The bird that wears a tuxedo backwards

Guest post by Jenny Sazama

One May many years ago, I was biking the Millennium Trail and Greenway from Lakewood in Wauconda to Singing Hills in Round Lake—two sites of the Lake County Forest Preserves in northern Illinois—to time out an activity for summer camp. That’s when I first noticed a distinctive blackbird magically appear from within the tall grasses.

This happened at least 30 times as I cycled the winding 1.62-mile trail section from Gilmer Road to the Singing Hills parking lot. As I coasted by these birds, I detected a “chunk” call and noticed their color pattern, which has been described as a classic black tuxedo worn backwards.

I wondered who this dapper fellow was and why there were so many along this route, emerging from this habitat. I would soon learn this pop-up-from-the-grasses blackbird was none other than the bobolink (Dolichonyx oryzivorus). It’s eastern North America’s only songbird whose feathers are black below and mostly white above, with a buttery, cream-yellow nape. Keep watch for a white rump, too, as he takes flight.

A male bobolink calls at Rollins Savanna in Grayslake. Now is a good time of year to try to spot bobolinks in preserves with meadows and prairies. Photo © Phil Hauck.
A male bobolink calls at Rollins Savanna in Grayslake. Now is a good time of year to try to spot bobolinks in preserves with meadows and prairies. Photo © Phil Hauck.

Unfortunately, the bobolink is also one of North America’s fastest-declining songbirds. Habitat loss and changes to agricultural practices such as fewer hayfields, earlier mowing and use of modern cutting and raking equipment have affected their populations. Despite these challenges, the bobolink is a common breeder in northern Illinois.

Its preferred habitats are tall grasslands, uncut pastures, overgrown fields, meadows and prairies—but only for courtship and breeding seasons, which run May through mid-July. The “chunk” call mentioned above is made by males and females during early breeding season whenever intruders disturb them, as I must have, bicycling through their territory.

The male bobolink molts into his fancy backwards tuxedo and sports a black beak from spring migration (mid-March to mid-May) through the end of the breeding season. That’s when he’ll move on to marshy areas and molt again into browns and tans that blend into the ground. This camouflage is much like the female’s feather pattern year-round: buff overall with a peachy-pink beak, pale eyebrow and dark eye line. However, the male’s non-breeding plumage is dark buff above and a golden buff underneath.

The female bobolink's year-round coloration is quite different from the male's breeding coloration. Note the peachy-pink beak, pale eyebrow and dark eye line. Photo © Phil Hauck.
The female bobolink’s year-round coloration is quite different from the male’s breeding coloration. Note the peachy-pink beak, pale eyebrow and dark eye line. Photo © Phil Hauck.

Most male bobolinks stake out their territories within 50 meters of previous breeding areas. They usually do this prior to the arrival of female bobolinks, one week after their own arrival. Talk about a fast-paced housing market! And an interesting one to watch, as bobolinks tend to nest in loose colonies, so there are plenty of behaviors to observe such as songflight. Songflight is when the male bobolink flies slowly with rapid, shallow wingbeats either high above the ground (territorial) or low in a circular pattern (courtship).

Males display their colorful feathers during courtship to attract females. And I mean females plural, because bobolink males are polygynous. They’re also polyandrous, “with each clutch of eggs laid by a single female often representing multiple fathers,” according to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

If there’s abundant food onsite, each male may have up to three females who build nests in his 1-acre territory. This can expand to 5–9 acres of territory when food is sparse. Let’s just say a male with more than one female nearby has more years of experience and often inhabits higher-quality habitats.

Now imagine if the 30-plus males I saw that May each had at least two females nesting nearby! But I didn’t see many female bobolinks that day. My guess is the males were still establishing their territories or the females were busy covertly constructing nests.

A male bobolink in flight. Photo © Phil Hauck.
A male bobolink in flight. Photo © Phil Hauck.

