The sweet smell of freshly cut grass filled the air as I drove through New London County's last remaining open country. At the crest of a hill an old tractor rolled nonchalantly from the meadow into the road in front of me while dropping blankets of grass clippings and dirt chunks onto the pavement. In the distance, across the undulating fields, ramshackle barns completed the bucolic scene.
Closer examination of the hayfield, however, would reveal the remains of young bobolinks and other grassland species cut by tractor blades. In the past, mowing often took place later in the season, but today hayfields are cut earlier and more often. The haying of fields before July is killing rare grassland birds that are still in the nest.
Historically, grassland species were never very numerous as much of the Northeast was densely forested, limiting open country to coastal regions, flooded valleys and burned over areas. With European settlement, the land was quickly cleared and these species prevailed. By 1930, agriculture had moved west and the hills grew back to woodland. New England was nearly 80 percent open pasture and today it is almost 80 percent shaded cover-a complete reversal.
Consequently, birds such as upland sandpipers, grasshopper sparrows and short-eared owls are very scarce now. Rough-legged hawks, northern harriers and snowy owls are rare grassland visitors. Bobolinks, Eastern meadowlarks and Savannah sparrows are surviving a little better. Yet, some grassland birds, such as the little known Henslow's sparrow, are in greater danger.
Bobolinks have an advantage because they have less specific habitat needs and require smaller grasslands for breeding. Incredibly, the bobolink migrates more than 12,000 miles each spring to breed here in Connecticut. Similarly, the Eastern meadowlark is a long distance migrant.
Locally, you can find these two species at Bear Hill Wildlife Management Area in Bozrah and at the Pomfret Grasslands Nature Center. Further from home, there is the Moran Wildlife Area in Massachusetts, where hundreds of bobolinks turn up at the end of the breeding season. I have seen Northern shrike there in the fall, and Henslow's sparrow, dickcissel and upland sandpipers have been spotted there too.
Now is a good time to visit a grassland since singing territorial males are more conspicuous. Gentle breezes and fragrant odors make birding a grassland a good deal-since wooded areas have biting insects this time of year. It is a rich ecosystem, filled with exciting rare finds, reflecting the biology of changing land use from forest to clearing and back to forest.
The limited amount of habitat, early haying of fields and a loss of diversity among grass plants is keeping grassland bird species from prospering. I am convinced, however, that much can be done to increase and stabilize these fascinating birds. The postponing of haying, when possible, until after nesting season or even the second week of July will really make a difference.
Robert Tougias is a local birding author. He is available for presentations and he can be reached at email@example.com.