Agassiz Association. Wilson Ornithological Chapter.

The Wilson bulletin (Volume 15, 1903) online

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Published by the Club at Oberlin, Ohio


Nest of Bewick's Wren ( Tliryothonis bczcickli) in a coffee pot.

Nest of ]]e\vick"s Wren (ThryotJionis bci^ickii) in a wood pile.

Photos, hy Rev. W. V. Henninger.



No. 42


Vol. X. AL\RCH, 1903. No. 1.




The Gray-crowned Leucosticte, [Leiicosticte tcphrocotis^
is a regular winter resident at Lewistown, where it is known
as the "brown snowbird." It generally appears about the
first of November, though in pleasant weather it may not be
observed before the 8th or loth of that month. It is gre-
garious, moving about daily in flocks of varying size, usually
scattering about town in smaller troops until severe weather,
when most of the troops unite into one large flock, often
containing from two to three hundred individuals.

The Leucostictes are our English Sparrows in social man-
ners. They feed fearlessly at the door-steps or in the yards,
though they are likely to whir away when the door is opened
or when anyone appears unexpectedly at a window near by.
On a warm winter morning I have seen from forty to fifty
of these birds sitting on a wood-pile in the door yard, sun-
ning themselves and gleaning from refuse on the ground.

Late in the afternoon the individuals of a flock scatter
out to nooks they are accustomed to use for the night. A

2 The Wilson Bulletin.— No. 42.

particular male, and sometimes a female, have regular sleep-
ing-nooks in a porch of the writer's home, and long before
nightfall the birds seek their quarters. I have seen a leu-
costicte enter a tubular eaves-trough and there spend the
night. Frequently they flutter under projecting eaves, and
cling to some protruding support for the night.

In 1899, I first noted the leucostictes on October 30,
when a troop of fifteen was seen gleaning on a vacant lot
on Main street at Lewiston. When disturbed, they arose
with sharp, metallic, scolding notes, keeping together and
flying away in irregular, undulating, capricious flight. B\'
November 16, the number of the flock had increased to
about sixty. They fed near the school building, and were
quite fearless and friendly, an individual frequently alighting
within six feet of me.

The leucostictes are extremely restless, flitting in irregu-
lar, jerky movements. They have a trilling chirp which
they utter a-wing and on the ground. They alight about
the buildings much like English Sparrows, preferring pro-
jecting parts, gutters, window sills, and gables. They fre-
quently alight in a window, even if some one is standing at
the window inside.

These birds feed on the seeds of the dwarf sage, or they
glean from the snow around the bases of such plants. They
often frequent the hillsides at the margins of snowy areas.
In the spring, when a thaw is taking place, a whole flock-
will congregate on a spot eight or ten feet across, all peck-
ing industriously at the bare ground. They also frequent
the margins of dry ditches, or a walk or fence on sloping
ground, where exposed spots are found. Some of a flock
are in motion at any time, flitting nervously to another
portion of the feeding. place. Often the entire flock will
take wing with a dull whirr of wings, many of the birds utter-
ing a quick alarm note like the syllable " quir," or " quie,"
or "quie quie." Rising in scattering order, with capricious,
undulating movement, they may circle down immediately to
the same forage-spot.

Notes on the Leucostictes. 3

The rapid flitting of the wings of the leucostictes is no-
ticeable, though sometimes one of the birds will soar
through the air with outspread wings, fluttering the wings
only enough to give movement to the body. The flitting
of the wings appears to be caused by their tips being elevat-
ed above the general level of the bird's back.

Very early in the spring the leucostictes give evidence of
the approach of the nuptial season. After the middle of
January a male will frequently chase another or a female,
like Meadowlarks in amorous sport. Occasionally, at this
season, a male will alight for a few moments on some con-
venient perch, and utter a pretty little trill, like "tree-ree-
ree-ree ree," enunciating the syllables with great rapidity.
As the season advances and the warm sunshine of late Feb-
ruary indicates the further progress of the vernal period, the
males become more prolific in their musical efforts. Sitting
on the ridge of house or barn, generally at the end of the
ridge, alone or in small troops, they utter their wheezy
chants, sometimes with no more force than that used by the
Grasshopper Sparrow, though often with greater force and
more varied expression.

