Stumbling on a New Bird In Maine's Back Woods
Every morning in flawless fidelity, just as my breakfast egg is ready for its alimentary destiny, I step out the front door and dump a dipper of bird feed into the bird feeder. It is a device that clings to the window glass with suction cups and can support a bevy of plump grosbeaks, in which I have a heavy investment.
The device is placed so we can watch the feathered songsters guzzle and gorge when they should be out foraging in honest toil. We also get nuthatches and chickadees and random moochers such as squirrels and raccoons, which I trap in Have-A-Heartboxes and release on the lawns of people I don't like.
I have been a bird lover since I was 5, when I got my robin-redbreast pin on my second school day and became aware of the environment.
The Audubon Society had a sandbag arrangement with the school committee, and on the first day the teacher told us to bring 10 cents the next day for a worthy cause, which I couldn't remember when I got home. This was for the little button that pinned to my shirt and had a picture of a robin, signifying I was a member entitled to all the privileges of the Junior Audubon Society.
My father, a stranger to the sentimental nature of my mother, promptly computed what that came to for every million school kids, and said he wished he'd thought up that one.
He told me the robin redbreast is really a thrush, and that they live chiefly on earthworms, which work wonders in a garden and also entice the lovely brook trout as nothing else can. My father's favorite bird was the barnyard hen.
Soon I learned my father was better informed on birdies than Miss Baker, our teacher who spoke about birds now and then as a follow-up to the 10-cent robin caper.
At the brook in True's pasture one delectable Saturday morning soon after sunrise, he showed me the proper purpose of garden worms, which he pointedly said was not to feed robins.
We had caught just about enough fontinailis for breakfast, when a large and enthusiastic noise appeared from the dead water to our left, and supposing a huge reptile from a previous age had returned to devour humanity, I gasped, ``Whas-zatt!''
My father, who was intent on his angling, was not alarmed at this noise, and said, ``stake driver.''
Miss Baker, when I brought up the stake driver in school, did search the Audubon aids, but decided there was no such bird, and almost, but not quite, discredited my dad. The stake driver is the American bittern, a wading bird, and its cry in the eerie distance of a swamp or a beaver flowage is much like the noise made by a farmer who strikes a hackmatack post with a great wooden maul, to drive the post into the mud when he's making a fence.
Repeated, sometimes many times, the cry of the stake driver suggests many farmers all making fence at once - kerwhoomph! kerwhoomph! kerwhoomph!
At the next meeting of our Junior Audubon Society, Miss Baker upbraided me severely for insisting I'd seen and heard a stake driver. ``It's nonsense,'' she told the class, ``like the willapus-wallapus that flies backward to keep the wind out of his face.''
Taken home by the children, Miss Baker's knowledge of birds made the country folk wonder if she was competent to teach. At least there was a lull for a long time in our Audubon observations.
One time, years later, I was on quite another brook in another part of Maine, and my hat was lifted on high by a sound I first thought was a stake driver. The sound was repeated too rapidly, however, and was too tinny and rasping for a post going into the ground.
I left my rod leaning against a tree and advanced cautiously to get a glimpse of whatever strange bird was imitating a stake driver. I succeeded in nearing the creature and was surprised that the land suddenly began to slope upward, and I left the vicinity of the brook and gained fairly high ground.
It would not be a stake driver up on a hill, I knew, and wonder grew as I pushed on in my ornithological curiosity.
Was I about to discover a new sub-species of bitterns? One hitherto unknown to John J. Audubon and even to Roger T. Peterson?
Wong-whank went the bird, over and over, and I decided I need not be so cautious, since a bird thus engaged is so absorbed in his own effort that he becomes less wary of approaching danger.
I could walk ahead more quickly, with less chance of flushing him in flight. I was, accordingly, soon upon him, and gazed with the delight of that fortunate gentleman who first gazed at the Pacific, or looked into Chapman's Homer with all its surge and thunder.
Alas, dear bird watchers and consequent custodians of the bird feeders by the front window! This was not a stake driver or the American bittern. It wasn't even a bird.
It was Mr. Alonzo Drew Babcock, a farmer of that vicinity, who grew row crops for the market and bred Belted Galloway cattle for the auctions.
Mr. Babcock had long since fenced some 10 acres of his back property and made a pasture for his cattle. Since this pasture was on high ground and not otherwise watered, he had drilled a well and installed a hand pump.
When he pumped water the pump went wong-whank-wong-whank.