Category Archives: Grassland Birds

Good News Update: Barn Swallows Successfully Nested at Conte National Wildlife Refuge

Barn Swallows nesting at the Silvio O. Conte National Fish and Wildlife Refuge have had a successful season in 2020 in the Fort River Boat House. The full final report is available here.

Season Summary

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.

Young Barn Swallows (Photo by Richard Kramer)

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

Support our efforts to conserve Barn Swallows and other birds >

Bobolinks Are Thriving On Protected Fields

A Bobolink male and female with food for their nestlings on a field protected by The Bobolink Project (video by Allan Strong, UVM).

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.

Sedge Wren on Bobolink Project field (photo by Allan Strong, UVM)

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.

Mass Audubon needs to raise $442,000 to acquire Patten Hill and we’re almost halfway there. Give today to help us protect this habitat for birds and other wildlife.

Barn Swallows Successfully Return to Nest at Conte National Fish and Wildlife Refuge

Barn Swallows build their nests out of mud often on the eaves, rafters, and cross beams of barns, stables, and sheds.

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.

Jon Atwood removes a captured Barn Swallow from a mist net for banding.

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

Conte Refuge visitors watch nesting Barn Swallows at the kiosk at Fort River (photo by Andy French).

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.

We’ll keep you posted as the season progresses.

Two New Citizen Science Projects for 2020: Kestrel and Swallow Nest Site Reporting

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!

Barn Swallow young on nest (Photo by Ginger Lane)

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.

A screenshot of a social media post

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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.

American Kestrel at nest box (Photo by Mark Grimason)

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!

Looking for Love in All the Wrong Places: The Woodcocks of Alewife Reservation

American Woodcocks appear to be thriving at the Alewife Reservation in Cambridge, an urban wild sandwiched between office complexes and a subway garage. Despite the myriad dangers of city life, up to a dozen woodcocks perform their aerial mating displays over Alewife every March.

Resilience against the odds

Alewife is awash in threats to these hapless birds. Peregrine Falcons occasionally snag woodcocks in midair as they hunt along the clifflike walls of a brutalist-era parking garage. The expansive glass façade of the recently-expanded office park looms over the adjacent greenspace, causing fatal window collisions. Feral cats prowl around the urban wetland’s thickets. Heavy metals and pollutants from long ago still linger in the soil.

At Alewife, small patches of woodlands, wetlands, and fields persist amid urban infrastructure and new development.

And yet, at least a handful of woodcocks return here every year. In early spring, they give their explosive, nasal calls at dusk, leap into the sky, and twist and turn in midair to attract a mate. Once paired off, they nest and raise young in nearby woodlands.

Is it a trap?

It’s worth considering that this urban wild might be what’s known as an “population sink,” or “ecological trap.”

An ecological trap is any low-quality habitat where more birds die than can successfully reproduce, but which attracts birds even when there’s safer places for them nearby. Traps can appear to have a stable population of birds, when in fact most of those birds die before being replaced as more birds are lured in from safe areas.

A population sink, on the other hand, doesn’t necessarily attract birds more than areas with suitable habitat. Rather, birds end up there as “overflow,” when better territories are fully occupied or made inaccessible. Sinks don’t cause as steep declines, but do put a cap on the birds that can successfully reproduce in an area.

So, it’s entirely possible that Alewife isn’t doing the woodcock population any favors. No woodcock nests have been found in the area, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re failing to reproduce.

Brushy fields are all you need

Whether or not Alewife is a net plus or minus for its resident woodcocks, data from the rest of the country show that habitat availability is the main factor limiting woodcock abundance.

The strange, lumpy, long-billed form of an American Woodcock (Scolopax minor). Photo: Will Freedberg

Woodcocks love fields with low, woody brush, and adjacent mature forest. They display in springtime over open, grassy areas, but need some cover—ideally patches of shrubs or grass 2’-5’ high—for shelter. They use forest to forage during the rest of the year, especially when they’re raising young.

