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"Airs, vernal airs,
Breathing the smell of field and grove, attune
The trembling leaves."
THE success of the naturalist depends far less upon his area of observation than would be commonly supposed. Here he looks is of less importance than how he looks, and the experienced eye will often glean a rich harvest from apparently most unpromising fields. One's range of research is usually determined by circumstances rather than by preference; and in either case unfamiliar surroundings will, in a measure, distract his attention from the objects he is immediately seeking, while increasing familiarity with the place leaves the mind freer for its work, and gives quicker discernment of all the treasures hidden within it, until at last it may prove a very prolific field of investigation. It will rarely occur, however, that one will come to have such confidence in its boundless re sources as to feel that complacent admiration which Thoreau cherished for his favorite haunts, of whom it is recorded that on one occasion he returned "Kane's Arctic Voyages" to a friend of whom he had borrowed the book, with the comfortable remark that "most of the phenomena noted therein might be observed in Concord" (!).
And so poorly do even the best-trained visual organs often serve the observer, that, whereas we commonly suppose it necessary to see an object in order to know it, it is quite as often the case that we must first know it in order to see it. This is strikingly illustrated in the case of that same remarkably keen observer, Thoreau, who, nevertheless, made the confession that it repeatedly befell him that, after receiving from a distance a rare plant, he would presently find the same in his own haunts.
Every fourth bird one sees at this season is a robin. Poor fellow, he fails to get such admiring looks as those that greeted him a few weeks ago. He was a hero in March; but times have changed. Every dog has his day, and so has every bird; and now in May our old friend has lost a little of his prestige. Yet he can well forgive the world's little inconstancy, for it will inevitably come back to its old-time regard, after the bewilderment of the spring migration. For a season one's special admiration may be aroused by the gayer plumage and more brilliant song of other species; but the world is not so fickle at heart as it seems; for I very much doubt if there are many persons who would willingly take any one of these captivating novelties in permanent exchange for honest old robin. He occupies a niche in our enduring, if less demonstrative, regard, from which he need never fear he will be routed by rivals. Spring would be indeed almost a failure without him; and on a cloudy day in the lonely woods the sound of his cheerful warble is as refreshing as a cool breeze in August.
A somewhat rare and a very elegant warbler, which I had never before seen, made its appearance on the first day of May, called the "hooded" warbler. It is seldom found farther north than this latitude; and as no species is likely to be numerous on the boundaries of its range, we must be content with seeing it only occasionally. As far as I know only one mature male specimen has been seen hereabouts this year. He has a bright yellow head, throat, and breast, and is apparently enveloped in a broad jet black hood. The combination and richness of the coloring produce a far more striking and beautiful effect than one would infer from the language of the description. My view of him was most satisfactory, as he was remarkably fearless in allowing one to approach him. A peculiarity of this bird is its constantly spreading the tail (not flirting it, like the red-poll), and the action was the more noticeable on account of the large white spots on the quills. After lingering about for a few days he disappeared, and afterward I found a female, or else an immature male, in which the hood was much restricted — hardly more than the outline of black. If there is anything shabby or deficient in the attire of a specimen, it is usually safe in spring to relegate it to the female persuasion, although in many cases the young males are condemned to wear the mean habiliments of the female until they have gained their glorious prerogatives. Commonly the young male comes out in full plumage the second year; but in a few cases, of which I think the hooded warbler is one, not until the third year.
The catbirds are becoming numerous, and at the Pond a large waterfowl attracted my attention, passing in graceful flight across the water. To get a nearer view of the stranger I went around the Pond, but was grieved to find that there was a radical difference of opinion between him and myself as to the desirability of both of us being on the same side of the water at once, as he immediately withdrew to the opposite shore. This, however, gave me an opportunity to note the greenish shade of the back and the yellowish legs dangling behind; and, on approaching him cautiously the second time, I could see the brownish color of neck and breast. Thinking that the acquaintance had now gone quite too far, he took wing and disappeared entirely, but leaving behind his name, if not his address, for it was evidently the green heron. Inferior to the night heron, as that is to the more beautiful and stately great blue and great white herons, they are all alike in the sadly reminiscent, melancholy air that characterizes them in all their attitudes. The heron is the impersonation of gloom, silence, and solitude. Loneliness can only be expressed by sentient life. A deeper sense of desolation is aroused by seeing a water-fowl coursing in solitary flight above the sea, than in the grandest vision of the boundless deep, when unrelieved by even the least appearance of vitality. Like the night heron, the green heron winters in the south, and in summer is widely spread over the United States and beyond, living in secluded places near the water.
