With barn swallows in mind, Conte refuge officials issue call for habitat preservation ideas

  • A barn swallow perches near its nest in a barn at the Fort River Division of the Silvio O. Conte National Fish and Wildlife Refuge in Hadley on Friday, July 13. The barn remains on the site from the former Bri-Mar Stables. Refuge officials will hold a meeting next week to gather ideas on how best to preserve the habitat of the federally-owned land. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

  • A barn photographed in July from the former Bri-Mar Stables in Hadley, now part of the Fort River Division of the National Fish and Wildlife Refuge, is home to a population of barn swallows. Refuge officials will hold a meeting next week to gather ideas on how best to preserve the habitat of the federally-owned land. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

Staff Writer
Published: 8/9/2018 6:45:58 PM

HADLEY — Barn swallows and other similar aerial insectivores that spend their summers in the region are facing challenges which are causing a decline in their populations.

Yet many of these birds appear to be thriving at the 260-acre Fort River Division of the Silvio O. Conte National Fish & Wildlife Refuge off Moody Bridge Road in Hadley, a site frequented by local birders because of how common they are and the variety of species. Their habitat includes fields, a woodland and the river, as well as an aging building that once was the home for at least 40 horses.

But there are continued worries from members of the public that this large building, which served as the former Bri-Mar Stables, may be removed from the site, jeopardizing the barn swallows that have used it as a place to nest and raise their young.

How to best preserve the habitat of the federally-owned land will be the subject of a community meeting the U.S. Fish and Wildlife will hold Aug. 16 from 6 to 7:30 p.m. at its Northeast Regional Office, 300 Westgate Center Drive in Hadley.

Andrew French, project leader for the Conte Refuge, said that the idea is to collect information about the birds and the existing habitat and come up with an action plan.

“All of this dialogue presents an opportunity to talk about what we can do as partners and employ a collaborative approach,” French said.

Mara Silver, a Shelburne Falls ornithologist, said she and other groups intend to be at the meeting to explain why the large barn is a vital part of the habitat.

“I am still in favor of saving the building in its entirety, however we can make that happen,” Silver said.

The 11,250-square-foot, two-story barn, has been popular with the barn swallows, but also has a tarp over a portion of the roof where a hole developed, and vegetation growing at its edges.

This year, the barn featured a combined 70 broods over the two mating seasons for barn swallows, based on a count done by Devin Straley, a student majoring in natural history and ecology at Sterling College in Vermont.

Another building on the site, where efforts have been made to encourage barn swallows to breed, has not worked nearly as well, with only a limited number of nests.

French said he hopes many ideas will be floated at the meeting, but notes that viable strategies are important.

“What’s a path forward that is structurally, financially and biologically resistant?” French said.

He believes having such a meeting will be able to inform government officials.

“We can make better decisions when these things are vetted publicly,” French said.

Noting that the nesting season is already in transition, with migratory birds heading to the Southern Hemisphere in September, there is time develop a plan over the fall and winter so that it can be ready for the 2019 nesting season that begins next spring.

“Given all the interest and anticipated dialogue, once the focus is on the challenge, which is also an opportunity, I am confident we will collectively identify some creative, achievable and collaborative strategies,” French said.

French said there is no intent to harm the habitat or make it a less attractive place for the birds.

“We’re there because of the natural resource values, so barn swallows are important to us, as are other migratory birds and other wildlife,” French said.

Scott Merzbach can be reached at smerzbach@gazettenet.com.
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