Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Wheatlands Farm
Grassland Birds, 2013
Swoope, VA

Part III - Dickcissels

**(V I D E O)**

For the third year running Dickcissels returned in 2013 to Wheatlands Farm in Virginia's Shenandoah Valley. The spring soundscape shifts radically the morning the Dickcissels awaken the grasslands, singing and counter-singing in a pattern that hints at katydids calling to a summer night. From the day they arrive these mini-meadowlarks belt out their raspy salutes to dominate the grassland rap. You would have to have your mobile device in your ear to miss them.

For perspective, in the Shenandoah Valley during 2013 observers posted Dickcissel sightings on eBird  (http://ebird.org/ebird/map/)  at fewer locations than fingers on a woodworker’s right hand. In the entire 2,500 square-mile Valley there were only three Dickcissel hot-spots, meaning places where the birds were seen repeatedly. One of the hotspots was Swoope, Virginia, near Buffalo Gap and all but one of the Swoope observations occurred on Wheatlands Farm (the other was across the road).  

As we noted in Part I of this post, I like to think the Swoope Dickcissels are legacy birds from an era when you needed a herd of bison and two sticks to maintain grasslands. If Swoope can be said to have a tourist trade, a fair fraction of the photographers and fun seekers come to see the Dickcissels. You can find Swoope by traditional means but a GPS helps.

The Dickcissels were here in 2000, then not again until the three-years beginning in 2011. I discussed the excitement then with Kenn Kaufman  (www.kaufmanfieldguides.com) who offered an explanation for the 2011 Dickcissel irruption to the east of the Alleghenies:

"...this is an interesting season for grassland birds.  I think it's driven at least partly by the extreme drought in the southwest and the western plains ... only a part of the Dickcissel's normal breeding range is under severe drought conditions, but it seems to be enough to have caused a shift, and a number of areas farther east are reporting higher numbers than usual.  Certainly they're unusually numerous in Ohio. "

The western drought was even more severe in 2012 when about two dozen Dickcissels sang at Wheatlands. In 2013 the drought concentrated and shifted westward; a half-dozen males called on Swoope.  

Naturalist and author Barry Kinzie (www.amazon.com/Birds-Roanoke-Valley-annotated-checklist/dp/B000715PFW)  visited Wheatlands during the 2012 Dickcissel takeover and voiced the hope that a “ nursery colony” of the birds might develop and persist after the droughts. That would be consistent with my speculation that Audubon’s "Black-throated Bunting" is channeling  a tribal memory of the Swoope grasslands, perhaps a traditional Plan B to be dusted off when the core western range is stressed.

The Dickcissels arrived on June 7th, likely adrift from the parched West. The males sang and did little else; the females strove and toiled, raising their broods, toting caterpillars first, grasshoppers as the nestlings grew (Bent’s Life histories).  The last Dickcissel song rang out on August 7th; that male perched silent for a few more days then faded, perhaps in the direction of Venezuela. When that happened early in August of 2012 I concluded the entire Dickcissel company had left – wishful thinking on the part of a farmer hoping to salvage a cutting of hay.

This year the males may have headed south in early August but the juveniles became the lawyers and lobbyists. They began to issue a contact call that comes across as P(x)T, with an sh in there somewhere, but no vowel. It was suggestive of, but different from, their mothers’ protest chips  and as the adult females drifted into silence the juveniles became the voice of the clan.  Throughout August and into September the calls of the juveniles betrayed their locations and made clear the Dickcissels were a presence still. You can hear this call on the attached video and you might find it useful in locating Dickcissels in late summer after the males leave (or hide and hush).

Purloining vintage Kaufman humor I’ll mention that the house at Wheatlands, built in 1813, celebrated its buffalo birthday this year, something of a … "bisontenniel" .  But the Europeans maintained the Buffalo Gap grasslands after the bison left, all except for a grove of trees surrounding the house, a sugar-maple island in a sea of grass. The yard trees are where the Dickcissel juveniles spent their last days at Wheatlands.  They quit the natal grass, the shrubs and briars of their fledgeling days, and became, for a fortnight, forest birds, P(x)Ting to a mother who had lost interest in their demands and perhaps had struck her tent as well. They made their own foraging trips into the adjacent pastures, plainly vocal regarding their new-found neglect.