The males sing also when sitting on the ground, appear-
ing to be picking up morsels of food and singing as a fre-
quent variation. In such instances the song has a ventrilo-
quil effect, seeming to arise from a point much farther
away. A male singing on the ground will sometimes sidle
toward a female, and if she coyly takes wing, a reckless
amorous pursuit will follow.

In producing their musical numbers, the males care little
for surroundings if an appreciative female listener is near.
Late in February last }'ear I observed a male sitting on a
telephone pole in front of the post office at mail time, and
disregarding the activity below, he uttereti his low, hurried

In early March the wing-bars of ihe leucostictes become
more prominent, the purple of the sides begins to show
more noticeably, and the colors generally assume their

4 The Wilson Bulletin.— No. 42.

nuptial hues. By the middle of April the last of the leu-
costictes has disappeared.

Hepburn's Leucosticte can easily be distinguished from
the Gray-crowned by the greater amount of gray upon the
head of the former, the color frequently marking the entire
head above the lower part of the ears. In the flocks that
visit us, the proportion is about one Hepburn's to six or
eight Gray-crowned. In habits the one is a counter-part of
the other.


An Amateur s Experience.

Some three or four years ago my friend and I were re-
turning on a late September day from a drive in the country.
It was already growing dusk as we crossed a little valley be-
fore entering town, but from the dry reeds by the brook a
belated bird — black and white with flashes of crimson — rose
and swept over us, far out into the sky.

We followed him with longing eyes until he was lost in
the distance and then vowed that when spring came again
we would begin to study birds, never dreaming, in our ignor-
ance, that we might have begun at once.

I recalled the fact that I possessed a fine copy of the
Pennsylvania Bird Book and a battered pair of fleld glasses
cherished until that moment as a relic of the Civil War only.
We were never satisfied as to the identity of our bird and it
seems to me now as if it were the spirit of all the birds and,
soaring out into the twilight, it had left behind an undying
joy in the study of nature and her children.

The following April found us a-field, and we learned many
of our common birds which aforetime had been strangers.

The Best Place of All. 5

May brought such an invasicn of warblers into our garden
as has not since been equalled or even approached, so our
beginning was unusually favorable, although we took it as a
matter of course and believed it was merely an affair of the
blind receiving sight.

By the next year we were finding out little by little that
it was not necessary to go abroad in the land to see most
birds, for only two blocks from us lay the entrance to the
Best Place of All. That the best things in life are usually
close at hand, experience has gently taught me. I do not
dispute that others discovered this truth long ago, but I
claim the right to reiterate it since it is mine by right of

If I were to take you to our favorite haunt we would
saunter over to the next street and pause — but merely for a
moment to undo the gate — before a small pasture in which
four or five cows, more or less amicable, may be found
browsing in summer. It is both an ordinary scene and a
clumsy gate, but just beyond lies the pathway to much joy
and content.

Once upon a time a man of wealth thought to have a
country home here, so he cut a road down the bank and
through the valley beyond, terracing a slope here and there
and setting out grape vines. Why he abandoned his plan I
do not know — accepting the blessing without inquiry. A
grassy carpet covers the terraced banks from which the vines
have mostly disappeared, and over the pathway once des-
tined for a drive vines and shrubs arch lovingly.

The man who made this foot-path way has gone to his
long rest and it matters little to the loiterers in the valley
who pays the taxes, enough that it is ours. Mr. Bradford
Torrey, it is true, pays cheerfully and even joyfully the taxes
on his bit of woodland, and Mr. Burroughs, I believe, owns
land in the vicinity of Slabsides, but I question if they own
their land an}' more truly than we, ours.

But we have not yet gone down the hill. That tree at
the left is a wild crab-apple. We used to drive three miles

Q The Wilson Bulletin.— No. 42.

every spring to see one in blossom — and found it at our
door. That little bush that arches over the path held a
Red-eyed Vireo's nest that we might have touched by put-
ting out our hand when we passed, but the secret was faith-
fully kept until autumn.

The grape-vines at our right which run riot over the bush-
es are forever associated in my mind with, a concert of Ruby-
crowned Kinglets one April morning. It was not only the
first time I had seen the kinglet at close range, but also the
first view of that wonderful dazzling ruby-cap, and when the
discovery was made that the loud ringing warble came from
his tiny throat, it was, indeed, a red-letter day. And so I
might attach some reminiscence to every tree and shrub
along the way.

