Written by Peter Pearsall/Photo by Dan Streiffert
“Merrily swinging on brier and weed,
Near to the nest of his little dame,
Over the mountain-side or mead,
Robert of Lincoln is telling his name:
Spink, spank, spink;
Snug and safe is that nest of ours,
Hidden among the summer flowers.
Chee, chee, chee.”
-From the poem “Robert of Lincoln”, by William Cullen Bryant (1794-1898)
In early summer at Malheur Refuge, with the grasses of the southern Blitzen Valley lushly green and the mosquitoes nearing Biblical-plague status, dapper male bobolinks arrive to set up territories in wet-meadow habitat. Their virtuosic song, broadcast from perches or during fluttering flight displays, is a marvel to behold. Naturalists have colorfully described it as “a mad, reckless song fantasia—an outbreak of pent-up irrepressible glee”; also, “a bubbling delirium of ecstatic music that flows from the gifted throat of the bird like sparkling champagne.” Other oft-used descriptors include “metallic”, “buzzy”, tinkling”, “rambling” and “reminiscent of R2D2 from Star Wars”, but none of these do justice to hearing the live rendition on a calm summer’s morning.
The bobolink is a member of the blackbird family native to the Americas. Males in breeding plumage are a striking contrast of black and white with a corn-silk nape; no other North American bird has a white back and black underparts. Non-breeding males look similar to females, with buffy underparts and a brownish, streaky back.
Bobolinks are long-distance migrants, breeding in grasslands of the northern United States and southern Canada and wintering in the southern interior of South America. Depending on the season, bobolinks will use a variety of open habitat types: tallgrass and mixed prairies, hayfields, meadows, marshes and coastal areas. When breeding, these birds eat a mixture of seeds and invertebrates, and parents provision their young with the latter almost exclusively. During migration and while on wintering grounds, bobolinks subsist on a variety of seeds from wild and commercially-grown plants.
Due to pressures exerted at both breeding and wintering grounds, populations of this iconic grassland species are in decline. The loss of native prairies in North America has reduced the amount of suitable breeding habitat, and what remains for these birds—hayfields and other agricultural areas—is often heavily disturbed. In rice-growing regions of the southern U.S. and South America, bobolinks and other seed-eating birds are considered crop pests and are shot, poisoned or hazed with smoke and fireworks. While this species is adaptable and still numerous, populations in the U.S. have been shrinking by more than two percent each year for the past 50 years.
At Malheur Refuge, the seasonally flooded meadows of Blitzen Valley host the largest breeding population of bobolinks west of the Rocky Mountains. Bobolinks are considered a focal species at Malheur, and every June FOMR helps lead a group of volunteers on an annual bobolink survey in the southern Blitzen Valley. FOMR volunteers, together with Refuge staff and field biologists from the Portland Audubon Society, walk three established transect routes through wet-meadow habitat, counting birds both seen and heard. In the 2017 count—considered a “good water year” at Malheur Refuge—a total of 223 bobolinks were tallied. For comparison, counts in the drought-heavy 1990s turned up around 500 birds.
The bobolink count is a “legacy” survey, dating back several decades at the Refuge. It’s one of the tools Refuge staff uses to understand land-management impacts on this iconic species. It’s also an incredible outreach opportunity, bringing together outdoor enthusiasts, bird lovers and members of the local community to experience one of the many natural phenomena that makes Malheur Refuge such a special place.
Interested in participating? FOMR could still use 5-6 more volunteers to help with this year’s bobolink count, which takes place Saturday, June 9. Please note that the survey may involve wading through knee-high water. To sign up and get more details, please contact us at email@example.com with “Bobolink Survey” in the subject line.