Females exclusively build their carefully concealed cup nests out of grass and forb stems in shallow depressions at the bases of tall grasses or wildflowers. After two days or more of nest-making—the final touches are soft, fine grasses and sedges lining the inner area of the nest—the female takes another two days before laying one egg daily. She continues until she has a clutch of five to six oval eggs that are expertly camouflaged in a cinnamon color and blotched heavily with brown.

The female incubates the eggs for about two weeks, taking a 10-minute break after 20 minutes of sitting. A wellness practice we humans can benefit from! All the eggs in the clutch hatch within a 36-hour period. The nestling phase lasts 10–11 days. During this time, papa bobolink helps raise the young in each of his female mates’ broods, giving the most assistance to his first mate of the season.

Bobolink nests can be tricky to find among tall grasses and wildflowers. The nest can be up to four inches across and two inches deep. Stock photo.
Bobolink nests can be tricky to find among tall grasses and wildflowers. The nest can be up to four inches across and two inches deep. Stock photo.

I’d like to pause for a moment of gratitude to the keen observers and scientists who documented this information, because bobolinks are crafty at keeping their nesting sites secret. Besides employing camouflage, bobolink parents land a distance away from their nest and walk stealthily through grasses and wildflowers, staying undetected to keep their family’s location protected.

They often don’t even need to reveal themselves in search of food, since their diet consists of seeds, grains, insects and other invertebrates hiding in low vegetation and on the ground. During the nestling phase both parents bring food, especially caterpillars.

The fledgling phase lasts three weeks or longer. Bobolink young learn to fly short distances in two days and follow their folks within five days. This newfound freedom of movement breaks down territories and leads to flocking behavior from mid-July through mid-August. It also shifts the habitat to marshy areas and cultivated fields. Within the safety of the marsh, another molt occurs for the breeding male, who replaces his dressed-to-impress tuxedo with a more blend-in-with-the-crowd look of dormant grasses.

This male bobolink is molting out of his tuxedo attire. Photo © Phil Hauck.
This male bobolink is molting out of his tuxedo attire. Photo © Phil Hauck.

Seasonal movement of bobolinks continues through late September and early October. These long-distance migrants journey more than 5,000 miles one-way (about 12,500 miles round-trip) to winter in South America. It’s the longest migration route of any North American songbird. According to Cornell, “throughout its lifetime, [the bobolink] may travel the equivalent of 4–5 times around the Earth’s circumference!”

Along the way, large flocks often rest and refuel in southern rice fields during the day. This is probably how the species got its nickname, the ricebird, and the meaning of its scientific name, oryzivorus, which means “rice eating.” The ricebirds continue along their flyway route under cover of night, over the Gulf of Mexico and across the Caribbean to spend the winter in southern Brazil, northern Argentina and Paraguay.

Often when we environmental educators scout areas for future programs, we discover something new that makes us smile, sparks curiosity and prompts us to learn more. This happened to me again last May when I was setting up a self-guided Trivia Trail at Rollins Savanna in Grayslake. I heard a familiar, bubbly, melodious birdsong.

When I looked toward the joyful sound coming from the avian fluttering over the grasses, I recognized it as the bird that wears a tuxedo backwards. A smile spread over my face as I spoke his name. Seriously, who doesn’t smile when saying that name? His name and his song (“bobolink, bobolink, spink, spank, spink”) spread a happy vibe. Go ahead. Say bobolink and try not to smile.

Enjoy the hooting season

Post by Jen Berlinghof

In February, sensational sunrises and sunsets break up the stark days and cold, dark nights of a waning winter. Dawn and dusk not only bring the thrill of color to a monochrome landscape, but also the best chance of hearing and seeing nocturnal raptors. As the mercury drops, owl courtship heats up. While many other birds head south for winter, owls pair up and hunker down. At night, the soundtrack of our resident species’ hoots and hollers fills the Lake County Forest Preserves in northern Illinois, offering us a glimpse into an otherwise hidden world.

