Month: June 2016

The Bobolinks

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Saw Mill River Audubon goes to Dutchess County © S.G. Hansen

Recently, I went birding in Dutchess County for the first time. There were a total of eight of us from Saw Mill River Audubon, plus our guide – a member of the Ralph T. Waterman Bird Club – and his wife, who lived in Dutchess.

Very late in the morning, John took us to a friend’s property. We passed through the farmland, by corn still stubby, hay bales being rolled, horses out of their stalls. We eventually went on a curvy dirt road leading uphill. Halfway to the house, which sat in front a woods, we parked by the side of the driveway, just before the mailbox.

Our chilly start in a forest had transitioned to a hot mid-day. No clouds allowed the sun to shine to its fullest. The warm air was cooled by breezes. Before us were rolling hills and grasslands, peppered with houses boasting mowed large lawns.

We awed at being able to live in an area with such a vista. We stood to the boundary of the lawn and the meadow. A couple dozen Tree Swallows flycatched above. A Field Sparrow, too far away to locate, faintly buzzed its inclined phrase. Some forty feet in front of us a few Bobolinks sung. They sounded bubbly and gurgling, twinkled with mechanical notes.

When I was a beginner birdwatcher, one of my study methods included flipping through my Peterson’s and Sibley’s multiple times, mostly all at once in one sitting, sometimes by section. I couldn’t believe that some of these birds actually existed. Chestnut-sided Warbler, Black-necked Stilt, Barred Owl, Painted Bunting, Long-billed Curlew. I tinted them with a mythical trait. I simply had to see them firsthand. They were there – in the field guides, in the web cams, in the photographs uploaded with eBird lists. Until then, they would remain abstractly theoretical.

So it was with the Bobolink.

Bobolinks are blackbirds, related to Red-winged Blackbirds, orioles, and grackles. They spend the summers in Southern Canada and northern half of central/eastern United States, and winter in South America. Bobolinks breed in open grassy areas: grasslands, fields, meadows, hay fields – anywhere with low vegetation. They are Least Concern. But as it goes with grassland animals, they are quickly losing habitat. They eat insects, spiders, and seeds. Also rice. Southerners once called them “ricebirds” because of the amount of rice they gobbled from the rice fields as they rested from migrating.

Bobolinks are sexually dimorphic. The male is black with white shoulders (scapulars – a part of the back of the wing – to be technical), back, and rump. The back of the head is a soft, milky yellow. Females have brown and buffy plumage with streaked wings. Not as striking, but still pleasantly pretty, like any other New World Sparrow. The male’s winter plumage is similar to that of the female.

It was the male Bobolinks, of course, I desired to see. I didn’t in my first year. Where to for birdwatching around Westchester, I still had to learn. In my second, I got a brief glimpse of one on the landfill of Croton Point Park, clinging to a stalk. I was walking with a non-birdwatcher at the time, so I couldn’t linger to wait for more. Here at this point in Dutchess was my first satisfying look.

In early summer, Bobolinks usually shoot for more broods. The females stayed close to the ground, perched or hidden. The males flew around, singing and displaying their plumage. The white and yellow flashed as they soared around. One male discovered a female also in flight and immediately went after her. As immediate as the courtship started, it ended. The female flew back down to the meadow, and so did the male but at another spot.

Our attention was fully on the bobolinks. We were a group of birders ranging from beginner to more than forty years of experience, and every one of us watched in awe. One’s view of a bobolink couldn’t get any better. Their flight was as magnificent and graceful as any raptor’s.

When the bobolinks coasted down to land, they disappeared among the hip-high grasses and flowers. I heard could still hear them cheerfully singing. I waited for them to come back up. I slowly scanned the land, binoculars poised. They were quick to reappear like flushed gamebirds, and they didn’t always do so from the same spot on which they landed.

After each moment of lull the males would burst from the low and continue their display. Two began to males chase each other, flying ever so faster, sharply turning. They became wisps of black and white. Seconds later they separated, the point now across.

The swallows had moved to the air above the meadow. Soon after, the bobolinks stopped displaying to rest. We moved on to our next birding site.

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The Unexpected Visit

One early mid-spring evening this year, my father and I stood on the backyard deck, chatting as he prepared dinner on the BBQ. In the background, I heard only a few birds at this hour. Robins whinnied. Grackles croaked and squeaked. Goldfinches flew above: “per-chick-o-ree.” The wren warbled to claim the wren box – second day in a row. I told my father I’d cleaned the box of the old nest just in time.

Backyard birdwatching is barely challenging. I see the same birds every day, if not nearly every day. All I need is just one note of a song or call to know immediately what birds are around. ID’ing by jizz from the corner of my eye – easy. After I got to know “my” birds, I know when I spot something different. Brown Thrasher. Rose-breasted Grosbeak. Yellow-bellied cuckoo.

Barred Owl.

