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WITH THE SEA-LOVERS
THE study of birds when nesting is over and the young are on the wing is very different from that of June. In nesting-time a bird is local in his habits. If one is seen in a certain place to-day, he will probably be seen there to-morrow; the interest and the cares of the nest keep him within limits. But after the young are out, all this is changed. If he is startled to-day, he is apt to remember it to-morrow and avoid that place. Hence a spot that is birdy one day may be quite deserted the next. So, late in the season, it is better to go in a different direction every day, if possible.
It was when summer was on the wane, therefore, that the bird-lover of these chronicles, emulating the wandering birds, enlarged the scope of her studies. Deserting the old grove, she betook herself to the shore, where, seated on its rocks, she could look over toward the coast of Africa, or, as Burroughs felicitously puts it, "stand at the open door of the continent and drink in the breath of the morning of the world."
Here, beside the mysterious great deep, with its wonderful changing moods, presenting a fresh picture every day; with its marvelous silent life beneath the surface, and its winged lovers above; with the delicious freshness of its breath, and the soothing sound of its waves ever beating against the rocks; here, if anywhere, must one yield to Nature's absorbing and inspiring influence.
The daintiest sea-lover to present himself in that Beloved Island on the Coast of Maine is a sandpiper, "uttering his sweet and mournful song." His feeding-place is the shore, and his nest close by, somewhere in the tangle of greenery that comes to the very rocks of the coast. I knew it was there, because the birds made such an outcry when I walked through, flying around my head with pitiful and very unusual cries, "cries to break one's heart," as Celia Thaxter says.
This bird is endeared to all lovers of Mrs. Thaxter by her warm love for him, as well as by his own charming personality; so little and so lonely he looks on the shore of the wide, wide sea.
"Never so tender a cry as his sweet! sweet! is uttered by any bird I know," says the poet. "He has many notes and calls, some colloquial, some business-like, some meditative, and his cry of fear breaks my heart to hear; but this tender call is happy with a fullness of joy that brings a thrill to the heart that listens." Sometimes he prefixes this common call with a long roll, "r-r-r-r-sweet! sweet!" which forms a peculiarly delightful variation.
This bird, probably the spotted sandpiper, aside from the charm of his voice, is one of the most winsome of birds, and graceful in every movement. His use of the wings is particularly expressive. They never seem to be mere means of flitting, like wings in general; they are far more, they almost take the place of speech. By their movements he expresses his emotions, his sentiments, till, in watching him one realizes how much may be said without words, and longs for ability to interpret. On alighting, he holds them far above the head for a moment before carefully folding them down in proper position. Sometimes when singing he keeps them vibrating rapidly, adding wonderfully to the effect upon the listener. Again, he will glide down through the air, holding them almost straight up, forming a sharp-pointed V. To drive away intruders or to meet an enemy he spreads the wings while ruffling up the plumage and making himself as formidable as possible; and in courtship he drags them on the ground. I have once or twice seen one of these birds express some emotion alas, I could only guess what by holding one wing up while looking with clear, calm eyes full in my face, "scanning me with a fearless eye."
The "tipping," which everywhere gives a sandpiper his local name of "tip-up," is not ungraceful. It reminds one of the rocking of a light canoe near the shore as the waves rush by.
There was never a prettier sight than a little flock of sandpipers flying over the edge of the water in zigzag fashion, moving as one bird, as if animated by one will.
Compare with this beautiful movement the flight of a little party of cedar-birds. They go in a loose, straggling flock, each in his own way, without reference to the others, excepting to keep in the same general direction; now one is ahead, now another, some are higher, some lower. It is true this has its own charm, but it is the most careless flight I know, and in comparing the two one will realize how much character is expressed even in flight.
Sandpipers have a curious habit, when they alight on the shore in a flock, of standing a few seconds perfectly still as if turned to stone, then suddenly with one accord beginning to run around for food. Once I caught a young family out with their mother foraging for their supper. They were about half the size of the mother, and she stood perfectly still while the little flock ran about in the liveliest way, catching, or at any rate chasing, insects, with jerky motions like a grasshopper, and never intermitting for a moment the "teter." When the mother wished to go she called, and the obedient little ones at once followed her away.
In another place I watched one of this beautiful family on a river-bank. It was charming to see him flying down the river just above the water, following its windings, now and then springing up into the air with tail spread like a white-tipped fan.
