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At one a. m. a whip-poor-will began his loud night-song. He always sings as if he were wound up, and in a great hurry to finish his song before the mechanism runs down. Later, in the darkness, we heard the drumming like distant thunder of the ruffed grouse. One of our party claims that on this mountain the grouse always drum at four-thirty in the morning; and his stock as an accurate ornithologist went above par when we examined our watches and found that it was just half-past four. As the darkness turned to the dusk of dawn, the first day-song was the beautiful minor strain of the white-throated sparrow. “O Canada, Canada, Canada,” he fluted. Then came a snatch of the wheezing strain of the song sparrow. Finally, sweetest of all, sounded two or three tantalizing notes of the hermit thrush, pure, single, prolonged notes of wonderful sweetness, followed by two arpeggio chords.
We were up and out before sunrise; for he who would find rare nests must look for them while the birds are laying or brooding. Four hours distant, back in Philadelphia, summer had come. Here the trees showed the green tracery of early spring, and the apple trees were still in blossom, while everywhere the woods were white with the long pure snow-petals of the shadblow. Some day we four are going to follow Spring north, bird’s-nesting all the way, until within the Arctic Circle we find her in mid-July.
To-day the first nest discovered was that of the junco, or slate-colored snowbird, whose jingling little song and the flutter of whose white skirts were everywhere throughout the woods. This one was close to the camp, hollowed out of the side of a bank of pine-needles, and held four white eggs sparsely spotted with reddish-brown. The little mother-bird chipped frantically, with a clicking note which the Architect said always made him think that she carried pebbles in her throat.
There were trillions of trilliums, as the Artist remarked epigrammatically. Some were the common trilliums, of a dark garnet-red. Besides these we found many of the rarer painted trilliums – a pure white triangle with a stained crimson reversed triangle in the centre. All of the trilliums are studies in triangles. The painted trillium has the crimson triangle in the centre, set on the white triangle made up of three petals which, in their turn, are fixed in a reversed triangle of green sepals, and the whole blossom is set in a still larger triangle made up of three green leaves. Everywhere the woods were full of purple-pink rhodora, the earliest of the azaleas. Its blossoms were silver flecked with deeper-colored spots.
The next nest found was to me the most eventful one of the day, although not an especially rare one on that mountain. The Architect was walking beside one of the strange hummocks which are thought to have been formed by buried tree-trunks in the path of some old-time cyclone. Suddenly his eye was caught by the gleam of four sky-blue eggs shining like turquoises from a nest directly on the ground, lined neatly with red-brown pine-needles and with dry dark green moss on the outside, the hall-mark of the nest of the hermit thrush.In front of it was a cushion of partridge-berry vines, with their green leaves and red berries, while blueberry fronds, covered with tender green leaves, arched over the nest, and sprays of ground-pine sheltered its sides. It was a fitting home for the beautiful twilight singer. The eggs of a hermit thrush actually seem to gleam from the ground, unlike the mottled and speckled and clouded eggs of most ground-nesters.
As the sun came up, the whole mountain-side rang with bird-songs. There was the abrupt strain of the magnolia warbler, who to my ears says, “Wheedle, wheedle, whee-chee.” The black-and-white warbler sang like a tiny, creaking wheel, as he ran up and down tree-trunks. Down in the meadows beyond the lake, the long-tailed brown thrasher said, “Hello, hello! Come over here, come over here. There he goes, there he goes. Whoa, whoa, ha-ha, ha-ha.” If you do not believe my reading of his song, listen the next time one sings to you, and see if these are not his exact words. Overhead we often heard the squeal of the red-shouldered hawk, sounding almost like the cry of the blue jay. Then there was the loud yet gentle warble of the purple finch; and once we saw a beautiful rose-red male and his gray-brown wife feeding each other on a limb like a pair of lovebirds. Another song which was interesting to me, because almost new, was that of the solitary or blue-headed vireo, who sang, “See, see me-e. See me, you! you!” His whole song is in couplets. The Artist said that my rendering was too imaginative, and that what the bird really said was “Che-wee – che-woo, che-wee – chu, chu,” which perhaps is more accurate.
THE RED-SHOULDERED HAWK
Through appalling swamps and tangled thickets of rhododendron we were led by the Banker, who had highly resolved not to return without a sight of the golden-crowned kinglet’s nest. Once we came to a large spruce in which had been cut, in the living wood, great square holes like those in bar-posts. On one side we counted five, on another three, while on the opposite side were no less than ten, with a new one on the top cut right into the solid heart-wood. It was a feeding-tree of the great pileated woodpecker of the North, a magnificent black and white bird with a scarlet crest, nearly the size of a crow. All that morning we searched in vain for the kinglet’s nest. Only as we came back to the cabin at noon for lunch, were our hopes raised.
