A-Birding on a Bronco Part 11

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Surely if I could wait an hour for an ordinary hummingbird, I could wait a morning for an absent phainopepla.

From the nest the beautiful bird flew to the bare oak top behind it which he used for a perch, and--alas! gave his warning call. I was discovered. He dashed his tail, turned his head to look at me first from one side and then from the other, and then flew to the top of the highest tree in sight to verify his observations. Whether he recognized the object as his pepper-tree acquaintance, I do not know; but to my great relief he went back to his work. By this time the little tree which had seemed such a comfortable chair had undergone a change--I felt as if stretched upon the gridiron of St. Anthony. Climbing down stiffly, I kneeled behind the brush and practiced focusing my glass on the nest so that it would not catch the light and frighten the bird, when out he flew from the nest and sat down facing me in broad daylight! He did not say a word, but looked around abstractedly, as if hunting for material.

If he were so indifferent, perhaps it would be safe to creep nearer.

Following the paths trodden by the bare feet of the school children, and spying and skulking, I crept into a good hiding-place about a rod from the nest. The ground was covered with dead leaves, and I saw a suggestive round hole--a very large rattlesnake had been killed a few rods away the week before. I covered the hole with my cloak and then sat down on the lid--nothing could come up while I was there, at all events.

The phainopepla worked busily for some time, flying rapidly back and forth with material. Then came the warning cry. I drew in my note-book from the sun so that it should not catch his eye, and waited. The hot air grew hotter, beating down on my head. A big lizard wriggled over the leaves, and I thought of my rattlesnake. Then Billy sneezed in a forced way, as though to remind me not to go off without him. Growing restless, I moved the bushes a little--they were so stiff they made a very good chair-back if one got into the right position--when suddenly, looking up I saw my phainopepla friend vault into the air from a bush behind me, where, apparently, he had been sitting taking notes of his own! What observers birds are, to be sure! The best of us have much to learn from them.

But though the phainopepla was most watchful, he was open to conviction, and he and his mate at last concluded that I meant them no harm.

Afterwards, when I moved, they both came and looked at me, but went about their business quite unmindful of me.

As I had seen from the outset, the male did almost all the building.

When his spouse came in sight he burst out into a tender joyous love song. She went to the nest now and again, but generally when she came it was to sun herself on the bare perch tree, where she dressed her plumes or merely sat with crest raised and her soft gray feathers fluffed about her feet, while waiting for her mate to get leisure to take a run with her.

When he had finished his stint and she was not about, he would take his turn on the perch tree, his handsome glossy black coat shining in the sun. If an unwitting neighbor lit on his tree he would flatten his crest and dash down indignantly, but for the most part he perched quietly except to make short sallies into the air for insects, sometimes singing as he went; or he just warbled to himself contentedly, what sounded like the chattering run of a swallow on the wing. One day we had quite a conversation. His simplest call note was like the call of a young robin, and while I answered him he gave his note seventeen times in one minute, and eleven times in the next half minute.

The birds had a great variety of calls and songs, most of which were vivacious and cheering and seemed attuned to the warmth and brightness of the California sunshine. The quality of the love song was rich and flute-like.

The male phainopepla seemed to enjoy life in general and his work in particular. He frequently sang to himself when going for material; and once, apparently, when on the nest. When he was building I could see his black head move about between the leaves. Like the gnatcatchers, he used only fine bits of material, but he did not drill them in as they did. He merely laid them in, or at most wove them in gently. Now and then, as the black head moved in front, the black tail would tilt up behind at the back of the nest as if the bird were moulding; but there was comparatively little of that. When completed, the nest was a soft felty structure.

When working, the male would fly back and forth from the ground to the nest, carrying his bits of plant stem, oak blossom, and other fine stuff. He worked so rapidly that it kept me busy recording his visits.

He once went to the nest four times in four minutes; at another time, seventeen times in a little over an hour. Sometimes he stayed only half a minute; when he stayed three minutes, it was so unusual that I recorded it. He worked spasmodically, however. One day he came seventeen times in one hour, but during the next half hour came only five times.

The birds seemed to divide their mornings into quite regular periods.

When I awoke at half past five I would hear them at the pepper-trees breakfasting; and some of them were generally there as late as eight o'clock. From eight to ten they worked with a will, though the visits usually fell off after half past nine. It was when working in this more deliberate way that the male would go to his perch on an adjoining tree and preen himself, catch flies, or sing between his visits. Once he sat on the limb in front of the nest for nearly ten minutes. By ten o'clock I found that I might as well go to watch other birds, as little would be going on with the phainopeplas; and they often flew off for a lunch of peppers.

