Here is the latest For the Birds column …
I turned the corner on one of the many trails that cut through the expansive fields of Happy Landings in southern New England and headed straight into the mid-morning sun.
To the right was a long but narrow stretch of bushy habitat; to the left a large plot of a hay field, short-cropped after a mid-fall mowing. It was a perfect New England winter morning — sunny and cold — even if the calendar read fall.
The bird walk had been very slow up to that point, with a hairy woodpecker being the highlight of only three species spotted. Half daydreaming because of the lack of action, I noticed a large bird on the ground on the trail. It was inches from the brushy strip of land.
The sun was bright and in my eyes, too, so I was too late to identify the bird. It had stepped into the thick brush before I could raise and focus my binoculars. I assumed it was a mourning dove and walked gingerly along the trail, hoping I could spot the bird among the tangle of vegetation.
The plan worked, surprisingly, but it wasn’t a mourning dove. It was something larger and far less common in the New England wild. It was a northern bobwhite.
I hadn’t seen a bobwhite in years. The last time was a decade ago — perhaps more — in Delaware. This was my first New England bobwhite sighting. I snapped out of my daydreaming state, obviously, and walked so as to not flush the beautiful game bird.
A few dozen yards along I took a seat among the dead grasses, weeds and wildflowers. The bird was headed in that direction and I was anticipating that it would come back out on the trail.
Right again. Wow. Two for two. Better still, the sun was now at my back as I looked at the chicken-like ground bird.
It followed along the trail for a bit before cutting into the field, continuing a path toward me. I was still enough that the bird got to within a few feet of me before noticing and walking briskly further into the field.
It stopped to call a few times while on the path, so I assume there was another bobwhite in the brush. It wasn’t the well-known “bob-white” song, but its more nondescript call.
Not wanting more distance to get between the two (or more) birds, I stood up, brushed the small sticks and weed seeds that clung to my jeans, and continued on my way.
Northern bobwhites are more of a southern bird; New England is at the upper part of its territory. They are common farm and game birds, so it’s unclear whether this bird was truly wild, an escapee, or had been released. I’d like to think it was wild, but at any rate it was a thrill to see him (it was a male.)
The bobwhite popularity has dropped dramatically over the years. The Audubon Society describes it as having “disappeared from much of the northern part of its range, and has declined seriously even in more southern areas. The causes for these declines are not well understood. At northern edge of range, many may be killed by unusually harsh winters, but this does not explain its widespread vanishing act.”
Unfortunately, many birds are vanishing. There are efforts afoot to raise and reintroduce bobwhites into the wild throughout its territory. It’s sad that those measures are necessary, but good that efforts are being made.
Hopefully, bobwhites will make a strong comeback — such as those made by the wild turkey, osprey and bald eagle — and become a common sighting again.
Here’s hoping that for all imperiled bird species.