Applications from interested farmers have been rolling in as Bobolinks have been starting to make their way northward from South America. What better way to welcome them back than protecting habitat where they can safely raise their young? People who support The Bobolink Project do just that.
The Bobolink Project is an innovative model that was designed to connect conservation-minded donors with farmers who want to protect birds on their fields, but need a little financial help to do so.
You can save Bobolinks
The number of acres The Bobolink Project protects is directly tied to how much we can raise in donations. You can support this work and protect privately-owned habitat for grassland birds by donating to the project and spreading the word to all of your networks. This project simply wouldn’t exist without people, like you, who care deeply for birds.
The Bobolink Project saves hundreds of Bobolinks each year. Let’s make 2021 just as successful!
Interested farmers apply to The Bobolink Project with a dollar bid/acre that is low enough to be competitive but also sufficient to provide them with some financial help to offset the loss of income from the hay that would otherwise be cut. Grassland sizes must be a minimum of 20 acres to be considered. At the same time we accept donations from Bobolink-loving donors and pool them until we’re ready to make decisions in mid-April.
In order to select which farms will be included we do a uniform reverse price auction, which is described on our website in more detail. The number of acres that we can protect is determined by how much we can raise each year.
Once we determine which farms will be selected, we draw up legal contracts with those farmers and wait for the Bobolinks to arrive, start building nests, and raise their families.
We estimate that 30 – 38 pairs of Barn Swallows nested in the Fort River Boat House in 2020.
Of 98 adult swallows banded at Fort River in 2019, 27 were recaptured in 2020 (28%). This number is probably lower than the actual number present due to fewer banding days conducted this year during the pandemic. This return rate is similar to rates found in other studies of Barn Swallows. While a 28% return rate may not seem particularly high, remember that swallows banded in 2019 made two long migrations to and from South America before returning to breed in Massachusetts in 2020. And, because returning Barn Swallows don’t show perfect site fidelity, some individuals may have simply chosen to nest elsewhere in the area.
This Success Informs Future Conservation Actions
Aging barns occupied by Barn Swallows are a common feature in New England’s historical agricultural landscape, and sometimes these structures simply cannot be saved. Thanks to the help of collaborator Andy French, project leader at the Conte Refuge, we have learned important lessons about how to attract and relocate Barn Swallows into alternative structures where they can be protected in cases where occupied barns must be removed. Some of the steps that were taken included:
Collection of some nests after the breeding season to use in attracting swallows the following year to a different, more secure nesting location. A majority of nests built in 2020 were built on top of “seed” nests that had been harvested in 2019.
Placement of nesting structures, hung from the Boat House rafters, to provide nesting sites. Some of these structures also included defecation screens that prevented swallow droppings from raining down on equipment below—an important consideration for private landowners who often have to deal with bird damage to their tractors and other farm equipment.
Playback of Barn Swallow vocalizations was used in 2019 to advertise the availability of the Boat House site to pairs that were nesting in the nearby Bri Mar Stable. In 2020, we decided not to play audio recordings because Barn Swallows had already begun to move into the Boat House in 2019.
Next Steps for Aerial Insectivore Conservation
Mass Audubon also hopes to continue to contribute to a developing US Fish and Wildlife Service initiative aimed at conserving aerial insectivores (e.g., Barn Swallows, Cliff Swallows, Chimney Swifts, bats, etc.), pollinators that feed in fields and field edges, and grassland-nesting species in the Connecticut River Valley. If we are successful in securing funds, we hope to collaborate with the Conte Refuge in 2021 to deploy VHF nanotags on breeding Barn Swallows to learn more about the locations of important feeding areas with presumably healthy insect populations. This work would also include education activities, working with private landowners to maximize the conservation benefits associated with their farms, as well as conducting inventories of declining birds and other taxa. We’ll post more information about these efforts in future blogs.
Tropical Storm Isaias arrived in Massachusetts on August 4, 2020, pushing heavy wind and rain through the Berkshires in the early evening before continuing northward. The storm also brought a slew of rare seabirds into the state, with sightings of at least 34 Sooty Terns, 2 Brown Boobies, a Franklin’s Gull, and a handful of other rarities on inland lakes as well as on the coast. This event was part of a rare but regular pattern of vagrant birds associated with hurricanes and tropical storms.
