The Bobolink Project 2019: End of Season Report

© Allan Strong

The Bobolinks are making their way south to their wintering home in South America and there are more Bobolinks doing so thanks to The Bobolink Project. THANK YOU to all of our donors and participating landowners for making 2019 another successful year for Bobolinks!

Male Bobolink with food for nestlings © Allan Strong

The numbers are in!

This year The Bobolink project protected 928 acres of hayfields for grassland birds. On these fields we estimated that there were 227 Bobolink pairs and 633 young fledged. Those estimated 633 fledglings would not have survived without the help of The Bobolink Project!

For those of you familiar with last year’s numbers, this year’s numbers don’t sound nearly as good. Bobolink numbers were down (633 fledglings this year vs. 1,027 fledglings in 2018) despite us protecting about the same number of acres. Why? The answer is, we don’t really know! But here are some possible explanations to consider:

  • Perhaps this observed decline is not real. Each year we base our calculation of fledgling number on the number of breeding males which are estimated at the start of the nesting season. This is a difficult number to collect, since we always prefer to spend our Bobolink Project donations on enrolling more acres rather than hiring field crews to do careful censuses of participating fields. In similar year-to-year bird monitoring efforts, for example the USGS Breeding Bird Survey, numerical estimates are typically averaged across several years in order to calculate trends, rather than making comparisons from one year to the next.
  • However, 11 of the farms enrolled this year were also enrolled in 2018, so maybe there was a decline. There are several possible causes of decline:
    • Fewer birds returned from their South American wintering grounds.
    • Unusually wet spring weather may have delayed the onset of nesting, thus causing lower estimates of breeding birds.
    • The wet spring weather may have improved nesting conditions throughout the region, causing some of the birds that previously nested on Bobolink Project fields to nest on a different field.
    • Fields could be degrading due to weather conditions or other factors, making them less suitable for the birds.

Because of these—and other—uncertainties, the most reliable metric to us in evaluating The Bobolink Project’s success is the number of acres protected. This number increased significantly between 2017 and 2018 and held steady this year.

And don’t forget—The Bobolink Project protected fields are home to other birds too. Savannah Sparrows, Eastern Meadowlarks, and other birds were also seen on the fields.

Savannah Sparrow © Allan Strong

2020 season will be here before we know it

The 2020 season may seem a long way off, but the sooner we can start collecting donations, the better. This project is only as successful as the amount of donations it receives from people like you. Donate now >

5 thoughts on “The Bobolink Project 2019: End of Season Report

  1. Jon Atwood

    Hi Perry. In most cases, fields that are harvested outside of the date restrictions that Bobolink Project farmers agree to end up producing very few (or none) fledgling birds. Of course, nesting activity is not completely synchronized, meaning that – depending on the exact date that a farmer cuts their field or when a particular year’s breeding season gets underway – some early or late breeders may manage to avoid the harvest. A common strategy, based on research done by Drs. Noah Perlut and Allan Strong, is to encourage farmers to provide a 65-day “safe” window, which hopefully will be enough to allow nest building, egg laying, incubation, and feeding of young to be completed prior to the hay harvest. For farmers chosen to participate in The Bobolink Project, we offer 2 alternate windows: May 15 – August 1 or June 1 – August 15.

    On Mass Audubon’s own properties, which aren’t managed under the same financial pressures that a private farmer might face, we try to extend the length of that “safe” window, recognizing that even after juvenile birds are able to escape mowing equipment by flying away from approaching danger, nonetheless the field itself continues to offer valuable foraging opportunities that are important for birds getting ready to migrate to South America.

    Reply
  2. Ann Gurka

    I was surprised to see that only 2 properties in Massachusetts were protected, while there were 12 in Vermont. Is this due to a lack of interested farmers in Massachusetts?

    There has recently been quite a bit of discussion among the birding community about properties that mow early and destroy nests – and this project was suggested as an alternative for people to promote.

    I’m happy at the success of the project, but disappointed that there is not more protection in our state.

    Reply
    1. Jon Atwood

      Hi Ann. You ask a good question that I think I can answer.

      Bobolinks do not recognize state boundaries, and grassland bird declines are a national problem. Although we try to select farms located in each of the states where The Bobolink Project has collaborating partners—Vermont, Massachusetts, and New Hampshire—all donations (which come from all over the US) go into a single “pot” from which we draw money to pay farmers who have applied. Similarly, farmers who contact us because they are interested in participating in the program are located throughout New England (and New York).

      Every year we balance farmer applications with how many donation dollars we have available to distribute. We use a reverse auction process (this is described on the website, https://www.bobolinkproject.com/farmers.php) to select which farmers we are able to accept into the program. Unfortunately, we always seem to have more farmers who want to participate than we have available money to offer.

      That’s the general background to the answer to your question. Typically we receive more applications from Vermont farmers than we do from farmers in Massachusetts. This probably has something to do with differing land or farming prices between the states. There is also a historic factor – in the early years of The Bobolink Project, before Mass Audubon became the administrating organization, the focus of the project was in Vermont. In the future we hope that more and more Massachusetts (and New Hampshire) farmers will apply – and that our available donations will also increase, thereby making it possible for us to accept more farmer applicants. But, because of the reverse auction selection process, we really have no way of knowing whether the successful applicants will come from Vermont, Massachusetts, or elsewhere. What is clear, though, is the fact that donor contributions will be the factor which determines the overall scale of the program.

      Reply
  3. Heather Ruel

    Perry:
    As one of the Farmers who participate in this program, I can tell you that this program doesn’t even pay the taxes on my grass fields but it does help. I do feel it is important to provide nesting areas for grassland birds and the funds help fertilize and reseed the fields so they grow better. I have had people stop with binoculars to glass the fields and thank me after noticing the bobolink sign.

    Reply
  4. Perry Ellis

    Here’s an important question to consider when looking at these numbers: how many Bobolink fledglings would have been produced if the 928 acres had NOT been managed with grassland birds in mind? That said, it will be informative to observe population trends over a longer period.

    Reply

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