Just as the island nest was about done--it was destroyed! I found it on the ground under the tree. For a time I felt as if no nests could come to anything; the number that had been destroyed during the season was disheartening. It seemed as though I no sooner got interested in a little family than its home was broken up. Sometimes I wondered how a bird ever had courage to start a nest.

But though it was hard to reconcile myself to the destruction of the phainopeplas' nest, I found others later. Altogether, I saw three pairs of birds building, and in each case the male was doing most of the work.

Two of the nests I watched closely, watch and note-book in hand, in order to determine the exact proportion of work done by each bird. One nest was watched two hours and a half, during a period of five days, in which time the male went to the nest twenty-seven times, the female, only three. The other nest was watched seven hours and thirty-five minutes, during a period of ten days, in which time the male was at the nest fifty-seven times; the female, only eight. Taking the total for the two nests: in ten hours and five minutes the male went to the nest eighty-four times; the female, eleven. That is to say, the females made only thirteen per cent of the visits. In reality, although they went to the nest eleven times, the ratio of work might safely be reduced still further; for in watching them I was convinced that, as a rule, they came to the nest, not to build, but to inspect the building done by their mates. Indeed, at one nest, I saw nothing to make me suspect that the female did any of the work. Her coming was usually welcomed by a joyous song, but once the evidence seemed to prove that she was driven away; perhaps she was too free with her criticisms! In another case the work was sadly interrupted by the presence of the visitor, for while she sat in the nest her excited mate flew back and forth as if he had quite forgotten the business in hand. Perhaps he was nervous, and wanted to make sure what she was doing in the new house!

In several instances I found that while the males were at work building, the females went off by themselves. Once I saw Madame Phainopepla bring her friend home with her. No sooner had the visitor lit than--shocking to relate--the lord of the house left his work and drove her off with bill and claw--a polite way to treat his lady's friends, surely! On one occasion, when I looked up I saw a procession passing overhead--two females followed by a male. The male flew hesitatingly, as if troubled by his conscience, and then, deciding that if the nest was ever going to be built he had better keep at it, turned around and came back to work.

One day when I rode over to the chaparral island, I found two of the males sitting around in the brush. They played tag until tired, and then perched on a branch in the sun, side by side, evidently enjoying themselves like light-hearted, care-free bachelors. Their mates were not in sight. But suddenly I glanced up and saw two females flying in to the island high overhead, as if coming from a distance. Instantly the indifferent holiday air of their mates vanished. They gave their low warning calls, for I was on the ground and they must not show me their nests. In answer to the warning the females wavered, and then, when their mates joined them, all four flew away together.

At other times when I rode in the males would make large circles, seventy-five feet above me, as if to get a clear understanding of the impending danger. This was when small nest hunters were about, and the birds were some whose nests I did not find, and who had no opportunity to become convinced of my good intentions.

After finding that the males did most of the building, I was anxious to see how it would be when the brooding began. Three of my nests were broken up beforehand, however, and the fourth was despoiled after I had watched the birds on the nest one day. Nevertheless, the evidence of that day was most interesting as far as it went. It proved that while the female lacked the architect's instinct, she was not without the maternal instinct. There were two eggs in the nest, and in the one hour that I watched, each bird brooded the eggs six times. Before this, the female had been to the nest so much less than the male that now she was much shyer; but although Billy frightened her by tramping down the brush near by, it was she who first overcame her fears and went to cover the eggs.

XIX.

MY BLUE GUM GROVE.

ONE of the first things I did on getting settled on my ranch, the second time I was in California, was to get a wagon and go down to my eucalyptus grove for a load of the pale green aromatic boughs with which to trim my attic study; for their fragrance is delightful and their delicate blue-green tone lends itself readily to decorative purposes.

When the supply needed replenishing, I rode down on Mountain Billy and carried home the sweet-smelling branches on the saddle.

The grove served a more utilitarian purpose, however. The eucalyptus is an Australian tree, with narrow straight-hanging leaves, and its rapid growth makes it useful for firewood. A tree will grow forty feet in four years, and when cut off a few feet above the ground will spring up again and soon be ready to yield another crop. My grove had never been cut, but would soon be old enough. In the photograph of a eucalyptus avenue near Los Angeles, the row of trees on the right have been cut near the ground and the branching trunks are the consequence.

[Illustration: EUCALYPTUS AVENUE, SHOWING POLLARDED TREES ON THE RIGHT, NEAR LOS ANGELES]

My eucalyptus or blue gum grove was down near the big sycamore, and opposite the bare knoll where Romulus and the burrowing owls had their nightly battles. On one side of it was a rustling cornfield always pleasant to look at. After the bare yellow stubble and all the reds and browns of a California summer landscape, its rich dark green color and its stanch, strong stalks made it seem a very plain honest sort of field, and its greenness was most grateful to eyes unused to the bright colors and strong lights of California.

