Grass – Roots

The header photo of this post is an Eastern Meadowlark singing the morning praises atop a newly rolled bale of hay. Hay is, of course, cut and dried grass (or alfalfa or clover or a mix of those plants.) For the meat eaters who need a comparison, hay is the equivalent of “jerky” for grass eating animals like cows, horses and sheep.

Our property, although small at fifty acres, is able to sustain several micro-environments. They offer food and shelter for hundreds of species from insects and worms to white-tailed deer and all the birds that make this their permanent home, their summer breeding ground or merely use our retired farm as a landing pad during their migration.

The saying ‘grassroots’ is a term that means the very foundation or source. Typically, that’s a figurative term – but at our home, it’s quite literal. The grassroots of the habitats we provide is…. grass!

What was once something so common I barely even noticed it, grass has become a subject of my photography hobby – which is especially true when I am waiting to spot a pretty bird. Here are some images I captured recently of the natural beauty of one of the most basic elements of our land.

Along with grasses, there are other plants which comprise the grassland / prairie environment. Red and white clover, for example are beneficial because they fix nitrogen in the soil. It’s like Nature’s own fertilizer. Red clover is larger and taller and its nectar supports butterflies and even hummingbirds. The white clover is one you may have seen in a yard. It’s low to the ground, and much smaller than the red clover. I’ve also included a few photos of wild flowers. The final photos are of Milkweed, a critical plant for the Monarch butterfly’s survival.

The Brown Thrasher, like the American Robin (and other thrushes) make a living by hunting earth worms and other critters that live on and in the ground. It’s easy to say that the true grassroots of an ecosystem is the soil. It’s hard to argue against such an obvious perspective. However, without the protection of a thick blanket of grasses, rich soil can become a barren desert very quickly.

Here are a few photos of a Brown Thrasher taking advantage of the mowed paths that Robert cuts around the hedgerows so that, when the grasses grow tall, I can still negotiate around the property. They thrive on worms that live in the soil – but the grass is critical to the soil’s health.

I recall last autumn, the first in years when I was able to move freely about the property. I observed many different species take advantage of the bounty of grass and other seeds (from weeds aka wild flowers) that had been produced throughout the summer. While sitting along a path that was cut through large stands of hip-high grasses, I actually found myself contemplating if it was billions or trillions of individual grass seeds that we produced in a single season. Then, I wondered how many seeds per day a bird might eat. Without a calculator, It was a “mind blown” experience. Still, I’m happy I didn’t have that calculator or I might have missed a lovely bird land right before me.

The other day I was sitting patiently at my citrus lure (orange slices hung in a tree to attract the Orioles) and I began to notice a pair of small birds flying into a patch of tall grass next to the old barn. A few minutes later, they would fly (almost always together) back into the mature trees behind the old house. While my camera was aimed at the brilliantly juice oranges in the apple tree, my mind was focused on catching the little birds as they flew back and forth. At one point, the male bird landed atop a fence post and the sun illuminated his brilliant color. It was an Indigo Bunting.

“I have plenty of photos of Orioles eating the oranges,” I said to myself. But, what’s the chance I could actually film through that tall grass and capture a clear image of the Indigo Buntings, I asked. I moved to a position near where I had seen the Buntings, hoping to get close enough to achieve my goal, but not so close that they would pull the rip cord and look elsewhere for their meal. Here are a few shots that illustrate both my failures and my successes. Look carefully – a couple of the photos include the male and female noshing in the grass together (the female is brown.)

My hat goes off to the professional photographers who are able to focus through such a jungle and capture crisp images of their intended target. Although they are not press worthy, I give myself a B+, because we all have the right to set the standards of our hobbies! Clearly, those pros would toss these images to the cutting room floor. I still feel compelled to share.

Insects utilize grasses in many ways. Without insects there would be no birds. In a passive way the grass sustain the bird as much, if not more, than in an active way of producing seeds and the fiber that many birds use for nesting materials. Here’s a spider that seems to be busy creating a web on the head of a grass stem. Incredibly, when I took these photos I had no clue there was a spider or any bug on the grass. I found it once I began reviewing the images on my computer monitor!

As my final gift in this post, I offer you 90 seconds of my tranquillity. This was shot at the edge of our pond (you will even hear a bull frog vocalizing towards the end.) The image of undulating grasses hopefully helps you “feel” the sensation of a cool breeze.

The plethora of bird songs often reminds me of the vastness of nature and (in a healthy way) helps me recognize my very small place within it. Still, it makes me feel infinitely part of it all. I hope you enjoy it.

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