Words On Birds by Steve Grinley

Cooperative Effort Needed to Save Grassland Birds
June 14, 2008
Steve Grinley

     I have written before about the plight of grassland birds here in Massachusetts, particularly bobolinks, meadowlarks, and grassland sparrows. The loss of habitat is the big problem, but where there is suitable habitat, the threat of early mowing by farmers turns the birds’ breeding habitat into a Cuisinart for nests, nestlings and young fledglings. Delaying the mowing until late July, or using rotational plot techniques can help ensure the breeding success for more these birds. This had been an issue with the Common Pastures in Newbury and Newburyport, as well as at Woodsom Farm in Amesbury.

     Lauren Montague of Amesbury, who is a Woodsom Farm grassland bird volunteer surveyor, offers the following perspective for Woodsom Farms:

     “The town of Amesbury, nearly 20 years after the initial purchase of Woodsom Farm in 1989, is finally taken steps to begin the process of putting together a much needed comprehensive resource management plan for the property. A crucial first step in this process is to systematically document the number and types of species that inhabit, and breed at the farm. To achieve this goal, they have hired expert consultants from Massachusetts Audubon’s Ecological Extension Service (EES) to assess the current situation and make recommendations.

     “To assist in this project, this week a group of citizen volunteers, led and trained by Mass Audubon’s EES Director Jeffrey Collins, is conducting a rapid response grassland bird survey at Woodsom Farm – the purpose – to count and specifically locate nesting grassland birds, species which extensive surveys conducted by the USGS and others have indicated have plunged in numbers in recent decades. The causes of this devastation are many, from deforestation of winter grounds, pesticide use, and habitat loss. Of these factors, the loss of grassland environments to suburban development represents the biggest factor in Massachusetts, and makes town owned properties such as Woodsom and Battis Farms in Amesbury so vitally important if these species are to recover, or at least to survive.

     “The survey teams are focusing on three species: Eastern Meadowlark , Bobolink, and Savannah Sparrow. Each of these three faces particular challenges due to development pressures. Eastern Meadowlark numbers in particular have been in steep decline, with Breeding Bird Surveys (BBS) conducted by the Biological Resources Division of the US Geological Survey and volunteers throughout the country citing a decline of 97% in the period from 1966-1991… Since that data was released, this species continues to face further alarming declines.

     “To put these national statistics on a smaller scale closer to home, as little as ten years ago, if you went to Woodsom Farm you were greeted by the signature “Spring of the Earth” melody from Eastern Meadowlarks singing from all around you, often perching on the fence posts serenading you as you walked the farm property. Now, to catch a glimpse of these birds, and hear their cheerful melody is a rare treat. Bobolinks travel thousands of miles from their wintering grounds in South America and arrive in early May to start their courtship rituals. The pairs select appropriate nesting spots on the ground and begin the breeding process. As the males set out to attract females, you hear their effervescent “R2D2” like song. Once eggs are laid, the incubation period is between 11-13 days. The helpless, down covered chicks fledge 10-14 days later…

     “Documenting the extent of this [nesting] activity will help form the basis of the management of the land, which has traditionally including haying by a Massachusetts dairy farmer. At odds is the timing of this mowing. Dairy farmers like to serve their cows “first cut” hay, mowed by mid June, which has higher nutritional value. On the opposite end of the spectrum, the Bobolinks and other nesting birds will not be able to fledge their young by this date, and ideally would need a mow date either in late July or early August in order to insure a successful breeding season. Mowing earlier than mid-July turns these fields effectively into “killing fields” as far as these birds go.

     “There are several grassland maintenance plans recommended by the USGS, including rotational and other mowing techniques, and other grazing programs which could satisfy the interests of both parties. Additionally, beef farmers do not need first cut hay, so there may be other farmers who would be interested in mowing the fields later in the season….

     “Thankfully the Town of Amesbury is finally taking steps to rationalize this process, as part of its responsibility as stewards of this amazingly unique natural resource. It should also be remembered that this is not private land or a private farm that is being assessed, but instead this is a public space that belongs to the citizens of Amesbury for the benefit of ALL. Therefore, the citizens of the town should be, and are, participating in this process, which hopefully will be a transparent and rational one.

     “Let’s hope it is not too late to take action on this issue. I would hate that Joni Mitchell’s poignant words to Yellow Taxi would apply in the case of Woodsom Farm – “don’t it always seem to go, that you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone. They paved paradise and put up a parking lot.”

     “For more information regarding the Woodsom Farm Grassland Bird Survey – please contact Jeffrey Collins at Mass Audubon. Additional information may be found on the Massachusetts Audubon sitehttp://www.massaudubon.org/Birds_and_Birding/grassland/.”

Steve Grinley
Bird Watcher’s Supply & Gift
Route 1 Traffic Circle
194 Route 1
Newburyport, MA 01950
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