Opposite the little grove, in a small house perched on a hill, an old sea-captain lived alone. As I rode by one day, he sat with his feet hanging over the edge of the high piazza, looking off; as if on the prow of his vessel, gazing out to sea. When I stopped to ask if he had seen anything noteworthy happen at the grove, he complained that it shut off his view and kept away the breeze from the ocean! I was too much taken by surprise to apologize for my trees, but felt reproached; unwittingly I had destroyed the old captain's choicest pleasure. He had spoken in an impersonal way that I quite understood,--he had been taken unawares,--but the next time I rode past, as if to make up for any apparent rudeness, he came hurrying down the walk to tell me of a crow's nest he had seen in the grove. To mark it he had fastened a piece of paper to the wire fence by the road, and another paper to the nest tree, binding it on with a eucalyptus twig in true sailor fashion.

It was always a relief to leave the hot beating sun and the glare of the yellow fields and enter the cool shade of the quiet grove. I could let down the fence and put it up behind me; thus having my small forest all to myself; and used to enjoy riding up and down the fragrant blue avenues. The eucalyptus-trees, although thirty or forty feet high, were lithe and slender; some of them could be spanned by the hands. The rows were planted ten feet apart, but the long branches interlaced, so one had to be on the alert, in riding down the lines, to bend low on the saddle or push aside the branches that obstructed the way. The limbs were so slender and flexible that a touch was enough to bend back a green gate fifteen to twenty feet long, and Billy often pushed a branch aside with his nose. In places, fallen trees barred our path, but Billy used to step carefully over them.

The eucalyptus-trees change very curiously as they grow old. When young they are covered with branches low to the ground, and their aromatic tender leaves are light bluish green; afterwards they lose their lower branches, while their leaves become stiff and sickle-shaped, dull green and almost odorless. The same changes are seen in the bark: first the trunks are smooth and green; then they are hung with shaggy shreds of bark; this in turn drops off so that the old trees are smooth again.

Some of the young shoots have almost white stems, and their leaves have a pinkish tinge. Indeed, a young blue gum is as pretty a sight as one often sees; it is a tree of exquisite delicacy of coloring.

[Illustration: EUCALYPTUS WOOD STORED FOR MARKET, IN A EUCALYPTUS GROVE NEAR LOS ANGELES]

Mountain Billy and I both liked to wander among the blue gums. Billy liked it, perhaps, for association's sake, for we had ridden through the eucalyptus at his home in northern California. I too had pleasant memories of the northern gums, but my first interest was in finding out who lived in my little woods. A dog had once been seen driving a coyote wolf out of it, but that was merely in passing. I did not expect to meet wolves there. It was said, however, to be a good place for tarantulas, so at first I stepped over the dead leaf carpet with great caution; but never seeing any of the big spiders, grew brave and sat indifferently right on the ground before the nests, or leaning up against the trees.

The ground was almost as hard as a rock, for the eucalyptus absorbed all the moisture, and that may have had something to do with its freedom from snakes and scorpions, though it would not explain the absence of caterpillars and spiders, which just then were so common outside. Though in the grove a great deal, I never ran into but one cobweb, and was conscious of the pleasant freedom from falling caterpillars. Moreover, I never saw a lizard in the blue gums, though dozens of them were to be seen about the oaks and in the brush.

It was a surprise to find so many feathered folks living in the eucalyptus, and I took a personal interest in each one of the inhabitants. The first time we started to go up and down the avenues we scared up a pair of turtle doves, beautiful, delicately tinted gentle creatures, fit tenants of the lovely grove. They did not know my friendly interest in them, and flew to the ground trailing and trying to decoy me away in such a marked manner that when we passed a young dove a few yards farther on, it was easy to put two and two together.

Yellow-birds called _cheet'-tee, ca-cheet'-ta-tee_, and the grove became musical with the sweet calls of the young brood. There was one nest with a roof of shaggy bark, and I wondered if the birds thought it would be pleasant to live under a roof, or whether the bark had fallen down on them after they built. I could get no trace of the owners of the nest, and it troubled me, not liking to have any little homes in my wood that I did not know all about. As we went down one aisle, a big bird went blundering out ahead of us, probably an owl, for afterwards we stumbled on a skeleton and feathers of one of the family.

