Generally when we think about harvest-time it would normally be in the fall of the year. However the first significant harvest in this area of Virginia where cattle-raising is predominant is the first cutting of hay which is often in early June. The photo shows our fields which were cut June 1-3 this year which is quite early for us, due to the unusually good growing conditions for grass. Hay should be cut when it is ripe to maximize the quality, but this needs to be weighed against the damage done to nesting birds such as meadowlarks (see photo of a singing male in a recently mowed field). Our experience has been that nests are destroyed, but that the birds re-nest quickly and overall are benefitted by hay field management if the mowing is limited to one cut per year. Two advantages of cutting once yearly and early are not only reducing woody invasion, but allowing for growth of beneficial warm season grasses (such as foxtails) and weeds (such as pigweeds) which are highly attractive to breeding birds (such as indigo buntings and goldfinches) and fall migrants (such as bobolinks). Without a cut, the exotic cold season grasses such as fescue will dominate the field.
Maximizing the habitat benefits to wildlife by managing field ecology is a complex and never-ending process of trying new ideas, learning from the results, and adapting to changing conditions. The photo of the fields immediately around our farm house illustrates how we apply the general principle of maintaining the greatest habitat diversity within a relatively small area. In the foreground is our neighbor’s cow pasture. This has reduced grass and herb cover compared to our un-grazed fields but is very attractive to breeding grasshopper sparrows. Directly above the pasture is a tree/shrub border and then a wet meadow/marsh with embedded small ponds. Above that is another shrub border and a yard habitat mosaic around the house. On either side of the house are two green areas of planted herbaceous flowers and grasses (commonly called NWSG = native warm season grasses), with broad hayfields bordered by forests behind and beyond.
A totally different type of “harvest” is the “capture” by sight, sound or camera of the wonderful summer-time creatures that abound. A recent sampling is given here illustrating the blizzard of dragonflies that are in flight (a male spangled skimmer dazzles the eyes), a startling orange-red juvenile red eft stage of the red-spotted newt (advertising its toxicity due to tetrodotoxin), and an unexpected pumpkinseed sunfish that has somehow gained entry to one of our ponds.
Early summer is a time for contemplation of the miracle of the diversity of life in all its forms. How amazing are the multitudes of plants and flowers, insects in the air-water-land, birds singing and breeding in wild abandon, amphibians adding their choruses to the sounds of summer, fish in ponds and streams, and the exciting if sometimes scary reptiles.
Bill Dunson, Englewood, FL & Galax, VA