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BIRDS OF THE NOR'EASTER
OUR weather here in eastern Massachusetts comes from the southwest. Whirling storms, little or big, move up from the Gulf coast and pass on, headed for Spitzbergen by way of Newfoundland. Knowing the habits of these whirling winds, the watchers of the weather bureau are able to say, as a rule quite accurately, when the storm will reach us, from what direction the winds will blow, and what they will bring with them and after them, — rain, gale, or fair weather.
One exception to this rule of accuracy is when the storm center, instead of reasonably and politely following the usual route, skips suddenly out to sea by way of Hatteras and goes roaring up the easterly edge of the Gulf Stream. That is when the weather signs that you find on the southeast corner of the front page, evening edition, fail, for that is when we catch our unexpected northeaster.
"Back to the wind in the northern hemisphere," says the rule, "and the storm center is on your left." So, with the wind whirling its thousand-mile circuit about this mysterious center halfway across the Atlantic, we get it from the northeast, and it brings whiffs of mid-ocean spume to our nostrils that are weary of the summer's heat, and clothes all the land with the gray mists out of which grew the Norse sagas.
On days when the northeaster sings along the Gloucester shore, tears white wraiths off the red rocks of Marblehead and Nahant, and spins them in beaten spume along the gray sands of Nantasket, we of the inland country tread our heat-browned pastures with lifted heads, watching mysterious vapors wrap the land in legend, breathing the same air as the stormy petrel, and knowing that in our hearts the strong pulse beats with the blood of vikings.
On such days I love to watch the pond shore and the reedy stretches of the meadow marsh, for to them come the first of the wild migrants of autumn, and in the northeaster you may exchange greetings with the winter yellow-legs, just down from the Arctic shore. To-day I heard them, high in the invisible realms of the upper mists, whirling down to me, — gray forms out of a gray sky that seemed to loose them as it later will loose snowflakes.
Their staccato whistle in its minor chromatics shrills forth four notes over and over again, — notes lonesome with the heartache of northern barrens, wild as the echoes of ice cliffs that never rang responsive to voices other than those of the eerie birds of Arctic seas; a high-pitched plaint that might well be the shrilling of a little lost wind crying for its mother. You may imitate this whistle well enough to deceive the birds and bring them swirling within range of your gun if you will, though you can never put into it the wild plaint that echoes of far-off, lonely spaces.
The yellow-legs do not come as often as they used, and it is some years since I have seen even a small flock of the beautiful little blue-winged teal that were once so plentiful that the rustle of their wings was a familiar thing at daybreak on the marsh. I miss them both, It is worth a tramp to pond or marsh to hobnob even for a brief moment of interchange of friendly greetings with such travelers. The winter yellow-legs may summer in the extreme Arctic and winter in Patagonia. The teal's range is less, though he may breed in Alaska and winter in South America. Their loss, here in the east, is the price we pay for civilization of our present sort. I daresay it is worth it, but I believe there is a better sort that does not come so high in the loss of wilderness friends.
Along the pond shore, after the yellowlegs have dashed in upon us, whistled the wind full of loneliness and heartache, and dashed away again like ghosts of gray snow-flurries yet to be, it is a pleasure to watch the homely antics of the spotted sandpipers. Of these you may find a pair or two about the pond all summer long, no doubt having a nest in some grassy meadow nearby. By the time the equinoctial northeaster is due, this pair or two has become oftentimes a dozen, preparing for their flight to the shores of the Caribbean Sea, where they will spend the winter, yet loth to leave New England.
These birds are never much afraid of me. If I approach too near they sing out peevishly, "Peet-weet, peet-weet," and half-circle in a short level flight out over the water and back again to the shore, Indeed, I strongly suspect their attitude toward my intrusion is one of humorous scorn. They are apt to face me as I come quite near, and bow low with what seems the exaggeration of politeness, only they immediately turn about and bow just as politely the other way, which flips their white tail feathers in my direction with a gesture which is certainly one of ill-bred contempt.
Then they fly away, leaving me in doubt as to whether they mean it or not. Probably, however, there is nothing distinctly personal in it. The legs of the spotted sandpiper are hitched to the body with muscles that seem to act like springs, and he can't help teetering when he attempts to stand still, hence his popular names of teeter, teeter-tail, etc.
