Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Short-eared Owls on Long Island

Current and former airfields are among the few places in our densely-built metropolitan area that offer sufficient grassland habitat to support populations of open-country birds. One such airfield, a former Grumman factory for naval aircraft on Long Island, was recently turned over to local officials for development. Those development plans may need to be put on hold, since the site provides winter habitat for short-eared owls.

For months, environmental advocates have urged that grassland birds here get special consideration as the Town of Riverhead moves to develop the 2,900-acre property. Plans include a resort with a 350-foot indoor ski mountain and a 90-acre artificial lake where the western runway now sits. Recent documentation of the short-eared owls' presence by the state Department of Environmental Conservation could slow the projects.

Groups such as the Nature Conservancy on Long Island say Riverhead should preserve the grasslands and keep at least 60 percent of the property as open space to conserve rare species such as the owls and the endangered Eastern Tiger salamander. Riverhead Supervisor Phil Cardinale says that land has been set aside for open space at each of the three projects in the works for the property, and separate environmental reviews for each project will address concerns about rare species. The environmental groups are critical of that approach, saying the site should be evaluated as a whole because the species move from place to place.

The grasslands make up about 800 acres, or 27 percent, of the property, said Trish Pelkowski, the group's Pine Barrens site director. Decades of mowing to keep the Grumman runways clear of obstructions held shrubs and trees at bay. The grass has grown taller since the plant shut. Now birds of prey comb the meadows for voles and shrews; bobolinks nest in the grass while horned larks nibble on wild grass seeds.

"It's just about the only spot on Long Island that has sufficient grass and acreage to support the birds we're concerned about -- owls, the Eastern meadowlark and the grasshopper sparrow," said Mike Morgan, Audubon New York wildlife ecologist.

Most of Long Island's biggest historical grassland, the 60,000-acre Hempstead Plains, was long since paved over in the suburban building boom. Today, 30 to 80 acres of that prairie remain as patches of often severely degraded land scattered across central Nassau County, various agencies and experts have estimated.

Loss of agricultural land here and across New York State has further diminished the open foraging and breeding areas available to short-eared owls and other grassland birds. "These birds really depend on the hayfields and pasturelands that characterized New York State in the last few hundred years," Morgan said. "But we've lost more than half of the agricultural land."
As in New Jersey, short-eared owls are a state-endangered species in New York. As such, they are deserving of the same protections that cover other endangered species. That should include protection of breeding, migration, and wintering habitats. Presence of a second endangered species, the eastern tiger salamander, should make habitat preservation even more imperative. The response from local officials and developers so far has been obtuse. An artificial lake is not a replacement for a grassland, and a promise to provide "open space" says little about whether it would provide suitable habitat for the endangered species that use the site.

The first linked article includes video footage of a short-eared owl in flight.