All hurricanes and strong tropical storms in Massachusetts have the potential to carry vagrant birds with them. Generally, the best sightings come in the wake of storms that spend time offshore over the Gulf Stream, before weakening or dissipating over southern New England.
But storms that hug the coast from the southwest can also carry exciting birds. Most storms are big enough that even if their center sits over the New Jersey or New York coast, violent southerly winds sweep from the Gulf Stream into southern New England. This was certainly the case with Isaias, as seen in the wind speed graphic below.
From here, Isaias tacked directly inland through the Berkshires, making it a great candidate for delivering pelagic species to large inland lakes. Indeed, while there were some reports of strong pelagic birding from coastal sites like Gooseberry Neck in Westport, there were equally exciting reports from Wachusett Reservoir, Quabbin Reservoir, and even smaller lakes in the Berkshires. Sooty Terns, Phalaropes, Jaegers, and shorebirds dropped onto many large bodies of water throughout the state.
Stronger storms in the past have produced even more spectacular results. In 2011, Hurricane Irene brought an incredible variety of seabirds into Connecticut and Massachusetts. and resulted in at least one eBird checklist from Quabbin Reservoir that reported a Sooty Tern, an incredible White-tailed Tropicbird, a Leach’s Storm-Petrel, and more.
Often, storm-blown birds arrive at inland sites in bad shape. Many perish, and some return to their offshore or coastal habitats. Very few stick around for several days.
Remarkably, one Sooty Tern that appeared during Isaias has hung around on Wachusett Reservoir. The bird was reported feeding actively as of August 13th, more than a week after the storm, probably taking advantage of the reservoir’s abundant smelt. Smelt resemble Sooty Terns’ favored marine baitfish—mostly clupeiformes—in the subtropical Atlantic. This makes it the longest-lingering storm-driven Sooty Tern in Massachusetts, and quite possibly, in New England. It may leave any day now, and in fact, it’s likely to depart sooner rather than later. If you haven’t seen it yet, it’s worth looking for!
Fast on the heels of Bald Eagles’ exciting return to Cape Cod, another iconic species of the north has recolonized Southeastern Massachusetts after more than a hundred years’ hiatus. This summer, Common Loons are raising chicks in Plymouth County for the first time since at least 1872.
It started with an oil spill
Loons used to be common in some of the deep, clear lakes of Plymouth County until the 19th century, when sport hunting and state-sponsored extermination programs removed them from the state entirely. While loons that breed in New Hampshire and Maine spend winters off the Massachusetts coast, it wasn’t until 1975 that they started nesting here again. In fact, Massachusetts is the only state where loons have returned of their own volition, and they now number over 100 birds—but only in the north-central and western parts of the state.
Strong, proactive environmental laws are enabling loons’ renewal to this part of their original range. The male of the Plymouth County pair arrived as part of a reintroduction program, funded by a legal settlement over a Buzzard’s Bay oil spill.
In 2003, the population of overwintering loons in Buzzards Bay took a hit when an oil barge spilled 100,000 gallons of oil into the water after striking a rock. The spill killed over 1,000 marine birds (the total loss, accounting for those birds’ future contributions to their populations, is closer to 20,000 birds).
Under the Oil Pollution Act of 1990, the barge company had to pay to clean up its mess. (At the time, the Migratory Bird Treaty Act also required that companies pay to restore any birds they accidentally killed, whether or not an oil spill was involved). Some of the funds went towards habitat protection, lead fishing tackle cleanups, and artificial nest sites in areas with existing populations. But there’s no easy way to quickly replace 530 Common Loons, especially when it’s not clear which breeding areas the dead birds came from.
So, the remainder of the funds went towards facilitating loons’ return to places they had historically occupied by translocating “excess” birds from upstate New York and Maine. When loons have two chicks, one often outcompetes the other, which is less likely to survive—making the second chick a great candidate for captive rearing.
