Audubon promotes habitats along Blue Ridge Parkway
By Scott Nicholson
The Blue Ridge Parkway will soon have some weedy patches to augment the forests and pastures.
The Blue Ridge Parkway Foundation awarded a grant to N.C. Audubon to conduct bird surveys and maintain a diverse habitat on former pasture lands that are part of the national park. The 469-mile roadway has many of the “Important Bird Area” sites catalogued by Audubon and many bird populations are monitored there, including in nearby areas like Moses H. Cone Memorial Park and Julian Price Park.
The grant will allow Audubon to provide and control the mowing of three important habitat sites. The properties were originally leased out for agricultural use, but when the leases expired, the national park decided to restore them to natural habitat. Since different birds and animals nest or forage at different times, the control allows Audubon to tie in mowing with seasonal patterns to establish a diverse range of habitats.
Curtis Smalling, regional biologist with N.C. Audubon, said the organization will employ rotational mowing, trimming about a third of each parcel during a given season. The rest of the property will be allowed to grow as an early-succession field with brush and scrub vegetation.
Smalling said the cutting would be accompanied by careful monitoring to ensure the various species benefited. The parkway has management plans that affect how the land is used, and the parkway’s founding philosophy called for a scenic, park-like setting with closely mown grass. Smalling said there was little range between the homogenous lawns and the native forests, and since private landowners rarely let their properties go to scrub vegetation, important habitat was lost.
Audubon biologist Curtis Smalling hopes intermittent cutting of pastures will help create diverse bird and wildlife habitat on the Blue Ridge Parkway. Photo submitted
“Part of the issue is the parkway as a national park has a management plan in place,” Smalling said. “Part of it is the parkway’s pastoral landscapes. If it’s taken out of the agricultural lease program, it quickly converts to forest.”
Smalling said high-priority species such as yellow-throated warbler and field sparrow are lost if they don’t have the high grass and scrub vegetation for nesting and foraging. “We need to maintain it a little bit weedier,” he said.
Typically, agricultural leases are for growing hay or grazing animals, which means the grass is almost always short for a good part of the year. The agreement benefits the parkway because its maintenance workload is reduced, and Audubon can more carefully control habitat and monitor the effects of the mowing patterns.
Smalling pointed out that hay is typically cut in June, which is a prime nesting time for some species. He also said private landowners could help by maintaining a buffer strip between hayfields and forest to better diversify animal habitat.
The Blue Ridge Parkway Foundation supports parkway activities as well as the national park’s preservation mission. The information gathered through the partnership with Audubon will be used to develop long-term management plans and decisions, such as mowing schedules and agricultural lease terms.
The initial period of the agreement with Audubon lasts five years, and Smalling hopes the information will be useful in furthering the relationship between the wildlife organization and the park service. “We’re getting good data, and it’s a simple, cheap way to do things,” he said.