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The Clerk of the Woods
THE WARBLERS ARE COMING
THEY are a grand army. The Campbells are nowhere in the comparison, whether for numbers or looks. And this is their month. Let us all go out to see them and cry them welcome.
They are late, most exceptionally so. I have never known anything to match it. Brave travelers as they are (some of them, yes, many of them, are on a three or four thousand mile journey; and a long flight it is for a five-inch bird, from South America to the arctic circle) — brave travelers as they are, they cannot contend against the inevitable, and our April weather, this year, was too much even for a bird's punctuality.
The yellow warbler, for example, one of the prettiest of the tribe, is by habit one of the truest to his schedule. In any ordinary season he may be confidently expected to arrive in our Boston country on the first day of May. If conditions favor his passage, he may even anticipate the date, perhaps by forty-eight hours. This year not a yellow warbler was to be seen up to May 6. Then, between the evening of the 6th and the morning of the 7th, the birds dropped into their accustomed places, and in the early forenoon, when I went out to look for them, they were singing as cheerily as if they had never been away. With nothing but their wits and their wings to depend upon, I thought they had done exceedingly well. To me, on such terms, South America would seem a very long way off.
The same night brought the Nashville warblers. On the 6th not one was visible, for I made it my business to look. On the morning of the 7th I had no need to search for them. In all the old haunts, among the pitch-pines and the gray birches, they were flitting about and singing, as fresh as larks and as lively as crickets. They, too, have coming from the tropics, and will go as far north, some of them, as “Labrador and the fur countries.” A bold spirit may live under a few feathers.
With them, I am pretty sure, came a goodly detachment of myrtle warblers (yellow-rumps), though the advance guards of that host (two birds were all that fell under my eye) were seen on the 18th of April. The great host is still to come; for the myrtles are a host, — a multitude that no man can number. As I listen to their soft, dreamy trill on these fair spring mornings, when the tall valley willows are all in their earliest green, — a sight worth living for,— I seem sometimes to be for the moment on the heights of the White Mountains. Well I remember how much I enjoyed their quiet breath of song on the snowy upper slopes of Mt. Moosilauke in May a year ago. For the myrtle, notwithstanding his name, is a great lover of knee-high spruces.
He is a lovely bird, wherever he lives, and it is good to see him flourish, though by so doing he forfeits the peculiar charm of novelty. Everything considered, I am bound to say, that is not so regrettable a loss. If he were as scarce as some of his relatives, every collector's hand would be against him. Czars and rare birds must pay the price.
The first member of the family to make his appearance with me this spring was the pine warbler. He was trilling in a pine grove (his name is one of the few that fit) on April 17. “The warblers are coming,” he said. Not so pronounced a beauty as many of his tribe, he is one of the most welcome. He braves the season, and with his lack of distinguishing marks and his preference for pine-tops, he offers an instructive deal of puzzlement to beginners in ornithology. His song is simplicity itself, and, rightly or wrongly, always impresses me as the coolest of the cool.
I stood the other day between a pine warbler and a thrasher. The thrasher sang like one possessed. He might have been crazy, beside himself with passion. Operatic composers, aiming at something new and brilliant in the way of a “mad scene,” should borrow a leaf out of the planting bird's repertory. The house would “come down,” I could warrant. The pine warbler sang as one hums a tune at his work. Among birds, as among humans, it takes all kinds to make a world.
After the advent of the myrtle warblers, on April 18, eleven days elapsed with no new arrivals, so far as I discovered, except a few chipping sparrows, first seen on the 23d The weather was doing its worst. Then, on the 29th, I saw three yellow palm warblers. They were singing, as they usually are at this season — singing and wagging their tails, and incidentally putting me in mind of Florida, where in winter they are seen of every one. It is noticeable that these three earliest of the warblers all have, by way of song, a brief trill. Very much alike the three efforts are, yet clearly enough distinguished, if one hears them often enough. The best and least of them is the myrtle's, I being judge.
The yellow palm warbler ought to be a Southerner of the Southerners, one would say, from his tropical appellation; but the truth is that he makes his home from Nova Scotia northward, and visits the land of palms only in the cold season. He is a low-keeping bird (for a warbler), much on the ground, very bright in color, and well marked by a red crown, from which he is often called the yellow redpoll. If he could only keep his tail still!
Next in order was the black-throated green (May 4), which, take him for all in all, is perhaps my favorite of the whole family. He is the bird of the white pine, as the pine warbler is the bird of the pitch-pine. And now we have a real song; no longer a simple trill, but a highly characteristic, sweetly modulated tune — or two tunes, rather, perfectly distinguished one from the other, and equally charming. If the voice is rough, it is sweetly and musically rough. I would not for anything have it different.
What a vexatiously pleasant time I had, years ago, in tracing the voice home to its author! How vividly I remember the day when I lay flat on my face in a woodland path, opera-glass in hand, a manual open before me, and the bird singing at intervals from a pine tree opposite; and a neighbor, who had known me from boyhood, coming suddenly down the path. I may err in my recollection (it was long ago), but I think I heard the music for weeks before I satisfied myself as to the identity of the singer. “Trees, trees, murmuring trees:” so I once translated the first of the two songs; and to this day I do not see how to improve upon the version. He is talking of the Weymouth pine, I like to believe.
Black-and-white creeping warblers have been common since the 4th (under normal weather conditions they should have been here a fortnight sooner), and on the 6th the oven-bird took possession of the drier woods. He looks very little like a warbler, but those who ought to know whereof they speak class him with that family. I have not yet heard his flight song, but he has no idea of keeping silence. As is true of every real artist, he is in love with his part. With what a daintily self-conscious grace he walks the boards! It is a kind of music to watch him. He makes me think continually of the little ghost in Mrs. Slosson's story. Like that insubstantial reality he is always saying: “Don't you want to hear me speak my piece?” And whether the answer is yes or no, it is no matter — over he goes with it.
Yesterday my first blue yellow-back was singing, and to-day (May 8) the first chestnut-sides are with me. And there are numbers to follow. From now till the end of the month they will be coming and going — a procession of beauty. In my mind I can already see them: the gorgeous redstart, the lovely blue golden-wing, the splendid magnolia, and the more splendid Blackburnian, the Cape May (a “seldom pleasure”), and the multitudinous blackpoll — these and many others that are no less worthy. At this time of the year a man should have nothing to do but to live in the sun and look at the passing show.