Global populations of grassland birds find it increasingly difficult to locate suitable habitat for foraging, nesting and resting. This global trend has local impacts. Grassland bird species like the eastern meadowlark and bobolink are declining in number and are now considered ‘species at risk’ by the Province of Ontario.
An abandoned field at Upper Credit Conservation Area, now overgrown with non-native and invasive plants, is the site of a novel environmental restoration initiative that ecologists at Credit Valley Conservation (CVC) see as a small step in part of a larger plan to turn the tide for declining grassland bird populations. Beginning in mid-September, CVC will start the long process of converting the field to naturalized tallgrass prairie habitat, with a thriving community of native plants and grasses to improve habitat for at-risk grassland birds. The initiative is partially funded by the Ministry of Natural Resources and the Species at Risk Stewardship Fund.
Meadow and tallgrass prairie habitat once dotted the landscape across parts of headwaters region (Dufferin, Orangeville, Caledon, Erin and Halton Hills) but were lost due to urban and agricultural development, and reforestation. At present, there is not enough protected contiguous grassland and meadow habitat in the region to sustain a thriving grassland bird population. The naturalization at Upper Credit Conservation Area is a pilot project that will look at the long-term viability of this type of restoration in other areas.
“This is a first for us,” said Mike Puddister, Director of Restoration and Stewardship for CVC. “Typically, our restoration efforts have focused on reforestation, aquatic restoration and landowner environmental stewardship. We’re now examining how prairie and meadow fit into the mix of diverse habitats within the Credit River watershed.”
The first step in the field’s transformation involves preparing it for agricultural production for the 2014 season. “This may seem counter-intuitive to some since this is a naturalization project, but it’s actually the most effective way to prepare the site and underlying soil for planting native grasses and other plants the following year,” said Mark Eastman, CVC’s Agricultural Program Coordinator.
CVC plans to till the field to remove invasive and non-native and then plant the field with soybeans. The soybean crop will keep non-native plants at bay and add nutrients to the soil to help native grasses and wildflowers thrive in 2015.
Historically the field in question was used for agricultural production of hay and wheat, and even as cow pasture at one time. CVC purchased part of the field in 2005 and the remaining portion in 2008. The land was allowed to revert back to nature, but quickly filled with non-native and invasive plants.
“The area is home to some native wildlife, but it doesn’t have the same potential as the native prairies that were once in the region,” said Puddister. “Birds like the bobolink have adapted to life in specific habitats like tallgrass prairie and meadow.”
CVC’s push to protect dwindling grassland bird populations also involves promoting sustainable agricultural practices with minimal impacts. Hay production in Southern Ontario has benefitted grassland birds by inadvertently creating habitat for them. This offsets the negative impacts of habitat loss to a limited extent.
“The agricultural community has an important role to play in protecting these birds,” said Eastman. “Farmers that make small changes in the way hay is harvested can have large positive impacts. Grassland birds are known to thrive in agricultural areas, provided bird-friendly agricultural practices are used.”
CVC advises that hay be harvested from the centre of the field outward, in an expanding spiral pattern. This allows birds to hear when tractors are inching closer and gives them time to flee. Harvesting after July 15 does not interfere with bird breeding and nesting.
Bobolink. Photo by: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Eastern meadowlark. Photo by: HarmonyonPlanetEarth via Flickr Creative Commons.
Conservation Authorities are a provincial/municipal partnership. CVC was established by an act of the province in 1954 with a mandate to protect all natural resources other than minerals in the area drained by the Credit River. We have been working for almost 60 years with our partner municipalities and stakeholders to protect and enhance the natural environment of the Credit River watershed for present and future generations. CVC is a member of Conservation Ontario.
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