Connecting Lake Simcoe's Community

Hay — watch out for that bobolink nest!

2021 06 19 bobolinksBy David J. Hawke — Back in the “old days” when we attended school inside a building and had a teacher at the front of the room, June was always a difficult month to get any classwork done. In elementary grades it was a time of field trips (in my area it was always Wye Marsh, Martyr’s Shrine, Ste. Marie Among the Hurons, Huronia Village and/or Simcoe County Museum).

          In secondary grades the field trips were replaced with final exams (yeah, like a single exam is going to rescue me from an academic year’s worth of goofing off). But June was also marked by something else… it was haying time.

          My high school was located beside a working farm and many of my relatives lived nearby and worked their own land. The smell of fresh cut hay is all of June wrapped up in a single smell. It was a signal that I would soon be shifting my living quarters from in-town to rural, the start of summer vacation spent helping as a junior farm hand.

          However, prior to putting my butt on a tractor seat. I had to put my butt in a chair in a gym to write those finals. Hard to concentrate when I knew that Uncle Jack, Uncle Roy and Uncle Charlie were, at that very moment, starting the hay mowing on their respective farms. By the time I found myself free of school and country bound, the hay would be dry enough to need raking and baling.

          There is always an array of wildlife to be seen from a tractor’s seat… meadowlarks and bobolinks scattered around the field, marsh hawks floating by, deer and fawns furtively travelling the field edges. Maybe a killdeer or two on the dusty farm lane. And groundhogs, always the dark silhouettes of groundhogs standing up to survey the loss of their once protective cover.

In July, as the hay bales were picked up and hand-loaded onto wagons, each bale might provide an encounter with a milk snake, garter snake or meadow vole. Barn swallows swooped in search of the many flies to capture and take back to their young waiting in the mud nests within the barn. Nature abounded within these fields.

          So much has changed over the past few decades of course, from farming practices to nature awareness to student availability. Many of the quaint hay fields with their tree-lined boundaries are now gone, replaced either by cul-de-sacs and boulevards, or by mega-fields of soy or corn.

          Bobolinks, meadowlarks, milk snakes and barn swallows are now all listed as either threatened or a species of concern in Ontario as their populations continue to crash. Without availability, continuity and diversity of rural habitat, these species have been steadily disappearing from our landscape. Sigh.

          A few years ago, as part of a provincial recovery plan for bobolinks, a hard look was given to hayfields and how to manage them for bobolinks. Initially this idea was not warmly embraced by farmers who felt that their fields were to be managed as places to grow hay, not birds.

          So here was the challenge: bobolinks became listed as threatened under the provincial Endangered Species Act (ESA). As such, protection of its habitat (read hay field) was warranted. The ESA states that no one shall interfere with or harm a listed species or its habitat.

          Farmers argued that the birds came after the fields were established, so no natural bobolink habitat was destroyed in the making of the field, and that the agricultural interests of the land superseded these latent needs of the birds.

          Biologists argued that as suitable and natural nesting habitat has been all but removed from the Ontario landscape, the only place left for these critters was hay fields. And so, a steely eyed standoff began.

          It was determined by research that bobolinks nest in loose colonies, generally in the middle of a field. They preferred hay fields as the tall stems provide perching and the usual understory of clover provides nest cover. Nearby insects provide oodles of food to the birds.

          The real sticking point was the timing of the hay cutting. Bobolinks set territory, build nests and lay eggs in late May and early June. The eggs hatch about mid-June and the young get airborne by late June. This is, of course, smack-dab in the middle of haying season.

          As the mower went by, whatever nests avoided being outright crushed by the tractor tires were revealed to predators (gulls, crows, raccoons, foxes, skunks, and hawks). The result being that the year’s bobolink population was wiped out, yet again.

          The agricultural value of the hay is that there is high nutritional value in June-cut hay, which is great for feeding to cattle in the winter months. The later the hay is cut, the less the quality of the product. So, the traditional timing for hay cutting is during final exam week (the third week of June).

          But compromise was reached! If no bobolinks were observed in a particular hay field, then cutting could take place as usual in June.

If bobolinks were observed, the farmers were offered the options of leaving that field to be cut last, hopefully allowing time for the young to fledge and leave the field. Or, maybe just cut a few swaths around the perimeter of the field for now and let the center of the field stand until the birds have flown.

And it was discovered that horse owners actually prefer late-cut hay as they don’t want fat horses (as opposed to cattle farmers who want fat cattle fed on high nutritional hay). So, July-cut hay indeed had a market.

A drive through the country roads may still reveal bobolinks sitting jauntily atop a weed stalk or tuft of hay. If you are fortunate enough to see one, appreciate they are an icon of a terrific relationship between the farming and biological communities.

Dave’s Notebook: Lots going on this weekend: Father's Day, Summer Solstice, the start of the traditional “summer vacation.” If you have an opportunity to get out-and-about, please remember this pandemic is not over. Keep your distance, keep the group size small and keep that darn mask on! Other than that, enjoy what nature has to offer.

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© 2021 David J. Hawke

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