A BIRD-LOVER IN THE WEST
OLIVE THORNE MILLER
BOSTON AND NEW YORK HOUGHTON, MIFFLIN AND COMPANY The Riverside Press, Cambridge 1900
Copyright, 1894, BY H. M. MILLER.
All rights reserved.
The Riverside Press, Cambridge, Mass., U. S. A. Electrotyped and Printed by H. O. Houghton & Co.
The studies in this volume were all made, as the title indicates, in the West; part of them in Colorado (1891), in Utah (1893), and the remainder (1892) in what I have called "The Middle Country," being Southern Ohio, and West only relatively to New England and New York, where most of my studies have been made.
Several chapters have appeared in the "Atlantic Monthly" and other magazines, and in the "Independent" and "Harper's Bazar," while others are now for the first time published.
OLIVE THORNE MILLER.
IN THE ROCKY MOUNTAINS.
I. CAMPING IN COLORADO 3
II. IN THE COTTONWOODS 17
Western wood-pewee. Contopus richardsonii. Western house wren. Troglodytes aedon aztecus. Towhee. Pipilo erythrophthalmus.
III. AN UPROAR OF SONG 32
Western meadow-lark. Sturnella magna neglecta. Horned lark. Otocoris alpestris leucolaema. Yellow warbler. Dendroica aestiva. Western wood-pewee. Contopus richardsonii. Humming-bird. Trochilus colubris. Long-tailed chat. Icteria virens longicauda.
IV. THE TRAGEDY OF A NEST 42
Long-tailed chat. Icteria virens longicauda.
V. A FEAST OF FLOWERS 52
VI. A CINDERELLA AMONG FLOWERS 60
VII. CLIFF-DWELLERS IN THE CANYON 70
Canyon wren. Catherpes mexicanus conspersus. American dipper. Cinclus mexicanus.
IN THE MIDDLE COUNTRY.
VIII. AT FOUR O'CLOCK IN THE MORNING 95
Purple grackle. Quiscalus quiscula. Mourning dove. Zenaidura macroura. Red-headed woodpecker. Melanerpes erythrocephalus. Blue jay. Cyanocitta cristata. Cardinal grosbeak. Cardinalis cardinalis. American robin. Merula migratoria. Golden-wing woodpecker. Colaptes auratus. House sparrow. Passer domesticus.
IX. THE LITTLE REDBIRDS 113
Cardinal grosbeak. Cardinalis cardinalis. House sparrow. Passer domesticus.
X. THE CARDINAL'S NEST 119
Cardinal grosbeak. Cardinalis cardinalis. Bobolink. Dolichonyx oryzivorus. Meadow-lark. Sturnella magna.
XI. LITTLE BOY BLUE 126
Blue jay. Cyanocitta cristata.
XII. STORY OF THE NESTLINGS 136
Blue jay. Cyanocitta cristata.
XIII. BLUE JAY MANNERS 144
Blue jay. Cyanocitta cristata.
XIV. THE GREAT CAROLINIAN 154
Great Carolina wren. Thryothorus ludovicianus. Yellow-billed cuckoo. Coccyzus americanus. Crested flycatcher. Myiarchus crinitus.
XV. THE WRENLINGS APPEAR 172 Great Carolina wren. Thryothorus ludovicianus.
XVI. THE APPLE-TREE NEST 183
Orchard oriole. Icterus spurius.
XVII. CEDAR-TREE LITTLE FOLK 194
Mourning dove. Zenaidura macroura.
BESIDE THE GREAT SALT LAKE.
XVIII. IN A PASTURE 207
Louisiana tanager. Piranga ludoviciana. Green-tailed towhee. Pipilo chlorurus. Magpie. Pica pica hudsonica.
XIX. THE SECRET OF THE WILD ROSE PATH 231
Long-tailed chat. Icteria virens longicauda. Western robin. Merula migratoria propinqua. Black-headed grosbeak. Habia melanocephala.
XX. ON THE LAWN 259
Lazuli-painted finch. Passerina amoena. Broad-tailed humming-bird. Trochilus platycercus. House sparrow. Passer domesticus.
IN THE ROCKY MOUNTAINS.
Trust me, 't is something to be cast Face to face with one's self at last, To be taken out of the fuss and strife, The endless clatter of plate and knife, The bore of books, and the bores of the street, From the singular mess we agree to call Life.
* * * * *
And to be set down on one's own two feet So nigh to the great warm heart of God, You almost seem to feel it beat Down from the sunshine and up from the sod; To be compelled, as it were, to notice All the beautiful changes and chances Through which the landscape flits and glances, And to see how the face of common day Is written all over with tender histories.
JAMES RUSSELL LOWELL.
A BIRD-LOVER IN THE WEST.
CAMPING IN COLORADO.
This chronicle of happy summer days with the birds and the flowers, at the foot of the Rocky Mountains, begins in the month of May, in the year eighteen hundred and ninety-two.
As my train rolled quietly out of Jersey City late at night, I uttered a sigh of gratitude that I was really off; that at last I could rest. Up to the final moment I had been hurried and worried, but the instant I was alone, with my "section" to myself, I "took myself in hand," as is my custom.
At the risk of seeming to stray very far from my subject, I want at this point to say something about rest, the greatly desired state that all busy workers are seeking, with such varying success.
A really re-creative recreation I sought for years, and
"I've found some wisdom in my quest That's richly worth retailing,"
and that cannot be too often repeated, or too urgently insisted upon. What is imperatively needed, the sole and simple secret of rest, is this: To go to our blessed mother Nature, and to go with the whole being, mind and heart as well as body. To deposit one's physical frame in the most secret and sacred "garden of delights," and at the same time allow the mind to be filled, and the thoughts to be occupied, with the concerns of the world we live in year after year, is utterly useless; for it is not the external, but the internal man that needs recreation; it is not the body, but the spirit that demands refreshment and relief from the wearing cares of our high-pressure lives. "It is of no use," says a thoughtful writer, "to carry my body to the woods, unless I get there myself."
Let us consult the poets, our inspired teachers, on this subject. Says Lowell,—
"In June 't is good to lie beneath a tree While the blithe season comforts every sense, Steeps all the brain in rest, and heals the heart, Brimming it o'er with sweetness unawares, Fragrant and silent as that rosy snow Wherewith the pitying apple-tree fills up And tenderly lines some last-year's robin's nest."
And our wise Emerson, in his strong and wholesome, if sometimes rugged way,—
"Quit thy friends as the dead in doom, And build to them a final tomb.
* * * * *
Behind thee leave thy merchandise, Thy churches and thy charities.
* * * * *
Enough for thee the primal mind That flows in streams—that breathes in wind."
Even the gentle Wordsworth, too; read his exquisite sonnet, beginning,—
"The world is too much with us; late and soon, Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers."
All recognize that it is a mental and spiritual change that is needed.
With the earnest desire of suggesting to tired souls a practicable way of resting, I will even give a bit of personal history; I will tell the way in which I have learned to find recreation in nature.
When I turn my back upon my home, I make a serious and determined effort to leave behind me all cares and worries. As my train, on that beautiful May evening, passed beyond the brick and stone walls, and sped into the open country, and I found myself alone with night, I shook off, as well as I was able, all my affairs, all my interests, all my responsibilities, leaving them in that busy city behind me, where a few burdens more or less would not matter to anybody. With my trunks checked, and my face turned toward the far-off Rocky Mountains, I left the whole work-a-day world behind me, departing—so far as possible—a liberated soul, with no duties excepting to rejoice and to recruit. This is not an easy thing to do; it is like tearing apart one's very life; but it can be done by earnest endeavor, it has been done, and it is a charm more potent than magic to bring restoration and recreation to the brain and nerve-weary worker.
To insure any measure of success I always go alone; one familiar face would make the effort of no avail; and I seek a place where I am a stranger, so that my ordinary life cannot be recalled to me. When I reach my temporary home I forget, or at least ignore, my notions as to what I shall eat or drink, or how I shall sleep. I take the goods the gods provide, and adjust myself to them. Even these little things help one out of his old ways of thought and life. To still further banish home concerns, I mark upon my calendar one week before the day I shall start for home, and sternly resolve that not until I reach that day will I give one thought to my return, but will live as though I meant to stay always. I take no work of any sort, and I banish books, excepting a few poets and studies of nature.
Such is the aim of my honest and earnest striving; that I do not quite reach my goal is merely to say I am human. Letters from home and friends will drag me back to old interests, and times will come, in sleepless nights and unguarded moments, when the whole world of old burdens and cares sweep in and overwhelm me. But I rouse my will, and resolutely, with all my power, push them back, refuse to entertain them for a moment.
The result, even under these limitations, is eminently satisfactory. Holding myself in this attitude of mind, I secure a change almost as complete as if I stepped out of my body and left it resting, while I refreshed myself at the fountain of life. A few weeks in the country make me a new being; all my thoughts are turned into fresh channels; the old ruts are smoothed over, if not obliterated; nerves on the strain all the year have a chance to recreate themselves; old worries often weaken and fade away.
The morning after I left home that balmy evening in May dawned upon me somewhere in western New York, and that beautiful day was passed in speeding through the country, and steadily getting farther and farther from work and care.
