Text - "A Florida Sketch-Book" Bradford Torrey

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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.