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A special grassland habitat right here on Cape Cod

Grasshopper Sparrow
Ryan Schain
Grasshopper Sparrow

On Monday, though it’s full-on tourist season and many of my local friends had been putting out “shelter in place” warnings on social media, I bravely ventured from the Lower Cape to deep in the heart of the Upper Cape. There, birders know, lies a complex of managed grasslands and other open pine barren habitats of the sort largely gone from Cape Cod, a haven for all sorts of birds, plants, and insects you won’t find anywhere else in our region. I’m talking about Crane Wildlife Management Area and the restricted access military lands of Camp Edwards and Otis Air Force Base, which together host the last remaining populations of many grassland-dependent species here on Cape Cod.

Crane is a 2500-acre Wildlife Management Area, a type of state land managed by Mass Wildlife for hunting, but also hiking, birding, and to benefit rare species. It’s kind of an odd “mixed use” place where you might see people flying big toy planes, training hunting dogs, watching birds, or, in my case, bent over photographing bees and butterflies, maybe all at the same time. Mass Wildlife recently expanded the grasslands at Crane to help birds like Grasshopper Sparrows, Eastern Meadowlarks, and American Kestrels, and it worked brilliantly – the Grasshopper Sparrow population more than quadrupled after the clearing.

I haven’t actually been to Crane much in summer, so when I arrived on Monday I was instantly overwhelmed by the sheer volume of brilliant orange butterfly weed, also known as orange milkweed, plus yellow black-eyed susan, white daisy fleabane, pink and purple common milkweed, and many other wildflowers painted in swaths across the hundreds of acres of little bluestem grassland. Several species of butterflies including Baltimore Checkerspots and a few Monarchs glided about and sipped from the almost obscenely abundant flowers. Killdeer, those big noisy plovers of drier places, were running around tending chicks. Grasshopper Sparrows sang in all directions. A Blue Grosbeak, a specialty bird that breeds in just three places in Massachusetts, sang in the distance.

On this trip I was actually hoping to see a state Endangered bee, the striking Walsh’s Digger Bee, and I did later on thanks to Natural Resources Manager Jake McCumber of Camp Edwards. As far as we know, other than perhaps one site on the Vineyard, this bee only occurs on this complex of managed grasslands and pine barrens between Crane and the base – the closest other population is 700 miles away in Michigan. Large parts of Camp Edwards, while restricted to the public, are managed by Jake and a team of biologists to benefit all the rare and declining wildlife of pine barrens, most of which need some form of disturbance to open up the land. An enormous body of research, including work by state and federal biologists here in Massachusetts, shows how fire, a natural part of dry landscapes like ours, creates essential habitat for so many rare plants, insects, and birds, as does mowing and selective tree clearing. Many of these species literally disappear in the absence of fire and other disturbance, including the Whip-poor-will, thriving on the base but so rare now most everywhere else.

As we looked for this special bee at Camp Edwards, Eastern Meadowlarks, Grasshopper Sparrows, and Kestrels kept us company. We didn’t see them on this visit, but the nearby grassy airstrips host the only breeding population of Upland Sandpipers on the Cape and islands. More obscure protected species like Purple Tiger Beetles, tons of plant species, and a little brown butterfly called the Frosted Elfin also thrive under the active land management on the base. The list goes on.

While you may not give a flying fig about obscure bees, Upland Sandpipers, or endangered nut sedges, you should still get yourself to Crane this summer, even if just for the wildflower show. The fiery orange of the butterfly weed won’t last but another few weeks, but other flowers will be coming online through the fall, so it’ll still be worth the trip for you locals who plan to shelter in place until Labor Day.

Mark Faherty writes the Weekly Bird Report.