It’s early, and T is sleeping in for the first time in months. After coffee, I leave by the screen door, wade fifty steps through soft sand to the Bay and turn left.
There is only one house on the island. There is no one else here.
The island is two miles long, most of that north of the house. But it is very, very narrow. For most of its length, so narrow you can stand in the marsh and throw a stone across to hit the Bay. More than a sandbar, but to call it a barrier island perhaps exaggerates. There are trees, many of them quite old, but dunes throughout are flattened by overwash from Bay to marsh. It’s clear that water often flows through the trees. No barrier; more like a split rail fence.
The place is raw and wild. Animal tracks everywhere – birds of all kinds, but also otter, fox, raccoon and muskrat. And terrapins. With no one to disturb them, the tracks persist between rains. We find many skeletons. Like the undisturbed tracks, bones remain in place, composed where each creature took a last step.
There’s a male Mockingbird (Mimus polyglottos) who sings outside our bedroom window every Spring. Despite the fact it makes them eminently easier targets for predators, like owls, they like to perch in the highest tree tops, and our house is at the top of the hill.
In Spring, on quiet nights when there’s a full moon, he sings all night long. So loud he wakes me from sleep, even with the windows closed. At 3 a.m., unable to go back to sleep, I gave up. Went outside with a microphone and a camera. The trees are budding out, and it’s a warm night with a soft breeze.
By odd coincidence I was just reading about mockingbirds, in a book by a local author. Our daughters played soccer together. She often writes for National Geographic and Smithsonian, and sometimes we shared conversations on the sidelines during practice about the topics she was researching. The book is called The Genius of Birds, by Jennifer Ackerman.
It’s full of fascinating info. I just finished a section on Mockingbirds. Apparently, Thomas Jefferson (whose house I pass several times a day) kept one as a pet in the White House when he was President. His name was Dick. Dick not only mimicked the calls of many birds from the nearby woods, but also did a fair rendition of some popular American, Scottish, and French melodies, things you’d hear in a local tavern. Jefferson was so fond of the bird it was allowed to follow him throughout the house during the day.
Mockingbirds will acquire hundreds of phrases in a complex library of sounds they can imitate with great precision, switching between them at the rate of 17 or 18 a minute with such accuracy that in sonograms they are almost indiscernible from the originals. And not just the sounds of other birds – car alarms, cats, people, sirens, whatever strikes their fancy. All using a brain about the size of a pea.
No wonder I can’t sleep.
This one is on a roll again, just like previous years. Though I’m only outside listening for a few minutes, I pick out a couple of hawks, Osprey, Cardinals, Robins, Sparrows, etc..
They sing to impress the ladies, of course, and will risk their lives to do so; but they don’t just sing during mating season. The rest of the year they sing just because it makes them feel good. Brain scans show singing gives them pleasure and comfort, so they often do it whether anyone else is listening or not. Just for themselves.