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Laurie LaFond grew up in Saratoga County in upstate New York, surrounded by woods, fields, and a river behind her house. The nearest neighbor lived a half-mile away. She spent most of her time outdoors, and with field guides as her constant companions, developed a passion for nature and wildlife. Later, after living in the South for several years, she returned to the area and was awestruck by the sight of Short-eared Owls hunting low in a darkening sky. She learned that these owls depended on grasslands in neighboring Washington County, and that both were quickly disappearing.

Fed by tributaries of the Hudson River and Lake Champlain basin, the grasslands of Washington County extend from the lower peaks of the Adirondack Mountains southward through fertile valleys, meadows, working farms, and rolling hills. Years ago, the National Audubon Society recognized 13,000 acres within the towns of Argyle, Fort Edward, and Kingsbury as an Important Bird Area (IBA). The habitat supports all but one of the state’s 11 endangered, threatened and rapidly-declining grassland bird species—including those owls. “Shorties,” as birders like to call them, historically bred in eight Northeast states. Now they nest in only four. And during the winter, when flocks of 40 or 50 used to patrol Washington County’s grasslands, now only a handful remain.  

Short-eared owls in washington county

Short-eared Owls. Top of page: Field trip in protected Washington County Grasslands. Photos by Laurie LaFond.

Laurie LaFond grew up in Saratoga County in upstate New York, surrounded by woods, fields, and a river behind her house. The nearest neighbor lived a half-mile away. She spent most of her time outdoors, and with field guides as her constant companions, developed a passion for nature and wildlife. Later, after living in the South for several years, she returned to the area and was awestruck by the sight of Short-eared Owls hunting low in a darkening sky. She learned that these owls depended on grasslands in neighboring Washington County, and that both were quickly disappearing.

Fed by tributaries of the Hudson River and Lake Champlain basin, the grasslands of Washington County extend from the lower peaks of the Adirondack Mountains southward through fertile valleys, meadows, working farms, and rolling hills. Years ago, the National Audubon Society recognized 13,000 acres within the towns of Argyle, Fort Edward, and Kingsbury as an Important Bird Area (IBA). The habitat supports all but one of the state’s 11 endangered, threatened and rapidly-declining grassland bird species—including those owls. “Shorties,” as birders like to call them, historically bred in eight Northeast states. Now they nest in only four. And during the winter, when flocks of 40 or 50 used to patrol Washington County’s grasslands, now only a handful remain.  

Short-eared owls in washington county

Short-eared Owls. Top of page: Field trip in protected Washington County Grasslands. Photos by Laurie LaFond.

LaFond saw the need to do something. In 2010, while volunteering on a local winter raptor survey, she learned about a large parcel of farmland that was going to be sold and subdivided into tract housing, fragmenting the unbroken habitat that grassland birds need to survive. A few years earlier, New York State’s Department of Environmental Conservation (NYSDEC) had purchased almost 300 acres of critical habitat within the IBA in Fort Edward, and it was considering protecting another 180 acres, but town officials opposed further acquisitions. The state didn’t pay taxes on the land—although it was open to it, since it did so already in the Adirondacks and Catskills—and the town worried about that financial loss.

LaFond realized that a non-profit land trust was needed. She founded the Friends of the IBA, which would later be renamed Grassland Bird Trust, and in 2011 the organization held its first event, a Winter Raptor Fest. More than a thousand people showed up at a large dairy barn in the middle of snow-covered grasslands. Buoyed by this support, LaFond sprung into action.  

LaFond saw the need to do something. In 2010, while volunteering on a local winter raptor survey, she learned about a large parcel of farmland that was going to be sold and subdivided into tract housing, fragmenting the unbroken habitat that grassland birds need to survive. A few years earlier, New York State’s Department of Environmental Conservation (NYSDEC) had purchased almost 300 acres of critical habitat within the IBA in Fort Edward, and they were considering protecting another 180 acres, but town officials opposed further acquisitions. The state did not pay taxes on the land – although it was open to it, since it did so already in the Catskills and Adirondacks – and the town worried about that financial loss.

