As I pass a field of deep grass at Antietam National Battlefield, I hear a buzzing sound like that of an insect. Traveling a bit farther, I see a tiny brown bird on a fence post. It opens its mouth to sing and, to my surprise, out comes that buzzing sound. The bird is the well-named Grasshopper Sparrow, and it’s increasingly rare.
In the photo below, one can see the sparrow’s signature markings: two parallel stripes of dark brown on its forehead and a yellow spot above its eye.
The Grasshopper Sparrow is less than 5 inches long, has a flat head and a short tail. It forages in grasslands for grasshoppers and other insects, helping to keep those populations under control. But, this and other grassland birds are threatened by a steady decrease in habitat essential to their survival.
The decline of grassland birds has been called the conservation crisis of the 21st century (Brennan and Kuvlesky 2005). It is estimated that since the mid-1800s, grassland ecosystems in North America have declined by 80%. In Virginia, idle grasslands have been reduced by an estimated 55% since 1945.
(Some sources allege that pesticides, more than habit loss, are causing the decline.)
As an historical park, Antietam National Battlefield just happens to provide the kind of habitat those birds need, including grass, pastureland, cultivated land with grassy crops like hay and wheat, and open scrubland.
The National Park Service now considers the needs of birds in its management of battlefield parks. At Antietam, that includes controlled burns of grassland areas every two or three years to control the growth of undesirable plants that compete with natural grasses.
The Grasshopper Sparrow nests on the ground. But, the Eastern Bluebirds and Tree Swallows that frequent the same areas prefer to nest in boxes provided for them throughout the park. Today, at Antietam, I saw birds of both species carrying seeds and insects to nest boxes for their waiting families. Little dramas played out amidst billowing wheat and tall grass.
The faces of birds suggest they experience emotions, although it’s not always clear which emotions those might be.
The variety and abundance of birds at Antietam battlefield are demonstrated in the photo below. It shows one Tree Swallow, two American Goldfinches and one Eastern Bluebird perched together on a fence. Additional birds were close by but could not fit into the photo!
As on my last visit, one Indigo Bunting made an appearance. This time, I managed to capture a photo of the bird that resembles a flying blueberry.
The Tree Swallows are so approachable by car that it often seems they would willingly join me for a ride. However, keep in mind that these photos were taken with a 300 mm telephoto zoom lens and many are cropped to reveal more detail.
Alas, it’s time to quit for the day. But, already I’m planning a return trip to learn more about Antietam’s wild residents.