The bobolink is another distance migrant that graces our grasslands in summer, then flies away to South America while we wonder at the cold and snow. It generally arrives in late spring and departs by the end of summer. Some years, bobolinks can be quite abundant, and this appears to be one of them.
The male bobolink is unmistakable – and easily remembered. It is sometimes called “the skunk bird,” because it is white on the back and dark on the breast. This seems to be a disparaging description, however.
Another assertion is that the bobolink looks like a gentleman who is wearing his tuxedo backwards. This is a preposterous image, since no gentleman could get into a tuxedo backwards, much less be willing to appear in one.
But these descriptions are vivid and unforgettable, and thus useful in identifying and remembering the male of the species.
The female is a greater challenge. The female bobolink is a plain bird, again befitting her role as protector of the nest and thus of the next generation of bobolinks. The bobolink female resembles a sparrow, distinguishable from other plain grasslands birds by a bold pattern on the head, white above the eye and black on top of the head. Female bobolinks have a general yellowish tint, sometimes described as rich buff.
Yellow is a prominent color in the male, as well. He has a patch of it on the back of his head down to his shoulders, rather like an old man who has lost the hair in the front of his head and compensated by letting his graying hair grow down to his shoulders.
The bobolink has long been a favorite for its enthusiastic singing, a sound that approximates its name. This is usually delivered from the top of a clump of grass or a bush, although I once had a bobolink come into the garden and perch on carrot tops.
These endearing habits have propelled the bobolink into poetry. Back in the 19th century, William Cullen Bryant wrote, “Merrily swinging on briar and weed, near to the nest of his little dame, Robert of Lincoln is calling his name; Bobolink! Bobolink! Spink, spank, spink.”
Bryant, who died in 1878, described the bobolink hen as “passing at home a patient life” who “broods in the grass while her husband sings.” It’s a pretty thought – but quite mistaken. Female bobolinks have been proven to be polygynous. Her nest contains eggs sired by more than one male.
More about godwits
Last week’s column brought comments from two people who know more about shorebirds than I do.
Erik Fritzell, back in his hometown after a distinguished career teaching wildlife biology in Missouri and Oregon, suggested that godwit numbers are up in our area, and Dave Lambeth, dean of local birders, echoed his point in a post to the Grand Cities Bird Club listserv. “I counted 25 godwits” at Kellys Slough National Wildlife Refuge west of Grand Forks, Lambeth wrote. “… They’re staging, getting ready to move to coastal areas. … In the godwit world, a few days after the eggs hatch, one of the adult pair will abandon the nest and join other godwits as they prepare to go south. A few days later, the second adult also leaves. The young are left to grow up on their own, and their genetic inheritance will send them southward before the end of August.”
Lambeth’s insight extends beyond godwits. “An amazing thing about shorebird migration is that it starts the third week of March, usually with the appearance of killdeer, and continues to at least the first week of November,” Lambeth writes. “The mix of shorebirds changes week by week. … The number and variety of shorebirds will build quickly from the fourth week of June.”
He adds, “It is not an exaggeration to say that Kellys Slough has an international reputation as a great place to bird.”
To reach the refuge, travel west from Grand Forks on U.S. Highway 2 past the airport access road. After three more miles, turn north (right) on gravel. The road is good, but as always, take care on gravel roads, especially in wet weather.
To get access to the bird club posts, search “Grand Cities Bird Club,” click on Email Group and follow the directions.
The site offers checklists, site reports, schedules and photographs of local species, many taken by Lambeth himself.