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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