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Full Online Book HomeEssaysSpring At The Capital With An Eye To The Birds
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Spring At The Capital With An Eye To The Birds Post by :dog8me Category :Essays Author :John Burroughs Date :March 2011 Read :1634

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Spring At The Capital With An Eye To The Birds

I came to Washington to live in the fall of 1863, and, with the exception of a month each summer spent in the interior of New York, have lived here ever since.

I saw my first novelty in Natural History the day after my arrival. As I was walking near some woods north of the city, a grasshopper of prodigious size flew up from the ground and alighted in a tree. As I pursued him, he proved to be nearly as wild and as fleet of wing as a bird. I thought I had reached the capital of grasshopperdom, and that this was perhaps one of the chiefs or leaders, or perhaps the great High Cock O'lorum himself, taking an airing in the fields. I have never yet been able to settle the question, as every fall I start up a few of these gigantic specimens, which perch on the trees. They are about three inches long, of a gray striped or spotted color, and have quite a reptile look.

The greatest novelty I found, however, was the superb autumn weather, the bright, strong, electric days, lasting well into November, and the general mildness of the entire winter. Though the mercury occasionally sinks to zero, yet the earth is never so seared and blighted by the cold but that in some sheltered nook or corner signs of vegetable life still remain, which on a little encouragement even asserts itself. I have found wild flowers here every month of the year; violets in December, a single houstonia in January (the little lump of earth upon which it stood was frozen hard), and a tiny weed-like plant, with a flower almost microscopic in its smallness, growing along graveled walks and in old plowed fields in February. The liverwort sometimes comes out as early as the first week in March, and the little frogs begin to pipe doubtfully about the same time. Apricot-trees are usually in bloom on All-Fool's Day and the apple-trees on May Day. By August, mother hen will lead forth her third brood, and I had a March pullet that came off with a family of her own in September. Our calendar is made for this climate. March is a spring month. One is quite sure to see some marked and striking change during the first eight or ten days. This season (1868) is a backward one, and the memorable change did not come till the 10th.

Then the sun rose up from a bed of vapors, and seemed fairly to dissolve with tenderness and warmth. For an hour or two the air was perfectly motionless, and full of low, humming, awakening sounds. The naked trees had a rapt, expectant look. From some unreclaimed common near by came the first strain of the song sparrow; so homely, because so old and familiar, yet so inexpressibly pleasing. Presently a full chorus of voices arose, tender, musical, half suppressed, but full of genuine hilarity and joy. The bluebird warbled, the robin called, the snowbird chattered, the meadowlark uttered her strong but tender note. Over a deserted field a turkey buzzard hovered low, and alighted on a stake in the fence, standing a moment with outstretched, vibrating wings till he was sure of his hold. A soft, warm, brooding day. Roads becoming dry in many places, and looking so good after the mud and the snow. I walk up beyond the boundary and over Meridian Hill. To move along the drying road and feel the delicious warmth is enough. The cattle low long and loud, and look wistfully into the distance. I sympathize with them. Never a spring comes but I have an almost irresistible desire to depart. Some nomadic or migrating instinct or reminiscence stirs within me. I ache to be off.

As I pass along, the high-bole calls in the distance precisely as I have heard him in the North. After a pause he repeats his summons. What can be more welcome to the ear than these early first sounds! They have such a margin of silence!

One need but pass the boundary of Washington city to be fairly in the country, and ten minutes' walk in the country brings one to real primitive woods. The town has not yet overflowed its limits like the great Northern commercial capitals, and Nature, wild and unkempt, comes up to its very threshold, and even in many places crosses it.

The woods, which I soon reach, are stark and still. The signs of returning life are so faint as to be almost imperceptible, but there is a fresh, earthy smell in the air, as if something had stirred here under the leaves. The crows caw above the wood, or walk about the brown fields. I look at the gray silent trees long and long, but they show no sign. The catkins of some alders by a little pool have just swelled perceptibly; and, brushing away the dry leaves and debris on a sunny slope, I discover the liverwort just pushing up a fuzzy, tender sprout. But the waters have brought forth. The little frogs are musical. From every marsh and pool goes up their shrill but pleasing chorus. Peering into one of their haunts, a little body of semi-stagnant water, I discover masses of frogs' spawn covering the bottom. I take up great chunks of the cold, quivering jelly in my hands. In some places there are gallons of it. A youth who accompanies me wonders if it would not be good cooked, or if it could not be used as a substitute for eggs. It is a perfect jelly, of a slightly milky tinge, thickly imbedded with black spots about the size of a small bird's eye. When just deposited it is perfectly transparent. These hatch in eight or ten days, gradually absorb their gelatinous surroundings, and the tiny tadpoles issue forth.

