I STEPPED outside this summer morning at 5:05. The sun had not yet risen, or burned through the haze. All along the horizon a hot milky mist hovered and clung. Every tree stood motionless. Every leaf hung limp. And down where the brook is, unseen through dense foliage, the fog was suspended in midroll, waiting for a breeze to move it along, lift, and dissolve it.It was the birds that finally got me up. I'd been promising myself I would listen to them one of these fine summer mornings while they were still in full-throated song. The time was already growing short. After Independence Day the season slips downhill. So this morning I lay there listening awhile, and the birds would not be denied. There was no real need for the blanket I brought along. Dew was on the grass, but my chair was dry. Still I wrapped it around me, feeling the fog in my face, and lay back to absorb. The robins, of course, were the most strident. They chanted like pagan priests, jubilantly and with unquestionable challenge. Warbler notes were pronounced in the rest-stops, and the doves' mournful elegies would not be denied. But they were all drowned out when the robins got their second wind. Then, devotions concluded (if such they could be termed), they fell silent and went to breakfast. I guess. The catbirds came around at that point, singing like mockingbirds, imitating robins, orioles, finches - bursting in such sudden, astonishing ecstasy that I must look about for some other songsters with stronger vocal chords. Such as the chocolate thrasher who lives down in our woods, or the rosebreast who could probably outshout them all. But it was only catbird melody, and catbird mews that reinforced their fence-patrolling. Shortly a pair of them dipped down to the feeder to reassure me. I had scattered a handful of black sunflower seeds there for the cardinals, who were now bringing the family in to be admired - and incidentally introduced to the all-season trough. The cardinals' offspring were every bit as big as they were. (Why wouldn't they be, with nothing to do but flutter baby wings and be beak-stuffed with food?) The father was apparently trying to ween them. He moved off from the tray and left them to experiment on their own. They pecked around, getting the feel of beak on hard surface, scrounging seeds, and attempting to split them. Almost as if he were awarding an for "Effort," he'd come back and assist - reinforcing the family bond a while longer. But s ummer is short, he must have sensed, and by winter they must learn to be independent. OWN in the swale, redwings called, and one flew briefly into the tree above our feeding station to check out the fare. His scarlet shoulders were extraordinarily vivid, and he just had to be in his prime. Bluejays, too, made bright splashes of color as they bounced down, intimidating the young cardinals with sheer bulk. But their father was not impressed. He returned, perching with exaggerated politeness on the feeder's edge, waiting out the gluttonous intruders. They stuffed their beaks and then jeered raucously as they took off. (I thought: Yes, well, you are beautiful. And brazen - doing only what comes naturally.) HE juvenile crows were practicing their ventriloquist notes over the river and farther away. They cawed constantly, hoarsely, but with less assurance than their elders. Come winter and they would also be around the food tray, at the hour appointed for us to spread scraps exclusively for them. Now the morning was lightening. Sun still not cutting through the mist, no breeze yet. But it was dissipating. I welcomed it on my face. And the birds were mostly mute now, busy about domestic duties. I had been sitting out there a whole hour - simply absorbing the day's beginning. At six I went indoors to start breakfast. But even as I opened the door something told me to look toward the stand of flaming bee balm in the flower border. And there was the tiniest, most perfect bird of them all - spearing in and out with his needlelike beak, arrowing from one head to another, his green back scintillating and his gorget aflame. It was the ruby-throated hummingbird, getting first dibs at the fresh summer morning nectar. I'd probably be frozen there yet in my slippered tracks if he hadn't erratically zoomed off, freeing me to ge t on about my own domestic chores ... .