In Vermont, hopes for the bobolink’s return
SOUTH BURLINGTON, Vt. — Allan Strong walks in camouflage waders through wet, thigh-high grass just after dawn, lifting his binoculars to his eyes as he scans a large, uncultivated field in search of a miniature prize.
Strong swivels his head, stops, and smiles.
“This is great,” he says. “We’re seeing quite a few out here.”
What Strong sees is a small bird with a golden voice and look-at-me ensemble of yellow cap, black and white back, and black undercoat. It’s a male bobolink, a transcontinental traveler whose bubbly warble has fallen silent in many of New England’s pastures and hayfields over the past 50 years.
Strong, an ornithology and wildlife professor at the University of Vermont, is working to reverse that decline, along with Mass Audubon and hundreds of donors who want to repopulate the region’s dwindling grasslands with the effervescent bird.
They’re trying through a program that pays farmers to cut their fields less often, allowing grasses to grow into the critical nesting habitat that bobolinks need for their young.
It’s an offer any suburbanite would jump at — being paid to watch the grass grow.
The effort is gaining steam, and the Bobolink Project now attracts more farmers than there is money to pay all of them. From $32,000 in donations and 200 protected acres when the project began in 2013, the effort this year has raised $46,400 and covered 928 acres, nearly 90 percent of them in Vermont.
“It’s a powerful message, and we’ve been able to show it works,” Strong said. “This bird is literally a symbol of the rural history and culture of Vermont.”
But the decline of farming here, coupled with more frequent cuttings for hay, has devastated the bobolink’s ability to reproduce each spring after a 6,000-mile journey from the middle of South America. An estimated 400,000 bobolinks migrated annually to Vermont in the 1960s, he said. Today, that number is believed to be 100,000.
“There’s not enough time to nest successfully,” said Strong, associate dean of the university’s Rubenstein School of Environment and Natural Resources.
Partly due to financial pressures, many fields in Vermont are now being cut three times a year, up from twice, which means that the grass does not mature to the bobolink’s liking.
Under the project — which protects land in Vermont, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and New York — landowners are given the choice of delaying a second cut or waiting until Aug. 1 to cut their fields at all.
Farmers and other landowners submit bids to join the program, which is administered by Mass Audubon. The lowest bids are accepted, moving increasingly higher until the pool of donations runs dry. In 2018, for example, the project had to turn away bids that would have protected an additional 492 acres.
Participants don’t get rich: The project paid an average of $50 an acre this year compared with $160 in 2013. But the cash isn’t the only factor in play.
“We didn’t get into this for the money,” said Brandon Bless, land and animal manager at Bread and Butter Farm, which has 254 acres enrolled in the program. “It seemed like a really nice match.”
Not only is there a small financial incentive, but Bless said the program’s cutting restrictions allow plants to grow mature roots and stems. Combined with intensive cattle grazing on those fields, organic matter is built up and the soil is deepened for better health and productivity.
Bread and Butter nearly quadrupled its acreage in the program this year.
“I’m excited to see where it could go. I think it’s an awesome model,” Bless said. “If there was nothing ecological about it, we wouldn’t be interested.”
Jon Atwood, director of bird conservation for Mass Audubon, acknowledged that those who can’t tell a bobolink from a blue jay might wonder what all the fuss is about. Historically, the bird has fared better in the massive open grasslands of the Great Plains than in New England, where much of the landscape has shifted from forests to cultivated land, and now is largely forested again.
“Should we be trying to conserve grassland birds in New England or just let the forests grow back?” Atwood said. “This isn’t a place where they’ve had a major stronghold.”
Part of the answer seems to be that helping a dwindling species is considered a worthy goal on its own.
“We know we will continue to lose dairy farms,” Strong said as he strode around a protected field at Bread and Butter. “What we have here is almost like a refuge.”
It’s a refuge where Strong attracts bobolinks by playing a homemade recording of the male’s song, which he likened to the robot R2-D2 in “Star Wars.” The bird’s music is designed to defend turf and attract females, whose coloring in breeding season is plainer than the males’.
“There’s a male holding court over there,” Strong said, pointing toward a sparrow-size bobolink perched atop a cluster of tall grass. “He’s trying to attract as many females into his territory as possible. He can’t do that in a forest.”
Atwood can’t say with confidence that more bobolinks are making the 12,000-mile round-trip to New England. But the project’s organizers are eager to expand the program, working to raise enough donations to keep pace with demand.
In the meantime, Strong will continue tramping around fields in Vermont, looking for more of the striking birds that have become a significant part of his research. He appears to be slightly smitten.
“They’re not big,” Strong said, “but they’re charismatic.”