I was on a dirt road east of Warren a couple of weeks ago, when heard the now familiar (to me) buzzy insect-like trill of the Savannah Sparrow. Thinking about that song took me back more than 40 years - to a farm field in northwestern New Jersey. I remember stopping along the roadside to try to figure out who was making that sound – a tiny brown and white sparrow with a yellow smudge of feathers above the eye, and the stickpin brown dot on its white chest.

    It’s funny how sounds can take you back in time.  

    I was on a dirt road east of Warren a couple of weeks ago, when heard the now familiar (to me) buzzy insect-like trill of the Savannah Sparrow.  Thinking about that song took me back more than 40 years - to a farm field in northwestern New Jersey.   I remember stopping along the roadside to try to figure out who was making that sound – a tiny brown and white sparrow with a yellow smudge of feathers above the eye, and the stickpin brown dot on its white chest.   

    I remember the satisfaction I felt when I concluded - without a doubt - that it was a Savannah Sparrow.  As I congratulated myself, I heard another puzzling song - more like the little robot “R2-D2” of   Star Wars fame.   At first I couldn’t figure out where the sound came from.  

    Then all of a sudden, a black bird about the size of a Red-wing, helicoptered straight up about 6-feet from the ground, singing a bubbling song as it hovered.   Just as quickly, it stopped, spreading its wings as it floated back down, to hide once again in the grass.    

    What was that?  

    It had to be in the blackbird family.   It was.   A Bobolink!

    I had just started bird-watching and I had no idea a bird like this even existed – and that I could see one in - of all places - New Jersey.

    I can count on one hand, the number of times I’ve seen a Bobolink since that day.  And I can remember when, where and who was with me at the time.    

    It’s not that Bobolinks are secretive birds.  Just the opposite.   

    They’re quite conspicuous - the only black birds with white feathers on their backs and wings.   They hover - like a little helicopter – just above the grass.   And there’s nothing like their song.  It’s unique - and unforgettable.

    Ornithologist Arthur Cleveland Bent described it as “a bubbling delirium of ecstatic music.”  According to Bent, these birds were named for their song.  But I don’t hear the “bob-o-link” in it.  To me, these birds sound more like “R-2 D-2,” the little robot of Star Wars fame.

    Hearing the buzz of the Savannah Sparrow two weeks ago in rural Warren made me pull off to the side of the road, roll down my window and listen.   I didn’t expect to see Bobolink.   But maybe I’d get lucky.

    While still common in Polk and Marshall Counties during spring migration and nesting season, Bobolinks, like many grassland birds, are on the decline throughout their breeding range.  Their numbers have dropped 65% since 1966.  Vulnerable to habitat loss and the timing of land management practices, Bobolinks are on the Minnesota DNR’s list of “species in greatest conservation need,” and Minnesota Audubon’s list of “stewardship bird species.”  

    As I sat in my car, thinking about how great it would be to see a Bobolink, two black birds with white on their backs flew past my window and landed in a shrub along the roadside.   Seconds later, I heard the “bubbling delirium of ecstatic music.”  

    I couldn’t believe my good fortune.  Not one, but two Bobolinks were singing right next to my car!  

    I pulled out my camera, took photos and watched them sing and do their “helicopter” routines - until they took off, flying towards the Agassiz Valley impoundment.  

    I’ve been going back to the impoundment almost every day since, hoping to see them again.  

    I have not been disappointed.  In fact, I have never seen so many.  Last weekend I counted nearly a hundred Bobolinks.   

    The males arrive around mid-May.  The females show up about a week or so later.   They are conspicuous right now.  The males are singing, defending territory and displaying for the females.

    What brings them here?  Grassland habitat and food.  During breeding season, Bobolinks feed on weed seeds and insects.    

    The best time to see – and hear – them is early in the morning (an hour or so before sunrise) or early evening, on a windless day.   You can spot them along the perimeter of the impoundment and along the “wildlife drive” on top of the dike.

    Other nesting birds at the impoundment:  American White Pelicans, Red-necked Grebes, Orchard Orioles and lots of Canada Goose goslings.  Don’t forget your binoculars, a bird identification book, insect repellent and a camera.  Early morning and late afternoon are always the best viewing times.   
    
    Check out the Agassiz Audubon facebook page to see what’s been spotted in Northwestern Minnesota.   Call 218-745-5663 (9am-5pm weekdays please) if you have questions about birds and other wildlife.  And if you have time to volunteer – Agassiz Audubon can use your help to maintain the NW Minnesota Pollinator Garden.