For bobolinks, savannah sparrows, and other birds that make their nests in hayfields, a delayed harvest can spell the difference between life and death.
The researchers closely monitored 28 nests on those two fields last summer, and 23 were successful, producing 84 young. They found little difference between late cut and early cut fields in the average number of fledglings per female. And they are optimistic about the long-term prospects of the NRCS initiative--part of the agency's Environmental Quality Incentives Program, or EQIP--which now pays farmers $135 an acre per year during a three-year contract. Participants are required to make early season cuts, followed by about nine weeks of rest, on fields that include at least 20 uninterrupted acres of grassland. The timing is based on the bobolinks' need for relatively tall grass before they nest and the long fledging period. The typical cutting cycle, Strong notes, is five to six weeks, with three or four mowings a summer.
One of the original aims of EQIP, says Vermont NRCS biologist Toby Alexander, was to promote livestock production and environmental quality as compatible goals. "Our initial emphasis was on waste and water quality. But we also wanted to include at-risk wildlife and habitat." The Vermont incentive program is unique because the traditional approach to grassland bird conservation has been to leave fields unmowed until the breeding season is over. That's just not realistic in dairy country, he said. The money offered, however, isn't enough to fully offset a participating farmer's losses, and so a little altruism is essential. David Charron receives about $3,000 from the program, but in a good year he would get 2,500 square bales, weighing 40 pounds and worth $4 apiece, from the second cut on the 30-acre field he has dedicated to raising bobolinks. The delayed crop, he added, loses a lot of quality as feed.
Not every hayfield is eligible for EQIP funds. The NRCS is looking for those that are fairly large and somewhat square-shaped with no roads, hedgerows, streams, or edge habitat. "The ideal hayfield would be one sitting right in the middle of other grasslands," said Alexander. "We inspect every potential site and decline as many applications as we accept," he noted, adding that the NRCS's biggest struggle is reaching out to landowners. "We have the capacity to enroll a lot of fields, and we're counting on Audubon Vermont to help direct farmers to EQIP."
That's good news. Bobolinks and their sparkling music have been the essence of summer in rural New England since the time of one-room schoolhouses, where farm kids read William Cullen Bryant's poem Robert of Lincoln, a pretty good natural history lesson set to rhyme. I grew up in a small village in western Michigan with dairy barns and those little clapboard schools scattered all around, and I still remember the first stanza:
Merrily swinging on brier and weed / Near to the nest of his little dame, / Over the mountain side or mead, / Robert of Lincoln is telling his name: / Bob-o'-link, bob-o'-link, / Spink, spank, spink; / Snug and safe in that nest of ours, / Hidden among the summer flowers. / Chee, chee, chee!"
The mixed news, as Allan Strong attested, is that the bobolink population in Vermont will never be what it was in the 1960s. "We simply don't have the acreage of farmland that we did 50 years ago. The hope is that we can make the present population sustainable. The results from our research with the new EQIP program are a testament to how resilient bobolinks can be in the face of intensive agriculture management. So if we can somehow ensure that bobolinks nesting in Vermont are replacing themselves, then we'll be doing okay."
But Strong isn't making any promises. "Farmers may find that they can live with the amount and quality of hay being harvested with a delayed second cut," he said, "but the question is whether they will stay with or adopt that practice without the incentive payment." And he added, "If we continue to lose farms to development and forest, we will be looking at even smaller bobolink populations. There's very little incentive to keep those lands in grass.
"The day may come," Strong continued, "when some of our best bobolink production will be in places where there are single-family homes on 10 to 20 acres of former grassland or pasture. Assuming that kind of habitat appeals to the landowners."
Of course, "Robert of Lincoln" will keep coming back to Vermont wherever hayfields beckon, piping, as Bryant penned long ago, "that merry old strain." The question, now and in the future, is whether he and his little dame will find a safe place to raise their children.