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Birds - Professional Fly-Catching

( Originally Published 1910 )

The Flycatchers

ONE day I had a fine reward for giving a little girl a ride in my buggy. She was trudging to her home over a mile away, so, as I overtook her, I stopped and let her get in. "Have you seen the bird's nest on top of the post?" was about the first thing she said. "No, where is it ?" I inquired. "Just on beyond here," she replied, "I'll show you when we come to it." "There she is on the nest!" presently exclaimed the child. Sure enough, there sat a bird flat on top of one of the posts of the wire fence which separated the highway from the railway track. As we came nearer I saw it was a Kingbird. I slowed the horse down to a walk, and watched to see how near the bird would let us come. The country road was very narrow, and when we were opposite the devoted little mother she was just about within arm's reach, yet there she sat. I stopped the horse, and then she flew up on the telegraph wires overhead, where she expressed noisily her disapproval of my loitering on her premises. She did not mind, the little girl said, if people went along past and attended to their own business, but she had no use for inquisitive persons.

The top of the post, I found, had become rotted out in the center, forming a nice little cup. In this the birds had built a very frail nest, nothing like the bulky one they usually make, and the female had laid the three usual handsomely blotched eggs. Besides being so close to vehicles passing on the road, on the other side the railway trains whizzed by within a yard of her, and altogether it was a most remarkable situation for birds which usually prefer an orchard. Right across the road was an apple orchard, just the place for them, one would think, but the queer selection they made was no one's affair but their own, and I am glad they made the choice they did.

I was afraid that, in such a public place some miscreant would break up the nest before I could get photographs. Bright and early the next morning, the first day of July, I drove down there, and was delighted to find everything all right. The mother was incubating, but she would not let me walk up to her with the camera. So I set it up on the tripod reasonably near the nest, and went off a little way with the thread.

After some hesitating and flying angrily at the camera, the bird decided that it would not hurt her, and settled down upon her eggs. Of course I "got" her, and after this she would come back almost at once, and I soon had as many pictures of her as I wished, in all sorts of positions. While I was working, an express train went thundering by. The concussion of the air almost blew her off the nest, but she hung on and sat as firmly as a cowboy in his saddle. It was usually the same story, though once she left when a blundering freight was half way by.

The best fun came when the young were out and about half grown. The mother, I think it was, usually stood beside them, sometimes shielding them from the sun, for there was no shade whatever. There was a pond close by, and the father spent most of his time watching the dragon flies darting about over the water, now and then giving chase to one. They were nearly a match for him in flight. Sometimes he would fail and go back to his perch, but often enough he captured his prey. As he approached home with his prize, he always chattered a sort of triumphal march to announce his coming. If his mate was not on the nest, she hurried to it, both arriving at about the same time. The young begged hard for food and their father would begin to feed them. But mother yearned to assist, so she would often lay hold of the dragon fly and pull away till she had torn off a piece, which she would then feed to the young. Meanwhile the camera was in place and all ready, so at the favorable instant at different stages of the process I pulled the thread and thus secured a fine series of pictures.

Of course Ned had to come in for his share of the fun. One day I sat down in the shade and watched him while he took my camera, set it up by the nest, focused, put in the plate, removed the slide, attached the thread, set the shutter, and made the exposure when the birds were feeding. One that he got was especially fine, showing very plainly the dragon fly with its long gauzy wings held by the bill of the male, and "getting" the whole family at one shot.

To my great satisfaction no one molested the Kingbirds, though everyone in the neighborhood knew of the curiosity. I saw them the afternoon before they left the nest for good. The little fellows looked very pretty with their snow-white little shirts, standing up on the post with their mother beside them, and I got a snapshot of them thus with my reflecting camera as I walked along the road past them. With some difficulty I obtained another picture as the fatherfed them, but the old birds were shier of the camera now, and the young were not fedso often. I praised the boys for not disturbing the nice family and promised each of them a picture.

Nearly everyone knows how boldly the Kingbirds defend their nests and has seen them chase the thieving crows, flying at them from above and pecking them sorely as they try vainly to escape. They even keep off hawks from the farmer's premises and destroy such a multitude of insects that it is a fine thing to have a pair of them located in the orchard. So indignant are they when anyone comes near the nest that I have taken advantage of this to snap them with my reflecting camera. I use a single "22-inch" lens of my eleven inch-focus doublet, and an aperture of the curtain of about an inch and a half, with a moderate speed. Taking the bird perched upon a branch, one can thus get a good Iarge image with plenty of detail in bright sunlight.