A fascinating thing about a sandpiper is his exquisite repose. One of these birds will stand the stillest the longest of any bird I know. None of the hurry and drive of the human life about him touches this lovely bird of the shore. I have sometimes watched one whom I had seen alight at the edge of the water till my eyes were tired and my arm ached from holding the glass, and I was almost ready to believe he was one of the pebbles he so much resembled, for while he is still he is absolutely invisible. More than half an hour he will stand perfectly motionless, apparently in deep meditation, yet plainly not asleep, for if something that he fancies happens to float by in the water, he snatches at it.
Even in so simple an act as bathing this bird has his peculiar way. One whom I watched waded out into the water, stooped, and threw water over his head in proper hygienic manner, which I never saw a bird do before, and then he splashed for some time. When he came out he beat his wings several times, then ran up on to a higher stone and was still.
On this stone the wet bird stood as if he were part of it, making not the slightest movement, not even to "teter." Indeed, after I had watched him a long time, I thought I must be mistaken, and that he had slipped away. At least fifteen minutes which seemed an hour he stood there, apparently staring into the water, and I thought I had never seen a bird so careless about his toilet. But I did not know him. Suddenly he started up as if he had just thought of it, and began to dress his plumage. This was a work of time. I think I sat there an hour while he worked over those beautiful feathers, from top-knot to last tail-feather, especially the silvery-shining breast, and all the time "tipping."
An infant sandpiper is a droll-looking fellow, with a body measuring an inch and a quarter, not so long as a common mouse, and legs almost as long as his mother's. On these most useful members, before his wings are of use, he can run like a flash much faster than any boy. He comes out of the egg all dressed in soft gray down, and looks like a tiny shadow flitting over the ground.
A friend tells a story of the cleverness of a sandpiper in outwitting a hawk. When the little bird, flying ahead of a small boat on a river, saw the hawk hovering over his head, talons dropped, ready to seize him, he suddenly disappeared completely from sight of both the hawk and the man. The great bird looked anxiously about, still hovering in the same spot, turning his head this way and that, evidently amazed by the mystery. At last he gave it up and flew away, but the man watched closely, and in a few minutes saw a tiny head about as big as a walnut thrust out of the water, which was ten feet deep in that place. It turned every way, looking sharply for the enemy, and seeing the coast clear, the sandpiper came to the surface, shook out his wings, and rising into the air with the greatest ease, proceeded on his way. He had been entirely submerged.
Sometimes on the shore I had a study of a still more devoted sea-lover that queer fellow, the loon. Many uncanny stories are told of this bird, all probably arising from his peculiar note, "the loon's unearthly cry," as Mrs. Thaxter says. Three of these birds seemed fond of the neighborhood of my seat, and were often to be seen far out on the water, feeding and enjoying themselves. On arriving they seemed very nervous, turning their heads this way and that, as if to make sure no enemy was near. After a while they appeared to be reassured, having indeed so far as could be seen the whole broad ocean to themselves.
I watched these curious birds through my glass very closely, and nothing they did neither their long stay under water, nor their occasional raising themselves above it, with flapping wings and showing the whole of their body interested me so much as their power of regulating the depth to which they sank. Usually they sat like ducks, with the larger part of the body above the surface, but again one would quietly sink down till only the head and neck were above the surface. Either position seemed perfectly easy to him. This extraordinary power of holding themselves at any desired depth in water, possessed by ducks, geese, and some other water-birds, is of great interest, and a most useful accomplishment to those who are hunted. Many stories are told of birds escaping in this way from their enemies, as one just related of a sandpiper.
None of our popular sayings about the birds and beasts is more utterly absurd than "crazy as a loon." The loon is a very clearheaded fellow, wise in conducting his life, a fond parent, brave in defending the young, full of resources to outwit his enemies, and quite capable of taking care of himself.
Among the most attractive of the sea-lovers were the gulls,
in little parties of two or three or half a dozen, all headed for a rocky ledge far out from shore, where they settled for the night, looking as if the sombre rock had suddenly burst into bloom, or sitting on the water to take their fill from a shoal of small fish incautiously near the surface.
It is pleasant to know that some of these sea-lovers are so devoted to the briny deep that they even drink its to us nauseous water, as Mr. Brewster has proved by the conduct of a gull in confinement. This bird, a kittiwake gull, refused to drink at all until sea-water was provided for bathing, when he rushed at it as if dying of thirst, and from that time flourished upon his salty beverage.
One of my most interesting experiences with the sea-lovers was with young gulls. One afternoon I was attracted by strange cries which seemed to come from the sea. They sounded like the cries of a dog in distress, and as they continued some time I went down to the shore to see if I could do anything to help. The shore was very rocky, and full of crevasses into which a dog might possibly have fallen.
