Sigrid Sanders
Big Vine Bend
Page 2 of 2

A high percentage of Acadian nests, however, are believed to fail because of predation by other birds and snakes. In our own woods, large black rat snakes were common and could easily climb up into a small tree, out onto a branch, and help themselves to either eggs or young nestlings. This kind of thing is natural and to be expected. Unfortunately for Acadian flycatchers - as well as for many other species of wildlife - recent changes are placing them at considerably greater risk, and these woods where I sat, feeling so secluded and surrounded by the natural world on a quiet summer afternoon, were a perfect example of what's happening. It was a beautiful, healthy, wild young patch of southern woodland, but its nature depended on the fact that it was only one small part of a much larger expanse of recovering forest that had grown up over the past several decades as farm land was abandoned. That forest now was rapidly being cleared and replaced by suburban development. We could hear the noise of bulldozers, chain saws and carpenters' hammers coming closer every day.

One subdivision under construction backed directly up to our property line on the north, with houses and one-acre lots selling for $300,000 and up. Another development marked by large signs and a set of gray stone gates had begun marking off lots to the northwest, and a third area was being cleared by bulldozers a little further away, across several acres of woods to the southwest. Rezoning signs had begun to pop up on the two-lane county roads that intersected near our home, signs of more developments on the way. All around us, subdivisions were eating into the woods like moths into a sweater, clearing, scraping, replacing trees, shrubs and vines with roads, lawns, street lights and houses. Twenty acres here, fifty or a hundred acres there. The woods were disappearing - and along with the trees, whole communities of woodland wildlife were losing their homes. Some of the developers of new subdivisions around us made an effort to preserve corridors or trails or plots of protected natural land, a good thing and maybe helpful, but on the whole, the inevitable effect was that these woods, in a few years, would be fragmented into smaller and smaller pieces. If any remained at all, they would be islands, like pieces of a huge puzzle that's been broken apart and much of it lost. The woodland community cannot survive as scattered, unconnected remnants - no matter how scenic or pretty a small preserved spot or trail may appear.

Forest fragmentation - the scientific term for the problem - is considered a major threat to a number of woodland bird species, and the Acadian flycatcher is thought to be particularly susceptible because of its dependence on a secluded habitat deep in the woods. When a forest is greatly reduced in size or broken up into pieces, woodland species become more vulnerable to predators like blue jays, crows, raccoons and house cats that usually are found around the edges of the woods. Brown-headed Cowbirds, parasitic birds that lay their eggs in the nests of other species, also become more of a threat in smaller patches of woods. So for Acadian flycatchers living in the woodland area I called Big Vine Bend, the future looked uncertain, at best.

From downstream I heard splashing, and between the tangled banks of the creek I saw two birds dipping into the water for quick baths only a few feet away from each other, a tufted titmouse and a wood thrush, something of an odd couple. A tufted titmouse is a small, quick, gregarious gray bird with a tufted crest, bright black eyes, a flush of orange beneath its wings, and a saucy, cocky manner, always curious, usually chattering, and not uncommonly getting into trouble of one kind or another. Once some friends and I watched a pair of titmice stealing tufts of fur, probably for their nest, from the back of a fat raccoon that was trying to nap on the branch of a tree. A frequent companion of chickadees, a titmouse is a regular at back yard feeders, though also an inhabitant of the deep woods. A wood thrush, known for its lyrical song, is a larger, more retiring bird, more cautious and aloof in manner, reddish-brown with bold black spots on a white breast. Both birds, so unlike in personality and habits, took to the water together, only a few feet apart, fluttered and splashed with their wings, jumped out onto an overhanging branch, shook off, preened briefly and unceremoniously, and flew quickly away. They had no sooner left than a Louisiana waterthrush flew in front of me and landed on a stretch of sand beside the creek, and began to inspect the banks. A plump brown bird with a pale, brown-streaked breast, it walked along on bright pink legs bobbing its tail, and poking its head into holes and hidden spots.

A few minutes later, another bird came for a more leisurely bath, and this one perched and bathed so close to me I couldn't even use binoculars. At this close range, it looked so amazingly tiny that it took me longer than usual to identify a red-eyed vireo. Through binoculars, they look larger, and their markings more familiar - white stripe over the eye, greenish back, white breast, and yellow flush of color under the wings and tail - all are immediately familiar when I see them making their way through the leaves at the tops of the trees, where they look sleek, slender, and with a dark line through the eye, elegantly made up - like a movie star on a big screen. But here, with the vireo only a few feet away from me and at eye level or below, I got a completely different view, and a much better appreciation for just how small and vulnerable these little creatures are. It sat on a fallen branch over the creek and four times dipped into the water completely, each time coming back up to the perch and fluttering energetically to dry off. It preened carefully, and then each time except the last it returned for another dip. When it finally flew away after several minutes, I felt myself relax, and realized I'd barely been breathing, not wanting to frighten it away.

The sun had dropped low by the time I folded up my stool and headed back up the trail. Long ribbons of yellow light filtered through the trunks of the trees, flooding them and the cluttered floor of the woods, spilling over fallen branches and other debris, shining through ragged spider webs with a forgiving, end-of-day brilliance. Behind me, I could still hear the sharp WHEET-sit! of the Acadian flycatchers.

Coming up the hill and out of the deep shade of Big Vine Bend, where fairy-like birds had sung and bathed in the rippling water of a fern-lined creek, felt like awaking from a dream as I began to hear the sound of traffic, the rumble of a truck, the whine of a chain saw in the distance. But the afternoon had not been an illusion. The woodland world of the Acadian flycatcher, wood thrush and red-eyed vireo was just as real, complex, and immediate as what I would see and hear when I got back to the house and the television and the evening news. And while I may too easily and often focus on the more romantic aspects of what I see there, it's far from an idyllic place. As in all natural areas, the struggle for life in the woods is often brutal and not pretty. There's a pile of bony white droppings below the branch where a barred owl ate its prey; a paper wasp, entangled in a web, arching and whirring its wings as a spider scurries toward it; a dead vole lying in the dirt, encrusted with ants; a big, sleek black rat snake slithering up the trunk of a dogwood, heading toward the spindrift of an Acadian flycatcher's nest.

The greater, far more ominous threat to the woodland community, however, is not the everyday struggle for life, but the steady, relentless approach of suburban development. It is this threat that led me to want to try to describe what I've seen of these woods and their inhabitants, and to try to convey something of their spirit and diversity and value - not value for our sake, but for their own. The song of the Acadian flycatcher is one mark of the wildness, mystery and beauty that still flourish here, and a reminder that so much about the life and behavior and essence of this place - both this small woodland, and the greater community to which it belongs, the young and little appreciated recovering southern Piedmont forests - remain to be explored.

Prev 1 2 Next