Awakening to the spirit and beauty of the northern Great Plains
Tuesday, June 21, 2011
Giving hayland birds a break in a wet year
Bobolink pair (female on left)
A few days ago, before the daily monsoons hit, I had a sunny evening free and decided to go for a drive just southeast of Regina to see what birds I could find along the Wascana Creek floodplain.
Almost as soon as I was out of the city I found an alfalpha field with several birds. Mostly species that will accept tame hayland in place of native grass. Western meadowlarks, bobolinks, sedge wrens, savvanah sparrows, and common yellowthroats flew back and forth over the alfalpha or landed on fence posts or high weed stalks to sing. Species like these have adapted to the simplified structure of hay fields, or at least it seems they have adapted.
We don't know for sure whether this king of habitat is really working for these species. It may attract them to come and set up territories but in the end not provide the right matrix of cover from predators and food supply that they need to rear young. Their biggest peril comes from the farmer's mower in late June or early July. Most hay fields are cut the first time before the end of June in wet years. When that happens in a field like the one I saw just outside of the city, nests, fledglings and sometimes adult birds are destroyed.
Farmers work within a demanding cost-price squeeze. They don't get any income from raising baby bobolinks and sedge wrens, which makes it all the more amazing when you hear of a hay farmer taking measures to avoid harming the birds nesting in his hay fields. Those who are willing to, will delay their first cut to July 25, by which time most if not all young birds will be flying and dispersed from their nesting sites.
Some farmers aware of the birds just leave a piece of each field uncut, rotating to different spots each year to allow some tall grass habitat for the birds that need it.
Here are some guidelines for farmers who feel they can afford to give the birds a break and for landowners who lease out hay land or allow a local farmer to mow it:
If you can wait to mow, wait until July 25 for the first cut.
If you have to mow before July 25, consider leaving part of the field uncut.
If you must mow, start at the centre and mow out, giving nestlings a chance to flee to safety at the edge of the field.
In the long term, consider a three-year mowing rotation leaving some fields uncut each year.
In a year as wet as this one, many of these hay land species will be delaying nesting and having to renest after their nests are flooded out. Any break we can give them will help ensure that we get to hear their songs and see their colours in years to come.