And so I went on, day after day, night after night, till I entered Kansas, which was new to me. By that time I had succeeded in banishing to the farthest corner of my memory, behind closed and locked doors, all the anxieties, all the perplexities and problems, all the concerns, in fact, of my home life. I was like a newly created soul, fresh and eager to see and enjoy everything. I refused the morning papers; I wished to forget the world of strife and crime, and to get so into harmony with the trees and flowers, the brooks and the breezes, that I would realize myself
"Kith and kin to every wild-born thing that thrills and blows."
In one word, I wished as nearly as possible to walk abroad out of my hindering body of clay.
I looked out of the windows to see what the Cyclone State had to give me. It offered flowers and singing birds, broad fields of growing grain, and acres of rich black soil newly turned up to the sun. Everything was fresh and perfect, as if just from the hands of its maker; it seemed the paradise of the farmer.
From the fertile fields and miles of flowers the train passed to bare, blossomless earth; from rich soil to rocks; from Kansas to Colorado. That part of the State which appeared in the morning looked like a vast body of hardly dry mud, with nothing worth mentioning growing upon it. Each little gutter had worn for itself a deep channel with precipitous sides, and here and there a great section had sunken, as though there was no solid foundation. Soon, however, the land showed inclination to draw itself up into hills, tiny ones with sharp peaks, as though preparing for mountains. Before long they retreated to a distance and grew bigger, and at last, far off, appeared the mountains, overtopping all one great white peak, the
"Giver of gold, king of eternal hills."
A welcome awaited me in the summer home of a friend at Colorado Springs, in the presence of the great Cheyenne Range, with the snow-cap of Pike's Peak ever before me. Four delightful days I gave to friendship, and then I sought and found a perfect nook for rest and study, in a cottonwood grove on the banks of the Minnelowan (or Shining Water). This is a mad Colorado stream which is formed by the junction of the North and South Cheyenne Canyon brooks, and comes tumbling down from the Cheyenne, rushing and roaring as if it had the business of the world on its shoulders, and must do it man-fashion, with confusion and noise enough to drown all other sounds.
Imagine a pretty, one-story cottage, set down in a grove of cottonwood-trees, with a gnarly oak and a tall pine here and there, to give it character, and surrounded as a hen by her chickens, by tents, six or eight in every conceivable position, and at every possible angle except a right angle. Add to this picture the sweet voices of birds, and the music of water rushing and hurrying over the stones; let your glance take in on one side the grand outlines of Cheyenne Mountain,
"Made doubly sacred by the poet's pen And poet's grave,"
and on the other the rest of the range, overlooked by Pike's Peak, fourteen thousand feet higher than the streets of New York. Do this, and you will come as near to realizing Camp Harding as one can who is hundreds of miles away and has never seen a Colorado camp.
Do not think, however, that such camps are common, even in that land of outdoors, where tents are open for business in the streets of the towns, and where every householder sets up his own canvas in his yard, for the invalids to sleep in, from June to November. The little settlement of tents was an evolution, the gradual growth of the tent idea in the mind of one comfort-loving woman. She went there seven or eight years before, bought a grove under the shadow of Cheyenne, put up a tent, and passed her first summer thus. The next year, and several years thereafter, she gradually improved her transient abode in many ways that her womanly taste suggested,—as a wooden floor, a high base-board, partitions of muslin or cretonne, door and windows of wire gauze. The original dwelling thus step by step grew to a framed and rough-plastered house, with doors and windows en regle.
Grouped picturesquely around the house, however, were some of the most unique abiding-places in Colorado. On the outside they were permanent tents with wooden foundations; on the inside they were models of comfort, with regular beds and furniture, rugs on the floor, gauzy window curtains, drapery wardrobes, and even tiny stoves for cool mornings and evenings. They combined the comforts of a house with the open air and delightful freshness of a tent, where one might hear every bird twitter, and see the dancing leaf shadows in the moonlight. Over the front platform the canvas cover extended to form an awning, and a wire-gauze door, in addition to one of wood, made them airy or snug as the weather demanded.
The restfulness craved by the weary worker was there to be had for both soul and body, if one chose to take it. One might swing in a hammock all day, and be happy watching "the clouds that cruise the sultry sky"—a sky so blue one never tires of it; or beside the brook he might "lie upon its banks, and dream himself away to some enchanted ground." Or he might study the ever-changing aspect of the mountains,—their dreamy, veiled appearance, with the morning sun full upon them; their deep violet blueness in the evening, with the sun behind them, and the mystery of the moonlight, which "sets them far off in a world of their own," as tender and unreal as mountains in a dream.
He might do all these things, but he is far more likely to become excited, and finally bewitched by guide-books, and photographs, and talk all about him of this or that canyon, this or that pass, the Garden of the Gods, Manitou, the Seven Sisters' Falls, the grave of "H. H.;" and unless a fool or a philosopher, before he knows it to be in the full swing of sight-seeing, and becoming learned in the ways of burros, the "Ship of the Rockies," so indispensable, and so common that even the babies take to them.
This traveler will climb peaks, and drive over nerve-shaking roads, a steep wall on one side and a frightful precipice on the other; he will toil up hundreds of steps, and go quaking down into mines; he will look, and admire, and tremble, till sentiment is worn to threads, purse depleted, and body and mind alike a wreck. For this sort of a traveler there is no rest in Colorado; there always remains another mountain to thrill him, another canyon to rhapsodize over; to one who is greedy of "sights," the tameness of Harlem, or the mud flats of Canarsie, will afford more rest.
For myself I can always bear to be near sights without seeing them. I believed what I heard—never were such grand mountains! never such soul-stirring views! never such hairbreadth roads! I believed—and stayed in my cottonwood grove content. I knew how it all looked; did I not peer down into one canyon, holding my breath the while? and, with slightly differing arrangement of rocks and pine-trees and brooks, are not all canyons the same? Did I not gaze with awe at the "trail to the grave of H. H.," and watch, without envy, the sight-seeing tourist struggle with its difficulties? Could I not supply myself with photographs, and guide-books, and poems, and "H. H.'s" glowing words, and picture the whole scene? I could, I did, and to me Colorado was a delightful place of rest, with mountain air that it was a luxury to breathe (after the machinery adjusted itself to the altitude), with glorious sunshine every morning, with unequaled nights of coolness, and a new flower or two for every day of the month.
If to "see Colorado" one must ascend every peak, toil through every canyon, cast the eyes on every waterfall, shudder over each precipice, wonder at each eccentric rock, drink from every spring, then I have not seen America's Wonderland. But if to steep my spirit in the beauty of its mountains so that they shall henceforth be a part of me; to inhale its enchanting air till my body itself seemed to have wings; if to paint in my memory its gorgeous procession of flowers, its broad mesa crowned with the royal blossoms of the yucca, its cosy cottonwood groves, its brooks rushing between banks of tangled greenery; if this is to "see Colorado," then no one has ever seen it more thoroughly.
The "symphony in yellow and red," which "H. H." calls this wonderland, grows upon the sojourner in some mysterious way, till by the time he has seen the waxing and waning of one moon he is an enthusiast. It is charming alike to the sight-seer whose jaded faculties pine for new and thrilling emotions, to the weary in brain and body who longs only for peace and rest, and to the invalid whose every breath is a pain at home. To the lover of flowers it is an exhaustless panorama of beauty and fragrance, well worth crossing the continent to enjoy; to the mountain lover it offers endless attractions.
Nothing is more fascinating to the stranger in Colorado than the formation of its canyons, not only the grand ones running up into the heart of the mountains, but the lesser ones cutting into the high table-land, or mesa, at the foot of the hills. The above mentioned cottonwood grove, for example, with its dozen of dwellings and a natural park of a good many acres above it, with tall pines that bear the marks of age, is so curiously hidden that one may come almost upon it without seeing it. It is reached from Colorado Springs by an electric road which runs along the mesa south of the town. As the car nears the end of the line, one begins to look around for the grove. Not a tree is in sight; right and left as far as can be seen stretches the treeless plain to the foot of the eternal hills; not even the top of a tall pine thrusts itself above the dead level. Before you is Cheyenne—grim, glorious, but impenetrable. The conductor stops. "This is your place," he says. You see no place; you think he must be mistaken.
"But where is Camp Harding?" you ask. He points to an obscure path—"trail" he calls it—which seems to throw itself over an edge. You approach that point, and there, to your wonder and your surprise, at your feet nestles the loveliest of smiling canyon-like valleys, filled with trees, aspen, oak, and pine, with here and there a tent or red roof gleaming through the green, and a noisy brook hurrying on its way downhill. By a steep scramble you reach the lower level, birds singing, flowers tempting on every side, and the picturesque, narrow trail leading you on, around the ledge of rock, over the rustic bridge, till you reach the back entrance of the camp. Before it, up the narrow valley, winds a road, the carriage-way to the Cheyenne canyons.
IN THE COTTONWOODS.