Without disturbance, either by fire, mowing, or agriculture, brushy fields revert to forest in a couple of decades. This is the story of woodcock habitat across Massachusetts: most ex-farmland has reverted to forest. Remaining fields are farmed more intensively, leaving less and less brushy patches and edge habitat, and fallow fields are becoming rarer.

Mass Audubon’s Foresters for the Birds program is emphasizing the value of young forest and shrubland habitat for birds. By educating foresters and landowners on bird-friendly forestry practices, we’re trying to create more habitat for woodcocks and other young forest specialists.

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 >

Meadowlark Project 2019: Birding for Conservation

Now in its third year, the Eastern Meadowlark Project is a great way to support bird conservation by simply going birding.

By checking for meadowlarks at a list of sites and entering observations on our project webpage, citizen scientists help piece together the reasons for this species’ decline.

Eastern Meadowlark (photo by Phil Brown)

We know that meadowlarks are in trouble. Between 1974-2011, meadowlarks disappeared from over 78% of their Massachusetts breeding sites, according to Mass Audubon’s Breeding Bird Atlas.  This decline is only partially explained by meadowlarks’ habitat requirements.

Our 2018 volunteers found meadowlarks at just 3 sites out of over 100 protected grasslands across the state. While meadowlarks do persist at a handful of known agricultural sites outside our survey areas, these results suggested they aren’t using all of the habitat ostensibly available to them. So, while we know habitat loss is a major factor, we also know that it’s not the only part of the meadowlark decline equation.

Our next step is to check sites where meadowlarks were historically seen–including areas that might not be textbook habitat for them. This year, surveys will take place at sites where Eastern Meadowlarks were spotted during the past two Breeding Bird Atlases (1974-1979 and 2007-2011). This will help us both establish where meadowlarks have disappeared from their historical range, and what kinds of habitats meadowlarks are using aside from natural grasslands.

Go Birding—For Science!

First, visit our Anecdata webpage to select sites where you can help look for meadowlarks.  You’ll need to create an account by clicking “register” in the top right corner and creating a username and password. Then, return to the meadowlark project page and click “join project” (just under the photo of the meadowlark). To view a map of sites, click on “add an observation,” then click “use a hotspot” in the upper left, and then click “map.”  Finally, be sure to sign up for the hotspots you choose on the signup list mentioned in the project description!

To keep our data uniform and reliable, a volunteer should survey a site three times between April 10 and June 15, for any 10-minute period between 5:00 am and 9:30 am.  Not all of our sites may have meadowlarks, and that’s perfectly fine— knowing where they aren’t, and figuring out why, is just important to us as knowing where they are.

Thanks for helping us help grassland birds– and good luck finding meadowlarks!

1,027 Bobolink Fledglings Saved This Summer

By The Numbers: The 2018 Bobolink Project

We’re tallying up the results of this year’s Bobolink Project, and the numbers look great! The Project protected 932 acres of nesting habitat, up from 512 acres in 2016 (which was the project’s first year at Mass Audubon). Field surveys showed 368 pairs of Bobolinks on participating farmers’ land. Since Bobolinks fledge an average of 2.79 chicks every season, this translates to saving an estimated 1,027 Bobolinks—many of which may return to nest again next year!

It takes just 12 days for nestlings to leave the nest, but another two to three weeks before they can fly well enough to escape the mowers used for haying. Photo by S. Bardella

How it Works

Bobolinks rely on grasslands to breed, and often find that hayfields work just as well. Until the mid-20th century, many hayfields were mowed in late summer, weeks after Bobolink chicks had left the nest. Now, high demand for livestock feed means that farmers are mowing earlier and earlier; early-cut hay is richer in protein and more valuable. Sadly, this means that many Bobolink nestlings end up under the mower.

Every year, Mass Audubon offers farmers compensation for waiting to mow their hayfields until after nesting season. This model has so far proved effective: plenty of farmers would rather not mow over active bird nests, but need their hayfields to produce some source of income. Mass Audubon uses donations to cover these farmers’ losses from delaying mowing, keeping their farms economically viable while protecting grassland birds.

