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Explore the Unique Habitat of the Washington County Grasslands Important Bird Area

Birding in the Saratoga area wouldn't be the same without the Washington County Grasslands Important Bird Area (IBA). Just over the county line from Saratoga, this expanse of grasslands, agricultural lands, wetlands, and woodlots forms the perfect habitat for over 179 species of birds, including wintering raptors and 10 of New York State's 11 most at-risk grassland birds.

Short-eared Owls and Northern Harriers are known to draw birders to the Washington County Grasslands, but there are also plenty of other reasons to visit. Read on to learn more about the grasslands, the birds that live there, and how you can observe them for yourself.

Learn About the Washington County Grasslands

view area at the washington county grasslands

The Washington County Grasslands stretch over the towns of Fort Edward, Argyle, and Kingsbury. This Important Bird Area (IBA) is actually made up of multiple parts:

  • the 13,000-acre Fort Edward Grasslands IBA
  • Grassland Bird Trust's 78-acre Alfred Z. Solomon (AZS) Grassland Bird Viewing Area
  • the NYS DEC's 478-acre Washington County Grasslands Wildlife Management Area
  • many private agricultural lands

Grasslands are vanishing across America at an alarming rate, which threatens the birds that depend on their specific and unique ecosystems. The Washington County Grasslands provide breeding grounds and wintering habitats for as many as 179 species, such as songbirds, raptors, and waterfowl that commonly found in the region, as well as several grassland species that are becoming scarce in New York.

Discover Common and At-Risk Bird Species Thriving in the Grasslands

Whether you're an experienced birder with a long Life List or a hiker with an interest in local wildlife, you'll want to visit the Washington County Grasslands to observe the many common local birds and at-risk species that call the area their permanent or temporary homes.

Wintering Birds

short-eared owl Short-eared Owl. Photo Credit: Gordon Ellmers, provided by Grassland Bird Trust.

The Grasslands are especially appealing to wintering raptors and other birds, who migrate to the region from colder climates in search of food. Rough-legged Hawks, Northern Harriers, Snowy Owls, Short-eared Owls, Horned Larks, Northern Shrikes, Snow Buntings, and Eastern Meadowlarks are known to visit the Washington County Grasslands in the winter months.

Additionally, Eastern Bluebirds and Carolina Wrens have been seen in the edge habitats. Other species, such as the Peregrine Falcon, Merlin, Barred Owl, and Golden Eagle have also been glimpsed in the winter on rarer occasions.

Breeding Birds

grasshopper sparrow Grasshopper Sparrow. Photo Credit: Gordon Ellmers, provided by Grassland Bird Trust.

Although wintering birds are a big draw for birdwatchers at the Washington County Grasslands, plenty of birds live there all year long or flock to the area for the summer breeding season. Species to be on the lookout for during the warmer months are Bobolinks, Killdeer, Red-tailed Hawks, American Kestrels, Upland Sandpipers, American Woodcocks, Eastern Bluebirds, Baltimore Orioles, and Orchard Orioles. The Grasslands are also known to attract many species of warblers, finches, and sparrows, including Savannah, Grasshopper, Vesper, and Henslow's Sparrows.

Waterbirds

Dead Creek runs through the Washington County Grasslands, and while much of it is bordered by private property, it does pass through the southeastern portion of the Washington County Grasslands Wildlife Management Area. There are also patches of wetland within the Grasslands.

The Southern Adirondack Audubon Society recommends visiting these locations during spring and fall to see migrating songbirds and waterbirds. Waterbirds and waterfowl that have been seen in the wetlands include Northern Pintails, Wood Ducks, Green-winged Teals, Gadwalls, and American Bitterns.

At-Risk Birds

northern harrier Northern Harrier. Photo Credit: Gordon Ellmers, provided by Grassland Bird Trust.

While the at-risk species in this Important Bird Area aren't federally listed as endangered or threatened, they are at risk of disappearing from New York due to the residential and commercial development of grasslands. There are 11 grassland species that New York State's Wildlife Action Plan considers "species of greatest conservation," and birders can find 10 of them in the Washington County Grasslands.

According to the NYS DEC, Short-eared Owls are endangered in the state, and Northern Harriers, Upland Sandpipers, Sedge Wrens, and Henslow's Sparrows are all currently considered threatened. Birds classified as "of special concern" are Grasshopper Sparrows, Vesper Sparrows, and Horned Larks.

Also found in the Washington County Grasslands are Eastern Meadowlarks, considered a high priority species of greatest need by the DEC's State Wildlife Action Plan. The plan also names American Kestrels as species of greatest need, and Audubon NY considers them a special concern.

Plan Your Visit to the Washington County Grasslands

view area at the washington county grasslands

If you'd like to visit this unique habitat for yourself and go birdwatching for its wintering, breeding, migratory, or at-risk species, you have a few options.

Although portions of the Washington County Grasslands are private property (you'll need to be respectful of the property owners and refrain from trespassing), there are official wildlife viewing locations for birders to enjoy.

Please note that several state and county routes cross through the area, so be sure to remain alert when near the roadways, and park in designated areas when possible!

Alfred Z. Solomon Grassland Viewing Area

This site, which is maintained by Grassland Bird Trust, is a viewing area off County Route 42 in Fort Edward. There is a parking area and viewing blinds, as well as 78 acres of gorgeous grasslands and prime birdwatching opportunities.

Although winter is an amazing time to catch sight of the raptors who call the area their home away from home, you can also observe plenty of birds year-round.

Little Theater on the Farm

If you want to see the Short-eared Owls, Little Theater on the Farm is one of the best locations in the Washington County Grasslands. The venue in known for its great live music, but they also welcome birders to come and view the wildlife at their beautiful location in rural Fort Edward.

The Short-eared Owls arrive for the season in late fall or early winter, and stay until the last days of March. You're also likely to spot other species, such as Northern Harriers and Rough-legged Hawks.

Washington County Grasslands Wildlife Management Area

On Black House Road in Fort Edward you'll find an entrance to the Washington County Grasslands WMA, which is made up of about 300 acres of grassland. The site is managed by the DEC and has a parking area, viewing blinds, and a half-mile long trail.

In the winter between December 1 and April 15, the DEC closes off the areas east of Fitzpatrick Drive to visitors. While you can still hike the trail and use the viewing platform, venturing further into the grasslands is prohibited in order to protect the raptors that winter there.

Regardless of which viewing area you choose, the Washington County Grasslands offer amazing opportunities for birders to spot local common and at-risk species. This unique Important Bird Area is well worth the short trip from Saratoga!

Explore more protected bird habitats in the Saratoga area >>

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Sources:

https://www.grasslandbirdtrust.org/

https://www.dec.ny.gov/animals/7494.html

https://www.dec.ny.gov/outdoor/97661.html

http://www.southernadirondackaudubon.org/birding/Birding%20Locations/WashCounty/washcounty.html

http://www.southernadirondackaudubon.org/birding/Birding%20Locations/WashCounty/washcountylist.html