In one of the trees we came to an enormous nest made of the unusual materials that are sometimes chosen by that strange bird, the road-runner. It was an exciting discovery, for that was before the road-runner had come to the ranch-house, and I had been pursuing phantom runners over the hills in the vain attempt to learn something about them; while here, it seemed, one had been living under my very vine and fig-tree! To make sure about the nest, I spoke to my neighbor ranchman, and he told me that when he had been milking during the spring he had often seen the birds come out of the blue gums, and had also seen them perching there on the trees. How exasperating! If I had only come earlier! Now they had gone, and my chance of a nest study was lost.

But my doll was not stuffed with sawdust, for all of that. There was still much to enjoy, for a mourning dove flew from her nest of twigs almost over Billy's head, and it made me quite happy to know that the gentle bird was brooding her eggs in my woods. Then it was delightful to see a lazuli bunting on her nest down another aisle. It seemed odd, for there was her little cousin nesting out in the weeds in the bright sun, while she was raising her brood in the shady forest. The two nests were as unlike as the sites. The bird outside had used dull green weeds, while this one used beautiful shining oak stems. I thought the pretty bird would surely be safe here, but one day when I called, expecting to see a growing family, I was shocked to find a pathetic little skeleton in the nest.

One afternoon in riding down the rows, I came face to face with two mites of hummingbirds seated on a branch. Their grayish green suits toned in with the color of the blue gums. It was a surprise when one of them turned to the other and fed it--the mother hummer was small enough to be taken for a nestling! She sat beside her son and fed him in the conventional way, by plunging her bill down his open mouth. When she had flown off, he stretched his wings, whirred them as if for practice, and then moved his bill as if still tasting the dainty he had had for supper. He sat very unconcernedly on a low branch right out in the middle of the road, but Billy did not run over him.

I found two hummers' nests in the eucalyptus during the summer. One builder was the one the photographer was fortunate enough to catch brooding; her nest, the one so charmingly placed on a light blue branch between two straight spreading leaves, like the knot between two bows of stiff ribbon.

The second nest was on a drooping branch, and, to make it stand level, was deepened on the down side of the limb, making it the highest hummingbird's nest I had ever seen. It was attached to a red leaf--to mark the spot, perhaps--one often wonders how a bird can come back twice to the same leaf in a forest. How one little home does make a place habitable! From a bare silent woods it becomes a dwelling-place.

Everything seemed to centre around this little nest, then the only one in the grove; the tiny pinch of down became the most important thing in the woods. It was the castle which the trees surrounded.

When I first found the nest it held two white warm eggs about as large as peas, and I became much interested in watching their progress, often riding down to see how they were getting on. The hummer did not return my interest. She was nervous, darting off when Billy shook himself or when the shadow of a soaring turkey buzzard fell over the nest; but in spite of that we made ourselves quite at home before her door. I would dismount and sit on the ground, leaning against a blue gum, while Billy stood by, in a bower of green leaves, with ears pricked forward thoughtfully, and a dreamy look of satisfaction in his eyes.

Hummingbirds are such dainty things. Once when this one alighted on the rim of her nest she whirred herself right down inside. Soon she began to act so strangely for a brooding bird that, when she flew, I went to feel in the nest. The tips of my fingers touched what felt like round balls, but, not satisfied, I pulled down the bough and found one round ball and one mite of a gray back with microscopic yellow hairs on each side of the spine. The whole tiny body seemed to throb with its heart beats. I wondered how such a midget could ever be fed, but found, as in the case of the hummer under the little lover's tree, that the mother gave its food most gently, reserving her violent pumping for a more suitable age; though one would as soon think of poking a needle down a baby's throat as that bill.

Often, while watching the nest, my thoughts wandered away to the grove itself. The brown earth between the rows was barred by alternate lines of sunlight and shadow, and the vista of each avenue ended in blue sky.

Sometimes cool ocean breezes would penetrate the forest. The rows of trees, with their gently swaying, interlacing branches, cast moving shadows over the sun-touched leafy floor, giving a white light to the grove; for the undersides of the young eucalyptus leaves are like snow.

From the stiff, sickle-shaped upper leaves the sun glanced, dazzling the eyes. Mourning doves cooed, and the sweet notes of yellow-birds filled the sunny grove with suggestions of happiness. A yellow butterfly wandered down the blue aisles. Such a secure retreat! I returned to it again and again, coming in out of the hot yellow world and closing behind me the doors of my 'rest-house,' for the little wood had come to seem like a cool wayside chapel, a place of peace.

And when I finally left California, deserting Mountain Billy to return to the East, of all my haunts the one left the most unwillingly was the little blue gum grove, the peaceful wayside rest-house, in whose whitened shade we had spent so many quiet hours together.

[Illustration]

A-Birding on a Bronco Part 11

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