Antietam. The Maryland creek bearing that name ran red on September 17, 1862 as Union and Confederate soldiers clashed in the bloodiest day of battle in U.S. history. That landscape, now part of Antietam National Battlefield, is today a peaceful place of stunning beauty.
Birds, deer and other animals roam in abundance across a patchwork terrain of grassland, crops and trees. Roads lined with cannons, monuments and split-rail fences wind past historic farmhouses. The roads and a network of walking trails provide easy access to wildlife that seems to have grown comfortable with the intrusion. I’ve decided to take an early morning drive and walk to check it out in more detail.
The boxes are there, 100 in all, because of the efforts of one couple, Mark and Jean Raabe. The Raabes maintain the boxes, checking them once a week from March to November. They painstakingly clean them out at the end of each season and get them ready for the next season. Mark replaces the boxes every five to six years.
Because of these boxes, more than 9,000 bluebirds have successfully fledged, which is bird-speak for an egg which hatches into a bird that flies away from the nest.
Bluebirds are easy to find. Look for them perching on fence posts or buzzing the visitor center as a group. Male bluebirds can be identified by their vivid, patriotic colors: red, white and blue.
The ladies dress modestly in coats of blue-gray with brighter blue accents. Their breast feathers are washed with soft red. Bluebirds typically have sweet expressions, supporting the folk belief that bluebirds are symbols of happiness.
A juvenile bluebird, looking nothing like its parents, balances awkwardly on a fence rail. Its parents will likely have another brood this year. Meanwhile, this little one is learning to forage on its own for insects and berries.
Many of the park’s nest boxes are currently occupied by Tree Swallows. The swallows swoop low over billowing fields of wheat, snatching insects on the fly. Their presence means less grain is consumed by insects, leaving more for the farmer.
Perversely, tree swallows don’t spend much time in trees, preferring instead to survey open fields from a handy fence post. To my delight, they pose beautifully for photographs, as if being paid for their time in dragonflies. The swallow’s elegantly curved wings and striking colors — iridescent peacock blue above, white below — makes it a picturesque subject.
Driving slowly down a quiet lane, I see a flash of yellow before me — a pair of American Goldfinches zipping across the landscape. It’s impossible to grab my camera to photograph them. Fortunately, I have a photo of a goldfinch spotted on an earlier visit.
In the distance, I spot an Indigo Bunting flaunting its head-to-toe blueness over the partially-blue Bluebirds. It, too, disappears before I can get close enough to take a decent photo. Maybe next time.
Another blue-colored bird, the Blue Grosbeak, made an appearance on my last visit, but does not show today. The grosbeak, a darker blue than the bunting, sports rust wing accents and has a Cyrano-sized nose.
After two hours of driving and walking, the sun is getting hot, and I decide it’s time to go home.
Today, as I saw people walking their dogs and jogging across the serene landscape, it was difficult to imagine the bloodshed that took place more than a century ago. But, the fact that it did led to the creation of a park that brings people and wildlife together in peaceful coexistence . . . with occasional rainbows.