Friday, November 20, 2009

Failing the birds

I never thought I would be upset about trees being planted.

I mentioned earlier that some sapling trees were being planted along a portion of my running trails. These trails are beautiful, and the reason this place hasn't been turned into a subdivision or a shopping mall is because it was purchased through a land and water conservation grant. This land is maintained by the local park district, and it never would be developed.

They were planting in a small area nestled between an existing wooded grove, and it was nicely done. However, I recently noticed an ever expanding section of the neighboring meadow being mowed down to facilitate even more planting. The area in question is a unique mix of grassy, open meadow that borders some marshland and a pond, home to many interesting birds, plants, and wildflowers. And the size of the area they cut down was enormous.

This place is home to ring-necked pheasants that enjoy the cover provided by the tall grasses. Eastern bluebirds and tree swallows nest here - they even have nesting boxes set up for them. I have found eastern kingbirds nesting here as well. Common yellowthroats skulk around in these tall grasses in the summer. All are birds that prefer these open environments.

Of special concern, this spot was a nesting ground for great numbers of sedge wrens over the summer. You might recall me raving about these encounters in earlier posts. While not an endangered bird, the sedge wren is somewhat scarce, secretive, nomadic, and not very well understood, especially in terms of their migration patterns. They nest in the grasses near marshes and swamps, and they were a joy to watch and learn about. Several nesting pairs made their home here, right in the grassy meadow that has since been cut down. This was an ideal habitat for them.

Today my Dad sent me a scanned copy of an article from the Minnesota Ornithologists' Union journal, "The Loon." This arrived in their mail today and was rather timely. In the Conservation Column by Tom Will, he speaks about the golden-winged warbler, but the second paragraph illustrated my concern. He cited that Minnesota is the breeding ground for 32% of the total population of sedge wrens. Good habitat in Minnesota is key to a healthy population of this species.

Here is a photo showing the meadow after it had been mowed. This used to be filled with tall grasses, and this particular area is where I observed the highest concentration of sedge wrens. You can't really see them, but there are bluebird and tree swallow houses towards the back of this meadow as well.

This map, with my sloppy artist's rendering, shows the approximate size of the areas that were mowed for planting. The red lines represent the areas that were mowed down. On the far left, the red circle within a circle represents a doughnut-shaped swath where the grasses on the interior are intact. The other two red areas were cut down in their entirety. The above photo was taken at the northernmost point of the center area. The left and center locations below represented the areas where I saw the most sedge wrens.

I wrote to everyone I could think of who would listen (park district, park board commissioners) to try and find out what was going on, to let them know the errors I saw them making, and to see if this could be reconsidered or stopped. Through a friend at the park district, I was finally able to get through to the Public Affairs Coordinator. The plan is indeed to plant this area over with native hardwood trees and have it become forested. She acknowledged this would change the landscape significantly, but that some open areas would remain (mainly because they were too wet to plant anything). Apparently the effect on the land was considered, but they were cool with that. It was a nice, cordial note, and I thanked her for the information. But I also respectfully disagreed in that I saw nothing that was broken and in need of fixing.

As it turns out, I can thank the resident eagles for the fact that more of the meadow wasn't plowed under. She explained that they did not want to disturb the nesting site, which I really appreciated. So the area closest to the eagles was left alone, thereby leaving some of the southern section intact. In my reply, I asked them to be mindful of the nearby vacant osprey nesting platform (which the park district mowed around to plant trees). I happen to know the eagles actually spend as much time hanging out there as they do at the nesting site. :)

I am certain that behind this project, there were nothing but good intentions (then again, the road to hell is reportedly paved with them). While it is hard to argue that planting a small forest is a bad thing, it will no doubt have a huge impact. Transforming this area from meadow to forest is a rather drastic change of habitat, so much that it risks displacing some of the species that currently thrive here.

Here is a shot illustrating the planting in progress as of Wednesday. Again, this area is right on top of the sedge wren habitat. And if you look really close, way back in the center of the photo you can see an osprey nesting platform - the little speck is the eagle sitting on it!

This was marvelous meadow/marsh habitat that has now been forever changed. Is it actually a change for the better? I suppose that is subjective and debatable. I mean, in an age where "going green" has become a commercialized buzz phrase used to sell cars and other wares, who is going to argue with people wanting to plant trees? It certainly could be much worse, and there will definitely be other species of plants and wildlife that will benefit. All I know if any sedge wrens, bluebirds, tree swallows, and the others do return, it won't be anywhere near the numbers, because a huge chunk of their nesting ground was cut down to be planted over. And that still bothers me.

Part of me feels like I have failed the birds. I couldn't even help to protect a small piece of land that was already being protected. But I still think there is a chance to learn something from this. And I am still waiting to hear from the commissioner. So maybe we can do some things differently? Time will tell. And I would like to help however I can.
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