Giving loons a head start
Local loon reintroduction efforts formally began in 2015, when the Biodiversity Research Institute began raising loon chicks in captivity in partnership with state wildlife agencies. For the next few years, they managed to release around eight young-adult loons annually into unoccupied, good-quality habitat in Massachusetts.
The project’s success would only become clear a few years later. Young loons don’t breed until they reach several years of age, spending at least the first three years of their life at sea. The marine areas they use as juveniles continue to be their wintering grounds as lake-breeding adults.
While one of the (now fully-grown) male loons has returned to the Plymouth County lake where it was raised for the past couple of years, it was joined by a fully wild female in the spring of 2020. Their chick— the first of what will hopefully be many to come out of the translocation effort—was spotted a few weeks later.
Strong conservation laws yield results
In this case, loons’ reintroduction into southeastern Massachusetts was part of a larger vision for restoring public resources—from fisheries, to swimming beaches, to migratory birds—after they were accidentally damaged by a private company.
But were the damage to bird populations not caused by an oil spill or other pollution that affected people’s health, only the MBTA could have been used as a legal tool to require that a company make amends. Now, that framework is gone—and the current administration’s decision may soon become difficult to overturn.
Birders have already observed several other loons from the reintroduction project at different sites across eastern Massachusetts. If you see a loon with a leg band, or on fresh water inside of route 495, let us know in the comments!
May 31 to June 5, 2020 marked the first ever Black Birders Week, a five-day virtual event to raise awareness and highlight the need for action surrounding the racism and discrimination Black individuals face in nature spaces. Unlike their white counterparts, black individuals face additional challenges that can prevent full enjoyment of the outdoors; challenges that are rooted in systemic and historical racism that manifests today in unconscious and conscious biases against black individuals. These challenges often result in low representations or exclusion of people of color in nature and outdoor activities. Black Birders Week sparked a national discussion and the organizers, a group called the BlackAFinSTEM collective, hope that the result of this increased awareness and understanding of the black perspective will lead to a normalization of people of color in birding, nature, and science.
The idea for the five-day-long virtual event was conceived in response to the alarming racist incident recorded in Central Park between Christian Cooper, an avid Black birdwatcher and member of New York City Audubon board of directors, and a white woman who was weaponizing race as a scare tactic against Cooper. Seeing the national response, organizers saw this as an opportunity to acknowledge that the experience of Christian Cooper was not uncommon for Black people in nature, and although racism manifests itself in various ways, there are things everyone can do to support a more diverse and welcoming outdoor community for all.
Each day of the event had a different online experience. Below are posts from Twitter and Facebook that highlights the week’s activities and participants experience.
Day 1: #BlackInNature celebrated Black nature enthusiasts around the world debunking the stereotype that black people do not enjoy nature.
Day 2: The #PostaBird challenge asked people to share their favorite bird photos and facts.
Day 3: #AskABlackBirder featured a two-hour Q&A with Black Birders
Day 4: The #BirdingWhileBlack livestream discussions offered a space for Black birders, including Dr. J. Drew Lanham, Jason and Jeffrey Ward, Corina Newsome, and Kassandra Ford, to share their love for birds and their experiences—both positive and negative—being and working in natural spaces. (view Session 1 and Session 2).
Day 5: #BlackWomenWhoBird increased visibility and representation.
Key takeaway from Black Birders Week
Birding and Nature are for Everyone,Everywhere
Birding and being in nature are typically thought to be rejuvenating, fun, relaxing, and peaceful, but people of color cannot always fully enjoy these feelings because of an underlying sense of “otherness” or not belonging. In some cases, they experience racism both blatant and subtle. The livestream sessions with Black birders were particularly eye-opening because each and every person on the stream could recount a time where they:
Felt unsafe going to a certain area (or even an entire state) to bird because they feared someone would report a “suspicious” black person or their safety would be otherwise threatened because of the color of their skin.
Felt out of place in a group of other birdwatchers because they were the only person of color and the others in the group seemed amazed by them being there.
Experienced outright racism from police or other individuals.
Made sure to be obvious that they were birdwatching by raising their binoculars or wearing nerdy bird-themed clothes to reduce suspicion.
