Visiting Rare Grasslands

A bobolink at Fair Hill State Park in Elkton in June. 

By Wayne Bierbaum

Before the great western land rush of 1850, grasslands covered about one third of North America. In the Midwest, vast tall grass prairies grew on very rich soils. The prairie grass has 75 percent of its mass in its deep underground roots making those grasses both drought- and fire-resistant. Native Americans would routinely set fire to these grasslands, forcing animals toward hunters, removing scrubs and trees from the landscape and stimulating fresh renewed growth. Without these recurrent fires or cuttings, shrubs and trees would replace the tall grasses. 

Less than one percent of those grasslands are present today. 

There is a unique type of grassland here in Maryland. In the 1600s, there were thousands of acres of grasslands made up of several short grasses able to live in soils with a high concentration of magnesium silicate called serpentine. Serpentine soils are inhospitable to most plants. These serpentine grasslands extended from an area northwest of Baltimore and into southern Pennsylvania. The native people maintained them by routine burning. 

European settlers referred to the area as “barrens” since the landscape is treeless and their crops would not grow there. Now, because of development, mining and the lack of recurrent fires, only four small patches of those serpentine grasslands still exist. Rare and unique plants still live in those areas. The largest serpentine grassland is within the Soldiers Delight Natural Environment Area near Owings Mills. 

Along with the habitat, the animals of the grasslands have been disappearing, too. Since 1970, the population of grassland birds has dropped by 50 percent. From the 1600s to 1970, the loss of other animals, plus the birds, has been staggering but not easily quantifiable.  

There have been efforts to expand the number and range of grassland animals throughout the U.S. and Canada but getting private landowners to be a part of the solution has proven difficult. The Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), part of the USDA, offers technical and financial assistance to farmers to “restore and manage grassland bird habitat in Maryland” through the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP).

Many bird species need undisturbed grasslands for nesting and feeding and NRCS outlines ways farmers and landowners can provide the needed native grasses for the right amount of time. 

Because of the lack of local grassland habitat, many birding enthusiasts that I have recently talked to have never seen grassland birds like a grasshopper sparrow, a bobolink, dickcissel, upland sandpiper, Henslow’s sparrow or vesper sparrow.

Programs like EQIP are helping to re-establish these formerly common birds. If you are a farmer or own large fields, I encourage you to look into this program.

To see nearby grasslands, visit the serpentine barrens at either Soldiers Delight State Park or the state-maintained grasslands with horse trails at Fair Hill Natural Resources Management Area in Cecil County (Black Bridge Road access point).  During summer, I recommend you visit in the early morning.