A lot can happen over 20 summers in hayfields in Shelburne, Vermont. Between 2002-2021, we banded 9,760 individual Bobolinks and Savannah Sparrows, found and monitored 3440 of their nests, and tracked dozens of them to and from their distant breeding grounds. We deployed five types of cutting edge miniaturized tracking devices (not all of which worked!), analyzed DNA with diverse molecular techniques (ditto!), built massive statistical models, and traveled to far away places (Galapagos!) to collect more data. But our core has always been centered around quiet time in the field with the birds. Watching them. Listening to them. Cursing them for making their nests so hard to find. Trying to unravel their behavior, especially as they respond to things out of their control–farming, predators, weather. Ending each day in awe of their tenacity.
I use “we” because every achievement in this project has been a team effort. VW bus driving, hippie dancing, nest-finding extraordinaire Tom Lawrence has been a fixture in the field with us for 19 years. We trained ~140 undergraduate and 3 graduate students. Some of these folks are now professional ornithologists, but many are teachers, artists, business owners, graduate students, technicians and more. We worked with hundreds of landowners and farmers who steward many thousands of acres of grassland habitat. We collaborated with federal and state agencies, businesses and non-profit organizations (here and here) to create policies, management plans and educational resources.
The magical Shelburne Farms and Southern Acres has been the heart and soul of this work where Sam Dixon, Dairy Farm Manager, has been unwavering in his dedication to finding win win management solutions for both the dairy and the birds. Our collaboration has resulted in a massive increase in the number of Bobolinks and Savannah Sparrows that fledge from these fields each year. We have learned so much. With many collaborators, we published 35 peer-reviewed papers on Bobolink and Savannah Sparrow ecology and evolution, writing about management, dispersal, survival, divorce, parasites, migration, sex ratios and more to come soon. We shared our results through dozens of public talks, press coverage and conference presentations. Zero Gravity Craft Brewing even brews the Bobolink Saison to celebrate this 30 g bird’s mind blowing migration to Argentina and to help fund our tracking work. In case you are wondering, 30 g is about the same weight as two strawberries. We could never have imagined such a wealth of learning and collaboration when the project started in April 2002. So cheers to the front 20 and can’t wait to see what we learn in the back 20.