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Summer Grassland Songsters, part 1- Grass Wars!

June 16, 2012


When we think of birds singing and nesting, we typically think of this happening in trees.  Perfectly understandable, because that’s where a lot of singing and nesting goes on.  But there are some birds that have different habits.  And in the summer, you can notice some of these birds if you happen to walk by grassland areas.  This little series will occasionally highlight some of these species.

What was that flashy bird fluttering overhead, singing a warbling profusion of notes?

Bird trivia question: what is the only American bird that’s black underneath and white on the back?  According to the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology’s excellent All About Birds website, the answer is the Bobolink.

I’ve been seeing male Bobolinks this month at Glacier Ridge Metro Park, singing and defending their grassy territories from interlopers.  It’s not uncommon to see them chasing each other- once, I saw a Bobolink chasing another Bobolink, and both of them were being chased by still another Bobolink!  It’s the season to raise a family for sure!

Bobolinks, grassy fields and June go together here in central Ohio, at least in certain fields.  Unlike other birds such as Red-Winged Blackbirds, you have to look (and listen) for this particular species.

Grassy fields at Glacier Ridge- Bobolinks like this place.

Bobolinks are long-distance migrants.  They winter as far south as Argentina, which is a long way away.  They summer in the northern half of the lower 48 states and southern Canada, in grassland areas, where they nest on the ground.  I have more respect for them, knowing how many thousands of miles they travel to get here.

A typical perch to sing from and to keep an eye on those other Bobolinks from.

Male Bobolinks are striking.  The back half of their heads are tan, and their backs have big white patches.  They are black up front, a rather different kind of color pattern.  Females are sparrowlike in color, but since Bobwhites average 7 inches long, they look like a big sparrow.  Unfortunately I haven’t got a good photograph of a female yet- they’re rather secretive right now with nesting and all.

I better keep an eye out for that one guy, he’s always trying to cross into my territory!

It seems like male Bobolinks are preoccupied with territory disputes.  Someone is bound to test the territorial lines, and a chase results.

This bush isn’t big enough for both of us.

Here we go again!

Bobolinks molt twice a year, which is unusual in the bird world- once a year is the typical rate for replacing the feathers.  When the males molt, they look similar to females because the tips of their new feathers are yellowish.  When the tips wear down, their classic plumage is revealed.

This perch is made of sturdier stuff than the usual tall weeds or bushes.

Bobolinks sing a swift, complex, almost squeaky song- you can hear it here.  In places, it almost sounds like an audio tape speeding up backwards.  Perhaps the neatest thing to observe is when this bird sings while flying.  The songster will flutter his wings while singing in an almost-glide.  Singing on the wing redeems this pugnacious birds’ reputation in my eyes.  Here’s some photos of this:

In conclusion, don’t forget- just because there may not be trees in the area doesn’t mean that birds are absent.  I’ll keep an eye out for more grassland lovers this summer, and post about them.  Enjoy the summer- but try not to get too territorial like some birds I know, there’s enough grassy spaces to go around…

18 Comments leave one →
  1. June 16, 2012 10:41 pm

    Excellent post, excellent photos! What interests me about birds that defend a territory is how defined their borders are, as if a surveyor had laid them out. Another male six inches past their boundry line is OK, but let that other male cross that line, and the fight is on!

    • June 17, 2012 8:09 am

      Thanks! This is very true- these birds know each bush and tall weed in their territory that is a ‘no fly zone’ to other males. Funny how they seem to push the envelope constantly.

  2. June 17, 2012 12:00 am

    A beautiful bird!

  3. June 17, 2012 8:57 am

    Excellent post. I haven’t ever heard much about this bird, and have never seen one either.

  4. June 17, 2012 9:11 am

    Boy, the behavior of the bobolinks, which I haven’t seen here in VA, reminds me so much of the red-winged blackbirds. They too are vocal, territorial, and the female stays well hidden during the nesting season. We have excellent grassland meadows and other grassland species, so maybe one day we’ll get bobolinks.

    • June 23, 2012 4:35 pm

      Maybe because they can see each other over the grass means they squabble more. In the woods, they wouldn’t see each other as much!

  5. June 17, 2012 11:01 am

    I have never seen these birds .. but, then grassy land is hard to find here in the woods. That first picture is great. When I first glanced at it, I thought you caught a bird doing a steep banked turn or something … showing it’s belly (because you usually don’t see color on a black colored bird. But, as you explained that is what makes them unique. Thanks for sharing your unique bird with a unique name.

  6. June 17, 2012 1:08 pm

    I have never seen a Bobolink. I was on the lookout for them while in Maine because someone told us they were all over the place, but I didn’t see any. (I did, however, see some eagles, loons, and other birds I’ve yet to identify.)

    Wonderful photos, and informative post. Thanks!

  7. June 18, 2012 1:56 am

    that’s a very pretty bird! I’ve never seen one.

  8. June 18, 2012 9:06 am

    Lovely photos, especially of the bird singing in flight.

  9. June 18, 2012 11:01 am

    W.S….Great post…I don’t think I have ever seen a Bobolink…in Minnesota, when we lived there…the Meadowlark disappeared with the loss of prairie close by…but even when we had them I don’t remember Bobolinks there along with them…both nest on the ground…interesting…but thanks for the post…introduced me to the Bobolink…wonderful…

  10. June 23, 2012 4:34 pm

    Thanks for the comments, everyone!

  11. June 24, 2012 12:02 am

    We see killdeer occasionally. (Birds nesting in grassy areas triggered this memory) The first time I saw one, it had built its nest in the middle of my brother’s unpaved driveway. It would hop off the nest when a car came along. The next year, I noticed an unmowed patch of grass in a lawn of the neighborhood where I walk. They mowed around a killdeer nest. When it would see me coming down the sidewalk, it pulled the ‘droopy wing–follow me’ trick to draw my attention away from the nest area. Birds are so entertaining! Loved seeing your bobolinks.

  12. July 20, 2012 9:16 am

    These ‘in flight’ shots are incredible!!! Thanks for sharing, don’t think I’ve ever seen these birds before, always GREAT to have a chance to see things through your lens! 🙂

    • September 23, 2012 1:30 pm

      Many thanks Robin! I got lucky on that first shot, which is my favorite. You can imagine the amount of poor photos I took to get that one!

  13. September 22, 2012 6:02 pm

    Here’s your Bobolinks! 🙂 This year we allowed our pasture to grow specifically for the Bobolinks, but were treated to many other birds as well.

    Oh, the reason our pasture usually gets mowed is because we have family members who suffer from grass pollen allergies. With the drought this year, it wasn’t too bad. I hope they can live through it again next year, so we can have all these birds again.

    I did read a tidbit today that said one of the names the Bobolink was given was “skunk head”. I think I like “Bobolink” better.

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