It is unacceptable that this is a reality for so many bird and nature enthusiasts. Birds and nature are for everyone to enjoy and study regardless of the color of their skin.
You Can Make A Difference
Learn more about the discrimination and racism people of color face when they are in natural spaces, at science conferences, and in their lives.
The bird surveys of the fields protected by The Bobolink Project are just about done, and the Bobolinks are currently busy tending to their young. Our partners in Vermont, where the majority of the Bobolink Project fields are, report that there are a lot of fledglings on the fields and that overall numbers are looking good this year (more on this in September).
This year, thanks to our awesome donors, The Bobolink Project was able to protect 995 acres of grassland habitat in Vermont, Massachusetts, Maine, and New York—the most we’ve ever protected in a single year! The 22 landowners who were accepted into the program will receive financial compensation (at the rate of $50/acre) in August for delaying mowing on their fields and therefore allowing these birds to successfully raise their young. Our Bobolink Project landowners care about grassland birds, but need a little financial help to do so. Hay cut early in the season is more valuable than that cut later in the summer and The Bobolink Project compensation helps make up the difference.
Protecting More Than Bobolinks
The program is called “The Bobolink Project” because Bobolinks are more widespread and easier to see than other birds that nest in grasslands. Many other species also benefit from the protection of grassland habitat through the program. Song Sparrows, Grasshopper Sparrows, and others have been spotted nesting on the fields. Excitingly, a Sedge Wren was found singing on one of the Bobolink Project fields this summer. Sedge Wrens are endangered in New England and a rare sight.
Help Us Permanently Protect Grassland Birds At Patten Hill
In addition to running The Bobolink Project, Mass Audubon also permanently protects natural land for wildlife and people. Mass Audubon has the opportunity to protect 67 acres at Patten Hill, which is adjacent to Mass Audubon’s High Ledges Wildlife Sanctuary in Shelburne Falls, MA. Of those 67 acres, 40 acres are grassland habitat with nesting Bobolinks. Protecting the property will also result in more than 1,000 acres of connected protected natural land.
Last summer, Mass Audubon’s Director of Bird Conservation, Jon Atwood, collaborated with Andy French, project leader at the Silvio O. Conte National Fish and Wildlife Refuge, to study Barn Swallows that were nesting in an aging horse stable destined for demolition during the non-breeding season. Approximately 40 pairs of swallows nested in the stable during 2019; an additional 4-7 pairs nested in an adjacent building, known as the Boat House, which the US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) planned to set aside as a more long-term Barn Swallow nesting site and storage area. The aging horse stable was eventually demolished after the resident swallows had migrated to their South American wintering grounds.
The Barn Swallows are back!
We have good news to report! As hoped, the majority of swallows that nested in the stable in 2019 have returned and set up housekeeping in the Boat House. As of June 16 (still relatively early in the breeding season), 30 pairs were actively nesting in the Boat House, and four additional pairs had established nests in nearby artificial structures built for this purpose.
Last year Jon banded many (but not all) of the Barn Swallow adults so that we could tell if they returned to the site in future years. Of 51 birds that have been captured using mist nets in the Boat House in 2020, 22 (43%) had been banded as adults in 2019 in the stable. In other studies, researchers have found that return rates of breeding swallows to undisturbed nesting sites have ranged from 20% in Oklahoma to 42% in New York. Although most Barn Swallows do not return to where they were hatched, we have even captured 2 individuals that hatched from nests that were located last year in the horse stable.
A new kiosk gives an up close look at the birds
USFWS has placed video cameras in the Boat House, and visitors can watch the nesting swallows feed their young from an observation kiosk located near the start of the 1.2 mile long universally-accessible Fort River Birding Trail. Visitors may also be greeted by the families of Tree Swallows and Barn Swallows that are also nesting in the kiosk. The kiosk will eventually house a professionally-designed and fabricated exhibit with information about aerial insectivores.