Then, apparently surfing their own genetic GPSs, on September 6th the recruits were gone. Se fueron.

Part II, Bobolinks

Wheatlands Farm
Grassland Birds, 2013
Buffalo Gap, VA

Part II - Bobolinks


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At the beginning of the 2013 breeding season I was hopeful that the flagship grassland birds – the Bobolinks and Dickcissels so elusive here in the East – would again grace the grasslands at Wheatlands. Because I am a cattle farmer, I was also optimistic that they would do their business and depart with courteous dispatch so that Wheatlands and other farms in the Shenandoah Valley could make the hay to feed their cattle through the coming winter. 

If I labor under myopic self-interest, I am comforted by the understanding that presently in temperate North America cattle are the principal reason for grasslands. On most farms subject to the economics of agriculture the operative equation is: no cattle= no grasslands = no grassland birds. Without today’s edition of the bison, the remaining grasslands in the East would go back under the plow to grow commodity beans and corn – or commodity pulpwood, or commodity subdivisions. I believe that the prospects for our grassland birds are linked closely to cattle farming.

My concern is with finding means which do not burden the cattle farmer of accommodating the breeding needs of these marathon migrants. Logic suggests that if we are to enjoy the delight and the biodiversity afforded by the grassland migrants we need to seek ways to integrate them into the grazing and haying regimes of the families still grinding out a living on the cattle farms of the East and thereby still furnishing the nesting habitat for Bobolinks and Dickcissels.  I was hopeful of finding that the breeding schedule would not preclude cutting a prime stand of alfalfa and orchard grass for hay before it goes to seed and before the briars and thistles take the stand.  As we will see, that was optimistic.

You don’t just make hay any old time the notion overtakes you. Hay has to be cut after the spring weather permits curing and before the grasses and legumes divert their energy from growth to reproduction – to flowering and making seed. That window is commonly as narrow as two weeks; some years it never opens. In the Mid-Atlantic States the first cutting occurs mid-June at the latest. There is hay to be cut to feed the cows in winter and there is also the need to graze the cow herd through the growing season, April through October. Ideally we could juggle pastures and hay ground to provide grazing all year, but that gets tricky with the grass under two feet of snow. Therefore the need for some hay is unavoidable where winter is a reality, as it can be in the Shenandoah Valley with generous snowfall and occasional sub-zero temperatures.

It is not difficult to infer the success rate of nesting attempts in a stand of grass cut for hay – zilch.  If the herdsman forgoes a cutting of hay in behalf of the grassland birds, he or she must buy replacement hay. First-cutting hay carries a market value of about $500 per acre. Allan Strong, researching grassland bird nesting on farms in Vermont’s Champlain Valley, used the USDA’s EQIP Program to compensate farmers for deferring their hay cutting until after the nesting season (see Les Line’s account in Audubon Magazine ).  Some plan for compensating farmers for lost hay, perhaps patterned on Dr. Strong’s approach, will have to be developed if grassland bird nesting is to be restored in the East on a meaningful scale. We will also have to consider what Strong calls the Bobolink’s “area sensitivity”, or requirement for large contiguous tracts of grassland – up to 60 acres for a nesting group (Allan M. Strong, Grassland and Successional Bird Conference, Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute ,  September 15, 2012).

A news account of the UVM program notes some of the issues in the life of a Bobolink:

“They have flown across the Caribbean and the Amazon,” said conservation biologist Roz Renfrew of the Vermont Center for Ecostudies. “They have endured unbearable heat, been treated as pests in farm fields in South America. They escaped trapping for the pet trade in the Caribbean and may have survived hurricanes.”

But getting to North America in May to nest does not assure safe harbor for the Bobolink because of conflict with farming schedules:

"A bobolink that nests in a field that is cut twice or three times a summer faces zero chance of raising any young. Small wonder that surveys for the Vermont Breeding Bird Atlas found that bobolink numbers had plummeted 75 percent from 1966-2007." Candace Page, Burlington Free Press, 4/13/13

The fortunes of the Bobolink, and other grassland endemics, in Vermont may not differ materially from those in Virginia or in the lands between. Researchers in Vermont have taken an interest in grassland bird restoration so we rely on their findings. The Green Mountain folk and their neighbors in Rhode Island have also fielded an inspirational community-based restoration effort financed by local contributions called The Bobolink Project . The undertaking funds the delay of hay cutting to give the Bobolinks and other grassland breeders a chance to nest. The project appeals to the obligation the citizens feel to support their wildlife and their local farms, both of which contribute to the quality of their lives.