In the city, even before the shop-windows have caught the inspiration, spring is heralded by the silver poplars which line all the streets and avenues. After a few mild, sunshiny March days, you suddenly perceive a change has come over the trees. Their tops have a less naked look. If the weather continues warm, a single day will work wonders. Presently each tree will be one vast plume of gray, downy tassels, while not the least speck of green foliage is visible. The first week of April these long mimic caterpillars lie all about the streets and fill the gutters.

The approach of spring is also indicated by the crows and buzzards, which rapidly multiply in the environs of the city, and grow bold and demonstrative. The crows are abundant here all winter, but are not very noticeable except as they pass high in air to and from their winter quarters in the Virginia woods. Early in the morning, as soon as it is light enough to discern them, there they are, streaming eastward across the sky, now in loose, scattered flocks, now in thick dense masses, then singly and in pairs or triplets, but all setting in one direction, probably to the waters of eastern Maryland. Toward night they begin to return, flying in the same manner, and directing their course to the wooded heights on the Potomac, west of the city. In spring these diurnal mass movements cease; the clan breaks up, the rookery is abandoned, and the birds scatter broadcast over the land. This seems to be the course everywhere pursued. One would think that, when food was scarcest, the policy of separating into small bands or pairs, and dispersing over a wide country, would prevail, as a few might subsist where a larger number would starve. The truth is, however, that, in winter, food can be had only in certain clearly defined districts and tracts, as along rivers and the shores of bays and lakes.

A few miles north of Newburgh, on the Hudson, the crows go into winter quarters in the same manner, flying south in the morning and returning again at night, sometimes hugging the hills so close during a strong wind as to expose themselves to the clubs and stones of schoolboys ambushed behind trees and fences. The belated ones, that come laboring along just at dusk, are often so overcome by the long journey and the strong current that they seem almost on the point of sinking down whenever the wind or a rise in the ground calls upon them for an extra effort.

The turkey buzzards are noticeable about Washington as soon as the season begins to open, sailing leisurely along two or three hundred feet overhead, or sweeping low over some common or open space where, perchance, a dead puppy or pig or fowl has been thrown. Half a dozen will sometimes alight about some object out on the commons, and, with their broad dusky wings lifted up to their full extent, threaten and chase each other, while perhaps one or two are feeding. Their wings are very large and flexible, and the slightest motion of them, while the bird stands upon the ground, suffices to lift its feet clear. Their movements when in the air are very majestic and beautiful to the eye, being in every respect identical with those of our common hen or red-tailed hawk. They sail along in the same calm, effortless, interminable manner, and sweep around in the same ample spiral. The shape of their wings and tail, indeed their entire effect against the sky, except in size and color, is very nearly the same as that of the hawk mentioned. A dozen at a time may often be seen high in air, amusing themselves by sailing serenely round and round in the same circle.

They are less active and vigilant than the hawk; never poise themselves on the wing, never dive and gambol in the air, and never swoop down upon their prey; unlike the hawks also, they appear to have no enemies. The crow fights the hawk, and the kingbird and the crow blackbird fight the crow; but neither takes any notice of the buzzard. He excites the enmity of none, for the reason that he molests none. The crow has an old grudge against the hawk, because the hawk robs the crow's nest and carries off his young; the kingbird's quarrel with the crow is upon the same grounds. But the buzzard never attacks live game, or feeds upon new flesh when old can be had.

In May, like the crows, they nearly all disappear very suddenly, probably to their breeding-haunts near the seashore. Do the males separate from the females at this time, and go by themselves? At any rate, in July I discovered that a large number of buzzards roosted in some woods near Rock Creek, about a mile from the city limits; and, as they do not nest anywhere in this vicinity, I thought they might be males. I happened to be detained late in the woods, watching the nest of a flying squirrel, when the buzzards, just after sundown, began to come by ones and twos and alight in the trees near me. Presently they came in greater numbers, but from the same direction, flapping low over the woods, and taking up their position in the middle branches. On alighting, each one would blow very audibly through his nose, just as a cow does when she lies down; this is the only sound I have ever heard the buzzard make. They would then stretch themselves, after the manner of turkeys, and walk along the limbs. Sometimes a decayed branch would break under the weight of two or three, when, with a great flapping, the would take up new positions. They continued to come till it was quite dark, and all the trees about me were full. I began to feel a little nervous, but kept my place. After it was entirely dark and all was still, I gathered a large pile of dry leaves and kindled it with a match, to see what they would think of a fire. Not a sound was heard till the pile of leaves was in full blaze, when instantaneously every buzzard started. I thought the treetops were coming down upon me, so great was the uproar. But the woods were soon cleared, and the loathsome pack disappeared in the night.

