Rare Species Of Birds Found At Airport

Birds of a more natural flock have been spotted taking off and landing near the Jamestown airport.

Local birdwatchers have recently made an exciting discovery when two separate species of endangered birds – the Henslow’s sparrow and grasshopper sparrow – were observed off of Girts Road near the Jamestown airport.

According to Dr. Twan Leenders, Roger Tory Peterson Institute president, these two species of sparrow have been declining in population over the past century because of circumstances involving their preferred habitat, mostly low-intensity farm fields and pastures. As agricultural policies and commercial development have become more aggressive, the sparrows’ habitat has diminished.

“They are a grassland bird,” Leenders said. “And most grassland birds across the range have hugely declined in their population numbers over the past century, for many reasons. Old farm fields that were farmed at a very low intensity 100 years ago are now subject to more intense farming practices, which have not been conducive to the wildlife living there, especially the birds that live in hayfields. So many farmers need to get three to four cuts out of their hay fields throughout a season, and at some point during a breeding season, the entire habitat will be removed. Depending on what time farmers make a cut, they might even harvest with them these grassland birds that are trying to raise young.”

According to Leenders, these grassland birds still attempt to nest in places like high-intensity farms, however their success rates are very low. The Jamestown airport is a completely different story.

“Airport maintenance is very different from a farm, and the airport has different priorities,” Leenders said. “The airport needs to make sure that airplanes can land and take off safely, but as you get further away from the runway, priorities change. You can’t have big trees blocking views, but mowing patterns become very scarce around the border of the airport, which has affected these birds positively.”

Although the Jamestown airport is fenced off, airport property extends past the fences. It’s in this area, around Turner and Girts roads, that the Henslow’s sparrow, and to a lesser extent, the grasshopper sparrow, have been observed.

“The birds are there because of the way the mowing has taken place,” Leenders said. “But they’re also protected, simply because it’s a low-traffic area. Occasionally a car passes or someone is running their dog there, but for the most part, the land stays vacant.”

Because the Henslow’s sparrow is a protected animal, the Department of Environmental Conservation has stepped in, and both RTPI and the DEC look forward to working with the Jamestown airport to find ways to continue producing a habitat that allows these two species of sparrow to prosper.

“We have evidence that breeding has taken place around the Jamestown airport,” Leenders said. “We’ve seen a fledgling from a previous brood out there, so we know they’re successfully breeding.”

Both the Henslow’s sparrow and the grasshopper sparrow are migratory birds, so the DEC and RTPI plan to continue to monitor their progress near the airport until it is time for the birds to fly south. Leenders and RTPI hope to learn more about the airport habitat, such as what specific vegetation makes the airport ideal for these sparrows, with the hope that such a habitat could be replicated around Chautauqua County in time for the sparrows’ return next spring.

“Unfortunately, a lot of these birds’ winter habitat has been paved over during the past few decades,” Leenders said. “There’s a lot of developed area in Florida that used to be grassland. Now their habitat has become very sparse, and that includes up here in New York, as well. They are mostly gone from all of New York state – there’s only a few pockets of them left.”

Leenders said he is very appreciative of the Jamestown airport and its staff, as it has already placed an emphasis on helping the DEC and RTPI preserve the sparrows’ habitat.

“They’ve been incredibly helpful and understanding of the situation,” Leenders said. “The airport has other priorities that are very important, but it has made a point to do what it can to help us with studying and maintaining this habitat. The whole airport area is a fantastic bird place, especially when it comes to grassland birds. Not only do we have the extremely rare Henslow’s sparrow, but also the grasshopper sparrow – there are huge numbers of meadowlarks and Savannah sparrows – if you’ve never really seen a functioning grassland, it’s a great place to just take a walk in and appreciate. Unfortunately these birds should be all over Chautauqua and Cattaraugus counties, but for the time being, they’re all right here.”

While there is not a specific number which designated a population threshold, an endangered species is one whose numbers are so small that it is at risk of extinction.