Sunday, July 21, 2013

The Plight of Bobolinks and Other Grassland Birds

The male Bobolink gives warning calls from a bush overlooking the meadow
In recent decades, in our region and generally in the northeastern US, grassland birds aren't fairing very well. Much of the agricultural land is now being planted with row crops like soy beans and corn and is in effect, no longer viable as breeding habitat.  Maintained hay fields are pretty much ideal for their nesting, but unfortunately, too often these fields are mowed too early in the season for the birds to finish their nesting cycle. In other words, the birds are unable to fledge young before their nests are destroyed. This phenomenon has made grassland birds some of the hardest to find species in the rural areas where they once thrived.
A group of male (Tom) Turkeys feed in a recently cut hay field
Savannah Sparrows are becoming less common due to early mowing
This year there was somewhat of a reprieve for a few grassland species that nested in local fields. The massive amounts of rain that fell during June (at the height of the breeding season) necessarily delayed the first cutting of many hay fields. This meant that the nests begun on time, most likely were able to produce young. That's assuming that parents were able to secure enough insect food for their nestlings, which is not always  easy during periods of persistent rain.
A Savannah Sparrow with a beak full of insects for its nestlings
Decades ago, the Eastern Meadowlark was a common grassland bird in the region
Savannah Sparrows, which seem to be the latest grassland species to suffer serious population declines in our region, did apparently manage to complete their nesting cycle in the hay fields just west of the nature preserve. This is the first time in years that I can say that. Bobolinks too seem to have been beneficiaries of the rains. 
A group a male Bobolinks gather in early July - they may be "refugees"
Hopefully, someday our grassy wildflower meadow will be used by Bobolinks
In recent years one of our preserve's meadows have played host to bobolink refugees. These birds were forced to abandon their nests once the tractors came onto their breeding grounds. The Bobolinks will not try to nest again, but will linger in the habitat for a few weeks before pushing into other areas with better food supplies. In only a month or so they’ll be starting to migrate south.
Gray-headed Coneflower begins to bloom in the wildflower meadow
As the habitat grows in it with bushes and small trees it attracts the Field Sparrow
Bobolinks still nest in the nature preserve's north field. This fallow field, which is only half on our property is just barely acceptable as breeding grounds for the Bobolink. The grass is giving way to goldenrod, asters and other tough stemmed perennials.  Certainly, the meadow as it is wouldn't even be considered viable nesting grounds by other grassland species. Most of them are much more particular than the Bobolink is about the make-up of the meadow's plant community.  
Increasingly, the Blue-winged Warbler is found in and around the Bobolink's field
The Rufous-sided Towhee is another bird that prefers brushy meadows
Now the Bobolink field is also slowly growing in with trees and shrubs. Every year there are more birds moving in that prefer brushier terrain to nest in. One of the Bobolink's new neighbors is the Clay-colored Sparrows, which were first identified as using this habitat only last year. This species along with the Field Sparrow, Blue-winged Warbler, Rufous-sided Towhee, Brown Thrasher and Alder Flycatcher will all benefit from the evolution of this habitat. 
The Clay-colored Sparrow is a very uncommon breeders in the region

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