It’s May, and I’m back watching the Eastern Meadowlarks in the national historical park near my home. I got involved in observing these beautiful birds four springs ago when someone noticed their presence on part of a Yorktown battlefield. I knew nothing about them at the time, but I have since learned quite a bit about both them and their battlefield meadow.
Meadowlarks are ground nesters that require several acres of tall grasses in open land for breeding. For years, this nearby field had been mowed frequently from late spring through early fall—a practice that would, of course, put the Meadowlarks and their young at risk. I began watching the birds originally to gather data about their nesting activities in order to convince park officials and maintenance staff to leave all but the perimeter of the meadow un-mowed until the breeding season ended.
Not unexpectedly, there was some initial resistance. The maintenance staff was at first reluctant to cease summer mowing. Old habits die hard, I suppose. Also, both neighbors and park visitors had grown accustomed to the manicured look created by regular mowing. At first they were taken aback at by the natural (and to some eyes, unkempt) look of grasses and wildflowers growing without restraint. Sometimes I would overhear grumbling about presumed “budget cuts” that park visitors supposed had left the field less well “maintained” than before. Once they heard the explanation, though—not budget cuts but rather an awareness of the plight of the Meadowlarks, which have been losing habitat over the last two decades at an alarming rate—they saw the field with new eyes.
Four summers later, people’s expectations about how the meadow should look have changed, as has their understanding of what goes on there. Even if they don’t know about the Meadowlarks, neighbors and visitors alike seem more inclined to appreciate the meadow’s natural beauty. The rippling effect of a breeze moving though the grasses epitomizes grace. Those who look more deeply notice the subtle presence of wildflowers mixed in with the grasses. And although the Meadowlarks are the only birds that actually nest in the field, quite a few other winged species use the field for gathering nesting material and foraging for seeds and insects. Visitors who pause to watch for a little while may find themselves rewarded with flashes of reds (Summer Tanagers and Northern Cardinals), yellows (Eastern Meadowlarks and American Goldfinches), and/or blues (Eastern Bluebirds, Blue Grosbeaks, and Blue Jays).
Now that the need to protect this habitat has been well established here in Yorktown, I don’t hover over the birds as much as I once did. And yet I find that the meadow draws me still. It’s funny how things grow in us, how attachments form. Originally I went to the meadow for the sake of the birds. Now I go for my own sake. Most days I still take my binoculars, camera, and notebook. But what began as a project to gather objective information has become more of a spiritual practice, one that teaches me over and over again how to hope, how to wait, how to see.