Here to return to
UNDER APRIL CLOUDS
“Ah, good-morning. How are you?”
I was on what I suppose is habitually the most crowded sidewalk in Boston, where men in haste are always to be seen betaking themselves to the street as the only means of making headway. A hand was laid on my shoulder. A business man, one of the busiest, I should think he must be, had come up behind me. He was looking happy. Yes, he said, he was very well. “And yesterday,” he continued, “I had a great pleasure. I saw my first fox-colored sparrow, and heard him sing.”
No wonder his face shone. His condition was enviable. The fox sparrow is a noble bird, with a most musical voice, the prince of all sparrows. To hear him for the first time — if one does hear him — is a real event. A man might well walk a crowded city sidewalk the next day and smile to himself at the memory of such high fortune.
After all, happiness is a good thing. Not so desirable, perhaps, as a great office, or a mint of money, but a pretty good thing, nevertheless. It is encouraging, in these days of far-sought pleasures and prodigal expense, to see men get it at a low rate and on innocent terms.
For myself, I think I have never known fox sparrows more plentiful than for the past week. From our human point of view their present migration has been eminently favorable; from the birds' point of view it has probably been in the highest degree unfavorable, the prolonged spell of cloudy and rainy weather having made night flights difficult, not to say impossible. The travelers have been obliged to stay where the storm had caught them, and we, at this intermediate station, have profited by their misfortune.
On the 7th I stood in the midst of as fine a flock as a man could wish to see. A thick cloud enveloped us; we might have been on a mountain-top; but for the minute it had ceased raining, and the birds were in a lively mood. Sometimes as many as five or six were singing together, while a chorus of snowbirds trilled the prettiest of accompaniments; a concert worthy of Easter or any other festival.
The weather has been of a kind to keep night-traveling migrants here, I say; which is as much as to say that it has been of a sort to prevent other such birds from arriving. There have been no bright nights, I think, since April came in. So it happens, according to my theory (which may be as sound or as unsound as the reader pleases), that although it is now the 10th of the month, there has been, for my eye, no sign of chipper, field sparrow, or vesper sparrow. How should there be? How should such creatures find their way, with the fog and the rain blinding them night after night? No doubt they are impatient to be at home again in the old dooryards, the old savin-dotted pastures, and the old hay-fields. By and by the clouds will vanish, and they will hasten northward in crowds. The night air will be full of them, and the next day all outdoor, bird-loving people will be in clover.
Unfavorable as the weather is, however, and against all probabilities, one cannot quite forego seasonable expectations. I pass the border of a grass field. A sparrow sings in the distance, and I stop to listen. Could that have been a vesper sparrow? The song comes again. No; it begins a little in the vesper's manner; the opening measure is unusually smooth and unemphatic; but the bird is only a song sparrow. It is no shrewder than Peter. Its speech bewrayeth it.
One kingfisher I have seen, shooting through the misty air far aloft, his long wings making him look at that height like some seabird or wader. I remember when the sight — not uncommon in spring — was to me an insoluble mystery. As for calling the bird a kingfisher, such a thought never occurred to me. I knew the kingfisher well enough, or imagined that I did, but not at that altitude and flying in that strong, purposeful manner. Yet even at such times he commonly sounds his rattle before him, as if he wished his identity and his whereabouts to be known.
I have seen also a single marsh hawk. That was on the 9th, and the circumstances of the case were ludicrous. I had stopped to look down from a wooded hilltop into a swampy pool, where ducks sometimes alight, when I saw a white object moving rapidly along the farther side of the swamp, now visible, now hidden behind a veil of trees and shrubbery. A road runs along that border of the swamp, and I took this moving white object for a bundle which a boy was carrying upon a bicycle (making pretty quick time), till suddenly I perceived that it was only a marsh hawk's rump! A redwing had given chase to the hawk — mostly for sport, I imagine, or just to keep his hand in; for I do not suppose he could have had any real grudge to settle. Probably this is the first case on record in which a hawk was ever mistaken for a wheelman.
Two evenings ago I made a solitary excursion to an extensive swamp and meadow, hoping to witness, or at least to hear, the aerial performance of the snipe. The air was full of a Scotch mist, and the sky cloudy. If the birds were there, and in a performing mood, they would be likely to get under way in good season. I waded across the meadow out of the sight of houses, and, having found what seemed to be a promising position, I took it and held it for perhaps an hour. But I heard none of those strange, ghostly, swishing noises that I was listening for. Perhaps the birds had not yet arrived. Perhaps this was not a snipe meadow.
For a time robins and song sparrows made music more or less remote, and an unseen fox sparrow, nearer at hand, amused me with excellent imitations of the brown thrasher's smacking kiss. Then, as it grew really dark, I relinquished the hunt and started homeward. And then the real music began; for as I approached the highway I heard the whistle of a woodcock, and presently discovered that, for the first time in my life, I was walking through what might be called a veritable woodcock concert. Once three birds were vocal together; one was “bleating” on the right, another on the left, while a third was at the very height of his ecstasy overhead. For a mile or more I walked under a shower of this incomparable, indescribable music. It dropped into my ears like rain from heaven.
One bird was calling just over the roadside wall. I stole nearer and nearer, taking a few cautious steps after each bleat, till finally I could hear the water dropping into the hogshead. I wonder how many readers will know what I mean by that. After each call, as a kind of pendant to it, there comes, if you are very, very close, a curious small sound, exactly as if a drop of water (the comparison is not mine) had fallen into a hogshead already half full. I had not heard it for years. In fact, I had forgotten it, and heard it now for the first few times without recollecting what it was.
Then the bird rose — always invisible, of course, for by this time there was no thought of seeing anything — and went skyward in broad circles, till he was at the top of his flight, and when he descended he came to earth on the other side of the road, a good distance away. He had seen me, I suppose, with those big bull's-eyes of his, which do so much to heighten the oddity of his personal appearance.
He was the last of his kind. For the rest of my walk I heard no music except the sweet whistling of hylas here and there, and once, in a woodland pool, the grating chorus of a set of wood frogs.
Butterflies are waiting for sunshine — like the rest of us; I have not seen so much as an Antiopa; and the only wild flowers I have yet picked are the pretty red blossoms (pistillate blossoms) of the hazel; tiny things, floral egrets, if you please to call them so, of a lively and beautiful color. Sunshine or no sunshine, they were in bloom for Easter.