Sunday, May 31, 2009

Grassland Birds

The Dickcissel is a bird of the North American prairie. For folks living in its core breeding area like Iowa and Kansas, it may be nothing special. There, its song which it broadcasts over the grasslands, “ see see—dick! dick! chee chee chee, ” may become quite monotonous. But here, in the Piedmont of Virgina---Fauquier County, specifically--- the Dickcissel is a big deal. This species breeds only sporadically this far east, and some summers it can be difficult to find.

There is one charmed spot, a short stretch appropriately named Grassdale Road, that must have what this bird looks for in a place to raise a family. I have been visiting this location every year for the last five years, and yesterday this beautiful male appeared to be waiting for me. All I had to do was lower my car window after I turned onto this road and listen. He was right there, above me on a wire! His unmistakable, quickly repeated song was truly music to my ears.

I wonder where these guys perch to sing on the vast prairies where utility wires and fences must be spaced further apart? Here, they perch on nothing else, but make frequent trips to what I assume is the nest site, hidden deep in a field of wheat. The nest is placed near, but not on, the ground.

I’m worried that the field may be harvested soon. Incubation averages 12-13 days, but hatchlings require another 7-10 days in the nest. They are unable to fly for another few days after fledging. So, nesting in a cultivated field is a risky business.

The other species that appreciates Grassdale Road is the Grasshopper Sparrow, one of the ammodramous group, a little guy with a large bill, ragged tail, and intricately patterned plumage. Of course, you have to see them closely to appreciate the plumage. Photographing a 5-inch bird is more challenging than a 16-inch shorebird.

Male Grasshopper Sparrows favor fence posts along this road to declare their territory in song, and yesterday one bird had two favorite spots. He would make a large arcing flight between them, his wings flapping so fast that he appeared to be a little wind-up toy.

Visiting Grassdale Road, not far from Remington, VA, is a summertime ritual for me where, for a morning, I watch two of my favorite grassland species attempt to breed once again. I hope that as in July of 2007, when I took this photo of a newly fledged Grasshopper Sparrow, the birds I saw yesterday will be successful again.

With sadness, I remember that only one to two percent of the original North American Prairie survives. The Grasshopper Sparrow is in decline; the Dickcissel declined steeply by over 30% from 1966 to 1978 and then stabilized since 1979 at about two-thirds of 1966 level. (Cornell University's Birds of North American Online.)


Sharon said...

Lovely images of 2 fantastic birds. You are right when you say these birds are difficult to find; sad, but a treat when we do!

Aloysius Horn said...

Great photos and natural history!

Rene said...

I don't want to be redundant, but great photos. The little patch of yellow on the sparrows head is cute. I like your profile, too. I've only been birding a very short time. I haven't seen competitiveness in listing, but I have seen obsession with it. I don't get it either.

stephen said...

Dickcissels are likely to show up in Virginia whenever here is drought in Texas or the midwest. Watch for this trend! When conditions are not so good in those usual spots, they go a-wandering east.