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Mike Jacobs Always in Season: Birds provide a signature for habitat

Bobolinks are small birds, but they are quite conspicuous and pretty nearly unmistakable. They appear black, but a brilliant yellow patch stands out on the back of the head and nape of the neck.

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Bobolink.
Illustration / Mike Jacobs
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Mike Jacobs.jpg
Mike Jacobs.
Tom Stromme

GRAND FORKS – Birds often provide a kind of signature for the space that attracts and supports them. The bobolink played that role in the swathe of grassland that we owned west of Gilby, North Dakota, and I recognized the bird’s role there as I awaited for an estate sales agent to haul off some of the possessions we couldn’t squeeze into our new home in Grand Forks. In this case, the “possessions” nearly filled a 5,000-square-foot Quonset.

Barn swallows dominated the air, even pestering me as I wandered about, reminiscing about our 25 years of living on what we called Magpie Ridge. The name was aspirational. We only rarely had magpies.

Bobolinks, however, showed up every year, although numbers varied. This appears to be a good year for bobolinks. Several males were displaying on twigs of bushes protruding from the swale of grass. They are small birds, but they are quite conspicuous and pretty nearly unmistakable. They appear black, but a brilliant yellow patch stands out on the back of the head and nape of the neck. There are white patches on the wings and rump.

This combination has stuck with me for more than 60 years, because the bobolink was one of the first birds that I recognized on my own. I drew a crude picture of it, and asked my mother what kind of bird it was. She was politely skeptical, as ex-school teachers might tend to be, but she produced a beaten-up copy of a pamphlet about birds and told me to try to find a match.

To my delight, I did find a match. It wasn’t the first bird on what became my “life list” of birds seen and identified, but it was special because I identified myself. It became even more special because the bobolink is a rare species in Mountrail County, where the terrain is much rougher and the grass much shorter than it is in the Red River Valley.

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My guess is that there were about 100 pelicans in total – a number dwarfed by the number of avocets wading in the slick.

Magpies are more common there than in the valley, and they were another early entry on my list. So were whooping cranes, which stopped in a wetland on our property one day in the early 1950s. Dad drove into town to take my sister and me out of school so that we could see that rare species. But I didn’t find it on my own.

The takeaway, I suppose, is that the search is as exciting as the finding.

It appears that chipping sparrows will be the signature bird at our new habitat, a backyard that borders Belmont Road just north of 47th Avenue. They have been entertaining us while we sit on the patio both during morning coffee breaks and afternoon wine tastings.

I confess that I had been hoping for cardinals. The other day, a neighbor triumphantly reported that a male cardinal had shown up in a nearby backyard. I wasn’t surprised. I heard a cardinal calling. No cardinal has settled down on our property, however, although my goal remains watching cardinals while I’m washing dishes.

One of my rambles through the neighborhood produced a surprise, a retention pond associated with the flood control and drainage works built after the Flood of 1997. It is a small pond, perhaps a couple of acres ringed by cattails and other emergent plants of wet areas. This is habitat for red-winged blackbirds, and four males were loudly proclaiming their presence, and marking their territory and advertising for mates.

A killdeer tried to lure me away from a cleverly camouflaged nest. The bird betrayed the presence of eggs by its “broken wing” act. I didn’t follow and the bird flew up, then circled back to the nest, which was nothing more than a bare patch in the weedy field – closely mowed – that surrounds the wetland.

Neither red-winged blackbirds nor killdeers are rare birds, but finding them unexpectedly gave me a jolt of joy, as birds have done throughout my lifetime..

The peregrine pair nesting on the UND watertower did produce young and the young have been banded. A sudden conflict caused me to miss the occasion. I’ll find out the results and share them next week.

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Jacobs is a retired publisher and editor of the Herald. Reach him at mjacobs@polarcomm.com.

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