In 2013 the Bobolinks arrived at Wheatlands Farm on April 30th and without delay the males began their signature posturing and gurgling and sparkles of flight song.  Because the males zip across hundreds of yards from chummy bachelor groups to charm individual females on their (the females’) territories, and because Bobolinks are polygamous and polyandrous, it was difficult to get a count.  How many? A half dozen or more of both genders.

The hoopla continued unabated until, on June 20th, it quit. It was as if the entire rollicking company had decamped overnight, not a Bobolink to be seen or heard.  Everybody else was in place; the Dickcissels (we’ll get to them), the Grasshopper Sparrows, the Meadowlarks, the Savannah Sparrows. I saw no conclusion other than that the Bobolinks had abandoned their nesting efforts and so reported to the Virginia Working Landscapes coordinator whose associates were conducting a breeding bird census at Wheatlands.
I would learn later that in 2012 the coordinator, Amy Johnson, a doctoral candidate in grassland ornithology, had experienced a similar Bobolink outage on another Shenandoah Valley farm 75 miles to the north of Wheatlands. In both instances the birds vanished (or so it seemed) in the third week of June and reappeared a month later. 

I first (re)noticed them on July 23dth, rolling waves of adults of both sexes (some males in molt) and skinny juveniles with stubby tails. The females were carrying food. The young were able to fly but they gaped and panted and were plainly still on light duty. Over the next month males completed molt, the juveniles gained flesh and stamina, the mamas did the heavy lifting and by early September they all looked alike. Occasionally I could get a count as flocks came and went and on August 11th saw 84 Bobolinks pitching into 16 acres of my weedy, uncut hay (uncompensated, by the way). I am confident that number is conservative.

So, Kim Kaufman, Executive Director of Black Swamp Bird Observatory at Oak Harbor, Ohio (www.bsbobird.org/  ) did the Bobolinks leave in mid-June, complete their breeding elsewhere, then return in July?

“I doubt it. Those juveniles with the stubby tails would not have been capable of travel. The birds probably bred where you saw them.“

Combining Kim’s assessment with Amy’s observation from 2012 suggests that after the eggs hatch, perhaps even at the time they are laid, the Bobolinks go under the radar, stop displaying and move in stealthy feeding forays. When the fledglings are mobile a month later the entire tribe resurfaces in force.  In 2013 at Wheatlands they spent another four weeks foraging intensively on the natal grounds, socializing, recruiting, and  training for the trek to Uruguay  -- at 12,000 round-trip miles, one of the longest known migrations of any land bird breeding in North America. Flocks of up to 50 birds shuttled between weedy stands of uncut hay, flashing mustard in the late sun, chiming their flight call. Sixty birds pitched into the main breeding paddock on September 5th; and again on the 10th.  Thereafter they were overhead only in 2s and 3s, perhaps birds in passage. A single Bobolink flushed from cover on  September 15th.  Entonces se fueron hacia las pampas.

(My) Bobolink conclusions from Wheatlands observations, 2013:

-         -  The raucous displays of flight song cease at about the time of hatching, June 20th +/-.

-          - The birds haven’t left; they are just lying low, foraging in cover. The males have quit singing.

-          -  An attractive breeding field might invite Bobolinks from nearby breeding areas to aggregate there after fledging for the resources needed to mature the juveniles and prepare the cohort for  migration. This neighborly interaction might explain how the dozen or so adults on this farm at the beginning of breeding grew to scores by early September.

