The Bobolink Project 2017 Season Is Ramping Up

Bobolink © Martha Akey

Bobolink © Martha Akey

The Bobolinks are starting to plan their trip back north and we’re busily working to welcome them home by ensuring we conserve as many acres of grassland habitat as we can.

As many of you already know, The Bobolink Project is an innovative solution to a complicated problem. We use donated dollars to give farmers the financial assistance they need to protect grassland birds on their hay fields. We were thrilled with the success of the project under its new leadership of Mass Audubon and partners in 2016, and know that we can do even better this year!

Last year we raised about $42,000 that enabled us to help farmers protect over 500 acres. Based on past data, we estimate that our Bobolinks raised 450 young on those acres. That’s 450 more Bobolinks than would likely have existed had The Bobolink Project not been in existence! We thank you for your help in that.

The more donations The Bobolink Project receives, the greater the number of Bobolinks and other grassland birds we can protect and help fledge. Only with your help can we use this innovative solution to directly and effectively conserve grassland birds.

Please make a donation before April 1, when we will start enrolling the farms in the program.

Breeding Bird Surveys going strong on Mass Audubon Sanctuaries

People have been observing and counting birds at Mass Audubon sanctuaries for as long as these properties have existed. In order to provide a focus for these observations and to insure that data are collected in a similar fashion, Mass Audubon initiated a program of breeding bird surveys on our sanctuaries in 2004 and has been carrying out these surveys ever since.  We use standard point count methodology where observers stand in the middle of a 50 meter (forests) or 100 meter (salt marsh, grasslands) radius circle for 10 minutes three times in June and record all the birds they see or hear.  The goal of the program is to track the birds that occur on our sanctuaries during the breeding season, determine the habitat characteristics that support different species of birds, evaluate the impact of any ecological management, and examine long term trends, such as those that might be caused by climate change.  Since 2004 staff and volunteers have logged over 30,000 records of birds in 315 counting circles on 48 sanctuaries. We typically carry out surveys at each sanctuary for three years every ten years, but at a number of sanctuaries, enthusiastic staff and volunteers have made observations every year.

We have recorded 149 species of birds during these breeding bird surveys of which 25 are considered conservation priorities.  Sanctuaries harboring the most of these high priority conservation species are Allens Pond, Wellfleet Bay, and Ipswich River.  Not surprisingly, sanctuaries in central and western Massachusetts, such as Pleasant Valley, Wachusett Meadow, and Rutland Brook and are notable for the number of wood warblers and other species associated with forest interiors that have been recorded in these sanctuaries.  Vegetation data we have collected on our counting circles have shown that many of these wood warblers species have an affinity for forests containing a high percentage of evergreens.

The breeding bird surveys will enable us to track changes in a number of birds that are conservation priorities.  Salt marsh sparrows are considered vulnerable to the effects of sea level rise associated with climate change.  After ten years of monitoring, the numbers of

Saltmarsh Sparrow by John Sill

Saltmarsh Sparrow by John Sill

saltmarsh sparrows seems to be holding its own at Allen’s Pond and Rough Meadows wildlife sanctuaries.  Data from other surveys carried out over a longer time period indicate a steady decline region-wide, so it is important for us to continue these surveys on our sanctuaries.  We are also tracking the responses of bobolinks to ecological management measures that create improved grassland habitats at Daniel Webster and Drumlin Farm.   Neotropical migrants whose numbers are declining nationally, such as wood thrushes are also priorities for our monitoring.  As permanently protected lands, the sanctuaries at Mass Audubon enable us to evaluate changes in the populations of these and other birds over long periods of time and allow us to take actions that will serve to maintain and enhance their populations in the future.

Canoe Meadows grassland restoration project begins

No idyllic scene of grassland habitat is complete without a meadowlark singing from atop a fencepost. Unfortunately, this sight is becoming increasingly rare in the Commonwealth, and the Breeding Bird Atlas 2 showed us that Eastern Meadowlarks have declined by 78% in the last 35 years.

While conversion of open land to developed land is one of the most visible contributors to the loss of grassland habitat, a less obvious factor is the loss of big fields for breeding. Bigger fields (20+ acres) can hold more breeding pairs, and some species, like Eastern Meadowlark like really big fields.

At our Canoe Meadows Wildlife Sanctuary we recognized an opportunity to create a big 70-acre field by removing a line of white pine trees that was separating two smaller fields. The trees have officially come down, and the field is looking fantastic! Check out the below before and after photos of the field.