When I reached the shore, behold a party of gulls, twenty or thirty of them, some sitting quietly on the water, others flying around and alighting a busy, happy group, and as I saw in a moment a nursery party. There were the young in their gray dresses, waiting to be fed, making no effort to fly, but uttering the weird unbird-like cries, and their elders sitting with them, every few minutes rising and circling about, then returning to the little group on the water. It was a pleasing sight, and one that I enjoyed frequently during August.
Sometimes a more rare visitor passed over, with white head shining in the sun,
"Soaring superb overhead in the fathomless blue,"
an osprey or fish-hawk. On one occasion I had a nearer view. The bird was found walking by himself in the woods, in a quiet and matter-of-fact manner, as if walking were his ordinary way of getting about. When approached he did not fly, and indeed he made no resistance when picked up by a lady and carried into a house. He was placed on the floor and a much-interested audience gathered about him, though at a respectful distance, for he looked formidable enough with his fearless eye, his savage beak, and great talons. He was not in the least afraid or wild, and made no attempt to get away. He returned the somewhat rude stares of his human neighbors with perfect composure, looking earnestly from one to another, almost, it seemed, with a curiosity like our own, alert and extremely wide-awake, but never stirring unless some one came too near, when he was at once on his guard. If he had cause to fear attack he threw himself on his back in fighting attitude, and presented his terrible talons as weapons of defense. The intelligence of his eyes and his manner almost persuaded one that he could speak if he chose.
The dress of the captive was beautiful, of rich chocolate-brown, with every feather of back and wings tipped with white, a white breast, and a white crest, which falling back on his head as he flies, gives this bird the appearance of being bald.
As soon as the osprey was made to understand that the piece of fish presented to him at the end of a stick was a peace-offering, he accepted it readily, and after that was easily fed, the lady who captured him actually going fishing to provide his bill of fare.
On examination it was found that the poor fellow had been shot, and though not disfigured, some bones in one wing were broken so that he could not fly.
One of the professors in a New Jersey college told me a touching story of a pair of ospreys. He was with a prospecting party in northern Minnesota who one day set fire to some bushes on the border of the lake. The fire spread to the trees, upon which they betook themselves to their canoes and withdrew to some distance, where they sat and watched the spread of the flames. Out into the water reached a point of land on which were trees, and on a big dead one a fish-hawk's nest.
As the fire approached, the birds became very uneasy, flying around and around, going to the nest and then away, and showing the greatest distress. At last the flames swooped down upon their tree with irresistible force, and the two birds, at the moment flying about over it, instantly, with one accord, turned downward and, diving into the doomed tree, perished with their young, whom they could not save.
Another frequent visitor to the shore was a sea-lover only for the food he found on its bountifully spread table, the beach, the common crow. I am always interested in the wise and quaint ways of this much-maligned fellow creature, and I am glad to relate a little incident told me by a practical farmer in New Jersey. This farmer was by no means a "bird crank," on the contrary, he was as implacable a persecutor of other birds as the most bloodthirsty enemy of our little brothers could desire.
"I learned in one lesson," said the farmer, "to respect and even to value the crow, and now I never allow one* to be shot," and he went on to relate that he had one year a plague of cutworms which got possession of a cornfield and threatened to destroy it. He was told that the only way to rid himself of the pest was to go over the field every day and wherever he saw a bit of corn cut off, to dig out the worm and kill it.
In desperation he started in his big cornfield this almost hopeless undertaking. He worked one day at it and "nearly broke his back," as he said, and the next morning the worms were as plentiful as ever. He began seriously to contemplate abandoning the corn to them, when he noticed some crows stepping around among the young plants. Knowing the reputation of this bird as a corn-lover, he supposed, of course, that they belonged to the army of destroyers, as if the worms were not enough to finish the crop. For a wonder, he did not at once proceed to shoot the birds, but in an unusual "spasm of sense" resolved to find out positively what they were about. To his great surprise he discovered that they were doing just what he had been attempting at such expense of muscle and temper digging out and killing cutworms. He instantly decided to leave the field and let the crows work for him. He did, and the birds cleared the ground completely, doing no harm to the crop.
Let this little story, which is absolutely true, offset some of the "hearsay" tales of this bird.
If I had not lo, these many years been telling the truth and nothing but the truth, however alluring the path of fiction, or, at least, of "supposing," confining myself strictly to absolute facts with the devotion (if not the spirit) of a Gradgrind, I should not dare imperil my reputation by telling my experience with a crow that summer. Relying, however, upon my "good name," and further fortified by the discovery that another reputable student has also heard the same, I will venture. I had heard for several days a crow shout "hur-rah!" or the vowel sounds that irresistibly suggested that word, so plainly that I was startled, and thought it must be an escaped pet who had been taught. The peculiar call seemed to come from one bird only, and with a very strong glass I was able to see from a window a strange scene.
