The Secret Life of Bobolinks

Conservation Efforts Help Birds Make Journey Across Continents

Visitors and bird lovers in the Merrimack Valley have many great reasons to look up, particularly now that recent efforts to expand and restore grassland habitats for ground-nesting birds such as bobolinks are designed to keep the feathered creatures happily migrating to the region.

“You just have to open your eyes,” Adrienne Lennon, vice chair of the Amesbury Conservation Commission, says about birds’ impact on the beauty of the natural world. “They add a wonderful ethereal layer to the habitat,” she continues, adding that increasing and protecting the area’s bird population with open space is essential for them to nest and thrive.

The bobolinks — small, black-and-white birds with a distinctive flight pattern and a metallic-sounding call — have been spotted in healthy numbers at Old Town Hill in Newbury and Woodsom Farm in Amesbury after steps were taken to make the areas more hospitable for nesting.

“We wanted to make a more welcoming field for the bobolinks,” says Caleb Garone, a habitat specialist for The Trustees of Reservations, the overseer of Newbury’s 531-acre Old Town Hill. Garone’s dedication as a steward of the land earned The Trustees $33,000 from the MassWildlife Habitat Management Grant Program to clear encroaching shrubs and trees, to mow and mulch, and to plant pollinator-friendly grasses and native wildflowers across 26 acres. This land is expected to provide breeding, nesting and foraging grounds for multiple wildlife species, including birds, butterflies and bees.

Top: A female bobolink stands in a field of clover. Despite a nationwide decline in population, these ground-nesting birds are showing up in healthy numbers in the Merrimack Valley, likely due in part to the efforts of The Trustees of Reservations, Mass Audubon and local conservation commissions. Photo by Sarah Rydgren. Bottom Left: A female bobolink. Photo by Sarah Rydgren. Bottom Right: Bobolinks require open spaces and high grasses. If an area becomes too overgrown, however, they go elsewhere, much to the disappointment of bird enthusiasts. More than that, bobolinks are an umbrella species, and an indicator of regional environmental health. The male bobolink is noted for its distinct flight pattern and its metallic-sounding, enthusiastic mating call. Photo by Doug Sparks.

“The biggest change occurred in Watch Hill, a focal point of the restoration project,” says Garone, noting that six bobolinks were observed in that location in 2018, the largest number in 24 years. With the exceptions of 2011 and 2013, when two bobolinks were spotted each year, none had been seen since 1994. Using some of the grant money to remove the central hedgerow between two fields and to push back encroaching edges created an area of more than 10 contiguous acres for birds to nest. Garone is hoping for more sightings this summer. 

Bobolinks are considered an “umbrella species,” Garone says, explaining that having more bobolinks, hospitable grasslands and pollinators benefits a whole suite of animals. “By having the species there, it shows overall good condition and good health” of the land.

Across the Merrimack River in Amesbury, the stewards of Woodsom Farm are also trying to attract more bobolinks and other birds by adding protected grasslands to their fields. Owned by the city of Amesbury and spanning 354 acres, the farm is a joint project with Mass Audubon and part of the effort to allow nesting birds to thrive.

“We’ve paid attention to the site because there are so many birds we’re concerned about,” says Lennon, who is also a member of Amesbury’s Open Space Natural Resources and Trails Committee. The land is used for active and passive recreation, including bird-watching, dog walking, running, soccer and an annual fireworks display. 

“They are a beautiful bird,” Lennon says of the bobolinks. “They have a wonderful presence in the air and a really fun flight pattern. They stand out and have a wonderful call.” 

Because the grassland birds nest on the ground, it’s important to make sure there’s plenty of open space with high grasses. If, however, the area is too overgrown, the birds will look elsewhere.

Secure nesting sites are crucial to maintaining and increasing the population of bobolinks and other birds, says David Moon, sanctuary director of Mass Audubon’s Joppa Flats Education Center in Newburyport.

Data collected by Audubon volunteers showed 191 bobolinks at nine Woodsom Farm census points at Woodsom Farm around June 14, 2018, with more than 450 male, female and juveniles spotted or heard during the surveying period of June 7 through July 5. While Moon says the 2018 data doesn’t enable him to draw any long-term conclusions regarding the impact of  site management, the numbers demonstrate its importance to two species of concern.

Left: Photo by Sarah Rydgren. Right: Photo by Doug Sparks.

“It means to me that investing energy in conserving these species at Woodsom Farm is well worth it, and that it would be great to keep paying attention and thinking about new questions these observations bring up,” Moon says, adding that about 40 acres is optimal for grassland birds.

Moon and Lennon work with Jon Atwood, Mass Audubon’s director of bird conservation and head of The Bobolink Project. Administered by Mass Audubon, Audubon Vermont and New Hampshire Audubon, the project offers hay farmers financial incentives to modify their mowing schedule, thereby allowing bobolinks time to properly nest and fledge their young. In 2018, the project supported bird-friendly agriculture on almost 1,000 acres of New England farmland. According to the project’s website, that’s more than four times the number of protected acres in 2013, when the program began. 

The Amesbury City Council voted earlier this year to create a Woodsom Farm parkland and conservation area. This designates most of the property as protected for active and passive recreation under Article 97 of the state’s constitution.

“It is a very valuable and natural resource area and has a great diversity of wildlife,” Lennon says. “Birds focus on it as a breeding site. There’s a huge population of bobolinks and Eastern meadowlarks now.” 

The migration of bobolinks from southern South America to the Merrimack Valley region covers about 12,500 miles round trip, according to The Cornell Lab of Ornithology, making the birds special visitors for bird lovers and conservationists. Bobolinks visit the area from June until the beginning of October.

Ever optimistic, bird lovers hope bobolinks and their feathered friends are here to stay.

“All the gain and benefit will hopefully be able to stay in perpetuity,” Garone says of sustaining the bobolink population at Old Town Hill, a sentiment that rings true for visiting birds throughout the Merrimack Valley region.   

 

To identify the bobolink, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology recommends the following:

– Visit a grassy or overgrown field or pasture during spring and early summer.

– Watch for the bobolink’s peculiar helicopter-like flight pattern, moving slowly and rapidly fluttering its wings.

– Look for males, who are black-and-white with a straw-colored patch on the top of its head, and females, who are buff and brown in color.

– Listen for the distinctive song, described as long and burbling with sharp metallic and robotic notes.

 

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