A cottonwood grove is the nearest approach to our Eastern rural districts to be found in Colorado, and a cotton storm, looking exactly like a snowstorm, is a common sight in these groves. The white, fluffy material grows in long bunches, loosely attached to stems, and the fibre is very short. At the lightest breeze that stirs the branches, tiny bits of it take to flight, and one tree will shed cotton for weeks. It clings to one's garments; it gets into the houses, and sticks to the carpets, often showing a trail of white footprints where a person has come in; it clogs the wire-gauze screens till they keep out the air as well as the flies; it fills the noses and the eyes of men and beasts. But its most curious effect is on the plants and flowers, to which it adheres, being a little gummy. Some flowers look as if they were encased in ice, and others seem wrapped in the gauziest of veils, which, flimsy as it looks, cannot be completely cleared from the leaves.
It covers the ground like snow, and strangely enough it looks in June, but it does not, like snow, melt, even under the warm summer sunshine. It must be swept from garden and walks, and carted away. A heavy rain clears the air and subdues it for a time, but the sun soon dries the bunches still on the trees, and the cotton storm is again in full blast. This annoyance lasts through June and a part of July, fully six weeks, and then the stems themselves drop to, the ground, still holding enough cotton to keep up the storm for days. After this, the first rainfall ends the trouble for that season.
In the midst of the cottonwoods, in beautiful Camp Harding, I spent the June that followed the journey described in the last chapter,—
"Dreaming sweet, idle dreams of having strayed To Arcady with all its golden lore."
The birds, of course, were my first concern. Ask of almost any resident not an ornithologist if there are birds in Colorado, and he will shake his head.
"Not many, I think," he will probably say. "Camp birds and magpies. Oh yes, and larks. I think that's about all."
This opinion, oft repeated, did not settle the matter in my mind, for I long ago discovered that none are so ignorant of the birds and flowers of a neighborhood as most of the people who live among them. I sought out my post, and I looked for myself.
There are birds in the State, plenty of them, but they are not on exhibition like the mountains and their wonders. No driver knows the way to their haunts, and no guide-book points them out. Even a bird student may travel a day's journey, and not encounter so many as one shall see in a small orchard in New England. He may rise with the dawn, and hear nothing like the glorious morning chorus that stirs one in the Atlantic States. He may search the trees and shrubberies for long June days, and not find so many nests as will cluster about one cottage at home.
Yet the birds are here, but they are shy, and they possess the true Colorado spirit,—they are mountain-worshipers. As the time approaches when each bird leaves society and retires for a season to the bosom of its own family, many of the feathered residents of the State bethink them of their inaccessible canyons. The saucy jay abandons the settlements where he has been so familiar as to dispute with the dogs for their food, and sets up his homestead in a tall pine-tree on a slope which to look at is to grow dizzy; the magpie, boldest of birds, steals away to some secure retreat; the meadow-lark makes her nest in the monotonous mesa, where it is as well hidden as a bobolink's nest in a New England meadow.
The difficulties in the way of studying Colorado birds are several, aside from their excessive suspicion of every human being. In the first place, observations must be made before ten o'clock, for at that hour every day a lively breeze, which often amounts to a gale, springs up, and sets the cottonwood and aspen leaves in a flutter that hides the movements of any bird. Then, all through the most interesting month of June the cottonwood-trees are shedding their cotton, and to a person on the watch for slight stirrings among the leaves the falling cotton is a constant distraction. The butterflies, too, wandering about in their aimless way, are all the time deceiving the bird student, and drawing attention from the bird he is watching.
On the other hand, one of the maddening pests of bird study at the East is here almost unknown,—the mosquito. Until the third week in June I saw but one. That one was in the habit of lying in wait for me when I went to a piece of low, swampy ground overgrown with bushes. Think of the opportunity this combination offers to the Eastern mosquito, and consider my emotions when I found but a solitary individual, and even that one disposed to coquette with me.
I had hidden myself, and was keeping motionless, in order to see the very shy owners of a nest I had found, when the lonely mosquito came as far as the rim of my shade hat, and hovered there, evidently meditating an attack—a mosquito hesitating! I could not stir a hand, or even shake my leafy twig; but it did not require such violent measures; a light puff of breath this side or that was enough to discourage the gentle creature, and in all the hours I sat there it never once came any nearer. The race increased, however, and became rather troublesome on the veranda after tea; but in the grove they were never annoying; I rarely saw half a dozen. When I remember the tortures endured in the dear old woods of the East, in spite of "lollicopop" and pennyroyal, and other horrors with which I have tried to repel them, I could almost decide to live and die in Colorado.
The morning bird chorus in the cottonwood grove where I spent my June was a great shock to me. If my tent had been pitched near the broad plains in which the meadow-lark delights, I might have wakened to the glorious song of this bird of the West. It is not a chorus, indeed, for one rarely hears more than a single performer, but it is a solo that fully makes up for want of numbers, and amply satisfies the lover of bird music, so strong, so sweet, so moving are his notes.
But on my first morning in the grove, what was my dismay—I may almost say despair—to find that the Western wood-pewee led the matins! Now, this bird has a peculiar voice. It is loud, pervasive, and in quality of tone not unlike our Eastern phoebe, lacking entirely the sweet plaintiveness of our wood-pewee. A pewee chorus is a droll and dismal affair. The poor things do their best, no doubt, and they cannot prevent the pessimistic effect it has upon us. It is rhythmic, but not in the least musical, and it has a weird power over the listener. This morning hymn does not say, as does the robin's, that life is cheerful, that another glorious day is dawning. It says, "Rest is over; another day of toil is here; come to work." It is monotonous as a frog chorus, but there is a merry thrill in the notes of the amphibian which are entirely wanting in the song. If it were not for the light-hearted tremolo of the chewink thrown in now and then, and the loud, cheery ditty of the summer yellow-bird, who begins soon after the pewee, one would be almost superstitious about so unnatural a greeting to the new day. The evening call of the bird is different. He will sit far up on a dead twig of an old pine-tree, and utter a series of four notes, something like "do, mi, mi, do," repeating them without pausing till it is too dark to see him, all the time getting lower, sadder, more deliberate, till one feels like running out and committing suicide or annihilating the bird of ill-omen.
I felt myself a stranger indeed when I reached this pleasant spot, and found that even the birds were unfamiliar. No robin or bluebird greeted me on my arrival; no cheerful song-sparrow tuned his little pipe for my benefit; no phoebe shouted the beloved name from the peak of the barn. Everything was strange. One accustomed to the birds of our Eastern States can hardly conceive of the country without robins in plenty; but in this unnatural corner of Uncle Sam's dominion I found but one pair.
The most common song from morning till night was that of the summer yellow-bird, or yellow warbler. It was not the delicate little strain we are accustomed to hear from this bird, but a loud, clear carol, equal in volume to the notes of our robin. These three birds, with the addition of a vireo or two, were our main dependence for daily music, though we were favored occasionally by others. Now the Arkansas goldfinch uttered his sweet notes from the thick foliage of the cottonwood-trees; then the charming aria of the catbird came softly from the tangle of rose and other bushes; the black-headed grosbeak now and then saluted us from the top of a pine-tree; and rarely, too rarely, alas! a passing meadow-lark filled all the grove with his wonderful song.
And there was the wren! He interested me from the first; for a wren is a bird of individuality always, and his voice reminded me, in a feeble way, of the witching notes of the winter wren, the
"Brown wren from out whose swelling throat Unstinted joys of music float."
This bird was the house wren, the humblest member of his musical family; but there was in his simple melody the wren quality, suggestive of the thrilling performances of his more gifted relatives; and I found it and him very pleasing.
The chosen place for his vocal display was a pile of brush beside a closed-up little cottage, and I suspected him of having designs upon that two-roomed mansion for nesting purposes. After hopping all about the loose sticks, delivering his bit of an aria a dozen times or more, in a most rapturous way, he would suddenly dive into certain secret passages among the dead branches, when he was instantly lost to sight. Then, in a few seconds, a close watcher might sometimes see him pass like a shadow, under the cottage, which stood up on corner posts, dart out the farther side, and fly at once to the eaves.
One day I was drawn from the house by a low and oft-repeated cry, like "Hear, hear, hear!" It was emphatic and imperative, as if some unfortunate little body had the business of the world on his shoulders, and could not get it done to his mind. I carefully approached the disturbed voice, and was surprised to find it belonged to the wren, who was so disconcerted at sight of me, that I concluded this particular sort of utterance must be for the benefit of his family alone. Later, that kind of talk, his lord-and-master style as I supposed, was the most common sound I heard from him, and not near the cottage and the brush heap, but across the brook. I thought that perhaps I had displeased him by too close surveillance, and he had set up housekeeping out of my reach. Across the brook I could not go, for between "our side" and the other raged a feud, which had culminated in torn-up bridges and barbed wire protections.
One day, however, I had a surprise. In studying another bird, I was led around to the back of the still shut-up cottage, and there I found, very unexpectedly, an exceedingly busy and silent wren. He did sing occasionally while I watched him from afar, but in so low a tone that it could not be heard a few steps away. Of course I understood this unnatural circumspection, and on observing him cautiously, I saw that he made frequent visits to the eaves of the cottage, the very spot I had hoped he would nest. Then I noted that he carried in food, and on coming out he alighted on a dead bush, and sang under his breath. Here, then, was the nest, and all his pretense of scolding across the brook was but a blind! Wary little rogue! Who would ever suspect a house wren of shyness?
