Massachusetts Landowners Host Habitat Walk

Athol Daily News Sportsman’s Corner by Roche

Nearly 50 people participated in a tour of land in North Orange that has recently undergone habitat work to enhance the habitat for a variety of wildlife species. The tour, hosted by landowners Fred Heyes and Heather Stone, is an example of habitat enhancement work funded, in this case, by the Division of Fisheries and Wildlife (MassWildlife) and the Natural Resources Conservation Service. Grants are awarded on a competitive basis to projects to improve targeted wildlife habitats and to eliminate invasive plants.

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Brittany spaniel points an American woodcock hidden in groundcover./T. Flanigan

The property has a very special connection to this writer as it was once part of my best woodcock cover. In the late 1980s, the area featured early succession growth and a considerable growth of young alders. Flights of American woodcock would find the cover and my hunting dog of that time, Jude, a Brittany owned by my parents, got plenty of work. Unfortunately, as years passed, the plant cover aged and it was no longer attractive to woodcock. Some other changes, particularly beaver dams converting a flowing brook into a series of ponds, also changed the area. Although I have returned to the cover on occasion, the woodcock no longer rest there as they migrate south. It will be interesting to see if they find the new habitat worth a stop in the future.

Representing MassWildlife and providing detailed information on the habitat work at the site, and also that being done across the state, was MassWildlife Habitat Leader John Scanlon. John is an extremely dedicated and knowledgeable conservation leader, and he clearly explained how the creation of forest openings is needed by many wildlife species.

Forestry work takes the place of the natural process of altering forest by fire, flood, hurricane and other natural phenomena that created openings in the forest needed by so many birds, animals, insects and plant communities. He noted that there are many who view the immediate aftermath of forestry work as unattractive, but he sees it as beauty because the wildlife species that he, and so many of us, enjoy need the openings to exist.

One of the beneficiaries is the eastern whip-poor-will that so many people remember but no longer hear. It was noted that the work on this property, done from January to April of this year, resulted in neighbors hearing whip-poor-wills this spring. A real testament to the wildlife benefits of cutting done as part of a wildlife management plan.

You could do similar work on your land. MassWildlife is encouraging private or municipal landowners, land trusts, and conservation organizations to consider creating young forest habitat to benefit wildlife. To advance this conservation effort, MassWildlife’s habitat management staff is available to provide technical advice and guidance on financial assistance to qualified landowners.

Young forest habitats, areas of densely clustered tree saplings and sprouts, have become relatively scarce in Massachusetts over the past 50 years and now occupy less than 4 percent of the forested landscape. MassWildlife’s habitat goals call for 10 to 15 percent young forest to conserve wildlife that rely on this unique habitat, including the New England cottontail, American woodcock, ruffed grouse, and golden-winged warbler. Thse species have experienced population declines and need young forests for nesting, foraging for food and evading predators. These same habitats are also used by many songbirds, and by game species such as white-tailed deer, wild turkey, and black bear.

There are several ways to create young forest habitat. Active habitat management activities such as cutting, burning, or mowing are standard techniques. Selecting the most appropriate methods for a property can be daunting. To assist landowners, MassWildlife’s habitat biologists can offer technical advice and direct qualified landowners to funding that best aligns land and wildlife goals for a property.

MassWildlife partners with the USDA’s Natural Resource Conservation Service, or NRCS, which offers cost-sharing opportunities for habitat creation. To learn more about eligibility and the application process for these funding programs, contact Marianne Piché (508-389-6313, marianne.piche@state.ma.us) or Patrick Conlin (508-389-6388, patrick.conlin@state.ma.us). I suspect that many of the nearly 50 landowners in attendance Thursday will be looking into the process.