Along with the spotted sandpipers at this time of year I am apt to find the ring-necked or piping plover, these already on their autumnal migration, for they breed from Labrador northward. They differ little from the sandpiper in size, but you will readily know them by the white collar which encircles the neck, with a little black vest partly defined just below it. Modest, busy little chaps they are, running about on the sands, picking up insects and minute crustaceæ, continually twittering "Peep, peep," and caring little for your approach until, finally frightened, they rise as one bird and fly away in a compact flock.
I have never seen these birds swim, though their half-webbed feet would seem to indicate that they can. Though, for that matter, birds that have no webbing at all between the toes sometimes swim well when forced to it. The common barn-yard hen, thrown into the water, will sit erect and swim as a duck might until her feathers are wet through.
To the pond with the autumnal northeaster usually comes a pied-billed grebe or two. If you are sharp eyed and fortunate you may see one beating his way down the wind with rapid strokes of his ludicrously short wings. His flight is something like that of a duck, though I think he makes harder work of it, more wing strokes to the minute; but you will know him as he nears you, for no duck ever stretched his head so eagerly forward or carried his legs dangling so far astern.
The bird should be at ease on land, for he has a bill like a hen, and his toes are lobed merely, not connected with webbing. But he is not. On foot he is slow, clumsy, and ludicrously ungainly. Probably for this reason the grebe does not go near land when he can help it. Even his nest is built on the water, sometimes actually floating, a mass of rotten sedge and mud, and the chicks swim and dive like old birds as soon as hatched. But if the land gait of the grebe is ludicrous and his flight laborious, in the water he is the personification of grace, ease, and agility.
Well does he merit one of his familiar names, — that of water-witch. When the hunters go forth to the marsh I am sorry for my innocent friends, the blue-winged teal. I know how few fly now where once the air would seem full of them. When I hear the quacking of live decoys my heart misgives me for the fate of the black duck, for I know how their fellow-feeling and sociable instinct will bring them in to the blind where the gunners are hidden.
Neither decoys nor dead shots give me any qualms of uneasiness where the pied-billed grebe is concerned. The decoys may split their throats in calling to him when they see him swim by just out of gunshot. He will not even turn his head. It may be that he has a voice; I have never heard him use it. When it is in the open with fair play, grebe against gun, my sympathies are with the gunner, for I know how great cry and little wool will result.
I have seen a pied-billed grebe cornered in a narrow, shallow river by gunners on each bank. He dove at the flash of the first gun, and though it was point-blank range, he was under water before the shot could reach him. He was up again and under a dozen times, to be followed by a dozen shots, only wasted. No wonder the hunters call him "hell-diver." I have seen it stated in nature books that this name is given him because of the extreme depth to which he is supposed to go. No doubt the grebe goes deep when he wishes to, but the gunners have n't taken that into consideration. The name is one symptom of the profanity which his exceptional skill necessitates.
At the end of a dozen shots the grebe cornered in the river decided in his slow way that he was being hunted while above water, so he simply failed to come up. A grebe has been known to stay under five minutes when loosening water-weeds for its nest or when pursuing fish for its supper. This one was seen no more by the gunners, and after waiting half an hour or so they went away, firm in the belief that the last shot had really reached him, but that he had in his death throes become entangled in water-weeds and remained there. Comforting for the gunners, no doubt, and very satisfactory to the grebe. Ten minutes after they had disappeared the bird reappeared and went on feeding as before.
He had simply been floating along, under water all but the tip of its bill, which protruded as far as the nostrils and gave him ample opportunity to breathe. All these are clever feats, of course, but are explicable. The grebe has to live, either on or in the water, and he has learned how to do it even with the hand of man against him. He has one other trick, however, the mechanism of which I have never been able to understand. Swimming along on the surface he will, if he cares to, suddenly sink as if made of lead, feet first. How does he do this? One moment he is as buoyant as a cork; the next he goes down like a flatiron. "Spirit duck" is another name of his. He deserves it.