I had evidently done him injustice when I regarded the scolding as his family manner, for here in his home he was quiet as a mouse, except when his joy bubbled over in trills.
To make sure of my conclusions I went close to the house, and then for the first time (to know it) I saw his mate. She came with food in her beak, and was greatly disturbed at sight of her uninvited guest. She stood on a shrub near me fluttering her wings, and there her anxious spouse joined her, and fluttered his in the same way, uttering at the same time a low, single note of protest.
On looking in through the window, I found that the cottage was a mere shell, all open under the eaves, so that the birds could go in and out anywhere. The nest was over the top of a window, and the owner thereof ran along the beam beside it, in great dudgeon at my impertinent staring. Had ever a pair of wrens quarters so ample,—a whole cottage to themselves? Henceforth, it was part of my daily rounds to peep in at the window, though I am sorry to say it aroused the indignation of the birds, and always brought them to the beam nearest me, to give me a piece of their mind.
Bird babies grow apace, and baby wrens have not many inches to achieve. One day I came upon a scene of wild excitement: two wrenlings flying madly about in the cottage, now plump against the window, then tumbling breathless to the floor, and two anxious little parents, trying in vain to show their headstrong offspring the way they should go, to the openings under the eaves which led to the great out-of-doors. My face at the window seemed to be the "last straw." A much-distressed bird came boldly up to me behind the glass, saying by his manner—and who knows but in words?—"How can you be so cruel as to disturb us? Don't you see the trouble we are in?" He had no need of Anglo-Saxon (or even of American-English!). I understood him at once; and though exceedingly curious to see how they would do it, I had not the heart to insist. I left them to manage their willful little folk in their own way.
The next morning I was awakened by the jolliest wren music of the season. Over and over the bird poured out his few notes, louder, madder, more rapturously than I had supposed he could. He had guided his family safely out of their imprisoning four walls, I was sure. And so I found it when I went out. Not a wren to be seen about the house, but soft little "churs" coming from here and there among the shrubbery, and every few minutes a loud, happy song proclaimed that wren troubles were over for the summer. Far in among the tangle of bushes and vines, I came upon him, as gay as he had been of yore:—
"Pausing and peering, with sidling head, As saucily questioning all I said; While the ox-eye danced on its slender stem, And all glad Nature rejoiced with them."
The chewink is a curious exchange for the robin. When I noticed the absence of the red-breast, whom—like the poor—we have always with us (at the East), I was pleased, in spite of my fondness for him, because, as every one must allow, he is sometimes officious in his attentions, and not at all reticent in expressing his opinions. I did miss his voice in the morning chorus,—the one who lived in the grove was not much of a singer,—but I was glad to know the chewink, who was almost a stranger. His peculiar trilling song was heard from morning till night; he came familiarly about the camp, eating from the dog's dish, and foraging for crumbs at the kitchen door. Next to the wood-pewee, he was the most friendly of our feathered neighbors.
He might be seen at any time, hopping about on the ground, one moment picking up a morsel of food, and the next throwing up his head and bursting into song:—
"But not for you his little singing, Soul of fire its flame is flinging, Sings he for himself alone,"
as was evident from the unconscious manner in which he uttered his notes between two mouthfuls, never mounting a twig or making a "performance" of his music. I have watched one an hour at a time, going about in his jerky fashion, tearing up the ground and searching therein, exactly after the manner of a scratching hen. This, by the way, was a droll operation, done with both feet together, a jump forward and a jerk back of the whole body, so rapidly one could hardly follow the motion, but throwing up a shower of dirt every time. He had neither the grace nor the dignity of our domestic biddy.
Matter of fact as this fussy little personage was on the ground, taking in his breakfast and giving out his song, he was a different bird when he got above it. Alighting on the wren's brush heap, for instance, he would bristle up, raising the feathers on head and neck, his red eyes glowing eagerly, his tail a little spread and standing up at a sharp angle, prepared for instant fight or flight, whichever seemed desirable.
I was amused to hear the husky cry with which this bird expresses most of his emotions,—about as nearly a "mew," to my ears, as the catbird executes. Whether frolicking with a comrade among the bushes, reproving a too inquisitive bird student, or warning the neighborhood against some monster like a stray kitten, this one cry seemed to answer for all his needs, and, excepting the song, was the only sound I heard him utter.
Familiar as the chewink might be about our quarters, his own home was well hidden, on the rising ground leading up to the mesa,—
"An unkempt zone, Where vines and weeds and scrub oaks intertwine,"
which no one bigger than a bird could penetrate. Whenever I appeared in that neighborhood, I was watched and followed by anxious and disturbed chewinks; but I never found a nest, though, judging from the conduct of the residents, I was frequently "very warm" (as the children say).
About the time the purple aster began to unclose its fringed lids, and the mariposa lily to unfold its delicate cups on the lower mesa,—nearly the middle of July,—full-grown chewink babies, in brown coats and streaked vests, made their appearance in the grove, and after that the whole world might search the scrub oaks and not a bird would say him nay.
"All is silent now Save bell-note from some wandering cow, Or rippling lark-song far away."
AN UPROAR OF SONG.
The bird music of Colorado, though not so abundant as one could wish, is singularly rich in quality, and remarkable for its volume. At the threshold of the State the traveler is struck by this peculiarity. As the train thunders by, the Western meadow-lark mounts a telegraph pole and pours out such a peal of melody that it is distinctly heard above the uproar of the iron wheels.
This bird is preeminently the bird of the mesa, or high table-land of the region, and only to hear his rare song is well worth a journey to that distant wonderland. Not of his music could Lucy Larcom say, as she so happily does of our bird of the meadow,—
"Sounds the meadow-lark's refrain Just as sad and clear."
Nor could his sonorous song be characterized by Clinton Scollard's exquisite verse,—
"From whispering winds your plaintive notes were drawn."
For the brilliant solo of Colorado's bird is not in the least like the charming minor chant of our Eastern lark. So powerful that it is heard at great distances in the clear air, it is still not in the slightest degree strained or harsh, but is sweet and rich, whether it be close at one's side in the silence, or shouted from the housetop in the tumult of a busy street. It has, moreover, the same tender winsomeness that charms us in our own lark song; something that fills the sympathetic listener with delight, that satisfies his whole being; a siren strain that he longs to listen to forever. The whole breadth and grandeur of the great West is in this song, its freedom, its wildness, the height of its mountains, the sweep of its rivers, the beauty of its flowers,—all in the wonderful performance. Even after months of absence, the bare memory of the song of the mesa will move its lover to an almost painful yearning. Of him, indeed, Shelley might truthfully say,—
"Better than all measures Of delightful sound, Better than all treasures That in books are found, Thy skill to poet were, Thou scorner of the ground."
Nor is the variety of the lark song less noteworthy than its quality. That each bird has a large repertoire I cannot assert, for my opportunities for study have been too limited; but it is affirmed by those who know him better, that he has, and I fully believe it.
One thing is certainly true of nearly if not quite all of our native birds, that no two sing exactly alike, and the close observer soon learns to distinguish between the robins and the song-sparrows of a neighborhood, by their notes alone. The Western lark seems even more than others to individualize his utterances, so that constant surprises reward the discriminating listener. During two months' bird-study in that delightful canyon-hidden grove at the foot of Cheyenne Mountain, one particular bird song was for weeks an unsolved mystery. The strain consisted of three notes in loud, ringing tones, which syllabled themselves very plainly in my ear as "Whip-for-her."
This unseemly, and most emphatic, demand came always from a distance, and apparently from the top of some tall tree, and it proved to be most tantalizing; for although the first note invariably brought me out, opera-glass in hand, I was never able to come any nearer to a sight of the unknown than the sway of a twig he had just left.
One morning, however, before I was up, the puzzling songster visited the little grove under my windows, and I heard his whole song, of which it now appeared the three notes were merely the conclusion. The performance was eccentric. It began with a soft warble, apparently for his sole entertainment, then suddenly, as if overwhelmed by memory of wrongs received or of punishment deserved, he interrupted his tender melody with a loud, incisive "Whip-for-her!" in a totally different manner. His nearness, however, solved the mystery; the ring of the meadow-lark was in his tones, and I knew him at once. I had not suspected his identity, for the Western bird does not take much trouble to keep out of sight, and, moreover, his song is rarely less than six or eight notes in length.
Another unique singer of the highlands is the horned lark. One morning in June a lively carriage party passing along the mountain side, on a road so bare and bleak that it seemed nothing could live there, was startled by a small gray bird, who suddenly dashed out of the sand beside the wheels, ran across the path, and flew to a fence on the other side. Undisturbed, perhaps even stimulated, by the clatter of two horses and a rattling mountain wagon, undaunted by the laughing and talking load, the little creature at once burst into song, so loud as to be heard above the noisy procession, and so sweet that it silenced every tongue.
"How exquisite! What is it?" we asked each other, at the end of the little aria.
"It's the gray sand bird," answered the native driver.
"Otherwise the horned lark," added the young naturalist, from his broncho behind the carriage.