Another bird hovering about the water, which the casual observer would suppose could be reckoned among the water-fowl with much the same propriety as the herons (a classification which I suppose is forbidden by their interior anatomy, or perhaps by the length of the hind toe) is the belted kingfisher. This bird is fully a foot long, blue above, white beneath, with a bluish band across the breast. It is a familiar sight throughout the whole of North America in summer, frequenting rivers, lakes, and ponds, from which it obtains its food, which is chiefly small fish, for the capture of which it will sometimes plunge fully under water. Ungainly in appearance when perching, it retrieves its reputation by a graceful and rapid manner of flight.
The confused character of the present system of grouping birds is nowhere exhibited more strikingly than in the relegation of kingfishers, along with humming-birds, night hawks, cuckoos, woodpeckers, and chimney swallows, to an Order called Picariæ, "established," as one authority states it, "to receive those birds which do not belong elsewhere"(!). This is certainly a masterly device for the perplexed scientist, but rather severe on the birds that must be thus huddled together in enforced relationship, as a penalty for the shortcomings of "science falsely so called." And as for ourselves, inasmuch as we enjoy an individual just as well for not knowing his relatives (and sometimes a good deal better) we will try to forget that the humming-bird is cousin-in-law to the night hawk and the woodpecker, and admire the exquisite form, motion, and coloring of the tiny creature unprejudiced by its scientific affinities.
Nature is uniformly dignified in her works and ways, and yet she leaves a trace here and there of a humorous mood not incompatible with her repute. There is a sly touch of drollery in the appearance of the golden-crowned warbler or oven-bird, which must always elicit an amused smile from anyone who watches its movements, — an interesting specimen from any point of view. Almost invariably it is to be found on the ground, dodging out of sight as you approach it, its somewhat erect tail giving it a jaunty air, while with a mincing dignity that is ludicrous in so small a bird it deliberately walks about, but withal as innocent of any assumption as a child. The song also is striking, indeed literally so, for the notes come like a succession of little explosions, quite startling when. in close proximity to the bird. As in the case of most of the warblers, its vocalization can scarcely be dignified by the name of song, being the reiteration of a pair of notes on almost the same pitch, but louder and louder, which has been aptly compared to the reiteration of teacher, TEACHER, TEACHER. The coloring, too, in the spring, is elegant if not brilliant, being of a rich shade of olive above, and beneath white with dark spots, and the head ornamented with orange and black stripes. It is one of the largest of the warblers (fully six inches long), and was formerly classed with the thrushes, looking like a dwarfed species of that family. The name of oven-bird is due to the form of its nest, which is placed on the ground and built over, resembling a rude oven.
Everyone who attempts to describe a bird's plumage realizes how inadequate language is to convey a just idea of the richness and peculiar beauty of nature's living tints. Even in a stuffed specimen the delicate shade has often so faded out that the species is almost unrecognizable so far as the color is concerned; and perhaps, after all, the bare verbal description, infused with the imagination of the reader, is the best substitute for the living colors.
On the same day that the oven-bird walked in, another warbler appeared — the redstart, and also the great crested flycatcher, the largest of that family in this region. Female ruby-crowned kinglets, minus the ruby flame, are abundant, and sandpipers are scudding about. The white-throated sparrows on the eve of departure for their summer home are now looking their prettiest, for the black, white, and yellow decorations of the head are of the purest shade. It seems a little incongruous to find so handsome a head on so plain a body, very much like the combination of a stylish bonnet and a coarse gown. They are now very numerous, and their "peabody" song is to be heard everywhere; but the snow-birds and red-polls have almost entirely disappeared, their places being taken by the quantities of yellow-rumps, whose characteristic note sounds from every bush and tree.
