Baby Robin Redbreast,
Ten Little Ducklings,
and a Blue-winged Warbler
by John Jacobson
Palmer Hill, New York
I start along the path across the shoulder of Palmer Hill. It follows the western edge of a field. It slopes so steeply that I have to walk one foot in front of the other or my left leg feels too long. There is an old joke among Catskill Mountain farmers that their cows had two legs shorter than the other two because their pastures were so steep.
Wispy edges of cumulus clouds glow peach and tangerine in lowering sun. Salmon streaks cross the sky. Bottoms of clouds along the horizon are gray, as if brushed with powdered graphite. Balsam Mountain, Hiram’s Knob, Dry Brook Ridge, Graham, Doubletop, and Balsam Lake Mountains stretch across the horizon like motionless blue waves. A sign at the edge of the gravel parking area beside a dirt road near Andes, New York gives the elevations of these mountains. The highest are Dry Brook Ridge at 3,450 feet, Graham at 3,868 feet, Doubletop at 3860 feet, and Balsam Lake Mountain at 3,720 feet.
An overgrown meadow drops away from me to a row of maples. Brown stems of goldenrod lie flattened from winter snow. A few stalks of milkweed and wild parsnip still stand. New green grass surrounds them. The landscape rolls and heaves from here to the horizon. Wind sweeps across the hillside.
The path crosses a stone wall where a gap was made for tractors to pass. Stones from the base of the wall still roughen the ground. Tall maples and ash trees with unfurling new leaves shade the wall. Beyond is a meadow. This one is not so steep. Stems of goldenrod and wild parsnip have overrun grasses here too. Wild parsnip stems are thick, deeply ridged, and brittle. Many have broken. One beside the path stands tall though. At its top, slender stems that held seeds radiate from its center like broken spokes of a bicycle wheel.
My family lived in a white Greek Revival farmhouse eight miles from Palmer Hill until I was five years old. It had been built in 1845. Two wings stretched from either side of the front gable. A porch supported by square white columns crossed the wing to the right of the door. Tall, narrow windows opened onto the porch. There were vertical four-paned sidelights on each side of the front door.
Planks made waves in linoleum that covered the sloping kitchen floor. A tall white cupboard with doors that latched closed by twisting wooden rectangles stood against one wall of the kitchen. An old single basin sink and stove were on the opposite wall. A small table and chairs were in the middle of the room. The kitchen window looked out at a gnarled lilac bush.
My bedroom was behind the wall where the cupboard stood. It was a small room with a window shaded by hemlocks. In summer I would wake to the dawn chorus of birds singing through a wooden framed window screen. It began while it was still dark. At first only a couple of birds chirped as if calling back and forth. Others would soon join them. I remember listening with my face against the screen as first light revealed fog swirling over the hayfield beyond the hemlocks.
Often I would hear cows mooing in the pasture. In summer they were out all day and night. My grandfather had Holsteins. They were big black and white cows. They kept the grass cropped short. I remember a few thistles and thornapples grew there, but as long as there were cows the edge of the woods was kept beyond fences.
I learned the sounds of tractors too. Percy Smith’s two-cylinder John Deere popped steadily when he was cutting hay. My grandfather’s Allis Chalmers WD-45 sounded steadier. Don Liddle’s Farmall had its own timbre. The Melvin’s big Oliver made a deeper roar. As long as these fields were tended, goldenrod and milkweed existed only beyond the mower’s reach.
I stood barefoot on the cool wood floor by my bedroom window morning after morning. I wanted to see the birds that were making such beautiful sounds. Sometimes robins hopped on the grass close to the window searching for earthworms. Hemlock boughs quivered with invisible movements of other birds. I wondered which birds the songs came from.
I had The Golden Book of Birds. It was a little hardcover book by Hazel Lockwood, illustrated by Feodor Rojankovsky. I remember the black crow and a wren perched above a nest with four pale blue eggs on its peach colored cover. My mother would read me the stories in a big soft chair in our living room. I looked at the pictures over and over. There was a painting of Mother Robin perched over her four nestlings with an insect in her bill. Mallard ducklings were round and covered with downy feathers. A Baltimore oriole looked like an orange and black flower perched on the branch of an elm tree.
