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.

Looking for Bobolinks


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.


Bobolink nest

Blue-Winged Warbler

Blue-Winged Warbler


Mowing and Meadowlarks


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.


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

Looking Good Around Here

Self portrait. 6:00 AM.

Self portrait. 6:00 AM.

Spring is pretty much here at this point. A lot of folks are saying it is finally here but come on. It is here. That is enough. Here, where the field slopes up from the river, the fields are greening. The flood waters have receded, at least this far from the lake. The house wren is back, happily singing in the old Christmas tree farm. White crowned sparrows are pecking away at the remainders from the bird feeders. The sun rises earlier each day.



In some places, daffodils have faded to brown. Ours are just blooming. We still have apple blossoms and lilacs to look forward to smelling. We were in California recently. In Santa Barbara we smelled a garden full of thousands of roses, of scores of colors and shapes. It was an olfactory delight let me tell you. Roses won’t be blooming here for a while. Green has just arrived, yellow in its heals. Other colors are on the way.

Savannah Sparrow enjoying the spring day

Savannah Sparrow enjoying the spring day

Each day things get a little more beautiful. Rain has fallen the past couple of days. It has not fallen all day but on an off. Things get wet and the sun comes out and everything shines. Then it rains again. Water hammers the porch roof, then the solar panels start making kilowatts again. Then drips fall off my hat brim. Rain gives me a lens to look through–real and metaphorical. Wordsworth said “The world is too much with us,” that, when it comes to nature, we “are out of tune;/It moves us not.” But the savannah sparrow singing over the new grass, and the rings of raindrops in the puddles, and the buds bursting from the maples, all those, as he put it, “make me less forlorn.” I keep my heart yet.