WESTOVER AIR RESERVE BASE, Mass. --
Thirty-six people from three area bird clubs came Saturday to watch something fly in the sky around Westover Air Reserve Base that wasn’t an airplane. The birds they were watching are rare in Massachusetts, and they weigh just eight ounces.
The Allen, Brookline, and Hampshire Bird Clubs came June 4 to see the upland sandpiper and the equally rare grasshopper sparrow. They saw both rare birds, along with 129 other birds.
The area the clubs explored was “a unique and well-managed habitat that supports the largest concentration of rare grasslands in New England,” said Brookline Bird Club Director Linda Ferraresso. “Westover has about 1,350 acres of grassland habitat,” said tour leader Jack Moriarty, Westover’s Chief of Environmental Engineering. “This is the largest grassland in New England, and we maintain the grasslands that might otherwise revert to forested areas that could penetrate our airspace,” he said.
The walking tour began east of the firing range, and headed across a large field, which was busy with bird activity. As the tour began, the group spotted a variety of birds. As if on cue, a yellow-capped bobolink appeared above the grass, making its complicated call that sounds like the robot R2D2 in Star Wars.
Voices rang out as the group spread out:
“There’s an upland sandpiper!”
“I hear an eastern meadowlark.”
“Come look through my scope.”
In all, group members spotted at least 35 species, but the stars of the day were the 19 upland sandpipers, which fly up from Argentina and southern South America in March through May. The black, brown, and white mottled upland sandpipers circled within twenty feet of the group and were visible in short grass by both naked eye and through a high-powered viewing scope. “Some people would give their right arm to see what we saw today,” said Springfield resident Lois Richardson, who raved about the rare sighting of the upland sandpiper.
Nation-wide, there are an estimated 18.5 million bird-watchers who travel to observe birds, according to a 2001 U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service survey. Moriarty has hosted annual bird club tours for the last four years. His predecessor, Drew Milroy, hosted the Hampshire Bird Club, the Massachusetts Butterfly Club, the Naturalists Club, and a group of scientists from the Massachusetts Audubon society, among others, for years. “This is a breeding area for rare birds,” Moriarty said. “Safety comes first, and then we try to be good stewards of Federal land.” He said base crews mow the grass to maintain a grass height of 7 to 14 inches, which discourages larger birds and mammals that could collide with an aircraft.
Base officials try to strike a balance: ensuring that the flying mission operates safely and, where consistent with the mission, accommodating the rare grassland species around the airfield – an area that has been called an “accidental wilderness.”