Late mowing helps grass-nesters thrive

ADDISON COUNTY — Things are looking up — just a little bit — for Vermont’s bobolinks, thanks in part to increased acreage enrolled in Vermont’s Bobolink Project.
A grassland bird, bobolinks like to nest in open fields. They also have a propensity to return to the same fields year after year, come what may. But being birds, they’re unlikely to consult with local farmers about their haying schedules. The result?
“It’s pretty much 100 percent mortality if a field gets hayed during their breeding season, while they have a nest, eggs or young chicks,” observed Audubon Vermont avian expert Margaret Fowle.
The Bobolink Project pays farmers to modify their mowing schedules so that nesting young are protected. Farmers commit to do a first mowing earlier in May, before pairs begin nesting, and then hold off on a second mowing until the young can fly, around Aug. 1.
“Vermont has probably three areas where bobolinks are relatively common and that would be the Champlain Valley, the northern part of the state near Lake Memphremagog and some parts of the upper Connecticut River Valley,” Fowle said. “We think of those three areas as being the three prime areas for grassland birds, including bobolinks.”
The Bobolink Project started in Rhode Island in 2007 and reached Vermont in 2011. Initially, the Vermont program was managed by wildlife researchers at the University of Vermont, but in 2016 the project moved to Vermont Audubon. Other wings of the project can be found in nearby New England states.
This year the project protected 600 acres of grassland statewide, allowing an estimated 229 pairs to nest and 639 chicks to fledge. In 2016, 500 acres were protected and 500 chicks fledged.
In Addison County, Fowle said that numbers of acres protected were down this year. In 2017, 120 acres were enlisted in the Bobolink Project in Addison County. By comparison, 220 acres were enlisted in 2016. This year, Audubon reported that 114 chicks fledged in Addison County, compared to 179 in 2016.
Bridport landowner Karan Cutler and her husband have put their haying on a bobolink friendly schedule for the past four years. They started in 2013 just following the schedule and in 2015 enrolled in the Bobolink Project (enrollment is competitive). Each year, they’ve seen more and more birds, Cutler said.
“We used to drive in the driveway and maybe once every couple of weeks, I would see a bobolink. But I didn’t see very many. And I never saw a meadowlark (another grassland bird),” she said. “A couple of years ago, we began to see them several times a week. And then last year, we began to see them even more times.
“Now when we drive in and out I swear we see them every time. I don’t think there’s any question it’s made a difference.”
Cutler got interested in the program because she’s a birder. Initially she and her spouse didn’t have enough acreage to enroll in the program, so they went in with three other families whose properties are adjacent.
“It’s just been fun to watch them. It’s a pleasure. And I think all four families have a kind of a vested interest. We refer to these as ‘our bobolinks,’” she said.
Cutler doesn’t use the hay herself. It’s cut by a neighboring dairy farmer. And she likes how the program recognizes that harvesting less hay and less early hay affects her neighbor’s bottom line.
“We like that we’re able to be fair to him as well,” said Cutler.
The program can be problematic for dairy farmers, especially, because the richest, most nutritious hay is cut during the bobolinks’ breeding season.
“Very few dairy farmers are able to make this work for them because they tend to need the hay more than they need the money that they would get from the project,” said Fowle. “But beef cattle farmers and horse farmers all seem to be able to make it work and also just people who have land that they want to keep open but they don’t necessarily farm themselves.”
Fowle said that one dairy farmer had enrolled in the program and put the bobolink field into a pasture rotation, keeping cows out until the young were fledged.
The program is important at helping to preserve habitat one acre at a time because over the past 50 years bobolinks have seen a “pretty severe decline,” said Fowle. In Vermont the bobolink is listed as a species of concern. The Vermont Center for Ecostudies estimates that over the past 50 years bobolinks have declined by 59 to 71 percent nationwide. Culprits in the precipitous decline include loss of habitat to development and loss of fertility to earlier and more intensive mowing.
In still-agrarian Vermont, the mowing schedule has been the greater concern, said Fowle.
Bobolinks migrate from Vermont each fall to South America, where they overwinter in Venezuela, Bolivia, Argentina and even as far south as Paraguay. They return to Vermont each spring around the first of May, said Fowle. They begin to mate around mid-May and start nesting towards the end of the month. Prime nesting season, when young hatch, incubate and finally learn to fly, happens throughout June and July.
While Fowle celebrates the new highs reached by the Bobolink Project in its 2017 tallies, as a scientist she knows that it will take more data to be able to say what impact the project is having on stabilizing bobolink populations or helping them increase. However, she does hear a lot of stories like Karan Cutler’s.
“Knowing that landowners have seen more birds on their fields since they enrolled is a good sign.”
Reporter Gaen Murphree is at [email protected].

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