-         -  Experience here in 2013 suggests a breeding stand can be grazed moderately (but probably not mobbed) after the Bobolinks fledge without detriment to the birds. In fact, the cattle shared the stand with the 84-member Bobolink flock. The key to integrating grassland bird conservation with cattle farming practice will be to find a way for cattle and birds to co-utilize the stands after fledging. Light, rotational grazing (not continuous grazing) appeared to offer promise on this farm in 2103. Rotational grazing is labor-intensive; it does not happen by accident. We must consider also that 

-         -  The Bobolinks need six weeks on the nesting ground after fledging to raise the young and build strength for the journey to southern South America. 

If the last observation withstands more field scrutiny, we might reconsider the adequacy of a schedule which gives the Bobolinks use of the natal grounds only through fledging. If the stand is cut just after fledging the breeding group may lack the resources to mature the juveniles. My observations at Wheatlands in 2013 suggest the post-fledging grow-out period is no less essential to the Bobolinks’ breeding success than is the nesting opportunity. Their chances are likely better if they are not forced from the breeding field by a July mowing.

We cannot forget the cattle and the farmer in this equation.  Rather than viewing them both as irritants, as some conservationists occasionally let slip, we might consider that we will have but few grassland birds in the East without the private grasslands, typically in active use as pasture or hay ground for cattle. The cattle take vigilante action at woody intrusion in their pastures, and the farmer mows hay and clips pasture for weed control and both actions suppress woody succession. Some public grasslands, such as those planted on reclaimed landfills, provide active grassland bird conservation opportunities ; others, especially lands in hunting programs, commonly grow up in autumn olive for lack of funds  to arrest the succession process, an energy- and labor-intensive endeavor. 

In the private realm, maintaining the grasslands is part of the accepted economics of cattle farming.  Forgoing cuttings of hay is not. If the public good suggests that grassland ecosystems with their appealing birds are important, then we should discuss public policy which recognizes the need to integrate their conservation with the realities of farming. Allan Strong and Amy Johnson are among those who are leading research which could support public discussion of conserving our grassland birds. 

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Wheatlands Grassland Birds – 2013

Part One

In their 2013 breeding enterprise the grassland birds at Wheatlands Farm confounded and amazed. But as Flip Wilson used to say,

“ I’m going to tell you that story , but first I need to tell you this one so I can tell you that one.”

A discussion of grassland birds needs a sketch of grassland history and dynamics, which we cover in this first part; we’ll get to the 2013 adventures of the grassland birds in the next two episodes.
Wheatlands, a 165-acre beef cattle farm in the southern Shenandoah Valley, lies in the rain shadow of North Mountain, specifically to the immediate east of 4463’ Elliott Knob which lofts nearly 3000’ above the Valley floor.  In the lee of that prominence the annual rainfall averages 35 inches, ten inches less than the 45 inches lavished on the rest of Virginia. Thirty-five inches is a moisture regime favoring grasslands over deciduous forest and is only slightly more than the average for the tall-grass prairies that once carpeted Illinois and Missouri and Iowa – with a little help from the grazing ungulates and the peoples who invested in the “millennia of exuberant burning” chronicled by Charles C. Mann in 1491.(www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2002/03/1491/302445)

It would be more accurate to say that at a location in temperate North America experiencing a 35-inch rainfall, woody plant succession is more easily arrested than at 45 inches. However, even at reduced moisture, plant succession is still as certain as gravity unless some force acts to suppress the trees and shrubs.  Humans, sponsoring a rich and mobile protein source in the form of grazing ungulates, have been that force since the Wisconsin ice receded 11,000 years ago. Perhaps for all of post-glacial history humans have managed the North American landscape to create grasslands where practicable, including much of the region east of the Allegheny Mountains and especially , I am inclined to believe, in the rain shadow of North Mountain.  That 20-square-mile enclave is beef cattle country today as it was bison country a thousand years ago. Buffalo Creek has cut a waterway through Little North Mountain creating Buffalo Gap which offered the bison summer grazing in the interior of the Alleghenies. Wheatlands Farm is at the center of North Mountain’s 35-inch rainfall arc.

