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BIRDS OF CHOCORUA
Some May Songsters of the Frank Bolles Hinterland
To all who love the lore of woodland life the country up around Chocorua lake and mountain must always be haunted by the gentle spirit of Frank Bolles, whose books, all too few, breathe the very essence of its perennial charm. To nature lovers who come year after year to the place these books are a litany, and all the bird songs are echoes of the notes he loved. Nor need there be an hour of the twenty-four in this region, in May, in which the birds do not sing. No night is too dark for the wistful plaint of the whip-poor-wills, wandering voices that seem born of the loneliness of the bare places in the hills before man was. To the wakeful ear their sorrow hardly seems soothing, yet when drowsiness comes from long days in the mountain air the whip-poor-will's plaint is a primal, preadamite lullaby that as surely sings to sleep as does the cadenced sorrow of the wind in the pines or the minor murmur of a mountain brook, intermittently tossed over the hill by the night breeze. Often at nightfall the "clackety clack, cow, cow, cow" of the yellow-billed cuckoo sounds through the Chocorua woods, as if a lanternless watchman were making his rounds and sounding the hour with his rattle. Often, too, some songbird will rouse from sleep as if he heard the cuckoo watchman, going his rounds, pipe him a sleepy bar or two of his day song, notes strangely vivid in the perfumed darkness, then drowse again with the melody half finished. But of all these the whip-poor-wills are most persistent and loudest. They greet the dusk with antiphonal chant, and when they finally follow the shadows to rest in the darkest wood the choir of day takes their silence for its matin bell.
Something of Bolles's purity of diction and sweet content in the gentle joy of life in the fields and woods, the sapphire cadences of distant mountain peaks and the chrysoprase tremolo of young leaves, seems to have come from the song of the white-throated sparrow that sings all day about Chocorua. "Peabody bird" we call the white, throat, from long custom, but to me his notes, clear, sweet and infinitely refreshing, seem to chant in accelerating diminuendo, "hap-pi-ness, happiness," till I lose the quivering cadences in an infinity of distance where sight and sound blend in the passing of dear dreams. The white-throated sparrow comes to the hills with the pink buds of the trailing arbutus, whose blooms are nowhere else so white and fair, and something of their fragrance seems always to come from his song. In little nooks where the. early spring sunlight wells in pools of warmth the perfumes of the arbutus blooms and of the white-throat's song come first, and they linger long into the summer where cool Northern hillsides hold the spring in their shadows. Sometimes the autumn, too, gives us a rare reblooming of the arbutus, and the white throat sings his song of pure contentment well into the mellow haze of late September.
Now that May is in the mountains one may see the warblers budding from the twigs with the leaves, nor shall he at first know which dappling of living light has burgeoned from the wood or which flashed in from the sky above, so harmonious are the contrasts of rich color. Often it seems to be the leaves that sing, so well does the tiny songster fit upon his perch. All about the lake in beech and birch the young buds lisp and the half-open leaves trill with the tiny music of the parulas. As you pass from ridge to lowland and on to ridge again they lead you along the hillsides and on to the cool depths of remoter ranges where the ancient hemlocks still grow, their gray beards of usnea moss hanging sedately in the shadows among their dark trunks. The parulas feed and sing in the light of deciduous trees, but they nest in this moss in the shadows of the black growth. Here comes true the fairy tale of the birds that built their nests in beards, for as I rest in the cloistered seclusion of the hemlocks two parulas come and press aside the gray lace draperies of pendent moss and enter in. There is the beginning of the nest, this tiny cavern which they wedge with their bodies from the matted moss. The lower ends of this are to be turned up and interwoven, making the bottom more secure, and pendent there in her swinging cradle, safe from the eyes of owl or jay above, from four-footed prowlers below, the mother bird will brood her rufous-wreathed white eggs.