This success will lead to other successes going forward
Not only does this success story provide a happy ending to the difficult management debate that swirled around the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s decision to remove the horse stable, but these efforts have also paved the way for future conservation actions that can be applied to other situations. Aging barns occupied by Barn Swallows are a common feature in New England’s historically agricultural landscape, and sometimes these structures cannot be saved. Through the experience at Conte Refuge we have learned important lessons about how to attract and relocate Barn Swallows into alternative structures where they can be protected if occupied barns need to be removed.
Warblers seemed to rain from the sky during Bird-a-thon 2020 after unusual weather doused Massachusetts in migrants. Birder participation more than doubled, too, but not because conditions predicted a massive influx of birds. Instead, it seems that more beginners were brought in by a family-friendly approach and a focus on birding from home.
Birds were everywhere
As the sun rose on the Outer Cape on May 16th, thousands of birds gathered in the dunes after being blown in from the southwest and grounded by rain. The subsequent dawn flight became the subject of several expert articles, including an in-depth analysis of the conditions by ornithology professor Sean Williams. Some eBird checklists recorded over 100 Bay-breasted and Cape May Warblers, plus dozens of individuals of other uncommon migrants like White-crowned and Lincoln’s Sparrows.
Inland, the action was almost as good, with several Bird-a-thon-ers in dense suburbs and towns setting personal records for their yards. Nonstop north winds had held birds back for nearly two weeks, and when the wind finally turned southwest, restless migrants pushed ahead despite the storms. Nearly everything showed up at once; yard reports of Cerulean Warblers, Bay-breasted Warblers, and Bobolinks highlighted the strength of the previous night’s migration.
“Fallout” may be an overused term– but this was real
The word “fallout” often gets misapplied to any day with really good migration. In reality, even in the loosest sense, this word refers to exhausted migrants that land in adverse weather. In the strict sense, it describes a stream of migrants that are knocked down by fast-moving storms, landing en masse when they meet the edge of the weather front.
In this case, adverse weather formed well before nightfall, but the long-delayed migrants pushed ahead anyway—there was no “knockdown” effect from the edge of a front, but the wind and rain did exhaust many birds that were blown east into Massachusetts. So, yes, this was a fallout, loosely speaking—and a uniquely great birding day by any stretch of the imagination.
New birders drove up participation
A normally competitive endeavor, this year’s Bird-a-thon focused on participation.The team cap was lifted, and new activities were made up to engage kids and non-bird enthusiasts in earning points for their team, like inventing silly bird names and creating bird art. With a stay-at-home order driving a surge in interest in birding, it was important to welcome new enthusiasts to the fold– and avoid encouraging birders to tear across the state in search of rare species. Subsequently, Bird-a-thon attracted 1,600 participants this year, more than double the 750 who took part in 2019.
Donations were up, too
As of right now, Bird-a-thon raised over $295,000 – far surpassing the $250,000 goal. Despite the current economic hardships of the coronavirus pandemic, these funds are up from the $240,000 raised last year.
The final tally
In total, Mass Audubon teams saw 242 unique species in Massachusetts. Teams were awarded points based on the number of unique bird species the team saw plus the number of nature-based activities team members completed. Drumlin Farm took first place with 992 points and a team of 230 participants (including 90 kids), earning the “Eagle Eye Award.” Second place, for the “Home Habitat Award” went to Wellfleet Bay with 537 points. The team from Ipswich River took home the award for the highest number of species seen: 206.
For a full recap of the incredible birding day participants shared, check out local birder and documentarian Shawn Carey’s video on the experience, complete with teammate interviews and great bird footage.
The normal format of the Avian Collision Team (ACT) will not be possible this spring. Last year, ACT involved around 40 volunteers looked for dead or injured migrants along routes through Boston. Working a couple of days each week during migration, those volunteers tallied 193 window-struck birds in total, representing nearly five dozen species.
Many volunteers, once primed to look for window strikes, also started reporting injured birds outside their homes and offices. Window strikes are indeed not only an urban issue, and houses in the suburbs or countryside play an important role. While a skyscraper kills an average of 24 birds per year, low-rises are not far behind at 22, and most single-family residences kill between 1–3. (Buildings vary, of course, and some are responsible for more than 100 collisions a year).