LaFond realized that a non-profit land trust was needed. She founded the Friends of the IBA, which would later be renamed Grassland Bird Trust, and in 2011 the organization held its first event, a Winter Raptor Fest. More than a thousand people showed up at a large dairy barn in the middle of snow-covered grasslands. Buoyed by this support, LaFond sprung into action. 

Volunteers planting native trees for owls and as a windbreak at the Alfred Z. Solomon Grassland Bird Viewing Area. Photo by Joe Wagner.

LaFond saw the need to do something. In 2010, while volunteering on a local winter raptor survey, she learned about a large parcel of farmland that was going to be sold and subdivided into tract housing, fragmenting the unbroken habitat that grassland birds need to survive. A few years earlier, New York State’s Department of Environmental Conservation (NYSDEC) had purchased almost 300 acres of critical habitat within the IBA in Fort Edward, and they were considering protecting another 180 acres, but town officials opposed further acquisitions. The state did not pay taxes on the land – although it was open to it, since it did so already in the Catskills and Adirondacks – and the town worried about that financial loss.

LaFond realized that a non-profit land trust was needed. She founded the Friends of the IBA, which would later be renamed Grassland Bird Trust, and in 2011 the organization held its first event, a Winter Raptor Fest. More than a thousand people showed up at a large dairy barn in the middle of snow-covered grasslands. Buoyed by this support, LaFond sprung into action. 

LaFond saw the need to do something. In 2010, while volunteering on a local winter raptor survey, she learned about a large parcel of farmland that was going to be sold and subdivided into tract housing, fragmenting the unbroken habitat that grassland birds need to survive. A few years earlier, New York State’s Department of Environmental Conservation (NYSDEC) had purchased almost 300 acres of critical habitat within the IBA in Fort Edward, and it was considering protecting another 180 acres, but town officials opposed further acquisitions. The state didn’t pay taxes on the land—although it was open to it, since it did so already in the Adirondacks and Catskills—and the town worried about that financial loss.

LaFond realized that a non-profit land trust was needed. She founded the Friends of the IBA, which would later be renamed Grassland Bird Trust, and in 2011 the organization held its first event, a Winter Raptor Fest. More than a thousand people showed up at a large dairy barn in the middle of snow-covered grasslands. Buoyed by this support, LaFond sprung into action.

NYSDEC Washington County Grasslands Wildlife Management Area. Photo by Laurie LaFond.

The land trust worked with the town of Fort Edward to pay the lost tax dollars on protected land, while gathering support for state legislation that would require New York to pay taxes on lands it owned in IBA towns. They also secured a donation of fourteen acres, and built a viewing blind at the edge of the property. The Winter Raptor Fest became so popular that in its sixth year they decided to move it to the Washington County Fairgrounds—and to the spring. All the while, LaFond and a group of devoted volunteers led field trips, fundraised, applied for grants, and organized educational events that highlighted the importance of the grasslands for birds—and for people.

It worked. In 2018, Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed a bill into law requiring the state to pay taxes on its preserved lands in Washington County. With this in place, NYSDEC purchased those 180 acres and added it to the existing Washington County Grasslands Wildlife Management Area. That same year, Grassland Bird Trust acquired 64 acres next to the 14 it already owned. Now, the organization is planning a mile-and-a-half trail around the property, which borders a creek and is home to many at-risk breeding birds. And it’s partnering with the state to eventually build a regional center that would host local schoolchildren and visiting birders.  

Volunteers planting native trees for owls and as a windbreak at the Alfred Z. Solomon Grassland Bird Viewing Area. Photo by Joe Wagner.

North America has lost 700 million grassland birds in the last 50 years, and New York has experienced some of the sharpest declines. Bobolinks, Eastern Meadowlarks, Savannah Sparrows, Upland Sandpipers, Sedge Wrens, Henslow’s Sparrows, American Kestrels and Northern Harriers all depend on the Washington County Grasslands for their survival in the Northeast. Their populations have declined by as much as 90 percent.

Seeing these birds in action—a flock of Short-eared Owls taking flight from the tall grasses at wintry dusk, or Eastern Meadowlarks singing their flutelike whistle on a summer morning—makes them the “best educators,” says LaFond. She’s certain that bringing more people to watch them in this special habitat can only add to their groundswell of support.   

