Progress of the Seasons Journal: 13 May, 1832-1862.

Current Columbia County Phenological Events for 2015: I think that I forgot to mention that the Thrushs, Hermit and Wood, have been back since last week. Tree Frogs calling two days ago. Else, who can keep up?

Here is the historical phenology report from the ‘Progress of the Seasons Project’ for May 13.


Story Behind the Headlines:

Bobolinks are so brazenly Spring that I can’t avoid coming back to them. Their arrivals are now subsiding, but they are in today’s records and deserve at least some parting consideration. If you’ve never seen or watched Bobolinks, here’s a great video from bird song aficionado Land Elliot, just to get you in the mood. A couple of days ago, I believe I was listening to a Catbird try to imitate a Bobolink – talk about a mixed up song!

Bobolinks are birds primarily of late-cut hay fields; they make their nests . Although I found one historical mention of them using grain fields, they are mainly a bird of grasses rather than grains (although, of course, strictly those are one and the same).

bobo all year

Counties reporting Bobolinks in our historical phenology data. CLICK TO ENLARGE.

In today’s blog, I present six maps: Bobolink occurrence in our data vs. 1850 improved farmland; Bobolink occurrence in Eaton’s data (Birds of New York, 1914) vs. 1900 improved farmland; and ebird’s modern Bobolink distribution matched with some improved farmland stats from the late 1990s.

improved farm 1850

Percent Improved Farmland, 1850. US census data. CLICK TO ENLARGE.

In our arrival data, Bobolinks seem to have three areas of particular abundance: the Hudson Valley, the central  Finger Lakish region, and in and around the Niagara Frontier. Surely, they occurred elsewhere, but perhaps this is where they were the most ‘in your face’.

To a substantial degree, this seems to correspond with the extent of farming at this period, as shown by our second map. Not all farm fields supported Bobolinks but, in this era of grass-based livestock for traction and food, “improved farmland” probably was proportional to suitable hay fields.

eaton bobo

Bobolink abundance data presented in Elon Eton’s Birds of New York (1910-1914). Data were no doubt collected earlier. CLICK TO ENLARGE.

Our next abundance map, one that is much more complete, comes from Eaton’s Birds of New York. Don’t let the abundance of green convince you that in 1900 Bobolinks were more common than in 1850. They probably weren’t, the observers were just much more diligent. So look more at the patterns of abundance indicated in this 1900 Bobolink map.

While the 1900 map is not so different from that of 1850, relative abundance in the far west seems higher, and the Finger Lakish center of abundance seems to have moved north.

improved farm 1900

Improved Farmland, ca 1900. US census data. CLICK TO ENLARGE.


2011 Bobolink abundance in NYS (lighter = more birds) from Cornell’s ebird. Presented at CLICK TO ENLARGE.

This can now be compared to the improved farmland image from roughly the same time period. While that map doesn’t precisely explain the differences just noted, it is clear that western NY agriculture has expanded and, perhaps, Bobolink habitat along with it. Although, as we’ll describe in a moment, not all of that new habitat was as good as the old habitat.

Finally, what about the modern era. Today, there is Bobolink abundance data that those earlier ornithologists could only have drooled over, thanks to efforts like Cornell’s ebird. Our next image, derived from ebird, comes from this site.

This map provides much more detail than what was available earlier, making clear the ‘doughnut hole’ of the Adirondacks, and the relative lack of birds in the Catskills, Rensselaer Plateau and certain other wooded uplands.

improved farm 1997

Improved farmland 1997. US census data. CLICK TO ENLARGE.

Again, however, don’t let the apparent completeness of the Bobolink distribution convince you that they are anywhere near as common today as a century or two earlier. Looking at our farmland map shows you one reason why. Although much of this agriculture is not grass-based and so does not provide good Bobolink habitat, the match is still surprisingly good. Look, for example, at how Columbia and Washington Counties are relative hotbeds of farming in the eastern part of the State and how they are likewise Bobolink havens.

haying schedule

Haying dates as derived from various Columbia County sources. Note that the vertical axis shows the percent of all haying in the given data set which occurred during the particular period. Modern haying (black) is more spread out and starts earlier. CLICK TO ENLARGE.

phenological haying

Our historical phenology data on the beginning of haying around NYS from 1832 to 1862. Note again that most haying didn’t begin until after the first of July (and haying by hand was much slower than haying by tractor). CLICK TO ENLARGE.

One cannot close this discussion without mentioning another change in Bobolink summer habitat (winter habitat changes are also crucial but are beyond our geographic scope). In the mid 1900s, hay fields were generally cut but once and that after the beginning of July. Today, given new technologies for dealing with green hay (for example, those plastic-wrapped round bales of baleage), first cut might come in May and some fields may be cut thrice. Our multi-color figure (taken from The Nature of the Place) shows how modern hay cutting is more evenly spread across the year. Our  historical phenology data includes date of first hay cut, that figure emphasizes that the majority of haying did not start until after the beginning of July.