Residences: a silent culprit
Standalone homes are responsible for 90% of bird-window collisions. Even though sleek, all-glass facades on non-residential buildings kill many more birds on a per-building basis than the average single-family home, residences are more than 60 times as common as tall city buildings—making their collective impact even more significant.
More importantly, bird collisions are harder to detect outside of the city. Landscaping around houses conceals the bodies of window strike victims, and scavengers like raccoons and squirrels abound. Consequently, window strikes at residences are underreported.
Help us track bird-window collisions at home
Participating in this project requires less effort than a normal ACT season, since it only involves a quick daily check at one building (your home). It’s important, however, to make this a daily or near-daily routine, since there may only be one or two days out of the season when you find a bird (although there may be many more). As always, data on where window collisions are not occurring is just as important as where they are. The data from this project will help us better understand the problem and eventually develop recommendations for reducing bird kills caused by window collisions at residential structures and low-rise office buildings.
The survey period officially runs until June 2, when most migrants are settled into their breeding territory. Anyone is welcome to continue submitting data after that, though—breeding birds are nearly as likely to collide with windows as migrants.
If you want to learn how to make your home safer for birds, check out these tips. Please only put up bird-friendly products like window tapes or screens before or after the data collection period. Modifying your windows in the middle of the data collection period will make it impossible to analyze data from your building.
To learn more about why birds have a hard time detecting glass, and to sign up to survey your home, visit our Anecdata webpage.
American Kestrels, Barn Swallows, and Cliff Swallows are all declining in Massachusetts, like many other open-country birds. The Bird Conservation team is initiating two exciting studies on these species during this spring and summer, and data from the community will be integral to both studies’ success!
Have you seen these birds nesting?
If you have any information on these species’ current (2020) nest sites, or are willing to look for them, please submit data via our swallow project and kestrel project webpages on Anecdata (a citizen science website).
You’ll need to set up an Anecdata account first. Click on “register” to first create an account, and click on “join project” once you’ve signed up with Anecdata.
Both projects are fairly simple for users: simply click on “add an observation” and report the coordinates of nesting American Kestrels, Barn Swallows, and Cliff Swallows. In the case of both swallow species’, it’s also useful to know if you observe structures that do NOT host a colony but which you think potentially could (e.g., old barns or small wooden bridges near open grassland and freshwater). Note that this study is focused on nesting sites, not places where birds are observed foraging or flying around.
What we hope to accomplish with your help
The purpose of the swallow project is straightforward: we want to identify sites where Barn and Cliff Swallows are nesting that may not yet be known to biologists.
Mass Audubon’s work on the kestrel project on the other hand, will be a little more involved. After compiling a list of remaining nest sites, the Bird Conservation Department will team up with state biologists in 2021 to fit kestrels with radio tags. These tags will track their movements around the region after nesting, and eventually to their wintering grounds.
Kestrels breed widely throughout Massachusetts, but there are many Breeding Bird Atlas blocks that showed declines between Atlas 1 (1974-1979) and Atlas 2 (2007-2011). Interestingly, there are both urban-nesting and farmland-nesting American Kestrels, and the two populations may be showing different population trajectories. Studying the life histories of these birds, including tracking their movements away from nest sites, could hold clues as to why so much apparently good kestrel habitat goes unoccupied in the state.
As always, all nest data is kept strictly within the community of biologists working to conserve these species.
More Tips For Searching
Both projects run from May 20 – August 20, to reduce potential confusion between nesting birds and migrants.
The focus is on nest sites and not on places where birds are seen flying around.
If you need a refresher on identifying Barn and Cliff Swallows in the field, check out our ID tips for these similar-looking birds.
Please participate only if you can do so in your own local communities.
It’s likely that some sites will be on private property where direct observer access is impossible.Please don’t trespass! Even if you’re only able to observe from a road edge and can’t collect, it’s helpful to know that you saw swallows or kestrels entering or leaving a particular cavity or structure.
All three of these species were once common sightings in rural parts of Massachusetts, and they’re all a joy to observe and spend time near. Thank you for helping Mass Audubon protect them, and happy birding!