Event will celebrate bobolinks, birds who’ve found welcoming habitat on area farm

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Farmer Phil Specht will host a “Celebration of Bobolinks” at his property just outside Marquette on Saturday, May 8. The event will recognize the grassland songbirds that have found welcoming habitat on his farm. (Photos courtesy of Phil Specht)

Phil Specht has worked to gauge how grass height affects bobolinks nesting preferences on his farm.

By Audrey Posten, Times-Register


Local farmer Phil Specht will host a “Celebration of Bobolinks” at his property just outside Marquette on Saturday, May 8. The event will recognize the grassland songbirds that, facing a 60 percent population decline over the past few decades, have found welcoming habitat on Specht’s farm.


“I’ve done a number of field days over the years focused on pasture management for cattle and farming,” said Specht, “but this field day is for the birds, to highlight their return.”


The bobolinks are now establishing territory for the summer, “and they’ll sing all day long,” Specht shared.


The “Celebration of Bobolinks” will include open farm birding and a short field program starting at 1:30 p.m. It will take place near the intersection of Juniper Avenue and Pleasant Ridge Road, near 28304 Pleasant Ridge Road; signs will be posted. That evening, from 5 to 8 p.m., a program, shared meal and music by Sophia Landis will be held at the Driftless Area Wetlands Centre in Marquette.


“It’s hard to plan a gathering in a pandemic,” Specht acknowledged. While the open farm birding allows people to social distance, the Wetlands Centre also offers “a beautiful outdoor venue where you can spread out and be safe.”


“If you’re really into birds, make a day of it,” he added. “Along with the bobolinks, you’ll see other birds you’ve never seen before, like the Henslow’s sparrow, kingbird and sedge wren.”


Specht’s interest in bobolinks actually originated from a sibling rivalry with his late brother, Dan. The family had been grazing cattle since the 1970s and was part of the sustainable agriculture movement that encouraged the planting of diverse species to mimic nature.


“When you mimic evolution, forces are unleashed and you get all kinds of flowers and insects. The rusty patched bumble bee, which is endangered, is on my farm,” Specht said. “You’re trying to take care of the land while producing quality food.”


According to Specht, it was Dan’s contention that, when you saw nesting bobolinks, it meant you had a working ecosystem.


“That led to a sibling rivalry as to who had the most bobolinks—who had the best system,” he said.


Phil’s system involves rotational grazing—moving cattle every three to seven days—a practice that mimicked the “evolutionary forces” of buffalo through grasslands. He began doing research, gauging how grass height affected the bobolinks’ nesting preferences.


“I wanted to know if the cattle had been there or not,” Specht said.


Soon, with the help of researchers, he began looking at 200 foot by 300 foot sample areas.


“I’d never done science before,” Specht said. “I’d just been observing for decades, counting the number of bobolinks I saw perched or heard singing.”


He’s excited to share his work, and the bobolinks, with others. Specht, with help from the Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation, sold a strip of land—a birding trail—to the Iowa Department of Natural Resources for access to the nearby Bloody Run Wildlife Management Unit. He also plans to turn his farm into a bird sanctuary, managed by the use of cattle.


One company, Blue Nest Beef, was even inspired to create “BoboLink” meat snack sticks. 


“They partner with the National Audubon Society and use meat from bird-friendly farms and ranches,” said Specht. “They’ve focused on that as their niche market area.”


While he’s been a proponent for decades, Spect said there’s been a “slow and steady movement” toward the grazing and pasture management system he utilizes. 


“Cattle do well and are healthy when they are grazing, and people are adapting to the older ways as they see environmental concerns and climate change,” shared Specht, who is especially interested in the ability of permanent grasses to sequester carbon. “This checks all the boxes: biodiversity, water quality, soil quality, high quality food.”

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