Private and federal dollars have gotten us this far in the restoration, but we still have to pay for fence removal and restoration work in the spring. Please help us reach our goal of $10,000. We’re 70% of the way there thanks to the Leverett Foundation, the USDA, and many generous individuals! Learn more and donate here.

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Forests for the Birds Program comes to Elm Hill

Brown Thrasher by John Sill

Brown Thrasher by John Sill

Birds that breed in young or recently disturbed forests are a conservation priority in Massachusetts.  Sharp declines of these species, such as the Eastern Towhee and Brown Thrasher, have been linked to habitat loss due to changes in the frequency of these natural and anthropogenic disturbance regimes.  For example, fire and flooding have been suppressed, our

familiar middle-aged forests are less susceptible to storm damage, and once common forestry practices have declined.

However, carefully planned forestry is one of the most effective ways to create early successional habitat, and the corresponding breeding bird species respond positively.  What’s more, some species of birds that breed in the more mature surrounding forests use these same young forests during the post-fledgling period – a time of high morality after young have left the nest.  Having this habitat in place also bolsters populations of mature forest breeders.

Mass Audubon’s Foresters for the Birds program responds to this conservation need.  The program provides technical assistance to private landowners who wish to manage their woods for important bird habitat, including the creation of early successional forest.

To further this conservation initiative, Mass Audubon will demonstrate these science-based habitat management techniques at our Elm Hill sanctuary.  Not only will this project provide crucial habitat for species in decline, but the site will also be used to educate professional foresters, agency staff, conservation professionals, the land trust community, our members, and the public at large.

Funded by the National Fish and Wildlife Federation, the project is in its initial phase.  The end product will be a 100 year plan to maintain a mosaic of forest successional stages, including various ages of young forest, and stands that will naturally progress towards old growth conditions.  In this initial phase, we are working with a Foresters for the Birds trained forester to map out the existing forest resources, and determine areas to be actively managed for bird habitat.  Other phases include monitoring birds to assess and adjust our management efforts, delivering public outreach, engaging the help of volunteers, and conducting studies of other taxa to inform management decisions.

This will be an exciting time of sharing and learning, and we hope you will follow along with the project as we post further updates.

Research Update: S4 – The Stellwagen Sanctuary Seabird Steward Program

 

Leach's Storm Petrel by John Sill

Leach’s Storm Petrel by John Sill

Seabirds constitute one of the most difficult groups of birds to systematically monitor, particularly when they are at sea and away from their breeding colonies.  Fortuitously, the inshore location and rich marine biota of the Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary provide a unique opportunity to support a long-term seabird monitoring program.

In 2011 Mass Audubon joined Stellwagen Sanctuary staff in initiating the S4 Program (Stellwagen Sanctuary Seabird Steward Program). The goal of this program is to systematically gather baseline data about seabird seasonal distribution and abundance within the Stellwagen Bank Important Bird Area (IBA).  By using sanctuary scientists and Mass Audubon personnel working in concert with trained volunteer observers, seabird data has now been systematically gathered for six years.  It is hoped that this information will increasingly inform seabird scientists and Massachusetts residents about how seabirds utilize local marine waters.  More importantly, the information will hopefully also help predict future environmental impacts possibly caused by climate change and its effect on the regional marine ecosystem.

Since the initiation of the S4 Program in 2011, regular seabird surveys have been conducted at least six times throughout the year along a 63 nautical mile-long transect located within the Stellwagen Sanctuary. Observations recorded during these surveys have collectively provided hundreds to thousands of sightings annually of a majority of the seabird species regularly utilizing the Stellwagen Sanctuary. In addition to the observers participating in the regular year-round systematic surveys, volunteer observers coordinated and trained by Stellwagen Sanctuary and Mass Audubon staff, have also been monitoring seabirds on public whale watching vessels the during the regular whale-watching seasons.

With concurrent regular monitoring efforts taking place in the sanctuary of other marine features including physical ocean characteristics, plankton, fish, and marine mammals, it is hoped that the information gathered will gradually help elucidate both short-term and long-term fluctuations taking place in seabird distribution and abundance that may possibly correlate with climate change. The S4 project represents a unique opportunity to allow citizen scientists to partner with both Mass Audubon and a federal agency to support local research and conservation efforts.  Future editions of The Warbler will provide highlights of some of the already noteworthy findings provided by the S4 Program.  For more information and volunteer opportunities with the S4 Program, contact Wayne Petersen, Director of the IBA Program at wpetersen@massaudubon.org.

