BIG B, little b, What Begins with B?: Wildlife Wednesday, February

BIG B, little b, what begins with B?   

In my case, it’s not Barber baby bubbles and a bumblebee, but BIRDS, Birds, birds! With apologies to the Dr. Seuss children’s book which whimsically teaches the ABCs in classic Seussian-style, this month in my garden has seen a variety of both upper case (BIG) and lower case (little) birds.  Welcome to Wildlife Wednesday, a monthly huzzah for wildlife and also for those who garden to protect and support that wildlife.

I’ve never witnessed as many up close and personal daytime raptor encounters in my own garden as has been the case for the past couple of months.  During late autumn, winter, and spring, I regularly see raptors swooping through the neighborhood, scattering terrified birds, as well as soaring through the Austin sky as I make my way around town.  But this past month, several have hunted directly in my back garden, with exciting, sometimes troubling, results.

A gorgeous Cooper’s HawkAccipiter cooperii, flew into a sliding-glass door which serves as the door to my back garden.  I happened to be out in the garden and it must have flown passed me on its way to the crash.  I heard the thump against the glass door and whipped around, assuming that it was a Whitewinged dove, as those are the birds that typically hit the windows.  I was shocked to see the hawk on the back patio floor, a bit unsteady on his talons.  He fluttered to a bench adjacent to the door, and then flew to a back trellis.

I thought the hawk might be a juvenile, but the deep orange eyes suggest an adult.

With one more addled act, he landed on a pathway about 10 feet in front of me.  After minute of giving me the stink eye and allowing me the time to grab some photos,

…this beauty flew to a neighbor’s tree and then was off again, flying well.

A few days later, I saw a Cooper’s Hawk in my Red oak tree; I assume it’s the same hawk, as it hangs around my house, clearly looking for bird meals.

The hawk’s eyes are focused on what I realized was a dove, its targeted meal.

A split second after this shot, the bird belted toward the back of the garden and with a rustle of leaves and kerfuffle of activity, a Whitewinged dove sprinted into the air and across the neighbor’s back garden with the hawk in fast pursuit.  I lost sight of the two of them as they winged through trees in the ancient predator-prey dance, so I don’t know how the chase ended.

I’ve noticed a few more bird strikes on my windows since I had Pella windows installed about two years ago.   While I love the windows, I’m sorry that it’s created a problem for the birds. The vast majority of hits are of Whitewinged doves, and only one proved immediately fatal, but I can’t help wonder how many hit when I’m not home?  And, do any die later, from internal injuries?  I‘ve placed “bird alert” window decals on many of my windows, though I’d never placed any on the sliding-glass door that the hawk hit;  I’ve remedied that.  (My back patio is covered and I mistakenly assumed a bird wouldn’t fly fast into such obviously human territory.) The reviews of these decals are mixed, but they apparently have some positive effect on the birds’ view of things.  A quick look at one of my back windows gives you an idea of what the birds see.

This window images part of my back garden and the back neighbor’s roof. You can also see the stickers, placed  closely together.

As far as I’m aware, no bird has hit this particular window, but you can see why one might.

At about this time last year, I witnessed another Cooper’s Hawk chasing birds in my garden.  It flew from the house to a Mountain Laurel tree (mid-garden), and then immediately whooshed back to the house, straight toward a bedroom window.  The bird banked hard to its left about three feet from the window and flew off.  I’d placed some decals on that particular window and have often wondered if the bird saw the decals and realized that it wasn’t open space.

I’m now lowering the blinds in my windows, especially when I’m not at home, as bird researchers think that the slats help the birds to see that the window, even if reflective, isn’t open space.  Another recommendation is that if you have a window with an opposite window in the same line of sight (where you can see all the way through the house) which might give birds the illusion of open space, close or lower blinds on the second window.  It will diminish the look of greenery, trees and sky that birds think they see.  For more information about how to reduce  bird strikes, check out this article from Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

