The song of the landscape

A beautiful, uncomfortable film on birds’ decline, followed by some possible seeds of change

A black-throated blue warbler, close-up and flying in high-res slow motion, is a memorable part of "The Messenger."
A black-throated blue warbler, close-up and flying in high-res slow motion, is a memorable part of “The Messenger.”

Songbird populations have been declining for decades — a fact explored in intense and beautifully captured detail by “The Messenger,” a film by SongbirdSOS Productions that “explores our deep-seated connection to birds and warns that the uncertain fate of songbirds might mirror our own” and screens for free at 7:30 p.m. Friday, Sept. 16 at the Little Washington Theatre.

The questions of why — and of what you, landowner or simple yard-owner alike, might be able to do about it — will likely be chief among those taken afterwards by staff of the screening’s cosponsors, the American Bird Conservancy and the SCBI’s Virginia Working Landscapes (VWL) program, during a post-film Q&A.

“When it comes to birds,” says VWL’s Amy Johnson, a bird biologist who coordinates grassland bird surveys for the program and who’ll be at the Q&A session to help address such questions, “we’re all trying to figure out what specifically is causing their decline, and what we’re finding is that it’s a whole mix of things working together.

“Habitat loss is by far the biggest issue that birds are facing,” says Johnson, who’s also pursuing her doctorate at George Mason University, her research focusing on grassland bird ecology with a focus of late on the rarely seen loggerhead shrike.

Johnson says grassland birds as a whole — the eastern meadowlark, the bobalink, the grasshopper sparrow and, a species once a distinguishing component of rural life in the Virginia Piedmont, the bobwhite quail — “are declining more consistently and steeply than other groups of birds.”

For the Working Landscapes program, Johnson works with landowners large and small to survey, and help develop habitat — a program that not only increases grassland bird habitat for the likes of the quail and field sparrow but also many other species, as well as pollinators and native plants and grasses.

Some of the program’s longtime partners in Rappahannock County — Nick Lapham and his conservation- and sustainability-focused Farm at Sunnyside, Bruce Jones and his extensive, handmade wildlife preserve on Long Mountain, Mike Sands and Betsy Dietel in Flint Hill, whose native grass experiments were developed not just for habitat but to improve grazing — have been “instrumental,” Johnson says, not just for the habitat and wildlife policies they plant themselves.

They’re also helpful in the process of seeding.

Such landowners are “really important in building our network,” says Johnson. “It’s so much better to have a group of landowners who can act almost like . . . well, going out and knocking on doors and saying, ‘We’re biologists from the Smithsonian and we’d like to . . .’ Better to have farmers calling farmers, neighbors calling neighbors, and also they’ve been great about sharing their farms and properties to show people who might be interested in the program what the habitat looks like.”

Johnson says those whose interest in creating quail habitat is grounded in improving hunting or other sportsman-related pursuits are also “among the best conservationists we work with.” She included mention of Bill Fletcher in Sperryville, whose properties are central to what Johnson’s noticed is a “hotspot for quail, the Sperryville and Little Washington areas, and especially Sperryville. “What I think is happening, as folks are creating more and more bird-friendly habitat in the area, the quail are actually able to disperse properly, and it allows them to increase population.”

As for “The Messenger,” Johnson, who’s seen it a few times, says it is “one of the most amazing examples of nature photography I’ve ever seen. But it’s also kind of dark and shows that, well, how really everything that we’re doing is contributing to bird decline. It’s a little bit sad, but as they go through all these threats, they also introduce you to conservation groups and citizens who are working to reverse some of these declines.

“Also it gives you an opportunity to see the choices you might have as a landowner — what you might change about your lifestyle . . . that’s why we wanted to have a Q&A with someone after the film,” Johnson adds, “especially someone with the American Bird Conservancy.”

VWL will sponsor another screening Oct. 13, “The Forgotten Coast: Return to Wild Florida,” also free and also at the Little Washington Theatre.

For more information about the Sept. 16 or Oct. 13 events, or the VWL’s ongoing programs, contact Amy Johnson at johnsonae@si.edu. See the trailer of “The Messenger” below.

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