Skimming over the Lake, one can often see a bevy of barn swallows apparently in the playful chase of "cross-tag," but having an eye also on the morsels of food scattered on the water and dexterously seized in their flight. This species is easily distinguished from all the others by the peculiar tail, of which the outermost feathers are very much the longest. Sometimes mingled with them are the bank swallows, not steel-blue above, like the barn swallows, but dull brown. None of the swallows have a song, but their feelings effervesce in lively clinking notes that are not unmusical. They are in less need of a song than most other birds, for they can work off their feelings through their dashing and tireless flight.
If one were asked to explain in a word the essential fascination of bird-study, he would probably say it is largely comprised in a bird's intensity of life. Even its song finds half the essence of its charm in this. It is manifested not only in its restlessness as it darts from twig to twig, and from tree to tree, not only in its rushing and bewildering flights, coursing hither and thither, or dropping like the eagle and hawk with almost inconceivable rapidity from a dizzy height to the ground, not only in its rapturous song in which it seems to "pour forth its soul in harmony," but even in its quieter moments, as you detect its quick breathing, the keen, nervous glance of the eye, or its agony of fear. This intensity of life is a thousand-fold more potent than brilliant coloring in eliciting man's sympathetic regard, and is the source of almost all of its human analogies.
A bird apparently finds itself unable to sing when in actual contact with the ground. It seems difficult to explain the fact. Perhaps, just as the earth is the great conductor of electricity, so it similarly draws off the musical current or fluid, and the bird must needs insulate itself by mounting a little distance, however slight, in order to accumulate its musical energy. And only in rare instances do they sing on the wing, the most notable exception being the European skylark, which is the ideal of an ecstatic songster in pouring forth his melody as he mounts to an almost invisible height, and shedding still a radiance of sound
— the paragon of all the poets. Our own bobolink also overflows in a half-intoxicated song as he rollicks in the air, and occasionally one hears the strain of the oriole as he dashes through the trees. But commonly when flying one hears from them only the call-note, perhaps several times repeated. Among the commonest sounds in the country in late summer are the clusters of notes from the goldfinch (not its warble) in its wavy flight far overhead, one cluster in each undulation, and — to be precise — synchronizing with its wing-vibrations, which occur in the last or rising half of each wave.
That one's heartiest admiration of a bird is rooted in something else than the physical charm of rich color is conclusively shown in the case of the scarlet tanager — without exception the most gorgeously apparelled specimen that ever appears in this latitude. Even the bright tint of the cardinal grosbeak looks like a pale wash in comparison with the intense scarlet that covers the entire body of the tanager, which in the direct sunlight glows with dazzling brilliancy, the effect relieved and yet heightened by the jet-black wings and tail. And as I saw it perched upon the branch of an evergreen, the effect, as a mere composition of color, was strikingly beautiful. But further observation will modify your estimate. His beauty proves to be only feather-deep. He has no virility. From his listless manner one would suppose the exertion of migration to be altogether too much for him, and you cannot help wondering, as he indolently hops about, how he will ever get back south again. He is another instance of the handsome face that means nothing. The plainest bird in the Park is a better entertainer than he. Said to be an indifferent singer, and only a clumsy architect in nest-building, it was a merciful Providence that gave him beauty, for it gave him nothing else, and a well-stuffed specimen would be quite as satisfactory, were it not that the finest quality of every color passes away with the life. It is a touch of tropical luxuriance that is startling, seeming almost out of place in this colder, paler zone, but inwardly he is soft, fluffy, and indolent; and here endeth the lesson of the scarlet tanager. 1
The tanager family is a large and brilliant one, and distinctively American. There are in all over three hundred species, most of them in tropical America, with only five species throughout all North America.
