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Grassland birds: Still time to help?

As a youngster I lived close to a lightly used pasture and a few small woodlots. I could pick any day of the year and in a half-hour have found and flushed a dozen or more pheasants. At that age I didn’t know they were not native here. By about 1972 most of the ring-necked pheasants were gone from our area. I’m not sure there is one specific answer to their demise, but some of the same factors that caused a pheasant collapse are affecting quite a few native birds.

My mother’s homestead in the southwestern corner of Carbon County was another of my nature snooping areas. Mom would take my sisters and I to “check” on my grandmother about twice a week and that meant, besides her Slovak cooking delights, I had a chance to get outdoors more. There I found hay fields, bordered by many stone rows, bustling with grassland birds. If my memory is correct, they only cut the hay once a year.

I could always find Eastern meadowlarks singing from an old fence post and male bobolinks would be “wink a dinkin” their songs as they flew from weed stalk to weed stalk. Red-winged blackbirds, song, chipping, and field sparrows all flourished there. Eventually that farm, like so many others, was sold, and now about 10 pretty homes and a horse pasture or two are in its place.

Today, farmers in order to feed our nation’s growing numbers, need to be very efficient, sometimes getting two crops a year from their acreage. Alfalfa has replaced the fields of timothy and gets harvested multiple times. I’m getting hard pressed to find fields in the Times News area that still host any of these grassland birds.

I generally see a few bobolinks in May as they migrate through our region but don’t know where any actually nest. Last year, and not for a lack of birding time, I didn’t even see a meadowlark. Much of the Lehigh Valley is even worse with the suburbs spreading more and more into the beautiful farm lands.

I asked former director of Lehigh Gap Nature Center and high school baseball teammate Dan Kunkle about their efforts to establish grasses on the degraded slopes of Blue Mountain. They hoped to establish suitable habitat for nesting bobolinks but nature’s normal succession is seeing trees and shrubs starting to regrow.

The grasses were successful though at providing seeds for many birds and each fall, the withering grasses laid down a vital layer of humus further covering and trapping some of the heavy metals in the soil. Western Pennsylvania has had a number of coal mining areas replanted in grasses and hopes are high that the birds will “move in.”

Most of our nesting forest birds seem to be holding their own in North America. They can still find suitable habitats to breed. However, they are more threatened by the dwindling tropical forests of Central and South America where they spend the winter. Maybe less of our local forested areas are lost because they’re not as appropriate for building houses or warehouses.

I’m not sure we have the answers to helping our grassland birds, but grasshopper sparrows, bobolinks, meadowlarks, goldfinches, and even raptors like the harriers that feed there, are seeing drastic drops in numbers. Let’s hope these species hold on a bit longer.

Test Your Outdoor Knowledge: True/False: Bobolinks, as featured in this column, migrate to Florida to spend the winter months.

Last Week’s Trivia Answer: The American goldfinch eats only seeds and is classified as a granivore.

Email Barry Reed at breed71@gmail.com

Three male bobolinks rest on an East Penn Township cattle fence. I can usually find a small flock here for a few days in early May. However, my trips to locate them nesting there have proved unsuccessful. The last nesting area of which I was aware, was a fallow field near Beltzville Lake, but it has been planted in corn the past two summers. BARRY REED PHOTOS
The American goldfinch is usually the latest nesting songbird locally. It relies on thistle for its seeds and the thistle down for its nests. I, and other folks with feeders, have noticed a decline in their numbers. Less habitat is the cause?
The Eastern meadowlark is not faring well. If it does find a suitable hayfield or grassland area, it takes about 36-45 days from nest building till the young leave the ground nest. Too often the hay is cut during that short time slot and often a generation of meadowlarks is lost. The Western meadowlark, of the great plains, seems to be “holding its own” in contrast to its Eastern cousin.
I photographed this grasshopper sparrow in lower Franklin Township three years ago. My trips back to that same meadow area the past few years have turned up empty. Did it lose another breeding area?
The northern harrier is losing ground in Pennsylvania. The latest Breeding Bird Atlas Survey in Pennsylvania resulted in finding only hawks nesting in 16 counties. Even birds nesting north of Pennsylvania are struggling. Hawk Mountain records from 1993 logged 355 migrants. Thirty years later, only 131 were seen passing the lookout. It is not a scientific study, but recent records all show a decline in these wetland and grassland nesting raptors.