Wayne Petersen and Mass Audubon Tonight at the Hatch Shell

Whaat?!? That’s right folks, tonight, at 7PM,  the Boston Landmark’s Orchestra will be opening their season with Rhapsody in Green. Our own Wayne Petersen will be offering some opening thoughts on bird conservation, and the performance will feature an app for the audience that includes data and maps from our very own Breeding Bird Atlas 2. You can get more information at their website. See you there!

Success for The Bobolink Project

As the Bobolinks begin to arrive in New England fields, we are busily finalizing contracts with farmers participating in The Bobolink Project. Thanks to the generosity of Bobolink Project supporters, we raised enough money to protect over 500 acres of farmland in New England this summer! This money will allow farmers to adjust their haying schedule for the benefit of grassland nesting birds.

Bobolink Pair at Drumlin Farm, watercolor by Barry Van Dusen, artist in residence for the Museum of American Bird Art at Mass Audubon, 2015-2017. © Barry Van Dusen

Bobolink Pair at Drumlin Farm, watercolor by Barry Van Dusen, artist in residence for the Museum of American Bird Art at Mass Audubon, 2015-2017.

This year the project was so appealing to local farmers that we had more acres offered by interested farmers than we could afford to protect. Sixteen farms are expected to be enrolled in the project this year, located in Vermont, Massachusetts and New York State.

This is the first year The Bobolink Project has been collaboratively coordinated by Mass Audubon Bird Conservation staff with Audubon Vermont and Audubon Connecticut. Read more about the Project’s history and recent administrative transition here.

Last year it is estimated that over 500 baby Bobolinks fledged from 500 acres of protected farm land enrolled in the project. Protected fields were also home to other species of declining grassland birds including Eastern Meadowlarks, Savannah Sparrows and Northern Harriers.

We look forward to welcoming grassland birds to fields enrolled in the program this summer and sharing our results with you. Keep up to date with The Bobolink Project by signing up to the mail-list or follow us on facebook.

It is not too late to help declining grassland bird species, if you donate now your money will go towards helping farmers and grassland birds in the summer of 2017.

The Bobolink Project In the News

The project received some great press in the lead up to the breeding season, airing on Vermont’s  WCAX’s “Across the Fence“. Articles also appeared in Vermont’s Rutland Herald and Times Argus and a recent WCAX story featured one of our landowners from 2015! Check out the video.

The Project was publicized at the Connecticut Ornithological Association’s Annual Meeting in Middletown CT, and the Mass Audubon Birders Meeting in Boston MA, and also featured on an episode of Ray Brown’s Talkin’ Birds radio show.

Bobolink nest, Allan Strong

Bobolink nest, Allan Strong

Bird-a-thon Pointers and Predictions

BY WAYNE PETERSEN

bird-a-thon-logo-2016_medium_landscapeAbout this time every spring, I’m approached with questions pertaining to when, where, or how to locate certain bird species during Bird-a-thon and requests for Bird-a-thon predictions.  Needless to say: I’m no clairvoyant. Nonetheless, I have seen a lot of Bird-a-thons in my day, so I can at least bring experience to bare on the subject.  Here are a few thoughts:

*Based upon the progression of spring so far this year, it would appear that migration is on track. In fact, a few migrants seem slightly ahead of schedule. This suggests that by Bird-a-thon weekend, most of the expected species should likely be on hand.

*High water in many wetlands right now seems to be limiting the location of certain species that are more dependent on lower water levels or muddy edges for foraging.

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Red-throated Loon, John Sill.

*The prevalence this past winter of many more seabirds in inshore waters off Cape Cod (e.g., alcids) than is often the case suggests that there might be a better chance of finding lingering seabirds during Bird-a-thon this year. Also, sooty shearwaters have already arrived offshore, several weeks ahead of their typical arrival.

*From a strategic perspective, play the birding odds (i.e., cover traditionally good birding areas thoroughly), follow last-minute bird reports to take advantage of the known presence of less common species, and tackle varied habitat.

*Make sure your team and its supporters recognize the significant effect funds raised as part of Bird-a-thon have on Mass Audubon’s sanctuaries and programs ability to continue their important work.

Northern Saw-whet Owl, John Sill

Northern Saw-whet Owl, John Sill

*You or your team should have specific localities in mind to look for less common or seasonally lingering species (e.g., freshwater ducks and sea ducks, red-necked grebe, great cormorant, cattle egret, American coot, purple sandpiper, Wilson’s snipe, northern saw-whet owl, Acadian flycatcher, white-eyed vireo, cliff swallow, golden-crowned kinglet, vesper sparrow). Don’t leave the finding of these species to chance!