Many of the flycatchers are so extremely alike that it is hardly more than a theoretical satisfaction to identify them; but I think I have made the partial acquaintance of what is named the least flycatcher, less than six inches long, in dull olive and dingy white, at first quite silent, and afterward uttering an unmusical sound like se-wic, two or three times over. An air of poetic gloom invests a flycatcher, as it sits silent, meditative, and alone, as different from the mood of a warbler as shadow is from sunlight.
One afternoon an unfamiliar warbler, and regarded as one of the handsomest, came across my path, nimbly darting in and out among the bushes, and daintily pecking at the newly opening leaves. Its various colors of black, yellow, white, and ash are laid on in a peculiarly bold and effective manner, and from having seen a "dried specimen" I knew it at once to be the magnolia warbler. As I have watched it from day to day, hardly any of the family have given me so much pleasure as this. Nervous and restless like all its kin, it seems more fearless than many of them, and this is an attractive feature in any specimen; possibly because we consider its confidence an indirect compliment to ourselves.
On the Island high in a tree I discovered one day a large and unknown specimen. For four days and four nights I cherished the delusion that it was a bittern — a slightly vulgar and questionable member of the heron family. Not that this was anything to be particularly boastful about, but it was at least something fresh, and like other people I sometimes like to make new acquaintances, even if I drop them. I had a faint misgiving, however, that I was in error, and consulted his remains in the Museum. Every ornithologist will sympathize with me in my mortification when I found that it was no bittern, but only an immature night heron! Of all the mistakes one can make in this pursuit, the most humiliating is that of reckoning some half-grown wretch as a new species.
Among some blossoms that kindly open before the leaves are out, appeared, on the 5th of the month, the first humming-bird — the most exquisite gem in all the galaxy. An admirable creation from almost every point of view — as delicate as the cobweb that can cause its death, of such emotional intensity that even terror alone may quench its life, of ethereal mould and resplendent color, this tropical atom is, notwithstanding, lion-hearted to attack even a man in defence of its nest. Valor and grace ne'er found a more unique companionship. And what a great little traveller the humming-bird is, darting like an electric spark from torrid climes far up into the arctic regions with each returning spring, and back in the fall — the merest mote in the vast blue expanse. What would not any of us give for the opportunity of such a voyage as the birds make twice a year, and in such a novel, exhilarating, and thoroughly comfortable fashion? No time-tables, no tickets, no baggage. What a panorama of mountains, lakes, rivers, plains, and cities spread out beneath the view in such an excursion through Labrador, Canada, the New England, Middle, and Southern States, Mexico, Central America, and far into the tropics. But the birds do not look at the matter in just this light, for they travel nights and rest in the daytime. Another instance of failing to appreciate one's peculiar privileges, and exciting the indignant envy of the less favored but more worthy. What a pity that such a chance as the birds have should be literally thrown to the winds. This is only another aspect of the mystery involved in the child's question, "Why do all the small families live in large houses, and the large families in small houses?" — an inquiry having a wider reach than the questioner ever imagined.
The family of humming-birds is a large one of fully four hundred species, found all over America from Patagonia to Alaska. The centre of abundance is in tropical America, while in entire North America there are said to be only fifteen species as yet discovered; and of these only one, the ruby-throated, that occurs in the Eastern States. Of this species it is the male that has the fiery breast, and after watching this gleaming quintessence of life and brilliancy one would fain turn his thoughts away and let the memory fade, before he looks for other birds.
Among all the glorious company of the warblers, it is really a relief from the satiety of color occasionally to meet one that, to change the figure, is not so highly spiced; and for a restful effect in pure white, blue, and black, nothing could be finer than the "black-throated blue," as chaste and elegant as one could imagine, and with ample compensation for its colder tones in its grace of pose and motion. It seems perfectly silent, and I have never heard its note; but its more showy cousin, the "blue yellow-back," is giving a taste of its vocalization, and a delicious little warble it is.