It hooted from beyond the backyard border, somewhere in the crowd of deciduous trees. It sounded like it came from the next cul-de-sac over. The owl didn’t hoot its whole phrase, commonly translated with the mnemonic “Who cooks for you? Who cooks for you all?” More like: “Who who who who who who who cooks for youuuuuuuu?”

I was dumbfounded. Was that real? Yes, that is a Barred Owl very close to you. You are hearing it.

I had only seen a Barred Owl once, more than a year and a half ago, at a local Audubon sanctuary. It was perched in a tree about twenty feet away from the trail. Smaller than I expected. It had the typical plumage: gently gray with brown streaks on its head, breast, and back. Mottled wings. In all, it was round and very soft-looking. This was the third-largest owl in North America. Noiseless. Unnervingly awesome. After a few minutes, it disappeared into the thick green.

The first and last time I heard any owls in my neighborhood was that past winter. A pair of Great Horned Owls hooted to each other at 1:00AM. Before that, nothing.

What made this moment especially rapturous was that a Barred Owl – my favorite owl – was calling near where I lived. Additionally, I was not hearing a recording.

“DAD, it’s a BARRED OWL.”

My father, not a birdwatcher, wouldn’t have known to hear for it if I hadn’t said anything. He listened more carefully.

“Who who who who who who who cooks for youuuuuuuu?”

“MOM, get out here. THERE’S  BARRED OWL IN THE NEIGHBORHOOD.”

My mother (also not a birdwatcher, but a little interested in feeding backyard birds) came to the back door. She expressed skepticism. A couple years ago, she watched Cornell’s Barred Owl cam and grew attached to the nestlings. After two weeks of being born, they looked like white fluffballs. Even their legs had fluff, looking like pantaloons. She also liked mother owl’s large and fluffy appearance.

I told her to listen, but the owl didn’t call again.

I gushed to my father about the owl, my history with it, how I was so surprised to hear one in this neighborhood. (I thought they restricted themselves to forest.) Then I heard from behind me:

“WHO COOKS FOR YOU ALL.”

It was the famous mnemonic. I whipped around. My mother was playing a recording from – of all places – Cornell’s All About Birds.

“Who who who who who who who cooks for youuuuuuuu?” the real owl responded.

I scolded my mother for doing that. I was worried that the owl would think that there would be another so close that it would think it was trespassing, and then leave.

I didn’t hear the Barred Owl  call again. My mother apologized, knowing how much I loved Barred Owls. I was upset at first – who knows how much longer it could have stuck around on its own? I was also surprised that the recording scared off the owl after only being played once. In any case, I was content to hear one at all. I considered it one of the best birding experiences.

After dinner, I stood on the deck enjoying sunset sky and the cool air. I heard a crowd of whining grackles and yeeping robins from the same direction I had heard the owl. I’d been hearing them since dinnertime. It is classic for songbirds to mob perched owls and hawks until they left the area, but I didn’t note it. I resigned the Barred Owl was gone for good. I might as well take what I could get.

Then – as I happened to be facing the right direction – the owl and a number of grackles glided over my backyard and a neighbor’s house. They landed in one of the Norway Maples lining the edge of front lawns by the street. The grackles and robins’ scolding intensified.

I dashed for my binoculars and went to find the owl. I followed the screeching and the yeeping. In total, there were more than twenty grackles, at least a dozen robins, and two Blue Jays. Binoculars poised, head up, I slowly walked up the street. The leaves were already large. I wasn’t looking for a warbler, but I wondered if I would have much trouble finding the owl.

It found me first.

I could see the Barred Own clearly. Not a branch and leaf obscured it. As grackles and robins swirled around it, flying from branch to branch, jabbering deafeningly, the owl had its eyes only on me. Large and round, pitch black, beady. I stared back. Birds have regarded my presence before – a mother Killdeer, a migrating Blue-headed Vireo, a resting Red-tail. Not like this. Still and silent, the owl kept a continuous gaze on me. I was aware of the ongoing harassment and the downy softness of its chest, and that the back of my neck  already hurt a little from craning neck – but its eyes filled my vision. They were all I could look at. They dove past my face, into my physical self, past my very being. It knew me.

I guessed more than a minute had gone by when a grackle suddenly collided with the owl, bursting the belly fluff. This greatly annoyed the owl and it looked away. After a couple seconds, it resumed gazing at me. But when more grackles began to be just as daring, hitting the owl as they darted by, the owl had enough. It hopped to another branch, wings sounding a great flutter. It still wanted to keep to looking at me, but the grackles and robins finally got under its skin. The harassment wouldn’t fully stop until it was far away from their territory. It hopped to a higher branch, then to another. Then it took off.

The mob followed it. I guessed the owl flew to a tree somewhere at the entrance of my street – as I could tell by still hearing the excitement – but I went home. I had enough.

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The Barred Owl was on that second bare branch from the top. © S.G. Hansen