Down the hill and across the brook lies a large clump of
witch hazel; in the marsh beyond it amid willows and sweet
fern and spice bushes, the Maryland Yellow-throat loves to
sing his witch-ity, luitch-ity, zvitcli-ity, zuiic/i, disclosing his
own name, I suspect, for who ever found him where he pre-
tended to be.'' The sly rascal can stay nearer one and yet
remain hidden than any other bird I know, and for his nest
— but I still have hopes.

Around the bend you enter the woodland and the brook
glides into a trout pond. The walk is dim and woodsy now,
and we name it Thrush Alley, for in migration time the Her-
mit and the Veery flit before us in their silent, dignified
way, and the Wood Thrush remains to build.

In the pond the Kingfisher pays no attention to the signs
regarding the wayward fisherman but springs his rattle as if
he were a patrol. Sandpipers love to teeter on the mossy
logs, Bitterns pay it frequent visits; and once in August two
magnificent Blue Herons remained in full view with perfect
placidity until some noisy people, who came along the dam,
offended them — regardless of the law of the forest — by much
pointing and babbling. On either hand the partridge berry
covers the ground with glossy green and embroiders it with
beautiful, sweet scented, starry flowers in June. Down by

The Best Place of All. 7

the pond grow some pale green orchids which happily the
High School students have not yet found. Here in these
wild grape vines and hemlocks five disconsolate Robins spend
the winter. Down on the point we watched a Redstart
build her nest in a young maple, but alas! 'Satan came also,'
for one day beside the two tiny white eggs — one broken —
lay a larger one.

A Cardinal — rare at any time — regarded us doubtfully one
winter day from that tree yonder, while at this bend in the
path we have seen more warblers than in any other one
place. The bird-books told us of the sh\'ness of the Black-
burning Warbler, how he invariably chose to disport himself
in the tops of high trees where one must view him with
strained eyes and aching neck if at all. In company with
Black-throated Green, Black-throated Blue, Parulas, Myrtle,
Chestnut- sided, and Ba}'- breasted Warblers, they flitted
about close to the ground not more than ten feet away.
Some girls came laughing and chattering up the path and in
a few moments the brilliant company had quite vanished.

Instead of descending this steep bank and crossing the
spring that runs into the pond and harbors the earliest
water- cress, let us go around on the right. The bank in
May is purple with violets which grow among clumps of
Christmas fern. At the left we watched a pair of Chickadees
excavate a nest in a small stump about eight feet from the
pathway, where they reared a family of seven and, although
they were in plain sight and made no secret of their domes-
tic affairs so far as we could see, I never knew of any but
the initiated who were aware of it, and believe no harm ever
c ime to them while there.

In this same place a Fox Sparrow, in company with a
Winter Wren, loved to scratch in the dry leaves, and we
often watched him before he went on his northward journey.
One April morning before he left he sang an exquisite song,
— the very spirit of the woods.

The pond is artificial, but not obtrusively so, since im-
mense willows erow on the dam. And now we take the

8 The Wilson Bulletin.— No. 42.

path past it up through an avenue of ancient hemlocks to
the top of the hill. Here and in the more open slope be-
yond, thrushes, White-throats, and White-crowns, love to
linger during migration, and the Hooded Warbler builds
somewhere near. Further on is still another pond, — willow
ramparted. Sitting under these trees one July day to escape
a shower, we looked down below and saw six Phoebes sit-
ting in a solemn row on a branch with a seventh near en-
gaged in serving lunch. The whole family at once and at
dinner! You remember what Thoreau said.'' "What you
seek in vain for half your life, one day you come full upon
all the family at dinner." Those words have come to me
again and again. I well recall a brief glimpse of a Rose-
breasted Grosbeak a mile and a half from here; a peculiar
favor to have seen it we then though, but the next spring
we could go down in our valley any time during a fort-night
and hear a flock of them singing.

