Thursday, August 15, 2013

Wandering Far A-field

Everyone can identify it, by what-ever name you choose to call it: Field, Meadow, Pasture, Lea, Grassland.
We all know a field can be cultivated: for corn, varied other crops, even Sunflowers for wishes. Local farms keep many acres as grass land, sweeping and green, to be cut several times a season for hay that they will bale for their livestock. All of these kinds of fields certainly have their uses and support some wildlife, even if it is the deer and raccoons and birds that feast within them. But none of these support the variations in plant and wild life that a natural field will.

Sunflowers on Buttonwood Farm.

Hay, cut and drying, waiting for baling. 

Avalonia has quite a number of preserves that are comprised in some large or small part of open fields. 
Newly mown field at Knox Preserve.

Contrary to what it might seem, fields often require the greatest effort and planning for management.
Some fields are maintained as grasslands. Large expanses where the main plants are true grasses of many kinds provide a unique habitat. There are several species of birds that are of great concern in CT because of the disappearance of large open grass fields. Meadow Larks and Bobolinks are two that can nest here and require over 20 acres of open space, large fields for their nest sites, near or on the ground, deeply surrounded by grass. Visit the Wequetequock Cove Preserve on Palmer Neck Road in Stonington. If you pull over at the edge and peer through the break in the hedgerow you will note that the field there remains tall and uncut for the entire summer. This is to encourage and support the Bobolinks that nest there. Many farm fields attract these birds, but they are often mowed several times each season, and this is destructive and often fatal for the nesting birds. These fields here are only mowed late in the summer or early fall when nesting is complete, and the grass is left on the ground there to provide nutrients for the soil, seeds and cover for small mammals and insects. There is a path around part of the perimeter of these fields to allow you a better view, but walking through these fields during nesting season is not permitted.
Bobolink in Wequetequock field.

Fields are not static; they evolve quickly season by season. Grasses give way to other herbaceous plants, annuals, biennials and perennials. Milkweed is an early addition as wind borne seeds float in. While most animals will not graze on Milkweed, the Monarchs require it as a host plant for depositing their eggs and for their caterpillars.(7) Goldenrods quickly colonize the open sunny areas and attract all sorts of pollinators: bees, butterflies and birds. 
Monarch caterpillar on milkweed.

 Biennial Queen Anne’s Lace, while non-native, is a naturalized member of the carrot family and hosts many species of insects, including Black Swallowtail butterflies. Asters, Iron Weed, Black Eyed Susans, and Joe-Pye Weed all gradually find their way into a field and provide beauty for us to enjoy and offer varied food and nectar sources for insects. Birds soon follow to consume these insects as well as find vital seed sources from the grasses and flowers. There are abundant grazing opportunities for mammals ranging from woodchucks and rabbits to deer. Rodents collect seeds and create burrows and tunnels. Coyotes and foxes and birds of prey follow the small mammals. Visit the Knox Preserve for an example of fields in evolution. Witness the wealth of wildlife present there.
Native Asters
A male Goldfinch surveys his field.
Wild flowers fill the field at Knox Preserve.

Even these fields require management. Mowing is necessary at least every other year to prevent woody stems from accumulating and tougher shrubs from growing in and taking space and creating shade. Non-native invasive weeds and vines threaten to over-run a meadow and need to be cut back. Constant vigilance is necessary to remove them from the fields before they can totally over take the natives. It takes stewardship planning, effort and money to maintain even the most natural looking meadow. Avalonia thanks its many volunteers for their efforts to do so.
The field at Wequetequock Cove Preserve.

Written by Beth Sullivan

Photography by Beth Sullivan and Rick Newton.

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