One Photograph- Last Stand

Last Stand
Story and Photo by William Burt

Yellow-breasted Chat at Nest Richmond, Kentucky, June 1998 © William Burt.

The bus for Boston revved and pulled away, and I was off at last, for March Vacation. It had been a long, drear winter at that hateful school in Maine, but I’d be free of it for three full weeks and spending one of them with Grand Dad in Old Lyme. Soon I’d be searching for new birds along the river, and I couldn’t wait.

I sat alone beside a window, scanning the snowed-over northland for a Northern Shrike; but I saw none. The bus droned on. I leaned back in my seat to drowse and caught sight of a boy’s face peering back across the aisle at me from some rows up—it was Nicklaus, the quiet fellow who’d played fullback with me on the soccer team: he looked inquisitive. I smiled back, and he stood up halfway, checked up and down the aisle for any deprecating eyes, then sidled back and over to the seat beside me. “Hey, okay if I sit a minute?”

“Sure,” I said, though I could not imagine what he had in mind.

“Hey. I thought you might like to know about this bird I saw, in Rockport. Rockport, Mass: it’s up on the North Shore, near Gloucester. Anyhow, I heard that you liked birds, and I thought maybe you’d like to hear about it.”

I looked around: was he for real, or would this be some kind of setup for a schoolboy ruse? Nick had always struck me as an earnest, forthright sort of lad, not one to make unnecessary noise, so I could not imagine that he’d have me on. But did he know the least thing about birds—real species, as presented in a Peterson Guide? No doubt he’d tell me of the “chicken hawk” he’d seen, or the “blue heron,” or “horned owl”: one of the usual generic things. But he was a good fellow, and I’d be one too.

“Sure,” I said again. “What did you see?”

“Well, I heard this loud bird singing in a thicket, but I couldn’t see it. I waited, and I looked for it, and it kept singing, but I couldn’t see it. Then I saw this bird fly up, and it was yellow underneath, and when it flew it sang; and its legs hung down, so it looked sort of like a clown. It was a Yellow-breasted Chat.”

I could not have been more stunned if he had pulled a live one from his pocket. He’d recalled the moment slowly, honestly, with unimpeachable precision; and he had conveyed exactly how it would have happened, had a person seen the kooky song-flight of the chat. I hadn’t, but I knew at once: so right-on was his story that no sooner had I caught the two words “loud” and “thicket” than a living-color Yellow-breasted Chat had popped up into view.

Of course, Nick couldn’t know how I had longed to see that sneak-bird of the thickets, or how doggedly I’d tried down in Connecticut, where a right-minded chat should be. Nor could he know how stunned I was to hear that he had found one singing up in northern Massachusetts, where it shouldn’t be; but then my eyes must have looked half again their normal size.

“You saw a Yellow-breasted Chat, and it was singing—up in Massachusetts?”

“Yeah,” he said with an amused, almost suspicious smile, as if he didn’t know quite what to make of this excitement he’d stirred up.

“I’ve never seen one, even in Connecticut!” I said. “It’s supposed to nest down there, but I’ve looked everywhere…”

I tried to tell him how unusual it was that he should see and hear a chat on territory so far north, and he was pleased; but what I didn’t tell him was how vastly more unusual it was that I’d find someone else here at this moonscape of a school who even knew there were such things as Yellow-breasted Chats. In my two years up there I hadn’t met a soul whom I believed had ever paused to wonder at a bird—any bird—and been so moved as to find out its name. Not one: I would have bet on it.

For the moment we were at an impasse—neither of us spoke—but then it dawned on me that it was my turn now to tell him of some bird that I had found: the curlew in Old Lyme last summer; or the Horned Larks on the football field last year, right there at school? I was still musing when the air brakes hissed and the bus lurched, the driver called out “Portsmouth Circle,” and we pulled in to stop. Nick jumped up and yanked his bag down from the rack, let go a quick goodbye and pitched his way down to the open door, turned back with a departing smile, then stepped down and away.

The bus droned on, and I resumed my vigil at the window as the winter trees and wires and highways signs passed by without a shrike.

As a Massachusetts youngster, I had longed to see a chat in the worst way. Although a few pairs had still nested in the state, the species’ range was fast retreating southward, and for me the big day didn’t come until I’d reached my early twenties and was living in Connecticut.

It was early June, late in the day. I’d hiked my way down south along the river through a mixed Elysium of pasture, marsh, and lacerating greenbriar, and as I tore my way along a shrinking trail, I heard a series of disjointed calls suggestive of a catbird’s or a thrasher’s, but not quite like either; and it dawned on me. Then momentarily a bird appeared, ascending with wings rowing stiffly as it sang, and landing in the crown of a Red Maple. It was my chat, and this had been the very courtship flight that Nick had seen and I had read about. This being June, I knew it must be nesting somewhere thereabouts; and I knew of no more titillating challenge than to try to find that nest.

A few days later I was back, late in the afternoon just after work, and this time I was girded with thick leather gloves and heavy clothing, hat, and safety goggles. I knew how difficult it would be. I knew chat nests to be notoriously well hidden, and situated always in the very deepest, darkest, and most diabolical of thorny thickets; for such was their reputation. I knew that Audubon had never found a single one, for all his fabled travels; and that the noted ornithologist Arthur T. Wayne of South Carolina, who had spent some 40 years out in the field, and found no less than 36 nests of that rarest of all birds, the Bachman’s Warbler—I knew that he had found just two nests of the Yellow-breasted Chat, 27 years apart, remarking once that its habitat “absolutely precluded exploration.” I knew these things, but there was no stopping me.