About the 1st of June I saw numbers of buzzards sailing around over the great Falls of the Potomac.

A glimpse of the birds usually found here in the latter part of winter may be had in the following extract, which I take from my diary under date of February 4th:--

"Made a long excursion through the woods and over the hills. Went directly north from the Capitol for about three miles. The ground bare and the day cold and sharp. In the suburbs, among the scattered Irish and negro shanties, came suddenly upon a flock of birds, feeding about like our northern snow buntings. Every now and then they uttered a piping, disconsolate note, as if they had a very sorry time of it. They proved to be shore larks, the first I had ever seen. They had the walk characteristic of all larks; were a little larger than the sparrow; had a black spot on the breast, with much white on the under parts of their bodies. As I approached them the nearer ones paused, and, half squatting, eyed me suspiciously. Presently, at a movement of my arm, away they went, flying exactly like the snow bunting, and showing nearly as much white." (I have since discovered that the shore lark is a regular visitant here in February and March, when large quantities of them are shot or trapped, and exposed for sale in the market. During a heavy snow I have seen numbers of them feeding upon the seeds of various weedy growths in a large market-garden well into town.) "Pressing on, the walk became exhilarating. Followed a little brook, the eastern branch of the Tiber, lined with bushes and a rank growth of green-brier. Sparrows started out here and there, and flew across the little bends and points. Among some pines just beyond the boundary, saw a number of American goldfinches, in their gray winter dress, pecking the pinecones. A golden-crowned kinglet was there also, a little tuft of gray feathers, hopping about as restless as a spirit. Had the old pine-trees food delicate enough for him also? Farther on, in some low open woods, saw many sparrows,--the fox, white-throated, white-crowned, the Canada, the song, the swamp,--all herding together along the warm and sheltered borders. To my surprise, saw a chewink also, and the yellow-rumped warbler. The purple finch was there likewise, and the Carolina wren and brown creeper. In the higher, colder woods not a bird was to be seen. Returning, near sunset, across the eastern slope of a hill which overlooked the city, was delighted to see a number of grass finches or vesper sparrows,--birds which will be forever associated in my mind with my father's sheep pastures. They ran before me, now flitting a pace or two, now skulking in the low stubble, just as I had observed them when a boy."

A month later, March 4th, is this note:--

"After the second memorable inaguration of President Lincoln, took my first trip of the season. The afternoon was very clear and warm,--real vernal sunshine at last, though the wind roared like a lion over the woods. It seemed novel enough to find within two miles of the White House a simple woodsman chopping away as if no President was being inaugurated! Some puppies, snugly nestled in the cavity of an old hollow tree, he said, belonged to a wild dog. I imagine I saw the 'wild dog,' on the other side of Rock Creek, in a great state of grief and trepidation, running up and down, crying and yelping, and looking wistfully over the swollen flood, which the poor thing had not the courage to brave. This day, for the first time, I heard the song of the Canada sparrow, a soft, sweet note, almost running into a warble. Saw a small, black velvety butterfly with a yellow border to its wings. Under a warm bank found two flowers of the houstonia in bloom. Saw frogs' spawn near Piny Branch, and heard the hyla."

Among the first birds that make their appearance in Washington is the crow blackbird. He may come any time after the 1st of March. The birds congregate in large flocks, and frequent groves and parks, alternately swarming in the treetops and filling the air with their sharp jangle, and alighting on the ground in quest of food, their polished coats glistening in the sun from very blackness as they walk about. There is evidently some music in the soul of this bird at this season, though he makes a sad failure in getting it out. His voice always sounds as if he were laboring under a severe attack of influenza, though a large flock of them, heard at a distance on a bright afternoon of early spring, produce an effect not unpleasing. The air is filled with crackling, splintering, spurting, semi-musical sounds, which are like pepper and salt to the ear.

