The missing bobolink

Bruce
Bruce Mactavish
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The fall plumage of the bobolink is the only one left to see on the Avalon.
— Photo by Ken Knowles/Special to The Telegram

“The Bobolink is gone —

The Rowdy of the Meadow

And no one swaggers now but me.”

— Emily Dickinson

The incredible bubbling song of the bobolink is gone from the Avalon Peninsula. Until the 1980s, birders used to find them annually in the spring, singing from short bushes beside meadows and hayfields in areas such as the Goulds. One also used to sing from a field near my home on Middle Cove Road.

It’s no mystery why they have disappeared — hayfields and grassy meadows are declining, and the bobolinks have declined with them. The hayfields that remain are often cut before the young have left the nest. In southwest Newfoundland, a small breeding population is hanging on for now, but each year they are harder to find.

The breeding-plumaged male bobolink is a real stunner: striking black with a big white shoulder and white rump. The back of the head and neck are yellow. This plumage may never be seen again on the Avalon, but there is another plumage that is seen here every year, hence the topic for today’s Winging It.

At the end of August and early September, small numbers of fall-plumaged bobolinks do appear on the Avalon. Since they show up along with the annual parade of southern warblers, perhaps they are brought to us from the Maritimes, courtesy of southwest winds. Perhaps some are from the small remaining breeding population in southwest Newfoundland.

Whatever the source, now is our only chance to see them.

Unfortunately, in fall, they have changed “clothes.” They now look striped and brown. Actually, more of a buff, or orangy brown, or buffy yellow, or … it’s hard to describe.

In fall plumage, they look most like sparrows, but are much larger. Look for the plain back of the neck (nape), a sort of weak fall version of that bright yellow from their breeding plumage.

During migration, birders often find them on the damp barrens of the southern shore.

This is the closest thing the bobolinks can find to the damp, grassy meadows of their preferred breeding and feeding areas. Instead of the joyful, bubbling warble of spring, we get only one word out of them: “pink.” It is actually a very distinctive “pink” — loud, abrupt and different from any other call note you will hear, immediately identifying the brown, (or buffy, or yellowish, or orangy or whatever) bird lurking in the grass.

Sometimes, to expand its vocabulary, it will also say: “chuck,” firmly placing it in the blackbird family. In fall, the bobolink is a bird of few words.

The guide books tell us that when not in breeding mode, the bobolink is found in flocks. Good luck with that. I’ve never seen more than a single bird at once on the Avalon, so you would have to say it is a very small flock.

Bobolinks are on their way to South America when we see them in the fall. They need to fatten up on insects and seeds in order to make the long hop across the water to points south.

They will probably make another food stop in Florida before continuing to their wintering grounds, but some of them go by way of Jamaica. This is a big mistake. Jamaicans call them “butterbirds” and love to eat them, fattened up as the birds are for their long migration.

For the survivors, it’s a 20,000 kilometre annual round trip to Argentina and back. When they return in spring, sadly, it won’t be to the Avalon.

Bobolinks have declined everywhere in the past 30 years. The main reason is the loss of nesting habitat. In the St. John’s area, they have joined the willow ptarmigan as a former breeding species. Gone.

“How nullified the Meadow

Her Sorcerer withdrawn.”

— Emily Dickinson

I expect that the first fall sighting of bobolink on the Avalon will be this week, so listen for the “pink” call and maybe you can find one. Fall plumage is better than nothing.

Sightings

This week produced the first of the annual fall parade of off-course southwestern land birds. It was a prairie warbler, found in the alder beds near Renews. Each week for the next two months the list of southern vagrants will grow as migration progresses.

As well, the shorebird migration continues with a flock of red-necked phalaropes spotted by Richard Thomas in Portugal Cove South. September will bring us that wonderful combination of passerines, shorebirds and raptors that makes fall the most exciting time to be a birder in Newfoundland.

While Bruce Mactavish is on hiatus, Ken Knowles is watching the Winging It email, wingingitone@yahoo.ca.

Geographic location: Middle Cove Road.It, Newfoundland, South America Florida Jamaica Argentina Renews Portugal Cove South

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