Bobolink © Martha Akey

Photo by Martha Akey

Next Year’s Goals

Even with increased donations, the number of interested farmers is outpacing available funds. This year, we had enough funds to protect two thirds of project applicants’ land. We also had to leave an additional 492 acres of Bobolink habitat on the table. Sadly, this funding gap meant that most fledglings on the unprotected acreage didn’t make it.

While it may not be possible to prevent every single agriculture-related Bobolink death across the region, it is painful to have to turn away farmers who want to partner with us to protect birds.

If you’d like to help us protect even more acres and Bobolinks next year, please donate here!

Can You Help Us Find Meadowlarks?

The Eastern Meadowlark is in serious decline in our state and nationwide. To understand what we can do to turn this around, we’re enlisting the help of volunteer birders and citizen scientists. By entering observations on our project webpage, anyone can contribute to conservation efforts for this iconic species.  

Photo by Phil Brown

Meadowlarks disappeared from over 78% of their Massachusetts breeding sites since 1979, according to Mass Audubon’s Breeding Bird Atlas.  This decline is only partially explained by meadowlarks’ habitat requirements.

Conservation scientists know that meadowlarks need a certain kind of grassland habitat— vegetation that’s short, but not too short; fields over 20 acres with no standing trees. These days, however, suitable fields that once rang with meadowlark song are quiet and still.

Agricultural intensification certainly plays a role: 95% of Eastern Meadowlarks nest on private land. Fallow farm fields are harder to come by and pesticide application increases apace; more and more pastures and grassy fields are either overgrazed or developed. But this is only part of the story, and it’s up to us to figure out the rest.

Go Birding—For Science!

All you need to do is visit our Anecdata webpage and select sites where you can help look for meadowlarks.  To view a map of sites, click on “add an observation,” then click “use a hotspot” in the upper left, and then click “map.”  Be sure to sign up for the hotspots you choose on the signup list mentioned in the project description!

To keep our data uniform and reliable, a volunteer should survey a site three times between April 20 and June 15, for any ten-minute period between 5:30AM and 9:30AM.  Not all of our sites may have meadowlarks, and that’s perfectly fine— knowing where they aren’t, and figuring out why, is just important to us as knowing where they are.

These surveys can be great fun. It’s no longer every day that casual observers see the bold pattern and lemon-yellow blaze of a meadowlark standing, flaglike, atop a fencepost. Fewer and fewer people recognize their ringing whistle. There’s always some pride in finding an uncommon bird. But the joy of a meadowlark sighting can also be colored by nostalgia, whether for the historical abundance of grassland birds, or the broader decline of pastoral landscapes.   

The great thing is, we can do something about it.

A Final Push For Bobolinks In 2018

 

A Bobolink in a field with Oxalis (wild clover) and Vicia (cow vetch). Photo by Allan Strong.

The Bobolink Project is almost ready to go! With one week left for donations, we’re just $2000 away from protecting 1,000 acres of grassland bird habitat this year. That would be nearly twice as many acres as when the project started! With this year’s increase in farmers applying to protect habitat on their land, we need to ask for more help to accept as many applicants as we can.

The Bobolink Project works through a reverse auction, meaning farmers name the lowest per-acre price they’ll accept in exchange for a delay in mowing their fields. We select the lowest bids and work our way up the list, making agreements with more farms until we reach the limit of our Bobolink donations for the year.

Delaying hayfield mowing is a tried-and-true way of protecting Bobolinks. Hayfields provide an excellent surrogate for the tall grassland Bobolinks require to nest- such an excellent surrogate that Bobolinks can rarely differentiate wild grassland from agricultural hayfields. But when fields are mown before the end of nesting season, eggs and nestlings are destroyed during the harvest. Unfortunately, early-season hay is protein-rich and valuable, and some working farms cannot afford to delay mowing and drive down the value of their hay.

That’s where we come in—we use donations to cover the cost of mowing later, essentially buying the birds time to raise their young and move out.

Every donation directly protects acreage of fields and their resident Bobolinks. Please help us make it to our goal of 1,000 acres this year!