Along with the active Cooper’s Hawk, there are two Red-tailed HawksButeo jamaicensis, at least one of which  I’ve seen a couple of times diving through my garden in search of  bird à la feathers.   As well, a Great Horned OwlBubo virginianus, prowls at night; I’ve heard and seen it several times.  I can’t tell if it’s a single, or one of a pair, but it’s big.  Really big.  While the predator birds have been unusually active this winter,  I haven’t seen or hear any evidence of Eastern Screech Owl,  Megascops asio, activity.  We’ve welcomed mated pairs for the past 8 years, enjoying their parenthood antics and darling offspring.  Last year, we missed hosting a pair because of an oppossum in the owl box.  This year, the owl house is clean, empty and ready for the little owls, but they’re a no-show.   It might be fear of the hawks or the Great Horned Owl, but it’s unusual–and concerning–for there to be no Screech owl activity this time of year.  I am also concerned about neighbors who place rat bait stations around their property.  Do the bait traps contain rodenticide, or substances that repel, rather than kill rodent?  Poisoned rodents lead to poisoned raptors. 

As for the little birds, there are plenty and they are quick.  I briefly witnessed this Blue-headed Vireo, Vireo solitarius, bathing in the bog and fluffing feathers in the winterized Yellow bells, Tacoma stans.  

I’ve seen this species of bird before during spring migration and I wondered if this one was misplaced.  In fact  All About Birds shows that Central Texas is on the cusp of the vireo’s winter habitat. He made one brief visit,  but he’s welcome anytime.

While on a walk in my neighborhood, I snagged a shot of a quick-moving female (?) Downy WoodpeckerPicoides pubescens.  Darling little wood lovers, I’ve limited success with decent shots of these rapid-fire tree huggers; these are the best I’ve managed.

Up in a tree a few streets away from my house.

Nibbling at the suet feeder in my garden.

Downy woodpeckers sing a charming chirp and are common in my neighborhood, but apparently, shy with bird paparazzi.

As for poor quality bird photos, I’m posting these of a Ruby-crowned KingletRegulus calendula.   My current camera, coupled with a bordering-on-a-character flaw lack of patience, removes any expectation of achieving clear shots of this tiny dynamo, topped by a flaming red cap, so I’m  going for broke on photos of this bird and not fretting over the less than stellar quality!

Look at that red, albeit smeared, head!  Males like to flash their color when they’re defending territory, impressing ladies, or expressing annoyance.  This one likes to bathe in the bog, then fluffs-n-dries in the adjacent Yellow bells shrub.  When he’s fluffing and drying, he’s as still as he gets; otherwise, he’s constantly on the move for insects.

This shot of him in the bath is, well, at least clear!  I assume there’s no red crown because he’s relaxed and enjoying his bath.

I’ve seen two of these itty-bitty birds simultaneously, but usually there is only one in the garden or at the pond at any point in time.

 

Other little birds regularly visiting are finches.  Lots of finches.  One American GoldfinchSpinus tristis.  

He has the food bar all to himself.

Two American Goldfinches.

Share nicely!

Two Americans, plus a House FinchHaemorhous mexicanus.

This food bar is becoming popular!

Three Americans, a House, and an upturned tail feather owner–probably another House Finch.

The sign of a successful eatery: long waits before seating!

I can’t help wondering what rhyming silliness Dr. Seuss would posit about these feeding finches.

The resident birds and winter visitors represent garden life in this dormant time of year, adding color, interest, and activity.  Who’s visiting your garden?  Please share your photos and stories of wild critters this past month.  Remember to leave a your link when you comment.

Happy wildlife gardening!

De-bugging Buzz

At the end of 2017, I wrote about the death of Buzz the beehive due to a wax moth infestation.    We have plans to re-hive Buzz in April, but winter projects on my to-do list include moving both Buzz and Woody about 10 feet from where each originally stood, and to finish cleaning and disinfecting Buzz from the yucky remains of the wax moth infestation.  I’m pleased to say that I’ve achieved both goals, well ahead of the April re-hiving date!

When we discovered the invasion of wax moths, we removed the offending invaders and most of their accoutrements, therefore the ick of infestation remaining in Buzz consisted primarily of webbing, some frass (okay, lots of frass), and a few possible larvae cocoons.

All laid out on the back patio, ready for the cleaning.

Webbing from the moth larvae, with frass in the mix. The dark spots are frass.

One sneaky cocoon left over from the initial elimination of the insects and their remains.

Another hiding cocoon.