Another bird that is always linked, in my mind, with the sea wind beating the long marsh grasses into panicled waves and the fine rain of the equinoctial hanging the sheltered culms with strung pearls, is the Carolina rail. Some of them breed hereabouts, but the greater number of them are on their way from Labrador, where they have brought up the season's young, to the banks of the Orinoco or the steaming swamps that border the Amazon.
How they ever make the flight back and forth each year is one of those mysteries of which the wilderness world is fascinatingly full. Hardly with threats and beating of bushes can you drive them out of the marsh grass. When one of them does take to the wing it is with reluctance and apology for his awkwardness oozing from every pore, If you will put some brown feathers, a pair of dangling legs, and two short, inadequate wings on a misshapen bottle and send it fluttering through the air over the grass tops for a rod or two, you will have a good imitation of a Carolina rail protesting at being kicked out of the Poca serotina.
Once is always enough for him. You may go to the exact spot where he dropped into the grass again and raise all the hullabaloo you wish. Only with a dog can you start him out again, and the third time he will not flush even for the dog. Yet with this equipment Panza carolina leaves Labrador in the latter part of August and arrives in Venezuela during November! Perhaps he does part of the journey on foot, for he is certainly better equipped for walking than for flight.
The rail is the incarnation of timidity, and you may look long even when the marsh is full of them before you see one. The best way is to slip your canoe quietly up some narrow creek where the tall grass waves far above your head and lie silent in it where you may scan either bank. Trampling through the grass it seems thick almost to impenetrability, but with your head on a level with its roots rather than the tops, you will see that it is full of Gothic-arched aisles, sometimes widening into under-grass cathedrals with nave and transept, sometimes narrowing into invisibility, though there is always a secret door through which the initiated may pass.
Down the widest of these aisles comes the runway of the muskrat. Through the tallest of them may stalk the bittern with his long neck stretched straight out before him, and his sharp bill pointing the way. These are the broad highways of the marsh, but the rail does not travel them much. Even their seclusion is too public for him. He prefers the narrowing passages that lead him to close-pressed grass culms. These cannot bar his way, for that peculiar wedge-shaped build which makes him so ridiculous on the wing is just what he needs here. It allows him to follow the point of his bill and slip through the thickest growth of culms without a rustle and without. disturbing the tops. Hence if you are fortunate enough to see him, he is just as likely to step forth from a solid wall of grass as from one of the pointed arches of the openings along the way.
You will not hear the grass rustle nor see it move, but the rail will be there, intent and preternaturally solemn. His head is thrust downward and forward, his tail is cocked nervously high behind, and he walks gingerly, as if apologizing to the mud for making tracks in it. You may see him climb a rush by clutching it with his toes, and feed on the seeds above; you may see him swim deftly across the creek, for he is a good swimmer. But the least motion on your part will send him into the thick grass again so quickly that he seems to dematerialize.
Old gunners tell me that a rail will slip under water and cling to a reed with only his bill above the surface, thus imitating the grebe in his methods of concealment. They say that when hard pushed by dogs and guns they go entirely beneath the surface and sometimes cling there until drowned; also that they have known rails to go into fits and finally swoon from fright, I cannot vouch for these things myself, but I believe that if any bird ever swooned from fright it was a Carolina rail.
Duck, grebe, plover, and rail may come to us storm-driven by the stress of the equinoctial. Not so the loon. He rides the northeaster, and you may hear him whooping in wild glee as he slides down the gale. His gray breast is brave to buffet gray crests of Arctic seas and his mighty thighs are built to drive the broad webbing of his agile feet till he whirls through icy waters like a spirit. Alert, defiant, mighty, he is a familiar figure of the wild gale that has spun a thousand miles across turbulent seas, and when he lights in our inland waters he comes not for refuge, but because the restless joy of storm riding has happened to bring him hither.
Shoot at him if you will. He is under, unharmed at the flash of your gun, and he may swim a half-mile, if he cares to, before coming tip again. Then you may hear him laugh in scornful good humor, "Hoo, boo, hoo, hoo," for little he cares for you. He knows enough to keep out of your way, but you cannot feel that he is afraid of you. When he goes out again, welting the gale with his strong wings and boring straight into the wild heart of the northeaster, the pond is lonely, the marsh flat and insipid, and it is time for dry clothes and the comfort of glowing logs in the wide fireplace.