Mowing Done

It took me several days but it got done. Every year I try to mow our ten-acre field at just the right time–in the three-week window after July 4th. Completion date this year: July 13.

We mow the field because Meadowlarks nest there. And Red Winged Blackbirds. And Savannah Sparrows. And, if we are lucky, Bobolinks. If we manage it well, and grasses grow more than other plants, then Bobolinks will nest there. It is because birds nest in the field that we wait until July to cut it. Once the chicks have fledged for these ground nesters, we can pass over those empty nests with sharp spinning blades. Baby birds don’t do well with sharp spinning blades.

We have to cut late enough for the birds but we are also cutting to keep the Wild Parsnip at bay. I’ve been reading lately about Giant Hogweed. That is a similar plant that is becoming more widespread. Rub against it, get the oil on your skin, get some sun exposure and get some nasty burns. Giant Hogweed isn’t around here yet. But Wild Parsnip has been around for years.

If we keep cutting, then the stuff will be held back. Already there is less of it. And the plants are smaller. It seemed to flower later this year, too. But it won’t go away without management. The key is to cut it before it goes to seed. Cut it too late and it just spreads the seeds around. With this year’s cutting, we’ve got two years in a row of good timing. I’m hoping the field has even fewer yellow flowers next year.

I cut it over the span of a week. The first day I cut a big chunk. I would have kept going but going through the big patch of quack grass in the corner (another invasive species I’d like to reduce) I turned around to see clouds of smoke rising from the brush mower. It had happened before. Busted belt burning up. That quack grass is thick stuff.

My wife bought a new belt the next day and together we replaced it. In the past I’ve hauled the mower to the repair shop down the road. But that costs money and, more importantly, time. Thanks to YouTube, however, we felt confident enough to disassemble the machine and make some repairs. Once we tightened those last nuts back up we were back in business.

We have a few Wild Parsnip plants kicking around the edges. I’ll have to cut those manually. With some long clippers. And gloves. After the sun goes down. But mostly, project done. At least for this summer.

Mowing Complete

Tall stuff on the left, flattened on the right

I finally finished mowing our field today. We have a new set-up to make this happen–a John Deere Gator and a DR tow-behind brush hog. It worked remarkably well. Once we had all the parts and added oil and gas and started things up, I hit the field and got cutting. But I was stymied more than once.

In the past we have postponed our mowing due to the weather. The field was too wet or it rained when we had the time to cut. Or we didn’t have a tractor with a brush hog when we needed it. We were hoping this would take care of at least the latter issue. And it did, sort of. I started near the end of July. This was perfect. We needed to wait until at least mid-July so that any birds nesting in the field would have fledged. Bobolinks and red-winged blackbirds are ground nesters and we wanted to make sure they didn’t get chopped up in the blades. That is just bad juju. Also, part of the reason we are cutting all this vegetation is the wild parsnip–the stuff has taken over and we wanted to cut it down before it went to seed. That started off well.

Then I had a problem. I got stuck in reverse. I couldn’t get it into drive again. I shook the rig and wiggled everything around and eventually it went into gear. But then it happened again. So we called the dealer and they hauled it away to be fixed. Then, of course, we went away for a week. Two weeks after I started mowing I recommenced. I made some progress but much of the wild parsnip had gone to seed. I needed to get it done. And then, unbelievably, it got stuck in reverse again. Same problem–not fixed after a new shift cable was installed. They took it back and were not happy about it, but fixed it again–bent stick shift this time. They were patient, as were we, and soon the machine was back. Today I got back in the saddle and everything went smoothly. I finished mowing just in time to zip out to pick up my daughter from day camp.

The wild parsnip had almost totally gone to seed–it was brown and dry and sometimes the seeds scattered as I hit the plants. Not good. But those seeds would have scattered at some point anyway. I needed to cut it now and then cut it again later. The key to keeping this stuff down will be (hopefully) to just cut it again and again until it has nothing left to keep growing. It could take a while–maybe years. The good news, however, is that I also was cutting purple loosestrife, another invasive that has been super aggressive in our field. That had not yet gone to seed, so it should be less work to keep that back.

I may cut one more time this fall. That could mean we get more grass than other, more woody, plants come spring. That is good for the bobolinks. They don’t nest in our field much because it has less grass than surrounding fields. Maybe the birds will take a liking to our space and settle down to raise some chicks next year. If I don’t get to it, so be it. I at least will cut again next July and keep those invasives at bay. Unless I have trouble shifting again. But I will worry about that if it happens. For now I can be satisfied that one summer project is finally complete.


Birds and Coffee

We have a huge field in front of the house, but we do not seem to have any nesting bobolinks in that field.  They are in the fields all around, just not ours.  Throughout the day I can hear their warbling.  They sometimes pass over our field but they seem to avoid it.  It is a puzzle.

One theory is that the plants in the field are not what they like.  We cut it once every year, in the fall, and let it mulch itself.  This keeps things open.  If we left it to grow a forest would trying to occupy that field in a couple of years.  Maybe these birds prefer the grass in the fields that get hayed.  Frankly, we were hoping that by keeping it open we might attract bobolinks.  So much for that idea.  We do attract lots of butterflies and lots of other birds, however, so we have that.

Another theory is that our neighbor’s cat loves our field too much.  Either it has driven off the bobolinks that did manage to make a home here or the birds decided not to stay when they discovered the cat.  Nice place to visit but the neighborhood just isn’t all that safe.

Maybe it’s too wet.  Maybe all the activity around the house intimidates them.  Maybe it smells bad to them.  I don’t know.  In any case, I love to listen to them.  We do get to hear them sing and that is a joy.  Maybe one of these days they will come around to stay.  The cat can’t live forever.

Listening to the bobolinks, and then the hermit thrushes and robins late in the day, plus the red-winged blackbird scolding me for getting too close to her next, and the field sparrows and the kingbirds, I’ve got a lot to keep my ears busy.  Tomorrow I get to head out early to try to find one of the most elusive birds in Vermont, Bicknell’s thrush.  I don’t hear that bird in our field.  They only hang out up high where the trees are dense on the mountains.  I’ll have to get up early.

They typically only sing during the day’s bookends–dawn and dusk.  So I will rise at 2:00 in order to drive and then hike to get where I need to be on time.  I am a volunteer for Mountain Birdwatch, a program of the Vermont Center for Ecostudies. I will listen for Bicknell’s thrush and other birds in the wee hours.  This made me think about coffee.

A hot cup of coffee might be nice as I drive in the dark.  So I had the idea of setting up the brewer tonight.  Then I though I wouldn’t.  Then I thought why not?  I am still wavering.  And then I thought about the connection.  One reason thrushes and other migrating songbirds are threatened is because their wintering grounds are no longer what they were.  When forests get slashed for coffee plantations, birds have to find a new place to hang out in the northern winter.  Where do they go?

I try to purchase shade grown free trade coffee, partly because of this study.  I learned to hear a Bicknell’s trush because I volunteered nine years ago and I still am amazed by its song.  To know it is still there, that it has returned for another summer, fills with the unexplainable wonder of the world.  So making sure the coffee I drink doesn’t impinge on that is important.  It is an easy thing to do.  I will get some coffee on the way home either way, but do I sip in the car?

You know, I think I will.  I never have and one thing I can’t stand is things staying the same for too long.  It is easy to fall into a pattern and just keep following it.  If I don’t break things up, I feel stuck.  So I guess I have one more thing to do to get ready before the morning.