Farmscape Wonder Wander: 13 January 2021

By Nellie and Anna

Today’s Wonder Wander will introduce the newly installed, self-guided tour of Old Field habitat at Greenport Conservation Area outside of Hudson! This is the second in a series of self-guided Wonder Wander walks installed in different habitats and public recreation areas in collaboration with the Columbia Land Conservancy.

Follow along with this blog post to explore some wonders of the Old Field, and/or check out these wonders in-person at Greenport Conservation Area from now until February 15th!

For those of you who have received our year-end appeal gift of the Wonder Wander Journal, this also reflects the January “Old Field” habitat. Find out more about our self-guided Wonder Wander walks and how to get a digital or hard copy of our Wonder Wander Journal at: hvfarmscape.org/wonder.

For starters, it might be helpful to share what defines Old Field habitat: it is habitat that usually represents a transition between productive agricultural field and shrubland, and is maintained by infrequent mowing. In winter, you’ll recognize this habitat by the standing dead vegetation (typically asters and goldenrods).

The Old Field at Greenport Conservation Area is composed of many different types of plants, the first one we’ll talk about is dogbane (Apocynum sp.). Dogbane in winter has a reddish-brown color, and still has its long seed pods, which are are attached in pairs, and almost resemble beans.

Dogbane seed pods

While dogbane is native to our region, it can get a “weedy” reputation because it spreads easily and quickly through its underground rhizomes.

Dogbane is a relative of milkweed, and its seed pods also open when ripe to disperse hundreds of seeds attached to white fluff. This fluff acts as a parachute, which helps the seed to travel in the wind. While this plant is toxic to mammals, many insects including the Milkweed Bug and Dogbane Beetle eat the seeds and other parts of the dogbane.

Dogbane seed with fluffy “parachute”

While exploring the Old Field, look for (but don’t touch or remove) the puffy, foamy praying mantis egg cases (oothecae). These can be found attached to stalks, a foot or two off the ground.

Praying mantis egg sac

In late summer, the female copulates and lays dozens to hundreds of eggs inside these foamy masses which soon harden and become water-repellant. The eggs overwinter inside, hatching in the spring as small, wingless mantises.

Praying mantises are superb predators, that ambush or stalk a wide variety of insect prey, and occasional larger animals such as hummingbirds. Their predation abilities is why praying mantises were originally introduced in the 1800s.

Two praying mantis egg cases share a branch

Because of the way Old Fields are managed, plants often remain standing through the winter, which gives one an opportunity to look at the plants’ “winter bodies.”

Old Field under a blanket of snow

There are typically many species of asters (Symphyotrichum sp.) and goldenrods (Solidago sp.), all native to this region, that populate Old Fields.

Clustered seed heads of goldenrod
Individual seed heads of aster

Of course there is a variety of nonnative species, including Queen Anne’s Lace or Wild Carrot (Daucus carota). This seed head is full of seeds covered in small barbs. The barbs help the seeds to disperse on the wind and on animals.

Queen Anne’s Lace (Wild Carrot) seed head with barbed seeds

While many seeds on in the Old Field may have already been dispersed, some still linger on the plant and can offer food to birds and other animals.

And speaking of goldenrod…have you ever seen a goldenrod stem with a round growth on it? This is called a Goldenrod Ball Gall, and it’s formed in response to the native Goldenrod Gall Fly (Eurosta solidaginis).

Goldenrod Ball Gall

Female Gall Flies lay eggs in young goldenrod stems in the spring. When an egg hatches, the larva feeds on the inside of the stem and chemicals released through its saliva prompt the stem to grow abnormally, forming the ball-shaped gall. The gall then serves as food and shelter for the larva, which grows until it reaches its third (freeze-tolerant) larval stage, at which point it overwinters until spring.

The Goldenrod Gall Fly is but one of around 150 insect species for which goldenrods provide food. Then there are the birds that feed on the fly’s larvae inside the gall, primarily the Black-capped Chickadee and Downy Woodpecker. These relationships point to goldenrod being a vital part of this field’s food web. 

A Goldenrod Ball Gall that has been predated, likely by a Black-capped Chickadee or Downy Woodpecker

Old Fields contain the seeds (and plants) of their own destruction—woody shrubs, that (if left to grow) can transform an Old Field into a shrubland within years. Some of the common shrubs in Old Fields, all present here, are the native Silky Dogwood (Cornus amomum) and non-native Multiflora Rose (Rosa multiflora).

The bright red branches of a young Silky Dogwood shrub

Beginning in the 1930s, Multiflora Rose was widely promoted for erosion control and to serve in “living fences”—only to quickly become the bane of many farmers due to its invasive takeover of fields. Recently, however, the arrival of the Rose Rosette Virus has noticeably reduced its spread.

Multiflora Rose infected by Rose Rosette Virus

Maybe you recognize the spiky seed heads that belong to a wild teasel (Dipsacus sp.), a non-native plant that grows in open areas such as this field, along roadsides, and by creeks.

A wild teasel

Its cultivated relative, Fuller’s Teasel (Dipsacus fullonum), was once a big part of cloth manufacturing. The seed heads were important tools in the finishing process of woolen cloth, as they were used to “raise the nap” of wool, which made cloth fluffier and softer. Historically, Onondoga County, NY was a national hub for teasel production until teasel heads were replaced by metal parts in the early 20th century.  

This Teasel Raising Gig at the National Wool Museum in Wales uses 3000 teasel heads
(image from spinwheelspin.blogspot.com)

Lastly, we’d like to point out how Old Fields provide habitat and food for many different animals in winter. If you know what to look for, you might be able to find traces of who is coming and going.

Keep an eye out for bird tracks in the snow. Birds, including American Goldfinches and several species of sparrows, feed on seeds that remain from last season. The bird tracks might even tell you which plants the bird was eating from.

American Goldfinch on a primrose plant
American Tree Sparrow

Have you ever seen tunnels in a field? Small mammals like Meadow Voles make shallow tunnels in the soil and under the snow to connect their underground burrows and to stay safe from predators and other winter dangers.

Meadow Vole tunnels in an Old Field

When the snow is deep, Meadow Voles will most likely tunnel under the snow if they have to get somewhere. On the surface of the snow, look for the bounding, tail-dragging tracks of a White-footed or Deer Mouse.

Snow tunnels made by a small mammal

We hope you’ve enjoyed our virtual Old Field Wonder Wander at Greenport, and we hope you get to enjoy the wonders of the Old Field in person as well!

Old Field at Greenport Conservation Area

This entry was posted in Animals, History, Insects, Plants. Bookmark the permalink.

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