Winter is a time of snow, beautiful sunsets—and mating season for local owls. Photo © John D. Kavc.
Winter is a time of snow, beautiful sunrises and sunsets—and mating season for local owls. Photo © John D. Kavc.
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Winter reveals hidden homes

Post by Jen Berlinghof

The winter landscape, stripped of its lush layers of leaves and fields of flowers, reveals hidden homes. This season of stillness offers a glimpse into animal lives that were carried on clandestinely throughout spring, summer and fall around the Lake County Forest Preserves in northern Illinois. It’s surprising to see how many critters have been busy raising families right under our noses, or sometimes, right above our heads, without us always noticing.

A soothing winter scene at Lyons Woods in Waukegan. Photo © John D. Kavc.
A soothing winter scene at Lyons Woods in Waukegan. Photo © John D. Kavc.
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How animals survive the winter

Guest post by April Vaos

Living in Illinois, we’re lucky enough to enjoy a change of seasons. Though I often find it difficult to switch from the crunch of fall leaves to the crunch of snow, it can be a peaceful time to head outdoors. Recently, I went walking in Independence Grove in Libertyville, part of the Lake County Forest Preserves in northern Illinois. As I looked around in the quiet, contemplative landscape, I thought about the life that teemed all around me, and how it was now hidden from view or departed on a migration.

While leading winter walks, I’m often asked, “Where are all the animals?” It depends on the animal. Each employs different survival strategies that help it adapt and even thrive in winter. What, exactly, do animals do to make it through the challenges of cold temperatures and a lack of food? Well, I like to say they have MAD strategies: migrate, active and dormant.

When cool temperatures arrive in northern Illinois, so do dark-eyed juncos (Junco hyemalis). Not only do they visit Illinois, they migrate into all of the lower 48 states to spend a milder winter than where they’re from: Canada. Stock photo.
When cool temperatures arrive in northern Illinois, so do dark-eyed juncos (Junco hyemalis). Not only do they visit Illinois, they migrate into all of the lower 48 states to spend a milder winter than where they’re from: Canada. Stock photo.
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A foray into fall fungi

Post by Brett Peto

Until recently, I haven’t given mushroom (much room) in my head to the Fungi kingdom. It’s been an admitted blindspot in my nature knowledge for too long. I’m taking some steps to correct this, though. Reading books such as Entangled Life by Merlin Sheldrake. Looking for fungi in the Lake County Forest Preserves in northern Illinois and other natural areas. Taking photos of the ones I find and doing my best to identify them.

There’s still much I don’t know—apologies for any errors in advance—but I can claim to know a bit more now than I did at the start of 2021. With fall being possibly the best time to spot some fungi, I thought I’d write about some common species you might discover in the preserves.

Some slugs feasting on fungi. Photo © Helena Keller.
Some slugs feasting on fungi. Photo © Helena Keller.
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Bringing back the buzz

Post by Jen Berlinghof

All summer long, swaths of wild bergamot (Monarda fistulosa) quake in the presence of thousands of native bumble bee wings beating away. These pollination dynamos use a technique called buzz pollination, vibrating their bodies to trigger nearby flowers to release pollen. At the Lake County Forest Preserves in northern Illinois, a similar buzz of excitement arrived in summer 2020 when staff spotted the federally endangered rusty patched bumble bee (Bombus affinis) at Greenbelt in North Chicago.

Fast forward to summer 2021. The hum continues to reverberate after multiple sightings of this keystone species were documented across the county from Flint Creek to Wadsworth Savanna in Wadsworth. While summer’s the height of hive activity, the shoulder seasons—usually defined as May, June, September and October—might be key to the success of the rusty patched bumble bee. This is partly due to the timing, or phenology, of the species’ lifecycle. It’s one of the first bees to emerge in spring and the last to enter hibernation in fall.