As we walked down the trail, not a hundred yards from the cabin-entrance, in a spruce tree, the Banker spied a great hanging nest made of wool and lined with feathers, from the top of which flew the only golden-crowned kinglet which we saw that day, with the orange patch on the top of his tiny head edged with black and yellow. The nest was empty, but the Banker felt that he had made the great discovery of his life and discoursed learnedly on the industry of this tiny bird, which could find and carry such a
mass of wool and build a nest at least a hundred times larger than itself. It was not until a month later that he was reluctantly convinced that what he had found was the nest of a deer-mouse.
That afternoon we skirted the little lake and saw, not forty feet above us, a bald eagle flying down toward us with its snowy neck and pure white tail. He flew with four or five quick flaps, and then would soar. In the distance we saw another eagle pursued by a scurrilous cawing crow. The eagle flew over to the shore, and alighted and drank, and then, standing on the edge of the water, seemed to be fishing. His pursuer also alighted just behind him, and walked close up. Every time the eagle would turn, the crow would scuttle off, like some little blackguard boy following and reviling one of his elders. Several times the crow flew over the head of the eagle and tried to gain courage enough to make a dab at him. Through it all the king of birds paid absolutely no attention to his tormentor. The comparison of the crow with the eagle gave some idea of the size of the latter. He seemed over three times as large as the crow.
It was the Banker again, on the other side of the lake, who made the next discovery. We were hunting a little apart through the woods, when he announced from where he stood that he had just caught a glimpse of a Brewster’s warbler. For the benefit of other bird-students who are in my class, let me write what I learned that day in regard to said bird. A Brewster’s warbler is the rare hybrid between the golden-winged warbler and the blue-winged warbler, more closely resembling the golden-winged. When it takes after the blue-winged, it is called the Lawrence warbler. This specimen we studied feather by feather for over half an hour at short range, and the experts of the party pronounced it beyond peradventure a Brewster’s warbler, – a bird not seen often in a lifetime. It was solid blue on the back, pearly white underneath, and showed white tail-feathers, together with a greenish-yellow patch on the very crown of its head. It had two broad yellow wing-bars, one large and the other small, and its white throat, innocent of any black mark, was the field-mark by which it could be told from either of its parents or from its half-brother the Lawrence.
It was the Artist who made the last discovery of the day. Near the crest of the mountain, he gave a piercing cry and announced that he had discovered an Indian cobra. We all hastened to his rescue, and saw a fearsome sight. Coiled in front of him, hissed and struck a bloated, swollen snake, with flattened head and up-turned snout. It was none other than the American puff-adder, which ought to be called the bluff adder since, in spite of its threats, it is never known to bite, and is really a harmless and gentle snake.
The last thing the writer can remember of that trip was hearing, as he fell asleep, the Architect tell the Banker of the time he found two loon’s eggs, which a man had discovered on the top of a muskrat’s house and put under one of his hens to hatch.
The next day we were back in Philadelphia and summer again, with a list of seventy-six different kinds of birds identified on the trip and a total of ten nests found.
A few days later I went bird’s-nesting with another friend in the very heart of the city of Camden. Through the manufacturing district a sluggish creek winds its way past factory after factory. There, under a clump of golden-rod leaves, he showed me the nest of a spotted sandpiper, made of reeds lined with grass, containing four eggs – dark-brown eggs, spotted at the larger end with chocolate marks, and coming to a sharp point at the other end. Later on, I found another nest in the middle of a mass of horse-tail. Then, in the very centre of a base-ball diamond, not far from second base, on the naked ground, he showed me a killdeer’s nest – a hollow scraped in the gravel, with four eggs which so matched the stones that they had escaped the notice of the players all around them. On the bank of the creek we found song sparrows’ nests, and out in a patch of marsh, on the very last tussock, the dried-grass nest of a swamp sparrow, which was much thicker than the song sparrow’s, while the four eggs were of a marbled warm brown and white.
