Garden Blues

My garden has the blues and I couldn’t be happier about it.

The full sun front garden is bursting with color in its second year of being, the blues not depressing either the garden or the gardener. I’m fond of blue flowers and grow several different species, most of which are native to Texas.

In this new garden I’ve planted five clumps of perennial Mealy Blue Sage ‘Henry Duelberg’, Salvia farinacea; all come from a plant I purchased years ago. This salvia is a late spring/summer/early fall bloomer and spreads by both seed and root. I should add that while it spreads, I don’t consider it aggressive; if a sprig pops up, it’s easy-peasy to yank out. It’s a dream to transplant: pull up a clump with roots, stick said clump in the ground, water a few times and it grows and blooms, beckoning the pollinators!

Mealy Blue Sage is favored by a wide variety of pollinators, like this honeybee. She is all-in for these small blooms.

Bigger pollinators, like this Black Swallowtail, Papilio polyxenes, are fans of the mealy blues, too.

Another blue that makes me cheerful is Indigo Spires, Salvia x ‘Indigo Spires’. This perennial is a hybrid cross of the native Salvia farinacea and Salvia longispicata. I planted this specimen in my back garden a couple of years ago where it received some afternoon sun, but when the front garden morphed to full sun, I moved it there where it would get most-of-the-day sunshine, be a happier plant, and bring on the blues. Indigo is bigger than the ‘Henry Duelberg’, with longer bloom spikes and larger leaves.

Many years ago when my back garden was full sun, I grew an Indigo Spires. In late summer and fall afternoons, there were often fifteen to twenty American Bumblebees working these blooms. Sadly, I haven’t seen that many bees on this plant, but the bees that are around definitely make a bee-line for these blues.

If there was an award for blues in the garden, I think it would go to the Blue Curls, Phacelia congesta. I didn’t mean to have so many this year and I should have culled some of the seedlings, but I am a softy. I have a hard time removing seedlings of desirable plants unless I have someone who will take them to another garden space. These are Texas annual wildflowers, so leaving them in place didn’t stress me too much as I knew that they’d be done with their show by mid-May when I could remove them, making room for the summer perennials.

When the Curls reached the zenith of their flowering, there was a constant gentle buzzing in the garden and movement throughout the garden’s air. Honeybees, Carpenter bees, a myriad of tiny native bees, skippers and larger butterflies all flock to partake of these charming blue-violet flowers.

Honeybees sharing a meal of Blue Curl nectar and pollen.
Honeybee and Grey Hairstreak each mind their own business as they sip the sweet stuff.
Red Admiral (Vanessa atalanta) on a Blue Curl.
Fiery Skipper (Hylephila phyleus) lights up the blues!

A variety of beetles and leaf-footed bugs got into the act of working these sweet blue blooms! Everybody, it seems, loves Blue Curls.

As the Curls’ blooms faded and the seeds developed, migrating songbirds were in the garden from dawn to dusk. I witnessed Common Yellowthroats, Lincoln’s Sparrows, Clay-colored Sparrows and Lesser and American Goldfinches noshing on the seeds and, no doubt, some of the tiny insects that were also on the plants. As these migratory birds fly northbound from my garden, they’ll pass along seeds to other places for next year’s wildlife.

Blue Curls are a cornucopia for wildlife. The insect and bird song, color, and life that these blue beauties brought to the garden during March and April eclipsed all other plants in the garden.

That’s why I didn’t remove them!

In the back garden, things are shadier, but the blues reign. Another violet-blue flowering plant is the perennial Heartleaf Skullcap, Scutellaria ovata and it thrives in part-shade.

Velvety, grey-green foliage accompanies these diminutive blooms.

The grey-green stalks with fuzzy foliage appear in winter, fresh color against the freeze-rendered browns and tans. Heartleaf Skullcap spreads as a ground cover, adding blue bloom spikes atop the foliage from late spring through mid summer. Summer’s heat ends the blooms and fades the foliage; the plant eventually disappears. The gardener helps that process by shearing to the ground or pulling up the plant. Thick roots lie dormant in the soil, safe from the Texas heat, waiting patiently until cool winter, when it emerges with fresh stems and foliage, ready to grow and begin its cycle in the garden for a new season.

The pond’s water lilies are pink and yellow, but its bog plant, Pickerelweed, Pontederia cordata, rocks teeny violet-blue flowers borne on spiky stems. The plant sits in slow-moving water, blue spikes rise above luscious foliage.

