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MYSTERIES OF THE MARSH
IN another place on the coast one of my windows looked across a marsh to the ocean half a mile away. This was an outlook of which I never tired. The marsh was always beautiful and never twice alike, and the sea at that distance was peculiarly interesting because of its curious variations of sound. Sometimes it roared above everything else; again I would hear it from far off one side as if it had retired down the coast miles away. Occasionally I could not discover any direction, but it seemed to moan under its breath as if all its life had been withdrawn to a great distance, and the waves near us were asleep. Sometimes it was silent as a millpond.
Almost as interesting as the sea was a dweller, or rather a visitor to the marsh. For here was a mystery. Every evening about seven o'clock a great bird, larger than any other in the vicinity, flew slowly, solemnly, and heavily over the house, beating his enormous wings, and sometimes uttering a hoarse cry as he went. He alighted far over in the marsh, and wait and watch as long as we chose, we never saw him return.
It was always too dark to see who he was or what he did, even with the best glasses, and so it seemed it might always be a mystery. Four or five years, my hostess said, this had been his habit, and formerly he had a companion, but for a year or two he had been alone.
It was really pathetic to See the lonely bird wing his way to the solitary marsh after every other feathered resident had retired for the night. Perhaps he was the last of his race, and had learned by sad experience to keep hidden during the day, and feed only after dark. What tragedy had left him to suffer alone! Thus I thought, as I watched him going over on his lonely way.
If I could get nearer to the mysterious bird, I thought I could see him better. So one evening just before time for him to appear, I started down the meadow toward the marsh, intending to conceal myself behind a haycock which he usually passed over.
As I walked slowly along I met a family of young flickers. It was their first outing, as was plain to see, so naοve, so innocent in their young assertive ways, so imperative in their announcement of their presence. Experience of the world had not yet knocked out of them the feeling of the nursery, that they were the most important objects on earth.
One of the disturbed parents appeared on a tree and called anxiously, but one of the brand-new young ones came into plain sight on the fence, and greeted a protesting robin with a vehement bow and an emphatic "peauk!" that claimed the world for his own, and demanded by what right the robin presumed to speak.
After pausing a few moments to enjoy this charming ingenuousness, I went on.
All the way I had been conscious of voices, and at length my eyes fell upon the talkers. They were two crows perched on the top branches of two trees and expressing their opinions vehemently. "Caw! caw!" cried one in a sneering tone, emphasizing each utterance with an ironical bow, and "caw! caw!" echoed the other with bow more insulting and more profound than his comrade. Their faces were toward me, could it be? was this a personal attention?
Before my anxiety became painful, it was relieved. Upon no worm of the dust had they cast their scornful eyes, but upon a monarch of the air like themselves. A large hawk rose from a neighboring tree, soared majestically up toward the blue sky, and instantly the two crows were upon him. Around and around went the larger bird in great circles, paying apparently no heed to his sable followers, who carried out the tactics made familiar to them by the plucky little kingbird. With great labor, much beating of wings, and loud screams of war, the clumsy birds rose above the hawk and then swooped down toward him, as if to deal him a savage blow. But they always missed him, and calmly the hawk pursued his "trackless path" while the baffled crows were carried far to one side. Still, if they were not successful, they had good "grit," and as far as I could see them with my glass, the three were traveling in company, two rising high and swooping down, filling the summer air with their clamors, while the third, silent as fate, and as resistless, passed on whither he would without hindrance.
Now I passed on and settled myself to wait for the mysterious bird. Everything became quiet around me it seemed as if everybody had gone to bed, for
"Precious qualities of silence haunt
Round these vast margins ministrant."
A long time I waited, crouched beside my haycock, and confidently fancying myself unseen, but my bird did not come. He had sharper eyes than I had given him credit for, and he had swerved one side and passed over far to my left.
I was not, however, doomed to disappointment. I solved the mystery a day or two later, when I chanced to turn my glass on the marsh about noon: my eyes fell at once on the bird or his double who was evidently perfectly at home there. Whether he had changed his habits, or, what was more likely, had heretofore eluded our sight, I know not. I know only that from that day I saw him frequently with one and sometimes two companions.
Then I easily recognized the marsh mystery as the great blue heron. He was engaged in the business which absorbs so much of the time of all of us getting food. He stalked majestically about on the edge of the little pools, or in water up to his knees, at every step lifting his foot entirely above the water, in the most deliberate manner. Sometimes he stood an hour at a time in the patient heron way, when his long neck and slim head looked like a mere stick among the weeds, and again he plunged suddenly after some lively prey perhaps a frog or an eel almost turning a somersault in his eagerness. Then, after violently beating his catch, whatever it was, shaking his head, which flashed gleams like polished silver up to my distant window, and swallowing it at last, instantly resuming his stately appearance of perfect repose.
It was interesting to see the heron alight and fold over his enormous wings. First he held them up a moment like a butterfly's wings, then carefully laid them down and adjusted them to place. All his common movements were so deliberate it was often hard to recognize him; he looked like an object of wood.
Occasionally this giant bird would sit down, draw his three or four feet of height together and look just like a big duck. Again he would hump up his shoulders, draw his neck down between them, making himself look like pictures we often see. In whatever attitude he assumed he was picturesque, but not always graceful, as when his long neck stretched up its full length, like a stick.
On one occasion a crow swooped down at him, but the heron met him halfway, springing up into the air as if threatening to catch him, upon which the crow thought better of it and left.
In color this bird, though called blue, harmonized so perfectly with the ground that he was almost invisible when still, but the moment he spread his wings he was exceedingly conspicuous, such enormous extent of feathers, so slowly flapped, such a heavy flight, he could be seen far off over the silent marsh.
The manners of this marsh-dweller were curious to watch. Sometimes he crept along with neck thrust forward its full length and level with his body, legs crouched, looking like a cat about to spring. On one occasion he suddenly pitched forward and downward as if his prey were in a hole, and so violently that he lost his balance, and saved himself from falling on his head only by a wild flapping of his sail-like wings. From this scramble he reappeared bearing something like a snake or an eel, which he shook and beat and at last ate.
Once this most stately personage had an unusually hard time disposing of his catch, and another heron who was on the marsh drew near, as if he would like to share. The possessor of the dainty, whatever it was, stood with feathers fluffed out till he looked twice as big as usual, and when the intruder came near, both the great creatures flapped their wings and sprang up three or four feet, exactly like two quarrelsome cocks. It was very comical, and surprised one as much as if a couple of staid old gentlemen should suddenly run at each other like a pair of belligerent boys.
Though I made many attempts to see the great bird nearer, I was never able to accomplish it. No doubt long persecution had made him suspicious, and my slightest approach to the marsh was seen at once, and was the signal for the bird's departure. I did not wish to drive him away from what was perhaps his last retreat, so I abandoned the attempt to get a closer view of one of our most interesting birds.
At another time, a good many years ago, on a marsh farther down the coast, south of New England, in fact, I was interested to see another great bird, the American egret, feeding. When the tide went out, five or six of these birds would come up to feed on the edge of the little pools together. They traveled around the edge in single file, and naturally the last one found rather poor pickings. I was amused to see that the birds understood the thing, and every few minutes the one at the end of the procession would fly up over the heads of his brethren and take his place at the head. The one at the moment in the lead never resented it, and the new-comer held his position till the next in the line followed his example. It seemed to be a perfectly amicable arrangement.