The Eastern Meadowlark is treasured for its gentle, lilting song that dances across grassy fields on summer days. Last week, on my visit to Antietam National Battlefield, I saw another side of the meadowlark, the hunter-warrior.
Beside a park road, the meadowlark stood atop a fencepost where he held aloft a freshly killed grasshopper. Turning to the four points of the compass, he displayed his trophy for all to admire.
After moving to a different post, the meadowlark made a public announcement. The harsh, martial sound of his voice suggested it was a warning to other males who might have designs on his territory.
When the Eastern Meadowlark is on a high perch, its brilliant yellow throat and the bold black “v” at its base are easily visible. But, when the bird is foraging on the ground, one sees only a camouflage pattern of brown and cream, ideal for hiding in Antietam’s fields of ripening wheat.
The meadowlark’s name is a bit of camouflage, too. It is not a lark at all but is a relative of blackbirds, cowbirds and orioles in the family Icteridae. Like the Grasshopper Sparrow and other inhabitants of grasslands, the meadowlark is threatened by habitat loss. The North Am
erican Breeding Bird Survey found an alarming 89% decline in Eastern Meadowlarks between 1966 and 2015.
Grasslands have been disappearing due to suburban sprawl and corporate farming practices. Parks like Antietam National Battlefield, where open fields dominate the landscape, have become islands of refuge in an unfriendly sea. Today’s decisions about land use and parks will determine if future generations hear and see grassland birds.
Near the park’s observation tower, I spotted a pair of Tree Swallows actively engaged in family planning. The male seemed a bit baffled by the process, trying out different angles of approach.
The female waited patiently, perhaps occupying her mind with images of baby swallows. Drawing close, the male tugged on his mate’s crown feathers before flying off and returning again, a routine practiced multiple times.
Bluebirds are omnipresent at the park but, this time of year, the spotted gray coats of juveniles add seasonal variety. One juvenile surveyed the neighborhood from an enormous hay bale, perhaps hoping to spot its parents bringing a tasty treat.
As I traveled along the park roads, I heard the buzzy songs of Grasshopper Sparrows obscured by deep grass. Occasionally, one revealed itself on a fence post where I could study it and snap a few photos for Cornell University’s online Macaulay Library – a great resource for researchers and anyone with an interest in birds.
I have several photos already of Grasshopper Sparrows but can always find room on my computer for another photo of this charming little bird.