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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The cunning of cowbirds

Post by Jen Berlinghof

Bird migration is well underway, and the nesting season is upon us at the Lake County Forest Preserves in northern Illinois. I watched last week as an American robin (Turdus migratorius) plucked dried grasses from the yard, nudging them into place with her beak and wings, readying her cup-shaped nest for the azure eggs that are synonymous with spring. From the nearby American sycamore (Platanus occidentalis) tree, I heard the gurgling chatter of a flock of brown-headed cowbirds (Molothrus ater).

I thought about how while the robin might’ve seemed completely absorbed in her nest building, she was probably wearily listening to the cowbirds, too. Brown-headed cowbirds are North America’s most common avian brood parasite, forgoing nest building altogether. Instead, they lay their eggs in the nests of more than 200 other species of birds, leaving the incubation and rearing of their young to these unwitting foster parents.

A female brown-headed cowbird (Molothrus ater) spotted at Rollins Savanna in Grayslake. Photo © Phil Hauck.
A female brown-headed cowbird (Molothrus ater) spotted at Rollins Savanna in Grayslake. Photo © Phil Hauck.
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The curious courtship of the American woodcock

Post by Jen Berlinghof

March is the demarcation of spring. This new season is brewing now as snowmelt percolates through the thick mats of leaves on the forest floor into swollen creeks. Sap is rising in the sugar maples (Acer saccharum), with its promise of sweetness after a harsh winter. The purple, mottled crowns of skunk cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus) peek out of the thawing mud, surging toward the sun. And the quiet of winter is replaced with the cacophony of western chorus frogs (Pseudacris triseriata) accompanied by the “peent” and “whir” of American woodcocks (Scolopax minor) in the Lake County Forest Preserves in northern Illinois.

The American woodcock (Scolopax minor) is a curious species to study. Stock photo.
The American woodcock (Scolopax minor) is a curious species to study. Stock photo.
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The feathered friends of fall migration

Guest post by Ken Klick

Fall bird migration is happening now at the Lake County Forest Preserves in northern Illinois, and each day (and night) brings tens of thousands of newly arrived birds. Yet finding fall migrants can be challenging. Their subdued palettes of brown, tan, and olive feathers hide in sharp contrast to their resplendent springtime colors.

Unlike spring migration, most birds travel quietly in the fall, barely whispering a note to indicate their presence. In Lake County, fall migration starts in July, when our forests and prairies are green and full of blooming flowers. It’s a five-month-long period involving more than 200 species that rest and feed in our nearly 31,000 acres of preserves.

Spotting a bird can be difficult when vegetation conceals fleeting glimpses, making observations tricky and identification nearly impossible. Besides, who’s thinking of fall migration in July’s summer vacation mindset?

Either way, here are some of my favorite fall birding observations by month, over my past five decades of birdwatching.

July brings our first fall migrants: shorebirds. A visit to the Lake Michigan shoreline at Fort Sheridan in Lake Forest finds sanderlings (Calidris alba), sandpipers (Scolopacidae family), and yellowlegs (Tringa spp.) avoiding people and surf while searching for food. Many migrating shorebirds have just finished raising young in the tundra’s perpetual daylight and have embarked on a 6,000-mile round trip journey.

Solitary sandpiper (Tringa solitaria). Photo © Phil Hauck.
Solitary sandpiper (Tringa solitaria). Photo © Phil Hauck.
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The joy of a feather found

Guest post by Nan Buckardt

I found a feather today and it stopped me in my tracks. There it was, tucked into the dewy grass—a single, beautiful feather just lying next to my sidewalk.

It’s not uncommon to come across feathers in my work at the Lake County Forest Preserves in northern Illinois. My naturalist brain immediately started to assess the discovery, analyzing it on a few key points.

The feather the author found just outside her front door. Photo © Lake County Forest Preserves.
The feather the author found just outside her front door. Photo © Lake County Forest Preserves.
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The solace of purple martins

Post by Jen Berlinghof

There’s solace to be found in the fact that the rhythms of nature march on. This spring, the sun still rises. The wild leek (Allium tricoccum) still pulses its verdant green arms through the pulpy leaf litter of the forest floor. The birds still surge through the skies as they migrate to and through the Lake County Forest Preserves in northern Illinois. Like us, some of these birds are inclined to congregate in large communities. Over the years, the colonies of a particular species, the purple martin (Progne subis), have become largely reliant on people to provide shelter for their nesting flocks.

Two purple martins look at each other on the ledge of a martin house. Photo © Phil Hauck.
Two purple martins look at each other on the ledge of a martin house. Photo © Phil Hauck.
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Give thanks for turkey vultures

Post by Jen Berlinghof

Come late November, most of us have turkeys on the brain. But a different type of turkey is taking to the skies at this time of year on its annual migration south: the turkey vulture (Cathartes aura). You can spot them in the sky or on the ground in the Lake County Forest Preserves in northern Illinois.

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A world of warblers

Guest post by Alyssa Firkus

In my early twenties, I believed adventure was found in the tallest mountain, the deepest ocean, the largest cavern. I chased whales, orca, brown bears, bald eagles, and other charismatic megafauna. It took decades to realize I didn’t need to seek these animals or climb these mountains to find adventure. Some of the best adventure awaited me in my own backyard. This led me to join the Education Department at the Lake County Forest Preserves in northern Illinois in October 2018. What an adventure it’s been!

Anyone who’s attended a program taught by our staff or volunteers knows these educators are knowledgeable and passionate. This group ignited my latest adventure—birding—though I can’t point to a single component that sparked my newest hobby. It could have been my awe for the birders in this group, their love for birds and their impressive ability to bird by ear. It might have been my draw to a new challenge. The patience, attention to detail, and dedication it takes to be an effective birder. It may have been the rush of excitement, getting a glimpse of a rare species for a brief moment as it makes its annual migration. Perhaps all of these were feathery factors. Regardless, I’m hooked.

Birding is a rewarding activity that requires patience and knowledge. Photo © Tim Elliott.

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The wonder of wood ducks

Post by Jen Berlinghof

Spring is the starting block for wildlife in the race to find suitable mates and nesting sites. With the increased flurry in wildlife activity, staff at the Lake County Forest Preserves in northern Illinois also get an increased flurry of phone calls with questions from the public. One recent call came from a gentleman in disbelief upon seeing ducks perched in his trees. He was utterly transfixed by the phenomenon. The call brought back a flash of memory for me of the first time I saw a wood duck (Aix sponsa) as a child, on my maternal grandfather’s property in northern Illinois. Grandpa “Duck,” as we affectionately called him, was an avid outdoorsman. He spent a few moments that spring day pointing out the distinct, vibrantly hued male and the more muted female near a nest hole in an old maple tree. The pair then took off into the woods to the soundtrack of their high-pitched whistling calls.

Male wood ducks are easily identifiable by their glossy green head, chestnut breast, and other vibrant colors. Stock photo © Lake County Forest Preserves.

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