Westchester Land Trust
Why Bird Conservation?
The landscape within and around Westchester County, New York is unique in its proximity to urban, rural, and suburban communities between the Hudson River and Long Island Sound. The Westchester Land Trust (WLT) works with landowners and partner organizations throughout the area to engage a wide network of stakeholders in conservation work to preserve natural resources and sustain fragile ecosystems for future generations.
Kara Hartigan Whelan, vice president of WLT, believes birds are a great way to spark an interest in WLT’s mission and work. For instance, WLT has incorporated birds like hummingbirds into their interactive pollinator pop-up events, which showcase the importance of pollinators and ways people can help them from their backyard.
“It’s important to meet landowners and community members where they are, and to tap into what they care about,” Whelan said. “Often talking about birds and their interest in bird species is a great way to build trust and to establish a relationship.”
Spotlight Resources: Partnerships, Workshops, and eBird
WLT is able to facilitate interstate collaboration by serving as a co-lead of the Hudson to Housatonic (H2H) Regional Conservation Partnership. The H2H partnership includes more than three dozen organizations and encompasses over one million acres of land across Fairfield County in CT and parts of Westchester, Putnam, and Dutchess counties in NY. WLT’s involvement with H2H offers a valuable opportunity to educate and facilitate conversations with a variety of conservation organizations throughout the region around a myriad of topics, including bird conservation.
For instance, with funding from the Cornell Lab’s Land Trust Small Grant Program in 2018, WLT worked with Saw Mill River Audubon to offer two workshops on eBird, a free online bird checklist program that connects users to a global database. These workshops introduced members of H2H to the ways eBird can be incorporated into management planning for their properties, educational programming, and citizen science initiatives. Whelan explains that prior to the workshops, many organizations felt intimidated by eBird, but the presentations given by Anne Swaim, executive director of Saw Mill River Audubon, demystified eBird and demonstrated its usefulness as a tool. These workshops removed barriers for WLT’s partners and showcased how to incorporate eBird into their organization’s management.
In addition to eBird workshops, WLT led educational programming about supporting birds and effectively managing their habitats for H2H partners. Participants learned about maintaining early successional habitat, such as the impact of deer browsing, pruning recommendations, as well as native and invasive species identification. This workshop was followed by a “Game of Logging” chainsaw safety course for foresters, woodland owners, and students that emphasized open-face felling techniques for healthy bird habitat.
WLT also held a hands-on workshop with H2H partners about managing meadow habitats for birds, which is especially important given the reduction of grasslands on the landscape. A landmark study in Science found that grassland birds have declined by 53 percent since 1970 — 720 million birds — due to habitat loss from activities such as agricultural intensification, energy development, and urban sprawl. To help mitigate this loss, participants left the workshop with best management practices and methods to implement on their own land.
Whelan notes that these field workshops provide great opportunities for land stewards and landowners to exchange ideas and have candid conversations about management techniques that work for both birds and people. Some of the conversations at the field workshops included mowing times, the tradeoff between conserving one species instead of another, and how to balance big questions and answers in order to make conservation decisions.
“This grant and these collaborations were significant because they allowed us to provide more opportunities for our partners to be shoulder-to-shoulder thinking this through and working together,” Whelan said.
Making the Connection
Both the eBird and habitat management workshops enabled WLT to encourage many H2H partners to intentionally consider birds in their work. Given the wide scope of properties and projects managed by these partners, WLT’s work will have significant implications for bird conservation in the region, spanning from urban to rural settings.
These training sessions also had an important ripple effect; not only did the H2H partners incorporate these practices and tools on their own properties, but they also passed the best practices along to the landowners with whom they work. “For landowners we do a little more listening,” Whelan explains. “for partners, we do a little more educating and give them the tools they need to connect with their own constituents.” By identifying the topics that landowners are passionate about, such as protecting wildlife habitat, WLT can use birds to cultivate meaningful relationships with community members that can lead to actionable conservation steps in the future.
Advice to Other Land Trusts
One of the biggest benefits of the H2H partnership and the work that WLT has completed through the Cornell Lab’s Land Trust Small Grant Program are the connections formed between organizations during educational workshops and demonstrations, Whelan says. By putting bird conservation on the radar of a network of organizations, like WLT did with H2H partners, you can capitalize on the ability of a regional partnership to gain traction for your messaging at a broader landscape scale.
WLT also recommends pairing bird conservation outreach with existing programs to align with your organization’s capacity needs and current knowledge. For instance, Whelan says that there are still existing opportunities for WLT to further incorporate birds into their pollinator pathways program, which encourages the planting of native plants in yards as well as other practices that also benefit birds and wildlife.
Since the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020, visitation at WLT’s preserves has increased fivefold as their community seeks more connection with the outdoors. This gives WLT new opportunities to introduce their organization to those previously unfamiliar with their conservation work.
Unfortunately, the pandemic also largely halted WLT’s in-person workshops, such as eBird trainings. However, Whelan says that bird conservation and eBird are still impacting decisions that they, and likely many of their partners, are making when managing preserves. Moving forward, they hope to host more eBird trainings, as well as promote citizen science throughout H2H and to this newly engaged community.