I thoroughly vacuumed each box and all section pieces of Buzz, and then with brush, gloves, and bleach water in hand, proceeded to scrub-a-dub-dub the inside parts of the hive.  In some spots, I used a utility knife to clean out narrow gaps and remove the remains of cocoons.  I certainly don’t want any cocoon hanging around, awaiting release from dormancy for the purpose of reinfection.  If the new hive is strong–which it will most likely be–a re-infestation is unlikely, but just to be on the safe side….

After rinsing the entirety of Buzz with fresh water, I left the dismantled hive out for a few days in the cold to dry out.

The parts shown, left to right: brood box, top lid, another brood box, mesh, base, bottom board.

There are no frames because we destroyed and trashed them–the frames were too infected with wax moth nastiness and not salvageable.

 

Meanwhile, we moved Woody to her new spot in the garden, and placed a marker right next door for Buzz–for when she’s ready.

You’ll notice a bottle of sugar-water on Woody’s bottom board.  The bees are foraging on warmer days, but during this time of winter honeybees are at their greatest risk of starvation.  There’s not much blooming and it’s possible that the girls have used up their honey stores.  It’s too cold for me to check the hives, so the easiest thing to do is to mix up some “nectar” and see if they go for it–and they have!  Honeybees like their sugar!  Well, I can’t criticize, I’m well-known for my sweet tooth, too.

All situated, Woody is buzzing and Buzz is awaiting.

Of course, Buzz has no buzzy bees, so she sits, in decorative mode for now: no bees, no sugar-water, but all nice and clean and ready for spring!

Scar, our Warre hive, is also being fed.

 

In my garden, there’s currently little flowering, thanks to the cold, dry winter boasting of several hard freezes.  However, my three  Leatherleaf mahoniaMahonia bealei, are reliable winter bloomers and the bees are all over the cheery blooms as they open.

How many bees can you count?

Of course the bees also fly 3-4 miles for other nectar and pollen providers.  The honeybees aren’t exactly bereft of blooms, but neither are there bunches of blooms for them to choose from.

I’ve recently planted this green shrub in hopes of providing more winter sustenance for my honeys.

It’s a Sweet Olive Tea tree, or Fragrant Tea OliveOsmanthus fragrans.  I’ve been angling for a winter blooming, non-invasive, and evergreen plant, and happened upon this specimen during a nursery sojourn.  A non-native plant, the Sweet olive tree is primarily known and grown for its fragrant white blooms.  It’s drought tolerant once established and also deer resistant, though (thankfully!) that’s not an issue for me.  The Sweet olive tree is also something that isn’t particular about soil and will tolerate my clay and supposedly will bloom in sun, part-shade, and shade.  The spot I chose in my garden for this large shrub/small tree receives winter sunshine, but is somewhat shady for the remainder of the growing season.  I’m  confident that it will prove a good source of nectar and pollen for my honeybees during winter.  I also plan to add more mahonia to my garden, though I’ll probably choose other varieties than the Leatherleaf for the sake of diversity in plant material.

Honeybee season is nigh, as is the season for native bees.  The first native bees in my garden will be the Blue Orchard bees, who will emerge, buzzing and beautiful blue, from their pollen-packed holes (in bee hotels and masonry) sometime in the next few weeks.

Bees are starting to happen!

 

A Bracket of Beehives

A few years back, I visited the Oregon State University (OSU) Oak Creek Center for Urban Horticulture which is a 6.5 acres space dedicated to research involving sustainable agricultural practices.  OSU is well-know for its horticultural programs.

On a partly cloudy, cool and breezy autumn day, I wandered the fields of experimental and heirloom vegetables, lined with perennial gardens abloom with pollinator plants.  During the walk, I happened upon a charming apiary hosting an array of beehives.  Tucked in a shady grove, the apiary was adjacent to a lab located in an older home renovated appropriately for the work of horticulturists and entomologists.  The delightful OSU apiary showcases different types of bee homes and augments research about and demonstrations of commercial and home horticulture.

At the time, I wasn’t yet a backyard Bee Mama, but was definitely interested and learning about the buzzy beauties.  I took photos of the apiary, dutifully downloading them to my computer upon my return to Texas, fully intending a post about the apiary.  I focused on writing about other gardening subjects near and dear to me, though I certainly recall the apiary adventure and planned a post about the apiary.  Recently, with year-end/beginning-of-year photo file tidying, I was reminded that the ‘OSU apiary’ folder was awaiting its turn for a blog post with a round of accompanying photos.