Many another warbler will lead the May visitor to Chocorua through these lakeside woodlands which Bolles loved. Some toll him cheerfully from one low thicket to another, where he may see the bird and the wood violet in the same glance or pluck painted and purple trilliums and not lose sight of his quest. Of these is the black-masked Maryland yellowthroat, whose song of "witchery, witchery, witchery," always speaks for itself alone. No bird seems necessary for the production of this. It buds from the air as young leaves do from the twigs, impelled by a magic power within itself, nor, when you finally find the bird, demurely winding his masked way through the low growth, does the voice by any chance proceed from his throat. All warblers are ventriloquists, but I always think the Maryland yellowthroat of the Chocorua thickets the most demure magician of them all. Perhaps the black mask has something to do with it, lending to the eye the same thought which the puzzled ear conveys. The yellowthroats are building now, weaving their grass nests in tussocks of swamp grass down by the water's edge, hiding them not so uniquely indeed as the parulas, but almost as well. The spikes of swamp grass grow tall about each nest, and its deep cup if seen at all from the outside is to the eye but a tangle of the last year's grasses, matted down under this year's growth. If I find these nests it is only by looking directly down into the heart of each tussock until I reach the right one. Yet this is not particularly difficult. It means only a little patience in inspection, after the probable neighborhood has been defined by the presence of the birds themselves. The yellowthroats are shy about their nests. If you inspect them too often they will leave them and begin all over again in anew locality. But, away from the nest, they are an easy bird to see much of. A man in their neighborhood is an object of insatiable curiosity to them, and you do not need to discover them if they are near. Instead they will come, creeping and peering through the bushes, to inspect you if you will but sit quietly in the region in which that "witchery" song is born out of the circumambient air.
Into the upper end of Chocorua Lake flows a brook of transparent water, fed by melting snows, out of "the heart of the mountain." Along this the song of the water thrush leads the wanderer from one limpid pool to another, a song that has in it some of the liquid prattle of the stream but more of a dominant, aggressive note that carries far. There is a touch of sunlight in the color of the water thrush's breast, sunlight flecked with little brown shadow markings that are like the uniform brown of his back, and if it were not that he sticks so closely to the water he might suggest the oven-bird to the careless glance. There is something of the song sparrow and the oven-bird at once in his song. It is as if the two birds had mated to produce him and the singing masters of both families had had the youngsters to singing school. Up this clear-water brook the oven-birds call you by way of the height of land, the water thrushes from pool to pool, while the sun drops behind Paugus in mid afternoon, and the blue shadows of the Sandwich range add to the cool gloom which wells upward from the deep gorge which is the heart of the mountains.
On the way, as the water thrushes and Maryland yellowthroats sing from the thickets near the water, so the oven-bird sends his aggressive staccato from the middle distances of the higher trees. I never knew an oven-bird to sing from either a tree top or a low thicket. Always he sits on a limb well up the trunk yet well beneath the shade also, and sends forth that aggressive, eager call for knowledge. "Teach us, teach us, teach us," he cries to the wood gods, nor is he ever satisfied with his schooling, but applies persistently for more. The oven-bird is the very voice of the spirit of modern learning, crying always, in the wilderness of knowledge attained, for more knowledge. The wood gods have taught him much. Invisibility for himself he has almost learned. He sits like a knot on a speckled brown limb, and his speckled brown breast is so much like it that he may sing long there within a little distance of your eye before you see him. Invisibility for his nest he and his demure brown wife have learned completely. You may sit on it to rest among the brown leaves in the wood and not know it is there unless the frightened escape of the brown mother birds gives you a hint, and even then it is invisible, so completely is it hidden in the debris dropped by the previous autumn. Of dead weed stalks, grasses and brown leaves it is not only built but roofed, and with an entrance on one side that to the uninitiated might be an entrance to the nest of a field mouse, indeed, but never that to a bird's nest. It is not for greater knowledge of nest hiding that the oven-bird need pray to the wood gods, nor may we know what further wisdom he seeks, but all summer long he asks for it in no uncertain tones.
Out of the very treetops while the oven-bird shouts his prayer below comes the voice of the red-eyed vireo, uttering moral platitudes from dawn till dusk. It is no wonder that some birds go wrong with this monotonous preacher steadily droning out, "Don't do this; don't do that," to them all day long. The bluejays, who have robber baron blood stirring always under their gaudy military coats, jeer at this prating of platitudes and descend upon the vireo's hanging nest and eat the eggs from it, I always think, with more gusto than in their other freebooting, and small blame to them. The red-eyed vireo leads an exemplary life, no doubt, living properly on small insects and keeping up perpetual prayer-meeting, but his self-righteous twaddle must be intensely irritating to all but impeccably good birds that have to listen to it. In gladsome relief from this was the demeanor of the Canadian warblers, also flitting daintily in the treetops. I know the authorities say that the Canadian warbler frequents low thickets, but there is no mistaking the bird with his breast and throat of clear yellow and his necklace of jet beads, and this May the leafy topmost twigs of the deciduous trees in the Chocorua region held many such. They sang their liquid warble which has in it more than a suggestion of the song-sparrow notes of the water-thrush song, and they dashed out into the free air for insects which they captured, flycatcher fashion, and then dashed back again. The Canadian warblers are migrating, feeding and singing as they go on to their nesting sites farther north, and this year their favorite food must have been hanging high, for they were up there after it.
