Before me, a swallow dives across a field of wheat turned brilliant gold by the morning sun. The bird looks like a Tree Swallow, but not quite. Tickled by a breeze, the wheat appears to wave to more distant pastures that roll up to a line of blue hills.
In 1862, Confederate soldiers marched over those hills to this place, that looked much as it does now, and confronted the Union Army. For twelve hours, bullets and canon balls hailed upon the landscape, leaving an estimated 23,000 soldiers dead, wounded or missing.
Today, at Antietam battlefield, there was again a death toll – of insects snatched from the air by a squadron of swallows and attacked on the ground by an army of bluebirds, starlings, meadowlarks and sparrows. To the casual eye, however, the landscape was an archetype of peace and tranquility.
At each of my visits, I have seen several Tree Swallows, typically entering and leaving nest boxes that line the park’s roads. Today, for the first time, I saw Barn Swallows, too. Four sitting on a fence allowed me to get close enough for photos.
Like the male Tree Swallow, the male Barn Swallow has a blue cape and metallic blue cap. Its underside is not white, however, but a golden color that turns to rust at the throat.
Both swallows swoop low over grassy fields to capture flying insects in the air. But the Barn Swallow doesn’t share the Tree Swallow’s fondness for nest boxes. Instead, it builds small mud nests attached to buildings. As its name indicates, it likes to nest at barns, but it also nests at bridges, sheds and other structures.
Another bird associated with farms is the Brown-headed Cowbird. Once, it followed bison herds in order to feed on insects and seeds stirred up by pounding hooves; but now the bird follows cows across farms and rangeland. At Antietam, I have seen cowbirds foraging in grass beside the roadways where cars perform a function similar to bison, churning up dust, loose seeds and insects as they pass.
Unfortunately, the cowbird is a “brood parasite,” laying its eggs in the nests of other species. It may also remove one of the original eggs. This habit is believed partly responsible for decreases in the numbers of many songbirds.
The male Brown-headed Cowbird is a shiny black with, as its name suggests, a rusty brown head. The female cowbird is a muted brown all over.
Most often, I see Chipping Sparrows foraging in the grass, but one provided a photo opportunity by perching on a fence. The morning light nicely highlighted the layered look of this sparrow’s head: rust colored feathers at the very top, a white stripe beneath that, a black line from its bill past its eye, and shades of gray beneath that. Those are its summer colors. In winter, it dresses in subdued versions of the same colors. It prefers areas with a mix of trees and grass, such as one finds in some parts of the battlefield.
A male American Goldfinch sang heartily from a fence rail, perhaps still looking for that special someone. At this time of year, goldfinches are just beginning their nesting season. More often, I catch only a glimpse of these tiny birds as they shoot across the landscape like golden meteors.
Too soon, it’s time to leave. Enticing me with fleeting glimpses of their fascinating habits and remarkable beauty, the birds of Antietam ensure I will return.