A Few Birds

There are more than a few birds in my garden this summer, but plenty of projects, hellish heat, and a decent dose of seasonal laziness has slowed my interest in photographing avian acquaintances.

Also, birds frequently fly away when I step outside to take their photos.

Sometimes though, I’m lucky and the birds cooperate. One hot July evening, sitting in my front garden, I observed with amusement three female hummingbirds chasing one another around the garden, each, no doubt, claiming the territory as her own. I captured this lovely as she rested and surveyed her territory, keen eyes watchful for invaders. She didn’t perch for long, zooming off on her mad dash to protect her home from The Others.

Female Black-chinned Hummingbird, Archilochus alexandri

A significant crew of Lesser Goldfinches, Spinus psaltria have hung around all summer, noshing on a variety of seeds in the garden. They’ve favored seeds of the American Basket flower, Zexmenia, Henry Duelberg sage, Rock Rose, and Sunflower. They’ve also been skittish, taking flight at the least movement, and capturing shots of these cuties has proved challenging. I spied this female through my front window, alerted to its snacking by my cat, Lena, who watched. I’m sure she wished she was out with the bird.

I like the way the finch’s feathers splay as she perches on the branch of the sunflower.

Mostly, it’s the usual suspects in the garden, though this year, the European Starlings, Sturnus vulgaris have over-stayed from their typical late spring visits and in their bullying ways, made themselves unwelcome. In normal years, they’re here in May and June, and once the fledglings are independent, take off for parts unknown. I guess with the drought, there’s not much ‘out there’ to draw them away, so Starlings are a constant in this urban paradise of water and food. They favor the peanuts and if I leave the two peanut feeders up, they’ll go through the supply within a few hours. For now and until the Starlings vamoose, I’m only hanging the peanut feeders during early mornings and late evenings to prevent them from eating a the peanuts supply. To their credit, their plumage is beautiful and they are masters of murmurations, but as backyard visitors, they are pests. I don’t have photos of the Starlings because I’m annoyed with them.

Another bird spending summer in our neighborhood are some of Austin’s Monk Parakeets. I can’t help but admire their beauty and chuckle at their personalities.

There are always a few Monks who come to my garden in late spring, checking out the bird feeders and perching on the utility wires along the back of my property. This year, they’re still around in August, cawing loudly and flashing green and blue as they streak across the sky. The Austin Monk Parakeet population descend from pets let free in the 70s and 80s; these striking birds are successful colonizers of urban areas. Fond of nesting atop electric towers (which have caused fires), apparently they have no negative impact native bird species.

Gosh, they’re pretty birds!

I appreciate that the Monks are the only birds who push back at the Starlings’ bad manners at the feeders; the Starlings always give way when there’s a Monk around.

I wouldn’t mess with that beak and those claws could cause some damage!

As I admired this handsome bird, another flit into the background–a male Red-bellied Woodpecker, Melanerpes carolinus. Last year, I observed a Dad Red-bellied stuffing peanuts and seeds in a hole in this oak tree. He then worked with his young offspring, presumably teaching how to cache food and retrieve it. I haven’t seen a ‘junior’ this year, but it doesn’t mean there isn’t one around, ready to leave the nest and learn the woodpecker ways.

Dad looks satisfied with his efforts!

With hopes that the heat abates sometime soon so that I can more comfortably spend time with my garden companions, bird watching will become more compelling. The hummingbirds will ramp up for their migration southward and other migrating birds will appear in my garden on the way to their winter digs.

Baskets of Blooms

It’s hard to say farewell to a species of plant whose end has come, especially one that produced such an abundance of flowers. Alas, my American Basket flowers, Centaurea americana, are done for the year. This is a sad sight:

The stalks of these spent lanky lovelies, tidily tucked in to bins, are on the way to the city of Austin’s composting facility.

I grow these annual native wildflowers, with thanks to Linda of Lagniappe and The Task at Hand, who several years ago graciously mailed to me seeds she’d collected. It’s taken a couple of years, but these regal annuals are now an integral part of my garden family, offering stature and elegance to my summer garden. This year, the basket flower stalks grew especially tall, some reaching to 9 and 10 feet. Most stalks were so tall that I couldn’t enjoy observing many of the blooms that opened atop the stalks. Pollinators filled the air above the garden, zooming from bloom to bloom for pollen and nectar. The lofty flowers certainly earned their keep, even if I was out of the loop. That said, the stalks are multi-branched, so while many flowers were too high for me to observe, there were plenty at human eye level–and their presence was welcome by those wishing only to admire.

A basket bud tops a tall stalk. It waits for maturity, to open, and for multitudes of pollinators to visit.

The common name, Basket flower, comes from the bracts below the flower head which is reminiscent of a woven basket.

As the flower develops, fringed bracts push upwards

…and outwards.

The beginnings of a bloom.

Once the flower fully opens, it’s about 4-5 inches across, a sweet purply-pink, and a pollinator magnet.

A wide variety of pollinators worked these flowers from May through early July. Pollinators like native bees, honeybees, small skippers, larger butterflies, hummingbirds, and flies were at the Basket flowers from sunrise to sunset. A couple of examples of these:

Pipevine Swallowtail, Battus philenor
American Bumblebee, Bombus pensylvanicus

All things die of course, and once the Basket flowers ended their bloom time, seeds developed and the stalks turned from rich green to toasty brown.

During seed development, the pretty pinky blooms morphed to a warm beige; I think the spent flowers are quite attractive. Several of these beauties now reside in a dried flower arrangement in my house.