May's panorama is a constantly shifting scene. Each day discloses new-comers, while the earlier ones gradually diminish and silently disappear. In one's experience of warbler-life, perhaps he touches high-water mark when he sees for the first time a perfect specimen of the Blackburnian warbler. To avoid the appearance of exaggeration I must refrain from adequately expressing the surprise and amazement elicited by this glowing coal 'of fire. My first view of one in full blaze was on the 6th of the month, as it was running about over the open ground, where it remained a long time only a few feet distant. It might properly be named the conflagration warbler. Called, prosily enough, from its discoverer, Blackburn, the name is saved to poetry by the significant play upon words; for while a part of the plumage is black as coal, the crown, sides of face, throat, and breast are of a most vivid flame-color — a most astonishing combination of orange, black, and white, and arranged in such abrupt juxtaposition that, in seeing it for the first time one will unquestionably pronounce it the most glorious of the warblers. Its own color ought to suffice to keep it comfortable in the arctic zone.
Along the water-courses, commonly on the ground, and often wading in the shallows, one will see at this season a little creature that reminds him of the sandpiper in its teetering motions and aqueous proclivities, and of a thrush in its olive-brown back and spotted white breast, yet it proves to be another warbler, of the same genus as the oven-bird already referred to; called, however, by reason of its coloring and habits, the water-thrush or water-wagtail. They are to be seen here only on their way north. Deep in the forests of northern New England, and beyond, they find their home along the banks of the streams, rendering their seclusion most delightful by their song, which is described as being "loud, clear, and exquisitely sweet, beginning with a burst of melody which becomes softer and more delicate until the last note dies away, lost in the ripple of the stream, above which the birds are generally perched."
Among the rarer discoveries in the Ramble was that of the golden-winged warbler, which one morning led me, not into forbidden paths, but on to forbidden grass. Believing this to be an emergency wherein the law would be more honored in the breach than in the observance, I looked neither to the right hand nor to the left, trusting, and not in vain, that kind fortune would preserve me from constabulary interference. At its best estate it is only an indifferent singer, but it made a full display of its physical charms — the top of the head and large patches on the wings of rich yellow, with bluish back, jet-black throat, and a black stripe on the side of the face, bordered with white — a brilliant creature as it fluttered hither and thither, either for ecstasy or for insects.
After such daintiness what could look more ignoble than the dirty and detestable English sparrows? Imported from Europe to wage a certain local and vermicular warfare, in the estimation of competent judges the remedy has proved infinitely worse than the malady. Of more than doubtful utility, but with unparalleled fecundity and audacity, like some contagious disease they are spreading over the country, to the disgust of all who know their worthless, impudent, and quarrelsome nature. Clumsy, pugnacious, coarse-looking and coarser-voiced, ever washing and never clean, making a vulgar show of refinement by inveterately wiping their mouths — which ceases to be a virtue when it becomes a habit — unutterably common in thought and deed, discredited alike on economic and æsthetic grounds, what can possibly be the mission of these, the vilest of the race?
No bird name is more familiar than that of the "wren," a familiarity which doubtless is largely due to the prevalence and popularity of the wren in England, where it has received the affectionate personification of "Jenny Wren." With us the wrens are among the least known of the birds, on account of their extreme shyness, diminutiveness, and plain coloring, besides the fact that one of the most important species — the winter wren — summers in the far north. Their chief excellence is their song, which is remarkably vivacious and powerful, but quite indescribable from its rapidity and intricacy.
The two principal species are the "winter" and the "house" wren, and I occasionally found a specimen of the latter during the month. They are exceedingly alike, the plumage being "wren-brown," with a distinctly wavy effect. The two species are respectively about four and five inches in length, the difference largely due to the extent of the tail, which in the winter wren is comically short, and standing quite erect gives the little creature a peculiarly pert and saucy air, which seemed to Shakespeare so salient a feature when he alluded to
There is an electric suddenness in the motion of a wren which makes you suspect the identity of the bird before you clearly see it — almost literally "as quick as a flash." It is a specimen of highly concentrated nervous energy, bottled almost to bursting, explosively relieved in action and song — a bit of champagne with wings. The winter wren is the more northern species, the house wren the more southern, although there is no propriety in designating the latter as a house wren, as it is no more inclined to domestication than the other.
