Nesting Episodes Near Home
( Originally Published 1910 )
MANY people seem to imagine that they are debarred from opportunity for interesting experiences afield with the birds because they live in town or city, and not in a wild natural paradise. Perhaps it may help to reassure them if I tell about some of my good times during the spring and early summer of 1909, within easy reach of my home in the suburbs of New Haven, Connecticut. It simply goes to show that no one need feel shut off from enjoyment of the wild birds by reason of locality.
On May 29, a beautiful bright day, right after breakfast I took a trolley car, and a short ride brought me near the edge of open country, from which point I soon was in a large tract of pasture-land and scrub growth, with swamp and woods nearby. There was a fine chorus of bird-songs, and I soon had noted a considerable number of species and had found nests of the catbird,, robin, and song and field sparrows. The song which made the most impression on me was the " grand opera" performance of a white-eyed vireo in a thicket close by the roadside. I proceeded to investigate, and had hardly entered the tangle when I came face to face with the female vireo carrying building material, and, looking about, I saw close at hand the nearly finished nest, a pretty cup, suspended from the fork of a little sapling, only two feet from the ground. The male soon appeared, and a great scolding and chattering ensued.
Withdrawing, I proceeded farther back into the scrub pasture, and presently, about two hundred yards beyond this, what should I see but another white-eyed vireo hopping about in a clump of chestnut-sprouts, carrying building material. I stood perfectly still, and in a short time it flew about ten yards to the beginnings of a nest attached to a low fork, two feet up, under another clump of chestnut-sprouts.
I was back there on the twelfth of June. Both birds had now finished their nests and were incubating full sets, the first of four, the second of three. They were very tame, and let me set up the camera and photograph them on the nest, though I was only four or five feet away. Both nests were handsome structures, but especially the second, which was a long, pointed, pendant affair, like a pouch. At each nest the occupant, probably the female, did a peculiar thing, which may be characteristic. In each case I happened to approach the nest, after the bird had left, just as she returned. Surprised on the edge of the nest, instead of flying off, she assumed a crouching attitude and remained right there perfectly still, as long as I cared to wait. In one case, after photographing the bird from where I stood, the idea came to me of getting a close view from above, showing bird, nest and eggs. So I moved the camera nearer, and the bird actually allowed me to take the picture, her white-ringed eyes staring in such a manner that no one could doubt what sort of a vireo she was.
Later visits were made after the young were hatched. The birds returned and fed the young in my presence, as I sat quietly a little way off, and I secured some pictures of the feeding process by using a mirror to reflect light, as I am unwilling to make a practice of removing occupied nests from their surroundings. On June 30 I made the final trip. The young had left the first nest some time before this. On the 26th those in the second nest were practically featherless and about half-grown, but now, in four days they had become fledged and had gone. As I was departing I had the good luck to spy one of them perched in a briar-clump ten feet from the deserted nest. There was no harm now in removing it, so I planted it a few feet out in the sunlight, and perched the youngster on its edge, after a few futile efforts of his to escape. The feeding process was soon in active operation, and I secured some beautiful pictures.
Another " find " near the vireos was an oven-bird's nest, on June 12. The bird darted out from a layer of dry leaves in an opening in the woods by a path, and I readily found the nest under the leaves, arched over in the usual manner. There were four eggs, one of them a cowbird's. That day I did not experiment, but on the 17th, when the cowbird's egg and one other had hatched, I set the camera near, under a low bower of leaves. When I returned the parent was just leaving the nest, standing at the entrance, and I got a nice picture before she darted off at the sound of the shutter. She was not on when I returned again, so I took the camera away.
On the edge of these same oak woods I often heard a redstart singing near a path. Several times I looked vainly for its nest. One day, as I approached, I heard it sing, and followed it up. The sound came from a young oak beside the path, and as I reached the tree there was the male redstart singing lustily just below his nest, on which the female was sitting. It was a pretty cup, saddled in the main fork of the slender oak, about a dozen feet up. It blended nicely with the bark, and yet from one direction it was in plain sight of the path along which I had frequently walked. How could I have been so blind ! There were four small young in the nest, showing that incubation had begun during the last days of May.
The trees were too slender to allow setting up the camera by the nest, so on June 17th I brought my reflex camera and, standing in the path, took snap-shots of the parents feeding the young, as they came and went without fear. On the 21st, when the young were quite well fledged, I took a couple of them from the nest, posed them before the camera, and took pictures as the mother fed them. Bold as the father was before, this was too much for his nerves, but he sang from a distance to encourage his mate. After I put the young ones back in the nest, both the parents resumed feeding.