Then we pushed on, still in the city limits, until we came to an old quarry-bed half-filled with water, which had turned into a noisome bit of marshland. Pushing a rickety raft out through the muck and water-reeds of the stagnant water, my friend showed me, on a clump of pickerel weed on a sunken stick, a nest of twigs on which was sitting a strange bird. Its long sharp beak pointed straight skyward. Its back was a combination of shades of soft reddish-browns, while its breast was reddish-brown streaked with white. The most curious things about it were its eyes. They were almost all pupil, with a bright golden ring around the extreme edge, and stared at us unwinkingly like a great snake. Although we came close up, the bird absolutely refused to leave her nest, and stabbed viciously at a stick which I poked out toward her. Finally, not daring to trust my hand within reach of that stabbing yellow beak, I lifted her up bodily with the long stick, enough to show five whitish-blue eggs rounded at each end. It was the rare nest and eggs of the least bittern, a bird a little over a foot long, which has a strange habit of clutching with its claws the stalks of reeds and walking up them like a monkey. As we left, amid the clicking notes of the cricket-frogs and the boom of the bull-frogs we heard a very low “Cluck, cluck, cluck.” It was the least bittern singing the only song she knew, in celebration of the fact that she still had her eggs safe.
MRS. KILDEER AT HER NEST
The Architect and myself decided to travel once again, later in the season, to the mountain, in the hope that we might make a better nesting record. We reached the cabin on June 17th, and again found ourselves back in spring. The peepers were still calling, and there were wild lilies-of-the-valley in the woods, and pink rose-hearted twin-flowers, with their scent of heliotrope. Everywhere grew the
dwarf cornel, or bunch-berry, with its four white petals – the smallest of the dogwoods, which grows only a few inches high.
The first nest was found by me. It was built on a foundation of tiny twigs in a bush, and had a two-story effect, the upper story being made of fine grass. As I came near the bush, a magnificent chestnut-sided warbler, with the bay patches on his sides and his yellow crown, made such an outcry that I suspected the nest and finally found it. There were three eggs in it and one tiny young bird, smaller than a bumblebee. Everywhere grew the beautiful northern azalea, of a clear pink with a perfume like sandal-wood. The Canadian warbler, with its black necklace on its yellow breast, sang everywhere a song which sounded like, “Ea-sy, ea-sy, you, you”; and we heard also the orange-throated Blackburnian warbler’s wiry, thin notes.
Near the top of the mountain are two sphagnum bogs, difficult to find, but the home of many a rare bird. We finally located the larger of these bogs, and there the Artist made the great discovery of the day. Right out from underneath his foot, as he splashed through the wet moss, flew a yellow-bellied flycatcher, which gives a note like the wood-pewee and whose nest had been found only once before in the state of Pennsylvania. Right in front of him, hidden in the deep moss, was this long-sought nest. It was set deep in club-moss and lined with white pine-needles, and contained four pinkish-white eggs with an aureole around the larger end, with light rufous markings. It was so overshadowed with wintergreen leaves and aronia and bunch-berries that, even after the Artist had pointed out the place to me, it was with very great difficulty that I found it.
As we crossed the marsh, I heard the song of the olive-backed thrush, which sounds to me like a cross between the notes of the wood thrush and the strange harp-chords of the veery or Wilson thrush. In another part of the bog sang the rare Nashville warbler, whose nest we have yet to find. Its song starts like the creak of the black-and-white warbler and ends like a chipping sparrow. In a marsh beyond the sphagnum bog, I found the nest of a Maryland yellowthroat, set in a yellow viburnum shrub some six inches from the ground. This nest is usually on the ground. It was set just as a gem is set in a ring, the setting consisting of leaves which come up into five or six points. Held by the points is a little cup of grass. The eggs were the most beautiful we saw that day – of a pinkish-white with a wreath of chestnut blotches around the larger end. On the farther side of the marsh, a white-throated sparrow flew out from in front of me; and after a long search I found its nest – a little moss-rimmed cup of gray-green, yellow grass, containing four eggs of a faint blue clouded with chestnut, which was massed in large blotches at the larger end. With the four eggs was a dumpy young cow-bird, that fatal changeling which is the death of so many little birds. In this case we saved four prospective white-throated sparrows from being starved to death by their ugly foster-brother. The white-throat is a dear, gentle, little bird. Even its alarm-notes are soft, instead of being harsh and disagreeable like those of most other sparrows.
The next day I found a song sparrow’s nest and a catbird’s nest, and then in the midst of dark, cool woods, where an icy brown trout-brook ran through a mass of rhododendron, a thrush suddenly slipped away ahead of me out of a clump of rhododendron bushes. The light color of the bird and the lighter spotted breast marked it as a veery or Wilson thrush. On looking at the bush, I saw the nest, a rough one made of hemlock twigs matted together, and lined with pine-needles with a basis of leaves. Inside were four small eggs of a heavenly blue. They are among the smallest of all of our pure-blue eggs.
