Bird life in McLean Game Refuge closely tied to stage of forest growth

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Photo by Holly Johnson

John Weeks lectures on birds in McLean Game Refuge.

Granby resident John Weeks’ recent lecture at Granby Public Library told the tale of the ever-evolving state of avian affairs in the McLean Game Refuge. In any given forest, the stage of its development is a critical factor in what bird life can be found there. Although the 4,400 acres of the refuge contain many micro-habitats, the overall status of the forest is that of a mature one, with many large trees and less understory. The birds that are found there now comprise 126 species, down from 194 in 1979, when the younger forest allowed for a greater variety of species.

Weeks described bird activity as it changes with the seasons. The great horned owl mates and nests in winter; the fledglings are just now moving out. If you walk through the woods in April, you might see or hear ruby crown kinglets, ovenbirds, black and white warblers, yellow belly sapsuckers, downy and hairy woodpeckers, Baltimore orioles, flycatchers and wood thrush. There are also sandpipers migrating through, although most migrants appear in mid-May when the migrating flocks raise the noise level considerably.

Midsummer brings quiet to the forest, as most species are busy gathering food and feeding their young, and with the coming of August, the migration reverses. All the songbirds are gone by the end of September. The waterfowl follow by the end of October.

The northern harrier (marsh hawk) stays through winter, hunting small mammals while flying, using its sight and hearing the way owls do. Other birds found here in the winter include golden crown kinglets, dark-eyed juncos and tree sparrows. Surprisingly, McLean birders have seen the common redpoll, a bird that lives mostly in the Arctic.

According to Weeks, birds are always looking for new places to nest. Many times they find them accidentally, as when they overshoot their usual destination. There are several examples of this occurring in our area, one being the arrival of the Mississippi kite in 2008. Prior to 1970, we did not have year-round cardinals, tufted titmice, mockingbirds or Carolina wrens; they are all common now. Even more recent arrivals are the turkey vulture and black vulture, not seen over a decade ago.

Range expansions can be driven by climate change. Our warmer winters have made many of the southern songbirds welcome. Some are driven by geographical changes such as the construction of interstate highways, whose telephone poles and wires gave the red-tailed hawks perfect perching places for hunting. Some are driven by the action of humans, such as the popularity of installing nesting boxes increasing the occurrence of bluebirds.

As the McLean forest becomes one of old growth, many of the dominant trees begin to die off, correlating with a varying and sparse bird habitat. The yellow belly sapsucker has increased its nesting, but the ruffed grouse and eastern meadowlark, which were once common, are now rare. These species require a young forest with a great variety of plant life and plenty of vacant space.

Other animals, however, appreciate the fallen trees in an old growth forest. They use them as bridges over otherwise difficult landscape such as water and bogs. The logs also provide nurseries for small plants and the germination of tree seeds, as the cavities hold water.

Old growth forests take a long time to become young again. Natural disasters such as tornadoes and wildfires can quicken the process as almost immediately after the devastation, shrubs and saplings begin to grow. Silviculture, the practice of controlling the growth, composition, health and quality of a forest to meet various needs, is a priority for the McLean Board of Directors and Refuge Director Connor Hogan.

The McLean Board of Directors is contemplating some clear cutting in the forest, deep in areas where there are no trails. It is definitely in keeping with George McLean’s request that the refuge be maintained for the greatest number of wildlife. Since only two percent of all New England forests are in the young stage, this method would be of great help.

People sometimes react to this unfavorably, but it is the best way to rejuvenate a forest. For example, even brush piles left after silviculture practices are employed will greatly facilitate plant and animal diversity. A recent clear cut in a Granville forest has already led to new bird life: whippoorwills, prairie warblers and the eastern towhee are now seen. A few years ago, a small clear cut was performed in McLean, but it was too small to be beneficial. New species of birds were counted initially, but within five years, regrowth was complete.

Weeks led a guided bird walk at Holcomb Farm on May 17, as well as other bird walks on Granby Land Trust property this past month. He returns to Granby Public Library on Wednesday, Sept. 11, for a Hawk Talk, to be followed by a Hawk Watch in Granville on Saturday, Sept. 14. McLean’s Refuge Director Connor Hogan will also be speaking at Granby Public Library; look for the 2019 Fall Program Guide or visit