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JUST below the brow of Marquam Hill, half a mile above the creek, a little spring bubbles out of an alder copse. Instead of trickling down the hillside like an ordinary streamlet, the water scatters and sinks into the spongy soil; it forms a wet place an acre or so in extent, over which has sprung up a rich growth of swamp grass. This is the Yellow-throat's (Geothlypis trichas occidentalis) home. I call it the witches' garden.
There's a fascination about lying in the shade of the alders on the brow of the hill. Overhead on the top branches of the maple, is the favorite perch of a meadow lark, who never fails to rear a brood of singers each season. He scatters his notes downward as the wind of autumn whirls the red and gold-tinted leaves. A flicker rattles his salute from the hollow top of a fir stump. A grosbeak trills a roundelay that fairly sparkles in the sunshine. But none of these charm me like the fanciful call of the yellow-throat. You may hear him almost any time of the day calling, "Witch-et-y! Witch-et-y! Witchet-y!" Yes, you may hear him, but seldom see him.
I never know just when yellow-throat will return in the spring or when he is going to depart in the fall. You may hear him one day and find your garden tenantless the following. Then, after a long silence, you wake up some morning and find he's there again, as if he had grown out of the ground during the night, like a toadstool. After his return, he soon begins to scratch out a hollow in a tussock of swamp grass.
What a little deceiver this golden sprite is! Looking for his nest is something like searching for the bags of gold at the rainbow's tip. If you stand under the alders, looking down over the garden, he will call, "Here-it-is! Here-it-is! Here!" and a minute later he will shriek the same lie from another tussock ten yards away.
It seems to be the appointed duty of this little witch to sing his lies all day long, while his wife broods the eggs. He wears a jet-black mask across his face. Perhaps when Nature gave out the bird clothes, she gave this to him just so he could sing his falsehoods without a blush. The lady hops about without the sign of a veil, while the gentleman always wears a mask; it's the Turkish custom reversed.
While I was honest and open in my treatment of yellow-throat, he simply met every advance with deceit. I tried to visit his house again and again when Mrs. Yellowthroat was at home, but every time he led me by a different path to the furthest limits of the garden. I tried to take him unawares, but he seemed to do nothing else except come out to meet visitors and pilot them in the wrong direction. Whenever I got too near the home the wife herself slipped off the nest and appeared right before me calling, "Here-I-am! Fol-low-me! Fol-low!"
At last I tried cunning. I took a long rope, and two of us crept up to the edge of the garden late one afternoon. We quietly spread out, each taking an end of the cord. At a signal we skirted the opposite sides of the garden on a dead run, brushing the grass tops with the rope. Just as it switched across the lower end a yellow streak flashed in the air like a rocket, and as quickly disappeared. She never dreamed of a snake sweeping the grass tops at such a lightning speed as that rope went. It scared her witless. I walked over and saw her nest and four eggs set down in the middle of a thick tussock.
At last I had the little deceivers in my power. They found me not such a cruel tyrant after all. They had played me long, but now the game was mine, and the minute they lost, they gave up deceitful methods. Day after day the wife kept her vigil of love upon the spotted eggs.
We laid siege with the camera, but not in a way the least obtrusive. A service-berry bush grew a few feet away, which was a favorite perch of both parents. We soon had a rampart of limbs built, from behind which the camera was levelled at the bush. After covering everything with green, and attaching a long hose and bulb to the shutter, we were ready. The mother was on the nest most of the time, but the father stayed about near at hand and kept flitting back and forth, like a watchman on his round. Catching his picture was just like waiting for a bite on a lazy day at the river. But it was a good deal more exciting when the fidgety father lit in the service-bush.
It takes patience to catch bird photographs. Patience is the salt of the old bird-catching legend. You may have to wait hours at a time. Often a whole day slips by without getting a single good picture, but if you have had your eyes open, you have not failed to pick up some interesting bits of information.
Hunting and fishing have their moments of intense excitement. Occasionally I like to go back to the more primitive way by taking to the trail for two or three weeks to hunt and fish for a living. It sharpens the senses to live as the Indian lived. I have waded mountain streams and whipped the riffles for trout. I have hunted the woods for a dinner of grouse and quail. There's not a moment of more intense excitement that comes to the fisher or hunter than comes to the photographer as he lies hidden in the bushes, camera focused and bulb in hand, waiting for some sly creature to come into position. If it takes a fine shot to clip the wing of a flying quail, or to catch a buck on the jump, it takes a skilled hand to anticipate bird movements that are too rapid for the eye, and click the shutter at the exact instant. A smile of deep satisfaction sweeps over the face of the photographer as he stands over the dim, red-lighted bench and sees the magic chemicals transform the white-colored glass, and etch out a feathered family as true as life itself. He has a feeling of higher pleasure than the hunter gets in looking at his game.
according to my ideas, was more of an ideal husband and father than
many male birds. He was thoughtful about the home, he worked side by
side with his wife, and never failed or faltered for an instant. In
fact, he often marched squarely up in the face of the camera, when
his mate had some doubt about facing the stare of the big round eye.
