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.

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.
Continue reading

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.
Continue reading

On the path to recovery

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

An aerial view of the 180-acre research project area at Grant Woods in Ingleside. Photo © Mike Borkowski.
An aerial view of the 180-acre research project area at Grant Woods in Ingleside. Photo © Mike Borkowski.
Continue reading

Finding the right angle

This gallery contains 10 photos.

Post by Brett Peto

I keep thinking about angles. Not the kind you measure with a protractor, but those you measure with your mind. The angle of a story, a conversation, or a project. Photography, of course, uses physical angles—where’s the camera pointed? is the sun directly overhead or is it the sweet time of golden hour?—but the best photos make you want to see even more. They make you want to break open the frame and soak in every bit of the Lake County Forest Preserves in northern Illinois.

Since it’s nearly the end of 2019, I thought I’d turn 180 degrees and peruse the photos uploaded to our group Flickr pool since January 1. Suffice to say: we’re spoiled. Spoiled with the beauty of Lake County’s flora, fauna, and natural areas, and the talent of the photographers who capture it for everyone to see. Trees and shrubs in their bright fall wardrobes on either side of a trail draining into a vanishing point. A sandhill crane (Grus canadensis) with both wings up like a paper airplane as it dashes to take off. A whirlpool of stars spun around a rich blue sky over a tranquil wetland.

I’ve gathered these moments plus seven more below, but that’s only a small taste. I encourage you to browse the rest of the visual buffet as we make the turn out of the 2010s into the 2020s. And, hey! You might become inclined to upload that shot living on your phone, camera, or computer.

"Night Moves." Photo © reddog1975.
Continue reading