Working Lands

Spotlight on Stewardship

One grassland conservationist's story.

Courtesy of Audubon Magazine, May-June 2012: A New York Farm Owner Manages Fields For Grassland Birds by Mary Thrill 

When Gail Miller looks out over acres of fields at her family’s 174-year-old farm, she sees more than newly-mowed land. She sees the past and the future.

“I saw how hard my father worked on the farm, and I saw how much it mattered to him,” said the 68-year-old, whose family settled the 178 acres in the Lake Ontario region in 1838. Despite financial hardships in recent years, Miller just couldn’t let go of her family’s legacy.

So she started a new tradition, one that benefits both people and birds. With the help of Audubon New York, Miller established a conservation management plan, one that allows hay mowing only after August 15 when chicks have safely fledged and migratory birds have moved on. The plan also calls for fields to be mowed in rotation, with a third of the enrolled acres cut each year and hedgerows kept at bay. Compensation at fair market value, administered by the state Department of Environmental Conservation, helps her break even on taxes and carrying costs.

Northern Harrier Photo: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Now Bobolinks, Northern Harriers, and other species find refuge on Miller’s Chaumont farm in Jefferson County, a regional stopover for annual bird migration from South America to the northern United States and southern Canada. About 20 % of the world’s breeding Bobolinks nest in the checkerboard of active and remnant farm fields in the lower Great Lakes - St. Lawrence plains area.

“This program has really allowed us to believe that we can keep this land open for grassland birds,” said Miller. “When we save the birds, they belong to the world. They don’t just belong to me as a landowner.”