Last winter it came time for us to take our weekly Ger-
man lesson, but the snow fell thickly, swiftly, almost in
masses, and while we waited dismayed at the prospect of
wading through it, behold! the Herr Prediger beaming in
upon us saying he thought he would practice the Golden
Rule — surely a noble idea — ,and as we stumbled along in a
strange tongue, some one idly glanced out of the window
and lo I the snow had ceased and six Evening Grosbeaks
were feasting upon a young maple directly in front of the
house upon the street. They remained an hour perhaps,
our first and only view of them, and not one of the ten or
twelve people who passed saw them.

Last spring an Oven-bird remained near the house for
several days quite fearlessly, while White-throats have
foraged at our very door. In fact, in our lot alone — less than
half an acre — sixty different species have been identified,
eighty-five species have been seen in the ravine, while un-
doubtedly twenty-five species nest there.

Most of our acquaintances view us with amused tolerance
at the best, and no doubt regard our pastime as a mild

The Best Place of All. 9

species of insanity. "How much better" (I suspect them
of thinking) "are five o'clock teas," but now and then we
find a kindred spirit generally a boy.

A boy it was who, after reading Mrs. E!ckstorm's admir-
able Woodpecker- book this winter, told me that a Yellow-
bellied Sapsucker had a row of holes around their apple tree
and he had been seen sev^eral times.

I regret to say, I doubted his accuracy ofobserv^ation. A
Sapsucker here in winter when Mr. Chapman and the Penn-
sylvania bird book said they wintered from \'irginia south .'
A 'i^'^ days later the boy was vindicated, for the Sapsucker,
bent on investigating the nuthatches activity, followed him
up and perched just above the suet a few feet from the
kitchen window, without, however, discovering the source of
supplies. I wondered if the sly fellow had not stolen many
a lunch the nuthatches had stowed away for future use.

According to the suggestion of the Wilson Bulletin, New
Year's day was set aside for a walk, and it was as bright
and beautiful a day as could be imagined. Unfortunately
we erred as we sometimes do and made ourselves think we
could see more birds elsewhere than in our usual haunt.
One of our boys, inspired by the offer in the Wilson Bulle-
tin, was to go with us, but was too late and being wrongly
instructed, went where we should have gone — to the Best
Place of all. We returned without having seen a bird while
our boy saw a flock of Goldfinches, a Blue Jay, a Partridge
Juncos, and a Nuthatch.

So I believe, for the person who has little time, to know
one favorable spot well is better that much going to and fro
upon the earth, though that is also good and even necessary
for a variety of species.

I know a beautiful valley with precipitous cliff's where the
Bald Eagle soars and builds, a woods upon whose edge a
little Scandinavian boy has a garden of yellow lady-slippers,
(Cypripediiiin parvijiorum) , which he transplanted and keeps
free from grass, prompted only by his love of the beautiful.
The maiden-hair fern and the purple-fringed orchis grow

10 The Wilson Bulletin.— No. 42.

rankest in still another woods. Cypripedijim acaiilc and
wintergreen take us southwest and rhododendrons twenty
miles southeast. The upland meadows for Bobolinks and
Meadowlarks, the cliffs for hawk and eagle, the woods to
the south for Oven-bird and Chewink, the lake to the north
for duck and Bank Swallow. But for the greatest variety
and abundance, all the year round, just around the corner
lies the Best Place of all.



This family, represented in the A. (). U. Check-List by
the genera Motacilla, Budytes, and Anthus, is almost en-
tirely pakcartic, stragglers only of these genera visiting
us in North America. Setting aside the accidental vis-
itors of this family in Germany, I had the good fortune to
become acquainted with the two species of Motacilla, the
one of Budytes and three of the four of Anthus during my
eight years' stay in Europe. It may be of some interest to
the readers of the BULLETIN to hear more of these birds
than the short notes of our manuals and check-lists are able
to give, and so I describe them as I saw them in their favor-
ite haunts.

The White and Yellow Wagtails are both described in
ojr North American Manuals. The third species, the
"Mountain Wagtail" {Moiaci/Ia sulpJiurca), has the upper
parts ash-gray, tinged with olive on head and crissum; gen-
eral appearance of wings brownish, lores blackish-gray,
throat deep black, lower parts lemon-yellow.