Let not his name mislead: this pretty fellow, in soft, gray-tinted plumage, is not deformed by "horns;" it is only two little tufts of feathers, which give a certain piquant, wide-awake expression to his head, that have fastened upon him a title so incongruous. The nest of the desert-lover is a slight depression in the barren earth, nothing more; and the eggs harmonize with their surroundings in color. The whole is concealed by its very openness, and as hard to find, as the bobolink's cradle in the trackless grass of the meadow.
Most persistent of all the singers of the grove beside the house was the yellow warbler, a dainty bit of featherhood the size of one's thumb. On the Atlantic coast his simple ditty is tender, and so low that it must be listened for; but in that land of "skies so blue they flash," he sings it at the top of his voice, louder than the robin song as we know it, and easily heard above the roar of the wind and the brawling of the brook he haunts.
Before me at this moment is the nest of one of these little sprites, which I watched till the last dumpy infant had taken flight, and then secured with the branchlet it was built upon. It was in a young oak, not more than twelve feet from the ground, occupying a perpendicular fork, where it was concealed and shaded by no less than sixteen twigs, standing upright, and loaded with leaves. The graceful cup itself, to judge by its looks, might be made of white floss silk,—I have no curiosity to know the actual material,—and is cushioned inside with downy fibres from the cottonwood-tree. It is dainty enough for a fairy's cradle.
The wood-pewee, in dress and manners nearly resembling his Eastern brother,
"The pewee of the loneliest woods, Sole singer in the solitudes,"
has a strange and decidedly original utterance. While much louder and more continuous, it lacks the sweetness of our bird's notes; indeed, it resembles in quality of tone the voice of our phoebe, or his beautiful relative, the great-crested flycatcher. The Westerner has a great deal to say for himself. On alighting, he announces the fact by a single note, which is a habit also of our phoebe; he sings the sun up in the morning, and he sings it down in the evening, and he would be a delightful neighbor if only his voice were pleasing. But there is little charm in the music, for it is in truth a dismal chant, with the air and cheerfulness of a funeral dirge—a pessimistic performance that inspires the listener with a desire to choke him then and there.
This bird's nest, as well as his song, is unlike that of our wood-pewee. Instead of a delicate, lichen-covered saucer set lightly upon a horizontal crotch of a dead branch,—our bird's chosen home,—it is a deeper cup, fastened tightly upon a large living branch, and, at least in a cottonwood grove, decorated on the outside with the fluffy cotton from the trees.
Even the humming-bird, who contents himself in this part of the world with a modest hum, heard but a short distance away, at the foot of the Rocky Mountains may almost be called a noisy bird. The first one I noticed dashed out of a thickly leaved tree with loud, angry cries, swooped down toward me, and flew back and forth over my head, scolding with a hum which, considering his size, might almost be called a roar. I could not believe my ears until my eyes confirmed their testimony. The sound was not made by the wings, but was plainly a cry strong and harsh in an extraordinary degree.
The Western ruby-throat has other singularities which differentiate him from his Eastern brother. It is very droll to see one of his family take part in the clamors of a bird mob, perching like his bigger fellows, and adding his excited cries to the notes of catbird and robin, chewink and yellow-bird. Attracted one morning by a great bird outcry in a dense young oak grove across the road, I left my seat under the cottonwoods and strolled over toward it. It was plain that some tragedy was in the air, for the winged world was in a panic. Two robins, the only pair in the neighborhood, uttered their cry of distress from the top of the tallest tree; a catbird hopped from branch to branch, flirting his tail and mewing in agitation; a chewink or two near the ground jerked themselves about uneasily, adding their strange, husky call to the hubbub; and above the din rose the shrill voice of a humming-bird. Every individual had his eyes fixed upon the ground, where it was evident that some monster must be lurking. I expected a big snake at the very least, and, putting the lower branches aside, I, too, peered into the semi-twilight of the grove.
No snake was there; but my eyes fell upon an anxious little gray face, obviously much disturbed to find itself the centre of so much attention. As I appeared, this bugaboo, who had caused all the excitement, recognized me as a friend and ran toward me, crying piteously. It was a very small lost kitten!
I took up the stray little beastie, and a silence fell upon the assembly in the trees, which began to scatter, each one departing upon his own business in a moment. But the humming-bird refused to be so easily pacified; he was bound to see the end of the affair, and he followed me out of the grove, still vigorously speaking his mind about the enemy in fur. I suspected that the little creature had wandered away from the house on the hill above, and I went up to see. The hummer accompanied me every step of the way, sometimes flying over my head, and again alighting for a minute on a branch under which I passed. Not until he saw me deliver pussy into the hands of her own family, and return to my usual seat in the grove, did he release me from surveillance and take his leave.
The yellow-breasted chat, the long-tailed variety belonging to the West, delivers his strange medley of "chacks" and whistles, and rattles and other indescribable cries, in a voice that is loud and distinct, as well as sweet and rich. He is a bird of humor, too, with a mocking spirit not common in his race. One day, while sitting motionless in a hidden nook, trying to spy upon the domestic affairs of this elusive individual, I was startled by the so-called "laugh" of a robin, which was instantly repeated by a chat, unseen, but quite near. The robin, apparently surprised or interested, called again, and was a second time mocked. Then he lost his temper, and began a serious reproof to the levity of his neighbor, which ended in a good round scolding, as the saucy chat continued to repeat his taunting laugh. This went on till the red-breast flew away in high dudgeon.
Why our little brothers in feathers are so much more boisterous than elsewhere,
"Up in the parks and the mesas wide, Under the blue of the bluest sky,"
has not, so far as I know, been discovered.
Whether it be the result of habitual opposition to the strong winds which, during the season of song, sweep over the plains every day, or whether the exhilaration of the mountain air be the cause—who can tell?
THE TRAGEDY OF A NEST.
Near to the Camp, a little closer to beautiful Cheyenne Mountain, lay a small park. It was a continuation of the grove, through which the brook came roaring and tumbling down from the canyons above, and, being several miles from the town, it had never become a popular resort. A few winding paths, and a rude bench here and there, were the only signs of man's interference with its native wildness; it was practically abandoned to the birds—and me.
The birds had full possession when I appeared on the scene, and though I did my best to be unobtrusive, my presence was not so welcome as I could have wished. Every morning when I came slowly and quietly up the little path from the gate, bird-notes suddenly ceased; the grosbeak, pouring out his soul from the top of a pine-tree, dived down the other side; the towhee, picking up his breakfast on the ground, scuttled behind the bushes and disappeared; the humming-bird, interrupted in her morning "affairs," flew off over my head, scolding vigorously; only the vireo—serene as always—went on warbling and eating, undisturbed.
Then I made haste to seek out an obscure spot, where I could sit and wait in silence, to see who might unwittingly show himself.
I was never lonely, and never tired; for if—as sometimes happened—no flit of wing came near to interest me, there before me was beautiful Cheyenne, with its changing face never twice alike, and its undying associations with its poet and lover, whose lonely grave makes it forever sacred to those who loved her. There, too, was the wonderful sky of Colorado, so blue it looked almost violet, and near at hand the "Singing Water," whose stirring music was always inspiring.
One morning I was startled from my reverie by a sudden cry, so loud and clear that I turned quickly to see what manner of bird had uttered it. The voice was peculiar and entirely new to me. First came a scolding note like that of an oriole, then the "chack" of a blackbird, and next a sweet, clear whistle, one following the other rapidly and vehemently, as if the performer intended to display all his accomplishments in a breath. Cheyenne vanished like "the magic mountain of a dream," blue skies were forgotten, the babbling brook unheard, every sense was instantly alert to see that extraordinary bird,—
"Like a poet hidden, Singing songs unbidden."
But he did not appear. Not a leaf rustled, not a twig bent, though the strange medley kept on for fifteen minutes, then ceased as abruptly as it had begun, and not a whisper more could be heard. The whole thing seemed uncanny. Was it a bird at all, or a mere "wandering voice"? It seemed to come from a piece of rather swampy ground, overgrown with clumps of willow and low shrubs; but what bird of earthly mould could come and go, and make no sign that a close student of bird ways could detect? Did he creep on the ground? Did he vanish into thin air?
Hours went by. I could not go, and my leafy nook was "struck through with slanted shafts of afternoon" before I reluctantly gave up that I should not see my enchanter that day, and slowly left the grove, the mystery unexplained.
Very early the next morning I was saluted by the same loud, clear calls near the house. Had then the Invisible followed me home? I sprang up and hurried to the always open window. The voice was very near; but I could not see its author, though I was hidden behind blinds.
This time the bird—if bird it were—indulged in a fuller repertoire. I seized pencil and paper, and noted down phonetically the different notes as they were uttered. This is the record: "Rat-t-t-t-t" (very rapid); "quit! quit! quit!" (a little slower); "wh-eu! wh-eu!" (still more deliberately); "chack! chack! chack!" (quite slow); "crē, crē, crē, crē" (fast); "hu-way! hu-way!" (very sweet). There was a still more musical clause that I cannot put into syllables, then a rattle exactly like castanets, and lastly a sort of "Kr-r-r! kr-r-r!" in the tone of a great-crested flycatcher. While this will not express to one who has not heard it the marvelous charm of it all, it will at least indicate the variety.