The Kingbird gets its name from its pugnacious ways when it must stand for its rights. It does not, however, bully other birds without good reason, vet, when it decides to assert itself, it is usually able co enforce its simple requirement that the undesirable intruder shall "get out." It has fighting blood in its veins, for all the other species of this distinct and interesting order of flycatchers are good fighters. Their main business is to catch flying insects, and they all have their art down to a fine point. Their method is different from that of the swallows, for instead of keeping long a-wing, as the latter, the true "flycatcher" stations itself on some perch which commands a view, like a hawk, dashes to catch the unwary insect, and returns at once to its observatory. Various other birds dart after flying insects, but have other means of livelihood, while the "flycatcher" confines itself largely to this one way.

' We have another "Tyrant Flycatcher," which probably is equally tyrannical with the bird that bears the royal name—the Crested Flycatcher. Few people know it, for it is rather scarce and very shy. Though it generally chooses orchards for residence, it prefers those that are abandoned or off from houses, at the edge of the woods. Even there it is rather hard to see the bird, which is about as large as the Kingbird, for it gets out of the way when it notes our approach; but its presence may be known by the single loud ringing whistle which is different from any other bird note I know. They nest in a hollow limb, and it is notorious that in building they almost always use cast-off snake skins.. The eggs are very handsomely and heavily marked with lines and scrawls.

There are two common flycatchers which are liable to be confused, the Phoebe and the Wood Pewee. Both are small gray birds with whitish and partly dusky breasts. The Phoebe is our familiar home bird which builds its nest of moss and mud under some sheltered part of our buildings, even over our very door, or under the piazza, The Wood Pewee may also be seen about the premises, but it keeps to the tall shade trees, where it builds a frail lichen-covered nest fiat on some branch or fork. It is a good deal like the architecture of a hummingbird and is just about as hard to discover. The note of the Wood Pewee is that clear plaintive whistle---"pee-wee-ee"—and we surely know the short, throaty note "phe-be" of our Phoebe. Another way of distinguishing the Wood Pewee is that it is rather more slender than Phoebe, generally with a darker breast, and it seldom jerks its tail, which last it is Phoebe's constant delight to do.

The Phoebe is a hardy bird and comes back for the summer at a very unsummerlike time, the last week of March, setting one to wondering how it finds flying insects in such cold weather. Yet notice on the sunny side of the building, when the sun shines brightly, how many flies are buzzing about, which proves that there are flies, if one only knows where to look for them, and surely our professional fly-catcher knows that much. But if anyone claims to have heard a Phoebe back in mid-winter, do not believe it, for the Chickadee makes a "pewee" note, and many are the people who are fooled and publish their mistake in the local paper. We are safe to assume that, no flies, no Phoebes.

The hardy bird has its nest built some time in the latter half of April, according to the sort of season that prevails, and lays five white eggs, sometimes sparsely spotted. Before the country was settled, the usual nesting place was under an overhanging rock, and even now some of them keep up the old custom. I have discovered a number of such, and Ned found one close by where I was photographing the nest of another bird, a little way below the foot of a beautiful waterfall.

For the past three years a pair of Phoebes have nested in my barn, and reared two broods of young each season--six broods in all, laying five eggs the first time, and four the second, and usually hatching and rearing them all, or all but one. The nest was on the projecting end of a board nailed across two ceiling beams, just over where I drove in with the horse and buggy. Each year the Phoebe found the old nest all right, so she used it five times in succession, but this last time she built another nest at the other end of the barn in a similar situation. At first I wondered why she deserted such a nice nest, but I found out. One day I put my hand into the new nest to see how many young there were, and presently I began to scratch my head. Oh, how I did itch all that night! My suspicions were aroused, so I touched, the young again, and looked at my hand. A whole army of lice were hurrying to run up my sleeve and I fled to the water faucet and put a stop to the migration. Ned does not see how the young can stand it, and neither do I.

