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NOTES FROM THE INDIANA SAND DUNES
IT was the latter part of February, and the sun was near setting, when a deluge of snow flakes sent me crawling into my "pup" tent. Tucked under blankets a-plenty, I was soon dozing off into the Happy Hunting Grounds of the ornithologist, for I was now encamped on the southern shore of Lake Michigan, for the purpose of studying the bird life of this region.
The extended tract of sandy hills bordering the lake, with their plentiful growth of deciduous and coniferous trees, is a stopping-off place for many migrating birds. Always the forerunners of spring, the geese arrived late in February, and remained for several weeks, flying inland at night and out into the lake in the day. Flocks might be seen at almost any time floating a few yards off shore. On March 2nd, crows appeared in large numbers flying eastward along the lake front, and in a somewhat fluctuating stream they continued to fly by day after day, chiefly in the morning, for the rest of the month. The migratory movement seemed to be about over by April 1st. Some winter resident crows had a favorite perch in the rear of my camp, which they occupied at frequent intervals with an eye to seconding a pair of friendly red squirrels in a camp raid. This afforded me an unusual opportunity of meditating on the profundity of the crow language, particularly in the very early morning. The caw note alone is encyclopedic in expressiveness, but there are countless other distinct sounds, endless subtle undertones and accentuations included in the crow's dialect.
One morning I walked around to a broken-off oak, which had been occupied two seasons before by a pair of great horned owls, and to my delight found its hollow top again in use, possibly by the same pair of birds. For these owls (which may remain paired for life) often frequent a chosen locality for many years.
The nest, containing on the present occasion two soiled white eggs, was lined with snow. Just about the time the first bluebirds' notes herald the approach of spring, young horned owls are hatching. The other night a horned owl began hooting no farther away than ten yards. Very soft it was, yet laden with the tragedy of countless lives that had called forth from the veiling darkness of night, as they awoke to find themselves in the monster's clutch. I listened to the hooting repeated every few seconds, and between each hoot the sobbing gasp of some small creature nearing its end, those talons sinking deeper into the victim's flesh in every interval, pressing forth another gasp, at last, a choking cry. The amazing range of noises which these owls are capable of emitting is not generally known. On rare occasions, when my presence near their nest has aroused their ire, I have been treated to a recital of variations in hooting, grunting, and muffled mutterings, punctuated by a frequent snapping of beaks, which combined to produce an effect altogether startling and gruesome, — far beyond description.
March 2nd, I also heard the first bluebirds' notes conveying their authoritative message on the south winds. In small groups or pairs they passed during the following days, fluttering high in the air, when they struck the lake, as if getting their bearings, and then generally turning westward as they proceeded on their journey. They were still passing during the early days of May, but at this late date were probably simply wandering over the general section in which they intended to settle. Within a few days meadow larks were heard, then killdeer, and finally one morning I was awakened by the familiar chirps of robins. Once, when I was returning to camp with firewood, I surprised a gray fox trotting directly toward me. He disappeared fleetly over the knoll he had just passed, but a party of crows, which took the matter up, told me very plainly that he was making a detour along the side of the next large dune, and probably observing me the while.
It was maple sugar time, for the sapsuckers had been at work on every hand. Small holes a quarter of an inch in diameter and of about equal depth were drilled in rings encircling the trees or scattered irregularly from the roots upward. Presently I discovered the "sap-bird" going the rounds of his grove, gathering the sap and also the insects which had collected. Within a few weeks a bright vermillion mold formed where the sap had streamed down the trunks, and the trees looked as if they had been daubed with red paint.
As I was about to move on a low clucking behind announced the approach of a ruffed grouse, and I turned my head slowly to observe him out of the corner of my eye. He was not alarmed at my motionless figure, but somewhat disturbed and curious. He took a few steps forward, while his mate some paces behind clucked warningly; then a few more steps forward, a hasty retreat, another advance ; but finally deciding on the safe course, he returned over the hill. During this, the drumming season, grouse are to be found along streams "budding" in the willow trees. Slate-colored birds flashed their white outer tail feathers and followed me through the woods with their sucking intonations. Some of them would nest in the dunes, others in the far northern lands of Labrador and Alaska. The crows were wasting a lot of time badgering their ancient enemy, for they never do overlook an opportunity to rain down retribution on the heads that doubtless cause them much anxiety at night. A red-tailed hawk departed before me from the remains of a cotton-tail, but a pellet convicted Bubo Virginianus.