Table of NYS bird fledging dates, mainly derived from John Bull’s Birds of New York State, 1974. CLICK TO ENLARGE.

This aside on the history of hay cutting is important because of our last image, a table showing the timing of bird fledging dates. “Fledging” refers to when the young birds leave the nest. Clearly, given their in-field nests, if a hay field is cut before the young birds have left the nest, there is little chance that they will survive. This is probably even more true today than in the days of scythe cutting. Compare our table to the preceding figures. Notice how a July hay cut, as typical of the 19th century, would let many birds fledge. As haying edged further into June and now even into May, successful fledging became less likely, especially since fields are, as mentioned, often re-cut.

All this to say that historical phenology data cannot only help you understand where you’ve been but also where you are!



feral cherry

Feral domestic Cherry getting towards the tail end of its flowering.

Herbs: In 1852, the first Violets bloomed in Chatham.

Woodies: Shadbush bloomed in Kinderhook in 1838. In 1853, New Lebanon noted first blossomed Horse Chestnuts.

Birds: Barn Swallows first seen in Kinderhook, 1838. In Chatham, 1851’s first Whippoorwills were observed. Wood Thrushes appeared in Amenia, 1849.

Agriculture: In 1841, Cherries bloomed in Hudson. Amenia reported flowering Cherry in 1849. In Spencertown, 1856, bloomin Strawberry was reported. Peas bloomed in Poughkeepsie in 1845. Kinderhook reported flowering Peaches in 1843.

feral cherry bark

The characteristic bark of feral domestic Cherry – tight horizontal rings of lenticels. Reminiscent of Black Birch bark but with more of those rings.

Herbs: Flowered were Greater Henbits, Sheep’s Sorrel, Hawksbill Geranium, Alexander and Snowdrops.

Woodies: Two reports of blooming Horse Chestnut. Also blooming were Dogwoods, Black Mulberry, Honeysuckle, Sweet Viburnum, Laburnum, Hawthorn and Hardhacks. In leaf were Sycamores and Horse Chestnuts.

Birds: Bluebirds, Hummingbirds and Wrens first appeared. Two reports of observed Whippoorwills.

Other Critters: Paired reports of first seen Fireflies; a Grasshopper was observed.

Agriculture: Eight reports of blooming Apple trees. Cherries noted blooming in three reports; Plums and Quinces flowered in two. Pears and Peaches had also bloomed. Corn planting was commencing and Plum had put forth leaves.

canada mayflower

This Canada Mayflower seemed unwilling to release its flower buds.


Woodies: In 1802, White Oak had produced leaves in Kingston.

Agriculture: Both Plums and Cherry flowered in three reports. Also blossomed were Currants and Apricots.


Woodies: In leaf were Elderberry, Horse Chestnut and Red Maple. Sugar Maple reported as flowered.

Long-spurred Violet is now flowering in our forests.

Birds: First Barn Swallows seen in Herkimer County in 1838.

Agriculture: Red Currants noted as in leaf; a single report of bloomed Gooseberry; three reports of floweringStrawberry; two reported Plums flowering.

Herbs: Dandelion and Tulips flowered in single reports.

longsprd violet

Long-spurred Violet now flowering in our woods.

Woodies: Three reports of flowering of Shadbush; Lilac had also bloomed.

Birds: Barn Swallows and Bobolinks had arrived.

Agriculture: In two reports Currants and Apples bloomed; Peaches and Apples had also blossomed.

solomon's seal

“True” Solomon’s Seal with its row of pendant flower buds.

Herbs: Bloomed were Red and White Baneberry, Buttercup, Trillium and Toothwort.

Woodies: Shadbush bloomed in three reports; Sugar Maple was also in bloom.

Birds: First arrived Barn Swallows.

Agriculture: Paired reports of bloomed Currants and Plums; Apples and Strawberry also flowered. Apple reported as in leaf.

Herbs: Yarrow and Ox-Eye Daisy reported as in bloom.

Birds: First Martins had arrived.

wild oatsd

Solomon’s Seal’s Lily-family relative Wild Oats.

Agriculture: Three reports of bloomed Apples and Currants; paired reports of Peaches, Strawberries, Pears and Plums in bloom; a single report of Flowering Almond in bloom and Apple in leaf.

Herbs: Clover, Rough-Leaved Rice Grass and Buttercup flowered. Two reports of Dandelion bloomed.

Woodies: Leatherwood and Elderberry blossomed.

Agriculture: Coupled reports of flowered Apples. Corn planting commenced. Currants, Plums and Strawberries had bloomed.

Herbs: Daffodils and Hyacinth reported as flowered.

Woodies: Horse Chestnut bloomed

Birds: First appeared Whippoorwills.

Agriculture: Apples bloomed and leafed out; Cherries blossomed.


Woodies: Two reports of bloomed Lilacs.

Agriculture: Flowered Apples, Strawberries and Cherries reported.


Hawthorn in flower.

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