View from Sandy Mush: Conservation Notes “Birds Spring Make”

If the arrival of Spring on our Sandy Mush farm is quietly marked by the flowering of red maples, it is loudly announced by birdsong and the flashy courtship of colorful Eastern Bluebirds.  One need not be an ornithologist or expert birder to be fascinated by birds, and should not be overwhelmed by the voluminous, often highly technical, academic writing on this subject.  As an individual or family hobby, birding is about the simple enjoyment and satisfaction of discovering the avian world around us, and following the path where it leads from there.  If the limits of one’s interest turns out to be discerning a wood thrush from a towhee, that is just fine.  Buncombe County has recorded some 276 bird species, so there’s plenty of observation opportunity.  The nearby Sandy Mush Game Lands offers  fine birding, but there is likely excellent viewing at your doorstep.  For those with serious passion or desire to learn more, there are several birding groups in the area whose members have considerable expertise and who welcome newcomers.


In March, aerial dances commence as nesting preparations get under way.  The arrival of pleasant weather is a perfect time to grab binoculars and identification guide for an outdoor walkabout, or find your own comfy resting spot and see what happens by.  Bird watching is low cost, healthy. educational activity most anyone can enjoy at their pace.  It may even turn out to be an interest which lasts a lifetime.  Along the way, there may be surprising, almost insidious, little twists.  When one starts to mentally note the return to Sandy Mush of Tree Swallows from their south of the border wintering grounds, anticipate the group of Evening Grosbeaks that always seem to pass through in early May, be convinced that last year’s Indigo Bunting is back, serenading from its same Pitch Pine perch, or saddened at the departure of the last hummer in October, then you might be hooked.


Of course, many Sandy Mush birds are year ‘round residents, while others are seasonal visitors, migrants briefly passing through, or, perhaps, rare individuals temporarily disoriented and off course.  Birds are a bit of a sundial and barometer hybrid.  They usher in dawn, close down the evening, mark seasonal passage, foreshadow weather changes and gauge the wellness of the land.   Whether tiny warblers or large birds of prey, colorful or drab, spotted riding high on Summer thermals or found flitting about blackberry thickets, adding a new species to one’s personal bird list invariably makes a good day better.


We try to manage our farm with consideration for bird life in general, and Eastern Bluebirds and Tree Swallows, in particular.  Bluebirds are cavity nesters and, due to habitat changes, there can be a shortage of suitable nest sites for them.  It seemed a worthwhile idea and useful Winter project to make a bluebird trail beside farm roads, using a dozen numbered boxes to record activity.  In response to declining bluebird populations, trails have been popular in many U.S. localities starting in the 1950s, showing remarkable results.  In our case, the bluebird population has roughly tripled over the last decade.  Ten additional nest boxes are located along the edges of a large hayfield where we are trying to encourage Tree Swallows, another cavity nester.  Swallows and bluebirds are voracious insect eaters, prefer open exposures and have similar nesting requirements.  Because we have no clue as to how to tell which birds to use which box, leaving it up to them to sort out the real estate is apparently working.  By enticing bluebirds and swallows to stay at our place, however, we have an obligation to ensure that the nest boxes and poles are as predator-proof as possible to protect against raccoons, feral cats and black rat snakes, and that competing, invasive species like house sparrows and starlings are discouraged with prejudice.


We also have three American Kestrel boxes and have had at least one successful nesting each of the past four years.  The Kestrel population has definitely increased in recent years and many seem to stay close to where they were born throughout the year.  In our limited/amateur experience, these small falcons are far more wary than swallows or bluebirds, more difficult to attract and more satisfying when we do so.  The quest to convince a Barn Owl to take up residence has been going on almost two years.  We had never sighted a Barn Owl on our property, but optimistically tried the “build it and they will come” approach by providing a large nest box on a tall cedar tree pole.  Everything appears right – good box location overlooking big, rodent-rich fields, but no Barn Owls yet.  Both Barred and Screech Owls are regularly present.  There is still hope for kestrels by day and full complement of owls by night as a predatory double whammy for field mice.  Maybe this year.


The most interesting bird habitat improvement that we’ve undertaken is a 3,000 foot riparian boundary along Sandy Mush Creek, including fencing in a spring-fed run-off through a bog. Judging from flight activity and sounds at first light and at dusk, the bird population has increased exponentially.  A recent baseline survey on the farm, identified 65 bird species from April to August in a 2100 to 2700 foot elevation zone.  Next steps are to further diversify habitat by planting different grains and grasses – less corn and more millet and wheat, less fescue and more winter rye and native warm season grasses, less mature woodland and more uneven aged stands – then observe the difference that makes.  In this endeavor, it is our supposition that managing habitat for song birds approximates an extension of managing for game birds, an arena far more extensively studied.  To complicate matters, little doubt, individual species have individual requirements, and balancing the whole to avoid unintended consequences is a principal consideration which challenges the limits of our personal ecological understanding.  So go the fits and starts in a layman’s pursuit of conservation and responsible land stewardship.

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