Sigrid Sanders
Big Vine Bend

Deep in the woods behind our house in Oconee County, Georgia, on the bank of a sandy-bottomed creek, stood a tall tulip poplar tree with a large, dark, irregular-shaped hollow in the bottom part of its thick trunk. Spider webs hung in broken, debris-littered gobs from the mouth of the hollow, and from inside it grew an enormous poison ivy vine, furry and grizzled, thicker than my two arms put together, which climbed like Jack's beanstalk out of the murky hole, and wound up and up and up the wrinkled gray trunk of the tree and out of sight. Three-leafed branches grew out of the vine in such sinister profusion they obscured the leaves of the tree itself until a long way up in the canopy.

From this spot in the woods, nothing could be seen of the world outside, and even the sounds of planes, traffic and machines were infrequent and muffled, filtered out by the leaves of the trees and vines and shrubs - white oaks, red oaks and hickories, red maples, tulip poplars, sweet gums, dogwoods and buckeyes, greenbriar, fox grape, trumpet creeper, honeysuckle, and more. From where I sat, on a small, three-legged stool one quiet afternoon in early June, all I could see and hear and smell belonged to the woods, and I felt much further from civilization than I actually was. The leafy branch of a dogwood arched over my head. Ferns billowed on the bank of the creek, and on the other side, river cane clacked in the faintest breeze. Creek water rippled over sand and stones, and I heard the rustle of leaves that might be a lizard or a snake, the background whine and buzz and tick of insects, the far-off flute of a wood thrush. If it were still possible to believe in enchantment of a magical kind, it could happen in a place like this.

But I hadn't come here for magic or some kind of mystical experience. I came for the opposite reason - because I wanted to see beyond the abstract wall of green that's what we usually see of the ordinary, second-growth woods so common in this part of the South. Instead of seeing the trees as pleasant background scenery or as the setting for an afternoon walk on a trail, I wanted to wait in one place and watch the woodland community from inside, maybe catch a glimpse of the individual lives of the animals and plants that live there - and maybe learn something more about the relationship between this particular part of the natural world and our own. My main interest, on this day and many others like it, was in watching birds, but I also watched for other things, too.

Sitting there on my stool, though low to the ground and submerged in leaves, I'm sure I was far from inconspicuous, but after an initial period of several very quiet minutes activity gradually began to return. At the same time, I gradually began to see and hear more of what was there all along, as my senses adjusted and I let go of thoughts and worries about other things. The refrain of a red-eyed vireo moved through the treetops, endlessly repeated, like a tune you can't get out of your head. Here am I, where are you? Over here, up in the tree. A summer tanager called pik-a-tuk, pik-a-tuk. A downy woodpecker's whinny fell like a small, silvery waterfall. It was early in the season and the summer chorus of cicadas had not yet begun, but there were gnats, wasps, flies, bees, beetles, ants and swarms of anonymous tiny insects. There was the scratchy whisper of lizards' feet on the trunks of trees, the chirping call of a green tree frog, the smell of damp earth, crumbling wood and decay, and the dry, exotic cawp-cawp-cawp-cawp of a yellow-billed cuckoo.

A quick, emphatic WHEET-sit! came from fairly low and not too far away among the foliage around me. It was sharp and insistent, a small exclamation point of sound, repeated and moving from place to place among the trees. WHEET-sit! In the southern woods in summer, where the heavy foliage can make it frustrating - to put it mildly - to track down and get a good look at a small bird moving around among all the shifting leaves, birding by ear can be especially helpful. Whenever I can actually see a bird and get a look with binoculars, it's almost like a bonus. But even when the birds remain invisible, their songs and calls alone make the woods come alive - varied, colorful, some high and thin, some buzzy, some musical, some chirpy or harsh or whining or insect-like. Add the rapping and drumming of woodpeckers, the whirr and whistle of wings, the sizzling pish-pish of alarm calls, and the sounds of the woods communicate a great deal about what's going on behind the enigmatic mask of green.