*( V I D E O)*

Wheatlands Herd Management

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I live at Wheatlands, so I muse upon the Buffalo Gap grasslands, their history and their legacy complement of grassland birds. I and a Border Collie named Benson tend a cow/calf herd of Charolais-Angus beef cattle 75 to 100 critters strong.  The Wheatlands cattle, like the bison, are grazers; they eat a mix of grass and forbs (non-grass herbs).  When they discover a woody sapling in a pasture they attack, chomping and stomping, horning and wallowing, ripping off branches and pawing the successional intruder into oblivion. I suspect the bison carried the same genetically-encoded chip on their wooly humps, the innate urge to destroy trees, perhaps sensing that trees are a threat to their grassland "salad bar" (a Joel Salatin term. Joel also lives and raises cattle in the North Mountain rain shadow).  The cattle may be desperate for shade but they will not suffer a sapling to grow in their pasture. Moreover, they eventually kill even the mature trees by clustering under them, rubbing off the bark, and compacting soil at the roots.

My interpretation is subjective, but the bovid inclination to work in concert with fire-wielding humans to create and maintain grasslands is clear enough.  I am comfortable with the conclusion that grasslands in temperate North America and other locations, modern and past, are typically the result of the ancient alliance of humans and bovid ungulates – cattle (genetically, auroches ) and bison. Remove the bovids from the equation and humans have no incentive to burn (or mow). Remove the humans and the bison (or cattle) eventually face reduced rations or at least a shift of diet to browsing, which requires a different gut chemistry than is typical of bovids. Remove both and the land reforests in half a human span (Godfrey, 1980).

From the standpoint of grassland birds, grazers are a blessing, if mixed. As they can stomp woody saplings they can also stomp on-ground nests. But as they munch along they tend to leave a grass/forb stand of varying heights which accommodates the birds’ foraging and nesting needs. Dr. Scott Pendleton, a veterinarian in Cadiz, Ohio, monitors Upland Sandpipers and Bobolinks on reclaimed mine land in Harrison County. He notes,

“All the successful Upland Sandpiper and Bobolink nests I have seen on these reclaimed mine lands are in sections which the mine owners lease to local farmers for grazing. The birds need stands of varying heights and densities which the cattle create. The challenge is to encourage farmers to delay mowing to let the birds complete nesting.”

Call the grasslands a stool, if you will, of the kind that furnishes seating and requires three legs – people, ungulates, and a group of birds which are obligate grassland breeders.  If the grasslands and the grassland ungulates knew a close ecological kinship with the humans of olden times so must the grassland birds. Over the millennia the Meadowlarks, the Grasshopper Sparrows, the Bobolinks, the Dickcissels must have been co-passengers with the bison on mankind’s grassland rollercoaster.  Management by birds of seed dispersal, insect pollinators, and food-source insects (grasshoppers et al) are surely vital functions in grassland economics, perhaps of importance equal to the contributions of people and bovids. The entire avian cohort must have learned to balance in the shifting winds of human-created grasslands in North America, riding waves of tribal warfare, weather events, climate shifts, and developments in food-production technology.  We must have in mind that pre-Columbian native populations in North America were large -- 20 to 40 million people at times (Mann, 1491)-- and the ability, the need, of those populations to manipulate the landscape carried massive ecological impact. Trackless virgin forests? Forget it. Even in the East. It is much more efficient to harvest bison in large herds on open grasslands than individual deer skulking in forests.

A hypothesis emerges; like the bison and the grasslands themselves, the grassland birds must operate in  a confederacy with mankind. Over time (people have been in North America for at least 16,000 years) the grassland birds have followed moccasin and hoof through wealth and want, shifting their ranges and schedules and diets with the fortunes of the grasslands of human creation. We see our birds, our surrounds generally, through a squinty lens of 500 post-Columbian years.  That is a very short slice (maybe 5% of the whole salami) of the era of people and their grasslands in North America. The dynamics have always shifted and calamity is likely no stranger, but it seems justifiable to see at least a blur of birds and bison on mankind’s grasslands over 500 or so human generations. 

