Category Archives: Grassland Birds

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!

Where Do Woodcocks Go In The Snow?

When winter weather drags on into late March, our earliest spring migrants still show up on schedule!  Birders often hear the sharp, reedy “peent!” of American Woodcocks in mild weather amid other spring sounds, like the clamor of wood frogs and spring peepers. Hearing them calling from fields covered in several feet of snow can seem incongruous. So how does lingering snow affect these enigmatic birds’ ability to find food?

Beak Superpowers

Woodcocks find insects by probing underground with their beaks. The tips of their beaks pack a bundle of highly sensitive nerves, which they use to pick up on vibrations from insects moving in the soil.

The tip of their beak can also flex open while the rest of it stays closed, allowing woodcocks to delicately pick up food without having to pry their whole bill open underground. The ability to open just the end of the beak is called distal rhyncokinesis  (rine-co-kin-EE-sis), or simply rhycokinesis  when discussing beak flexibility more generally. It’s a trait shared by many members of the sandpiper family, woodcocks included.

This photo only partially shows how flexible the tip of a woodcock bill is– underground,  they can close the lower two thirds and move just the outer third. (Photo: Will Freedberg) 


With such particular feeding habits, spring snowstorms might seem to spell trouble for these ground-dwelling insect-eaters. In particular, 2018 has seen a spate of nor’easters barreling through New England, dumping foot after foot upon snow.

Snowed-in Woodcocks Seek Open Ground

Woodcocks can often feed successfully through a shallow layer of snow, but only if the ground is not frozen through. If the ground has already thawed, a covering of snow will in fact keep the ground from freezing fully again, if temperatures return below freezing.

But March 2018 has seen snowpack deeper than a woodcock’s bill is long, even when the ground hasn’t been frozen solid. In years like this, woodcocks feed near any natural features that keep snow off the ground—along the banks of streams and flowing water, or under coniferous trees that partially shelter the ground from snow.

Birders in the know will look for them in these areas, and are careful not to scare or flush these easily-stressed birds. Their flight displays have continued along the edges of fields so far regardless of snow cover, and should keep going into April.

For more tips on how to find woodcocks, check out our list of sites and programs!

Another successful year for The Bobolink Project

Bobolink © Allan Strong

We are proud to share a final report on what The Bobolink Project accomplished during the summer of 2017. But before we share the results, we first and foremost thank our donors. With their financial support, conservation interest, and promotional efforts, The Bobolink Project would not exist. This is very much a grassroots conservation effort—pun intended—and we are deeply appreciative of our donors’ support.

We also thank the farmers who applied to and participated in the project. Without them the habitat for grassland birds would not exist. We are glad that they are conscious of the birds on their fields and that they are willing to participate in a solution that allows them to grow a “crop” of grassland birds without compromising their financial stability.

Donations and Farms Enrolled

In the months leading up to the 2017 field season, we raised just over $38,000 to support the project’s objectives, and 99% of this donation pool was given directly to the participating farmers. Based on the fixed-price reverse auction, the final bid that was accepted from the farmers was $60/acre.

With this financial support we were able to enroll about 630 acres distributed among 17 farms—13 located in Vermont, two in Massachusetts, one in New Hampshire, and one in New York.

Bobolink (female) © Allan Strong

Successful Breeding Pairs and Fledglings

The project state coordinators surveyed the fields this summer to measure the success of the program for grassland birds. They estimated that there were about 294 pairs of Bobolinks on the enrolled fields. Using what we think is a conservative estimate of 2.79 fledglings per breeding pair, we estimate that 820 Bobolink young were produced as a result of the project’s 2017 efforts.

The number of fledglings nearly doubled from 2016 to 2017 even though the amount of protected acreage increased by about 20%. The huge increase in fledgling numbers is due in large part to one of the participating farms in particular, which consisted of 146 acres with many nesting Bobolinks.

The 2017 breeding season was also especially wet in many parts of the northeast. Increased amounts of rain typically means more invertebrates (e.g., insects) for Bobolinks to eat. This enhancement of breeding conditions could have influenced the higher number of Bobolink pairs and fledglings estimated this year.

What We Left On the Table

Another important aspect of this project concerns what we were unable to accomplish.

In 2017, we had to reject applications from 19 farmers who had submitted bids that exceeded what we were able to support from our donation pool. In other words, about 615 acres of offered habitat was lost because we needed more donations.

Of course, it’s wonderful that we succeeded in protecting 634 acres of grassland bird habitat! But the fact that we had to “leave on the table” a total of 615 acres—land that otherwise might have been protected—is a sobering thought. Remember, the more donations we collect, the more land we can protect from haying. We hope this reminder motivates new and previous donors alike to support the Bobolink Project in 2018.

In fact, contributions toward next year’s efforts can be made now—even while the birds themselves are busily heading toward South America! It’s never too early to make a donation, and your gift will be set aside for the 2018 nesting season.

To get the latest information follow us on Facebook, check out the website, or subscribe to our e-newsletter.

The Bobolink Project: 2017 season update


Male Bobolink © Allan Strong

The Bobolinks are arriving in New England and we’re finalizing the contracts with our participating Bobolink Project farmers. Thanks to the generosity of our Bobolink Project donors, we can protect over 630 acres of farmland this year! In return for some compensation, the Bobolink Project farmers will delay mowing on their hay fields until the young grassland birds have had time to fledge.

As in past years, we had more acres submitted into the project than we could cover with the available pool of donations. This year, we received 40 applications from farmers in Vermont, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Maine, and New York—but our donation pool, as of April 1st (our deadline for donations), could cover only 17 of the farmers’ fields. This may sound disappointing, but we are able to cover 20% more acres this year at a lower per acre price of $60 (vs. $75 last year).

We are glad that the project is continuing to grow and 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.

The Bobolink Project donations are accepted all year. The 2018 donation pool is already growing: since April 1st we have received over $8,000 in donations that will be saved for next year. Donate now to help us protect more acres and birds next year.


Check out the updated Bobolink Project website!

Hi all,

We are pleased to announce that we have finished updating our website for the coming 2017 Bobolink Project season. Check out the new information at The farmer applications are live and donations are very welcome.

We will be accepting farmer applications until March 20.

  • IMPORTANT: We have changed some of the criteria for eligible farms and clarified a few other things so we highly recommend that you thoroughly read through the For Farmers page.

We also encourage donors to donate before April 1 when we will begin selecting farms for the program. The reason why only donations before April 1, 2017 will be applied to the 2017 season is because the number of farms and which farms we accept into the program depend wholly on how many donations we have pooled up to that deciding date when we start creating the contracts. Any donations that come in after April 1 will be saved for the following 2018 season.

Contact us at [email protected] if you have any questions.

We are looking forward to a new season of The Bobolink Project!


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.

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.















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

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.


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


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


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