That same day the Artist found a beautiful nest of a black-throated-blue warbler, also set in a rhododendron bush. The nest was made of the light inner bark of the rhododendron, which was of a bright yellow. Inside, it was lined with black and tan rootlets so fine that they look almost like horse-hair. These are the same rootlets which the magnolia warbler uses to line its nest, and up to the present time no ornithologist whom I have met has been able to identify them.
“Can you go to Maryland to-day on a bird-trip?” telephoned the Banker.
“No,” said I, “lawyers have to work for a living.”
“There’ll be blue-gray gnatcatchers and mocking-birds and Acadian flycatchers,” he tried again.
“No,” said I.
“I’ve found out where the prothonotary warbler lives,” he said once more.
“No,” said I.
“We may find its nest,” he continued. “No one up here has seen one for years.”
“No,” said I firmly. “What time does the train start?”
Sunset found me Somewhere in Maryland. I was squeezed into a buggy built for one, along with the Miller, at whose house we were intending to stop, and the Banker, who is constructed on flowing, generous lines. We drove creakingly through miles and miles of blossoming peach orchards. At the Miller’s house we ate the worst supper that money could buy. The Miller’s wife had evidently been born a bad cook, and by careful practice had become worse. It was over at last, and the Banker and I retired to a room under the rafters which contained one window and a mountainous bed. The rest of the space was taken up by mosquitoes. I undressed, jumped into the bed, and sank out of sight. The Banker located me by my muffled cries for help, and pulled me to the surface just in time to save my life. Thereafter we molded a conical crater in that feather-bed and carefully fitted ourselves in, leaving a large air-hole at the top.
It was a hot night. The mosquitoes bit steadily, and the feather-bed was like a furnace seven times heated. All night long a whip-poor-will called his name under our window over three million times. The Banker said he counted the notes. Finally, after hours and hours of agony, I fell into a troubled sleep and was instantly awakened by the Banker, who said it was time to get up. We breakfasted on what remained of the corpse of the supper of the night before, which we found on the table. A few moments later I was morosely moving an alleged boat through the mists of the morass.
Without further alliteration, let me chronicle what paid for all the toil, hardships and privations of the trip. It was the sight of a bird of burnished gold flashing through the curling mists. “Tweet, tweet, tweet,” he called ringingly as he flew. The note reminded me somewhat of the loud song of the Kentucky warbler, and the Banker, of the note of the solitary sandpiper. Every now and then we caught tantalizing glimpses of this warbler, which never by any chance stands still, but flits here and there among the trees over the water. From the trees I constantly heard squeaking notes, apparently of young birds. They sounded everywhere, and I decided that the whole marsh must be full of nests. The Banker laughed at my ignorance and told me that this was the note of the blue-gray gnatcatchers – “like a mouse with a toothache,” as Chapman describes it. With great difficulty I caught a glimpse of the tiny bird here and there among the tree-tops, and saw the two long feathers of its tail, and had a glimpse of the gray and white of its plumage. Some weeks before, the Banker had found down there one of its rare and beautiful nests, like a large hummingbird’s nest, lined with down and thatched on the outside with lichens, and fastened to a high bough.
That day I found the first nest of the prothonotary warbler. This bird uses deserted woodpeckers’ nests in dead trees set in marshes, so it was necessary to paddle around to every dead tree which showed a hole. I finally saw a little red-birch stub sticking up in the corner of the marsh, and rowing over to it, noticed a small hole in its side. Picking away the bark, I made it larger and a piece of the fresh green moss, from which the nest of the prothonotary warbler is always built, showed itself. Imbedded in the moss was a vivid orange-yellow feather, which could belong to no other bird. The nest was just built and contained no eggs.
The Banker found the second nest, in a willow-stub ten feet from the ground, in an old downy woodpecker’s nest. He found it by seeing the male bird fly into the hole. Climbing up to the nest, he found that in it were four young birds. Perching on a limb, he sat about four feet from the nest while I was in the boat perhaps ten feet away. The cock-bird flew up with a May-fly, making a soft alarm-note something like that made by a field sparrow, only gentler. He flew up close to where my friend sat and hesitated for a long while. Finally, the hungry little birds inside gave a prolonged squeak, which probably meant, “May-flies immediately!” This was too much for Mr. Prothonotary. With a farewell look at the Banker, he turned his back and dived into the nest, placing himself entirely at the mercy of this giant who was keeping guard over his home. Seven times he did this while we watched, bringing in two beetles, a small wasp, a fly, and three May-flies. The hen-bird would come up time and time again with a fly in her beak, but never could quite muster up courage enough to go into the nest, but absent-mindedly swallowing the fly herself, would go off.
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