Protecting bobolinks, one hayfield at a time

Photo by Julia Bailey-Wells
A male bobolink perches on a branch. The bobolink population dropped 75 percent in 50 years.

Community News Service

Out in the field, Allan Strong identifies birds by sight and by song as they call into the morning mist and zip by against the fog-soaked mountains.

“American crow … and there’s a barn swallow.” He scratches both names into an orange notebook.

A spritely male bobolink flits above the grass line, its distinctive yellow cap nearly matching the petals of the field’s damp buttercups. This is the bird Strong is looking for.

“People love bobolinks,” Strong says over his shoulder. “When you see one for the first time, you think, ‘That’s something different.’”

Though native to the midwestern Great Plains, bobolinks now primarily reside in the Northeast. This migrating member of the blackbird and oriole family requires 65 days to reproduce in spring after its return from wintering in South America. In the past 50 years, available grassland breeding grounds have dwindled as farmers in the region made earlier and more frequent hayfield cuts. As a result, bobolink populations dropped 75 percent.

“The main story is that the interval between cuts is just not long enough for birds to breed,” explained Strong, a University of Vermont professor of Wildlife and Ornithology.

To combat this trend, the Bobolink Project began in 2007 as a community effort to conserve the grassland species in Jamestown, R.I.

In 2013, the Universities of Connecticut and Vermont adopted the program under the direction of Strong and University of Connecticut professor of Agriculture and Research Economics Stephen Swallow. Massachusetts Audubon now manages the project in collaboration with Audubon Vermont. According to Strong, Audubon got involved with the project at the urging of its volunteers, after completing a breeding bird atlas that highlighted the bobolink’s swift decline.

Today the project has grown to encompass approximately 928 acres across New England. In Vermont, the project spans 824 acres of grasslands in towns including Hyde Park, Shelburne and Hinesburg.

Through donations, the Bobolink Project pays landowners to either delay cutting their hayfields until Aug. 1, or to cut before June 1 and wait 65 days until the next cut to allow bobolinks to breed.

As one of two wildlife specialists responsible for surveying enrolled Vermont land for the project, Strong surveyed Gary Smith’s Hyde Park fields earlier this summer.

Smith, who enrolled 46 acres of his sloping 162-acre property in the Bobolink Project this year, finds new appreciation for wildlife through his involvement.

“I love going on that walk every year,” Smith said. “When I went for walks, I only ever saw a crow, a robin and a bluejay. I’ve picked up a few others, thanks to Allan. I know bobolinks now. And they are fun,” he said.

While surveying Smith’s property, Strong spotted 26 male bobolinks and 20 female bobolinks. “So, an estimated 20 pairs,” Strong said.

“When they come back, it just lights up the field,” Smith said of the bobolinks’ seasonal return. “They kind of fly funny—they kind of flop around. They take off and they fly so fast, you think, ‘I didn’t think anything could even fly like that.’”

Counting pairs and chicks

While the flashy black-and-yellow males catch the eye, Strong’s survey and subsequent population estimates center on the brown downy female bobolinks. Bobolinks are a polygynous species, meaning that males usually mate with more than one female. As such, population estimates rely on counting the number of females and extrapolating the number of fledglings produced based on Strong’s benchmark average of 2.69 young per female.

Margaret Fowle, an Audubon Vermont wildlife biologist, is the other surveyor of the Vermont land in the project.

“We base our measure of success on the number of acres enrolled and the number of fledglings we estimate we’ll get. Basically, the number of bobolinks produced is our measure of success,” Fowle said.

This year, she said, 198 bobolink pairs were documented in Vermont with an estimated 552 young fledged.

Katherine Kjellern, granddaughter of Marjorie and Loren Palmer, manages 34 acres of Palmer Family Trust land enrolled in the Bobolink Project in Hinesburg.

“My grandmother was a great bird lover, so I think she would love this whole program. Conserving wildlife was right in line with her belief system, it’s nice to think that we’re doing something that she would appreciate,” she said.

Palmer Trust land is designated for agriculture and recreation. Champlain Valley Union High School uses some of the land for its athletic program, while a neighboring farmer occasionally hays other areas.

Likewise, Smith has an agreement with a nearby farmer who cuts his fields and sells most of the hay as winter feed for beef cattle.

Weighing financial, ecological benefits

While non-agricultural landowners who don’t generally look to earn much from their land strictly gain from participating in the program, working farms that choose to enroll may do so at a financial loss.

When the Bobolink Project began, most enrolled land was agricultural. For participation to appeal to farmers, compensation per acre had to be equal to or greater than what farmers might make from haying.

But as more non-farming owners have enrolled, landowner compensation has dropped from $160 to $50 per acre, despite an increase in donations from $32,000 to $46,400 annually, according to Strong. He worries about the impact on enrolled farmers, despite the project’s conservation benefits.

“I feel like we’re squeezing farmers out of their market because they need to earn money off their land,” he said.

Shelburne’s Bread and Butter Farm has participated in the project for two years, with 254 of their 650 managed acres of farmland enrolled this year.

“It’s a good way to couple habitat and ecological management and incentives with good farming practices that are building organic matter, but the payments don’t really work long-term for farmers that are doing even mid-level production,” said Brandon Bless, Bread and Butter land and animal manager.

The farm doesn’t sell its hay. It instead grazes and cuts fields to feed livestock, making the monetary loss harder to calculate than it might be for a farmer who simply cuts and sells hay.

Bless speculated that restricting the program exclusively to farmland to increase the per-acre compensation might not be ideal, either.

“It would just reduce the number of acres [enrolled], so now the bobolinks get the short end,” he said.

Delaying haying may come with a financial cost but Bless said that for many working farms, “allowing habitat to exist and just doing good ecological management in and of itself has tremendous value.” The late cutting allows for increased sub-soil root growth and above-ground biomass.

“We’re taking a hit, but then we’re getting the benefit of soil health,” he said.

Bless said he believes the Bobolink Project serves as an example for future incentive-based agriculture and conservation efforts that support farmers in wildlife conservation “without just penalizing them or just holding them to regulatory standards.”

“I want to see more programs like this that are incentivizing landowners and land managers and farmers to engage with ecological habitat management that can be done in ways that complement active agricultural management,” Bless said, “because I don’t think they are mutually exclusive.”

Community News Service is a collaboration with the University of Vermont’s Reporting & Documentary Storytelling program.

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