King Ranch Grassland Birds

By Joe Sebastiani, Seasonal Program Team Leader

Each spring, I team up with Kevin Fryberger from the Brandywine Conservancy to lead a trip to see breeding birds at the King Ranch/Laurels Important Bird Area.  This is a large expanse of meadow habitat 20 minutes from Delaware in Chester County, PA.  The feel is more like a Midwest prairie, with nesting Bobolink, Eastern Meadowlark, Savannah Sparrow, and Grasshopper Sparrow all around in the swaying grass.  The first surprise of the trip, however, was a mammal, not a bird.  On a dirt road that looked more like a private drive, a black Mink darted out in front of us.  We stared wide-eyed and excited as this “weasel” slipped into the brush.

This is "Big Sky Country" with thousands of acres of meadow habitat. Photo by Joe Sebastiani

Beautiful scenes are combined with courting Bobolink chasing and singing, sounding like a small R2D2 from Star Wars.  This blackbird, with a white stripe up the back and a buffy nape, has never been documented breeding in Delaware.  At the King Ranch near Unionville, there are thousands nesting in the meadows.

A male Bobolink sits on a fence at the King Ranch in Unionville, PA. Photo by Hank Davis.

Savannah Sparrow is a species that has not nested in Delaware in the last 100 years or so.  They are common breeding birds at King Ranch.  We found a pair that approached us closely, and seemed to be trying to lure us away from their nest.  The male sang, sounding like a combination of a Song Sparrow and a Grasshopper Sparrow, full of chimes and buzzes.

A Savannah Sparrow hides in tall meadow grasses. A pair quietly sang and tried to lure us away from their nest site. Photo by Joe Sebastiani

Grasshopper Sparrows also buzzed away in the tall grasses as we walked.  In nearby trees, we found the nest of a Great Crested Flycatcher, had great looks at an Indigo Bunting, and later visited a Great Blue Heron rookery and saw young in the nest.  Take a drive through this scenic area and look for amazing wildlife.  Travel north on Route 82 into PA.  After the village of Unionville, find some back roads and lose yourself in “Big Sky Country”.

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