Early last summer, Roy and Nancy Thornton were walking near an unmowed, grassy portion of the capped Niskayuna landfill when they were treated to the sight of several male bobolinks putting on a courtship display.
A few days later, the tall grass had been mowed down and the bobolinks were nowhere to be found.
The black, white and yellow birds nest on the ground and prefer unmowed, tall grasslands.
According to the Audubon Society of the Capital Region, the little birds spend winters in Argentina, Bolivia and Paraguay and fly more than 5,000 miles to nest from May to August. Some of them nest in Niskayuna.
“They’re very visible. They tend to perch on briars and other vegetation in these grasslands, and in breeding season they have a delightful dithery song that they sing,” Roy Thornton said.
According to the state Department of Environmental Conservation, habitat loss and degradation have resulted in sharp declines in the number of bobolinks and other grassland birds in the state since 1966.
Roy Thornton decided he wanted to do something to reverse that trend.
In December, the Niskayuna resident, who said he has always had a moderate interest in bird-watching, put together a PowerPoint presentation and brought a proposal to Niskayuna’s Parks and Community Programs Committee. His vision: to suspend mowing on the Niskayuna landfill caps between June 1 and Aug. 5, which would give the bobolinks time to successfully nest and fledge.
Niskayuna town Supervisor Joe Landry said town officials were unaware of the severity of the plight of the grassland birds until Thornton brought it to their attention.
In response, the town has agreed to hold a pilot program starting this spring in conjunction with the Audubon Society of the Capital Region. A grassland bird habitat will be created on an eight-acre parcel in Blatnick Park on River Road where the grass has been kept mowed in the past. This year, it won’t be cut until autumn, Landry said.
The Audubon Society has designed signs to alert the public about the new nesting site. They include pictures of male and female bobolinks and an example of what a bobolink nest looks like. The signs will also be imprinted with a QR code that, when scanned with a cellphone, will direct parkgoers to an Audubon Web page describing bobolinks and the project.
Landry said the town will produce and install the signs within about a month.
More permanent educational signage is being discussed, said John Loz, president of the Audubon Society of the Capital Region, in an email.
Children who attend summer camp at Blatnick Park will have the benefit of an Audubon program that will teach them about the new habitat, Landry said.
The Audubon Society has also volunteered to perform bird counts to gauge whether the project is successful, he added.
The parcel of land set aside for the grassland birds isn’t the one that initially spurred Roy Thornton’s habitat preservation initiative, but he hopes the town will eventually decide to expand the program to include the capped landfill.
“This is a pilot program, so we’re going to start [at Blatnick Park] and see how it goes,” Landry said.
Honey bees project
Roy Thornton also approached the town of Clifton Park to see if they would let a grassy area grow out for the summer. His request coincided with a project already in the works. According to town Supervisor Philip Barrett, a local Girl Scout troop will plant wildflowers on Clifton Park’s capped landfill in April to create a habitat for honey bees. The area, which Barrett estimated would total an acre or two, will be left undisturbed all summer long, so it could potentially be a site where grassland birds will choose to nest.
Barrett said Clifton Park is consistently reviewing and looking for additional opportunities to maintain and encourage wildlife habitats. The town has permanently preserved 1,200 acres of open space in the past 12 years, he noted.
Those who visit Niskayuna’s new bobolink habitat will be encouraged to observe the birds from a distance, keep dogs leashed and avoid walking in the protected areas.
Roy Thornton also suggested that local residents minimize the use of pesticides in their yards and support the local Audubon Society.
“Everybody thinks of putting up a bird feeder and watching the birds, but there is more that can be done,” he said.