As a lifelong birder, and thus someone who is constantly and obsessively monitoring the birds around me, I’ve had my share of rare avian visitors to my various yards. Last week brought the latest such bird, and though it’s a species that breeds right here in Massachusetts, it was by far the rarest “yard bird” I’ve ever had. When you factor in both habitat and time of year, the Bobolink that was hopping around in my front yard last Tuesday was probably one of the rarest birds currently being seen in North America.
Yes, Bobolinks breed in what scattered hayfields and grassy pastures remain across Massachusetts, mostly on the mainland. And a Bobolink in winter pretty much looks like a drab sparrow to the uninitiated –a study in beige. So while anyone can understand the excitement over gaudy birds like a Painted Bunting or that Mandarin Duck recently attracting hordes of slack-jawed gawkers in Manhattan, this bird’s five minutes of fame takes a bit more explanation.
The first thing to know is that Bobolinks are extraordinarily long-distance migrants, one of the longest of any songbird. In late summer they head from North American hayfields to the Pampas grasslands of Argentina and Southern Brazil, a round trip or more than 12,000 miles. So this little beige bird on my lawn may have been the only Bobolink north of the equator last week. Making it even stranger was this bird’s choice of a wooded neighborhood dotted with postage stamp lawns – at all times of year, Bobolinks prefer wide open, relatively treeless spaces, so a farm or maybe Fort Hill in Eastham would have made a lot more sense.
Bobolinks are fascinating in many ways, including their crazed, R2-D2-esque song, but especially for the way they have beaten the odds over the last couple of centuries. They’ve endured being shot as agricultural pests in the US, poisoned and also collected as pets on the wintering grounds, and eaten in Jamaica. Somehow they still persist as breeding birds in remaining northern hayfields, most of which have turned to forests or housing developments in the last century, and despite frequently losing entire fields full of nests to early summer mowings. Frankly, I don’t understand why they aren’t extinct. Mass Audubon is working with other conservation organizations in New England to help Bobolinks and other grassland birds by paying farmers to mow their fields later, allowing the birds to nest successfully in early summer – you can find out more on the Mass Audubon website under Bobolink Project.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t note that we are entering Christmas Bird Count season this Saturday, which means legions of birders will be wandering around parks, refuges, and suburban streets in a zombie-like state of bird counting. I’ll be one of them, so if a Bobolink or some other wacky species visits your yard, please let me know so I can make sure it gets counted. Or better yet, join a count as a birder or a feeder watcher. Information on count dates can be found on the Cape Cod Bird Club website under Christmas Bird Counts. If you don’t get out on a count, at least drive cautiously – we zombie birders are very unpredictable on count days.