September 19, 2011

Fairly common and widespread; possibly declining...

Nancy’ parting words on the state of the kestrel in Massachusetts is a hesitant, final whisper to an essay written with great joy. Sitting just below the graphics like an italicized, almost clairvoyant after thought is her note: “fairly common and widespread in grasslands and similar open situations; possibly declining”. 

The Breeding Bird Atlas 1 was conducted between 1974 and 1979. The state was broken into 1055 blocks and volunteer bird watchers canvassed each block noting ever observed specie and any incident of breeding behavior. As of 2011 the BBA2 is being completed, the same 1055 blocks have been re-canvassed for a minimum of 20 hours each by a growing volunteer corps of bird watchers. The collected data is being compiled by the USGS on a searchable, public website and the results are fascinating and often alarming.

Significant trends can be seen in both increase and decline of particular species and one species in particular has come forward as a signal of habitat loss. The American Kestrel and its reliance on open farm fields and pastures has been decimated by the decline of local agriculture and the invasive spread of suburban sprawl. Nancy was correct in predicting of this “possible decline” and the small, misnamed sparrow hawk stands may now be symbol of a changing landscape and quiet loss happening beneath our very nose. 

My original motivation for searching Nancy’s name on the internet was to see if any kind of foundation or land conservation had been made in Nancy’s honor. It turns out this search was not in vein.

Another of Nancy’s young tutees has become a major figure in the field of owl research and conversation. Denver Holt grew up near Belmont, “living in the woods with foxes” Nancy used to tell me with a wink. Denver also received Nancy’s kind and thoughtful tutelage and later moved out to Montana where he became an accomplished author, researcher and president of the Owl Research Institute. His work with Snowy Owls has been featured in National Geographic articles, children’s books, and numerous other publications and his research and public outreach continues to educate and protect the silent hunters of the world. The Owl Research Institute now has the Ninepipes Center for Wildlife Research and Education where the Nancy Claflin Cabin “a writer’s retreat, containing owl species accounts, reprints from science journals, and innumerable books about owls” is located. Fittingly, “the cabin sits next to a pond and commands a panoramic view of the Mission range”.

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is an educator, bird watcher, and writer fascinated by the intersections of place, people, nature, and culture. He works for Mass Audubon and lives in the heart of Massachusetts. For questions or comments please contact: alexanderjosephdunn@gmail.com

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