So off I went, headfirst into that thorny tangle of green wire and leaves like vinyl. I crawled, nudged, pried, and tore my way through beneath, first along the scanty outskirts and then through the awful thick of it, working back and forth methodically as best I could and scanning, scrutinizing every suspect mass and probing every recess, foot by cubic foot; but I found no nest of any kind. I should have known. Discouraged and defeated, I crawled back out and met the trail a few yards from my starting point, stood up, and took my goggles off, and there beside the trail and plain to see was the newly completed nest, still empty and awaiting eggs. It was set serenely in the fork of a small sapling in the tamest, most accessible of surroundings.

One week later, it held three eggs.

Since that risible occasion—and my goodness, that was nearly 50 years ago—I’ve heard chats calling countless times by day and night alike, across the South and Central States and well into West as well. In the Deep South, the bird can be ubiquitous in places. In the Atchafalaya Swamp of southern Louisiana, for instance, it’s a roadside commonplace not unlike the yellowthroat in New England; and in North Carolina’s Croatan National Forest, where it is a staple of those shrub-and-thicket bogs known as pocosins (pronounce pah-co-sin).

Wherever it may live and sing, the chat is the resident wiseacre. There’s always something recognizably sardonic about its calls, which separates them from the relatively civil squawks and squeaks of catbirds and Brown Thrashers, even at a distance. There’s an abrasiveness, a rhetorical edge to them: “The catbird is mild and feminine compared with this rollicking polyglot,” wrote the admiring naturalist John Burroughs.

Yet there’s something humorous about them, too. Inevitably it strikes a person so, in part due to the studied silence between phrases—the comedian’s pregnant pause, the setup for the goofy come-what-may: an absurd nasal ank perhaps, or kook—and in part because the phrases are so playfully inventive, and so conversational. Here! Hey! he demands, then waits, and follows with a timid Who?; then after yet another, longer pause comes the retort: a demonic rasping Ha-ha-ha-ha-ha! Inquisitor, straight man, heckler, jester, orator…the repertoire of roles is nearly endless.

And as if his vocal theatrics were not enough, the chat puts on a visual show as well: in flight. In spring, and especially early spring when newly arrived on his nesting grounds, he launches forth from a low perch, sweeps upward 10 or 20 feet and then assumes the most ridiculous contortion: with his back bowed and head and tail bent upward, he flaps rigidly along like some kind of mechanical contraption, and he sings, with the legs hanging loose: he doesn’t bother to retract the landing gear. It’s a bizarre performance. The bird looks all but disabled, as if his back were broken, and it was all he could do to keep aloft. It is his common pastime, though; it’s the chat thing to do.

And it’s what young Nick had recollected to me on the bus that morning: a bird singing as it flew, with its legs dangling, and looking “sort of like a clown.”

Not until the spring of 1997, nearly 25 years since, did curiosity return me to the spot where I’d encountered that first yacking chat, and crawled about with gloves and goggles in a ludicrous attempt to find its nest. I’d been hearing some grim things about chat populations in New England, and they’d got me thinking: were my birds in Lyme still there?

According to Wayne Petersen of Massachusetts Audubon, there had been no evidence of even possible breeding in that state since 1984; and ornithologist Robert Askins of Connecticut College, who had been watchful of the species here in Connecticut, had known of no birds breeding in the state since 1991. To Petersen, who believed there still to be sufficient habitat, the disappearance of the chat was an enigma much like that posed by another onetime nesting species of New England, the Loggerhead Shrike. The two birds had both slipped away at roughly the same time, for reasons equally unclear.

So the question had seemed rather urgent now, in 1997: could the chats be nesting up there still, after a quarter century?

I picked a sunny cool June day and walked the length of the Lyme meadows, and within one half-mile stretch of greenbriar, bayberry, and wild grape I heard not one, not two or three, but four chats calling from discrete and well-spaced territories. One male bird was good enough to reenact his song-flight for me, several times.

For the next several weeks I was away, but on returning in July I hiked out once again to find the thickets so dead-still and silent that had I not heard them earlier, I never would have guessed that chats still lurked within. But then as I approached the last of them, I heard the faint Morse Code-like tut-tut-tut notes that betray an adult chat with food for its young. I stepped in closer and was promptly chided by the chat alarm call, so I knew I must be close; and when I peered into the shadows there was the recipient, deep in a mass of bittersweet and blackberry: a single bob-tailed fledgling, with dull yellow feathering beneath.

So here they were, all those years later, and still singing: not one Yellow-breasted Chat this time, but four. Four males, and up to four pairs nesting; maybe more. Had those Lyme thickets been the species’ last known breeding grounds in all New England? Back in 1997, yes; it would seem so.

And now, after another quarter century? This coming spring, in 2022: will they be nesting then?

William Burt is a naturalist, photographer, and writer with a passion for wild places—especially marshes—and the elusive birds few people see. His photographs and stories are seen in Smithsonian, Audubon, National Wildlife, and other magazines, and he is the author of four books: Shadowbirds (1994); Rare & Elusive Birds of North America (2001); Marshes: The Disappearing Edens (2007); and Water Babies (2015). He lectures often, and his traveling exhibitions have shown at some 35 museums across the US and Canada—including the Carnegie Museum of Natural History, the New Brunswick Museum, the Calgary Science Center, the Liberty Science Center, the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, and the Harvard Museum of Natural History.

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