I wish I had the tiniest bit of musical intelligence, but I am as tin-eared as they come. I listen and listen: is that a pine warbler? I’m in the right place, the remnant stand of white pines at the north end of Victoria woods. The bird is high in the tree’s dense foliage, and I can’t find it.
I lower the binoculars to plug my earbuds into my iphone and ears, and compare: pine warbler and chipping sparrow. I play the two buzzy songs over and over, trying to discern the difference. Maybe the pine warbler ‘purrs’ a little more than the chippy. I free the earbuds, turn off the birding app, listen again. I think it’s the warbler.
As I walk around the Arboretum, there are lots of chipping sparrows singing, and I grow more convinced of my warbler identification. I’m not the only one noting the chipping sparrows preparing to mate and lay eggs: high in another tree, brown-headed cowbirds are mating. Brood parasites, they’ll lay eggs in a number of smaller birds’s nests, but here the chipping sparrows are probably their most frequent victim, a self-fulfilling cycle. The female cowbirds not only return to the area they were hatched, but will tend to lay eggs in the nests of the species that raised them.
It’s quiet, this early on a Sunday morning. This week’s unseasonable heatwave is pushing trees and shrubs into leaf quickly; the lattice of branches against the sky shading to gold and red with catkins and maple buds. Snakes are out, rustling the leaf litter as they glide away from the vibrations of my footsteps.
The tree swallows are back, chattering and swooping over the old field where the nestboxes are. They take most of these boxes, with house wrens nesting in a couple on the periphery of the cluster, and a bluebird pair or two mixed in with the swallows. There’s always a frisson of pleasure on seeing the bluebirds, even though they raise broods every year; not just for their inherent beauty, but because they’re a rare success story of a threatened bird brought back to a healthy population by a combination of intelligent human intervention and their own nesting strategy. Birds that cavity-nest will, for the most part, adapt to nest boxes. Grassland ground nesters—meadowlarks and bobolinks, to name just two—cannot, and so continue their steady decline.
The maple swamp is full of phoebes and tree creepers and resounding with the drumming and calls of several species of woodpeckers: downy, red-bellied, pileated. A pair of Canada geese are nesting on a hummock of soil pushed up by a fallen tree. A pair nest here every year; every year, the mink takes the eggs. The wood ducks who nest in hollow trees above the swamp may do better, although I suspect the mink likes ducklings too.
In the drier woods, the bloodroot blossoms are still tightly furled, waiting for the sun to reach the forest floor. Marsh marigold’s round leaves are emerging in the marsh, but no buds yet. The stand of beeches ahead of me hosts a convention of conversational crows. I stop to listen, but it’s just chatter, perhaps about my presence, or the dog walkers out on the wide central path. I can’t distinguish a chipping sparrow from a pine warbler, but I’m pretty good at crow!