With the Canadians was the first wave of the tide of blackpolls which sweeps over the mountains, also bound north, in late May. More restless were these, constantly flitting and seeking food among the leaves, now in deciduous growth, again in the evergreens, ever moving on and ever singing their high-pitched, hissing whistle which is not so very different from the song of the black and white creeper, though a little more deliberate in movement and having a more staccato quality. So far as coloration goes one might mistake the male blackpoll for the black and white creeper were not the movements of the birds so distinctly different and the song as wiry but as soothingly crepitant as that of the cicada.
Night falls early in the deep heart of Chocorua, and full and clear the wood thrushes were yodeling of peace, one to another in the shadows, as I turned to descend. In the worn fields of the ancient clearing about the farmhouse where Bolles lived and loved the woods and all that therein lived with him, the song sparrows were trilling evening songs and the swifts twittering and circling nearer and nearer the big chimney which is their summer home. The bird cherry trees were white angels of bloom, and from all the land far and near the incense of opening blossoms made the air sweet and rose toward the high, mysterious altar of Chocorua's peak as if in adoration of the rose glow of its sunset tints. Chocorua Lake was a mirror in which the glory of the summit, the blue dusk of the lower ranges and its own shores were reflected in perfect beauty. It was a sounding-board as well, across whose level came to the ear innumerable bird songs, singing carols of praise to the passing of day. Out of the blue depths of the sky the cool of night dropped like a blessing from heaven and seemed to soften and liquefy all melodies into purer, more mellow music. Wood thrushes and hermits sang in the shadows hymns of praise to the most high peak of the mountain, a pantheistic worship that was old ages before any spires other than those of the spruces had pointed the way to heaven.
From the hillocks of the pasture to the topmost boughs of the forest all bird life joined in the worship, making the welkin ring with praise of the pure joy of life, a chorus that quivered into silence only with the passing of the rose of mystery from the very tip of the high horn of Chocorua. Nor did the silence last long. Before the last wood thrush had finished his "Good night; all's well; God is good," other songs of praise and the joy of life were echoing from swamp and wood and lake margin. Where the birds had ceased a myriad other voices took up new refrains. The dreamy trill of the tree frogs sounds from the perfumed dusk, a lullaby of the world primeval that sang the first man to sleep in some safe refuge in the deep woods. From the distant marsh the mingled voices of innumerable hylas ring a chorus of fairy sleigh-bells that rises and falls as the wind of evening drifts by. Nowhere in the world, I believe, can one hear such hyla choruses as he gets in May evenings from marshy pools among the New Hampshire hills. Coming from a distance the hypnotic insistence of the sound has a soothing, sleepy quality that lulls to rest. To seek its source and stand by the very border of the pool is to find it a frightful uproar that shrills in the ears and rings through the head till the deafened hearer is driven to the upland again.
On the lake margin in the failing light it came to me as a sleepy drone of tiny bells, as if goblin sleighing parties were coursing gayly in the night on the white May snow of petals beneath the bird cherry trees. It and the dreamy trilling of the tree frogs were but a background for the voices of night birds that sounded now that those of the day birds had passed. High in air floated the nasal "peent, peent," of whirling nighthawks. Out of the velvet dusk across the glimmering water I heard a bittern working his old-fashioned pump, wheezily. "Cahugunkagunk, cahugunkagunk," he burbled, the weirdest bird voice of any that comes from marsh or mountain, yet in the peacefulness of the place sounding neither lonely nor uncouth. I fancy him, too, with his long beak pointed to the heights, worshiping the mountain peak in his own tongue. Whip-poor-wills mourned gently one to another across the water as a token that the night had really come and the last glow faded from the lone summit now so immeasurably withdrawn into the sky among the stars.
A yellow-billed cuckoo called from the thicket, then, indignant at receiving no answer, sprung his rattle and waited. Roused out of his first slumber a white-throat gave a faint "tseep" of surprise, then trembled into music for a moment and went to sleep again. "Hap-pi-ness, hap-pi-ness, happiness," he sang, the notes slipping away into infinite distance and blending with the perfect quiet of the night and the sky. It was the very spirit of the place speaking and reminding me again of the gentle writer who sang so clearly of the peace and beauty of the Chocorua woods and who now sleeps, after singing.
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