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Rare Henslow’s Sparrows Recently Discovered at Chautauqua County Airport

Posted on Aug 28, 2013

Area birdwatchers recently made a discovery that has regional conservationists very excited: a small population of the endangered Henslow’s Sparrow exists at the Chautauqua County Airport near Jamestown. These small, elusive birds inhabit grasslands and prairies and, like many other grassland birds, their numbers have declined precipitously in the eastern U.S. over the past 100 years. This is happening for a variety of reasons but the transitioning of old farm fields into forest over time and the increased production of row crops and intense harvesting of hay in areas where grassland birds historically nested are important factors. In addition, explosive real estate development over the past 30 years has negatively affected their wintering grounds in the southern states. Only a few isolated populations of Henslow’s Sparrow now remain in New York.


When local experts Twan Leenders and Jim Berry (the current and former president of the Roger Tory Peterson Institute of Natural History, respectively) surveyed the area last week, they not only found Henslow’s Sparrows in three different sections of the airport but also confirmed that these birds were successfully rearing young in at least one of those sections. In addition, a second rare bird species, the Grasshopper Sparrow, was found.


Grasshopper Sparrow, a species of Special Concern in New York, is known to occasionally breed on the airport property in small numbers, but the presence of Henslow’s Sparrows is of great significance. Jamestown Audubon President Ruth Lundin remarked, “Just in the 20 years between the 1980 and the 2000 New York Breeding Bird Atlas, the number of locations reporting Henslow’s Sparrow in Chautauqua County has gone from 30 to only two, so it is extremely important to preserve the habitat where breeding birds are found.” In fact, New York State Department of Environmental Conservation senior wildlife biologist Connie Adams, who visited the airport recently, mentioned that this is now the only active nest site for Henslow’s Sparrow in western New York. The nearest populations in the state are found near Fort Drum in the eastern Lake Ontario Plain.

Henslow’s Sparrows and Grasshopper Sparrows are usually found in fallow fields that include tall, dense grass and some broad-leafed vegetation, including weedy hayfields, pastures without shrubs and wet meadows. Airports often provide good habitat for these birds and for other grassland species such as Savannah Sparrow, Bobolink, Eastern Meadowlark and American Kestrel. The specific maintenance activities that keep runway areas clear for take-off and landing result in a dense, low-growing ground cover free of trees and shrubs. However, mowing on airfields generally does not happen as frequently as it would, for example, in hayfields which allows nesting birds critical extra time to raise their young.


Dr. Leenders is coordinating a monitoring program for these rare birds and plans to work closely with local birdwatchers, DEC and airport personnel. “The maintenance team for the airport has created ideal conditions for these rare birds,” says Leenders. “There are valuable lessons to be learned about how we could duplicate these conditions elsewhere and help better protect an endangered species. In addition, it is very important to make sure that mowing and other maintenance practices take into account the wellbeing of these animals as much as possible without compromising the safety and functionality of the airport.” So far, with help from Chautauqua County legislator Tom Erlandson and airport manager Sam Arcadipane and his staff, plans have been made to delay mowing of certain sections of the airport to allow the birds that live there to complete their nesting season. “The Roger Tory Peterson Institute is coordinating conservation efforts that will hopefully lead to consistently suitable living conditions for a variety of rare grassland species. In my experience, such initiatives often result in recommendations of less mowing in certain non-critical areas and can lead to lower maintenance costs,” says Leenders, “Saving money while helping an endangered species is a win-win for all.”


Twan Leenders
Roger Tory Peterson Institute
311 Curtis Street
Jamestown, NY 14701
716-665-2473 x225


Photos 1-5 © Twan Leenders; photo 6 © Jim Berry