Suddenly in June the baby hooded mergansers appear, seven of them paddling serenely on the stream. I haven’t seen their parents in weeks. I try to sneak up—Baila the dog’s way ahead of me investigating the streamside entrance of what seems to be an extensive woodchuck network, but the fuzzy birds notice me and, one after the next, orderly, quickly, they dive near the bank and disappear. I mean, literally disappear. The current’s fairly high, but the water’s very clear, and poof, they are gone, no doubt into the abandoned muskrat den that’s been their nest. I’ll have to look for the entrance once the water level’s well down. No doubt one or both of the parents are up ahead leading Baila on, the old broken wing maneuver, pitiful squeaks. Dog falls for it every time, and a good thing: The merganserlings are safe.
Just above their muddy bank is an eastern kingbirds’ nest I’ve been watching for years, and already this season for weeks. The original was on a silver maple stub, what was left of a big old tree that leaned flood by flood till its leaves were in the water, then its branches. Subsequent years of ice and flood removed all the branches and bark, and one spring a pair of kingbirds found a bit of a crotch attractive for a nest, just a cupped pile of twigs open to the sky on that bald log, lined nicely with popple fluff and dried grasses. Each spring the leaning bole was closer to the water, till finally ice-out in spring carried it away among huge floes and other logs. That same season (and happily for the kingbirds or their returning progeny), a black cherry leaned in, got stripped, and offered its trunk.
This day one of the adults is high above, harsh warning calls. I don’t have to get very close, take a quick look at the nest through my binoculars. I love to watch the mother hunkered down in the deep bowl of it, just the white tip of her tail visible at the upstream end, the black cap on her head downstream, maybe sometimes the glinting black bead of her eye: she’s incubating eggs.
She’s not gonna budge.
Last week she was there in the pouring, splashing, pelting rain, day after day, and must have sat through the two hail storms. I was out there for one downpour and watched in admiration, tough little bird getting sopped, not so much as a leaf above her head to break the force of the heavy raindrops, no raincoat hood like mine to hold in a little warmth. The rain brought the stream up into flood stage for a few days, nothing serious as floods go, but cresting just a kingbird wingspan below that nest, a roiling muddy crashing torrent, the log rising and falling rhythmically, momma holding on.
I follow Baila along the bank through new Joe Pye weed and new false hellebore and new cow parsnip, every summer flower, all this stuff barely up to my knees, soon to be head high. The dog’s upstream, still baffled by the disappearance of a wounded duck she’d thought a sure retrieval, sniffing all around.
Ahead, there’s a little tuft of no-doubt-sour sensitive ferns and sharp-edged sedges and weak little raspberry canes, an island of growth about two feet around left by the neighbor’s sheep as they grazed outside the electric fence down below a corner of their pasture. A very birdy spot, common yellowthroats and yellow warblers and chestnut-sided warblers singing, couple of old apple trees, tangles of alder, small butternut trees, a few tall cherries and popples and whatever else has managed to gain a foothold. And because I’ve noticed the tuft, I notice a little brown bird fleeing on foot as I approach, a three-yard dash, then flight. Song sparrow. I’ve been looking for a song sparrow nest for years, haven’t ever found one, just approximate coordinates, usually in great thickets of barberry or Jerusalem artichoke or endless tangles of grass. I get myself a stick, lean over from the path I seem to have made all these walking years, delicately part the sedge leaves with the tip of the stick, move the raspberry canes, adjust the ferns, and there it is: sweet little cup of a nest built directly on the ground, anchored to a few stems. One brown egg in there, size of a marble.
Baila’s coming, so I put the fern back as it was, keep walking, throw the stick ahead: fetch. One misplaced dog foot would crush that nest. But nature and selection have favored a lot of ground-nesters. Why? Is a question for future thought and research.
Next morning I check on the kingbirds—momma’s still hunkered down. The water level has dropped to near normal in the week since the flood. Poppa bird sits on high in the dead elm. He’s not squawking at me, just observing. So I put the binocs on him. He’s got a dragonfly, the thing still struggling in his beak, tail protruding frontways, gossamer wings quivering at each side. No wonder the normally imperious king keeps his mouth closed today.
In a dying cherry I spot the oriole I’ve been hearing, and then suddenly spot its nest, pendulous, like a womb hanging—how’ve I missed it? It’s beautifully hidden, that’s how. The garrulous flock of cedar waxwings has settled down, no more winging back and forth across the stream. They must be nesting, too: I notice quiet sentinels watching me, but I’ve had no luck finding the nests. Kingfishers have gone missing—they nest in bank tunnels, I know. I hope the flood didn’t get them. A catbird perches, mewing, but I haven’t been able to locate that nest. I had one just two years ago, so you’d think the allure would be muted, but it’s not: I want to see that color again, that greeny-blue, those perfect eggs. I’ve found yellow-warbler nests year after year, once a triple-decker. A cowbird must have dropped off an alien egg. The yellow warbler started over, simply building a new nest on top of the old one, encasing and dooming the cowbird egg, then doing it again for the next unwanted deposit, three nests in a stack. Cowbirds, I’ve lately observed, follow the neighbor’s cows around. Warbling vireos, alder flycatchers, mallards, spotted sandpipers, heron, bittern, chickadees, goldfinches: nests all around me, and yet I’ve only spotted three this year. Well, soon enough it’ll be November, and in the bare trees and shrubs and weeds and smack on the ground, I’ll find the dozens I can’t find now.
