In a first-time partnership effort, Paine Dairy Farm in Madison collaborated with the Somerset County Soil and Water Conservation District this summer to conserve approximately 30 acres of active hayland as grassland bird habitat. Paine farm is run by Dean Paine, his wife, Juanita, and two sons Josh and Jacolby. Dean worked alongside his farther, Gerald Paine, for many years before taking over the operation. The farm was started by the widowed and gutsy Elsie Dunlap Stoutamyer as a homestead and sheep/lamb operation in 1920. Elsie’s granddaughter, Virginia, and her new husband Gerald took over the farm in 1955, running it predominantly as a chicken broiler operation. It was converted to a dairy farm in 1984. Today the Paine farm encompasses over 200 acres, milks 100 cows and is steward for an additional 300 acres of land in the surrounding community.
In return for an incentive payment to help offset loss in forage quality, Dean consented to delay mowing on a particularly productive parcel of active bobolink habitat at the end of June. This was a significant conservation effort, and resulted in the fledging of at least 30 bobolink youngsters. Bobolink family groups were up and about by the weekend of July 9th, gliding over the grassland, hunting for insects and making their joyous calls. In addition to hosting bobolinks, the field was likely nesting grounds for savannah and other sparrows. Incentive funds were provided by the Davis Conservation Foundation for the Somerset County District’s Agricultural Allies program, an outreach and education project intended to encourage safe nesting habitat for grassland birds.
Bobolinks are a historic sight and sound each spring in the fields and meadows of Maine. In addition to being a delight to see and hear, bobolinks and other grassland birds are true agricultural allies to central Maine farmers as these birds consume large quantities of both insect pests and weed seeds each growing season. Unfortunately, the population of these beneficial birds has been in a steady and precipitous decline since the 1960s, according to the State of the Birds 2014 (www.stateofthebirds.org) report. The bobolink appears on their Watchlist of bird species most in need of conservation action. Here in Maine, the reason there is habitat for these birds at all is because of our agricultural landscape. Unfortunately, however, most hayfields are cut at least once during the nesting timeframe (end of May – mid July), which results in total nestling mortality, a pattern that plays out across the northeast.
Paine’s delay in mowing was the key to survival for this large group of bobolink nestlings. The willingness of the Paine family to work with the District on this issue was a tangible and significant benefit for the grassland birds of central Maine.
It is not only farmers who can help grassland birds, however. “Everyone can have a hand in helping these birds”, says Laura Suomi-Lecker, Technical Director for Somerset County SWCD. “If we as the general public could leave grass areas un-mowed until August 1st, including letting some lawn area ‘go natural’, we could help create non-competitive grasslands for birds, pollinators and other wildlife.” Reducing manicured lawn in favor of meadow creation not only benefits wildlife, but it saves time, fuel and money for landowners, making it a true win-win situation.
We encourage people to contact the Somerset County SWCD (at 474-8324 x 3; www.somersetswcd.org ) to find out other ways that they can get involved with this critical conservation effort.