Eastern Meadowlark photographed during a VWL grassland bird survey at Crusher Run Farm in Rockingham County. Photo by Zack Perdue.
Thanks to Zack Perdue, Cohort VII, who joined the Virginia Working Landscapes project this year, for sharing this report with us!
Virginia Working Landscapes or VWL is a program sponsored by the Smithsonian since 2010 to work with owners of rural properties to investigate the effects of various land-use practices on species of interest, including pollinators, grassland birds and native plants. Teams consisting of experienced researchers and conservation biologists, in tandem with support from a robust flock of citizen scientist volunteers, obtain permission from private landowners to conduct surveys on their properties in order to observe and record changes in species diversity and population sizes over time.
This year I became involved in VWL’s grassland bird survey. Grassland birds have experienced greater declines than any other group of birds (e.g. forest, wetland, shorebirds) in the past 50 years. Since the vast majority of remaining grassland is privately owned, often in the form of agricultural hayfields or pastureland, it is essential to work with owners to find ways to reverse habitat loss. Enrolling in the Smithsonian volunteer program is a bit involved, including an FBI background check. However, once this is completed, the experience is entirely positive and worthwhile. There was even a bonus birdwatching outing led by Dr. Amy Johnson, whose ability to identify birds by sound is extraordinary. Seventy species were identified in about three hours at a farm in Fauquier County that has implemented a suite of conservation practices over the past decade.
The VWL program aims to recruit as many Virginia landowners as possible. I believe this is the first year that we had participation from someone in Rockingham county, namely Dolly and Bibb Frazier, who own Crusher Run Farm near Port Republic. During our training we were told that most landowners were happy to have us and tended to be hospitable. What an understatement! Dolly and Bibb greeted us at seven in the morning, oriented us to the layout of the farm, and provided post-survey refreshments of home-baked coffee cake and coffee. We also received a tour of the farm, which turned out to be an exemplar showcase for enlightened agricultural practice with riparian buffers and a habitat for butterflies planted with the help of Chris Anderson, a lepidopterist and County Coordinator for the Alliance for the Shenandoah Valley. The Fraziers have also erected a large number of birdhouses on their property and have become very expert on bird habitats by working with Dr. Charles Ziegenfus, who has been a driving force in biodiversity conservation in the Shenandoah Valley for decades.
Our team consists of Alex Brubaker, a graduate of the University of Virginia, with a strong interest in ornithology; Justin Proctor, who works for the Smithsonian and is coordinator of the Piedmont Grassland Bird Initiative; and myself. We met at about 7 AM to survey three predetermined circular spaces for ten minutes each, registering birds that were actively involved with the habitat. Birds simply flying overhead, such as roughly a dozen herons, were noted, but not included in the count. We were particularly focused on birds whose numbers have declined precipitously, such as Northern Bobwhites, Bobolinks and Eastern Meadowlarks. Our count included Eastern Meadowlarks, Field Sparrows and Grasshopper Sparrows. Although we didn’t spot any bobwhite or bobolinks, the habitat is ripe for both. We are to have two further sessions in the coming weeks. One of the aims is to determine the time of nesting, egg-laying and fledging for ground-nesting birds. This will give the landowners more detailed information on how to better accommodate these birds with their agricultural practices during the critical nesting period.
The landowner/producer network associated with Virginia Working Landscapes and the Piedmont Grassland Bird Initiative continues to grow. If you are interested in grassland birds, building back biodiversity on your landscape, and/or getting involved as a citizen scientist, please feel free to reach out to Justin Proctor at ProctorCJ [at] si.edu.
– Zack Perdue, Cohort VII, May 2022