One of the first birds that greeted me, when I reached the
broad pasture-lands of Holland in 1885, after crossing the
Atlantic, was the merry wagtail. As the big steamer

The Motacillidffi of Germany. 11

plowed its way slowly^ through the canal from Ymuiden to
Amsterdam, the eye was favored with the characteristic
Dutch landscape, windmills, dams, canals, fat pastures, beau-
tiful cows, and of birds the stork, the lapwing, and the wag-
tails. The long grass harbored the Yellow Wagtail, but
along the roadsides, at the brooks, flowing along with the
same slow surety with which everything in Holland moves,
at occasional ponds, at the windmills, the White Wagtail
was in abundance, showing that it well deserves its German
name "Bachstelze." It is a bird that is ever alert, ever in
motion, graceful in its movements, pleasing to the eye in its
Prussian colors, a favorite with everybody. Early in March
it returns to Germany^ running along on the top of the
tile roofs, wagging its tail continually. We greet them
cordially as one of the first harbingers of spring. Yet ugly
snowstorms often come in this month and ice covers the
brooks and sloughs. Safely sheltered sleeps the little Wag-
tail under the tiles of the roof, or in the knotholes of a beam.
Before daylight it is out to seek food, circling about its
favorite places, diving down into the snow in its futile ef-
forts and seeing that it must seek refuge at gutters, barns, and
dung heaps. Bye and bye the ice floats down the rivers, the
sun shines brighter — spring has come. The insects leave their
gloomy places and begin to play in the warm rays of the
spring sun. Troops of wagtails visit these insect meetings
to catch them, constantly teasing, chasing, quarreling with
one another; nodding the head, wagging the tail, singing at
all times, ever restless, now robbing a brother of a fat spider
with lightning quickness, now spying a slowly flying crow or
hawk with a loud alarm call, and in an instant the whole
troop surrounds the detested enemy, scolding, tormenting,
pecking at him, till he hurries to the woods. Whirr! They
return to their meal. Now they follow the ploughing peasant,
gathering worms from the furrows, hurrying hither and
thither; away again they fly to the pasture near by, where
the sheep are cropping the first grass, to pick up the excre-
ments or even to alight on the backs of the animals to

i2 The Wilson Bulletin.— No. 43.

snatch up their insect prey. What a delight to watch the
wagtails, especially during the mating time. Ever pugnaci-
ous, they are now ready to fight upon the least provocation,
garrulous, envious, jealous all the time. Full of malice, the
males battle for the possession of a fair lady, some clashing
together in the air, some running against one another as the
ancient knights in the tournaments, some crowding one a-
nother at the edge of the roof in fierce angry combat, till the
weaker one has to "give up" and is chased clear out of sight
and reach, and then they enter upon their household duties.
"Any old place" is good enough for the nest; in a tree, upon
the beams of a house or barn, in a stonepile, in a brick wall
the carelessly constructed nest is placed always revealing the
fact that these birds originally bred in holes. The most
beautiful nest I ever saw of this species was placed on the
top beam of our enormous "Turner hall" at Niesky, Silesia,
65 feet above the ground. On June ist, 1890 I climbed up
to it. Outwardly a mass of rootlets, grass-blades, straws,
moss, and paper it was rather a cozy domicile on the inside,
soft to the touch of the hand, composed of and walled with
wool, hair, lichens and other similar material. Six eggs
were in it, grayish, speckled with lilac and gray, and as I
gaze upon them at present, they bring back to my memory
that beautiful nest, the anxious parents and the dangerous
climb in the dusk of that June day.

Both of the season's broods wander along the streams
and ramble about the swampy ditches, playfully devouring
thousands of worms, snapping at insects in a short, jerky
flight, or gathering them from the earth, running rapidly to
and fro, constantly calling to one another, till evening comes
and all meet with starlings and swallows, to roost in the
willows fringing the swamps and ponds till the chilling
frosts of October cover the ground. One morning we awaken
to find that all have left us for the south.

Away from the abode of man to the mountains we
must wander to find the other member of the true wagtails.
Where the ice cold waters of the brook tumble from rock to

The Motacillidse of Germany. 13

rock over the white pebbles in the shadow of the majestic
pines that murmur a low accompaniment to the gushing,
spraying cataract, or where the clappering of the mill-wheel
breaks the solitude at the entrance into the valley we meet
the Mountain Wagtail, dancing cheerily from stone to stone,

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