All parks and public grounds about the city are full of blackbirds. They are especially plentiful in the trees about the White House, breeding there and waging war on all other birds. The occupants of one of the offices in the west wing of the Treasury one day had their attention attracted by some object striking violently against one of the window-panes. Looking up, they beheld a crow blackbird pausing in midair, a few feet from the window. On the broad stone window-sill lay the quivering form of a purple finch. The little tragedy was easily read. The blackbird had pursued the finch with such murderous violence that the latter, in its desperate efforts to escape, had sought refuge in the Treasury. The force of the concussion against the heavy plateglass of the window had killed the poor thing instantly. The pursuer, no doubt astonished at the sudden and novel termination of the career of its victim, hovered for a moment, as if to be sure of what had happened, and made off.

(It is not unusual for birds, when thus threatened with destruction by their natural enemy, to become so terrified as to seek safety in the presence of man. I was once startled, while living in a country village, to behold, on entering my room at noon, one October day, a quail sitting upon my bed. The affrighted and bewildered bird instantly started for the open window, into which it had no doubt been driven by a hawk.)

The crow blackbird has all the natural cunning of his prototype, the crow. In one of the inner courts of the Treasury building there is a fountain with several trees growing near. By midsummer the blackbirds became so bold as to venture within this court. Various fragments of food, tossed from the surrounding windows, reward their temerity. When a crust of dry bread defies their beaks, they have been seen to drop it into the water, and, when it has become soaked sufficiently, to take it out again.

They build a nest of coarse sticks and mud, the whole burden of the enterprise seeming to devolve upon the female. For several successive mornings, just after sunrise, I used to notice a pair of them flying to and fro in the air above me as I hoed in the garden, directing their course about half a mile distant, and disappearing, on their return, among the trees about the Capitol. Returning, the female always had her beak loaded with building material, while the male, carrying nothing, seemed to act as her escort, flying a little above and in advance of her, and uttering now and then his husky, discordant note. As I tossed a lump of earth up at them, the frightened mother bird dropped her mortar, and the pair scurried away, much put out. Later they avenged themselves by pilfering my cherries.

The most mischievous enemies of the cherries, however, here as at the North, are the cedar waxwings, or "cherry-birds." How quickly they spy out the tree! Long before the cherry begins to turn, they are around, alert and cautious. In small flocks they circle about, high in the air, uttering their fine note, or plunge quickly into the tops of remote trees. Day by day they approach nearer and nearer, reconnoitring the premises, and watching the growing fruit. Hardly have the green lobes turned a red cheek to the sun, before their beaks have scarred it. At first they approach the tree stealthily, on the side turned from the house, diving quickly into the branches in ones and twos, while the main flock is ambushed in some shade tree not far off. They are most apt to commit their depredations very early in the morning and on cloudy, rainy days. As the cherries grow sweeter the birds grow bolder, till, from throwing tufts of grass, one has to throw stones in good earnest, or lose all his fruit. In June they disappear, following the cherries to the north, where by July they are nesting in the orchards and cedar groves.

Among the permanent summer residents here (one might say city residents, as they seem more abundant in town than out), the yellow warbler or summer yellowbird is conspicuous. He comes about the middle of April, and seems particularly attached to the silver poplars. In every street, and all day long, one may hear his thin, sharp warble. When nesting, the female comes about the yard, pecking at the clothes-line, and gathering up bits of thread to weave into her nest.

Swallows appear in Washington form the first to the middle of April. They come twittering along in the way so familiar to every New England boy. The barn swallow is heard first, followed in a day or two by the squeaking of the cliff swallow. The chimney swallows, or swifts, are not far behind, and remain here in large numbers, the whole season. The purple martins appear in April, as they pass north, and again in July and August on their return, accompanied by their young.

The national capital is situated in such a vast spread of wild, wooded, or semi-cultivated country and is in itself so open and spacious, with its parks and large government reservations, that an unusual number of birds find their way into it in the course of the season. Rare warblers, as the black-poll, the yellow-poll, and the bay-breasted, pausing in May on their northward journey, pursue their insect game in the very heart of the town.

