Grasshopper sparrows return to Katama plains

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A small population of the grasshopper sparrow, a threatened species that historically nested on the Katama Plains, has reappeared on the Island at The FARM Institute.

Grasshopper sparrows have returned to the Katama grasslands and pastures surrounding the FARM Institute, according to a press release from The Trustees of Reservations. The sparrows are a threatened species which had historically nested on the Katama plains and across the Island, but have not been recorded in the area since 2005, according to the release.

An ecological assessment conducted in late June by Trustees ecology staff to evaluate the farm’s habitat and natural resources led to the discovery of the species’ presence.

As sandplain grasslands began to be invaded by woody species of plants and trees, the sparrows vacated the area as it grew less suitable for nesting.

Trustees ecology assistant Caitlin Borck wrote in an email to The Times that seeing the birds is a good sign. “The fact that a small population used the FARM Institute’s pastures this summer indicates the birds liked the habitat, suggesting the pastures can be managed with grazing to encourage productive habitat for rare birds,” Borck wrote. “Without grazing, the habitat would not exist at the farm.”

According to Borck, sandplain grasslands are managed by disturbances such as fires, grazing, and mowing. If it weren’t for the environmental stewardship of the Trustees, Borck wrote, the birds (along with many other rare grassland flora and fauna) might not be able to survive in the area.

There are many ways people can be responsible environmental stewards of this unique ecosystem. Borck wrote. “Keep dogs on a leash, especially during the breeding season, and stay on marked paths,” she said. “Additionally, they can help prevent the spread of invasives by managing them on their own properties and being aware of the possible spread down disturbed dirt roads. It often takes many resources to maintain these habitats.

Borck said as long as the amount of grazing stays consistent and both invasive and woody species are controlled, the Trustees are hopeful the birds will return again next year.

Some other species unique to sandplain grasslands include sandplain gerardia, Nantucket shadbush, New England blazing star, sandplain blue-eyed grass, and short-eared owls, in addition to various rare moth species, Borck said.