Protecting a Rare Grassland Bird in Greenfield

July 8, 2022

The Grasshopper Sparrow in Ray Cilley's hayfield on May 30. (photo © Nora Hanke)

The Grasshopper Sparrow in Ray Cilley's hayfield on May 30. (photo © Nora Hanke)

We don’t have much in the way of grasslands in the Monadnock Region, so we don’t have much in the way of birds who specialize in grasslands. Even common grassland birds can be hard to find in our area, much less state-threatened species like the Grasshopper Sparrow, whose summer range is centered on the Great Plains, from Texas north through the Dakotas and into southern Canada. There are only about eight known Grasshopper Sparrow breeding locations in the Granite State, mostly airports, landfills, and a few other sites in major river valleys and along the coastal plain.

Therefore, it was quite a surprise when Harris Center volunteer Nora Hanke reported one singing in a Greenfield hayfield on May 30! She also said that she had observed at least three Grasshopper Sparrows at the same site last year. After Nora’s report, the Harris Center reached out to Pam Hunt at New Hampshire Audubon, who coordinates the recovery plan for this species with New Hampshire Fish and Game. Pam suggested identifying the area that the birds were using and then asking the landowner to set aside those few acres from haying. If that was not possible, a late May cut with the second cut delayed until mid-July — to allow the ground-nesting birds enough time to raise their young — was a workable alternative.

As luck would have it, the landowner, Ray Cilley, is a longtime friend of the Harris Center who has volunteered his time and expertise on several projects — from flying staff in his airplane in order to photograph conserved land from above to providing heavy equipment used in the installation of a historic steel truss bridge on the Jaquith Rail Trail.

Eric Masterson reached out to Ray to alert him to the Grasshopper Sparrow’s presence, and Ray generously agreed to set aside the section of field that hosted the bird until July, while we monitored its progress. This year’s bird was last reported on June 2, but Grasshopper Sparrows can be notoriously difficult to track during the breeding season, and an absence of evidence does not necessarily mean an absence of birds. In any event, the delayed mowing also benefitted the other grassland specialists using the field, including Savannah Sparrows and Bobolinks. We will continue to monitor this site for Grasshopper Sparrows and other grassland species in the coming months and years.

Many thanks to Nora Hanke for finding the bird, and to Ray Cilley for generously working with the Harris Center to protect it!