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It’s in your nature: Birds of the meadow

“Penn’s Woods” certainly was an appropriate name given by our state’s founders. Our settlers worked unbelievably hard to clear acre after acre to ensure that they could begin farming and/or grazing their livestock and work animals. Once pastures and grasslands began to spread out in the countryside, meadow-loving birds began to utilize these newfound habitats.

Before I continue, I’ll name of few of these bird species and I’ll wager that 80 percent of the Times News readers have not observed most of them. These once common meadow birds include: Eastern meadowlarks, bobolinks, grasshopper sparrows and killdeer. These are just a few species now finding less and less suitable nesting areas. What has happened?

My mom, sisters and I regularly visited my grandmother’s farm on the western edge of Carbon County. Some of my early birding forays occurred here during our visits. Her fields were no longer planted with corn, but local farmers would cut hay twice a year. Those fields of timothy were perfect for the meadowlarks and bobolinks I could find every summer.

Luckily, the first cutting of hay usually occurred after these birds finished nesting. The breeding seasons then were a success.

Today, long after her death, those fields are no more. Over a half dozen homes and a horse corral or two have taken their place. The stone farmhouse still remains but you won’t find a bobolink, meadowlark or grasshopper sparrow.

Different farming practices, more herbicide and pesticide use, housing developments, and even loss of wintering areas are taking their toll. Today I only know three spots to still find them. A far cry from the dozens I once frequented to add these birds to my annual list.

Bobolinks and meadowlarks are both in the blackbird family with the bobolink owning the long-distance migration records for blackbirds. They migrate over 12,000 miles each year between Argentina and the scattered meadows still available to them in the U.S. They even fly nonstop across the Gulf of Mexico. Look for them arriving here about May 1, perched on a fence post or tall weed and then doing a spiraling flight to attract potential mates.

Meadowlarks and grasshopper sparrows are a bit more secretive. When flushed they’ll fly short distances and drop back into the meadow to hide. Meadowlarks, about 9 inches in size, are a bit easier to find because they are larger and more vocal in spring.

Grasshopper sparrows are rather dull colored. if you’re lucky you might find a male perched atop a weed stalk singing a song only the female will appreciate. They are short tailed and about 6 inches in size.

Not too surprisingly, even killdeers are losing ground. These landlubber plovers, unlike their cousins, favor short grass areas or grounds often rather devoid of much vegetation. Again, loss of habitat seems to be their main issue. I don’t know what efforts we can employ, but reclaimed strip mine areas reseeded with grasses seems to be helping a few of these species. I’m hoping in the future, we can continue to find our “meadow birds.”

Test Your Outdoor Knowledge: Which of these raptors feeds on many large insects during the warmer months? A. red-tailed hawk, B. kestrel, C. merlin, D. peregrine falcon.

Last Week’s Trivia: Wood frogs emerge from hibernation early and have laid their eggs before the other frog and toad species.

Contact Barry Reed at breed71@gmail.com.

Eastern meadowlarks, like this one singing in a Franklin Township meadow, are losing ground due to the loss of their breeding areas. BARRY REED/SPECIAL TO THE TIMES NEWS
A killdeer, a type of plover, nests in undisturbed meadows or even lots with sparse vegetation. This one was photographed next to a retention pond.
Horned larks tough it out though our winters by finding a few seeds in snow covered fields. But their challenge is raising their brood in a meadow before mowing commences.
Grasshopper sparrows remain inconspicuous in a hay field except when the male finds a tall weed stalk from which to sing.