A Krakatoan blast hit North America’s grasslands after 1492 in the form of diseases distributed by the Spanish.  Very quickly, most of the native human population was dead. There was no immunity to the new pathogens and there was little immunodiversity in the native genetic endowment because the natives of the Western Hemisphere were descendants of a small number of adventurers who crossed the Bering Land Bridge. In Guns, Germs, and Steel Jared Diamond reports,

"Throughout the Americas, diseases  introduced by Europeans spread from tribe to tribe far in    advance of the Europans themselves, killing an estimated 95% of the pre-Columbian  native American population. The most populous and highly organized native societies in North America,  the Mississipian chiefdoms, disaappeared in that way between 1492 and the late 1600s, even before Europeans themselves made their first settlement on the Mississippi River. "

The scheme which had created and maintained the grasslands must have collapsed abruptly. Much of the continent, especially the well-watered East, quickly reforested.  Some understand the volume of atmospheric carbon sequestered in this sudden reforestation to be sufficient to account for the 200-year global temperature drop beginning in 1650 known as the Little Ice Age. By the time the English took an interest in penetrating the continent’s interior in the early 1700s a newly established canopy covered dark corridors of forest that shrugged as if to ask “Grasslands? What Grasslands?”

In the 1700s the English, and others, cleared a lot of forest and created a lot of new grasslands.  By 1900, 75% of the Piedmont was under plow or pasture.  In the accounts of A.C. Bent, the grassland birds recovered somewhat.  But by 1980 only 25% of the Piedmont was cultivated – we, especially we southerners, abandoned our farms wholesale and put them in the hands of the wood products companies creating a desert of row-planted pines.  The grassland breeders vanished from those lands.  Bent refers to a reduction in the Dickcissel’s presence in the East beginning in 1900; the 1980 edition of Peterson’s Field Guide to the Birds notes “formerly bred along seaboard Mass to S.C.”  The Dickcissel, an obligate grassland breeder, has responded to the abandonment (and reforestation) of eastern farmland by vacating much of the East. Other grassland endemics, including Bobolinks, are reduced as well.

Another disruption now threatens the grassland birds – climate change.  Beginning in 2011 and through the 2013 nesting cycle, there has been chronic drought and fire in the Dickcissel’s core breeding range, the traditional prairie grasslands.    The results are apparent in one corner of one valley in Virginia and probably at other locations to the east of the Alleghenies. An informed argument (Kaufman, private correspondence, 2011) suggests that drought-associated pressure on the core breeding range in the Great Plains forced some of the birds eastward. For the first time since 2000, Wheatlands hosted Dickcissels in 2011, probably a half dozen, then more than two dozen singing males in 2012. Numbers were down in 2013 to the 2011 level as the drought shifted westward.

We can hope that the Dickcissels that fled the western droughts in 2011-2013 to nest in the southern Shenandoah Valley may rekindle an interest that will persist even when drought spares the West. That depends on the health of the eastern grasslands and on the compatibility of our farming methods with the birds' breeding needs – in other words, the Dickcissels not only need to nest in the East, they need to nest successfully to recruit a cadre committed to the East.  Because nearly all remaining eastern grasslands are on active farms under intensive production, many nests go through hay-making machinery.
In the next two parts of this post we will detail the 2013 nesting cycle of the Bobolinks and Dickcissels at Wheatlands. Their unexpected schedules and behaviors may add an increment to our understanding of these birds with an ancient link to man.

Sunday, July 7, 2013

A New Lease on Life

Upland Sandpipers, Harrison County, Ohio

“Natural Grade”.

It’s what the natives of Harrison County, Ohio, call the shape of the land left after epochs of erosion of the once mighty Appalachians. That shape is unusual now in parts of Harrison County because the coal interests have deep mined, and high-walled, and strip mined 80% of some townships. The recontoured lands – those mined after the law required smoothing and seeding -- show a bloated uniformity contrasting with the angular “natural grade” remnants, some forested. The recontoured lands grow grass tufted with the alien invasive, autumn olive.

The dozerscape does not affront the grassland birds of Harrison County. These synthetic hills offer safe breeding harbor to Grasshopper Sparrows; Savannah Sparrows; Henslow's Sparrows; Vesper Sparrows; Horned Larks; Eastern Meadowlarks with dialects suggesting Dickcissel’s introductory notes; Bobolinks; and, wailing out of the mists of myth, Upland Sandpipers! What this polyglot singing on the dozered slopes says is that whatever mix of plants the coal company planted for erosion control evidently is acceptable to the native grasshoppers and other insects, for these invertebrates feed a multitude. It is difficult to imagine a more vibrant community of grassland birds.

