June 13, 1920. Omaha Sunday World-Herald 55(38): 13-N. Also: 6/20, 55(39): 2-W.
A Day With the Birds on the Old River Road
By Sandy Griswold.
There is a happiness to both mind and body that comes with a day spent amidst the wild flowers and wilder little creatures in the old woods and fields, in the early summer time, up along the legendary River road that is derived from no other source. I mean, of course, to one whose predilections for the witcheries of the arboreal quiets and alluring beauties of open expanse that had their foundations laid in the wizardry of adventurous youth. Advancing years have no potency to lessen one's enthusiasm, but on the other hand, through the augmented knowledge that comes with cumulative days, it is broader, deepened and intensified, and each recurring visit is rarer than any that ever went before.
As you know, I have told you many, many times, I am one of this happy clan. Ever since the toddling days of my infancy the spaces, reclusive from human habitation, have had a resistless fascination for me and the passion has been largely catered to. All my long and somewhat eventful life, I have been enthralled with the study of the flora and fauna of our woods and fields, and recalling frequent recent promises, it is an exquisite pleasure to attempt portrayal, even as feeble as it may prove, of my last day up along the ridge of the old River road. A comrade of many similar rambles was with me, and that, too, was a rare happiness.
It was a day of quiet splendor. Just right in temperature to give zest to both mental and physical exertions. One of these incomparable periods of one of the sweetest and dreamiest months of all the year.
Most Laggard Now Here.
While the floral wealth of the region was fast approaching its most lavish exuberance, and while we were equally engrossed with its allurements, in this brief screed, it is of the birds I most desire to tell you, for they, too, were there in revivifying abundance. Even including the most laggard of our vernal visitants.
However, let me say, that in elucidation of comparative conditions that the earlier observers of bird life, and the immortal Wilson was one of them, that the best of all, for that matter, we're compelled by the necessities of the crudeness of things, to observe truly, if not deeply. Putting their wits against those of their bird subjects they had to know them, in order to overcome them. But it was not only the most saliant characteristics of each species that concerned these pristine and practical observers, but the small details that never can be supplied by the written word of any authority.
But with the dawn of a brighter era, up to which just such bird students as I consider myself, have sedulously attempted to lead the rank and file of nature lovers, and which is now upon us, there is an indisputable broadening out of all intellectual interest and the lower kindreds are assuming a very proper place in the concerns of man, and there is an almost general excitement for the exact knowledge of their traits, their whimsicalities and habits. This interest and desire has evolved the real nature historian, an inheritor of the half forgotten mantle of Pliny. Precise and patient students make the birds their care, observing with glasses and measures, comparing sizes, colors, bones, assorting groups and individuals, sub-dividing sub-divisions, until at last all the birds of significance to man and his affairs, have been ticketed, classified, and made clear, even to the intermost fibre of their material substance, to the knowledge of the modern student.
Knowledge of Bird Mystery.
However, it seems to me, fairly safe to say that this minute knowledge of bird mystery and intricacy is not likely to go beyond the point it has reached today. The knowledge we have gained is really a potent emancipator. It relieves us immeasurably from the world of care-worn utilities, from the mean tenement of arrogant and presumptive self, of which the real peoples have grown weary. It has brought us back into close contact with nature, and led us back to the kinship of earth, without the asking of any sort of toll. The clear and translucent, as well as the candid life to which it has reinstated us, holds for us every quality of regard, the rich gift of refreshment and renewal, the more humane the heart and spiritual understanding which we bring to the intimacy of all our glorious nature charms.
Finally, after much indiscriminate, but healthful roistering about, to the distraction of myriads of alert little creatures, both winged and four-footed, and the destruction of many a fragrant blossom we reached what we knew to be a favorable saliant among the whispering trees and the leafy undergrowth that flourished luxuriantly everywhere. The tiny stream that seeps downward from the highlands ran coyly by with many a subdued tinkle and much elfin laughter, off and down through the cryptogamic fronds of late spring, here sprawling venturesomely out among them, there shrinking back to its proper level, it lost itself amidst bramble and brier until it swirled forth again with greater vigor than ever through a wilderness of watercress, cattails, flag leaves, and waving grasses, until it flattened out into an oozy marsh far beyond the highroad, over which the swallows and the martins and their passerine followers were dipping, curving and undulating into and over the golden coated willows, where countless red wings were restlessly flitting and keeping the sensuous air vibrant with their sweet and melodious "kong-konk-koree-ee!"
