At this time of year many in agriculture are so busy with fieldwork they “can’t see the pasture for the plants” or “the forest for the trees.” However, 20 farmers from Central New York gave pause on a spectacular spring evening to linger with a seasoned “bird whisperer” in an open-air symphony surrounded by an amphitheater of working grasslands and cattle.
New York State Century Farm designee and contract grazier, Bishopp Family Farm in Deansboro, NY, hosted a first-ever, grassland bird pasture frolic led by Wisconsin farm boy and Audubon New York’s Conservation Biologist, Andrew “Andy” Hinickle. He came to give practical advice about the management strategies in attracting more insect eating birds to the landscape. Coincidently it was also a way to identify, communicate and appreciate the vocal chords of busy grassland birds.
In understanding the, “what good are they for in farm production” conversation, Hinickle referenced a poignant passage from Aldo Leopold: “The last word in ignorance is the man who says of an animal or plant, ‘What good is it?’ If the land mechanism as a whole is good; then every part is good, whether we understand it or not. If the biota, in the course of eons, has built something we like but do not understand, then who but a fool would discard seemingly useless parts? To keep every cog and wheel is the first precaution of intelligent tinkering.”
“Temperate grasslands are the most threatened biome in the world. Birds are excellent indicators of ecological health and the disappearance of them from the system serves as a warning that the system is out of balance and in danger of failing. We all depend on this holistic system,” said Hinickle. The enthusiastic birder should know, as he leads Audubon’s young forest and grassland bird conservation efforts, with an emphasis on working with private and public landowners within important bird focus areas for the Conservation and Science Department, located at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology in Ithaca.
He works closely with partner agencies and organizations to engage landowners in cost-share or other incentive programs, writing conservation and management plans for project sites, and monitoring the bird response to management activities. Andy came to Audubon in 2011 from the Long Island National Wildlife Refuge Complex, where he was employed as a term Wildlife Biologist. Prior to that, he held positions with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, monitoring, restoring and maintaining a variety of habitat types on public and private lands.
With the latest grassland bird surveys (Patuxent Wildlife Research Center, www.pwrc.usgs.gov/bbs/ ) showing an 80 to 97 percent loss of populations of Eastern meadowlarks, Bobolinks, Bluebirds and sparrow species, the task of stabilizing grassland bird habitats is crucial to their survival. “We are striving to find the middle ground on habitat creation but ultimately need landowners buy-in to put practices on the ground,” said Hinickle.
In citing the work of Dr. Allan Strong of Vermont and the Lake Champlain Valley’s Bobolink project (www.bobolinkproject.com ): “There are a variety of options available to farmers and other landowners that can provide a high-quality habitat for grassland birds. Because each landowner has different goals and objectives for their land, there is no single formula that can be applied to all situations.”
As the graziers walked through the farm’s managed pasture system, Andrew highlighted some practical management considerations that could be done: Make a deliberate plan to manage a field for bird habitat. Since “size matters,” delay cutting or grazing of a 10-acre field of grass or larger away from hedgerows or forest until mid-July will help the birds fledge their young. Use a flushing bar ahead of the tractor that attempts to make wildlife flush safely ahead of mowers. Raise the cutter bar up 8-10 inches when mowing. Erect nest boxes and reduce controllable predators. “The idea is to strive for a meaningful, positive effect on behalf of your insect-eating partners,” emphasized Hinickle.
The Bishopp family has been trying to find balance in creating a farm that benefits all livestock and the community, mixed with financial considerations. “We have a pasture plan that defers about 5-10 acres per year until Aug. 1 to allow for grassland bird habitat, natural seed regeneration, soil building and drought protection forage for our contract-grazed organic dairy heifers. Essentially, this practice makes us a long-term profit because it reduces off-farm inputs and builds resiliency from within, said Corrine Bishopp. After tonight’s workshop, we may even consider forming a Central New York bird trail with like-minded farmers. It works for wine, why not a bird trail for tourism.”
The group of new birders identified traditional tree swallows, eastern bluebirds and caught glimpses of a brown thrasher, grasshopper and savannah sparrows, yellow warblers and finches, eastern meadowlarks, bobolinks, red-winged blackbirds and turkeys. Andy used his smartphone and hand-held amplifier to communicate with the birds and teach farmers what to listen for on their own land. “Early morning and dusk are great ways to enjoy the symphony of songs and monitor what species are drawn in by your management,” said Hinickle.
“I walk in the pasture morning and afternoon every day and I hear birds singing. I was delighted to have Andy identify the songs, play recordings, and then point out the birds, some of which I have never identified. On top of that, his explanations of how the pasture we were walking through encourages or discourages various birds is going to make me more observant,” said Lawrence Gilley of Deansboro, NY.
To learn more about grassland bird habitat, management strategies or to host a workshop: Contact Andy Hinickle 607-254-2487 or firstname.lastname@example.org . To find out about the NY DEC Landowner Incentive Program Habitat Protection Project for grassland birds visit www.dec.ny.gov/pubs/33005 .