I have heard the veery thrush in the trees near the White House; and one rainy April morning, about six o'clock, he came and blew his soft, mellow flute in a pear-tree in my garden. The tones had all the sweetness and wildness they have when heard in June in our deep northern forests. A day or two afterward, in the same tree, I heard for the first time the song of the ruby-crowned wren, or kinglet,--the same liquid bubble and cadence which characterize the wren-songs generally, but much finer and more delicate than the song of any other variety known to me; beginning in a fine, round, needle-like note, and rising into a full, sustained warble, (SYMBOL DELETED) a strain, on whole, remarkably exquisite and pleasing, the singer being all the while as busy as a bee, catching some kind of insects. It is certainly on of our most beautiful bird-songs, and Audubon's enthusiasm concerning its song, as he heard it in the wilds of Labrador, is not a bit extravagant. The song of the kinglet is the only characteristic that allies it to the wrens.

The Capitol grounds, with their fine large trees of many varieties, draw many kinds of birds. In the rear of the building the extensive grounds are peculiarly attractive, being a gentle slope, warm and protected, and quite thickly wooded. Here in early spring I go to hear the robins, catbirds, blackbirds, wrens, etc. In March the white-throated and white-crowned sparrows may be seen, hopping about on the flower-beds or peering slyly from the evergreens. The robin hops about freely upon the grass, notwithstanding the keepers large-lettered warning, and at intervals, and especially at sunset, carols from the treetops his loud, hearty strain.

The kingbird and orchard starling remain the whole season, and breed in the treetops. The rich, copious song of the starling may be heard there all the forenoon. The song of some birds is like scarlet,--strong, intense, emphatic. This is the character of the orchard starlings, also the tanagers and the various grosbeaks. On the other hand, the songs of other birds, as of certain of the thrushes, suggest the serene blue of the upper sky.

In February one may hear, in the Smithsonian grounds, the song of the fox sparrow. It is a strong, richly modulated whistle,--the finest sparrow note I have ever heard.

A curious and charming sound may be heard here in May. You are walking forth in the soft morning air, when suddenly there comes a burst of bobolink melody form some mysterious source. A score of throats pour out one brief, hilarious, tuneful jubilee and are suddenly silent. There is a strange remoteness and fascination about it. Presently you will discover its source skyward, and a quick eye will detect the gay band pushing northward. They seem to scent the fragrant meadows afar off, and shout forth snatches of their songs in anticipation.

The bobolink does not breed in the District, but usually pauses in his journey and feeds during the day in the grass-lands north of the city. When the season is backward, they tarry a week or ten days, singing freely and appearing quite at home. In large flocks they search over every inch of ground, and at intervals hover on the wing or alight in the treetops, all pouring forth their gladness at once, and filling the air with a multitudinous musical clamor.

They continue to pass, traveling by night and feeding by day, till after the middle of May, when they cease. In September, with numbers greatly increased, they are on their way back. I am first advised of their return by hearing their calls at night as they fly over the city. On certain nights the sound becomes quite noticeable. I have awakened in the middle of the night, and, through the open window, as I lay in bed, heard their faint notes. The warblers begin to return about the same time, and are clearly distinguished by their timid yeaps. On dark, cloudy nights the birds seem confused by the lights of the city, and apparently wander about above it.

In the spring the same curious incident is repeated, though but few voices can be identified. I make out the snowbird, the bobolink, the warblers, and on two nights during the early part of May I heard very clearly the call of the sandpipers.

Instead of the bobolink, one encounters here, in the June meadows, the black-throated bunting, a bird very closely related to the sparrows and a very persistent if not a very musical songster. He perches upon the fences and upon the trees by the roadside, and, spreading his tail, gives forth his harsh strain, which may be roughly worded thus: fscp fscp, fee fee fee. Like all sounds associated with early summer, it soon has a charm to the ear quite independent of its intrinsic merits.

Outside of the city limits, the great point of interest to the rambler and lover of nature is the Rock Creek region. Rock Creek is a large, rough, rapid stream, which has its source in the interior of Maryland, and flows in to the Potomac between Washington and Georgetown. Its course, for five or six miles out of Washington, is marked by great diversity of scenery. Flowing in a deep valley, which now and then becomes a wild gorge with overhanging rocks and high precipitous headlands, for the most part wooded; here reposing in long, dark reaches, there sweeping and hurrying around a sudden bend or over a rocky bed; receiving at short intervals small runs and spring rivulets, which open up vistas and outlooks to the right and left, of the most charming description,--Rock Creek has an abundance of all the elements that make up not only pleasing but wild and rugged scenery. There is perhaps, not another city in the Union that has on its very threshold so much natural beauty and grandeur, such as men seek for in remote forests and mountains. A few touches of art would convert this whole region, extending from Georgetown to what is known as Crystal Springs, not more than two miles from the present State Department, into a park unequaled by anything in the world. There are passages between these two points as wild and savage, and apparently as remote from civilization, as anything one meets with in the mountain sources of the Hudson or the Delaware.

