Yesterday morning, I was out on the porch with my coffee at first light. The fourth-quarter moon was sliding through the branches of a tulip poplar at the edge of the woods. From up in the field on the north side of the house I heard the high nasal peenting of a woodcock, while from the woods in the other direction came the low, accelerating heartbeat sound of a ruffed grouse clapping his cupped wings against the dregs of the night. Water trickled in the ditch. A song sparrow belted out one verse and went back to sleep.
This morning I didn’t get out till 7:00. Noise from the limestone quarry two miles away mingled with traffic through the gap: the wind was out of the east. Over this din, I heard a singer I haven’t heard in seven or eight months, and it took a few moments to register the brassy improvisations of my favorite avian mimic, the brown thrasher. Other than the fact that it’s too early for a catbird, it’s his signature call-and-response pattern that gives him away: every phrase is repeated once, sometimes twice, before he moves on to another, unique phrase. If you want a full blues verse, you have to supply the third line yourself.
The thrasher was far from the only singer this morning, of course. Cardinals, titmice, a field sparrow, red-bellied and downy woodpeckers, robins, a nuthatch, a pileated woodpecker, a winter wren, song sparrows, chickadees — it was a well-attended chorus. But one song has gone missing ever since the last time the temperature got down to zero in February, and it occurs to me that this could very well be the reason why the early morning, always my favorite time of the day, hasn’t been buoying my spirits quite the way it used to: I miss the Carolina wrens. They’ve been year-round residents for years, ever since — well, ever since the last really cold winter killed them off, whenever that was. Close to ten years ago, I think. Since they almost always sing at first light, regardless of the weather, they’re like irrepressibly cheerful alarm clocks, if you can imagine such a thing. A Carolina wren song is a summons to a morning you want to be awake and present for.
Later in the morning, my brother Steve came up with his two year-old daughter Elanor, who is easily as irrepresible a spirit as any Carolina wren, and we went for a good long ramble in the woods. I let her chart the course, for the most part, tagging along behind. Come to think of it, my coat pocket is still full of the acorns, acorn caps and small stones she handed me, lacking pockets of her own. (Can you imagine such a thing — a child’s coat without any pockets?) I could see little rhyme or reason to the things she picked up versus the things she passed over. Just that inborn hunting-gathering instinct, I said to myself as I bent down to photograph an odd arrangement of sticks.