After the first round of strip mining, the company began liquidating the mined-out land in tracts ranging from 5 to 200 acres. Then two things happened; a new technology enabled the re-stripping of parts of the land for coal that once had been deemed inaccessible or inferior and the Marcellus Age dawned. The coal company lost all interest in selling and made plans to further work the holdings, happily stripping and fracking into the 21st century. The upside, if there can be an upside to a land torn by extraction, is land stripped before the reclamation law and scarred by 80 foot highwalls will be reclaimed to something approximating natural grade and large tracts of open grassland will be formed or preserved. 

But what to do with the tracts of grassland while they are warehoused for future exploitation? Leasing them to cattle farmers seemed logical; that generates a little revenue and it puts someone on the land with a security interest.  Grazing the reworked lands with cattle in large boundaries also happens to mimic the imprint of bison on the land – enriching soils, diversifying the grass and forb stands and, most importantly for the grassland birds, creating grass stands of varying heights and densities. In the words of Dr. Scott Pendleton, an accomplished field naturalist and a veterinarian at Cadiz Animal Clinic, a large-and small-animal practice near the Cadiz, Ohio, airport:

“More than half our Henslow’s nests and all of the Upland Sandpiper nests are on coal company land that has been grazed. Also, the sandpipers and their hatchlings like to forage on the newly-cut hay ground. We are working with the leasing farmers to schedule cutting and grazing after June 20th when the young Uppies are out foraging with the adults and most of the passerine birds have fledged.”

The take-home points from this expedition to Harrison County, Ohio, are that:
The only place in the county to host breeding Upland Sandpipers, an Ohio Endangered Species, is recontoured strip-mined land, and
On that recontoured land the Upland Sandpipers show a clear preference for grass stands that have been grazed by cattle, a preference they share with many other grassland birds.

Does Harrison County offer a template for an exciting conservation initiative? 

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

The Arctic Nearby


There is a conversion meteorologists use called the Adiabatic Lapse Rate. What it says is that for every thousand feet of gain in altitude the temperature drops three degrees Fahrenheit.  Biologists employ a corollary equating a thousand foot gain in altitude with 600 miles of latitude, meaning that going up a mountainside a thousand feet is the climatic equivalent of traveling 600 miles north. So if you are in Ohio or Virginia at an altitude of 700 feet above sea level and you drive to Cranberry Mountain in West Virginia -- at 3575 feet -- you barter a hundred-mile drive for a trip to the boreal forests of Canada, 1600 miles to the north. That's the theory and in practice it is probably not far off. 

One way to confirm the altitude-latitude conversion is to look at the range maps of some of the birds which journey from the tropics to breed in the boreal conifers. Many observe a breeding range across Canada from the approximate latitude of Hudson's Bay to the U.S. -Canada border, a clean and regular band -- except for a dangling appendix down the spine of the Appalachian Mountains. If we pick a couple of boreal breeders such as Northern Waterthrush and Mourning Warbler we see that their breeding ranges reflect this Appalachian peninsula. As a result, we in the eastern or mid-western U.S. can drive a relatively short distance into the Appalachian highlands and enjoy a fair chance of finding these two northerly warblers on their breeding grounds. Cranberry Glades 15 miles west of Marlinton, West Virginia is the place to do it.

Cranberry Glades are a relic of  the Wisconsin glaciation; they constitute a botanic community of reindeer moss and red spruce which developed when the wall of Wisconsin ice bulldozed northern Ohio and Pennsylvania, pushing an arctic climate into our now-balmy realm. The ice retreated but the altitude and boggy soils permit Cranberry Glades' boreal botany to persist in glorious isolation, ours to savor on a day's jaunt.

Of course, sorting through the birds' calls when we get there is another challenge. The attached video offers a comparison of the songs of Northern Waterthrush and Mourning Warbler filmed at the Glades this morning and to complete the confusion we add a shot of the Louisiana Waterthrush, a much more accessible bird breeding along wooded streams at the lower elevations most of us occupy. All three (they are all warblers) sing in a burst of whistles followed by a dropping inflection, and because we rarely get to see and hear the northern worthies, we might find it useful to make the comparison with our more familiar lowland waterthrush.

