In Cornwall, newly conserved grasslands are for the birds

Jill Kilborn, right, and Will Duane, both of the Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department, walk through the Lemon Fair Wildlife Management Area in Cornwall on Thursday, May 16, 2024. The open area provides habitat for grassland and shrub-dwelling birds. (VtDigger - Glenn Russell)

Jill Kilborn, right, and Will Duane, both of the Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department, walk through the Lemon Fair Wildlife Management Area in Cornwall on Thursday, May 16, 2024. The open area provides habitat for grassland and shrub-dwelling birds. (VtDigger - Glenn Russell) VtDigger — Glenn Russell

Jill Kilborn, a bird biologist and project leader with the Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department, investigates a birdcall at the Lemon Fair Wildlife Management Area in Cornwall on Thursday, May 16, 2024. The newly-enlarged parcel of unbroken open land is home to many grassland and shrub-dwelling bird species. (VtDigger - Glenn Russell)

Jill Kilborn, a bird biologist and project leader with the Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department, investigates a birdcall at the Lemon Fair Wildlife Management Area in Cornwall on Thursday, May 16, 2024. The newly-enlarged parcel of unbroken open land is home to many grassland and shrub-dwelling bird species. (VtDigger - Glenn Russell) — VtDigger - Glenn Russell

Farmer Eugene Ethier discusses how he has adapted his land use practices as part of the effort to create a more diverse ecosystem at the Lemon Fair Wildlife Management Area in Cornwall, Vt., on Thursday, May 16, 2024. (VtDigger - Glenn Russell)

Farmer Eugene Ethier discusses how he has adapted his land use practices as part of the effort to create a more diverse ecosystem at the Lemon Fair Wildlife Management Area in Cornwall, Vt., on Thursday, May 16, 2024. (VtDigger - Glenn Russell) — VtDigger - Glenn Russell

A view to the west of a curve in Route 74 from the Lemon Fair Wildlife Management Area in Cornwall, Vt., on Thursday, May 16, 2024. (VtDigger - Glenn Russell)

A view to the west of a curve in Route 74 from the Lemon Fair Wildlife Management Area in Cornwall, Vt., on Thursday, May 16, 2024. (VtDigger - Glenn Russell) — VtDigger - Glenn Russell

By EMMA COTTON

VtDigger

Published: 05-26-2024 3:45 PM

CORNWALL — Jill Kilborn spent the morning of May 16 in tall wading boots, roaming the wet, grassy expanses of a newly conserved, 110-acre piece of land and looking for birds.

An abundant assortment of songbirds made themselves known that morning through a chorus of clicks, chirps and more elaborate melodies. Listening closely, Kilborn deciphered members of the symphony: a wood thrush, a common yellowthroat, a scarlet tanager, a Savannah sparrow.

“There’s the R2-D2 bird,” said Kilborn, who is the Vermont Fish & Wildlife Department’s nongame bird project leader. She pointed toward a black and white bird with a yellowish cap, fluttering above a meadow. “That’s that weird ‘beloobeloobeloo’ bubbling kind of noise — those are the bobolinks.”

The Fish & Wildlife Department purchased the property in March from Betty Lou Gorton and partnered with the Vermont Land Trust and the Vermont Housing and Conservation Board to conserve it. It’s now part of the more than 1,600-acre Lemon Fair Wildlife Management Area, which sits on the Cornwall-Bridport town line.

The land is open to the public for birdwatching, cross-country skiing, fishing, hiking, hunting and wildlife observation. It features views of the Adirondacks and Addison County’s iconic agricultural hillsides. Big red barns sit on a slope just beyond the boundaries of the wildlife management area.

But the property serves an important purpose beyond human enjoyment: Conserving it is part of a strategy to attract and protect certain species of grassland birds, which face increasing threats in Vermont.

Earlier that morning on the Cornwall property, Kilborn had spotted an eastern meadowlark perched on a fence. Listed as a threatened species in Vermont in 2022 — meaning that its population is declining, and, unless protected, could become endangered— the meadowlark faces a number of challenges in Vermont and across the country.