I pass another stone wall on Palmer Hill shaded by maples at the far edge of the field. The path passes a leaning fence post with broken knots of rusty barbed wire stapled into it. It is weathered gray. Lichens speckle moss-tinted sides. A thick crown of moss covers its top. Next to the post the wall was dismantled a long time ago to make a gateway.
The path leads into what must have been a pasture. It winds around a thicket. There are thornapples. Garlic mustard with tiny snowflake like flowers has bloomed in their shade. Goldenrod nearly dominates the open field. Boughs of Norway spruces droop close to the ground at the edge of the woods that border it.
At the northern edge of the pasture the path joins an old road and descends into maple woods. I walk on under pale green leaves. I pass an old gray maple. Three trunks splay from the same roots to make one tree. Dark green moss cascades from the divided trunks over deeply ridged bark to the ground.
A yellow-rumped warbler pauses for an instant on a high branch. Yellow crescents on his wings and a patch at the base of his tail seem to glow in my binoculars. In too brief of an instant he is gone. A black-throated green warbler sounds his buzzing call, “ZoozeezoozooZeee?!”
A sapsucker with a scarlet patch on top of his head and another triangular patch beneath his bill flies from a gnarled maple branch. The tree is ringed with sap wells he has chiseled into the bark. He disappears.
A pair of rose-breasted grosbeaks darts from branch to branch. She sounds short high notes and plucks flowers from the bases of new leaves. The male is stunning, with a black head and deep rose-colored patch beneath his short, stout beak. The female looks like she could be of another species. She is brown with white crescents above and below her eyes. She has fine umber stripes descending beneath her bill over a pale yellow cloud that fades to white. Only their shapes and the white markings of their wings bear any resemblance to each other.
My grandfather’s study was a pale green room with a big window. It had floor to ceiling bookshelves full of old books. I was fascinated by the binoculars he kept in a leather case on his desk. He called them field glasses. Once I held them up looking toward the edge of the woods. All I could see was darkness. I wasn’t big enough to see through both lenses at once.
Birds outside my bedroom window in the old farmhouse were hard to see. They were elusive, hiding behind leaves and hemlock needles. They revealed themselves to me mainly by sound. Little by little I learned the chirps of robins, the mewing of catbirds, and the chattering of sparrows. In April, red-winged blackbirds were everywhere calling “Okaleee!” from electrical lines and the tops of maples. Crows called year-round. Chickadees would gather in cold weather calling to each other from maples and hemlocks. I heard woodpeckers drum. I saw a pileated woodpecker hammer on the old hemlock boards of the barn. As years went on I heard warblers call from the edge of the fields. When I got older I became entranced by hermit thrushes fluting beautiful, unearthly vespers from deeper woods.
A murmuring stream echoes as it flows through a culvert pipe beneath the old road on Palmer Hill. I pass two old maples and emerge in an opening. Ancient walls of a barn foundation stand on the slope above the path. Goldenrod and blackberry briars have grown over what was once the barn floor. Sumacs stand in the middle. An ash tree and a young Norway spruce stand at the top of what remains of the bridgeway to the haymow.
One summer day in 1965 I stood among a crowd of farmers gathered around the barnyard of my grandfather’s white barn. An auctioneer rattled off a bewildering patter. Men in the crowd raised their hands, bidding on cows paraded in front of them. One by one the cows who had been a large part of our lives were sold.
New York State had begun requiring dairy farms to cool milk in bulk tanks with mechanical refrigeration. Most farms depended on spring water piped into vats in milk-houses then. Steeper, rockier subsistence farms sold out rather than invest in expensive stainless steel bulk tanks. There were auctions every week. I remember it seemed like I was always riding to one in my grandfather’s dark green 1955 Chevy pickup truck.