Caveat:  this video won't help a bit when you get to Cranberry Glades. If your experience is like mine the overlapping chorus of echos and harmonies will leave you befuddled. But go anyway to enjoy this tiny nugget of the north in our midst.

Thursday, May 2, 2013

(* Video *)

River Beings

May 2, 2013, Middle River, Swoope, Virginia.

The Middle River runs through this cattle farm.  We are about twelve water miles downstream of the highest gathers, a series of springs on a farm at the hamlet of McKinley,  and the trickles and tributaries give the flow a thirty-foot channel through Wheatlands, as this farm has been called since 1813. Downstream, the River merges with the North and that combined flow takes on the South at Port Republic to laze and loop northward under the name of South Fork, Shenandoah River, merging with the North Fork at Front Royal to make the main stem of the Shenandoah for its 65-mile run to the grand conjoining with the Potomac at Harpers Ferry.  Much of the nation’s history, tranquil or tragic, is written in that storied drainage washing the feet of official Washington.  Here in the high headwaters, too, we see our share of the sinister.  

What began this morning as a hike to greet the River’s spring arrivals -- a Solitary Sandpiper, a Spotted Sandpiper skimming the flow on stiff wings, a Great Egret, two Black-crowned Night-Herons – took a cloak-and-dagger turn.  A muskrat crossed the river to vanish under the bank at my feet, peculiarly close to an obvious intruder it seemed.  Then came strange scuffling sounds and a red streak shot away across the river, the early sun a neon pulse in its fur.  It humped up the bank and the bushes shook with squalls of protest.  A desperate contest thrashed the grasses until a muskrat tumbled down the river’s bank and swam upstream, dragging (or driven by?) a snaking tail. A noisy melee continued in the brush for some seconds. Then quiet resumed, leaving only a string of unanswered questions, like a Congress adjourned.  Did the escaping muskrat fight off the mink? Or did it leave behind a sacrificed family member? What happened in the hole in the bank under my feet? And are minks really foxy red or was that just a tricky light?  The river beings guard silence.

Friday, March 29, 2013

A Profile in Courage

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                                      A Profile in Courage

The late sun finds a crack in the clouds to aim into a westbound windshield where the road cranks hard right at a hilltop. Last night at that curve an opossum (hereinafter possum) wandered into the road and today's  glare gives a glimpse of a large bird astride the remains.  An instinctive jerk of the wheel puts my car into the oncoming lane, at that moment vacant as I am able to report.  I pull off the road, needing a look at this strange, defiant chicken refusing to yield to traffic. 

I can tell you what I see, but I cannot describe the sadness.  The bird has a ragged wing, a crippled foot, and a tail the color of a faded fire truck. It struggles to hold down its meal with one functioning foot, to balance with one working wing as it tears at morsels of marsupial. A car climbs the hill. The driver reads the road and eases over.  Another, just behind, yanks her wheel at the last instant. The wrecked and famished hawk bends to the possum as if it has no choice, trusting somehow in a universal kindness, standing tall as cars pass but yielding not an inch. 

Car after truck passes the poignant scene. Drivers, bewildered and uncertain at the mayhem in the road, shake it off with quizzical shrugs, perhaps a frown of sympathy. But the outcome seems inevitable and I can not bear to be a witness.  I can't but recall that the last injured Red-tailed Hawk I tried to help treated me to a trip to the ER, blood spurting through a welding glove.   I have no glove today and hawk and possum could hardly have chosen a more parlous platform for their drama. There is no point in adding a human carcass.

So I leave, but the scene travels with me. No, the bird has no choice; a steep bank blocks its way off the road and it cannot fly.   No, I was right not to intervene because the bird’s chances, sparse on a hilltop curve, may be no better under the triage protocol of a resource-strapped raptor center.  And might it fly again, ever,  or soar only in Valhalla? 

Or can it fly? Desperation drove the lamed and gaunt raptor to the road kill, but the bird didn’t hitch hike to get there.  And there is a universal kindness that responds with an involuntary  wheel jerk to the courage and determination of another hunter badly behind in the race for life. In my hopes the bird drags its full crop and battered being to the low side of the road and launches, listing and lurching, for a perch to rest and digest.