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




Art for the birds

Exhibit helps group working to preserve raptors’ habitat


Contributing writer


An art exhibit next month at Crandall Public Library will help to protect the population of short-eared owls, northern harriers and other raptors that depend on the Washington County Grasslands, a 13,000-acre network of farm fields that has been threatened with development.

The juried art show, Birds in Nature, will feature two-dimensional works in various media by regional artists. And it will function as a fund-raiser for the educational activities of the Friends of the Washington County Grasslands IBA, a group working to help preserve the birds’ habitat.

The exhibit will be on view throughout the month of September at the library in downtown Glens Falls, with an artists’ reception from noon to 4 p.m. on Saturday, Sept. 17.

Also on Sept. 17, the library will host a Raptor Awareness Day, featuring live birds-of-prey demonstrations by the Adirondack Wildlife Refuge & Rehab Center, North Country Wild Care and The Wildlife Institute of Eastern New York.

Laurie LaFond, president of the Friends of Washington County Grasslands IBA, said her organization will retain a 30 percent commission on all artwork shown during the exhibition. The money raised will support other educational events such as the group’s annual Winter Raptor Fest, held in March.

Saving the grasslands

The goal of all of these activities is to help preserve the Washington County Grasslands, which has been designated as an Important Bird Area, or IBA, by the National Audubon Society. The designation, made in 1997, means the area, originally known as the Fort Edward Grasslands, is considered a vital habitat for threatened or endangered bird species.

LaFond said the area is the largest nearly intact grasslands in eastern New York, encompassing 13,000 acres of agricultural lands just east of the Champlain Canal in Fort Edward. Much of the land in the area is for sale for residential development, but the Audubon and other groups hope to see the area preserved as an agricultural landscape.

Development pressures in the area are expected to increase in the years ahead as the opening of a large computer-chip manufacturing plant in Saratoga County spurs demand for new housing around the region.

LaFond said the state Department of Environmental Conservation has found the grasslands area to be critical to the survival of short-eared owls in New York. The area also provides important habitat for nearly a dozen other threatened, at-risk and rapidly declining grassland bird species, including northern harriers, upland sandpipers, eastern meadowlarks, field sparrows, grasshopper sparrows and American kestrels.

Conservationists say raptors like short-eared owls and northern harriers depend on the area’s open expanses of grasslands to accommodate their low aerial hunting style. The area also provides the birds with large populations of the small mammals -- mice, shrews and voles -- that are their primary prey.

LaFond said she got motivated to organize the Friends of the Washington County Grasslands IBA after realizing that the significance of the grasslands area was little known outside the circle of serious birders.

“Most people I encountered -- even many local residents – didn’t know about the short-eared owls and other at-risk birds this area supports and had never heard of the IBA,” LaFond said. “Outside the birding community, no one knew about it, so I realized we needed to raise awareness.”

LaFond said the organization's plan is to one day have a nature center in or near the grasslands. But even after such a center is a reality, the group will still need to organize events to keep the public’s attention, she said.

Celebrating raptors

In addition to the group’s first-ever art show, its other major event so far has been the Winter Raptor Fest.

The first Winter Raptor Fest, held in March, featured live bird-of-prey programs with hawks and falcons, horse-drawn sleigh rides, snowshoe races, environmental presentations and, most importantly, the chance to see the hawks and owls the group is trying to protect.

“We chose winter for the raptor fest because that’s when some of the most at-risk species we want to raise awareness of -- the short-eared owls and northern harriers -- are here,” LaFond said. “They are our snowbirds, migrating to the Washington County Grasslands from summer breeding grounds in the arctic and northern Canada. We wanted people to have a chance to see the birds when they’re here.”

This year’s festival was held at The Little Theater on the Farm in Fort Edward.

“The timing worked out great, because a male northern harrier was hunting the fields behind The Little Theater on the Farm on Friday and Saturday, and many of our volunteers and quite a few visitors were treated to an amazing sight,” LaFond said.

A committee spent more than a year planning the festival, and the Washington County Tourism Association co-sponsored the event. The event also drew support from organizations like Audubon New York and North Country Wildcare, Talons and the New York State Wildlife Rehab Council, among others.

The inaugural Winter Raptor Fest was such a success that LaFond said next year's event, scheduled for March 10-11, will be held at a larger facility, the Gallup Ridge Farm in Fort Edward.

The best part of all the efforts, said LaFond, is seeing the reaction of people when they get an up-close look at the rare birds her group is trying to protect.

“A friend working the booth next to us at the Adirondack Sports & Fitness Summer Expo said she kept seeing the sudden smiles and look of delight on people's faces when they first see the owls, hawk and falcons," LaFond said. “I call it ‘raptor rapture.’ The most common word we heard at Winter Raptor Fest was ‘awesome.’"

For more information about the Birds in Nature exhibit, Winter Raptor Fest and other activities of the Friends of the Washington County Grasslands IBA, visit the group’s Web site at www.winterraptorfest.com.

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