Hardly waiting to dispose of breakfast, I betook myself to my "woodland enchanted," resolved to stay till I saw that bird.
"All day in the bushes The woodland was haunted."
The voice was soon on hand, and once more I was treated to the incomparable recitative.
This day, too, my patience was rewarded; the mystery was solved; I saw the Unknown! While my eyes were fixed upon a certain bush before me, the singer incautiously ventured too near the top of a twig, and I saw him plainly, standing almost upright, and vehemently chanting his fantasia, opening his mouth very wide with every call. I knew him at once, the rogue! from having read of him; he was the yellow-breasted chat. It was well, indeed, that I happened to be looking at that very spot, and that I was quick in my observation; for in a moment he saw the blunder he had made, and slipped back down the stem, too late for his secret—I had him down in black and white.
From that time the little park was never lonely, nor did I spend much time dreaming over Cheyenne. The moment I appeared in the morning my lively host began his vocal gymnastics, while I sat spellbound, bewitched by the magic of his notes. In spite of being absorbed in listening to him, I retained my faculties sufficiently to reflect that the chat had probably other employment than entertaining me, and that doubtless his object was to distract my attention from looking about me, or to reproach me for intruding upon his private domain. In either case there was, of course,
"A nest unseen Somewhere among the million stalks;"
and, delightful as I found the unseen bird, his nest was a treasure I was even more anxious to see.
Not to disturb him more than necessary, I spent part of an evening studying up the nesting habits of the chat,—the long-tailed, yellow-breasted, as I found him to be,—and the next morning made a thorough search through the swamp, looking into every bush and examining every thicket. An hour or two of this hard work satisfied me for the day, and I went home warm and tired, followed to the very door by the mocking voice, triumphing, as it seemed, in my failure.
The next day, however, fortune smiled upon me; I came upon a nest, not far above the ground, among the stems of a clump of shrubs, which exactly answered the description of the one I sought. Careful not to lay a finger on it, I slightly parted the branches above, and looked in upon three pinkish-white eggs, small in size and dainty as tinted pearls. Happy day, I thought, and the forerunner of happy to-morrows when I should watch
"The green nest full of pleasant shade Wherein three speckled eggs were laid,"
and see and delight in the family life centring about it.
To study a bird so shy required extraordinary precautions; I therefore sought, and found, a post of observation a long way off, where I could look through a natural vista among the shrubs, and with my glass bring the bush and its precious contents into view. For greater seclusion in my retreat, so that I should be as little conspicuous as possible, I drew down a branch of the low tree over my seat, and fastened it with a fine string to a stout weed below. Then I thought I had a perfect screen; I devoutly hoped the birds would not notice me.
Vain delusion! and labor as vain! Doubtless two pairs of anxious eyes watched from some neighboring bush all my careful preparations, and then and there two despairing hearts bade farewell to their lovely little home, abandoned it and its treasures to the spy and the destroyer, which in their eyes I seemed to be.
This conclusion was forced upon me by the experiences of the next few days. The birds absolutely would not approach the nest while I was in the park. The first morning I sat motionless for nearly two hours, and not a feather showed itself near that bush; it was plainly "tabooed." During the next day the chat called from this side and that, moving about in his wonderful way, without disturbing a twig, rustling a leaf, or flitting a wing—as silently, indeed, as if he were a spirit unclothed.
While waiting for him to show himself, making myself as nearly a part of nature about me as a mortal is gifted to do, I congratulated myself upon the one good look I had secured, for, with all my efforts and all my watching, I saw him but twice more all summer. The enigma of that remarkable voice would have been maddening indeed, if I could not have known to whom it belonged.
After several days of untiring observation I had but two glimpses to record. On one occasion a chat alighted on the top sprig of the fateful shrub, as if going to the nest, but almost on the instant vanished. The same day, a little later, one of these birds flitted into my view, without a sound. So perfectly silent were his movements that I should not have seen him if he had not come directly before my eyes. He, or she, for the pair are alike, alighted in a low bush and scrambled about as if in search of insects, climbing, not hopping. He stayed but a few seconds and departed like a shadow, as he had come.
On the tenth day after my discovery of the nest with its trio of eggs I went out as usual, for I could not abandon hope. In passing the nest I glanced in and saw one egg; I could never see but one as I went by, but, not liking to go too near, I presumed that the other two were there, as I had always found them, and slipped quietly into my usual place.
In a few moments the chat shouted a call so near that it fairly startled me. From that he went on to make his ordinary protest, but, as happened nearly every time, I was not able to see him. I saw something—something that took my breath away. A shadowy form creeping stealthily through the shrubs five or six feet from me. It glided across the opening in front, and in a moment went to the bush I was watching. In silence, but with evident excitement, it moved about, approached the nest, and in a few seconds flew quickly across the path in plain sight, holding in its mouth something white which was large for its beak. I was reminded of an English sparrow carrying a piece of bread as big as his head, a sight familiar to every one. In a minute or two the same bird, or his twin, came to the nest again and disappeared on the other side.
When I left my place to go home, I looked with misgivings into the nest on which I had built so many hopes. Lo! it was empty!
Now I identified that stealthy visitor absolutely, but I shall never name him. I have never heard him accused of nest-robbing, and I shall not make the charge; for I am convinced that the chat had deserted the nest, and that this abstracter of eggs knew it, and simply took the good things the gods threw in his way—as would the best of us.
After that unfortunate ending the chat disappeared from the little park; but a week later I came upon him, or his voice, in a private and rarely visited pasture down the road, where many clumps of small trees and much low growth offered desirable nesting-places. He made his usual protest, and feeling that I had been the cause of the tragedy of the first nest, though I had grieved over it as much as the owners could, the least I could do, to show my regret, was to take myself and my curiosity out of his neighborhood. So I retired at once, and left the whole broad pasture to the incorrigible chat family, who, I hope, succeeded at last in enriching the world by half a dozen more of their bewitching kind.
A FEAST OF FLOWERS.
When first the crocus thrusts its point of gold Up through the still snow-drifted garden mould, And folded green things in dim woods unclose Their crinkled spears, a sudden tremor goes Into my veins and makes me kith and kin To every wild-born thing that thrills and blows.
T. B. ALDRICH.
My feast of flowers began before I entered Colorado. For half the breadth of Kansas the banks of the railroad were heavenly blue with clustered blossoms of the spiderwort. I remember clumps of this flower in my grandmother's old-fashioned garden, but my wildest dreams never pictured miles of it, so profuse that, looking backward from the train, the track looked like threads of steel in a broad ribbon of blue.
Through the same State, also, the Western meadow-larks kept us company, and I shall never again think of "bleeding Kansas," but of smiling Kansas, the home of the bluest of blossoms and the sweetest of singers. The latter half of the way through the smiling State was golden with yellow daisies in equal abundance, and beside them many other flowers. Beginning at noon, I counted twenty-seven varieties, so near the track that I could distinguish them as we rushed past.
The Santa Fe road enters Colorado in a peculiarly desolate region. Flowers and birds appear to have stayed behind in Kansas, and no green thing shows its head, excepting one dismal-looking bush, which serves only to accentuate the poverty of the soil. As we go on, the mud is replaced by sand and stones, from gravel up to big bowlders, and flowers begin to struggle up through the unpromising ground.
Nothing is more surprising than the amazing profusion of wild-flowers which this apparently ungenial soil produces. Of a certainty, if Colorado is not the paradise of wild-flowers, it is incomparably richer in them than any State east of the Mississippi River and north of "Mason and Dixon's Line." To begin with, there is a marvelous variety. Since I have taken note of them, from about the 10th of June till nearly the same date in July, I have found in my daily walk of not more than a mile or two, each time from one to seven new kinds. A few days I have found seven, many times I have brought home four, and never has a day passed without at least one I had not seen before. That will average, at a low estimate, about a hundred varieties of flowers in a month, and all within a radius of four miles. What neighborhood can produce a record equal to this?
Then, again, the blossoms themselves are so abundant. Hardly a root contents itself with a single flower. The moccasin-plant is the only one I have noticed as yet. One root will usually send up from one to a dozen stems, fairly loaded with buds—like the yucca—which open a few every day, and thus keep in bloom for weeks. Or if there is but one stem, it will be packed with buds from the ground to the tip, with new ones to come out for every blossom that falls.
One in the vase on my stand at this moment is of this sort. It is a stem that sometimes attains a height of four or five feet. I think it lengthens as long as it is blossoming, and, to look at its preparations, that must be all summer. Every two or three inches of the stout stem is a whorl of leaves and buds and blossoms. Except the number of buds, it is all in fours. Opposite each other, making a cross, are four leaves, like a carnation leaf at first, but broadening and lengthening till it is two inches at the base and eight or ten long. Rising out of the axil of each leaf are buds, of graduated size and development up to the open blossom. That one stem, therefore, is prepared to open fresh flowers every day for a long time.
The plant is exquisitely beautiful, for the whole thing, from the stem to the flower petals, is of a delicate, light pea-green. The blossom opens like a star, with four stamens and four petals. The description sounds mathematical, but the plant is graceful—a veritable symphony in green.
