Recently I asked my friend Paul Wegzyn, owner of School Street Sunflowers, if I could poke around his sunflower field after it had closed for the season. The field had not yet been turned over to prepare for planting a winter cover crop and with all the expiring flowers, I thought perhaps it might be a wonderful place to photograph. He is so kind and said surely, no problem.
Suffice it to say, Paul’s field far exceeded my expectations for dreamy “expiring” beauty. The sunflowers not only provide myriad species of wildlife with seeds, but the tall, sturdy heads and leaves make for an outstanding songbird perch. The Song Sparrows use the sunflower heads to both forage and groom, the warblers for cover as they are hunting insects, and the most ingenious of all is how the Bobolinks make use of the seed heads. The grass that grows in and amongst the sunflowers is nearly as tall as the flower heads. The Bobolink lands on the sunflower and after thoroughly eyeballing the surrounding landscape for danger (hawks, I imagine), she slides a mouthful of grass seeds down the stalk and into her beak.
Over a period of several days I counted between half a dozen to a dozen Bobolinks, all females and immatures, not a single adult male amongst the flock. I wonder if the males migrate earlier than the females and immatures or if this was just a fluke. The males are striking in their crisp coat of black, white, and yellow, while the female’s feathers look nothing like the male’s wing patterning. (Thank you to author John Nelson for the positive bird ID!)
School Street Sunflowers has been providing a fantastic source of fuel for this super long distant migrant. At this time of year Bobolinks eat seeds and grains, switching over to insects during the breeding season.The Bobolink’s journey is an impressive 6,000 mile trek and they can fly 1,100 miles in a single day. Each year Bobolinks fly approximately 12,500 miles round trip and during the course of an average Bobolink’s life span, they will have traveled a distance equal to circumnavigating the earth four to five times.
Bobolinks are, as are many species of grassland birds, in overall decline. In some areas of New England they are recovering, due in large part to the success of The Bobolink Project. Because Bobolinks nest on the ground and because hay fields are typically planted and mowed earlier than in previous decades, the nest, eggs, and nestlings are churned up in plowing. The Bobolink Project is non profit organization that pays farmers to plant and to mow a little later in the season, which allows the birds to mature to fledge.
Above photo gallery courtesy The Bobolink Project
Because of habitat loss, the use of neonicotinoids, and global climate change, grassland species need our help. Like other charismatic species of wildlife–Monarchs, Snowy Owls, and Piping Plovers come to mind–perhaps the Bobolink can be that grassland flagship species that people get excited about. Understanding a wild creature’s life story and lending a helping hand also provides habitat conservation for other species of wildlife as well.
Bobolinks at School Street Sunflowers