Just across the road from where I found the first vireo's nest was a farm-house, near which were several promising subjects. One of these was the nest of a flicker, or " yellow-hammer," a hole dug into a cedar tree close to the road. The old birds were frequently returning to feed their young, ignoring the numerous autos. Fortunately the hole was only five feet from the ground, so I set up my camera against the fence, focused on the nest, and by pulling a thread from a distance each time the bird returned, easily secured a good series of photographs.
A little boy who lived on the farm became interested in my proceedings and showed me two blue-birds' nests with young in the pasture near-by, one in a low hollow of the tree, the other in a hole in a stump. The birds did not mind the camera set on a tripod near the nest, and I took pictures of their various family operations of feeding the young and. cleaning the nest. There was also a song sparrow's nest in a low- thorny clump of barberry bushes browsed short by the cattle. I set up the camera near it, covering it with sumach sprouts. These birds also were good to me and learned to run fearlessly before the camera and enter the nest by the little thorny tunnel to feed their young. The boy had as a pet a beautiful male rose-breasted grosbeak that he had found with a slightly injured wing. It would hop around among the branches wherever we chose to place it and gave me some nice pictures.
It would take too much space to tell in detail of all the nests that I discovered all over this suburban region. The European starling I found nesting in hollow trees, beginning in April. In my yard the purple grackles had homes in the spruces, and it was amusing to watch them. In the woods I found nests of the red-shouldered hawk in tall trees during April, and later came across nests of the wood thrush, veery, and red-eyed vireo. Beating about in bushy pastures or scrub land, I had the pleasure of discovering nests of the blue-winged warbler, chewink, chat, brown thrasher, and chestnut-sided warbler, but somehow the rather numerous prairie warbler eluded me. The bushy swamp land disclosed nests of the Maryland yellow-throat, rose-breasted grosbeak, and yellow warbler. In my rambles I came across two broods of woodcock able to fly, and various other matters of interest, all of which goes to prove that people can find interesting bird-life near home if they will but look for it.
One species which I had often had in mind to photograph at the nest was the long-billed marsh-wren. These lively, happy little birds, fairly bubbling over with song, are so ridiculously tame as we meet them among the reeds and cat-tails of the swamp that I believed that they would make one of the very easiest subjects for the camera, as well as one of the most artistic, in connection with their curious globular nests suspended among the tall green stems.
Learning from a friend of a marsh where there were plenty of them, on June 14, after quite a trolley ride, I alighted at the edge of the marsh, and soon was wading in the rushes along the course of the brook. On all sides arose the wren-songs, and very quickly I was finding nests, for they are easy to see when one penetrates to where they are. These birds have the curious habit of building dummy nests, seemingly to deceive intruders as to the location of the real one. So now, about one out of every half-dozen of the nests examined had eggs, nearly all with in-complete sets, for the bird is a late nester and waits for the reeds to grow tall. The eggs are of a dark mahogany-brown color, but are out of sight, for the nest is entirely arched over, and the eggs are laid inside. Sometimes the birds sang or scolded within arm's reach of me, but I noticed that when I was by a real nest they kept entirely away. When the sets are completed, I thought, they will act differently, especially when they have young.
Detained by other work, it was July 5 before I went there again, to meet with disappointment. Some nests had been robbed, others the young had recently left. An all-day's search revealed two nests with five eggs, second sets, only one of these being accessible to photograph. The next, and third, trip was July 14. The eggs were not yet hatched ; I set the camera, with rushes arched over it, and hid at a distance, a thread connecting me with the shutter. In two hours and a half the birds did not venture near the nest, though now and then one would come close to me, either singing or scolding. During this wait I made one excursion off and found another nest with four eggs. The birds made a great fuss when I examined their dummy nests, but were silent when I was near their real home. On July 24 the young in both nests were hatched and half-grown. I set the camera by the first nest, and after a long wait, finding that the bird would not come near, I tried the other one, thinking that these birds might have different dispositions, but it was the same old story.
As near as I could make out, the birds were shy of me as well as of the camera, though I had hidden thirty or forty feet away — as far off as I could watch the nest through the rushes. On my previous visits I had left my focus-cloth wrapped around some of the cat-tail " heads," in a way to resemble a camera, and the birds were accustomed to it. My last hope was to try the umbrella tent. I pitched it, where I usually hid, on July 26. First I left the vicinity entirely, and sneaked back to the tent, I think without being seen by the birds.
