A veery in the wood

Last Saturday, the penultimate day of the annual spring census, dawned bright and blue. My list of birds had grown over the past week to more than 60 species. I grabbed my binoculars and headed down to the path that runs along the river, anxious to capture whatever sightings I could before time ran out.

Almost immediately, I was greeted by the song of a redstart from somewhere in the canopy overhead. Catbirds darted in and out, mewing from the bushes. The river ran high in the wake of recent rains, and from across the silent swirling eddies the sounds of warbling vireos came sharp and clear.

Up ahead something darted across the trail into the brush. I froze, brought my binoculars up, and focused into a tuft of trembling leaves. A black-masked yellow throat busily gleaned a twig. Momentarily, he sounded his witchety-witchety-witchety call. As I paused to record his name in my notebook, another call echoed through the wood.

Breathless, I strained to listen. There it came again, distant but unmistakable: flute-like notes, slurred together in a series of descending trills.

Carefully, I stepped along the trail, taking care to avoid snapping a branch or twig underfoot. The air was cool and clear; and when the bird sounded again, the refrain became sharper still.

I stood for several minutes, steeped in this song, and wondered at its beauty.

The song of the veery (Catharus fuscescens) has been described in various ways, each a sincere attempt to capture the refrain, each falling somewhat short of the actual performance. The Cornell Lab of Ornithology reports it as “a series of variations on veer, descending slightly in pitch, resonating as if whirling through a metal pipe.” Nineteenth-century observers called it “an inexpressibly delicate metallic utterance…accompanied by a fine trill which renders it truly seductive.”

The best way to experience this woodland singer is to head to the forest on a clear, cool morning in spring and listen. At some point, the patient observer is sure to be rewarded.

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Sunday afternoon paddle

“Interested in an afternoon paddle?” my friend said, as he stood in the front yard holding his pointer on a short leash.

“When?” I asked.

“I’ve already got the canoe on top of the truck,” he said.

I looked at my watch. “Twenty minutes?”

“Give me a half hour to take care of the dog.”

“I’ll be there.”

I ascended the stairs to change clothes, then grabbed my camera and binoculars. I paused at the bathroom sink to slather sunscreen on my face and hands, then reached for a hat on my way out the door.

We headed down to the park and put the boat in at the sand beach by the turnaround. The sky was blue; a steady breeze rippled the water. Straightaway we shot across the channel and over the remnants of the old beaver dam into Pickerel Cove.

2014 Pickerel Cove 7-6-2014 002Blue-violet clusters of pickerel weed flowers (Pontederia cordata) were in full bloom; yellow heads were forming on the lilies. Duckweed peppered the surface of the cove. Up ahead, off to the left, a great blue heron took flight and disappeared around the bend.

I peered down at the weeds in the murky water. “Have you seen the otters lately?” I asked my friend in the stern.

“Not since last spring. The bass fishing had been good up until fairly recently, when this high-pressure system put them down.”

We paddled past thick stands of pickerel weed around the dogleg through a sea of yellow-green carpet. I noticed the silhouette of a bird perched on a stump in the shadows of overhanging trees and raised my binoculars to have a look. “Green heron,” I said. Momentarily, he took flight, and we followed him down the backside of the cove.

2014 Pickerel Cove 7-6-2014 001Sitting motionless on the caned thwarts in brackish water, we heard the trills of a veery in the wood, while overhead a vireo sounded his broken refrain. The great blue heron lifted up off a scoured half-submerged tree trunk and circled back down the cove.

“It’s like being back in the 19th century,” I mused.

“Yeah, when I’m out here by myself, I think the same thing.”

We slipped our paddles into the yellow water and propelled ourselves back to the entrance over the beaver dam out into the current and headed upstream against the wind.

It was warm in the early afternoon sun, but the breeze kept the mosquitoes away. Tree swallows skimmed the surface of the water and pulled up sharply into the canopy of faultless blue sky. A flock of waxwings rose into the weeping branches of a silver maple.

Slow, steady strokes with deep purchase took us past the old bridge abutments to the entrance of the bayou. Here the current ceased as we glided silently into the still water.

Painted turtles basked on logs in the afternoon sun. We counted seven along the bank. Here stands of pickerel weed had not yet bloomed. Elephant-eared catalpa trees dotted the water’s edge.

We spun the canoe around across the duckweed and headed down river, making the trek back in nearly half the time, running with the current and the wind at our backs.

Two hours on the river; a picture-perfect afternoon, spent in snapshots of remembered time.

"Painted Turtles" 2014 © Brian T. Maurer

“Painted Turtles” 2014 © Brian T. Maurer