Spotting the colorful Bobolink

The colorful Bobolink is a familiar summer sight in prairies and grassy areas of our northern states, but in southern Illinois it is one of our many spring migrants. Now is the time to look for them, along weedy river levees and fallow farm fields, where they feed on seeds and insects. They are often seen in small flocks, so if you see one, look around! My friend Ben Gelman showed me my first Bobolink at Heron Flats (Crab Orchard NWR), and called them the “upside-down bird,” since they are colorful on their topside, and completely black on their underside.

The Bobolink is a fairly small bird at 7 inches in length; they’re just a bit larger than a House Sparrow. The song is a harsh burbling, jangling warble, somewhat metallic in sound. It is a member of the Blackbird (Icterid) family, and its calls are similar to other local blackbirds. The male is quite distinctive with its black tail, white rump, black and white back, ochre nape, black head, and its jet-black belly and wings. The female looks similar to a female House Sparrow with a black crown. Their diet is omnivorous, but during migration they feed heavily on grains and other seeds; in the past, large flocks did serious damage during migration, to rice fields in the south. Both sexes engage in polygamy. They make a nicely lined cup nest on the ground, well hidden among dense grasses. The clutch is usually five or sex eggs, which the female incubates for about 12 days.

Unfortunately, the number of Bobolinks has declined dramatically over the past few decades (up to 75%), primarily due to habitat loss. This bird travels an incredible 12,000+ miles during its migration from northern U.S.A and Canada, to and from central South America, every spring and fall. Some of the better places to see these birds in our area are along the Big Muddy Levee Roads (if the sides haven’t been mowed), flooded/marshy fields in the Mississippi River Bottoms, reclaimed strip mines, and Grand Tower Island. A quick peak at eBird will inform you of the most recent sightings.

The Bobolink Henry Detwiler photo

Current regional sightings

May is arguably the best month to see the greatest number of migratory birds in our area. From confusing shorebirds to colorful warblers, this is the time of year you can easily spot over 100 species of birds in a single day. Good locations to look for shorebirds are in flooded areas, fish farms, at Heron Flats in Crab Orchard NWR, and at Nason Observation Tower at Rend Lake. Warblers, vireos, flycatchers and grosbeaks are found throughout, but especially in our many parks, refuges and the Shawnee National Forest. Two excellent places close to Carbondale are Giant City State Park and Crab Orchard National Wildlife Refuge.

American Golden-Plovers have been spotted in the Mississippi Bottoms. On April 13 a Glossy Ibis was observed at the Belrose Tract in Pulaski County before being flushed by two Peregrine Falcons. Grasshopper and Henslow’s Sparrows have returned to the Knight Hawk Strip Mine. And already by April 24, 23 species of warblers had been reported in Jackson County.

• Carbondale is my home town, where I started birding over 50 years ago. I spent an exciting 16 years as a bird guide, and have penned bird-finding books for counties and locales in Arizona, California and Illinois. You can reach me at