Here to return to
WITH THE WADERS
THE 12th of October was a day. There are few like it in our Massachusetts calendar. And by a stroke of good fortune I had chosen it for a trip to Eagle Hill, on the North Shore. All things were near perfection; the only drawbacks to my enjoyment being a slight excess of warmth and an unseasonable plague of mosquitoes.
“Yes, it is too fine,” said the stable-keeper, who drove me down from the railroad station. It won't last. It’s what we call a weather breeder.”
“So be it,” thought I. Just then I was not concerned with to-morrow. Happy men seldom are. The stable-keeper spoke more to the purpose when he told me that during the recent storm a most exceptional number of birds had been driven in. A certain gunner, Cy Somebody, had shot twenty-odd dollars' worth in one day. “There he is now,” he remarked after a while, as a man and a dog crossed the road just before us. “Any birds to-day, Cy?” he inquired. The man nodded a silent affirmative — a very unusual admission for a Yankee sportsman to make, according to my experience.
I was hardly on foot before I began to find traces of this good man's work. The first bird I saw was a sandpiper with one wing dragging on the ground. Near it was an unharmed companion which, even when I crowded it a little hard, showed no disposition to consult its own safety. “Well done,” said I. “There is a friend that sticketh closer than a brother.”
A few steps more, and a larger bird stirred amid the short marsh herbage beyond the muddy flat — a black-bellied plover, or “beetle-head.” He also must be disabled, I thought, to be staying in such a place; and perhaps he was. At all events he would not fly, but edged about me in a half circle, with the wariest kind of motions (there was no sign of cover for him, the grass coming no more than to his knees), always with his big black eye fastened upon me, while my field-glass brought him near enough to show all the beauty of his spots.
He was well worth looking at (“What short work a gunner would make of him!” I kept repeating to myself), but I could not stay. Titlark voices were in the air. The birds must be plentiful on the grassy hills beyond; with then there might be Lapland longspurs; and I followed the road. This presently brought me to a bit of pebbly beach, along which I was carelessly walking when a lisping sound caused me to glance down at my feet. There on the edge of the water was a bunch of seven sandpipers; white-rumps, as I soon made Out, though my first thought had been of something else. One of them hobbled upon one leg, but the others seemed thus far to have escaped injury. There they stood, huddled together as if on purpose for some pot-shooter's convenience, while I drew them within arm's length; pretty creatures, lovely in their foolish innocence; more or less nervous under my inspection, but holding their ground, each with its long black bill pointed against the breeze. “We who are about to die salute you,” they might have been saying.
Having admired them sufficiently, I passed on. Titlarks were beginning to abound, but where were the longspurs? A shot was fired some distance away, and as I looked in that direction two great blue herons went flying across the marsh, each with his legs behind him. It was good to see them still able to fly.
Then something I have no idea what; no sight or sound that I was sensible of — told me to look at a bird beside the little pool of water I had just passed. It was another white-rumped sandpiper, all by himself, nearer to me even than those I had left a little way back. What a beauty he was! — his dark eye (which I could see winking), the lovely cinnamon-brown shading of his back and wings, setting off the marbled black and white, and his shyly confiding demeanor. I had scarcely stopped before he flew to my side of the pool and stood as near me as he could get — too near to be shot at. He too had been hit, or so it seemed. One foot was painful, though he could put it down, if necessary, and even take a limping step upon it. Happy bird! He had fared well!
Up the steep, grassy hill I started out of the road; but I soon halted again, this time to gaze into the sky. Straight above me were numbers of herring gulls, some far, far up under the fleecy cirrus clouds, others much lower. All were resting upon the air, sailing in broad circles. Round and round they went, — a kind of stationary motion, a spectator might have called it; but in a minute or two they had disappeared. They were progressing in circles, circle cutting circle. It is the sea-gull's way of taking a long flight. I remember it of old, and have never seen anything to surpass it for gracefulness. If there were only words to describe such things! But language is a clumsy tool.
The hilltop offered beauty of another kind: the blue ocean, the broad, brown marshes, dotted with haycocks innumerable, the hills landward, a distant town, with its spires showing, the inlet yonder, whitened with swimming gulls. Crickets chirped in the grass, herds of cattle and sheep grazed peacefully on all sides, and when I turned my head, there behind me, a mile away, perhaps, were the shining Ipswich dunes, wave on wave of dazzling white sand. I ought to have stayed with the picture, perhaps; but there were no longspurs, and somehow this was a day for birds rather than for a landscape. I would return to the muddy flats, and spend my time with the sandpipers and the plover. The telltale yellow-legs were whistling, and who could guess what I might see?
At the little pool I must stop for another visit with my single sandpiper. He would be there, I felt certain. And he was; as pretty as before, and no more alarmed at my presence, though as he balanced himself on one leg his body shook with a constant rhythmical pulsation, as if his heart were beating more violently than a bird's heart should. He did not look happy, I thought. And why should he, far from home, with a wounded foot, no company, and an unknown number of guns yet to face before reaching the end of his long journey? He was hardly bigger than a sparrow, but he was one of the creatures which lordly man, endowed with “godlike reason,” a being of “large discourse,” so wise and good that he naturally thinks of the Creator of all things as a person very like himself, finds it amusing to kill.