I continue my walk, collect two sticks, throw one in the stream to keep Baila busy a few minutes, use the other to check on the sparrow nest: two eggs today. I’ve brought my reading glasses and put them on, lean in to see the eggs aren’t actually brown but a very pale blue covered like a hoyden in freckles that form a solid brown wreath at the fat end of the eggs. But quick, close the fern door: here comes Baila.
Next day the water level has come down enough that I can wade in the stream itself, passing near the kingbird nest. Both adults are up in the trees squawking at me. One flies down to Baila, snaps its wings in her face, then keeps it coming. Baila’s oblivious, has her mind on a waterlogged stick. She’s dunking her face trying to get it, bubbling through her nostrils. The nest is ten feet away, six or seven feet up. I put my binocs on it and see the reason for all the defensive action: two little mouths aimed upward, utter silence. The kingbird chicks have hatched!
Dog and I move right along—we don’t want to exhaust those dedicated parents. I throw a stick upstream, get Baila out of the way, climb up on the bank, take the landward route. The sparrow flees at my footfall, all but invisible till it flies. Three eggs today!
I hurry on.
Next day the kingbirds both go after Baila. They have no interest in me at all, even as I step in the water to get a closer view of the nest. My binocs focus at six feet, remarkable, and I can see every wet pin feather on the baby birds, even as they crouch. Two in there. The egg shell bits that were evident yesterday have been discarded. The babies are silent, silent. The parents are noisy, noisy, squawking and diving on Baila in tandem. Today the dog notices, looks up at them quizzically, tries a snap or two, hardly worth the trouble. The birds don’t get closer than two or three feet. What predators do they fear? Weasels, no doubt. Perhaps even foxes. Certainly crows. But Baila can’t remind them of a crow.
I check the sparrow nest quickly: three days, three eggs.
Next day kingbirds bomb Baila the same. There’s some wriggling in the oriole nest. Four eggs in the sparrow nest.
Next day, rain, kingbird adults absent, chicks in the nest, getting wet. Five eggs in the sparrow nest, nice and dry.
Next day and those thereafter could be one day, such is my summer rhythm. The kingbirds are back and bomb Baila mercilessly. She’s come to regard the whole thing as a morning game, rears up on hind legs to try her luck. Snap! Go the kingbird wings. Snap! Goes Baila’s jaw. The chicks are getting big, can’t hide very well. Their beaks are bright yellow. Still five pretty eggs in the sparrow nest. I see sparrow momma run out: all’s well. I’ll leave the nest alone for a week.
Next day, kingbirds are matadors to Baila’s bull. They fight to a draw. We stay down in the stream for our walks, greet the kingbirds daily. After six days, I suddenly remember the sparrow nest, climb the stream to the spot up under the pasture, take another peak at the nest, gingerly, gingerly. At first I can’t find it. Then, there it is, but only two eggs, and they’re damp, a very bad sign. Did a weasel get the bird as she sat in the dark? A raccoon take the eggs?
Next day, a slug on one of the remaining eggs. Momma definitely gone.
And then every day it’s two eggs, till one day it’s none, and the nest crushed, some careless mammal’s foot, no doubt.
The orioles have fledged. I see young ones unsteady in the tops of dead trees awaiting feedings. All through the woods young crows make a ruckus, like kids on the streets after curfew. All kinds of young woodpeckers about. One comes to the feeder in the side yard, seems to be looking in there for insects rather than seeds, flings every last seed out and onto the lawn, efficient flicks of the beak. There are new cedar waxwings on every branch.
The kingbird nest is empty. I wade over to the black cherry bowl, pull down on it till I can get a close look inside—deeper than I thought, no trace of eggshell. It’s lined with wool, courtesy of all the sheep nearby. Up in the dead elm streamside I hear a thin squawk, then another. The kingbird siblings are high above me, unsteady on respective twigs. The parents are there, leaping from perches to pluck insects out of flight. And both parents feed both youngsters, these fuzzy, wet birds not quite yet ready for life on their own.
Bill Roorbach is the author of Summers with Juliet, Into Woods and has contributed essays to Down East's A Healing Touch: Stories of Life, Death and Hospice, A Place Called Home.