Short-eared Owls. Photo by Laurie LaFond.
Bottom of page: Alfred Z. Solomon Bird Viewing Area.
Photo courtesy Grassland Bird Trust. 

To learn more about the organization and its efforts, as well as to contribute directly, please visit the Grassland Bird Trust website or click the donateb  

NYSDEC Washington County Grasslands Wildlife Management Area. Photo by Laurie LaFond.

The land trust worked with the town of Fort Edward to pay the lost tax dollars on protected land, while gathering support for state legislation that would require New York to pay taxes on lands it owned in IBA towns. They also secured a donation of fourteen acres, and built a viewing blind at the edge of the property. The Winter Raptor Fest became so popular that in its sixth year they decided to move it to the Washington County Fairgrounds—and to the spring. All the while, LaFond and a group of devoted volunteers led field trips, fundraised, applied for grants, and organized educational events that highlighted the importance of the grasslands for birds—and for people.

It worked. In 2018, Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed a bill into law requiring the state to pay taxes on its preserved lands in Washington County. With this in place, NYSDEC purchased those 180 acres and added it to the existing Washington County Grasslands Wildlife Management Area. That same year, Grassland Bird Trust acquired 64 acres next to the 14 it already owned. Now, the organization is planning a mile-and-a-half trail around the property, which borders a creek and is home to many at-risk breeding birds. And it’s partnering with the state to eventually build a regional center that would host local schoolchildren and visiting birders.  

North America has lost 700 million grassland birds in the last 50 years, and New York has experienced some of the sharpest declines. Bobolinks, Eastern Meadowlarks, Savannah Sparrows, Upland Sandpipers, Sedge Wrens, Henslow’s Sparrows, American Kestrels and Northern Harriers all depend on the Washington County Grasslands for their survival in the Northeast. Their populations have declined by as much as 90 percent.

Seeing these birds in action—a flock of Short-eared Owls taking flight from the tall grasses at wintry dusk, or Eastern Meadowlarks singing their flutelike whistle on a summer morning—makes them the “best educators,” says LaFond. She’s certain that bringing more people to watch them in this special habitat can only add to their groundswell of support.   

LaFond saw the need to do something. In 2010, while volunteering on a local winter raptor survey, she learned about a large parcel of farmland that was going to be sold and subdivided into tract housing, fragmenting the unbroken habitat that grassland birds need to survive. A few years earlier, New York State’s Department of Environmental Conservation (NYSDEC) had purchased almost 300 acres of critical habitat within the IBA in Fort Edward, and they were considering protecting another 180 acres, but town officials opposed further acquisitions. The state did not pay taxes on the land – although it was open to it, since it did so already in the Catskills and Adirondacks – and the town worried about that financial loss.

LaFond realized that a non-profit land trust was needed. She founded the Friends of the IBA, which would later be renamed Grassland Bird Trust, and in 2011 the organization held its first event, a Winter Raptor Fest. More than a thousand people showed up at a large dairy barn in the middle of snow-covered grasslands. Buoyed by this support, LaFond sprung into action. 

Short-eared Owls. Photo by Laurie LaFond.
Bottom of page: Alfred Z. Solomon Bird Viewing Area.
Photo courtesy Grassland Bird Trust. 

To learn more about the organization and its efforts, as well as to contribute directly, please visit the Grassland Bird Trust website or click the DONATE button below.

Grasslands are the fastest disappearing habitat in the U.S., yet second only to forests at capturing carbon in a warming planet. And so Grassland Bird Trust is thinking nationally, with plans to expand grassland conservation across the U.S. by forging partnerships with government agencies and other organizations. While aiming to acquire more land, they also need the staff and resources to manage it. Grassland Bird Trust currently employs three people and depends on an active board of directors and a dozen regular volunteers. For a small organization, your financial support goes a long way. We’ve designed a special Grassland Bird Trust collection to raise awareness and funds, and we’ll donate at least 15 percent of all sales to the organization. Look for details in the product descriptions.