We both photographed the Phoebe bird on the nest. The way I did it was to bring three barrels nearly under the nest and set up the tripod with full extension, so that the camera was away up to the ceiling. Standing on a step ladder, I could focus on the sitting bird, but the light was so dim that I had to set up a large mirror outdoors and throw a sunbeam on the nest. Then I could make short exposures on her, or remove the mirror and make the exposure last two minutes. The dear little bird sat perfectly still, and I had the best results the latter way; the picture was not so harsh.

In the early spring, this last season, soon after the Phoebes arrived, a sad accident occurred. It was a windy day and I saw the barn door slam violently. I was minded to go and prop it, but kept on and did not. Later in the afternoon a member of my family brought in the dead body of the male Phoebe, still warm, with his neck broken. The little fellow had alighted on the door, and it caught him as it slammed.

I felt very sorry, for I thought that now there would be no Phoebes in the barn. But in a few days I saw the female on the old nest, preparing to lay, and her mate perched on the apple tree by the door. Husbands were evidently plenty and cheap, especially for a rich widow with such fine property. The new bridegroom looked exactly like the former one, and our mourning was turned into gladness.

That same season another tragedy occurred in the family of a pair of Wood Pewees. These birds are not so hardy or so early in nesting as the Phoebes, and it was not till the middle of June that I noticed, in driving frequently through a grove of locust trees, that a pair of Wood Pewees were always there in the same spot. "I declare, Ned," I exclaimed, as we drove past again and saw a Wood Pewee in the accustomed place, "there must be a nest right here, and I'm going to stop and look." So I got out of the buggy and immediately saw the shallow nest built over a crotch of an extended branch over the road above my head, about twenty feet above the ground. It contained two young.

We could not stop then, but a few days later we returned, hoping to photograph the nest and get snap-shots of the old birds, which were not shy. First I got out the reflecting camera, and had Ned climb the tree, hoping that the female would come at him and let me snap her with my twenty-two-inch lens. But she was a meek little body and merely wailed her "pee-ee-ee" from the surrounding trees. I had to chase her around for half an hour, but got some quite good snapshots, as she perched on dead stubs where the sunlight happened to strike on her through the leaves.

Then we turned our attention to the nest and Ned's sharp eyes were the first to discover that the whole bottom had fallen out and one of the young had tumbled through, had become entangled, and dangled dead from the bottom of the nest. Nothing was left of it but the rim and the other youngster was perched upon that. I failed to get any satisfactory photograph, as the only possible location for the camera was too far away to show so small an object, and the brittle locust limb would not bear one's weight. The next time I went by, the dead young one had disappeared. The other stayed on the rim of the nest or the branch for some days. Then came a terrific wind and thunder storm, and the next day, when I passed, the youngster was gone, probably blown off and drowned, poor thing!

There is another flycatcher closely related to the Wood Pewee, the Olive-sided Flycatcher, which we may look for only in the migrations as it usually goes further north to breed. It looks much like the Wood Pewee, but is larger, nearly the size of the Crested Flycatcher. It is rather rare and I have only met with it a few times, generally seeing it chasing flies from some perch in a high tree on the edge of woods or along a shaded, retired road.

Except for the Kingbird and Crested Flycatcher, all our flycatchers are dull-colored gray and white birds, and some of them are hard to tell apart. Those already spoken of can be distinguished by differences in size or build, but there are several little fellows which are so much alike that it takes a sharp eye and careful study of the Handbook, to identify them. Those which may cause confusion are the Alder, Acadian, and Least Flycatchers. The Yellow-bellied Flycatcher may be recognized by what its name implies. The Acadian Flycatcher, a greenish-hued little bird, is seldom seen north of the Middle States.

Of small species the Least Flycatcher is by far the . best known. It is the familiar little fellow that nests in orchards and shade trees, and it is constantly repeating its sharp, scolding note, from which they call it "Chebec." One year, in June, I was about to start on a trip up north into the Province of Quebec, and every morning one of these little birds, perched just outside my open bedroom windows, would begin at the first early ray of dawn and wake me up by calling out "Quebec, Quebec." We had a lot of fun over it, because members of my family said the bird was very anxious to get me off to Quebec so that I should not be annoying it with my camera-fiend tricks.

