Atop Hawk Mountain, Pa., 2010

Atop Hawk Mountain, Pa., 2010
Photo by R.E. Berg-Andersson

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Going to Grasslands

 And He shall judge among the nations, and shall rebuke many people; and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks .. Isaiah 2:4

Male bobolink 2015 (RE Berg-Andersson)
I wonder what old Isaiah would think of the movement to close military bases and turn them into grasslands

He would hope this demilitarization would mean less war, less fighting. But no, the downsizing of military bases has more to do with cost and the increasing technology of war than peace
Shawangunk Grasslands, 2009, runway
Why the focus on grasslands? Because farms are fighting to stay alive. Too many have sold out to developers who put up townhouses, large McMansions and other dwellings styled "estates," and that has left the birds and insects that would normally nest on farmland or unmowed grasses without a place to breed, and thus numbers are declining.

Grasshopper sparrows and bobolinks depend on grasslands, and because of the decline they are considered "threatened" birds by New Jersey.

There are a number of farms in New Jersey - active and preserved - that leave their meadows to the birds. Griggstown Grasslands and Negri-Nepote, both in Franklin Township, Somerset County, NJ, are among them. 

2012, snow and some changes (RE Berg-Andersson)
In New York, there is the Shawangunk Grasslands National Wildlife Refuge in Walkill. This was the former Galeville Military Airport. When MH and I first came here, in March 2009, it was because I had read of a remarkable gathering of rough-legged hawks - birds of the tundra that had come south for the winter to this part of New York. When we visited they were gathering in good numbers, making ready for that moment their instincts told them it was time to head back north.

At that time, you parked in the lot off the road, then walked down a driveway to the old concrete runways, which provided an easy way to get across the field and close to the area where the hawks were congregating.

A trail takes shape 2013 (RE Berg-Andersson)
The next time we were there was in February 2012. The area had been closed for several years for the beginning of the work that would change the nature of the NWR from former airfield to grassland. 

When we came back for the the roughlegged hawks, we also saw a fair number of harriers and, to my delight, short-eared owls hunting in the afternoon. There was still snow on the fields but now the runways were gone in some areas and we had to make our way through the unexpectedly heavy snow.

2015 - no runways, only fields. (RE Berg-Andersson)
A year later, in August 2013, snow was long gone, as were the rough-legged hawks. The fields were brown in spots and very muddy in others. There was the beginning of a trail and we followed it as far as we could, until it turned deeply muddy. The runways to the far end of the field were gone. The only birds I remember clearly were harriers, song sparrows, redwing blackbirds and, before we turned back because of the mud, Eastern meadowlarks.

By the time we came back on our most recent visit, June 2015, there was no trace of the runways in the field and just one small bit left as a parking lot. (You could drive all the way down now, although the old lot is still off the road.)

Eastern meadowlark (RE Berg-Andersson)
Beyond, all you can see now are grasses and wildflowers. Trails were mowed and are not very wide. As MH and I walked I listened to all the chatter around us. 

There were song sparrows and redwinged blackbirds, as usual, but this time there were bobolinks. A lot of bobolinks. In one back field alone, still wet from recent rains, I counted more than 30 males and a few females. 

Congregation of bobolinks (RE Berg-Andersson)
There were also buzzy grasshopper sparrows, mainly secretive in the grass unless you stepped too close, at which point you had to be fast with the binoculars to catch them as they flew off. 
There were also more meadowlarks, some of them singing. There was at least one Savannah sparrow plus Eastern kingbirds. All were feasting on seed heads and insects. A harrier and barn swallows hunted the fields. I expected kestrel - another bird in decline - but instead found a hunting merlin!
All of these birds have found a breeding sanctuary at this place, as they are finding in other farms and air bases converted into grasslands. 
And it's not just birds. We also heard a bull frog and a tree frog in our travels, and who knows how many different kinds of insects were there around us. (Luckily, we weren't bothered by mosquitos the cool day we visited.) It gives one hope that people are recognizing we need biodiversity in this world. 

But when you consider global warming and the continued militarization of this world, a grassland such as Shawangunk is but a small and fragile part of this planet. 

As is mankind.