A migration-wave in the second week brought the yellow-throated vireos, the chestnut-sided warblers (male and female), another thrush — the olive-backed — the blue-winged yellow warbler, and the indigo-bird. By the middle of the month our constant winter friends, the white-throated sparrows, had become a thing of the past, as also the snow-birds; the hermit thrush, too, had gone north, but in a sense the wood thrush took its place, and has now begun to sing — the queen of song for the remainder of the season. The superabundant yellow-rumps have slipped away until hardly one is left. For the past week there has been hardly anything but females to be seen of this species, and they suffer as painfully as any of their kind from the general law compelling the gentler sex to be the dull and bleached-out specimens that they are. In favor of this ruling of Providence it must be confessed that their more neutral tints, in making them less conspicuous, are a safeguard from many dangers; and this, especially in the nesting season, conduces materially to the perpetuation of the class. But the arrangement reverses some of the notions of propriety that obtain in the human race, and makes perfect dudes of some of the males.
Lest any reader
should weary of the
repeated allusions to the warblers, it is well for him to be assured
that there is no such monotony in discovering them. With all their
resemblances to each other they are in so many ways distinct, that
each new discovery in this family is as pleasurable a surprise
as if it belonged to some other group. So that one is hardly aware,
until his attention is called to the fact, that about a
third of all the
song-birds he is likely to see are warblers.
The genus to which the elegant "hooded" warbler belongs contains two other species that deserve a word of mention — the black-capped "flycatcher" (or Wilson's flycatcher) and the Canada "flycatcher" — as truly warblers as the others, but called flycatchers because so much addicted to seizing insects on the wing. These two made more impression on my own mind because, being in the same genus and coming at the same time, I took quite a dislike to the "black-cap," and an equal fancy to the other. There is something in the appearance of the "Wilson" that seems malign, and every time I saw it there was the same faint suggestion of repulsiveness. No other bird has given me any such impression. If any other person has had the same feeling he will understand it; if not, no amount of argument could make it seem otherwise than utterly whimsical. Certainly its coloring seems innocent enough — olive above, yellow beneath, and top of the head black. I would do him no injustice, but I suspect there is something questionable about him.
But one of the most delightful warblers in every way is the "Canada." First, its form is noticeable, being unusually slender and graceful, and the coloring rich and peculiar — ashen blue above, bright yellow beneath, with the throat encircled by a black cord, fringed below with black spots, looking like a broad necklace of jet suspended from the neck. Its song, too, is luscious and vivacious, and quite distinct from all other warbler-music. (It is chiefly the male sex that parades the necklace.)
I am glad to speak in such unqualified praise of the Canada flycatcher, for the next specimen candor compels me slightly to disparage, having the same "just-out-of-the-band-box" appearance that is noticeable in a stuffed specimen of the species. This is the yellow-breasted chat, so extremely spick and span as to produce the impression that there is little below the surface. Those who know the bird better will doubtless resent this imputation, for its manoeuvrings and vocalization are said to be quite original; but there is something very sleek and expressionless in its dress and manner during migration. Above, it is bright olive-green, throat and breast rich yellow, and it is about seven inches long. Science is in doubt where to put the chat, and pending the determination of its status it is regarded as a warbler.
The next two species introduce us to another family — the vireo or greenlet family, peculiar to America, where there are about sixty well-defined species, although North America contains only sixteen of them. They are small insectivorous birds, much like the warblers in general habits, and the grounds of their special grouping do not appeal to the field ornithologist. The name is suggested from the prevailing greenish-olive tint, at least of the upper side of the bird, the lower side being white, or shaded with olive or yellow. Plainly colored as a class, the bright song of several of the species makes them quite as attractive as many of the warblers. I cannot forbear to quote the appreciative words of Mr. Elliott Coues in his "Key to North American Birds," in reference to this family. He says, "Next after the warblers the greenlets are the most delightful of our forest birds, though their charms address the ear and not the eye. Clad in simple tints that harmonize with the verdure, these gentle songsters warble their lays unseen, while the foliage itself seems stirred to music. In the quaint and curious ditty of the white-eye — in the earnest, voluble strain of the red-eye — in the tender secret that the warbling vireo confides in whispers to the passing breeze — he is insensible who does not hear the echo of thoughts he never clothes in words."
