Sunday, March 13, 2016

Short Ears and Tall Grass

     People were gesturing excitedly.
     "There he is!"
     "Wow, he's feisty."
     "Look at him go after that guy."
     Donald Trump at a Republican debate? No, this confrontation was much more civil. Short-eared owls were sorting out territorial rights with marauding northern harriers and with each other. And we had ring-side seats to the action.
     Gwenne and I had joined the ADK Tuesday group for a few hours of birding in the Fort Edward grasslands. We were fortunate to have Laurie LaFond as our guide. She's an expert birder and has long championed preservation of the open fields found where the Hudson/Champlain Valley squeaks between the Taconics in the east and the Adirondack foothills to the west.

     The group gathered at the Little Theater on the Farm where we introduced ourselves and got some initial orientation. Then we walked out in back of the barn past the frozen pond thru snowless fields. There's a great deal of open hay ground in the area, most of it short-clipped stubble. Laurie explained that it would be better for birds if alternating strips were mowed on a three year cycle. That way there would be more and taller cover but it wouldn't revert to brush and woods. Unfortunately, this is impractical for farmers. I cut my fields three or four times in a season. Good for hay production, not so good for birds. There are programs that pay landowners to manage in a more bird friendly way and they may be part of the solution.

     Our next stop was the Wildlife Management Area on Black House Road near the intersection with Co. 46. Look for a DEC sign, a parking area and an information kiosk. Walking down a lane on the east side of the property leads to an observation platform. The path is lined with white oaks and shagbark hickories. Off to the left (on private property) is the site of the Vita Spring. In the late 1800's mineral water was bottled here and the spring was a popular spot for picnics and gatherings.
A little further on someone has placed a rustic bench made from an intricately weathered slab of limestone.

     From the platform we saw a red tailed hawk perched and a northern harrier swooping low. There was a distant flock of geese, long parades of crows and a couple of tight clusters of starlings and red wing blackbirds (Laurie's best guess). Birds weren't the only thing in the sky - we saw a couple of nice sundogs as the day wound down.

     This area was once at the bottom of glacial Lake Albany. The fine sediments that settled out of the meltwater became the clay soils we find today. After the lake drained, its flat bed was dissected by run-off producing the modern landscape. Little trickles that you can hop across make their way to Dead Creek which flows (just barely) into the Moses Kill, a tributary of the Hudson.

     Silty clay soils have low permeability and are often wet in spring and fall. This makes them better suited to perennial hay crops than annuals such as corn which requires early season tillage and planting and late season harvest. The result is a grass based agriculture which features large open hay fields. Over time this landscape has been whittled by residential development and farm abandonment.
If the hay is not cut or grazed it gradually reverts to brush and then trees.
     This grass ecosystem is habitat for large numbers of small mammals (think meadow voles) which are choice menu items for birds of prey (think hawks and owls). Many other bird species are attracted to meadow/grassland environments for breeding and nesting. The list includes: Upland Sandpiper, Eastern Meadowlark, Bobolink, Bluebird, Sedge Wren and Savannah Sparrow. These are the factors that led Audubon to designate the grasslands as an Important Bird Area. By some estimates there are 13000 acres of open land in central Washington County with about 2000 acres forming the core IBA. Of this just several hundred acres are protected and managed.

Meadow Vole

     With an amicable gathering of like-minded people there was plenty of socializing and relaxed lollygagging. Maybe too much, especially by yours truly. They don't let me off my leash very often and the result is a need to look at everything and talk to everybody. But Laurie knew that with the sun sinking towards West Mountain, the grand finale was about to take the stage. We left the DEC area and quickly carpooled over to a ridge-top location on Co. 42. Here the Friends of the IBA have received a gift of property from the Loftus family and plan to build a viewing area. From this vantage you look down into the mixed shrub and grass of the Dead Creek Valley. Ideal Short-eared Owl habitat and there they were!

Gordon Ellmers photo of Northern Harrier

     As dusk settled we were treated to quite a show. Experienced birders said they saw five owls and a couple of Harriers stirring things up. The birds did some flashy aerial maneuvers showing the light undersides of their wings. I often see Northern Harriers in their swooping, gliding low to the ground flight over my hay fields. They are fun to watch and easily identified by the white rump patch and long tail. Short-eared Owls aren't seen as frequently. There are fewer of them and they are only here at the grasslands in a few locations during the winter. The best time to watch for them is just before dark when they become active.

Gordon Ellmers photo of Short-eared owl

     The future of the Washington County grasslands seems uncertain at best. It's hard to reconcile profitable farming practices with bird habitat conservation. In any case, the farming seems as endangered as the owls. Building lots are octopussing out along every road. Sprawlscape is the term James Howard Kunstler uses in The Geography of Nowhere. What's needed is large scale land acquisition and management but that seems unlikely.
     It sort of reminds me of the decision to have children. You know it will be costly and involve some sacrifice but also that the rewards are well worth it. So it is with birds. Are we willing to bear the cost for the rewards of having them here? I don't know the answer to that but I do know I'm grateful for the dedication and hard work of the Friends of the IBA. And I know it's way more fun to watch hawks and owls than bickering republicans and democrats.

Laurie LaFond photo from Fiba's website

Grazing the Grasslands

 - The Friends of the IBA are a great organization that deserves your support. They have an upcoming bird walk on Saturday, March 19. Find out more here.
 - FIBA's big event of the year is Raptor Fest held this year at the Washington County Fairgrounds on May 14 & 15.
 - Audubon designates IBA's and the local chapter is very active with programs, outings and conservation efforts. Visit Southern Adirondack Audubon's website here.
 - Dr. Gorden Ellmers takes great bird photos, many of them in the grasslands. Take a look here.
 - DEC has maps and species profiles at their website.

River Road and the Hudson

 - It's easy to combine the grasslands and the Hudson in one outing. The river in spring is full of waterfowl and there are eagles and osprey as well. Holly was running on River Road recently and passed right under two eagles perched in a tree. As the season progresses check out Denton Preserve and the Towpath along the old canal out of Fort Edward - both are birding hot spots.


Little theater on the Farm
Fred Wehner photo
 - Little Theater on the Farm is in the center of the grasslands. It's a great place for music and entertainment. Check out their 2016 schedule here.

Place at the Table - Mandy's

     The owls begin feeding at dusk, hunting for meadow voles into the evening. I'm usually ready to eat anytime although I don't have a taste for voles. Pizza is more to my liking and after it got too dark for birding our friends, Steve and Licia, suggested we stop at Mandy's to enjoy some. Great idea!
     Mandy's is a small, family owned place on the corner of Burgoyne Avenue and Schuyler Street in Hudson Falls. They're famous for their finger rolls but they also have delicious subs and pizza. Whenever we're headed up to the east side of Lake George or anyplace to the north we stop in for a couple of subs to fuel our adventures. Most people order and take out but there are a few tables for dining and the menu goes beyond the basics. Highly recommended.


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