In this case, though, it didn't take long at all to find the singer. A small, olive-gray bird soon appeared on a low hickory branch, framed by green leaves - an Acadian flycatcher. Although it lives deep in the woods and is often described as secretive, this one seemed almost to be calling attention to itself, flying low from branch to branch around me, so it was easy to spot, and I watched it for several minutes. Its greenish-gray head rose to a slight peak on the crown, and a thin white ring around each eye gave it a watchful and alert appearance. Its back was gray with a hint of green, reflecting the surroundings, its wings a darker, velvet gray, with two distinct buff bars across each. A flush of yellow spread over its belly and under the tail. The beak, held at a slightly upturned angle, looked sharp and sturdy.

The small bird sat erect, head high, and moved with a dancer's confident posture and quick, easy grace. It tilted and turned its head constantly, looking around, and flew from one branch to another frequently. Another Acadian flycatcher called in the distance, and this one answered. It tilted its head back, opened its beak slightly, and its gray-white throat quivered as it whistled a sharp WHEET-sit. The two called back and forth several times. In between calls, the flycatcher I was watching stayed put for a while on one branch, scratched the side of its head with one foot, preened its breast feathers by combing its beak through them several times, looked around and seemed to listen.

A dry, sharp little whistle that might easily be overlooked, the song of an Acadian flycatcher is one of the most characteristic sounds of the southern woods in summer. I was used to hearing it whenever I stepped outside - to hang clothes, to work in the garden or go for a walk, or to sit on the deck after lunch. But hearing it at such close range, from inside the woods and only a few feet away, it took on a different, more nuanced quality, and became more individual. It wasn't just a generic Acadian flycatcher's "song" - this little bird was clearly expressing something. Maybe something very simple and obvious - "Here I am," or "This patch is mine." Or maybe something less programmed, like "What a beautiful day!" or "How're you doing over there?" or "Do you know this crazy-looking lady sitting over here?" Who knows?

Acadian flycatchers are relatively common - their breeding range extends over much of the eastern half of the U.S. and into a small part of Canada - but they're seldom noticed, not because they're hard to see or hear, but because they stay deep in the woods and because both their coloring and song are inconspicuous. So usually one will only be seen by someone who takes the time and effort to look for it - though only a small amount of time and effort are needed really. In contrast to its reputation for being secretive, this small gray bird has a colorful personality, and I've found that, far from being shy, it often seems to come check me out whenever I enter the woods in summer, as if it's as curious about me as I am about it.

Even though they're fairly widespread, Acadian flycatchers are considered a species of some concern because they're particularly vulnerable to changes in habitat. They like a particular kind of environment and don't do well when it's altered. An Acadian flycatcher prefers a secluded spot deep in the woods in a large tract of contiguous forest dominated by hardwoods, with plenty of smaller trees, shrubs and vines, and an abundance of insects. It's almost always found near a creek or stream, and often near wooded ravines. So this spot in our woods - a place I called Big Vine Bend in my field journals - might have been almost ideal for it.

Like other flycatchers, an Acadian feeds mainly on insects captured in flight. When hunting, it sits on a branch no more than about 20 feet above the ground - usually the branch of a small tree well below the canopy of the forest, like a dogwood or a young oak or beech tree - and watches for prey, flying off frequently to snap something up. Its diet includes flies, small moths, mosquitoes, flying ants and small beetles, and occasionally berries. It also very often hovers to glean insects, especially caterpillars, from leaves. The one I was watching became more active after a few minutes of perching, preening and singing, and began flitting from branches to vines and back again, fluttering its wings and hovering, snatching up caterpillars from the undersides of leaves. The species account in The Birds of North America describes an Acadian flycatcher as an extremely maneuverable, skillful flyer that hovers often - when hunting, as a part of territorial displays and at the nest when arriving to feed young birds - and can even fly backwards.[1]

Although the name "Acadian" may call up images of the far north, it's misleading, as the account in A.C. Bent's classic Life Histories of North American Birds, explains. "The name was applied initially to a bird taken in Acadia, that is to say in Nova Scotia. The bird, so taken, was held to be the type specimen, until, in the light of fuller knowledge, the truth appeared that this species never reaches Nova Scotia, and that the bird first called acadicus must have been one of the other species. The technical name acadicus was thereupon changed to virescens; but, in English, Acadian flycatcher had become too well established and has not been supplanted."[2]

