JUDY JESSOP: Enjoying Uncommon Residents of a Summer Meadow
The white ribbon of sandy road sweeps away from us, flanked on each side by split-rail fencing. Beyond these fences, meadow stretches wide.
We have entered Hobby Field adjacent to the Walthour-Moss Foundation land that has been preserved for equestrian activities. Our eyes are greeted by winks of blue, yellow and orange as wildflowers nod, and fine grassy seed heads lazily sway, accentuating each breath of breeze that kisses the meadow.
Ever-present is a subtle yet prevailing hum of grasshoppers. In the distance stand deep-green and shady longleaf pines, tall, erect and welcoming.
I walk down this road with Susan Campbell, president of the Sandhills Natural History Society. On this early July morning, we have come to view a new summer resident that, due to its rarity, has created much interest.
It seems that a pair of scissor-tailed flycatchers, which usually summer in the southern Midwest, are not only visiting with us, but nesting in one of the longleaf pines that border the open meadow through which we now stroll.
This lovely setting, with its abundance of grasshoppers, is prime habitat that attracts more than the scissor-tails. Perched on the fence to our right is a bird I have not seen near my hometown for many years, an Eastern meadowlark, his beautiful yellow breast puffed in song as his lilting melody fills our ears. Memories of long-gone childhood summers filled with babbling streams, wildflower picking and the voice of this bird, flood me with nostalgia as we move down the road.
In this place, the meadowlark is hopeful as he stands his ground, broadcasting the establishment of his territory. Not far away, another meadowlark is quick to answer, reminding all listening that he lives next door and has every intention of remaining there.
To our left, about mid-field, a grasshopper sparrow sings in staccato from his perch on a marker placed near his nest. The farmer who plans to harvest this grassland for hay has agreed to mow around any nests marked by Susan and Mark McCloy, who are studying these nesting birds.
Movement near us grabs our eyes as this sparrow's mate perches momentarily on a rail of the fence before heading over to her nest.
First View of Flycatcher
We continue down the path, taking a right in front of the piney woods. As we near an equipment shed , we get our first view of the scissor-tailed flycatcher as he perches on a wire nearby. The tail of this bird is striking -- about twice as long as the body.
As we watch, he swoops out over the meadow and with the grace of a silk-garbed dancer, snatches a grasshopper in mid-air, flits that magnificent tail in an agile turn, and is back on the wire.
This pair of scissor-tails have made three attempts at nest building in various places around this field. Such activity is common for these birds, which nest in open country.
Many of their nesting attempts fail due to heavy rainstorms and wind that are common both here and in the open grasslands of their usual range in Texas, Arkansas and Oklahoma. It seems that this third nest is going to house the fledglings, however, for it is well protected in a sturdy longleaf pine.
Thanks to the careful observation of others, we know exactly where the nest is located. Yet it is so well camouflaged, it is still difficult to spot. The only thing that gives away the location is bits of some sort of fuzz, something that does not belong in a longleaf pine.
Scissor-tails are known for their fondness of manmade material, such as string, paper, cigarette filters and carpet fiber for nesting material. Such substances may make up as much as 30 percent of the nest.
We settle in the shade of the equipment shed and watch as the female arrives with a bit of grass to place in the nest. As she works, the male flies in to perch on a branch nearby. He puts on quite a show -- sunning himself and preening. We are quite fortunate to sit in on a bit of this couple's domesticity.
Four or five eggs will be laid in the nest. Only then will the female begin brooding. Though the female has all the duties of nest building and incubation of eggs, the male is an excellent guard and will help feed nestlings once they arrive.
Once hatched, within two to three weeks, the young ones will be ready to fledge. They are then fed for a period of time by both parents before dispersing. In their home range, where these birds are abundant, scissor-tails form large flocks in late summer as time for migration nears.
These flocks can have as many as 1,000 birds, and large trees are their favorite roosting sites.
As we prepare to head back, the call of a bobwhite quail echoes in the distance and an answering call pierces the air from somewhere in the meadow just yards from us. I have been in this grassland less than two hours. It amazes me to realize that in that time I have seen four different species of birds that are seldom seen these days.
The Eastern meadowlark, grasshopper sparrows and bobwhite quail were once plentiful, but they have become exceedingly rare. The downturn is caused by urban sprawl, as well as some modern agricultural and forestry practices -- such as the removal of hedgerows -- using very large tracts of land yielding a single crop and expanded use of pesticides and herbicides.
Fields like the one in which we stand may be cut for hay before the young of grass-nesting birds are old enough to fledge. The result is that populations of birds, such as we have seen today, have declined steeply in recent years.
North Carolina is among many states that are concerned about the decline of quail, songbirds and wildlife that depend on what scientists call "early succession habitats" --unruly meadows, grasslands and the shrubby, weedy plant growth that edges fields, or occurs as a field slowly turns to forest.
In places such as the Sandhills Game Lands and Fort Bragg, these habitats still exist, but there is not enough public land in the state of North Carolina to re-establish wildlife populations to the desired level.
As a result, the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission has a pilot project that is intended to increase habitat and improve small game and songbird populations on private as well as public lands.
It was introduced in 1999. The Cooperative Upland-habitat Restoration Enhancement program (CURE) hopes to create enough habitats in selected areas of the state to have a measurable impact on birds, such as bobwhite quail, meadowlarks, and a host of other open meadowland and early succession habitat wildlife.
In addition to the CURE project, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has begun the Upland Bird Habitat Buffers initiative, which compensates farmers who set aside sensitive areas to protect water quality and other environmental assets.
Enrollment in this program is still open and will remain so until December 2007 or such time that the N.C. allotment is used up. For more information on this program phone NCWRC at (919) 707-0050.
Meanwhile, if you would like to see some of these birds, including the scissor-tailed flycatcher, you can give Susan a call. She will be happy to show you the birds. Her phone number is 949-3207, and her e-mail is email@example.com.
It is a great way to start the day. So go take an early morning walk in Hobby Field, listen to the blending of lovely melodies and perhaps catch a glimpse of fledgling grasshopper sparrows, meadowlarks, scissor-tailed flycatchers and bobwhite quail. Enjoy!
Judy Jessop can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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