By this time he had forgotten his witchety call. He crossed the
border of the garden with a harsher note of authority, "T'see-here!"
He dropped to a quieter, "Quit! Quit!" when he approached
the nest, as if he were afraid of waking the babies.
One day when I spent all afternoon about the nest, my note-book read as follows: "Two of the youngsters were out of the nest. Set up a perch for them, focused the camera at one o'clock, and hid in the bushes. In five minutes the mother came with a big spider, which she held carefully, so as not to puncture the body and lose the substance. The father was right at her heels. Both fed and went away on a hunt together inside of two minutes. They returned in five minutes with green cutworms. While the mother was feeding one of the bantlings, he fluttered with such delight that he fell from the perch in trying to swallow his morsel. Both parents stayed about watching the young for ten minutes. After they departed, the mother returned in three minutes, but had no food. She hopped about the limbs over my head, watching her children with an anxious eye, till she heard the call of her mate, when she left. Inside of eight minutes they were both back again with caterpillars and a moth. The mother fed, but the father hopped about the bush a moment or so and swallowed the mouthful he had, wiping his bill across the limb with a satisfied air. In four minutes the father was there again with a fat grub, which he gave to one of the children. It was such a huge mouthful that it took a little push to start it down. He hopped up on the camera, stretched his wings, and preened himself till he heard his wife."
next day as I sat in the shade watching the two bantlings, I had to
roll over in laughter at their actions. Each youngster was afraid his
brother would get the next morsel, and his fears were quite often
realized. Two or three times they became so excited that they went at
each other as if it were going to be a case of "may the best man
win." I don't believe in brothers quarrelling, but once or
twice, while I was watching, I saw just cause for disagreement. Both
mother and father were putting their whole energy to satisfying the
two little stomachs that seemed to go empty as fast as they were
filled. The two bairns were sitting side by side, when the mother
dropped to the perch, and gave the nearer one a big caterpillar. The
father came two minutes later. If he tried to tell who had the last
bite by looking at those wide-stretched mouths, he was fooled. In a
twinkling the chick had taken the morsel he brought. "That
belongs to me," yelled the brother in righteous indignation, but
it was too late, papa was gone; so he squatted down beside his
squirming brother with a stoical expression that showed it was better
to be a little too empty than a bit too full.
Both parents seemed nervous when their children were out in the unprotected open. They always tried to coax the little ones down into the bushes before giving them food. I happened to discover a very urgent reason just why these yellow-throats had to keep under cover. My camera was well concealed and aimed at a branch where the two bantlings were perched, while I was hidden a few feet away, waiting to click the shutter on one of the parents when they came to feed. By the merest chance I happened to look around, and saw a black object whizzing earthward like a falling star. Instinctively I jumped up.
It swerved at the very point of striking, and glanced upward with a swishing sound, and left me gazing at a Cooper hawk that sailed off down the hillside. Later I discovered what the yellow-throats had known all the time that this hunter had a nest in a fir half a mile down the cañon, and that this very garden was part of his hunting preserve.
The yellow-throats grew in strength, and later set out with their parents for the southland. I may never see the children again, and I would hardly know them if I did, but I am sure the parents will build a new summer cottage in the garden as soon as winter goes away.
THE GROUND WARBLER FAMILY
This is a part of the Wood Warbler family, but these birds differ in that they stay habitually in bushes or among the grass. The nest is generally placed on the ground.
Maryland Yellow-throat (Geothlypis trichas): Male, top of head, olive-gray gradually changing to bright olive on rump; under parts, under wing and tail feathers, rich yellow, fading to white on the belly; forehead and sides of head masked with black, separated by ash-white line from crown. Female, smaller and colors less distinct; no black mask on head. Summer resident of eastern United States, arriving from the South during the first week in May. Nest placed on the ground Or in a bushy tangle.
Western Yellow-throat (Geothlypis trichas occidentalis): Like the above, but slightly larger owing to longer tail. Nesting habits same as above. Inhabits western United States, arriving from the South about the second week in April.
Mourning Warbler (Geothlypis philadelphia): Male and female, head, throat, and breast dark slate or gray, making the bird appear as if wearing crape; back, olive-green; clear yellow below. In the West, this bird is named Macgillivray Warbler.