Mowing and Meadowlarks

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This is the time of year when we get around to mowing our field. We have ten acres of meadow. When we moved here it had not been cut in several years and it was starting to get scrubby. Cattails grew in a wide swath. Ash trees were sprouting and willows were standing out among the grasses and wildflowers. Actually, the grasses were pretty limited. The field had long passed the point of being suitable for haying. We wanted to turn that around.

One reason we wanted to turn it around was Bobolinks. There were Bobolinks nearby, in adjacent fields and up the road, but none in our field. It was just too overgrown. They like to nest in grasslands and our meadow was quickly reverting to woodland. We borrowed a tractor with a brush hog and cut it, cattails and all. We did the same thing the next year. We were not, however, especially deliberate about it. We cut it when we had access to a tractor and it worked. Grasses started to grow and it looked good.

I have learned a bit about this small habitat of ours since those early years. First, we have three invasive plants (more I am sure but three major ones): wild parsnip, purple loosestrife and reed canary grass. The purple loosestrife was the worst at first and those early cuttings really made a difference. We still have it but it hardly dominates like it did. It has beautiful flowers which get visited by butterflies and hummingbirds, so it is hard to hate it, but I would rather it did not take over.

The reed canary grass I started learning about recently, even though it was pointed out a few years ago. It, too, is a beautiful plant, which is why it and purple loosestrife are both used as ornamentals. It grows in thick mats and apparently can be hard to eradicate. This grass isn’t too bad yet–we have a few patches but it has not taken over.

The real villain is the wild parsnip. When we first encountered this plant we thought it might be wild dill. It is tall with yellow large-headed flowers. I looked it up and learned that the roots are edible, hence the name. It is, however, not a pleasant smelling herb or a ready food source. It is a menace.

There are fields where wild parsnip has simply taken over. The plants can get to be super tall–eight feet sometimes–and they will push out native plants. I have seen fields where it is the only plant visible. If those fields eventually grow up into woods the wild parsnip will disappear, but in sunny fields it is a bully. Moreover, the plant is toxic. The oil from the plant can rub off and, when exposed to sunlight, can cause chemical burns. Photoreactive is the word. In short, we wanted to make sure it does not live in our field.

The solution would be to simply cut the field several times a year to keep invasive plants from growing and to let native grasses grow up. So simple. The problem is that birds nest on the ground. Bobolinks have started to nest in our field since we started cutting. Also nesting on the ground: Red-Winged Blackbirds, Savannah Sparrows and, most recently, Eastern Meadowlarks. The biggest enemy of these birds is the mower, so cutting when the birds are nesting is bad juju.

Now we try to be deliberate about when we mow. The trick is to wait long enough for chicks to have fledged but to get to it before the wild parsnip has gone to seed. That would be right about now. Pretty much. Red-Winged Blackbirds and Bobolinks are hardly around at this point, so I am not worried about them. The Meadowlarks, however, are still chattering away and flying all over. They may be on egg clutch number two, and there are at least two pairs.

This year the compromise was clear–cut the front part of the field where the parsnip is the worst and leave the back part of the field, where the birds are nesting, to be cut in a couple of weeks. Yesterday, after mechanical issues that finally got solved, I got on that. It was like scratching an itch. Mowing down those wild parsnip plants, several of which were taller than me, felt good. I was relieved that, unlike last year when I cut it, none of it had gone to seed yet. Phew.

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Brush hog doing its work

There is still more of the field to cut, of course, and wild parsnip is in there. Hopefully, however, because so much of it is newer growth, it won’t be too bad. I may look to do a second cutting in October or November. That would help with the canary grass, and the birds will be heading south by then. I thought I might do that last year and never got to it, however, so I’m making no promises.

As I write this Meadowlarks are calling and Savannah Sparrows are singing. Leaving the most grassy part of the field for now is clearly the right choice, but I will look forward to seeing those yellow wild parsnip heads get shredded when I finish the job.

Upper field cut

Upper field cut with a couple of small trees left for birds to perch

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