A truly royal bouquet stands on my table—three spikes of yucca flowers in a tall vase, the middle one three feet high, bearing fifty blossoms and buds, of large size and a pink color; on its right, one a little less in size, with long creamy cups fully open; and on the left another, set with round greenish balls, not so open as cups. They are distinctly different, but each seems more exquisite than the other, and their fragrance fills the room. In fact it is so overpowering that when at night I close the door opening into the grove, I shut the vase and its contents outside.
This grand flower is the glory of the mesa or table-land at the foot of this range of the Rocky Mountains—the Cheyenne Range. Where no grass—that we name grass—will grow, where trees die for want of water, these noble spikes of flowers dot the bare plains in profusion.
It is the rich possessor of three names. To the flower-lover it is the yucca; to the cultivator, or whosoever meddles with its leaves, it is the Spanish-bayonet; to the utilitarian, who values a thing only as it is of use to him, it is the soap-weed—ignoble name, referring to certain qualities pertaining to its roots. When we remember that this flower is not the careful product of the garden, but of spontaneous growth in the most barren and hopeless-looking plains, we may well regard it as a type of Colorado's luxuriance in these loveliest of nature's gifts.
Of a surly disposition is the blossom of a cactus—the "prickly-pear," as we call it in Eastern gardens, where we cultivate it for its oddity, I suppose. When the sojourner in this land of flowers sees, opening on all sides of this inhospitable-looking plant, rich cream-colored cups, the size of a Jacqueminot bud, and of a rare, satiny sheen, she cannot resist the desire to fill a low dish with them for her table.
Woe to her if she attempts to gather them "by hand"! Properly warned, she will take a knife, sever the flower from the pear (there is no stem to speak of), pick it up by the tip of a petal, carry it home in a paper or handkerchief, and dump it gently into water—happy if she does not feel a dozen intolerable prickles here and there, and have to extract, with help of magnifying-glass and tweezers, as many needle-like barbs rankling in her flesh. She may as well have spared herself the trouble. The flowers possess the uncompromising nature of the stock from which they sprung; they will speedily shut themselves up like buds again—I almost believe they close with a snap—and obstinately refuse to display their satin draperies to delight the eyes of their abductors. This unlovely spirit is not common among Colorado flowers; most of them go on blooming in the vase day after day.
Remarkable are the places in which the flowers are found. Not only are they seen in crevices all the way up the straight side of rocks, where one would hardly think a seed could lodge, but beside the roads, between the horses' tracks, and on the edge of gutters in the streets of a city. One can walk down any street in Colorado Springs and gather a bouquet, lovely and fragrant, choice enough to adorn any one's table. I once counted twelve varieties in crossing one vacant corner lot on the principal street.
One of the richest wild gardens I know is a bare, open spot in a cottonwood grove, part of it tunneled by ants, which run over it by millions, and the rest a jumble of bowlders and wild rosebushes, impossible to describe. In this spot, unshaded from the burning sun, flourish flowers innumerable. Rosebushes, towering far above one's head, loaded with bloom; shrubs of several kinds, equally burdened by delicate white or pink blossoms; the ground covered with foot-high pentstemons, blue and lavender, in which the buds fairly get in each other's way; and a curious plant—primrose, I believe—which opens every morning, a few inches from the ground, a large white blossom like the magnolia, turns it deep pink, and closes it before night; several kinds of yellow flowers; wild geraniums, with a look of home in their daintily penciled petals; above all, the wonderful golden columbine. I despair of picturing this grand flower to eyes accustomed to the insignificant columbine of the East. The blossom is three times the size of its Eastern namesake, growing in clumps sometimes three feet across, with thirty or forty stems of flowers standing two and a half feet high. In hue it is a delicate straw color, sometimes all one tint, sometimes with outside petals of snowy white, and rarely with those outsiders of lavender. It is a red-letter day when the flower-lover comes upon a clump of the lavender-leaved columbine. Far up in the mountains is found still another variety of this beautiful flower, with outside petals of a rich blue. This, I believe, is the State flower of Colorado.
I am surprised at the small number of flowers here with which I am familiar. I think there are not more than half a dozen in all this extraordinary "procession of flowers" that I ever saw before. In consequence, every day promises discoveries, every walk is exciting as an excursion into unknown lands, each new find is a fresh treasure.
A CINDERELLA AMONG FLOWERS.
Like torches lit for carnival, The fiery lilies straight and tall Burn where the deepest shadow is; Still dance the columbines cliff-hung, And like a broidered veil outflung The many-blossomed clematis.
A rough, scraggy plant, with unattractive, dark-green foliage and a profusion of buds standing out at all angles, is, in July, almost the only growing thing to be seen on the barren-looking mesa around Colorado Springs. Anything more unpromising can hardly be imagined; the coarsest thistle is a beauty beside it; the common burdock has a grace of growth far beyond it; the meanest weed shows a color which puts it to shame. Yet if the curious traveler pass that way again, late in the afternoon, he shall find that "Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these." He will see the bush transfigured; its angular form hidden under a mass of many pointed stars of snowy whiteness, with clusters of pale gold stamens. Then will stand revealed the "superb mentzelia," a true Cinderella, fit only for ignominious uses in the morning, but a suitable bride for the fairy prince in the evening.
To look at the wide-stretching table-lands, where, during its season, this fairy-story transformation takes place daily, so burned by the sun, and swept by the wind, that no cultivated plant will flourish on it, one would never suspect that it is the scene of a brilliant "procession of flowers" from spring to fall. "There is always something going on outdoors worth seeing," says Charles Dudley Warner, and of no part of the world is this more true than of these apparently desolate plains at the foot of the Rocky Mountains. Rich is the reward of the daily stroller, not only in the inspiration of its pure, bracing air, the songs of its meadow-larks, and the glory of its grand mountain view, but in its charming flower show.
This begins with the anemone, modest and shy like our own, but three times as big, and well protected from the sharp May breezes by a soft, fluffy silk wrap. Then some day in early June the walker shall note groups of long, sword-shaped leaves, rising in clusters here and there from the ground. He may not handle them with impunity, for they are strong and sharp-edged, and somewhat later the beauty they are set to guard is revealed. A stem or two, heavy and loaded with hard green balls, pushes itself up among them day by day, till some morning he stands spellbound before the full-blown bells of the yucca, cream-tinted or pink, and fragrant as the breath of summer.
Before the Nature-lover is tired of feasting his eyes upon that stately flower, shall begin to unfold the crumpled draperies of the great Mexican poppy, dotting the hillsides and the mesa with white, as far as the eye can reach. Meanwhile, the earth itself shall suddenly turn to pink, and a close look disclose a tiny, low-growing blossom, sweet as the morning, with the glow of the sunrise in its face; a little bunch of crazy-looking stamens, and tiny snips of petals standing out at all angles, and of all shades on one stem, from white to deep red; the whole no bigger than a gauzy-winged fly, and shaped not unlike one, with a delicious odor that scents the air.
Next day—or next week—wandering over the pathless barrens, the observer may come upon a group of cream-colored satin flowers, wide open to the sun, innocent looking and most tempting to gather. But the great fleshy leaves from which they spring give warning; they belong to the cactus family, and are well armed to protect their treasures from the vagrant hand. The walker—if he be wise—will content himself with looking, nor seek a nearer acquaintance.
While these royal beauties are adorning the highlands, others, perhaps even more lovely, are blooming in the canyons, under the trees, and beside the noisy brooks. First, there is a "riot of roses"—the only expression that adequately suggests the profusion of these beautiful flowers. They grow in enormous bushes, far above one's head, in impenetrable thickets, extending for yards each way.
"Rose hedges Abloom to the edges."
Every country road is walled in by them; every brookside is glorified by their rich masses of color; and no rocky wall is so bare but here and there a tiny shoot finds root, and open its rosy bloom. All these bushes, from the low-growing sort that holds its mottled and shaded petals three inches above the ground, to that whose top one cannot reach, are simply loaded with blossoms of all shades, from nearly white to deepest rose-color, filling the air with perfume.
The first time one comes upon this lavish display, he—or more probably she—picks a spray from the first bush; she cannot resist the next variety, and before she knows it her arms are full, with temptations as strong as ever before her. She may at last, like "H. H.," take home her roses by the carriage load, or, overwhelmed by their numbers, leave them all on their stems, and enjoy them in mass.
Shyly hiding under the taller shrubs beside the running water, the experienced seeker will find the gilia, one of the gems of Colorado's bouquet. This plant consists of one slender stem two feet or more tall, swayed by every breeze, and set for several inches of its length with daintiest blossoms,—
"Like threaded rubies on its stem."
They are like fairy trumpets, in many shades, from snow white to deep rose, and brilliant scarlet, with great variety of delicate marking visible only under a glass. The stem is so sticky that the flowers must be arranged as they are gathered; for they cling to each other more closely than the fabled "brother," and an attempt to separate them will result in torn flowers.
Anything more exquisite than a vase of gilias alone is rarely seen. The buds are as lovely as the blossoms; new ones open every day, and even the faded ones are not unsightly; their petals are simply turned backward a little. One minute every morning spent in snipping off blossoms that are past their prime insures the happy possessor a bouquet that is a joy forever, even in memory; lovely and fresh, in ever-changing combinations of color and form.
