Perched on a grass stalk, the bobolink was as welcome as a summer rose — white, black and yellow, his song announcing himself to the world. As Emily Dickinson, a keen observer of meadow birds, said “he compliments existence.”
I saw him at Topsmead State Forest in Litchfield. The farmers who cut hay there mow late so as not to disturb the bobolink nests, hidden on the ground in the deep grass.
It’s one of the best places I know to see bobolinks. There are so few open grasslands like it in Connecticut that it’s hard to say whether the birds are holding their own.
“It’s such a small number,” said Patrick Comins, executive director of the Connecticut Audubon Society.
The Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection lists bobolinks as a species of special concern — a bird in need of fostering, lest it fades away. Nationwide, their numbers have declined by 65 percent in the past half-century, according to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.
They have a tough life.
Bobolinks migrate to the grasslands of Argentina, Paraguay and Brazil in the winter, then head north in the spring — a 12,000-mile trip. On their way back to New England, southern farmers poison them and other blackbirds, lest the birds chow down on their rice crop.
“They’re known as ‘God-damn rice birds’ in the south,” Comins said.
Arriving here, they have trouble finding unmown fields that let them nest and raise their young.
Other grassland birds are doing just as badly, or worse, in the state. Savannah sparrows are also species of special concern. Meadowlarks are a threatened species. Grasshopper sparrows and upland sandpipers are endangered and almost gone.
The reason is that the Connecticut countryside in the 19th century was almost all human-created pastures. Grassland species had a home here. But farmers abandoned those fields for other livelihoods and the pastures became woods again.
The farmers left in the state are an endangered species unto themselves. Hay is a cash crop, and the best, most nutrient-laden, most valuable hay in the state is the first early cut, just when bobolinks are settling down to rear their young.
“I don’t think anyone has a right to tell a farmer to harvest their hay late and lose tens of thousands of dollars,” Comins said.
Which is now leading to compromises as land trusts try to manage as least some of their own space for grassland species.
The Roxbury Land Trust now keeps seven acres of fields at its Good Hill Farm property until late in the season. It’s been named an Important Bird Area by Audubon Connecticut because of the bobolinks that now call it home.
Likewise, the Highstead Arboretum in Redding keeps about 50 acres of its land in open grassland.
In Sherman, the Naromi Land Trust has two of its properties — Upland Pasture and the Hadlow property — mown late in summer.
“It’s worked out,” said Amanda Branson, Naromi’s executive director. “The bobolinks return ever year.”
Weantinoge Heritage Land Trust has an 18-acre field — the Hauser property — adjacent to Topsmead in Litchfield. Paul Elconin, the trust’s land conservation director, said Weantinoge doesn’t charge the farmer rent for using the land. In return, the farmer doesn’t mow the field until later in the summer, when the bobolinks there have fledged.
So Weantinoge gets the fields mowed to keep it a grassland. The farmers get the late crop of hay. And the birds get a safe haven.
“It’s a success story,” he said.
There is also The Bobolink Project in Massachusetts, Vermont and Connecticut, which raises money to pay farmers to mow fields later in the summer.
“I would love to be able to do that, to compensate farmers for mowing later,” said Ann Astarita, executive director of the Roxbury Land Trust.
People could conclude that because humans created a pasture-heavy landscape in the 19th century, it’s natural that grassland species would fade from the scene as that landscape changes.
Comins said this isn’t true: These birds may have been in the open spaces in Connecticut before humans arrived.
Conservationists also argue that because we’re managing the Connecticut landscape anyway, we should promote a mosaic of mature forest, scrubby brush lots, and pastures, the better to keep the mix of wild things we have.
“It’s not just birds,” Comins said of open fields. “It’s butterflies and dragonflies and mammals and box turtles. When we lose these places, we lose biodiversity.”