One of the tributaries to Rock Creek within this limit is called Piny Branch. It is a small, noisy brook, flowing through a valley of great natural beauty and picturesqueness, shaded nearly all the way by woods of oak, chestnut, and beech, and abounding in dark recesses and hidden retreats.

I must not forget to mention the many springs with which this whole region is supplied, each the centre of some wild nook, perhaps the head of a little valley one or two hundred yards long, through which one catches a glimpse, or hears the voice, of the main creek rushing along below.

My walks tend in this direction more frequently than in any other. Here the boys go, too, troops of them, of a Sunday, to bathe and prowl around, and indulge the semi-barbarous instincts that still lurk within them. Life, in all its forms, is most abundant near water. The rank vegetation nurtures the insects, and the insects draw the birds. The first week in March, on some southern slope where the sunshine lies warm and long, I usually find the hepatica in bloom, though with scarcely an inch of stalk. In the spring runs, the skunk cabbage pushes its pike up through the mould, the flower appearing first, as if Nature had made a mistake.

It is not till about the 1st of April that many wild flowers may be looked for. By this time the hepatica, anemone saxifrage, arbutus, houstonia, and bloodroot may be counted on. A week later, the claytonia or spring beauty, water-cress, violets, a low buttercup, vetch, corydalis, and potentilla appear. These comprise most of the April flowers, and may be found in great profusion in the Rock Creek and Piny Branch region.

In each little valley or spring run, some one species predominates. I know invariably where to look for the first liverwort, and where the largest and finest may be found. On a dry, gravelly, half-wooded hill-slope the bird's-foot violet grows in great abundance, and is sparse in neighboring districts. This flower, which I never saw in the North, is the most beautiful and showy of all the violets, and calls forth rapturous applause from all persons who visit the woods. It grows in little groups and clusters, and bears a close resemblance to the pansies of the gardens. Its two purple, velvety petals seem to fall over tiny shoulders like a rich cape.

On the same slope, and on no other, I go about the 1st of May for lupine, or sun-dial, which makes the ground look blue from a little distance; on the other or northern side of the slope, the arbutus, during the first half of April, perfumes the wildwood air. A few paces farther on, in the bottom of a little spring run, the mandrake shades the ground with its miniature umbrellas. It begins to push its green finger-points up through the ground by the 1st of April, but is not in bloom till the 1st of May. It has a single white, wax-like flower, with a sweet, sickish odor, growing immediately beneath its broad leafy top. By the same run grow watercresses and two kinds of anemones,--the Pennsylvania and the grove anemone. The bloodroot is very common at the foot of almost every warm slope in the Rock Creek woods, and, where the wind has tucked it up well with the coverlid of dry leaves, makes its appearance almost as soon as the liverwort. it is singular how little warmth is necessary to encourage these earlier flowers to put forth. It would seem as if some influence must come on in advance underground and get things ready, so that, when the outside temperature is propitious, they at once venture out. I have found the bloodroot when it was still freezing two or three nights in the week, and have known at least three varieties of early flowers to be buried in eight inches of snow.

Another abundant flower in the Rock Creek region is the spring beauty. Like most others, it grows in streaks. A few paces from where your attention is monopolized by violets or arbutus, it is arrested by the claytonia, growing in such profusion that it is impossible to set the foot down without crushing the flowers. Only the forenoon walker sees them in all their beauty, as later in the day their eyes are closed, and their pretty heads drooped in slumber. In only one locality do I find the lady's-slipper,--a yellow variety. The flowers that overleap all bounds in this section are the houstonias. By the 1st of April they are very noticeable in warm, damp places along the borders of the woods and in half-cleared fields, but by May these localities are clouded with them. They become visible from the highway across wide fields, and look like little puffs of smoke clinging close to the ground.

On the 1st of May I go to the Rock Creek or Piny Branch region to hear the wood thrush. I always find him by this date leisurely chanting his lofty strain; other thrushes are seen now also, or even earlier, as Wilson's, the olive-backed, the hermit,--the two latter silent, but the former musical.

