Words On Birds by Steve Grinley

Viewing Grassland Birds is a Rare Treat
June 15, 2013
By Steve Grinley

     I mentioned in a previous column that the Brookline Bird Club is celebrating their 100th anniversary this year. As part of that celebration, they are conducting a series of special events and bird walks. This past weekend, they had a “Celebration of Grassland Birds.” They held walks at three Massachusetts airports, all of which contain valuable grassland habitat.

     Grasslands are now rare and endangered habitat in Massachusetts, resulting in the decline of many of our grassland birds. These bird species include upland sandpiper, meadowlarks, bobolinks, Savannah sparrows and grasshopper sparrows. The Club was able to secure permission to visit three of these habitats that are usually off limits to birders: Plymouth Airport, the Reserve Forces Training Area at Devens, and the Westover Air Force Base in Chicopee.

     We joined the latter trip to Westover on Saturday with fifteen other participants, and we were rewarded for our long drive to the western part of the state. Westover is host to the largest population of upland sandpipers in New England. Eighty birds were counted there last year. We are lucky to see one or two of these sandpipers anywhere else in our travels. They use to nest in our Common Pastures, along Scotland Road in Newbury, but they haven’t been seen there in decades. Occasionally one might stop in a local marsh or field along the coast during migration.

     Security was tight at the Air Force Base. We had to submit personal information in advance for them to conduct background checks. (Guess it is good to know that I am not birding with terrorists.) I.D.s had to be available at the gate for admission. I can remember banding mourning doves for Mass Audubon at Westover in the late 1960’s, and there was never any concern over my coming and going. But it is a different world today.

     We drove along the perimeter of the base and then parked and walked part of the grassland, and even onto the tarmac with the guidance of Drew Milroy the Base’s Natural/Cultural Resources Manager. One of the first birds we heard was a prairie warbler (which also use to nest in greater numbers in our area.) We were happy to see this bird sing atop a small tree, its yellow coloration with strong black striping down the sides of its breast contrasted in the morning sunlight.

     We also heard, and then saw, a brown thrasher, singing its double-repetition song notes as it perched in some scrub brush. A horned lark flew overhead. Bobolinks were “bubbling” in the tall grasses nearby. Grasshopper sparrows and Savannah sparrows fed along the dirt road in front of us and often perched and sang atop the tall grasses to give all of us great looks in binoculars and scopes. There buzzy songs provided background “music” all morning. We could hear the cry of a killdeer in the fields as well.

     A kestrel and a couple of harriers flew by in the distance. We then saw some meadowlarks flying about the far grasses. One bird was perched and singing its whistling song. We could hear others give their raspy call notes. We put the scope on one bird and we could see the black “V” on its yellow chest and the striping on the head. It is a wonderful bird that we just don’t see often enough anymore.

     As we approached the runway area, we spotted the stars of the show, the upland sandpipers. Their pigeon-like heads sticking up above the tall grasses were, at first, all that we could see of them. But as they moved closer to the shorter grasses near the tarmac, we had much better views.

     We proceeded to walk along the edge of the runway and encountered a pair of uplands very close by. They were calling feverishly for a while, flying back and forth, so we suspected that we were near a nest. We hastened our pace to try leave them undisturbed, and we came upon two more pairs. We were able to get close looks at these birds, some of the best looks I have ever had. Several participants were able to get some good photos as well.

     As we proceeded back to the cars, we added orchard oriole, common yellowthroat, wood pewee, goldfinches and kingbirds in the small stand of trees at the edge. We thanked Drew for his efforts in managing the land for the grassland and edge birds. We thanked him, too, for the privilege of letting us visit this unique habitat and for giving us the opportunity to see grassland birds still thriving in Massachusetts. 

Steve Grinley
Bird Watcher’s Supply & Gift
Route 1 Traffic Circle
194 Route 1
Newburyport, MA 01950
Celebrating 2
4 years of service to the birding community! 
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