The New England and Mid-Atlantic population of meadowlarks has declined by more than 95% over the last 50 years, according to the Vermont Center for Ecostudies.

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A member of the blackbird family, the meadowlark is a little bigger than a robin, has a yellow chest marked with a dark V-shape, and makes a slow, whistling call. It lives all over the eastern United States and southeastern Canada, but the birds that breed as far north as Vermont typically travel south for the winter.

Officials are still finalizing a recovery plan to help meadowlarks and four other grassland species on Vermont’s threatened and endangered list: the upland sandpiper, grasshopper sparrow, sedge wren and Henslow’s sparrow.

According to Kevin Tolan, a staff biologist with the Vermont Center for Ecostudies who authored the plan, much of that recovery hinges on finding and appropriately managing a habitat that supports the life cycle of those species. That’s where land like the Lemon Fair management area fits in.

The new parcel of state land includes an array of habitats — patches of forest, a river, brushy areas and active agricultural fields, which create different types of grasslands. Meadowlarks prefer grasslands that are actively grazed by cows, because the grasses vary in structure.

“A lot of people don’t realize: Just like we manage our forests for diverse, complex structure, grasslands are the same way,” Kilborn said.

After European settlers clear cut most of Vermont’s land in the 1800s to make way for farmland, grassland birds found a home in fields that had previously been forest. Although the state once had natural grassland habitat before it was clearcut, scientists don’t have clear records to show which grassland birds lived in Vermont then, according to the Fish & Wildlife Department.

Either way, Vermont’s agricultural fields have become an increasingly important refuge for them as similar habitats in the Midwest have been lost to more intensive, monoculture agricultural practices.

“We’ve lost so much across their range that at this point, every acre counts,” Kilborn said. “And Vermont can contribute to it because we have that rich agricultural history.”

Grassland birds are caught in a tricky spot: Their success in Vermont depends on a specific type of human management. If the work is not timed precisely, the birds are threatened by the very practices that create their habitat. In particular, grassland birds such as the meadowlark and the bobolink nest in the grass, and those nests run the risk of being destroyed when farmers hay the fields.

Vermont has lost a lot of its agricultural land to development, and farmers are mowing more frequently and earlier in the spring, which increases the risk to nests, according to Tolan.

“People are haying like 10 days earlier than they had, but because they base their yearly rhythm around the sun and the solar period, the birds are returning at the same time,” Tolan said. “And so we’re starting to see a mismatch in how the management has occurred in the past and how it’s occurring now.”

Also, invasive plants have crept into the fields, and their presence is likely impacting the birds, though scientists don’t know to what extent, Tolan said. He’s also concerned that birds might be eating seeds coated with neonicotinoids, a pesticide used to protect crops such as corn and soy from pests. Legislation is pending in Vermont that would ban some uses of the seeds, but farmers in many parts of the country use the pesticides, including some states where the birds spend the winter.

“And then of course, as agriculture moves out of Vermont, you’re seeing a lot of these fields reverting back to forest,” Kilborn said.

Dedicating a field to grassland “could either be really good or really bad for a bird,” Tolan said. If it’s managed in a way that hurts the birds — for example, by cutting hay while the birds are nesting — it could act as a “sink,” drawing birds to the area only to hurt their population.

The Fish & Wildlife Department licenses farmers who manage grasslands at the state’s wildlife management areas, said Will Duane, land acquisition coordinator for the department.

“It works nicely with folks who are nearby and need the pasture,” he said.

In Cornwall, farmer Eugene Ethier manages the land in the wildlife management area in partnership with the department. Ethier, whose farm abuts the state land and whose family has been farming the land for generations, coordinates with the department to time his hay harvest so it won’t damage nests.

Many grassland birds stay “very, very close to their natal site,” Tolan said. “They come back to the same field year after year. So if you have a big field like that, that’s managed long term in a bird-friendly manner, it will create a source population that will basically feed the entire area.”