And when I came to the few rods of beach, there stood my seven sandpipers, exactly as before. They stirred uneasily under my gaze, whispering a few words to one another (“Will he shoot, do you think?”), but they kept their places, bunched closely together for safety. Did they know anything about their lonely brother — or sister — up yonder on the hillside? If they noticed her absence, they probably supposed her dead. Death is so common and so sudden, especially in migration time.
Now I am back again on a grassy mound by the muddy flats, and the big plover is still here. How alert he looks as he sees me approach! Yet now, as an hour ago, he shows no inclination to fly. The tide is coming in fast. He steps about in the deepening water with evident discomfort, and whether he will or not, he must soon take to wing or wade ashore. And while I am eyeing his motions my glass falls unexpectedly on two sandpipers near him in the grass; pectoral sandpipers — grass-birds — I soon say to myself, with acute satisfaction. It is many years since I saw one. How small their heads look, — in contrast with the plover's, — and how thickly and finely their breasts are streaked! I remember the portrait in Nelson's “Birds of Alaska,” with its inflated throat, a monstrous vocal sac, half as large as the bird itself. A graceful wooer!
They, too, are finding the tide a trouble, and no doubt are wishing the human intruder would take himself off. Now, in spite of my presence, one of them follows the other toward the land, scurrying from one bit of tussock to another, half wading, half swimming. Time and tide wait for no bird. Both they and the plover have given up all thoughts of eating. They have enough to do to keep their eyes upon me and the water.
The sandpipers, being smaller, make their retreat first. One, as he finds himself so near a stranger, is smitten with sudden fright, and runs by at full speed on his pretty dark-green legs. Yet both presently become reassured, and fall to feeding with all composure almost about my feet. I have been still so long that I must be harmless. And now the plover himself takes wing (I am glad to find he can), but only for a rod or two, alighting on a conical bit of island. There is nothing for him to eat there, apparently, but at least the place will keep his feet dry. He stands quiet, waiting. And so he continues to do for the hour and more that I still remain.
My own stay, I should mention, is by this time compulsory. I, too, am on an island (I have just discovered the fact), and not choosing to turn wader on my own account, must wait till the tide goes down. It is no hardship. Every five minutes brings me something new. I have only now noticed (a slight cry having drawn my attention) that there are sandpipers of another kind here — a little flock of dunlins, or redbacks. They are bunched on the pebbly edge of a second island (which was not an island a quarter of an hour ago), nearer to me even than the plover's, and are making the best of the high tide, which has driven them from their feeding-grounds, by taking a siesta. Once, when I look that way, — which I can do only now and then, there are so many distractions, — I find the whole eight with their bills tucked under their wings. Now, isn’t that a pretty sight! Their name, as I say, is the redbacked sandpiper; but at this season their upper parts are of a uniform mouse color, or soft, dark gray — I hardly know how to characterize it. It is very distinctive, whatever word we use, and equally so is the shape of the bill, long and stout, with a downward inflection at the tip. Eight birds, did I say? No, there are nine, for I have just discovered another, not on the island, but under the very edge of the grassy bank on which I am standing. He has a broken leg, poor fellow, and seems to prefer being by himself; but by and by, with a sudden cry of alarm, fOr which I can see no occasion, he flies to rejoin his mates.
Meanwhile, seven white-rumps have come and settled near them; the same flock that I saw yonder on the roadside beach, I have little question. Probably the encroaching tide has disturbed them also. At the same time I hear distant voices of yellow-legs, and presently six birds are seen flying in this direction. They wheel doubtfully at the unexpected sight of a man, and drop to the ground beyond range; but I can see them well enough. How tall they are, and how wide - awake they look, with their necks stretched out; and how silly they are, — “telltales” and “tattlers” indeed, — to publish their movements and whereabouts to every gunner within a mile? While my head is turned they disappear, and I hear them whistling again across the marsh. They are all gone, I think; but as I look again toward my sandpipers' island, behold? there stands a tall fellow, his yellow legs shining, and his eye fastened upon me. Either he has lost his reason, if he ever had any, or he knows I have no gun. Perfectly still he keeps (he is not an absolute fool, I rejoice to see) as long as I am looking at him. Then I look elsewhere, and when my eye returns to his place, he is not there. He has only moved behind the corner of the islet, however, as I find when I shift my own position by a rod or two. He seems to be dazed, and for a wonder he holds his tongue.
Titlarks are about me in crowds. One is actually wading along the shore, with the water up to his belly. Yes, he is doing it again. I look twice to be sure of him. A flock of dusky ducks fly just above my head, showing me the lining of their wings. Truly this is a birdy spot; and luckily, though there are two or three “blinds” near, and guns are firing every few minutes up and down the marshes, there is no one here to disturb me and my friends. I could stay with them till night; but what is that? A buggy is coming down the road out of the hills with only one passenger. This is my opportunity. I pack up my glass, betake myself to the roadside, and when the man responds to my question politely, I take a seat beside him. As he gets out to unlatch the gate, a minute afterward, a light-colored — dry-sand-colored — bird flies up and perches on a low fence-rail. This is no wader, but is none the less welcome. It is an Ipswich sparrow, I explain to my benefactor, who waits for me to take an observation. The species was discovered here, I tell him, and was named in the town's honor. He seems interested. “I shouldn’t have known it,” he says. So I have done some good to-day, though I have thought only of enjoying myself.