Hear Bird Calls.
And there we sat and listened, discussing in tones scarcely above a whisper, the various bird calls and notes that came filtering in through the sunlit spaces, like angels' lutes, I w[letter not legible]t you, and their shapes and their colors, peculiarity of flight and other characteristics, as they appeared in brush and tree and open sky with neither cessation nor number. Never is the bird student so elated as when endeavoring to determine the identity of some newly discovered song or form, a contract that often outlasts the patience of the most enthusiastic and then only to end in absolute disappointment.
Especially is this the case among the myriad of warblers, who swarm the different sections of the country in almost incalculable numbers, and present a problem that will remain unsolved for a thousand years to come.
As we sat and talked, we kept our ears open and our glasses busy, for we realized by the perfect diaphason of bird melody, as well as the kaleidescope of bird form and color, of both familiar and unfamiliar little troubadours of the sylvan depths, that the master artists of the feathered grand opera troupe were all present.
While all were warblers, true enough, many of them did not come under this classification. There were thrushes and finches and linnets, in fact, birds of almost every genera, and we were as interested in one class as much as another.
The robin, of course, was within sight and hearing about all the time, although these woods, save late in the autumn, are no particular rendezvous of redbreast. He is such a popular and democratic little fellow, however, that he restricts himself to no especial habitat. He is to be found almost any time and in almost any place.
It is an account of his homeliness and commonness, that he is so much dearer to us than any of those shy, exotic aristocrats, such as the orchard starling, the rosebreasted grosbeak, the cheewink and the Chambertined hued tanager. Ubiquitous, noisy, defiant and frolicsome, at times distant, again neighborly, but always wayward and domestic, he is really the most splendid of all the thrush family.
Then It Was the Catbird.
When it was not the robin, it was the falsetto "meow" of the secretive and covetous catbird, that greeted us, as, in his harmonious deep dark lavender wardrobe, he reconnoitered our perdu among the hazels and the lindens. Finding that the chances of danger were small, up he would go to some screened perch in the midst of the leafy involucre of maple, oak or ash, and burst into song. And what a sweet and wonderful minstrel he is, mimicking perfectly birds of many species, vying even with the brown thrasher, aye, even the southern mocking bird, in vocal capacity. He is a great singer in May and through the present month, but strangely quiescent during the balance of his brief stay here.
Our bird, on this particular occasion, disturbed by an inquisitive woodpecker, suddenly darted from his perch, and flying low, vanished within the tangle of the low shrubbery, but kept hanging around, as we could tell, from his intermittent and querulous "meow."
A pair of purple finches, too, made us a brief call, rare as it was, and for many moments watched us from overhead, and then, as if bored by what they saw, silently slunk away.
Kinglets and yellow breasted flycatchers, delayed in their northern jaunt, flashed in and out the scope of our vision, and once a veritable swarm of crow blackbirds, with distraught and discordant clacking, dashed through the trees environing our little glade, and then were gone, high up over the tallest oaks.
A cuckoo, or rainbird, as the boys will have it, the blackbilled, signalled from one bushy clump or another, while kingbirds and protean hued humming birds were flashing constantly before us, darting in and out of view, and off over the waving moosebells, the ferns, sweet williams, dog-toothed violets and other flowers, with most aggravating fitfulness. Indeed, a beautiful and inspiring sight.
A Storm of Birds.
We saw finches, also, and sparrows, in all varieties, phoebes, brown thrashers, wood thrushes, black and white warblers, Tennessees and Marylands and yellow throats, lemon colored and blue and gray and black, fly catchers, big and little black polls, grosbeaks, rose breasted and cardinal, downy wood peckers, sapsuckers, flickers and redheads, swallows, orioles, gold finches, wrens, yes, and once a flock of scurring herring gulls, blown in from off the river, and one lone whippoorwill, that my companion came near trodding upon, when we resumed our way.
