Here to return to
THE BEGINNINGS OF SPRING
MANIFOLD are the perils of journalism. A few weeks ago I filled a letter with the praise, most sincerely felt, of a certain tropical hammock on the road from Miami to Cocoanut Grove, a place full of birds, and destined, so I hoped, to be equally full of music. This eulogy, it transpires, was read by a bird-loving enthusiast from New England, sojourning for the winter at the Hotel Ormond; and what should he do but send me word, a stranger, that he had packed his trunk and was coming down straightway (two hundred and fifty miles or more) to inspect the wonder.
In due course he arrived, and as soon as possible I led him out of the city, across the river, through a stretch of blazing sunshine, and at last into the heart of the hammock. It was a long jaunt, much longer than he was prepared for, the afternoon was hot, and to make matters worse the hammock showed almost no sign of that profusion of avian existence, with the anticipation of which my glowing periods had filled him.
Fortunately for my reputation, I had forewarned him that such would be the case. The birds, I explained, either because the season had advanced, or for some other reason, had pretty nearly deserted the jungle of West Indian trees, shrubs, and vines, — for such this particular hammock is, — and had betaken themselves to the more open country, especially to certain groves of newly clad live-oaks, whose sturdy, widespreading, rival-killing, trust-creating, monopolistic arms, by the time the trees are of middle age, have made for themselves a relatively sunny clearing.
I had been growing aware of this change in the face of things for a week or two, and now, when the newcomer has been three or four days in Miami, the reality of it is conclusively established. On two mornings of the present week, for example, I found in a few minutes’ stroll before breakfast a highly interesting flock of perhaps twenty kinds of birds in the live-oaks and other scattered trees on the very edge of the city, within a hundred rods of my own doorstep: fish crows, boat-tailed grackles, crow blackbirds, red-headed woodpeckers, downy woodpeckers, red-bellied woodpeckers, flickers, catbirds, mockingbirds, house wrens, cardinals, palm warblers, myrtle warblers, parula warblers, prairie warblers, black-and-white warblers, yellow-throated warblers, solitary vireos, yellow-throated vireos, blue jays, phoebes, ground doves, blue-gray gnat- catchers, ruby-crowned kinglets, a male nonpareil, a Baltimore oriole, a crested flycatcher, a hummingbird, and a hermit thrush. A varied bunch of feathers, and no mistake.
In the tropical hammock, on the other hand, during the same forenoons, I saw, as well as I remember, nothing but white-eyed vireos, phoebes, catbirds, cardinals, palm and myrtle warblers, crested flycatchers, nonpareils, and gnatcatchers. So completely has the condition of things been reversed with the change of season.
Other signs are not lacking that March has brought the spring. Mockingbirds are daily becoming more rhapsodical. The other afternoon, out among the cabins of the black suburb, I stood still while three sang at once on different sides. They are friends of the poor, as well as of the rich. This morning two yellow-throated vireos sang, chattered, and whistled; and a most delicious trilled whistle theirs is, soft, musical, full of sweet and happy feeling. Better still, almost (because more of a novelty), a yellow-throated warbler sang his dreamy tune over and over. This is one of the most exquisite birds ever made; of quiet, modest colors, bluish-black and white, with a single bright jewel to set them off a gorget of brilliant yellow. To-day I have seen as many as ten such beauties, I think. Their feeding habits and their movements, as well as their black and white stripes, are surprisingly like those of the black-and-white creeper, — to which they ought to be more nearly related than the systematists allow, — while their song is in the manner of the indigo-bird.
Now, if the nonpareil buntings would only fall into line! Thus far they have not favored me with a note, and indifferent musicians as I know them to be, I believe there is no other bird in Miami that I am so desirous of hearing. Such feathers as they wear! Once in a while, of late, a male has been good enough to take a somewhat lofty perch and display himself. If there is a more gorgeous bird in the United States I should like to see him. Just now there are at least three enthusiasts in Miami — a Kentucky lady, a Rhode Island man, and a Massachusetts man — who are doing their best daily to get their fill of his loveliness.
Phoebes have sung much less of late than they did in January. Then they seemed to find existence a perpetual jubilee. Red-bellied woodpeckers, too, are far less talkative than they were a month ago. Most likely they are busier. And by the by, the Kentucky enthusiast above mentioned pleased me by calling this woodpecker the “checkerback,” a felicitous name, in common use in Kentucky, it appears, and perhaps elsewhere. I am happy to adopt it and pass it on.
If there were words wherewith to describe the indescribable, I should like to tell of a bluebird that I saw a week ago about one of the vegetable gardens out on the prairie. The blue of that creature’s back and wings is not to be imagined. The bluest sky never matched it. I would wager that he was Florida born. No Northern bird ever owned such a coat. In my recollection he will stand as one of the sights of the country, along with the “banyan trees,” the snaky green vanilla vines, and the tropical jungle.
These letters are of necessity written piecemeal. In this hospitable Southern country, where the weather and so many things beside are continually calling, “Come forth and enjoy us,” one cannot stay indoors very long at once. So it happened that at the conclusion of the last paragraph I put down my pencil and started out for another few minutes among the live-oaks. As I approached them I descried a man sitting upon a heap of coal-ashes dumped along the railway. He might have been Job himself, to look at him, but at a second glance I perceived that he was not actually sitting in the ashes, but on a board, and instead of bewailing his afflictions or his sins, was peacefully minding the New Testament injunction, “Behold the fowls of the air.” In short, he was the gentleman from Ormond, with his glass, as it happened, focused upon a handsome prairie warbler.
We passed the time of day, after the bird had flown, — for the field has its courtesies, and we respect them, — and he told me that in spite of the unfavorable north wind (one of our periodical cold spells is upon us, with the mercury in the forties) he had ventured out, and had been liberally rewarded. He had seen yellow-throated warblers, a parula, a prairie, and I forget what else, and, to take his word for it, was living in clover.
Presently a hawk swooped among the trees, and every small bird became invisible as if by magic. Then my companion proposed taking a turn beyond the fence. This we did, and just as we came suddenly upon a huge watch-dog (a great Dane, I suppose he would be called), formidable-looking and chained, but fawning upon us so eagerly that there was nothing for it but to pat him on the head and call him a good fellow — just as we approached him, I say, I nudged the second man to stop. There, straight before us, side by side on the rim of an iron kettle of water set under the trees for the dog’s benefit, stood a male cardinal and a male nonpareil. Perhaps they were not a glorious pair! Them also I shall remember, along with the miraculous bluebird.
Less brilliant, but even more memorable, was my one Bachman’s warbler. I had stopped under a live-oak, — on a return from the big hammock, — and was putting my glass upon one bird after another feeding among its blossoms (parulas, yellow-throats, ruby-crowns, gnatcatchers, and myrtle-birds), when in the very topmost spray I sighted a spot of coal-black set in bright yellow. Here was something new. From twig to twig the stranger went, — rather deliberately, for a warbler,— the glass following, till after submitting for perhaps ten minutes to my eager inspection he slipped away, as birds have a knack of doing, without my seeing him go. However, he had shown himself perfectly — the jet breastplate, the yellow forehead, the black crown, the lustrous olive of the upper parts, and the yellow patch upon the wing. He was a bird that I had never expected to see. Comparatively few ornithologists have been so happy.
This was on March 7. For two days we had noticed indications of a migratory movement, especially among parulas and yellow-throated warblers. Probably the Bachman had come from farther south. My thanks to him for treating me so handsomely, though he might have doubled the obligation, at no cost to himself, by singing me a tune.