Occasionally in the earlier part of May I find the woods literally swarming with warblers, exploring every branch and leaf, from the tallest tulip to the lowest spice-bush, so urgent is the demand for food during their long northern journeys. At night they are up and away. Some varieties, as the blue yellow-back, the chestnut-sided, and the Blackburnian, during their brief stay, sing nearly as freely as in their breeding-haunts. For two or three years I have chanced to meet little companies of the bay-breasted warbler, searching for food in an oak wood on an elevated piece of ground. They kept well up among the branches, were rather slow in their movements, and evidently disposed to tarry but a short time.

The summer residents here, belonging to this class of birds, are few. I have observed the black and white creeping warbler, the Kentucky warbler, the worm-eating warbler, the redstart, and the gnat-catcher, breeding near Rock Creek.

Of these the Kentucky warbler is by far the most interesting, though quite rare. I meet with him in low, damp places in the woods, usually on the steep sides of some little run. I hear at intervals a clear, strong, bell-like whistle or warble, and presently catch a glimpse of the bird as he jumps up from the ground to take an insect or worm from the under side of a leaf. This is his characteristic movement. He belongs to the class of ground warblers, and his range is very low, indeed lower than that of any other species with which I am acquainted. He is on the ground nearly all the time, moving rapidly along, taking spiders and bugs, overturning leaves, peeping under sticks and into crevices, and every now and then leaping up eight or ten inches to take his game from beneath some overhanging leaf or branch. Thus each species has its range more or less marked. Draw a line three feet from the ground, and you mark the usual limit of the Kentucky warbler's quest for food. Six or eight feet higher bounds the usual range of such birds as the worm-eating warbler, the mourning ground warbler, the Maryland yellow-throat. The lower branches of the higher growths and the higher branches of the lower growths are plainly preferred by the black-throated blue-backed warbler in those localities where he is found. The thrushes feed mostly on and near the ground, while some of the vireos and the true flycatchers explore the highest branches. But the warblers, as a rule, are all partial to thick, rank undergrowths.

The Kentucky warbler is a large bird for the genus and quite notable in appearance. His back is clear olive-green, his throat and breast bright yellow. A still more prominent feature is a black streak on the side of the face, extending down the neck.

Another familiar bird here, which I never met with in the North, is the gnatcatcher, called by Audubon the blue-gray flycatching warbler. In form and manner it seems almost a duplicate of the catbird on a small scale. It mews like a young kitten, erects its tail, flirts, droops its wings, goes through a variety of motions when disturbed by your presence, and in many ways recalls its dusky prototype. Its color above is a light gray-blue, gradually fading till it becomes white on the breast and belly. It is a very small bird, and has a long, facile, slender tail. Its song is a lisping, chattering, incoherent warble, now faintly reminding one of the goldfinch, now of a miniature catbird, then of a tiny yellow-hammer, having much variety, but no unity and little cadence.

Another bird which has interested me here is the Louisiana water thrush, called also large-billed water-thrush, and water-wagtail. It is one of a trio of birds which has confused the ornithologists much. The other two species are the well-known golden-crowned thrush or wood-wagtail, and the northern, or small, water-thrush.

The present species, though not abundant, is frequently met with along Rock Creek. It is a very quick, vivacious bird, and belongs to the class of ecstatic singers. I have seen a pair of these thrushes, on a bright May day, flying to and fro between two spring runs, alighting at intermediate points, the male breaking out into one of the most exuberant, unpremeditated strains I ever heard. Its song is a sudden burst, beginning with three or four clear round notes much resembling certain tones of the clarinet, and terminating in a rapid, intricate warble.

This bird resembles a thrush only in its color, which is olive-brown above and grayish white beneath, with speckled throat and breast. Its habits, manners, and voice suggest those of a lark.