Stripping off all superfluous clothing to keep from melting, I knelt in the mud, and waited, keeping my eyes fixed on the nest, through a peek-hole. For two hours there was not a sound, save that a few times one of the wrens chattered a little near the tent. Since the middle of July their songs had mostly ceased. In all that time no bird went near the nest. I was well-nigh discouraged, when suddenly I saw a movement, and a wren appeared back of the nest with a worm! Hope revived again, though I feared that her courage would fail and that she would not quite dare to make the venture. However the young were calling for food, and after five minutes of parleying she hopped on a stem close to the entrance of the nest, but flew Just as I was pulling the thread, spoiling my shot !
This was discouraging. Now the bird would see me for sure, and, learning of my presence, keep away for the rest of the afternoon. The sun, too, was getting dangerously low. Yes, she saw me and scolded, but after a quarter of an hour's wait she took a grub to the young, and I snapped her in the act. She darted off when the shutter clicked, but soon came back, after I had changed the plate, and this time did not mind the shutter. After this she, or they, abandoned all reserve, either convinced that I was harmless, or yielding to the inevitable, and made up for lost time in feeding the little wrens. By six o'clock, when the shadow had crept to the nest, I had eight exposures, six of which were successful, a fine series, which I certainly think I earned. And now I have no more delusions as to the tameness of the long-billed marsh wren. I have photographed hawks, and am inclined to think that this wren is about as shy as they, in a way.
An incident which occurred on June 16 seems to me one of the most interesting and unusual in my experience. The night before I had given a bird-lecture in Hartford, and was entertained by a friend in the city. In an adjoining yard, between a house and a new one going up, was a space thirty feet wide in which grew an oak tree. On a horizontal branch twenty feet from the ground a pair of scarlet tanagers had actually built their nest, despite the noise of the carpenters, the play of the children beneath them, and the passing on the street close by.
I had been told of the nest before I came and had brought a camera. The first thing in the morning I borrowed a long ladder from the carpenters, set it up against the nearest branch, about eight feet from the nest, and photographed the tamely sitting bird. Then what should she do but stand up on the edge of her nest and inspect developments in her nursery. Two of the four eggs had just hatched, and she proceeded to eat the shells, after which she resumed her brooding.
To try for a picture at closer range, expecting to flush the bird and leave the camera set attached to the ladder, I moved the latter against the branch with the nest, about a yard from it, and went up. To my great surprise I found the bird still brooding, right before me. Some twigs and leaves impeded the view, so very carefully and quietly I bent them back temporarily, my fingers almost touching the bird, yet she never stirred. She then let me screw up the camera and take all the portraits of her I wanted.
The idea came to me to try to depict her tameness, so I made ready for an exposure, and, holding the bulb in one hand, touched her with the index finger of the other. Instead of flying off in terror, she actually pecked the intruding member. I was all the time very gentle with her, and presently I found that I could do anything with her that I wished. Next I stroked her, then raised her up a little, and finally took her in my hand and lifted her off the nest. Not only did she make no effort to escape, but perched tamely on my fingers, and then hopped back to cover her young. Of all these events I secured pictures.
Twice the brilliant scarlet and black male returned with food for her. Had I not been there, he might have come to the nest to feed her, but as it was she flew up to him in the tree, where he fed and caressed her and then departed, after scolding me a bit. On another occasion she flew off, but came back in a moment with her mouth full of soft, regurgitated food, which she fed to the young, unabashed, though I stood there on the ladder within easy reach of her. I even touched her as she did this, without alarming her at all.
My last " stunt " was to dig some worms and grubs in the garden and feed them to her as she sat on the nest. She took them gratefully and with alacrity. The family in an adjoining house, from a window about fifteen feet away, watched and enjoyed the tanager family. When I took the train home that afternoon, it was with feelings of real affection for that wonderful bird and her little family.
Subsequent news of them was to the effect that ten days Iater four little tanagers left the nest successfully, and that on the tenth of August the redoubtable tanager had another nest forty feet up this same oak and had begun to incubate three more eggs. This is a remarkably late date and the only instance which ever came to my knowledge of this species having two broods in a season.
When such occurrences may be at any time the reward of the bird lover, what wonder that we take delight in roaming the glorious out-doors, enjoying what we see and stimulated by the expectancy of the ever-impending fortunate discovery!