I can’t help it, every time I hear the term “Shrubland Birds”, I think of the quote from Monty Python’s The Holy Grail – “First you must find… another shrubbery!” Jokes aside, shrubland really is important. It’s essential habitat for hundreds of species in Vermont including a Species of Greatest Conservation Need (SGCN), the Golden-winged Warbler.
Shrubland Habitat in the Champlain Valley
Shrubland is early successional forest, which consists of thickets of shrubs and woody cover, interspersed with grassy and herbaceous openings. A mixture of short and tall shrubs, with scattered trees and herbaceous openings is ideal. This habitat can often be found on old fields or lightly grazed pastures on farms in the Champlain Valley. Right down the road from our new Shelburne property is Geprags Park, which is currently being managed to promote early successional shrubland habitat. The town of Hinesburg, in partnership with Audubon VT and UVM, have put together a great birding trail which I look forward to walking this spring.
Shrubland birds other than the Golden-winged warbler are also in danger – specifically the American Woodcock, the black-billed cuckoo, whip-poor-will, the chestnut-sided warbler, mourning warbler, common yellowthroat, Canada warbler, Eastern towhee, and indigo bunting (Hunter et al. 2001). Populations of American Woodcock have declined about 2% a year for the past thirty-eight years (Kelley and Rau 2006). In Vermont, the American woodcock was placed in the highest priority conservation status. Hopefully conservation of shrublands will help rebuild the population of American Woodcocks so more of us can witness their air dance, or mating ritual in April – I’ve heard it’s quite a show.
But it’s not just birds that need shrubland – there are over 200 vertebrate species that rely on it including the Eastern cottontail, and the bobcat (in search of rabbits as prey), and bear in search of plants and berries. There are also rare snake species that use shrublands for cover such as the Eastern racer, rat snake, and green snake. Pollinators use shrublands for food, breeding and resting stops along their migration routes.
So why are all these species in trouble? Shrubland isn’t very popular. It often gets labelled as “wild overgrowth” and is symbolic of farms in decline, (as in, “oh they’ve really let that one go”.) But where one person might see neglect, another person might see a home, and with the knowing comes caring.
The Wildlife Habitat Incentive Program (WHIP) is a voluntary program for conservation-minded landowners who want to develop and improve wildlife habitat on their private agricultural and forest land. The federal program is funded through the Farm Bill by NRCS, which is part of the USDA. The VT NRCS wrote a WHIP Plan in 2007 which outlines conservation goals and strategies for enhancing Aquatic and Riparian habitats, Wetland habitats, Grassland and Old Fields, and Forest Habitats.
Specifically WHIP has incentives for protecting shrubland birds, and Agencies are joined in these efforts by many other Regional and State groups including the Golden-winged Warbler Working Group, VT Audubon (Champlain Valley Bird Initiative), and the VT Land Trust.
If you want to learn more about how to manage your shrublands as habitat, funding is available for southwestern Chittenden County, western Addison County and northwestern Rutland County. The annual deadline is at the end of January, so you have plenty of time to do a bit of research to see if the program is right for you, and then apply. Contact Heather at the Colchester, VT USDA Service Center for more information.
Phone: 802-951-6796 ext. 223