one species, the common large reddish one called the Monarch, or tawny-orange butterfly, I believe. When it was still, the air was simply full of them, silent, mysterious, wafted along by the light summer air without apparent effort of their own, like tiny boats with gay sails spread, floating in the air. But every day about half-past ten a stronger breeze sprang up, and in a few minutes the whole fleet had disappeared, not a butterfly to be seen. In the old grove they had taken refuge, and there they collected by thousands, settling themselves as if to sleep, in crowds, close together. They appeared to have a choice in situations. Some branches were entirely covered, while others next to them were empty.
One small tree was a particular favorite with the butterflies, being literally hidden by the masses, while more kept trying to join them. As soon as a party of them were settled they folded their wings together over the back, showing only the dull lining, but when another straggler attempted to alight among them, all the wings flew wide open, showing the brighter colors, and looking as if the tree had suddenly burst into bloom.
The most pleasing study offered by the old grove was of two flycatchers, and while warbler notes and warbler forms are filling the air, it is a wonderful relief to turn to birds who will not go into mad panics, or flit before your eyes like a vision, but will stand calmly while you turn your glass on them and take a good look.
Near the house I had seen the alder or Traill's flycatcher, and noted his call in the hoarse tone of the familiar phoebe, and delivered in the same way, yet sufficiently unlike to make one wish to see the author. His repose of manner made him a welcome change from the restless warblers. He would sometimes remain in sight for hours without seeming to tire or to want food.
The song came at first from a group of alders, and there I saw the bird, a small, trim, darkly-clad figure, on a shrub or low tree, sitting upright, flycatcher fashion, uttering his song with military precision, and staring at me with the imperturbable calmness characteristic of the family. Later he took to the tall trees, and through July I learned to know him well, for he was one of our most common visitors.
I enjoyed him especially in that old grove, where, my seat being particularly well concealed, I was much nearer to him. I soon found out that he, no more than other birds, is confined to the conventional utterance by which he is known. He was most voluble and interesting, being unaware that he was under observation and at the mercy of a reporter. His common, official song, which voiced itself to me as "red-dy," he jerked out with apparent difficulty, as his relative, the least flycatcher, does his well-known "chebec," throwing his head back as if he would snap it off.
He often sang this common song an hour at a time. But again he added another two-syllable clause much lower in tone, and of a musical quality entirely lacking to the loud, hoarse "red-dy." This second part sounded like "per-ry." It was so different in tone and manner that it seemed like the note of another bird, and until I saw him utter it I was not sure it was his.
The continued song of the alder flycatcher was most attractive. He generally opened with a loud, strident "whee-o!" several times repeated, as if to compel the attention of his audience. Then, after treating the world to his well-known call, and later adding the second clause, he would take a lower tone and utter a plaintive "qu! qu! qu! qu-eu!" suggestive of trouble or anxiety, and from that go on through his repertoire. He was extremely versatile, indulging in many other and different notes, some of which can neither be described, nor imitated by the human voice, and nearly all in an undertone. These he would deliver in a variety of ways, and thus make peculiar, even droll combinations, which he appeared to enjoy exceedingly, keeping it up an hour at a time.
The nest of this bird is interesting. One lies before me now. It is made of fine spruce twigs containing bunches of usnea, and inside of fine grasses and a very few horsehairs. It is placed, most curiously, not on the half-inch spruce branch under it, but on a dense mass of dead twigs spreading in close network in every direction, which hold it at least an inch above the branch, making a charming airy foundation for the structure.
The books say the alder flycatcher stays in the alders. In the first of the season the one I watched did so, and I think the nest was there, but later he sang most often from the top of the firs. He was a fair-weather bird, — this individual, I mean, for he, no more than others, is a facsimile of his tribe. This individual flycatcher, then, never sang in rain or high wind, nor even in an ocean fog. Sometimes I would not hear or see him for two days.
The other flycatcher of the old grove — the olive-sided — was more shy. He would utter his "quick! see-here!" from the top spire of the tallest "pointed fir" in the group, an hour at a time, and care not how many saw and heard him, but before he indulged in his many lower, quaint, and conversational notes he must be sure no one was in sight. I heard him from my sheltered seat at the entrance to the grove, and when out of my range of vision. I knew him from the frequent interpolation of the conventional call, by which he proclaimed his identity — his passport, one may say.
He uttered various notes and calls, some warlike, some tender, some almost a squeal, some even mournful, nearly all eccentric. Very curious was a sort of murmur, like "m-m-m," which seemed to be a greeting to another, beginning very low, then swelling till quite loud, and again diminishing.
One evening when I was sitting on the piazza of the cottage, an olive-sided flycatcher flew over the house singing at the top of his voice, "see-here! tu! tu!" and repeating it rapidly, which was a marked departure from his usual dignity.
The flycatchers that I know have always a great deal of dignity and tranquillity of manner. They never show the flightiness of a warbler, nor the restlessness of a swallow. Some of them will sit hour after hour, upright, darting after an insect occasionally, it is true, but always in a business-like way that does not seem to detract from their appearance of perfect leisure. Some of them are rather autocratic in their claims to a neighborhood, but they make up for it by their willingness to earn the place by vigilant care of it, and besides, who has a better right?
One flycatcher was absent here, and I did not regret him, for he is very much in evidence almost everywhere, and is an autocrat wherever found. This is the least flycatcher, and when I hear his jerky "chebec," I know I shall see few other birds.
A pair of kingbirds had a nest in the orchard, and that I am always glad to see, for I have high respect for the kingbird. His manners are reserved and show common sense. He does not go into foolish panics, nor consider it his business to dictate to the neighborhood, as does the robin, for example. He also has sense to discriminate between one with evil intentions and a harmless gazer at the nest. In all my study of kingbirds' nests I have never met with discourtesy from one.
With the advent of August came a change over the old grove. First sounded the toy-trumpet squeak of the red-breasted nuthatch, advance guard of the migrants, and if very near and very attentive, one might hear his queer little whining or squeaky whispering to his fellows, as he scrambled over the trees, searching under as well as over twigs, and hanging head down most of the time.
Warbler baby-cries abounded, but their elders had fallen to silence. On entering the grove I could sometimes see that the tree-tops were full of flitting wings, but not a sound floated down to me. Not only were the birds putting off their old garments, and putting on the new, they were also giving the final touches to the education of the young, —
" Teaching sky science and wings' delight," —
and all the time preparing, — preparing for the great event of the Autumn migration.