*Team up your more experienced birders with newer birders to maximize the fun and the effectiveness of the team’s effort!

*Be sure to refer to the previously produced Tips for Bird-a-thon Birding and Bird-a-thon Birding in the Rain.

Have a Great Day Birding and Appreciate the Miracle of Spring Migration for What it is- Be a Part of Bird-a-thon!

Bird-a-thon is Mass Audubon’s annual birding competition and fundraiser where teams of birders spend 24 hours trying to spot the most species of birds in Massachusetts. Bird-a-thon 2016 begins May 13 at 6 p.m.

Join a team: To bird with a team, contact a team captain. Birding rosters are finalized 4 days before the event, so act quickly. Fundraise in honor of your participation by creating an online fundraising page and/or collecting cash and checks.

Be a Bird-a-thon Booster: Raise money for your favorite team. No birding required (but some Bird-a-thon Boosters bird for fun!). To fundraise, create an online fundraising page and/or collect cash and checks.

Donate: Support a participant, a team, or the event in general. Consider supporting the Bird Conservation Team!

Forest Bird Program

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White-throated Sparrow, John Sill

One of the top recommendations from our Breeding Bird Atlas 2 and State of the Birds 2013 work was to create more young forest habitat. Birds that breed in young forests, such as the White-throated Sparrow and Eastern Towhee are some of our most steeply declining species.

Jeffrey Ritterson, our Forest Bird Conservation Fellow has been working hard to promote support for young forest birds. Jeff has been working on the Foresters for the Birds Program, a partnership between Mass Audubon, the Massachusetts Woodlands Institute and the Department of Conservation and Recreation. The program trains consulting foresters, who create habitat management plans for private landowners, to manage forests for birds. Around 70 % of Massachusetts’ forests are privately owned so the program has the potential to greatly affect the quality of forest habitat in the state.

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Early successional forest habitat in Petersham, MA

The program is currently focused in areas west of the Connecticut River and Jeff has been busy preparing for the eventual statewide expansion of the program. In addition to training consulting foresters and conducting forest bird habitat assessments on properties, Jeff has been working to update existing outreach materials. These updated ‘how to guides’ will include information specific to forest types and bird assemblages that correspond to regions of Massachusetts.

In April Jeff attended the annual Mass Forest Alliance meeting in Holyoke to promote the program. There is a busy summer ahead for the program with many workshops and habitat assessments booked across the state!

Melodious Meadowlarks

Despite their name, Eastern Meadowlarks are not larks, but are members of the blackbird family. These brightly colored blackbirds were once abundant, singing from atop fence-posts and telephone lines near Massachusetts fields. Unfortunately, this sight has become increasingly rare: Eastern Meadowlarks have suffered one of the sharpest declines of any species in Massachusetts. Data from our Breeding Bird Atlas 2, show that this species has disappeared from over 75 percent of its 1979 distribution. Their breeding range in Massachusetts is now very limited.

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Dr Jon Atwood installing an Eastern Meadowlark decoy, photo by Rosemary Mosco.

To take action, Bird Conservation staff are conducting field experiments to see if audio playback and decoys can be used to encourage Eastern Meadowlark to nest on former breeding sites. The use of audio playbacks (playing pre-recorded bird song), and decoys is an increasingly common conservation technique. In general, the songs or calls from individuals of the same species can indicate good habitat and encourage other individuals to settle and breed there too.

This technique has been used successfully in North America for over 20 songbird species. Last summer we experimented with audio playback systems at two of our Wildlife Sanctuaries. Read more about that work here.

This summer, we are focusing our efforts on Arcadia Wildlife Sanctuary. With over 200 acres of grassland habitat, Arcadia is an important refuge for grassland birds. Eastern Meadowlarks bred in Sanctuary fields in the past, but have not been observed breeding there for three years. Audio playback systems and decoy meadowlarks have been placed in fields at the Sanctuary and will remain throughout the summer. Keep an eye on this blog for progress updates.

Learn more about Eastern Meadowlark conservation

Share our Eastern Meadowlark quick guide

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Eastern Meadowlark decoys like this have been installed at Arcadia Wildlife Sanctuary this summer, photo by Rosemary Mosco.

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Bird Conservation and Sanctuary Staff installing meadowlark playback equipment into a field at Arcadia Wildlife Sanctuary.