Some day shall be made memorable to the enthusiast by the discovery of a flower which should be named for "H. H.,"—the one which looked so charming from the moving train that her winning tongue brought the iron horse to a pause while it was gathered, "root and branch," for her delectation. Finding the gorgeous spike of golden blossoms without a common name, she called it—most happily—the golden prince's feather. It is to be presumed that it has an unwieldy scientific cognomen in the botanies; but I heard of no common one, except that given by the poet.
While this royal flower is still in bloom, may be found the mariposa, or butterfly lily, small and low on the burning mesa, but more generous in size, and richer of hue, in the shaded canyons.
"Like a bubble borne in air Floats the shy Mariposa's bell,"
says Susan Coolidge in her beautiful tribute to her beloved friend and poet. The three petals of this exquisite flower form a graceful cup of differing degrees of violet hue, some being nearly white, with the color massed in a rich, deep-toned crescent, low down at the heart of each petal, while others are glowing in the most regal purple.
All these weeks, too, have been blossoming dozens, yes, hundreds of others; every nook and corner is full; every walk brings surprises. Some of our most familiar friends are wanting. One is not surprised that the most common wayside flower of that golden region is the yellow daisy, or sunflower it is called; but she remembers fondly our fields of white daisies, and clumps of gay little buttercups, and she longs for cheery-faced dandelions beside her path. A few of the latter she may find, much larger and more showy than ours; but these—it is said in Colorado Springs—are all from seed imported by an exile for health's sake, who pined for the flowers of home.
Several peculiarities of Colorado flowers are noteworthy. Some have gummy or sticky stems, like the gilia, already mentioned, and others again are "clinging," by means of a certain roughness of stem and leaf. The mentzelia is of this nature; half a dozen stalks can with difficulty be separated; and they seem even to attract any light substance, like fringe or lace, holding so closely to it that they must be torn apart.
Many of the prettiest flowers are, like our milkweed, nourished by a milky juice, and when severed from the parent stem, not only weep thick white tears, which stain the hands and the garments, but utterly refuse to subsist on water, and begin at once to droop. Is it the vitality in the air which forces even the plants to eccentricities? Or can it be that they have not yet been subdued into uniformity like ours? Are they unconventional—nearer to wild Nature? So queries an unscientific lover of them all.
This slight sketch of a few flowers gives hardly a hint of the richness of Colorado's flora. No words can paint the profusion and the beauty. I have not here even mentioned some of the most notable: the great golden columbine, the State flower, to which our modest blossom is an insignificant weed;
"The fairy lilies, straight and tall, Like torches lit for carnival;"
the primrose, opening at evening a disk three or four inches across, loaded with richest perfume, and changed to odorless pink before morning; exquisite vetches, with bloom like our sweet pea, and of more than fifty varieties; harebells in great clumps, and castilleias which dot the State with scarlet; rosy cyclamens "on long, lithe stems that soar;" and mertensias, whose delicate bells, blue as a baby's eyes, turn day by day to pink; the cleome, which covers Denver with a purple veil; the whole family of pentstemons, and hundreds of others.
An artist in Colorado Springs, who has given her heart, almost her life, to fixing in imperishable color the floral wealth about her, has painted over three hundred varieties of Colorado wild-flowers, and her list is still incomplete.
It is not pleasant to mar this record of beauty, but one thing must be mentioned. The luxuriance of the flowers is already greatly diminished by the unscrupulousness of the tourists who swarm in the flower season, especially, I am sorry to say, women. Not content with filling their hands with flowers, they fill their arms and even their carriage, if they have one. Moreover, the hold of the plant on the light, sandy soil is very slight; and the careless gatherer, not provided with knife or scissors, will almost invariably pull the root with the flower, thus totally annihilating that plant. When one witnesses such greediness, and remembers that these vandals are in general on the wing, and cannot stay to enjoy what they have rifled, but will leave it all to be thrown out by hotel servants the next morning, he cannot wonder at the indignation of the residents toward the traveler, nor that "No admittance" notices are put up, and big dogs kept, and that "tourist" is a name synonymous with "plunderer," and bitterly hated by the people.
I have seen a party of ladies—to judge by their looks—with arms so full of the golden columbine that it seemed they could not hold another flower, whose traveling dress and equipments showed them to be mere transient passers through, who could not possibly make use of so many. Half a dozen blossoms would have given as much pleasure as half a hundred, and be much more easily cared for, besides leaving a few for their successors to enjoy. The result is, of course, plain to see: a few more years of plunder, and Colorado will be left bare, and lose half her charm.
One beautiful place near Colorado Springs, Glen Eyrie, belonging to General Palmer, was generously left open for every one to enjoy by driving through; but, incredible as it seems, his hospitality was so abused, his lovely grounds rifled, not only of wild-flowers, but even of cultivated flowers and plants, that he was forced at last to put up notices that the public was allowed to "drive through without dismounting."
CLIFF-DWELLERS IN THE CANYON.
Glad With light as with a garment it is clad Each dawn, before the tardy plains have won One ray; and often after day has long been done For us, the light doth cling reluctant, sad to leave its brow.
The happiest day of my summer in the Rocky Mountains was passed in the heart of a mountain consecrated by the songs and the grave of its lover, "H. H.,"—beautiful Cheyenne, the grandest and the most graceful of its range.
Camp Harding, my home for the season, in its charming situation, has already been described. The fortunate dwellers in this "happy valley" were blessed with two delectable walks, "down the road" and "up the road." Down the road presented an enchanting procession of flowers, which changed from day to day as the season advanced; to-day the scarlet castilleia, or painter's-brush, flaming out of the coarse grasses; to-morrow the sand lily, lifting its dainty face above the bare sand; next week the harebell, in great clumps, nodding across the field, and next month the mariposa or butterfly lily, just peeping from behind the brush,—with dozens of others to keep them company. As one went on, the fields grew broader, the walls of the mesa lowered and drew apart, till the canyon was lost in the wide, open country.
This was the favorite evening walk, with all the camp dogs in attendance,—the nimble greyhound, the age-stiffened and sedate spaniel, the saucy, ill-bred bull-terrier, and the naive baby pug. The loitering walk usually ended at the red farmhouse a mile away, and the walkers returned to the camp in the gloaming, loaded with flowers, saturated with the delicious mountain air, and filled with a peace that passeth words.
Up the road led into the mountain, under thick-crowding trees, between frowning rocks, ever growing higher and drawing nearer together, till the carriage road became a burro track, and then a footpath; now this side the boisterous brook, then crossing by a log or two to the other side, and ending in the heart of Cheyenne in a cul-de-sac, whose high perpendicular sides could be scaled only by flights of steps built against the rocks. From high up the mountain, into this immense rocky basin, came the brook Shining Water, in seven tremendous leaps, each more lovely than the last, and reached at bottom a deep stone bowl, which flung it out in a shower of spray forbidding near approach, and keeping the rocks forever wet.
The morning walk was up the road, in the grateful shade of the trees, between the cool rocks, beside the impetuous brook. This last was an ever fresh source of interest and pleasure, for nothing differs more widely from an Eastern brook than its Western namesake. The terms we apply to our mountain rivulets do not at all describe a body of water on its way down a Rocky Mountain valley. It does not murmur,—it roars and brawls; it cannot ripple,—it rages and foams about the bowlders that lie in its path. The name of a Colorado mountain stream, the Roaring Fork, exactly characterizes it.
One warm morning in June, a small party from the camp set out for a walk up the road. By easy stages, resting here and there on convenient rocks, beguiled at every step by something more beautiful just ahead, they penetrated to the end of the canyon. Of that party I was one, and it was my first visit. I was alternately in raptures over the richness of color, the glowing red sandstone against the violet-blue sky, and thrilled by the grandeur of places which looked as if the whole mountain had been violently rent asunder.
But no emotion whatever, no beauty, no sublimity even, can make me insensible to a bird note. Just at the entrance to the Pillars of Hercules, two towering walls of perpendicular rock that approach each other almost threateningly, as if they would close up and crush between them the rash mortal who dared to penetrate farther,—in that impressive spot, while I lingered, half yielding to a mysterious hesitation about entering the strange portal, a bird song fell upon my ear. It was a plaintive warble, that sounded far away up the stern cliff above my head. It seemed impossible that a bird could find a foothold, or be in any way attracted by those bare walls, yet I turned my eyes, and later my glass that way.
At first nothing was to be seen save, part way up the height, an exquisite bit of nature. In a niche that might have been scooped out by a mighty hand, where scarcely a ray of sunlight could penetrate, and no human touch could make or mar, were growing, and blooming luxuriantly, a golden columbine, Colorado's pride and glory, a rosy star-shaped blossom unknown to me, and a cluster of
"Proud cyclamens on long, lithe stems that soar."
When I could withdraw my eyes from this dainty wind-sown garden, I sought the singer, who proved to be a small brown bird with a conspicuous white throat, flitting about on the face of the rock, apparently quite at home, and constantly repeating his few notes. His song was tender and bewitching in its effect, though it was really simple in construction, being merely nine notes, the first uttered twice, and the remaining eight in descending chromatic scale.