On that lovely afternoon in Corvallis I meandered along a mulched pathway and viewed a variety of beehives which sat, perky and productive, in service to honeybees buzzing in and out and all around,  going about their important business.

 

The classic Langstroth hive is a staple of any honeybee hive demonstration.  These two hives are each stacked with three brood boxes, or deeps.  This is where the queen hangs out, laying eggs and being taken care of by the worker bees and where the workers tend to the other tasks for hive integrity–making comb and honey and cleaning the hive.

At the bottom of these hives, the entire length of the box is open about a half-inch tall for the bees’ entrances and exits.  This is called the bottom board.

I typically reduce the bottom board opening to my hives so that my bees don’t have to defend a large area;  I leave about 2-3 inches for their comings and goings, but I think the standard practice is demonstrated above–leaving the entire width open.

 

I like this hive!  Just in case you’ve just landed from outer space and you have no idea what these stacked boxes are for, there’s a  bee door ‘knocker’ of sorts which may give you a clue!  I’ve often seen honeybee hives painted white, but I prefer boxes of natural wood, or boxes painted in brighter colors, as well as bee boxes with painted decorations or decals.

You’ll notice that each of these boxes differ slightly in height.  The taller box is the brood box which houses the queen, larvae, workers, and lots of honeycomb.  The shorter boxes are called supers and contain honeycomb (and worker bees of course!), but no larvae.  Once a hive is robust, a beekeeper may place a super at the top of the hive so that the honey is more easily extracted without damaging the queen and larvae. For those supers where the keeper only wants honey for extraction, the queen is prevented from crawling into the shorter boxes by a mesh called a queen excluder.  The mesh is too small for the big-thoraxed queen to squeeze through, but worker bees are svelte enough to easily manuever as they go about their daily routines.  In the white Langstroth above, the strip of unpainted wood between the top and second-to-top box is probably the queen excluder. In some hive management techniques, beekeepers will rotate boxes, placing a super at the bottom of the hive; you can see that demonstrated in the above photo.

This hive is a Kenyan top bar hive.  It has only one chamber and no frames. Bees build the honeycomb downward from bars, top bars, which hang horizontally across the width of the box.  The bees enter and exit through holes drilled in the box,

..like so.

 

With honeybee hive displays, it’s always fun to see the innards of a hive. This one demonstrates the workings of a top bar hive.

 

I liked this one!  It was a replica of an ancient Greek hive, discovered in an archeological dig.  This pot was thrown by a local Corvallis potter; she threw the pot, carving an opening at the bottom for the bees. I think this would make a very hot hive in the Texas summer, but perhaps Oregon is cool enough for a ceramic hive to function.

 

Have an old commercial plant pot sitting around and don’t know what to do with it?  As I recall, this makeshift hive was just such a pot.  The beekeeper drilled holes for the bees and placed cut wood atop the pot.

It’s a bit slap-dash for my taste, but there were bees living in it, so I guess it works just fine for a hive.

The apiary wasn’t just about honeybee hives, but also hosted examples of native bee/insect hotels.

Bee Daddy constructed our honeybee hives first, but we’ve since added Bee Daddy built bee/insect hotels for our native bees, which you can read about here.  If you want bees, but don’t have the time or interest in honeybee hives, check out the many designs for native insect hotels on the internet.  They’re easy to make, and it’s fascinating to observe and learn about native bees.  Native bees are even more threatened–and arguably more important for our ecosystems–than honeybees.  Leaving bare ground somewhere on your property, placing bee/insect hotels and cut limbs in the garden, refraining from pesticide use, and planting native and pollinating plants will help both the wild/native bees and the honeybees.

For an informative story about native/wild bees and their importance, check out this story from National Public Radio’s Weekend Edition Saturday: Honeybees Help Farmers, But They Don’t Help The Environment

I’ve been to Corvallis several times since the apiary visit, including for the complete solar eclipse in August 2016.  Unfortunately, I haven’t returned to the OSU apiary, but I imagine that it’s still there, housing happy honey and native bees, and serving as a fun and interesting educational exhibition for people.