Abstract. Closed canopy vegetation often prevents the colonization of plant species. Therefore the majority of plant species are expected to appear at the initial phase of post-agricultural succession in mesic forest environment with moderate levels of resources. This hypothesis was tested with data from the Buell-Small Successional Study, NJ, USA, one of the longest continuous fine-scale studies of old-field succession. The study started in 1958, including old fields with different agricultural histories, landscape contexts, and times of abandonment. In each year of the study, the cover values of plant species were recorded in 48 permanent plots of 1 m2 in each field. We analysed the temporal patterns of colonization at plot scale and related these to precipitation data and other community characteristics. The number of colonizing species decreased significantly after ca. 5 yr, coinciding with the development of a continuous canopy of perennial species. However, species turnover remained high throughout the whole successional sequence. The most remarkable phenomenon is the high inter-annual variation of all studied characteristics. We found considerable temporal collapses of vegetation cover that were synchronized among fields despite their different developmental stages and distinctive species compositions. Declines of total cover were correlated with drought events. These events were associated with peaks of local species extinctions and were followed by increased colonization rates. The transitions of major successional stages were often connected to these events. We suggest that plant colonization windows opened by extreme weather events during succession offer optimum periods for intervention in restoration practice.