Another exquisite little charmer of these populace old woods, is the cernlean winged warbler, commonly called the blue wing, but when he gives you a chance to transitorily study him, it is in the thickets of the undergrowth. he is indeed, a rare avis, here and most anywhere else, and is much given to loud clothes, with a jet black line extending back through the eye from the base of his bill - the diagnostic feature of his plumage. His crown and breast is bright yellow, wings and tail blue-gray, with white trimmings. he is tardy, and leisurely in his movements, for a warbler, and you will often catch him hanging upside down from limbs and twigs, like the chick-a-dee, feasting on the larvae of insects which infest the under surface of leaves. His voice suggests the buzz of the larger of the cicadae, with a pensive strain running through it, as if he was mourning for some absent friend, and while faint, it is strangely penetrating.
That little bon vivant of the sylvan glades, the redstart is among the frequent visitors up there. He is a pretty little mite, and while quite docile in the early vernal days, becomes a veritable eremite after the season of nidification sets in, and keeps close within the haunts of the deepest solitudes. When out to show off, the redstart has a habit of spreading out his wings and tail, as he perches and flits, as the most effectual way to display his fiery orange trimmings, which so strikingly set off his little black wammus.
Chats, vireos and indigo birds were in and out continuously, and once or twice we caught glimpses of a Kentucky warbler, one of the few birds that walk instead of hop. We caught him the second time in his search for white millers under the hoppies, and when ever he found one, he lifted his wings and winnowed them a moment. It was at these times we caught the gold of his under garments. He has a black patch on his cheek under the eye, like the Maryland yellow throat, which carries a like mark over the eye. He sings very much like the cardinal, only confining his lyrical repertoire to one strain, with tiny intermittent arias that are very sweet and winsome. He is a trig little gent, but keeps much to the shadows. The orange-crowned warbler spends his time in the trees, and the thicker they stand the better he is pleased. he has a yellow eye ring, and his lingerie is greenish yellow; he is a feathered recluse and hard to find and harder to study.
Would You Believe It?
There is something like 400 different varieties that dwell, at least a portion of the year, with us and every man, woman and child in the state should take a deep and active interest in their protection and preservation, not from any mere sentimental standpoint, however. While it is true that sentiment is alone sufficient to furnish an abundance of reason for the plea, it is from the economic consideration of the relation between the birds and man that the exhortation becomes imperative.
The Musical Period.
Musically considered, with the birds, the period from January to July is a crescendo, and from July to January, decrescendo. In many ways the record for the last six months is the same as that of the first six, reading backward. Nature shows a great climax and an anticlimax, as the sun annually creeps up from its low southerly circuit to the zenith, and back again, making the coldness, desolation and stillness of January culminate in the warmth and a full chorus of birds in June, only to relapse again into the frozen and dreary silence of midwinter.
It is the balmy breath of spring that wafts the migrants from the south, and the sharp chill of autumn that recalls them from the north. The fall transit is in the mood of the season, and the body of life suddenly but faintly swelling and disappearing is like the last brightness of the campfire, excepting the few species that stay with us, generally, through the winter. In taking a poetical view of the matter, the bird life in June, is at a greater disadvantage than that of September or October, the birds being in full song, brilliant in plumage and appearing more willing to stay with us longer than in the fall, and everything is brisk and cheerful then, too.
From a scientific point, however, the fall is the best, for though the birds are silent then, yet they come down in larger numbers. They are tamer and can be easier seen than in the spring, and in a suitable locality, on a fine day in the fall you can see great numbers, whereas in the spring you might not be able to see any at all.
In September, October and even November, last, I made many notes of passing birds, and the migrants, I observed, were tardier coming down that I had noticed them for a good many years. It was not until nearly the middle of September that the warblers, whose mean line of migration is along the British COlumbia boundary, put in an appearance. But from this period on until November there were plenty of all kinds of migrants that linger a brief time with us, juncos, white breasted sparrows, thrushes of several varieties and mingling with this issue out in Cedar island in the Platte river, I noticed several redbreasted nuthatches, and our hardy little winter friend, the golden crowned kinglet. As late as the middle of November there were, on certain lowering days, almost storms of robins and blackbirds, the two species in confusing thousands. There is little doubt but what last year, in this and adjoining states, was a great one for the birds, and what unquestionably materially contributed to this interesting influx, was the better sentiment which prevailed among men with reference to their care, protection and preservation.