The bird of the remarkable note appeared to be the leader of a small flock, for he was perched on the top branch of a tree, while perhaps eight or ten occupied the lower branches. Every time he uttered his "hur-rah" call they answered with the ordinary "caw," at the same time flying around the lower part of the tree in a small circle and returning to their places, while the leader never left his perch at the top. This performance was kept up. an hour at a time, and I heard it daily through the season, though not always from the same tree. The next year I was there again, but never once-heard the strange call.
Two years later I was aroused one morning at four o'clock from a semi-sleeping state by the same cry. The "hur-rah," always given twice, was instantly followed by a clamor of crow- voices crying "caw," and then a silence. This was repeated several times, gradually moving farther away, till I could hear it no longer.
In studying the common crow one may always look for the unexpected. A small flock of these birds on the shore of Long Island a few years ago adopted an escaped green parrot. He flew with them and fed with them undisturbed, even accepted by all. He adapted himself to their ways and even to their language, uttering his "caw" with energy, only his different quality of voice betraying him, and thereby calling attention to the strange partnership.
Many happy hours were spent with these and other sea-lovers in my favorite seat on the shore, till I received a shock which put a rude ending to my pleasure. One morning on reaching the rock I found it a scene of desolation; the sea had not risen and washed it away; no storm had displaced it; no workman disfigured it with hammer or chisel but a party of human beings had been there ladies perhaps. The rocks far around were strewn with lobster- and egg-shells, crusts of bread and bits of various provisions, a tin can or two, and a great greasy newspaper that had wrapped the whole.
I stood transfixed. The place was utterly defiled. One half hour's visit from a thoughtless party had destroyed the charm of a month's study. I turned and left, and visited it no more. So long afterward as the next June I approached it with hesitation, fearing that not even the storms of winter, the nine months of rain and wind and seas, had purified it from that half hour's occupation.
Is not that a strange phase of human nature the spirit of lawlessness which seizes many of us in the country? Persons at home honest, well-bred, and thoughtful in dealing with others, suddenly blossom out into devastators and thieves. It may not be money or jewels that excite their cupidity, but flowers and trees, often quite as valuable. In that very island no balsam-fir tree is safe from the hand of the destroyer. Branches are rudely broken off, whole trees disfigured and ruined, and often by ladies who would not dream of taking a neighbor's purse.
While on the subject of the idiosyncrasies of human nature, there is one other point on which I should like to relieve my mind the tribulations that generally overtake a bird-student in the pursuit of her study. In one place where the only birdy spot was a lovely ravine filled with trees which ran along near some houses, the people, one and all, used it the only beautiful retreat for miles around as a common dumping-ground for all human waste. I cannot defile my pages with a list of the things that turned it into a most repulsive place; suffice it to say it consisted of all of the thousand and one things we constantly throw away.
If the spot that attracts a bird-student is a grove that might be a paradise for a bird-lover, it is usually turned into a forage-ground for domestic animals: cows roam over it, hens scratch, horses trample, even hogs root it up. Bird-study in the vicinity of sometimes curious, sometimes vicious cows is not pleasant even though one may agree with Thoreau that a cow is good company because she has not to be entertained. A hen suddenly going into hysterics hen-fashion makes distracting interruption to study.
If the place selected for study is a neglected spot, or the inviting corners of an old rail fence on which Nature has been at work, producing vines and quick-growing plants, till it is beloved of birds and bird-lovers, no sooner does one set up her study there than a spasm of "virtue" seizes the owner, who straightway appears with horses and plough or a scythe to cut down or plough up the growth that made it a delight.
If a bit of open woods tempt the student, woods not good enough for cattle, it will be sure to be filled with sheep with their horned protector, who like other folk has his suspicions of an intruder on his domain who seems to have nothing to do, and is amply able to make himself disagreeable.
These are no fancy sketches. They are sadly and dishearteningly common. In all my search I have found but two good places for study near houses, and therefore under the eye of man. One, the home of a fellow bird-student where a piece of woods was protected from trespassers, surrounded with stone walls and left untouched just as Nature arranged it. The other an abandoned Maine farm, bought by a Boston bird-lover, who kept her thirty-five acres of pasture with streamlet running through, and overgrown to bushes and all wild growths, absolutely untouched by man, resisting the pleading of neighboring farmers to "burn it over" in the fall, and forbidding shooting or trespassing of any kind.
And now having uttered my protest let us change the subject.