Ruth Bass: Bobolinks are frosting on perfect day
RICHMOND -- In Jamaica, they eat ‘em. In the Carolinas, they shoot ‘em. In New England, they write poems about ‘em. In the Berkshires, we throw ‘em a party. They are the bobolinks, focus two days ago of a gathering at Hollow Fields in Richmond.
Bobolinks have put up with a lot over the years. They are considered a delicacy for the dinner table in Jamaica. Rice farmers in the Carolinas have shot them by the hundreds of thousands because they came in large numbers to enjoy (and destroy) the rice crops. And in New England -- in our neighborhood, in fact -- they vanished from once-open fields when housing encroached on their breeding areas or early haying destroyed their nests.
But they have found a haven on Berkshire Natural Resources Council property on Perry’s Peak Road where the meadows are wide, the grasses tall and the breezes perfect for soaring and singing.
"You will see bobolinks," promised Doug Bruce of the BNRC, organizer of the first ever Bob-o-thon, a dawn to dusk event with coffee, cider doughnuts and several guided bird walks along the grassy trail up the hill.
Despite his optimism, I wondered. We had, in the past, been guaranteed sightings of manatees, of snowy owls and of puffins - and none of the three had apparently been under contract. But I went, early Saturday, rewarded at the very least by a poetic morning with blue sky, white clouds and the thousand shades of green the Berkshires display in May.
It had been 20 years or so since I’d seen a bobolink, and that was near Lake Ontario. So, hopeful but skeptical, I started down the mowed path to BNRC’s open tent. And a gaudy male bobolink popped up from the grass and soared off. Whew! Everyone who came to the party, even at high noon, saw bobolinks. And 18 other birds, including several warblers, were on the "what did you see?" list at day’s end.
But while warblers and hawks and sparrows may not be easy to identify, the bobolink is as simple as a robin. In his breeding season, he’s the only bird that’s black underneath and white on top, which brought him the tuxedo (but backward) nickname. He also has a bright yellow yarmulke on the back of his head. Like the brilliant ruby-throated hummer, he’s a showoff and a philanderer. But then he molts and becomes just another drab brown bird.
Hollow Fields recently became part of the secret Berkshires, those places that most people never find and that don’t get crowded. Around a bend in the trail leading up the hill, the only sound was the steely chatter of red-winged blackbirds and an occasional cry from a killdeer. The magnificent view to the east was at our backs, but the meadow stopped us when a breeze sent waves of color across the grasses. And now and then, a black spot in the field would turn out to be a bobolink, teetering on a slim stem of grass.
Hundreds of postcard invitations had gone out from the Berkshire Natural Resources Council and the Richmond Land Trust, and somebody had to hope not everyone would come. But about 150 people did show up, including serious bird watchers, and at the end of the day, some visitors were asking if this could become an annual event.
Writers apparently have been in love with bobolinks for years. Willliam Cullen Bryant of Cummington and Emily Dickinson of Amherst are among the New Englanders who put the bird into verse. John Burroughs called the bobolink’s song "a burst of gay and self-satisfied laughter," and says it’s the only song the mockingbird can’t parody or imitate.
If seeing a bobolink doesn’t happen to be at the top of your list -- what’s known as a bucket list these days -- Hollow Fields might be. It’s a haven for people, too.
Ruth Bass lives across from Perry’s Peak. Her web site is www.ruthbass.com.