Many of my blues suggest a liaison with lavender or violet, but this final blue is a true blue: spring and autumn blooming Majestic Sage, Salvia guaranitica.

This is the only non-native blue that I grow; its home base is in Central and South America. A gorgeous, rich blue, the plant is colorful in spring and autumn, choosing to rest during the sweltering summer months. Most of the bees that visit nectar steal, though my honeybees and some of the tiny native bees crawl deep into the blooms for their sweet treat.

I grow a few other blues that will sing their songs in late summer and fall. The blues in a garden are the kind of blues we should welcome–for their beauty and for what they provide for the wild things we share space with. Add some blues to your garden, you’ll be happy you did!

A Fox in the Garden

I’d seen it (and others of its kind) in the neighborhood. “It” is a Gray Fox, Urocyon cinereoargenteus, most likely a female (vixen) native to Texas and common in Austin. A few days ago, she visited my back garden for about 20 minutes, clearly relaxed and in her element.

She knew we watched her, but didn’t flee, nor seemed nervous. Also, it was clear that she’d been here before; she knew her way along the garden’s paths. I suspect that it was a fox that predated our Eastern Screech Owl nest box back in February. If so, I imagine she had kits to feed. Gray Foxes are omnivores and eat what they find: eggs, seeds, insects, reptiles, bird fledglings, rodents; their diet is varied. They also climb like cats and can jump up to 6 feet. They’re well-suited as predators in an urban environment.

She looks healthy to me, her coat lush, her eyes bright. She spent a few minutes nibbling on the remains of safflower seeds, dropped from a feeder situated above her.

After a while, she jumped up on the fence, traipsing along the top, until she sat. Then she lay down on top of a trellis adjacent to one part of the fence, comfortably dangling one front leg off the trellis edge. After a bit of rest, she climbed over the fence, and with a swoosh of her bushy tail, she was gone into another’s fenced space.

I’d called my SIL over to see our foxy visitor. Through the screen of the enclosed patio, the Hub caught this photo of us as fox paparazzi.


Marvelous Migration

Spring bird migration is ongoing in my gardens, birds visiting as they wing their way north to their breeding grounds. I usually observe these far-flung-feathered-friends at or near my pond in the back garden; it’s a draw for these weary travelers and they love to splash. Near the pond are are several small trees/large shrubs where birds (both migratory and resident) take refuge when startled, or hop through, nibbling at whatever they find on foliage and limbs. The pond and garden beckons, so the migratory birds visit–sometimes for a couple of days, often only for a brief time.

The migratory birds don’t typically spend time at the feeders, but occasionally, that’s the main focus of their interest. This seems the year of the Red-winged Blackbirds, Agelaius phoeniceus. I’ve never seen so many in my gardens and they’ve never stayed around for so long. I observed a handful of males and lots of females. I usually hear these birds, their melodic, high-pitched call crystal clear, before I see them. They’re mostly gone now, but while they visited, they were interested in feeding.

I’ve never been successful at capturing the stunning red and yellow markings under the wings of the males–until this spring. This guy was on the prowl, trying to impress a gal! He fluffed his feathers, the bright spots shone, the camera clicked!

That red against the rich, velvet black is swoon-worthy!

This was the object of the handsome male’s interest; she’s good-looking too, if less interested in him than he was in her. She ambled through the garden, seed-eating as she skillfully maneuvered away from the amorous male.

I think he finally gave up his courting attempt. A couple of honeybees kept him company on the water source, while the rejected male soothed his bruised ego with a cool drink and bath.

Probably my favorite of the migratory birds are the Lincoln’s Sparrows, Melospiza lincolnii. If not the flashiest of birds, they are nevertheless elegant in marking and form. Additionally, they have a line of feathers on their heads that stick up, suggesting birdie mohawks! They’re shy little things, zipping through the garden’s foliage, successful at not being seen. I have learned to recognize their call, and if I’m patient, sometimes catch them in a contemplative moment.

A truly flashy bird is the male Summer Tanager, Piranga rubra. Every spring, I see several in late April and early May. They hang out in the back garden where the beehives are located and hunt honeybees. Tanagers are known as bee and wasp hunters, catching the insects on the wing. This shot of an adult male with a honeybee snack was a dumb-luck photo. The tanager and I are thrilled with the capture, the poor bee probably less so!

A week or so later, I heard another Tanager calling and saw this juvenile male, also hunting near the hives, his yellow and red coloring easy to spot in the leafy Mountain Laurel. He was also successful in honeybee snacking. During the tanagers visits, I saw only one adult female, but could never get a clear photo of her. The females are a rich, golden yellow and are just as fascinating to watch as their male counterparts.

