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.

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Meadow as Fashion

IMG_1196I was at American Eagle, in the mall, with my daughter two days ago. This is not a frequent haunt of mine but she needed some new shorts and knew she could find some there that fit well, plus there was a sale, and there I was, the dad of the pre-teen in the land of the young. They sell a lot of jeans, and the jeans come in different styles. There are a variety of cuts, of course (narrow, boot), plus multiple materials (standard denim, stretch), but their jeans are also worn differently. They “wash” them so they look worn when you buy them, as has been the trend since the 1900’s. The most dramatic wash is called “destroyed,” which means your jeans come with tears and holes included. I understand the fashion implications of this trend, but still, the practical side of me winces at paying for something that is already “destroyed.”

Yesterday the confluence of factors necessary for brush hogging the field occurred:

  1. I was home.
  2. The equipment to do the job was in working order and ready to be used.
  3. The weather was clear.
  4. Ground nesting birds had fledged.
  5. The wild parsnip was tall but not yet going to seed.
  6. I had the time to get cracking.

Yesterday morning I sat on the porch and looked out at the meadow. There were a whole lot of Bobolinks out there. I counted at least ten. Savannah Sparrows were singing. I was happy to see the Bobolinks–they successfully fledged some youngsters. It means they are making it here. It also means I could cut without mashing their nests. I also looked out at a field of yellow. The wild parsnip, that invasive plant that takes over and can offer passersby terrible burns, was tall and flowering. If one can feel emotion toward a plant, I feel bitterness toward wild parsnip. I want it gone.

Wild parsnip, some of it eight feet tall

Wild parsnip, some of it eight feet tall

Now is the key window for our meadow–birds that nest on the ground (Bobolinks, Red-Winged Blackbirds, Savannah Sparrows, Meadowlarks) have fledged and the wild parsnip has not yet gone to seed. After I returned from work early in the afternoon, I hopped in the machine and got cutting. We have been trying to get rid of the stuff for years now by cutting. Sometimes I have cut too late, and that just spreads the seeds. It has retreated a bit, growing in less area now, but it still rules parts of the meadow. I cut for several hours yesterday and got the worst of it. In the next couple days, if the weather holds, I hope to get the rest.

The upper field is now poor habitat. The mice and snakes can’t hide as well. The birds have nowhere to perch. The insects are moving to the field next door. But it does feel good to have sliced down the wild parsnip. The field looks different, some might say ugly, and I have been thinking of it in terms of fashion. It is not a field of grass (your basic new denim). It is not the clean cut-and-remove of a field of grass cut for hay (pre-washed to some degree). It is more the destroyed look. Grass and leaves and stems and flowers are spread across the meadow. It is not neat and tidy. It is not the look for going out to dinner. At the moment, however, it is the look I am going for, just right for late July.

Rainy June Days

IMG_0481It is sunny and warm this morning. It feels like summer. The sun is up, the air is humid. A Cardinal belts out his whistled song. The meadow grass bows. Across the road, the flood waters recede. It has rained for several days now, sometimes coming down hard. The river rose, then rose higher, then spilled into the fields.

My son and I wandered out into it a couple days ago. We chased frogs. They sang loudly enough to hear them across the field, but when we approached closely they clammed up and stayed hidden. Too shy for mammals I guess. We tromped through the new swamp, my cracked mud boots filling with water. We bushwhacked through the stand of willows, getting scratched and soaked. It was a blast.

Yesterday morning I wandered out to see how much flooding occurred. The field around the river with filled, although I have seen it higher. Water did not cover the road. Mallards swam far out, dabbling in the grasses for slugs. A Great Egret flew in later, wading through the pond, seeking out those frogs we heard. Maybe it would have better luck. A Great Blue Heron arrived while we ate dinner on the porch.

Already the water has dropped. The river will be within its banks today. Rain will likely fall again tomorrow. Thunderstorms will pop up more than once this month. June is here, and she is wearing summer. She looks lovely.

Looking for Bobolinks

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Can you see that Savannah Sparrow that landed in that tree?

This morning I volunteered to help look for Bobolinks and Savannah Sparrows. As part of a long-term study to learn about the health of ground-nesting bird populations, the idea today was to look for birds that had been banded in the past. A group of us met at Shelburne Farms, whose fields are a large part of the study, split into two groups, and headed out to beat the bushes grass.

The idea was to flush birds from the ground and to try to see if they had bands on their legs. There are a few types of bands so we got a quick tutorial before we started stomping across the meadows. To help flush birds before we were right on top of them we swished the grass with thin bamboo poles. Once the birds were airborne we could watch them through binoculars to see if anything bright stuck to their legs. Our group headed to Charlotte, to fields adjacent to Shelburne Farms, and right away we encountered Bobolinks. We saw half a dozen, plus a few Savannah Sparrows, but none of them had bands. We tried a few meadows divided by rows of trees and shrubs. Lots of birds but no bands. IMG_0409We then drove to another, nearby, field. Their were lots of Bobolinks here, maybe 15-20 of them. There were males and females, flying all over, the males singing like mad. The females have started laying eggs (they lay one a day for about four to six days) and apparently this drives the males a little loony. They burbled and gurgled and chirped away. We all had some great looks at these beautiful birds but again, saw no bands.

So we learned that there are some Bobolinks and Savannah Sparrows in all these fields (the other group managed to find one bird with a band) but it didn’t add much to the data. We did find one Bobolink nest. That was pretty cool. The eggs in it are not being incubated yet, as there were only two of them (they lay one egg per day for four to six days before settling in to get them to hatch); seeing that made the morning worth it. Plus, on the way to one field we all saw a Blue-Winged Warbler, an uncommon bird and one that I had never seen until last week. I even got a photo of that one. No Bobolink photos–I was too preoccupied with my binoculars–but I may get a chance to volunteer again when these folks come back to survey in June. I will try to remember to get photos of the actual birds then.

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Bobolink nest

Blue-Winged Warbler

Blue-Winged Warbler

 

Summer Shifting to Fall

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All of a sudden we don’t hang out on the porch all the time. It has gotten cold. Friday morning we had our first frost since spring started. Today the wind is howling. Fall has arrived. The crescent moon on the equinox makes it official.

Asters are blooming in the field. Goldenrod bows in the wind. Milkweed pods are beginning to brown, their seeds drifting over the meadow. This morning I watched the Green Mountains silhouetted by the golden light of morning; a duck zipped across the sky, heading north. Birds have stopped singing, calling to each other now quietly to stay in flocks as they migrate. Leaves drift to the ground, red highlighting the hillsides.

This time of year I think of all the things I have not done. I need to finish clearing the garage of painting accoutrements. I need to dig up and mulch the garden. I want to pick apples and make jam. I should prune some trees. And other things. Should I cut the field again before it snows? Can I fix the lawn mower so we can mow a few more times? Will we be able to get corn again before harvest season is over?

It is hard not to want to simply get outside on these days the sun rises later and lower in the sky. There are mountains to hike and trails to run. Too many years ago my wife and I started hiking the Long Trail about this time. We got married in the fall. It is the best time of year to be outside. It is cool, beyond the heat of summer but not yet the chill of winter. There are no mosquitoes. The air smells full of all that was summer–fallen leaves and soil and ripe fruit.

This morning I spent some time on the porch, finishing a book, drinking coffee, eating a cider donut I picked up at yesterday’s Shelburne Farms Harvest Festival. The wind whipped the trees and the field grass. I thought about all I might do today but felt lazy at the same time. Yesterday I read that the reason we are here is to lead an amazing life. Maybe I should start with trying to do that. I am assuming an amazing life includes roast corn for dinner, if I can find it.

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