Spring Sightings at Inn Along the Way
Written by Sharon Abair
Photos by Sharon Abair
I know it may seem rather optimistic to be thinking about springtime coming to Midcoast Maine in a period of time when we are experiencing a bit of snow every other day or so and many days of single digit temperatures, but optimistic is a good way to be during the months of February and March because it helps the time pass more pleasantly! Think spring and chances are that you may happen to be wandering the high grass meadows and rolling hills at Inn Along the Way as spring approaches, but be sure to stay
on the mown paths for there is much fragile activity going on in the high grasses! Birding at IAW is a rich and varied experience – as those who have attended many of our guided walks with Dr. Steven Kress in years past can attest to. On any given day our sightings have included, among others, yellow warblers, common yellowthroats, chimney swifts, broadwinged hawks, bluebirds, phoebes and even an American bittern!
One of the more interesting spring and summer sightings are the welldressed “Robert of Lincolns”, more commonly known as bobolinks, as written about in a poem with that title by William Cullen Bryant
(1794-1878). What Bryant does not include, and may not have been known by anyone back then, in his beautiful poem is the fact that these birds travel over twelve thousand miles every year to arrive at IAW meadows to sing, build nests, breed, feed and fledge their young before turning around and traveling back those same twelve thousand miles to return to their winter homes. In the lifetime of a bobolink they travel 4 or 5 times the distance of the circumference of the earth! And Cornell Lab states that their travels are guided by the stars that depict their routes, as well as by the iron oxide in the bristles of their nasal cavity that allows them to connect with the earth’s magnetic field. Amazing! Read on for some interesting facts and some entertaining poetic verses from “Robert of Lincoln”:
“..Merrily swinging on brier and weed, Near to the nest of his little dame, Over the mountainside or mead, Robert of Lincoln is telling his name….Bob-o-link, bob-o-link… Robert of Lincoln is gaily drest, Wearing a bright black wedding coat. White are his shoulders and white is his crest. Hear him call his merry note! Bob-o-link, bob-o-link.”
Many have described the male bobolink as appearing to be wearing a tuxedo backwards…his face, chest and shoulders are dark but his back has marked stark white areas, clearly seen as he sits atop the stalks of grass swaying with the wind and singing his song to attract the ladies. The back of his head is a lovely buff color- he does indeed stand out in a crowd!
“Robert of Lincoln’s Quaker wife, Pretty and quiet with her plain brown wings, Passing at home a patient life, Broods in the grass while her husband sings….Bob-o-link, bob-o-link. Six white eggs on a bed of hay, Flecked with purple-a pretty sight! There as the mother sits all day,
Robert sings with all his might. Nice good wife that never goes out, Keeping house while I frolic about!”
This passage of poetry is rather misleading, actually. The Cornell Bird Llab reports that bobolink males are “polygynous” which means they mate rather promiscuously with several females and the “pretty and quiet” females sit atop nests of 3-7 eggs that have been fertilized by several males…a situation known as being polyandrous. So after she pulls the grass and weedy stems from the ground to bare the nest site down to dirt, and building the walls of the nest and lining the dirt floor with smooth grass, she sits patiently as various husbands sing and sway in the area!
“Soon as the little ones chip the shell, Six wide mouths are open for food, Robert of Lincoln bestirs him well, Gathering seed for the hungry brood. This new life is likely to be Hard for a gay young fellow like me.”
Yes, it is true that the male is very busy finding small invertebrates to feed the full nest of young. He also forages for seeds, insects, rice, oats, corn tassels and other small grains for himself. The male not only feeds the young in what is considered his “primary” nest, but helps to feed the young in other nests also. A hard life indeed!
“Robert of Lincoln at length is made Sober with work, and silent with care. Off is his holiday garment laid Half -forgotten in the merry air. Summer wanes, the children are grown; Fun and frolic no more he knows. Robert of Lincoln is a humdrum crone. Off he flies and we sing as he goes…bob-o-link bob-o-link….”
When the breeding season is over the male bobolink molts for the second time that year. He sheds his dressy tuxedo for a coat of drab brown feathers with yellow tips that he will wear throughout his long flight home. When spring comes again he molts once more and the fetching tuxedo reappears as breeding season returns.
Bobolinks are drawn to large grassy meadows that are left to grow high and go to seed. A field will feed and house many families and it is essential that no mowing take place until late July- after the young have left the nest and are on their own. A hospitable field will be blessed every spring with these lovely birds! Inn Along the Way at Chapman Farm welcomes
bobolinks and others to our meadows.