LIMA — The trip out to Williams Reservoir started out normal for Jamie Cunningham and Dan Hodges. But when the two were gearing up for a sunny afternoon out-of-doors, they were interrupted by a strange metallic almost robotic noises similar to those made by R2-D2.
For the veteran birdwatchers, it could mean only one thing — a rare bobolink.
“When I came around there was a male there singing and doing territorial displays,” Cunningham said.
The rare blackbird has only been officially identified in Allen County five other times, she said. Further observation of a nearby field by the two resulted in the sighting of eight different bird species — some rare, some not — living in the tall thick grass nearby.
That’s when they noticed the lawnmowers.
The bird problem
Due to human encroachment on natural habitats, birds are disappearing in the United States, and the bobolink is one of them. In the last 50 years, it is estimated that the number of bobolinks has been reduced in Ohio by 90% in just the last five decades, according to a breeding bird survey conducted by United States Geological Survey.
The reason is in part due to continued human encroachment of natural habitats. For Allen County and surrounding regions, increased agricultural use has turned the majority of natural grasslands into crop-producing fields. In Allen County alone, it is estimated that less than 10% of land remains as the forests, wet woods, wetlands and grasslands that once comprised the area.
But while yields increase, that means there’s even less room for natural species, which has resulted in massive declines in natural bird populations. In a study published last October in academic magazine Science, experts estimate the total bird population across the western hemisphere has decreased by 25% since 1966. For birds that nest in grasslands, that number is even higher, with over 700 million breeding individuals lost since 1970.
Before lawnmowers could exacerbate the problem at Williams Reservoir, however, Cunningham called the City of Lima to see if they could hold off mowing the field where the birds were flourishing. It was a quick discussion.
“We’re going to do our part,” Utilities Director Mike Caprella said. “There’s a field there adjacent to the parking lot, we’re going to let it grow.”
The small patch of land, roughly 10 acres, will be allowed to grow up until early or mid-July in order to give time to grassland bird species like the bobolink to hatch and raise their chicks. Once the hatching season is over, the city will tidy it up once again, Caprella said.
“This project is great for preserving one of the most heavily impacted habitats,” Tri-Moraine Audubon Society Vice-President Jackie Augustine said. “It’s a great place for grassland birds and unique species that have very interesting behaviors.”
While saving the birds is one advantage of holding on mowing, Cunningham said the project has a few ancillary benefits. The first is ecological. Allowing natural areas to grow encourages the restoration of natural systems and brings back wildlife, such as bees necessary for pollination. Natural wetlands are also exceptional at filtering out waste runoff from farm fields.
Other benefits are economical. More birds can bring more birdwatchers to the area, which can increase economic activity for the region. The city may also save some dollars from not having to the run their equipment.
Cunningham said the local Audubon chapter will be posting signs at the project for anyone looking to bird watch at the location. Those unfamiliar with the bobolink should be on the lookout for white and black plumed birds with yellow spots on the napes of their necks. If a watcher hears something reminiscent of R2-D2, or a dial-up Internet tone, they’re in the right place.
“To have the habitat available is crucial to their survival,” Cunningham said. “To grow some of those populations back, they need a place to do it at. Waiting one month to mow is a life and death situation for them.”
Reach Josh Ellerbrock at 567-242-0398.