THE CATBIRD IS ONE OF THE FINEST SONGSTERS, RIVALING EVEN THE MOCKING-BIRD IN THE EXTENT OF ITS REPERTOIRE
The morning of April 19th, I set out with the intention of finding at least a crow's nest. A dense growth of pine bordering some swampy meadows offered promise. Red-headed woodpeckers, their heads bobbing out comically from behind sheltering limbs, uttered their rattling disapproval of my intruding presence. A junco that lighted on a chosen tree drew forth the same call. At the appearance of a marsh hawk, the red-heads repeated their challenge, while the junco dropped into a bush like a stone, and remained as still until I began to doubt that I was regarding an animate object. Presently, a song from a neighboring thicket brought it back to life, and the hush of suspense was dispelled by a general outburst of carefree song. Surely, "in Nature danger passes like the shadow of a fleeting cloud; no sooner is it past than it is forgotten." Blue jays have an interesting habit of imitating hawks, which one might surmise arises from a mischievous desire to startle other birds. As I was picking my way through the marsh from one dry clump to another, a crow suddenly bursting out vindictively aroused my suspicion. For a moment before I had seen the wily bird departing through the timber some distance ahead. Its present outburst was clearly intended to convey the false impression that it had just discovered me. As wily as the crow, I passed its nest without an upward glance, but the crafty bird followed me stealthily for some distance. A few hundred yards farther on, a cushion of pine needles under a fine pine offered an invitation to rest. I was slipping off my pack, when something a few yards overhead drew my attention, and looking up I discovered a long-eared owl staring down at me intently. Silently he glided away into the swamp underbrush. A glance at the ground strewn with pellets told me this was one of his, regular perches. My eye fell on a seedy-looking crow's nest, situated in the top of a half fallen tree, which on the face of things was long since abandoned by its original owners. It did not deserve a second glance, but the ends of a pair of diverging sticks projecting above the rim, somehow riveted my attention. Irresistibly my eye returned again and again to the leaning tree. Surely such a. ramshackle affair without a leaf to shelter it would not be selected as an abode by any bird. Still by tossing up a stick the matter could be easily settled.
A long-eared owl slipped off and glided after its mate into the swamp underbrush. Exposed to heaven and earth, safe in its very conspicuousness, the long-eared owl sits aloft on its eggs, while its mate secluded amid dense pine bows a few yards off keeps guard. For there are many sharp eyes in the woods, among them the ever prying ones of those unendurable crows. At any time it may be necessary to divert and lead elsewhere some inquisitive visitor ; so during the day the mate in the pine is ever ready in an emergency. I have known a horned owl to kill and feed to its young a long-eared owl, so that the anxiety of a constant watchfulness has to be continued even at night. Long-eared owls are very beneficial birds, feeding as they do largely on rodents. They are rather active during the day, often being found on the ground hunting mice.
It was one of those supremely calm mornings. Through the mist rising slowly over the lake came the wild laugh of a loon. Presently, his form emerged into view; then he sank, without a ripple, without an effort.
A YOUNG WOOD THRUSH JUST AFTER LEAVING THE NEST. THE YOUNG THRUSH RESEMBLES THE YOUNG ROBIN,
TO WHICH IT IS CLOSELY RELATED
Watching carefully, I soon saw his head reappear, then gradually his back, and now again that wild laugh. Far in the distance, like a faint echo, an answering call floated back. A gull near by burst out hilariously. In the calm of the morning every bird seemed to laugh forth its call, and I responded inwardly in perfect accord.
Turning inland I followed a pine-scented trail to a reedy marsh; red-wings were swinging and singing on the cat-o'-nine-tails ; a bittern pumped; in the distance a marsh-hawk sailed low over the meadows, circling, crisscrossing, its white rump flashing in the sun. It repeated frequently its low cry (not so forceful as that of the red-shouldered hawk), and occasionally a low chucking call. Suddenly, it dropped into the tall grass after a lizard, frog, snake, or mouse, which constitute its staple food. It also occasionally captures birds, even rabbits, but altogether does much more good than harm. As it was now June, somewhere in or about the marsh in a dry tuft of grass, which was merely matted down to form a nest, the mate of the hawk observed was sitting on her usual complement of four to six bluish eggs.
Red-headed woodpeckers are plentiful in the dunes the year round, their numbers being augmented in the fall, when they congregate here to feed on the abundant crop of acorns. Their low-pitched resonant "querl" rings out to an accompaniment of rapping, and their frolicking manoeuvres give a lively tone to the landscape. Dropping into an oak top, one will hang upside down onto a sagging bough, while securing an acorn, which it takes to a neighboring stump, wedges into the bark, and then pecks at leisure. While thus engaged, it squeals persistently, as if challenging others to pursue it, and this they eagerly do, the pursued circling back through the midst of its pursuers, if they show any signs of lagging. I have seen them clash and fall to the ground in a rather serious encounter. The adults with their bright red heads seem just as youthful in spirits as the brown-headed young, and altogether they are the most jolly lot of playfellows imaginable. A marsh-hawk sailing in among them evidently causes little apprehension; they dodge at a pinch, but the hawk is not out of sight before they are as noisy as ever.
WESTERN CHIPPING SPARROW SETTLING ON NEST
WESTERN CHIPPING SPARROW ENTERING NEST