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The Nature of Things

A blog about nature and the environment

Bobolink update


The Bedford Audubon Society last spring and summer convinced several local landowners to delay mowing their fields. That was in an effort to allow bobolinks, a grassland-loving songbird, to raise their chicks. Wide-open, unmowed fields are in short supply these days.

The slow-to-mow policy, according to Bedford Audubon, was a success.

“The species has declined by 50% over the past decades, one of the reasons being that, with the earlier arrival of spring, the nesting fields are being mowed before the chicks have a chance to fledge. BAS’s study found that from an initial count of 23 male Bobolinks in early June 2009, the population increased to 116 Bobolinks in early July in the same fields—an astounding proof of the success of meadow management through delayed mowing in securing the successful breeding of the Bobolink. Had the mowing taken place as scheduled in June, virtually all fledglings would undoubtedly have perished,” Bedford Audubon said in a press release.

You can read the society’s full report here.

After the break is a story I wrote last year about the bobolink project.– Monday, July 6, 2009

Section: NEWS
Page: 1a wpr
Source: staff
Edition: GWPR-Westchester and Putnam and Rockland
Publication: The Journal News
Bobolinks ‘making a last stand’ in N. Salem

NORTH SALEM – The fields rising behind Dick Button’s home are thick with yarrow, clover and grasses. Untouched so far by a tractor this year, the grass in places is as high as an SUV’s open window and the fields seem to roll to the horizon.

That makes it perfect for bobolinks, medium-size songbirds, to raise a family. Breeding males are black below and white on their backs – looking as if they put a tuxedo on backward, or, even, the jacket and tie Button wore skating during the 1948 Winter Olympics.

Button is among a handful of North Salem landowners who have agreed, either expressly or tacitly, to make hay later rather than earlier. Bobolinks nest on the ground. Delaying cutting of the fields until the Fourth of July or after gives the birds a chance to be successful parents. Like the grasslands they favor, the birds themselves are disappearing.

“Normally, we do it (mowing) earlier than this,” Button, the two-time Olympic figure-skating champion and skating television analyst, said on a recent rainy afternoon. “I’m all for it if it works.”

The birds, the Bedford Audubon Society says, have but a toehold in Westchester County, in North Salem. Given their need for large, unbroken expanses of grasslands, chances are this town contains the only breeding population of bobolinks in the Lower Hudson Valley. Suburbia and woodlands have erased farms with their hayfields and pastures, upon which the birds depend and that once blanketed northern Westchester and Putnam counties.

“That’s why they are functionally extinct and making a last stand here,” said Jim Nordgren, the Bedford Audubon Society’s executive director .

Bobolink numbers across the U.S. have fallen by about 50 percent to about 11 million, according to Audubon’s State of the Birds report released this year. The report analyzed long-term trend data that, in some cases, stretched back more than a century.

On a recent Friday morning, Nordgren and Tait E. Johansson, Bedford Audubon’s naturalist, visited some of the 185 acres where they’ve located 23 male birds this year. Some of the land is privately held, some belongs to the North Salem Open Land Foundation. Because the sighted males sport breeding plumage, about an equal number of females are assumed to exist.

“It’s the symbol, the thing that characterizes our agrarian past and, hopefully, our future,” Nordgren said of the bobolinks.

Neighborly concern and scientific pursuit led Bedford Audubon to seek out the birds. Prudence Lev, a birder, said she spotted a “whole bunch of bobolinks” in a field off Vail Lane while riding her horse. Aware of the birds’ penchant to nest on the ground, she contacted Bedford Audubon.

“I was a little worried we were going to see some baby-bird sushi along with cut hay,” Lev said.

Using Google maps, Bedford Audubon pinpointed potential tracts across northern Westchester where the birds might set up housekeeping. Johansson visited each spot, looking and listening. The birds get their name from the males’ burbling, cheery song.

Except for North Salem, surveys in North Castle, Somers, Bedford, South Salem, Pound Ridge and Pocantico Hills turned up nothing. The Audubon chapter then sent letters to landowners and managers, explaining the bobolinks’ precarious state. Habitat loss from development and nest destruction because of early or frequent mowing are among their top threats.

Peter Kamenstein hays fields across North Salem to feed his cattle. He said there has to be a balance between a farmer’s needs and the bobolinks. He’s hayed at a later date when feasible.

“I respect nature. I try to nurture nature,” Kamenstein said. “We just can’t apply a blanket rule to all of the hayfields. At a certain point of time, hay becomes less palatable to the animals.”

Nordgren said he hopes the research leads to a grant program that pays landowners to not hay their fields during nesting season.

In Vermont, a federal program reimburses farmers for the reduced quality of their hay if they wait until mid-July to do a second cutting.

The New York Department of Environmental Conservation manages a similar program. That, though, is geared toward larger tracts of land farther upstate with the intent of saving the more threatened grassland species, such as Henslow’s sparrows or upland sandpipers.

“The rationale is if the site is being used by upland sandpipers, it’s also going to be used by bobolinks,” DEC coordinator Marcelo del Puerto said.

Along with being birds of hayfields, bobolinks are also birds of poetry.

William Cullen Bryant, poet, lawyer and editor of the New York Evening Post, wrote of the bobolink “merrily swinging on brier and weed.”

Emily Dickinson, a 19th-century American poet, frequently wrote about the bird. She once lamented their disappearance come fall as they migrate to South America.

The poem takes on new meaning now, given the bobolink’s current decline.

“The bobolink is gone_/ The rowdy of the Meadow _/ And no one swaggers now but me _/” she wrote.

Learn more

– To hear the bobolink’s song, go to www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/bobolink/id.

– To read about Vermont farmers saving bobolinks and other grassland birds, go to www.burlingtonfreepress.com/article/20090628/NEWS02/90627005.

This entry was posted on Wednesday, May 26th, 2010 at 1:46 pm by Mike Risinit. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed.
Category: Bedford Audubon Society, bobolink