I seldom go the Rock Creek route without being amused and sometimes annoyed by the yellow-breasted chat. This bird also has something of the manners and build of the catbird, yet he is truly an original. The catbird is mild and feminine compared with this rollicking polyglot. His voice is very loud and strong and quite uncanny. No sooner have you penetrated his retreat, which is usually a thick undergrowth in low, wet localities, near the woods or in old fields, than he begins his serenade, which for the variety, grotesqueness, and uncouthness of the notes is not unlike a country skimmerton. If one passes directly along, the bird may scarcely break the silence. But pause a while, or loiter quietly about, and your presence stimulates him to do his best. He peeps quizzically at you from beneath the branches, and gives a sharp feline mew. In a moment more he says very distinctly, who, who. Then in rapid succession follow notes the most discordant that ever broke the sylvan silence. Now he barks like a puppy, then quacks like a duck, then rattles like a kingfisher, then squalls like a fox, then caws like a crow, then mews like a cat. Now he calls as if to be heard a long way off, then changes his key, as if addressing the spectator. Though very shy, and carefully keeping himself screened when you show any disposition to get a better view, he will presently, if you remain quiet, ascend a twig, or hop out on a branch in plain sight, lop his tail, droop his wings, cock his head, and become very melodramatic. In less than half a minute he darts into the bushes again, and again tunes up, no Frenchman rolling his r's so fluently. c-r-r-r-r-r --Wrrr,--that's it,--chee,--quack, cluck,--yit-yit-yit,--now hit it,--tr-r-r-r,--when,--caw,caw,--cut, cut,--tea-boy,--who, who,--mew, mew,--and so on till you are tired of listening. Observing one very closely one day, I discovered that he was limited to six notes or changes, which he went through in regular order, scarcely varying a note in a dozen repetitions. Sometimes, when a considerable distance off, he will fly down to have a nearer view of you. And such curious, expressive flight,--legs extended, head lowered, wings rapidly vibrating, the whole action piquant and droll!

The chat is an elegant bird, both in form and color. Its plumage is remarkably firm and compact. Color above, light olive-green; beneath, bright yellow; beak, black and strong.

The cardinal grosbeak, or Virginia redbird, is quite common in the same localities, though more inclined to seek the woods. It is much sought after by bird fanciers, and by boy gunners, and consequently is very shy. This bird suggests a British redcoat; his heavy, pointed beak, his high cockade, the black stripe down his face, the expression of weight and massiveness about his head and neck, and his erect attitude, give him a decided soldier-like appearance; and there is something of the tone of the fife in his song or whistle, while his ordinary note, when disturbed, is like the clink of a sabre. Yesterday, as I sat indolently swinging in the loop of a grapevine, beneath a thick canopy of green branches, in a secluded nook by a spring run, one of these birds came pursuing some kind of insect, but a few feet above me. He hopped about, now and then uttering his sharp note, till some moth or beetle trying to escape, he broke down through the cover almost where I sat. The effect was like a firebrand coming down through the branches. Instantly catching sight of me, he darted away much alarmed. The female is tinged with brown, and shows but a little red except when she takes flight.

By far the most abundant species of woodpecker about Washington is the red-headed. It is more common than the robin. Not in the deep woods, but among the scattered dilapidated oaks and groves, on the hills and in the fields, I hear almost every day his uncanny note, ktr-r-r, ktr-r-r, like that of some larger tree-toad, proceeding from an oak grove just beyond the boundary. He is a strong-scented fellow, and very tough. Yet how beautiful, as he flits about the open woods, connecting the trees by a gentle arc of crimson and white! This is another bird with a military look. His deliberate, dignified ways, and his bright uniform of red, white, and steel-blue, bespeak him an officer of rank.

Another favorite beat of mine is northeast of the city. Looking from the Capitol in this direction, scarcely more than a mile distant, you see a broad green hill-slope, falling very gently, and spreading into a large expanse of meadow-land. The summit, if so gentle a swell of greensward may be said to have a summit, is covered with a grove of large oaks; and, sweeping black out of sight like a mantle, the front line of a thick forest bounds the sides. This emerald landscape is seen from a number of points in the city. Looking along New York Avenue from Northern Liberty Market, the eye glances, as it were, from the red clay of the street, and alights upon this fresh scene in the distance. It is a standing invitation to the citizen to come forth and be refreshed. As I turn from some hot, hard street, how inviting it looks! I bathe my eyes in it as in a fountain. Sometimes troops of cattle are seen grazing upon it. In June the gathering of the hay may be witnessed. When the ground is covered with snow, numerous stacks, or clusters of stacks, are still left for the eye to contemplate.

The woods which clothe the east side of this hill, and sweep away to the east, are among the most charming to be found in the District. The main growth is oak and chestnut, with a thin sprinkling of laurel, azalea, and dogwood. It is the only locality in which I have found the dogtooth violet in bloom, and the best place I know of to gather arbutus. On one slope the ground is covered with moss, through which the arbutus trails its glories.

Emerging from these woods toward the city, one sees the white dome of the Capitol soaring over the green swell of earth immediately in front, and lifting its four thousand tons of iron gracefully and lightly into the air. Of all the sights in Washington, that which will survive the longest in my memory is the vision of the great dome thus rising cloud-like above the hills.

1868.


(The end)
John Burroughs's essay: Spring At The Capital With An Eye To The Birds

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