The landscape soon began to change. Goldenrod and milkweed took over old hayfields that were no longer mowed. Thornapples and blackberry briars took over pastures. Woods crept out beyond stonewalls. Young poplars and maples crowded into fields. I grew up in a re-wilding landscape.
Beyond the barn foundation on Palmer HIll I come to a trail intersection. On a four by four post are two rectangular blue signs with white letters. The upper sign points left and reads “Upper Meadow Loop.” The lower sign points right and reads “Lower Meadow Loop.” I go right and climb a slight incline. I come to thornapples with lower branches that were broken down over the winter by ice and snow.
“BeeeeBUZZZZZZZZ!” I startle. It is not a sound I ever remember hearing. Up the slope is a lichen speckled ash tree with a low, spreading crown. Thornapples surround its base. I listen intently. “BeeeeBUZZZZZZZZZ!”
I wait hardly breathing. I hear it again. “BeeeeBUZZZZZZZZ!” It is almost a mechanical sound, more like an insect than a bird. The second note is lower and louder than the first. It seems to come from a thornapple. I lift my binoculars. In a flash of yellow, a bird flies from the thornapple and perches on a low branch of the ash. I watch him as he sings again, head tilted, throat vibrating, “BeeeeBUZZZZZZZZ!”
He is bright yellow with a black stripe through each eye. His wings are blue-gray. From the pocket of my vest I take out a battered paperback, Peterson Field Guides Eastern Birds. Mine is the Fourth Edition copyright 1980. I thumb through pages with rounded corners to the warbler section. I find his picture with arrows pointing to his black eye stripe and blue-gray wings. His song is described as “…a buzzy beeee-bzzz (as if inhaled and exhaled).”
He is a blue-winged warbler, Vermivora pinus. When I turn to the map of the blue-winged warbler’s range though, it shows them as summer residents along the coast and in the Midwest. The Appalachian Mountains through Pennsylvania and the Catskill Mountains of New York where I am now are white indicating that they do not live here. Certainly, I never heard one when I stood barefoot by the window screen in the Greek Revival farmhouse.
The Peterson Field Guide to Warblers by Jon L. Dunn and Kimball Garrett was published in 1997. It says blue-winged warblers have “…accomplished a tremendous northward and northeastward range expansion. Historically this species was restricted to west of the Appalachians and did not occur much north of the Ohio River Valley. Expansion into the Delaware and lower Hudson river valleys took place by the late 1800s, and much of s. New England was colonized during the first part of the 20th century. Breeding was first established in Vermont in 1976 and in Maine in 1980.” The range map in Sibley Birds East by David Allen Sibley, published in 2017, shows the blue-winged warbler’s range has expanded over most of New York State.
For the past fifty-five years weed-grown brushlands have been increasing in abandoned farmlands of the western Catskills. Surely this is attractive to blue-winged warblers. But the ash tree past the trail intersection where I heard my first one is at an elevation of about 2,100 feet. The summit of Palmer Hill is 3,000 feet. The elevations of the Catskills once gave us a cooler climate than summer range regions of blue-winged warblers as shown on my old Peterson Field Guide map. Their range expansion echos our warming climate.
As I return along the path past the old barn foundation, I think about changes I have seen in our mountains. My grandfather’s barn is gone now too. I think about the morning bird songs I heard through the window screen in our farmhouse. There were no blue-winged warbler calls then. They both fascinate and worry me. They are invaders in these old fields that I have watched closely.
I walk back through the overgrown meadows where I can see Balsam Mountain, Hiram’s Knob, Dry Brook Ridge, Graham, Doubletop, and Balsam Lake Mountain stretch across the horizon. I wonder what birds blue-winged warblers might displace if their population increases here. There is so much competition in nature. When an invader moves in, something else moves out. My grandfather remembered when there were no starlings in the Catskills. They are not native here. They were brought to New York City from Europe in the late 1800s. Now in colder seasons they gather in astonishing murmurations and fly up from the fields in swirling clouds. They are fierce competitors for nest cavities. Bluebirds and even woodpeckers are no match for them. I wonder who moved out to make room for the blue-winged warblers?