Acadian flycatchers spend winters in Central or South America, usually arriving here in northeast Georgia sometime in April. Although they may not leave until late September or even early October, they seem to become less vocal toward the end of summer. During May, June and July, I could hear them call almost all day every day from the woods around our house. I was never sure exactly when they left, but at some point in late summer I would begin to notice that the small WHEET-sit! was missing. Its absence marked a subtle but significant change in the sound of the woods, like a dry martini without a twist.

I sat for a long time there in the woods. The Acadian flycatcher came and went, but I could always hear its calls and the answering calls of another, not far away. Every now and then it came back and sat for a few minutes on a low branch near me, as if to see if I was still there. Around me, insects swam in shafts of sunlight. Leaves of many different shapes and shades of green mingled and shifted here and there. Nothing, not even a single leaf, was absolutely still, though the air was mostly calm. A red-spotted purple butterfly fluttered around my ankles, and meandered away through the low-growing plants that littered the forest floor. A slender, shiny black wasp inspected the plants around my feet, riding the air with a delicate, pulsating, stylish skill. A few red ants crawled by. The rich, musical quurrrr of a red-bellied woodpecker came from somewhere in the leaves above me. An exquisite black-winged damselfly with a slender turquoise body sat on a fern like a jewel. The shallow creek water, clear and brown, stirred with tiny bugs that dotted its surface with circles, as if from rain. Every now and then, a frog plopped into the water somewhere downstream.

I heard the whreep of a great crested flycatcher - a larger and flashier relative of the Acadian, with a handsome gray head, bright yellow breast and long rufous tail - and the emphatic peenk! of a hairy woodpecker. The damp, tender ends of vines curled out into the air, like the tips of thread-like fingers, seeking something to hold. They swayed in the breath of a breeze I could not feel. Many leaves already were mottled or chewed. A brown moth fluttered on the ground, its head in the jaws of a yellowjacket. Tiny bugs hung in a spider's web. A shiny, dark brown millipede with red-orange legs and scales like armor crawled in and out of the leaf litter. A small lichen-gray spider with orange markings sidled along my arm, until I flicked it off. At least it hadn't settled in my hair. A green anole at the base of a small tulip poplar tree paused, lifted its head and pumped up and down, inflating the pink sac in its neck.

The Acadian flycatchers continued to call, and I wondered if they were a pair, the closer one a male, the female further away, maybe near their nest. The female apparently does most of the work of finding a nest site and constructing a nest, beginning soon after returning in the spring. The male stays near the nest, singing and calling frequently. I've never found an Acadian flycatcher's nest, but the accounts I've read describe it as looking like a whimsical tangle of materials suspended from a fork near the end of a branch in a small tree, like a dogwood. Woven with the silk of spider and caterpillar webs, the nest is shaped like a shallow saucer, but is often so thin that the eggs can be seen through it from below, with loose, hanging strands of thin, fine materials like the tendrils of grape vines, grasses, rootlets, and shreds of bark, mixed with catkins from trees like oaks and hickories.

Although the nest may appear barely capable of holding eggs, Bent refers in his account to "the well-known habit of this species of making the nest appear like an accidental bunch of drift," presumably to protect it. "The appearance from without is lacking in symmetry . . . it is altogether casual; and the nest on that account must commonly be overlooked by marauders." He goes on to note, "The effect is that the structure, of flimsiest appearance, is in fact adequate to outlast its usefulness."[3]

[1] Whitehead, Donald R. and Terry Taylor. 2002. Acadian Flycatcher (Empidonax virescens), The Birds of North America Online (A. Poole, Ed.) Ithaca: Cornell Lab of Ornithology.
[2] Life Histories of North American Birds, edited by A.C. Bent. "Acadian Flycatcher (Empidonax virescens)." Bulletin 179, United States National Museum, page 185.
[3] Life Histories of North American Birds, Bent, "Acadian Flycatcher," pages 186-187.

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