The nest is apt to be out on a slender branch and is not easy to photograph. But I took pictures of one with a brood of young about ready to leave by standing on a ladder, against which I leaned the camera on the tripod and managed to keep it still enough. Another time there was a nest out on the end of a branch of a pear tree, about a dozen feet up. I secured the picture of the mother bird incubating by standing on a step ladder with my reflecting camera and the big lens, having a young lady throw light upon the subject, not by means of her discourse or countenance, but by a mirror which reflected a sunbeam upon the shaded nest.

All my life until the past June I had never been able to find the nest of the Alder Flycatcher—which is a recent name for the eastern form of the species long known as Traill's Flycatcher. A friend of mine in a town not far from where I live, at a higher elevation, finding this interesting little bird quite common there, invited me to visit him and see the rare flycatcher and its nesting. They are late breeders, seldom laying before the middle of June, and I did not go till the twenty-seventh.

The bird is known to be one of the most timid and secretive of the smaller species and to frequent alder swamps. I had always supposed that the place to look for it was in dense alder thickets, so I was quite surprised when my friend conducted me into a moist pasture where there were only scattered branches of low alder bushes, most of them not over a yard high. In one of these he had located a nest some days before, in process of building. Here it was now, only a foot from the ground, with one pretty, pinkish egg with reddish spots around the larger end—a neat nest, not unlike that of the. Chestnut-sided Warbler. The owner did not appear.

We spent the rest of that day with other birds and the next morning went to another nest site, in a pasture through which flows a large meadow brook. There were scattered clumps of alders, some of them of good height, but plenty of small ones, too. This nest, how-ever, was not in an alder, though close to some, but in some other sort of bush, two feet from the ground. It contained four eggs, slightly incubated. They were warm, but the shy bird had slipped away. Setting the camera, well concealed, in the next bush, for a short timed exposure, with thread attached, we went off for over an hour to give the bird a chance to return. The Alder Flycatcher is so very shy that I had my doubts as to whether she would ever return to the nest with a camera near it.

When, we returned, I crept up within twenty yards of the nest to where I had left the spool and pulled the thread. The eggs were warm, so the bird was doubt-less on when the shutter opened. Yes, and to my horror it was still open and the plate spoiled ! Taking apart the shutter, I found that some of the delicate mechanism had collapsed and that photography was all up for the present. Luckily the jeweler in town was able to repair it, and early the next morning, my last day there, I was at the nest. It was cloudy so I had to allow for a half-second exposure.

After setting the camera I made a slight opening in the bushes so that I was able to watch the nest with my strong Zeiss glass from quite a distance. To my delight, within five minutes the bird hopped back on to the nest and did not move at the click of the shutter.

To make this story short, I repeated this operation a dozen times, securing a fine array of pictures, probably the first ever taken of the Alder Flycatcher from life. The camera was within a yard of the nest and I used the single twelve-inch lens. The bird became so accustomed to my presence that she would return to her task sometimes the moment I withdrew. I could walk up within a few feet of her as she sat on the nest, and once she let me change the plate and photograph her by hand without leaving. The last few times I pulled the thread as she stood erect on the rim of the nest preparatory to descending into it.

Evidently the shyness of the Alder Flycatcher is not unconquerable and is due rather to a natural timidity than to dislike for our sort of people. But shy the bird certainly is. Except for this one drawn to the nest by maternal instinct, it was hard to get even a glimpse of them. They are very silent, too.. The only sounds I heard from those intruded upon was a very soft, low "pweet." In the distance the song of the male was hardly audible, if, indeed, it deserves to be called a song, only two syllables like "pe-weet."

Leaving this spot, perfectly delighted at my success, I drove to the other nest to see if the eggs were laid and how that bird would act. Other birds that I met delayed me, and, missing the exact clump of alders, as there was not time for a careful search I was about to give up, when I put my hand into the very last likely clump of small alders in the open, at the edge of a high alder thicket. I almost touched a bird, which darted off in a great fright. Actually it was another Alden Flycatcher's nest, with two eggs, within only a few yards of the one I had missed, situated much as was that one—so much so that I would not have believed it the same, only it was on the opposite side of the clump. Just then it began to rain, but I managed to take two photographs of it, and, by driving fast, barely caught my train to return home.

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