NewburyportNews.com, Newburyport, MA

Local News

July 20, 2007

Fading of grassland birds changes sounds of summer

NEWBURYPORT — Their sweet and shrill voices once filled the grasslands, but steadily they are growing silent.

According to a recent study by the National Audubon Society, the eastern meadowlark population in the United States has plummeted more than 72 percent since 1967.

Bobolinks are going missing, as well, and grasshopper and vesper sparrows all but vanished more than 100 years ago. The fact is the state is losing most of its so-called grassland birds, species that rely on plenty of wide-open spaces without trees.

Newburyport birder Sue McGrath said what’s being seen nationwide is happening throughout the North Shore as well.

“Meadowlarks and bobolinks are definitely declining around here,” said McGrath, who is the head of the Newburyport Birders. “We’ve noticed a big change in grassland bird populations in recent years.”

Carol Decker, executive director of the Ipswich River Wildlife Sanctuary in Topsfield, said birders in search of grassland birds have to take quite a hike.

“You have to go to Kennebunkport to find them,” she said.

What’s happening to these once-plentiful bird species? It turns out that, at least locally, they’re just unlucky enough to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Changing faces

Historically, grassland birds were not a significant part of the fauna in Massachusetts because there were few grasslands in the state until the arrival of John Winthrop and his fleet in 1630. The Colonists saw gold in the forested landscape, in the shape of trees that could be fashioned into houses, cargo ships and firewood.

They were an industrious lot and within a century turned those forests into farmland and open fields.

What was bad news for beavers and other forest dwellers was good news for grassland birds, which expanded their range into this newfound paradise.

That’s not to say there were never any native grassland birds, said Wayne Petersen, director of the Massachusetts Important Bird Area program for Mass Audubon. The most well-known was the heath hen, which went extinct on Martha’s Vineyard in 1930.

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