A male Rose-breasted Grosbeak, Pheucticus ludovicianus, spent a couple of days going between my garden and my SIL’s garden. Cornell Lab of Ornithology shows their migration ranges from most of Texas (excepting far West Texas), through the eastern half of the U.S. They breed in the Great Lakes region, northeast, and Canada. Most years I see one or two, but I wouldn’t mind if more hung out for a while.

My new, full-sun front garden has proven to be another safe place for the migratory birds to spend time and eat. There isn’t a water source in this garden, but the native plant growth is welcoming for food and safety. Another bashful, super-flitty little warbler is the Common Yellowthroat, Geothlypis trichas, and they’re abundant in the front garden this spring. Hard to catch perching still, this male stayed long enough in my Desert Willow for me get a shot. I love the male’s rakish mask, he looks like a daredevil bird! As I write this post, there are two couples bopping around in my front garden, dashing through the plants, eating small insects as they go, sneakily avoiding the gardener and her camera.

It’s been a good year to see Painted Buntings, Passerina ciris. Sightings over several weeks have allowed regular viewing of this most beautiful bird. This male wouldn’t cooperate and show me all of his colors, or the whole of his cute face, but I still like the shot of him resting in the tree after a bath.

His mate was more willing to be out in the open and spent time fluffing her feathers on the rocks bordering the pond after her bath, camera and human notwithstanding!

Another female Painted Bunting perched for a time while I was Yellowthroat watching. I couldn’t decide which photo I liked the best: her good side,

…or her other good side!

This shot is less clear, but demonstrates the magnificent colors of this gorgeous male. My cat, Lena, was watching him through our front window, no doubt wishing she could say a feline “hi” and maybe relieve him of his stunning plumage. That’s why she’s an indoor cat!

I’ve only seen one Nashville Warbler, Leiothlypis ruficapilla, this spring, which is unusual. I like these tiny, busy birds and they’re fond of the bog section of the pond. This fella is identified by his rusty cap a and white eye-ring. I hope more Nashvilles come through the garden to rest as they have a long way to travel. Their non-breeding area is in Central America and they nest in Canada.

One White-crowned Sparrow, Zonotrichia leucophrys, spent several days noshing on fallen safflower seeds. It hung out with the White-winged Doves, who didn’t object to its presence. According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology map, White-crowns’ nonbreeding area encompasses Central Texas, but I’ve only seen them during spring migration. He definitely needed to fuel-up; his breeding grounds are in the northern most part of Canada and Alaska and it’s a long flight.

I was thrilled that a flock (gaggle? pack? gang? murder?) of Baltimore Orioles, Icterus galbula, spent a couple days between SIL’s and my gardens. Coincidentally, I happen to have some oranges, which is great because they love oranges. There were several males and females, adults and juveniles, each one gorgeous!

They adore oranges! They also enjoy grape jelly, though I don’t have any of that to offer. I don’t own an official orange feeder, but I stick the cut orange pieces on the cylinder feeder and on nails that I’ve hammered into our back fence. The birds seem satisfied with their treat.

Female Baltimores aren’t the orange-n-black-n-white show stoppers like the males, but are eye-catching birds nonetheless.

Orioles are adept at getting into the sweet spots of oranges with those pointed beaks.

Another of the sparrows tricky to identify is this Clay-colored Sparrow, Spizella pallida. This isn’t a great shot as these petite birds feed on seeds in the undergrowth, with lots of interfering plant material. They’re only in the clear as they wing swiftly upward to hide in trees or taller shrubs. I’ve seen several of these, usually feeding in pairs.

Like most sparrows, their colors are often considered drab, but I find the subtle colors and markings quite lovely.

I’ve had quick glimpses of other migratory birds, too, including one Black and White Warbler, a couple of Orchard Orioles, and an itsy-bitsy yellow thing that was too fast for me to identify. Birds are quick, bird watchers (at least this one) aren’t always so quick. It’s about halfway through migratory season, so there’s still plenty of time to observe the remarkable birds.

This weekend, Cornell Lab of Ornithology sponsors its annual Global Big Day of bird watching. Birders all over the world–serious and casual–will spend a few minutes (or a few hours) noting the birds they’ve seen. Participating doesn’t take much time, and it’s fun, educational, and it helps science and those who study birds. What’s not to love about that? Click on the above link to find out how to participate and become part of Team Bird!

Happy backyard birding!

Juvenile Summer Tanager