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Text - "A Florida Sketch-Book" Bradford Torrey


He varies his tune freely, but always within a pretty narrow compass; as is true, also, of the field sparrow, with whom, as I soon came to feel, he has not a little in common. It is in musical form only that he suggests the swamp sparrow. In tone and spirit, in the qualities of sweetness and expressiveness, he is nearly akin to Spizella pusilla. One does for the Southern pine barren what the other does for the Northern berry pasture. And this is high praise; for though in New England we have many singers more brilliant than the field sparrow, we have none that are sweeter, and few that in the long run give more pleasure to sensitive hearers. I found the pine-wood sparrow afterward in New Smyrna, Port Orange, Sanford, and Tallahassee. So far as I could tell, it was always the same bird; but I shot no specimens, and speak with no authority. Living always in the pine lands, and haunting the dense undergrowth, it is heard a hundred times where it is seen once,-a point greatly in favor of its effectiveness as a musician. Mr. Brewster speaks of it as singing always from an elevated perch, while the birds that I saw in the act of song, a very limited number, were invariably perched low. One that I watched in New Smyrna (one of a small chorus, the others being invisible) sang for a quarter of an hour from a stake or stump which rose perhaps a foot above the dwarf palmetto. It was the same song that I had heard in St. Augustine; only the birds here were in a livelier mood, and sang out instead of sotto voce. The long introductory note sounded sometimes as if it were indrawn, and often, if not always, had a considerable burr in it. Once in a while the strain was caught up at the end and sung over again, after the manner of the field sparrow,- one of that bird's prettiest tricks. At other times the song was delivered with full voice, and then repeated almost under the singer's breath. This was done beautifully in the Port Orange flat-woods, the bird being almost at my feet. I had seen him a moment before, and saw him again half a minute later, but at that instant he was out of sight in the scrub, and seemingly on the ground. This feature of the song, one of its chief merits and its most striking peculiarity, is well described by Mr. Brewster. "Now," he says, "it has a full, bell-like ring that seems to fill the air around; next it is soft and low and inexpressibly tender; now it is clear again, but so modulated that the sound seems to come from a great distance." Not many other birds, I think (I cannot recall any), habitually vary their song in this manner. Other birds sing almost inaudibly at times, especially in the autumnal season. Even the brown thrasher, whose ordinary performance is so full-voiced, not to say boisterous, will sometimes soliloquize, or seem to soliloquize, in the faintest of undertones. The formless autumnal warble of the song sparrow is familiar to every one. And in this connection I remember, and am not likely ever to forget, a winter wren who favored me with what I thought the most bewitching bit of vocalism to which I had ever listened. He was in the bushes close at my side, in the Franconia Notch, and delivered his whole song, with all its customary length, intricacy, and speed, in a tone - a whisper, I may almost say that ran along the very edge of silence. The unexpected proximity of a stranger may have had something to do with his conduct, as it often appears to have with the thrasher's; but, however that may be, the cases are not parallel with that of the pine-wood sparrow, inasmuch as the latter bird not merely sings under his breath on special occasions, whether on account of the nearness of a listener or for any other reason, but in his ordinary singing uses louder and softer tones interchangeably, almost exactly as human singers and players do; as if, in the practice of his art, he had learned to appreciate, consciously or unconsciously (and practice naturally goes before theory), the expressive value of what I believe is called musical dynamics. I spent many half-days in the pine lands (how gladly now would I spend another!), but never got far into them. ("Into their depths," my pen was on the point of making me say; but that would have been a false note. The flat-woods have no "depths.") Whether I followed the railway, in many respects pretty satisfactory method,- or some roundabout, aimless carriage road, a mile or two was generally enough. The country offers no temptation to pedestrian feats, nor does the imagination find its account in going farther and farther. For the reader is not to think of the flat-woods as in the least resembling a Northern forest, which at every turn opens before the visitor and beckons him forward. Beyond and behind, and on either side, the pine-woods are ever the same. It is this monotony, by the bye, this utter absence of landmarks, that makes it so unsafe for the stranger to wander far from the beaten track. The sand is deep, the sun is hot; one place is as good as another. What use, then, to tire yourself? And so, unless the traveler is going somewhere, as I seldom was, he is continually stopping by the way. Now a shady spot entices him to put down his umbrella,-for there is a shady spot, here and there, even in a Florida pine-wood; or blossoms are to be plucked; or a butterfly, some gorgeous and nameless creature, brightens the wood as it passes; or a bird is singing; or an eagle is soaring far overhead, and must be watched out of sight; or a buzzard, with upturned wings, floats suspiciously near the wanderer, as if with sinister intent (buzzard shadows are a regular feature of the flat-wood landscape, just as cloud shadows are in a mountainous country); or a snake lies stretched out in the sun, a "whip snake," perhaps, that frightens the unwary stroller by the amazing swiftness with which it runs away from him; or some strange invisible insect is making uncanny noises in the underbrush. One of my recollections of the railway woods at St. Augustine is of a cricket, or locust, or something else, I never saw it, that amused me often with a formless rattling or drumming sound. I could think of nothing but a boy's first lesson upon the bones, the rhythm of the beats was so comically mistimed and bungled. One fine morning, it was the 18th of February, I had gone down the railroad a little farther than usual, attracted by the encouraging appearance of a swampy patch of rather large deciduous trees. Some of them, I remember, were red maples, already full of handsome, high-colored fruit. As I drew near, I heard indistinctly from among them what might have been the song of a black-throated green warbler, a bird that would have made a valued addition to my Florida list, especially at that early date. No sooner was the song repeated, however, than I saw that I had beep, deceived; it was something I had never heard before. But it certainly had much of the black-throated green's quality, and without question was the note of a warbler of some kind. What a shame if the bird should give me the slip! Meanwhile, it kept on singing at brief intervals, and was not so far away but that, with my glass, I should be well able to make it out, if only I could once get my eyes on it. That was the difficulty. Something stirred among the branches. Yes, a yellow-throated warbler (Dendroica dominica) a bird of which I had seen my first specimens, all of them silent, during the last eight days. Probably he was the singer. I hoped so, at any rate. That would be an ideal case of a beautiful bird with a song to match. I kept him under my glass, and presently the strain was repeated, but not by him. Then it ceased, and I was none the wiser. Perhaps I never should be. It was indeed a shame. Such a taking song; so simple, and yet so pretty, and so thoroughly distinctive. I wrote it down thus: tee-koi, tee-koo, two couplets, the first syllable of each a little emphasized and dwelt upon, not drawled, and a little higher in pitch than its fellow. Perhaps it might be expressed thus: I cannot profess to be sure of that, however, nor have I unqualified confidence in the adequacy of musical notation, no matter how skillfully employed, to convey a truthful idea of any bird song.

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