A worker, or male, rusty patched bumble bee (Bombus affinis) sits atop mountain mint. Photo © Dan Mullen.
A rusty patched bumble bee (Bombus affinis) sits atop mountain mint. Photo © Dan Mullen.
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A thousand-mile journey on two-inch wings

Post by Jen Berlinghof

I’ve spent many days this summer living the “lake life,” from the sandy dunes of the Great Lakes to the cattail-studded coves of inland waters. The waterways found within the Lake County Forest Preserves in northern Illinois have been especially rewarding. Each shoreline has provided unique glimpses of wildlife, including an osprey (Pandion haliaetus) diving full throttle to catch a fish at dawn, and a red fox (Vulpes vulpes) pouncing on prey hidden among the beach grass at dusk.

Also present at every waterway this summer has been the jewel-hued, common green darner dragonfly (Anax junius). These ubiquitous insects effortlessly nab multitudes of mosquitoes on the wing. While the monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus) reigns in our minds when it comes to insect migrations, recent research reveals the green darner takes a multi-generational, miles-long journey of its own each year.

Common green darner dragonflies (Anax junius) are found in the forest preserves. Stock photo.
Common green darner dragonflies (Anax junius) are found in the forest preserves. Stock photo.
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What’s wrong with this picture?

Editor’s note: hey readers, Brett Peto here. This month, guest author Pati Vitt, Manager of Restoration Ecology at the Lake County Forest Preserves in northern Illinois, returns with the third part of her series about our research project to restore 180 acres of former farmland within Grant Woods Forest Preserve in Ingleside using a climate-adapted, regionally sourced native seed mix.

This past winter, we planted 800 pounds of native grass seed from southern Illinois and Kentucky in the project area. The goal was (and still is) to help us understand whether we should source native seeds from further south to make our future restoration projects more resilient to climate change.

Unfortunately, as you can probably tell from the photo below, even the best-laid plans can go awry. And so they did, when an unseasonable early drought struck. Pati will pick it up from here.

The author's boot atop a drought-parched patch of soil at Grant Woods in Ingleside. Photo © Lake County Forest Preserves.
The author’s boot atop a drought-parched patch of soil at Grant Woods in Ingleside. Photo © Lake County Forest Preserves.
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Become a community scientist

Post by Jen Berlinghof

While the past year and a half has kept many of us mostly at home, nature in our backyards and beyond has provided a balm for these trying times. General use of the Lake County Forest Preserves in northern Illinois is trending 30% higher in 2021 than a typical pre-pandemic year. And in 2020, there was an astounding 70% surge in visitation. The number of folks delving into home gardening and backyard birding has skyrocketed as well, making headlines by leaving store shelves bare of birdseed and bird feeders. The COVID-19 pandemic has amplified our desire to connect to nature closer to home, and it has created space and time for local, daily observations. All of this translates to an environment ripe for community science, also called citizen science.

Community scientists flip over a cover board during a BioBlitz event held at Middlefork Savanna in Lake Forest in 2008. Photo © Carol Freeman.
Community scientists flip over a cover board during a BioBlitz event held at Middlefork Savanna in Lake Forest in 2008. Photo © Carol Freeman.
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A native garden to call your own

Guest post by Eileen Davis

What is your earliest gardening memory? Was it planting a seed in a paper cup at school, and watching it sprout and grow on the classroom windowsill? Perhaps you gathered dandelion flowers and presented your mom with a beautiful, yellow bouquet. Or did you rake up a giant pile of leaves to jump in on a crisp fall day? You might even have visited the native garden at Independence Grove in Libertyville, part of the Lake County Forest Preserves in northern Illinois.

My earliest gardening memory is helping my aunt and uncle in their garden. I was only about four or five years old, but I clearly remember the prickly feeling of the cucumber vines scratching my forearm as I helped pull weeds. No matter the memory, we are all doing the same thing—tending to our little piece of the Earth. It’s something humans have done for thousands and thousands of years. We are and always have been dependent on our environment for survival.

The author's daughters playing in a backyard leaf pile. Photo © Eileen Davis.
The author’s daughters playing in a backyard leaf pile. Photo © Eileen Davis.
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