The two that arrived at this time were the red-eyed and the warbling vireos, the two most abundant and most popular species
At this time I noted the arrival of one of the more famous finch songsters. In one of my walks I caught sight of a large bird (comparatively, for my eyes had been full of warblers during the preceding days), characterized by unusual black and white markings. With difficulty I followed it through the trees, and as it perched and graciously turned toward me, I saw a large crimson patch on the breast, beautiful of itself, and doubly so to me as the mark of a bird I had never been able to see before, but of great reputation — the rose-breasted grosbeak, one of the handsomest and most musical of the family. It was in its mature and richest plumage, and as it hopped from branch to branch, feeding upon the pendant catkins, it kept up a continuous warble, which might be described as the combination of the songs of a rich-voiced robin and of the goldfinch. Some writer has said that it is always a red-letter day to the ornithologist when he discovers a new species, and it is eminently so when his discovery is so notable a specimen as the rose-breasted grosbeak. This is one of the exceptional instances of rare vocal accomplishments combined with great beauty. It remained so long at the place, that at last I really wished it would go away, feeling that it would be wrong for me to forego the opportunity of watching it as long as it remained. Not being gregarious they are less likely to be found than many other species. The female dresses plainly, and is remarkably silent, all things considered.
Two more warblers —
yellow, and the Nashville — here only for a few days, and without
special characteristics that were observable, are to be added to
the list; and at this time also the pewee made his first lament of
the season; the red-eyed vireo, too, began singing, while over the
Lake, day after day, were coursing a flock of chimney swifts
(not swallows at all, say the books). Of the fifty species of swifts
found in the temperate and warmer parts of the world, only four are
in North America. They are well named "swifts," as they are
not surpassed and are rarely equalled, by any other birds in
their powers of flight, sometimes covering a thousand miles in
twenty-four hours, and never resting, it is said, except in their
roosting-places (chimneys or hollow trees), where they do not perch,
but cling to the walls, partially supported by their stiff tail. In
flight they can be distinguished from the true swallows by the
apparent absence of a tail, it being extremely short. They live upon
such insectsas are to be caught
on the wing, and
one might infer that they had contracted their sooty-brown color
by contact with chimneys for several generations, until it became
The last great "wave" of the season came on the 22d, bringing only a single new species — the bay-breasted warbler; but for a time the woods were full of the Canada, black-poll, Blackburnian, magnolia, Wilson, black-throated green, summer-yellow, Maryland yellow-throat, wagtail, redstart, and black-and-white creeping warblers.
Of the twenty-four warblers that I found in the Ramble this spring, more than a passing word is due to the "chestnut-sided," as it is very prettily and curiously marked with chestnut, yellow, white, and black — the chestnut conspicuous on each side of the breast, and the yellow on the top of the head. It became very abundant, and I occasionally heard its music, which, if it be its full song, is hardly distinguishable from the vigorous note of the redstart. It often happens that the migrants are not heard in full song while on their travels, so that one who meets them only during that period is unable to judge adequately of their vocal power.
The altitude of the "chestnut-sided" from the ground is greater than that of most of the warblers, being often found among the topmost branches of tall trees, like the yellow-rumps suggesting the remark that in the case of most birds it is quite as necessary to know the markings on the under side of the body as those on the back, as they are habitually found higher than one's head. In general the characteristic marks are on the head (top and side), throat, and breast.
The knowledge one can gain of any bird during May is necessarily meagre, as all the facts pertaining to nidification, and very often an acquaintance with their songs, must be gathered at another time. But during the month one can obtain in the Ramble — and in all other favorable localities — at least an intelligent and very interesting introduction to more than sixty species, representing many types of land birds, and some of the water fowl, which will serve as the basis of further study under other circumstances, and perhaps in widely remote places.
1 My previous impression of this bird was afterward both confirmed and a little modified on hearing its song, which is a weary warble, but rich and full-toned.