Friday, September 27, 2013

Audubon and the phoebes

 Phoebes have returned to the Ichetucknee. Watch for these little gray birds with darker heads and off-white bellies sitting on low shrubs and snags along the river's edge. True to their nature as "flycatchers" (a group of them is called an "outfield"), phoebes spend much of their time watching from their perch for flying insects. When a winged morsel is spotted, the little "tyrant" darts out over the water on a quick, aerial sortie and snatches it nimbly from the air. A good identifier for these birds is their habit of continually pumping their tail. If these clues don't help and you're still unsure if the bird you're watching is a phoebe, just ask it. These chatty little birds are happy to introduce themselves with their sharp, raspy—‘pheebee, pheebee.’ 

 But, ask as we want, there are still many things phoebes won’t tell us, like where they've been all summer. What place could possibly be so appealing that they would abandon Ichetucknee every spring, just when things are getting good. One day, they are flitting among blooming dogwoods, myrtles, hollies and haws, with their fragrant promise of fruit, darting after winged insects or plucking a stranded minnow from a shallow pool, the next day they are gone. How could any other summer home compare?

 Of course, we lovers of the Ichetucknee are biased. I'm sure John Audubon felt equally strong about Perkiomen Creek, the small, rock shrouded stream near the plantation he managed in the early 1800’s near Philadelphia. When phoebes arrived there very early in the spring, he concluded that they must have been “prompted more by their affection to the place than by any other motive.” Clearly, Audubon never saw the Ichetucknee (is my bias showing?).

 Setting aside my own loyalties, I must admit that Perkiomen Creek sounded like a gem. In fact, the descriptions of “beautiful rocks along the shores” and “projecting stone(s) over the clear water” are vaguely reminiscent of the upper Ichetucknee. It even had caves along its shore; one of which became a favorite “study” in which Audubon would read Edgeworth and Lafontaine or work on his own writings and drawings.

 Audubon wasn't the only one who loved this cave. A pair of phoebes had a nest attached to the wall near the cave entrance. With the kind of patience and curiosity known only to true naturalists, Audubon spent every day of many weeks quietly observing the birds nesting and raising their young. The adult birds became so accustomed that he could almost touch them. The young didn't have a choice. When the parents were off feeding, Audubon would take one, or sometimes all of them, into his hand for a closer look.

 Among the mysteries of nature Audubon contemplated was whether these fledglings would return to Perkiomen Creek to raise their own families. He decided to mark them so he would recognize them if they returned in the spring. He first tied a thread around their legs, but each time they picked it off. Finally, after several failed attempts, he decided to use silver thread. It seemed to work and a couple of weeks later the birds left.

 The following spring, he found two of his “tagged” birds nesting a short distance up the creek. His experiment was a success. But it wasn't just his own knowledge about phoebes that was advanced by his efforts. This would prove to be the first recorded use of the now-important research technique known as bird banding—one small step for Audubon, one giant leap….well, you get the idea.

 Sadly, Audubon’s cave and the adjacent section of Perkiomen Creek were destroyed to make a dam. Audubon was alive when this happened. I can no more imagine his sense of loss than I can imagine the loss felt by all those people who knew and lived alongside the now-flooded section of our own Ocklawaha.

 I wonder also about Audubon’s phoebes. What brand of confusion races through a tiny mind when every synapse in its brain and every wisp of instinct leads it to a place it “knows” to be a rocky grotto with memories of its parents and of its first flight, only to find a flat sheet of water.

 When I hear the autumn song of Ichetucknee's phoebes, as they flit among the golden bur marigolds and pluck scarabs form cardinal flowers, I wonder if they are cheerier than the ones they sang for Audubon. I wonder if phoebes feel gratitude for such places as Ichetucknee.