hill country observerThe independent newspaper of eastern New York, southwestern Vermont and the Berkshires




Group aims to preserve grasslands for bird habitat



Contributing writer


After several years of raising public awareness about the birds and landscapes of the Washington County grasslands, a local conservation group says it wants to move beyond education to actually buying and preserving some of the open land.

“We’re planning a fund-raising campaign to purchase land from willing sellers,” said Laurie LaFond, president of the Friends of the Washington County Grasslands Important Bird Area.

The area known as the Washington County grasslands is made up of about 13,000 acres of farm fields and open, grassy country running much of the length of the county. With most of eastern New York either developed or forested, the grasslands offer a rare habitat for birds and other wildlife that need open country to feed and breed.

Many grassland birds are rare or declining in New York as development and second-growth forest encroach. In recognition of that, the National Audubon Society in 1997 designated 2,000 acres of grasslands in the towns of Fort Edward, Argyle and Kingsbury as an “important bird area,” or IBA.

The bird area runs along a low ridge parallel to the Hudson River and Route 4. Several raptor species, including the short-eared owl and northern harrier (designated by the state respectively as endangered and threatened), spend their winters on the grasslands hunting mice, voles and other small mammals. Eastern meadowlarks, field and grasshopper sparrows, bluebirds, brown thrashers, kestrels and red-tailed hawks nest in the grasslands in the summer.

The Audubon designation draws attention to the land’s importance but confers no protection. For years, few people outside the birding community were aware of it. Local bird lovers formed the Friends of the IBA in 2010 to draw attention to the birds that live in the grasslands and the importance of conserving their habitat.

Raising awareness

Since its founding, Friends of the IBA has reached about 15,000 people with events and programs about the grasslands’ wildlife, according to the group’s Web site. These programs have included an annual two-day Winter Raptor Fest, field trip, bird walks, art shows, and a fall Raptor Rapture event at the New York State Museum in Albany.

The Friends of the IBA also has produced a short video, “Raptors at Risk,” which received several awards at this year’s People’s Pixel Project, a festival of locally produced films organized by the Lake George Arts Project.

This year’s Winter Raptor Fest, the group’s most popular annual event, was held in March at Gallup Ridge Farm in Fort Edward. The festival includes presentations with live hawks and owls from wildlife rehabilitation and natural history organizations, displays from other conservation and outdoors-oriented groups, children's activities, bird walks, and horse-drawn wagon rides. This year, for the first time, the festival carried an admission charge; more than 1,400 people attended, and 47 paid to become members of the Friends of the IBA, increasing the group’s membership to 88.

“We raised more than $10,000,” LaFond said. “It was pretty good for a third year.”

Besides covering the cost of the festival and other outreach, the money raised became the start of a fund-raising campaign to conserve or purchase critical lands. Another long-range goal for the group is to set up a nature within the bird area for programs, activities and outdoor recreation.

Threatened habitat

Events like the Winter Raptor Fest and Raptor Rapture bring people close to birds that, in the wild, they’d likely see only on the wing or on a distant perch. The impassive stare of a hand-held northern harrier or the sight of a great horned owl or kestrel winging its way to a handler's gloved wrist impress people with the sense that these birds are magnificent and worth saving. (Almost all the raptors that appear at Friends of the IBA events are impaired in some way and cannot be survive in the wild.)

But education alone doesn’t save the birds or their habitat, and development and some agricultural activities are immediate dangers.

Many grassland birds nest on the ground. Haying in June and July crushes and shreds nests, eggs and fledglings.

New houses and roads destroy grassy areas and cut up the remaining open land into smaller and smaller parcels. As more land is developed, short-eared owls and northern harriers, which fly low to the ground as they hunt at dusk and dawn, not only have a harder search for food but also face a greater risk of collision with fast-moving vehicles.

Friends of the IBA works with Audubon New York, the state Department of Environmental Conservation and the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service office in Greenwich to encourage conservation of the birds and their habitat.

As a result of publicity at the Winter Raptor Fest, four landowners in the bird area, with a total of 390 acres, have enrolled in the federal Environmental Quality Incentive Program and receive payments in return for not haying during nesting season.

Scott Fitscher, the program’s director for Washington and Warren counties, explained that participating landowners are allowed to cut hay before or after nesting season. It's a good program for people who don't particularly need the hay or who just mow to keep the vistas around their house open. But hay cut in June and July is the most nutritious, and farmers who depend on their hay to feed livestock would rather have the hay than the incentive payments, he said.

Because the grasslands offers open, well-drained land with scenic views and is within easy commuting distance of employment centers in Saratoga County and Glens Falls, it’s prime territory for developers. A 327-home development called Killian's View was proposed on 239 acres in Fort Edward in 2006 – in an area that LaFond called “the heart of ” the bird area. If it goes forward, the project would bring an estimated 1,300 new residents and increase the town of Fort Edward's population by about 20 percent.

No construction has begun, however. A Fort Edward town official said the project has received preliminary permits from the town but needs approval from the DEC and the state Department of Transportation before it can proceed.

At the request of the DEC, The Nature Conservancy acquired about 300 acres of grasslands where short-eared owls feed and roost, LaFond said. The land currently is posted so the birds won't be disturbed, but LaFond said it may be possible to open some trails for public use.

“Some of the private landowners allow us to do field trips and walks on their properties,” LaFond said. “It helps people make connections with the land. We're always trying to get people out there.”


Art show to benefit bird area

A field day and art show in June will benefit conservation efforts in the Washington County grasslands, a 13,000-acre area of open fields that has been designated by the National Audubon Society as an important bird area, or IBA.

On Saturday, June 8, the Friends of the IBA will host a field day and an artists reception for “Art of the IBA,” a monthlong exhibit, at Oliva Vineyards on Route 4 in Fort Edward.

The field day runs from 8 a.m. To 1 p.m. Activities will include bird walks, a presentation on short-eared owls, and a bird photography workshop with Gordon Ellmers.
The wine-and-cheese reception for the artists will run from 5 to 9 p.m. Entries for the juried art show will be accepted until May 11. There are two categories, “Best of Winter Raptor Fest” and “Life in the IBA.” Artwork need not have been created in the bird area but must represent its birds, people, wildlife, or landscape. The show is co-sponsored by the Glens Falls Friends of Photography. The show will be on display from June 1 to 30.

Other upcoming events organized by the Friends of the IBA include a field trip to Lake George's Last Great Shoreline and Gull Bay Preserves, on May 11, and a guided bird walk at the Christ the King Spiritual Life Center in Easton on May 18. For more information, including times and costs, visit the group’s Web site, www.ibafriends.org.