Grassland Birds, 2013
Part III - Dickcissels
**(V I D E O)**
For the third year running Dickcissels returned in 2013 to Wheatlands Farm in Virginia's Shenandoah Valley. The spring soundscape shifts radically the morning the Dickcissels awaken the grasslands, singing and counter-singing in a pattern that hints at katydids calling to a summer night. From the day they arrive these mini-meadowlarks belt out their raspy salutes to dominate the grassland rap. You would have to have your mobile device in your ear to miss them.
For perspective, in the Shenandoah Valley during 2013 observers posted Dickcissel sightings on eBird (http://ebird.org/ebird/map/) at fewer locations than fingers on a woodworker’s right hand. In the entire 2,500 square-mile Valley there were only three Dickcissel hot-spots, meaning places where the birds were seen repeatedly. One of the hotspots was Swoope, Virginia, near Buffalo Gap and all but one of the Swoope observations occurred on Wheatlands Farm (the other was across the road).
As we noted in Part I of this post, I like to think the Swoope Dickcissels are legacy birds from an era when you needed a herd of bison and two sticks to maintain grasslands. If Swoope can be said to have a tourist trade, a fair fraction of the photographers and fun seekers come to see the Dickcissels. You can find Swoope by traditional means but a GPS helps.
The Dickcissels were here in 2000, then not again until the three-years beginning in 2011. I discussed the excitement then with Kenn Kaufman (www.kaufmanfieldguides.com) who offered an explanation for the 2011 Dickcissel irruption to the east of the Alleghenies:
"...this is an interesting season for grassland birds. I think it's driven at least partly by the extreme drought in the southwest and the western plains ... only a part of the Dickcissel's normal breeding range is under severe drought conditions, but it seems to be enough to have caused a shift, and a number of areas farther east are reporting higher numbers than usual. Certainly they're unusually numerous in Ohio. "
The western drought was even more severe in 2012 when about two dozen Dickcissels sang at Wheatlands. In 2013 the drought concentrated and shifted westward; a half-dozen males called on Swoope.
Naturalist and author Barry Kinzie (www.amazon.com/Birds-Roanoke-Valley-annotated-checklist/dp/B000715PFW) visited Wheatlands during the 2012 Dickcissel takeover and voiced the hope that a “ nursery colony” of the birds might develop and persist after the droughts. That would be consistent with my speculation that Audubon’s "Black-throated Bunting" is channeling a tribal memory of the Swoope grasslands, perhaps a traditional Plan B to be dusted off when the core western range is stressed.
The Dickcissels arrived on June 7th, likely adrift from the parched West. The males sang and did little else; the females strove and toiled, raising their broods, toting caterpillars first, grasshoppers as the nestlings grew (Bent’s Life histories). The last Dickcissel song rang out on August 7th; that male perched silent for a few more days then faded, perhaps in the direction of Venezuela. When that happened early in August of 2012 I concluded the entire Dickcissel company had left – wishful thinking on the part of a farmer hoping to salvage a cutting of hay.
This year the males may have headed south in early August but the juveniles became the lawyers and lobbyists. They began to issue a contact call that comes across as P(x)T, with an sh in there somewhere, but no vowel. It was suggestive of, but different from, their mothers’ protest chips and as the adult females drifted into silence the juveniles became the voice of the clan. Throughout August and into September the calls of the juveniles betrayed their locations and made clear the Dickcissels were a presence still. You can hear this call on the attached video and you might find it useful in locating Dickcissels in late summer after the males leave (or hide and hush).
Purloining vintage Kaufman humor I’ll mention that the house at Wheatlands, built in 1813, celebrated its buffalo birthday this year, something of a … "bisontenniel" . But the Europeans maintained the Buffalo Gap grasslands after the bison left, all except for a grove of trees surrounding the house, a sugar-maple island in a sea of grass. The yard trees are where the Dickcissel juveniles spent their last days at Wheatlands. They quit the natal grass, the shrubs and briars of their fledgeling days, and became, for a fortnight, forest birds, P(x)Ting to a mother who had lost interest in their demands and perhaps had struck her tent as well. They made their own foraging trips into the adjacent pastures, plainly vocal regarding their new-found neglect.
Then, apparently surfing their own genetic GPSs, on September 6th the recruits were gone. Se fueron.