Porches and bird’s nests

Thu, 10/01/2020 - 5:15pm

Ed. Note: Our columnist Martha Ball broke her arm this week. She’s fine — it was set at South County Hospital. But she is out of commission for a while, so we grabbed a column that describes an August in 2014. Another note: this week’s photo was taken by Chris Blane.

While I have never been a serious birder — no, not all islanders, even those of an age to have had Miss Dickens and Merrill Slate (try to) teach us about our feathered friends, are — they have always been a part of my summer. 

They built nests under the porch roof before the porch went the way of so many things men of my father’s generation encountered.

There is a house off High Street, an oddly minimalist place that seems to be unusually tall for a single story dwelling of the late 19th century; it once had a second floor, with a grand sweeping center gable. It was the Legion Hall and the men decided the second floor required too much maintenance, which may well have been true, it was the 50s and Block Island was poor, but, they also seemed to have a fondness for such projects.

The current Legion Post is in a far better location, in a lovely park under the hill of the old cemetery, and it is a smaller building, more easily managed. A second floor today would quickly become marketable housing; back then there were houses scattered about the island that sat vacant until they collapsed. It is a reality almost impossible to explain to people totally unfamiliar with it.

My dad and his buddies likely had no idea how quickly the ready supply of good, aged wood would wane. My dad died in 1970, part of one of those clusters of death that seem to hit small towns where each loss is noticed. One of his good friends went several years after the others; I will never forget running into him at Nick’s, when it was where the Beachead is now. He was, as they say, in his cups, and seeing me made him sad and sweet in his remembrances of his lost friends.

Development on a scale they had never imagined had just begun and he recalled a residence built for a man who had lived through Hurricane Carol in an old farmhouse. His new place was a fortress; locals joked that he would be “some lonely” when the rest of the island blew away and he was by himself in his wooden castle.

“Sweetie, your father and I could have taken apart so-and-so’s house and built 12 of those things going up today.” Not 12, but maybe six of the ones he was referencing that night.

I do wander from my topic, porches and birds’ nests...

The porch at home had shrunken to a fraction of its former self by the time I was born. My grandfather, old and frail, had broken his arm when the wind caught the door and my parents, from whom I inherited what I am told is a tendency toward over-reaction, decided that door had to go and the section of porch it accessed as well. Never mind that the original door to the porch was, by then, a window.

So, when I was little, the porch was still there, albeit inaccessible from the house, and swallows every year built nests under the roof. When the porch was removed the birds moved first to the barn, then the big shed as long as there was some hay in it (they were barn swallows, after all) then they sort of vanished.

In their stead came sparrows, or warblers, or wrens, perhaps, some little brown birds, who built nests in the front entry, with its chronically open door. Some years I notice in time, others I forget until a tiny egg lands on the cement.

Then there are the birds that just fly into the house and head for the widest and brightest windows in the kitchen where they knock against the glass and — these days — excite the year-old dog. Often I do not even notice the visitors until the commotion caused by the retriever.

With Autumn at hand it is not so easy to chase them out, they will not readily fly to an open window that is within reach of the golden tormentor, and getting back to the front door seems against their instincts. So, I have to catch them, usually not so difficult a task, easily accomplished with a plastic container and something hard and flat to slide between it and the glass.

And then there is the little bird, small and brown, that has been flitting in and out of my living room. I am not home that much in the summer, and rarely sit in the living room but even given those factors I began to notice the frequency of its trips, and the sense of mission about them.

There is an old bookcase in the corner, tall and dark, a bit out of my range of vision when I come in the door. Years ago I put on the highest shelf an assortment of old dishes, a pair of cut glass goblets, a smattering of Block Island souvenir dishes. In the semi-darkness behind them I found the makings of a nest, the hard work of that determined little bird.

It is early August, and there are no signs of downy feathers, this nest was never used, and I have to remove it, wondering if the little bird will be discouraged and or will just start again.

Yes, I leave my door wide open and, no, my Autumn, is not much of a guard dog, but even if there was anything worth taking in my house I have a neighbor with some strange sixth sense about the area. Cousins reported that “a guy in a truck...” roared up to ask who they were, a friend looking for blackberries likened the approach to that of a “bat out of hell.”

Surely, some people are wondering why on earth I don’t just close my door; next thing I’ll have deer in the house. I can only say summer will end soon enough, why hurry sundown?