During winter and early spring, the Basket flower seedlings emerged and grew in the garden, I transplanted some and removed many. As they matured, the stalks grew taller than nearly every other plant in this garden. There was one group of about a dozen that I called ‘the grove’ that I left where they seeded out. I’m not sure why I didn’t take a specific photo of the grove in its prime, but this photo from my last post shows the grove in May at the top right of the garden.

As the flowers of the grove ended their bloom cycle and began to spread their seeds, this is how the group looked.

Small, oval seeds are buried in the fuzzy center of the flower, released with a strong breeze or by working their way out of the center and falling to the ground. There were plenty of House Finches, Lesser Goldfinches, House Sparrows, and Carolina Wrens who enjoyed these seeds. The birds were skittish and I wasn’t particularly patient at getting photos, so I never managed a decent shot of any Basket seed-munching birds, but they will spread the Basket goodness. Besides in my own garden, I expect these seeds will produce plants throughout and beyond the neighborhood.

I’ve collected a few small bags of seeds that I’m donating to our local library for their seed bank.

I suspect if this summer wasn’t so hellishly hot and dry that the pollinators and I would still be enjoying the Basket flowers. Last year, many of my Basket flowers lasted well into fall and were done only after our first freeze of the year. Even though their bloom and seed cycle was shortened this season compared to last, I appreciate what these natives bring to my garden–and look forward to meeting them again next year.

It’s Grown In

Last autumn we removed an old, freeze-damaged Arizona Ash from our front garden. Within a few hours, the west-facing garden morphed from mostly shade to full sun. With no tree canopy protecting the garden, it now faces all day, blistering Texas summer sun and that’s a thing that demands respect as well as tough-as-nails plants. I recognized early on that some established plants would welcome the challenge, but others would need immediate removal, and a few would require observation throughout the growing season to assess their viability in the changed conditions.

This is a view of my front garden in early December from the corner where the driveway and street intersect, using the zoom feature to capture the innards of the garden where the yellow chairs sit.

All that remains of the poor tree is a stump, now happily hosting a large potted bougainvillea, thriving in the searing summer sun.

A front-on photo in December demonstrates a completely new landscape in the center part of the garden. I transplanted appropriate plants from other parts of my garden, as well as newly purchased shrubs, perennials, and some small trees to this open garden. The southeast quadrant of the garden (behind the orange pot, along the right side of the photo) and the northwest quadrant (outside of this photo, to the left) are the two sections of establish plants that I left in place.

This shot was taken in June, roughly at the same angle. Stuff grew in! Who knew that would happen? Full disclosure: the following photos were taken in late May and June. (I’ve been meaning to write this post for a while.)

The tall 5-7 foot spikes in the background, right side of the photo, are American Basket flowers, Centaurea americana, and in the middle of the garden, you can see the large leaves of a couple of common sunflowers, which have grown to 6-8 feet. Both of these annuals have bloomed since late May, providing for pollinators, and now, as they complete their blooming cycle, for birds who are feasting on seeds. The tall plants have also allowed privacy for the seating area of the garden. I have planted several small trees and large shrubs for the long-term, but it will be a few years before they will be large enough to act as privacy screens.

I left bits and bobs of Common Yarrow, Achillea millefolium, and they’ve proved pretty and hardy, rocking their rich green foliage and fresh, creamy flowers.

To this bright landscape, I added Globe Mallow, Sphaeralcea ambigua, its grey foliage and creamsicle-orange blooms a fetching combination, several pink-to-red flowering evergreen Autumn Sage, Salvia greggii shrubs, and silvery Wooly Butterfly bush, Buddleja marrubiifolia. These new plants have flourished in the heat and with the abundant sunshine. Graceful Mexican Feathergrass, Nassella tenuissima (bottom right in photo), Gulf Muhly, Muhlenbergia capillaris, and rusty Little Bluestem, Schizachyrium scoparium, are new native grass additions. All are well-adapted to harsh conditions.

Red Yucca, Hesperaloe parviflora, adds lofty salmon flowers and keeps the little Red Oak tree company.

In June and July the sunflowers and basket flowers have towered over the garden. Pollinators are busy from sunrise to sunset: bees buzzing, butterflies flitting, and hummingbirds chasing one another, vying for dominance over disputed territory. Pretty pink- blossomed Rock Rose, Pavonia lasiopetala and the crimson blooms of Big Red sage, Salvia pentstemonoides, rest below the taller plants at the corner of the garden.

As this very hot summer drags on, some plants are showing heat damage. At the corner of the garden grows a ground-cover, Blue Mistflower, Conoclinium coelestinum. It has struggled with the heat and morning-to-evening sun, plus it’s situated at the intersect of the street and driveway, enduring reflective heat from the asphalt and cement.

Crispy critter! Last summer, which was a more ‘normal’ summer, the ground-cover grew well, lush and green, blooming beautifully in autumn. But this summer has been particularly hot; Austin just recorded its hottest 7 day streak ever and we’re breaking heat records regularly. The mistflower isn’t up to that kind of grilling. There’s also no water at this corner; the soaker hose is situated about three feet away. So what to plant there? I’ll probably go with one of the smaller native grasses or something like a Blackfoot Daisy, Melanpodium leucanthum or a small native yucca–all sun and heat lovers needing minimal water and care.

The sunflowers and basket flowers are colorful protectors of the center part of the garden, which I enjoy in the early mornings and late evenings. Their growth is a little wild and rangy, but I like that and more importantly, wildlife is pleased with the choice of meals.

Native perennials, like cheery Engelmann’s Daisy, Engelmannia peristenia, and the blue-blooming Henry Duelberg sage, Salvia farinacea, are rock stars, happy during long weeks of heat, though even they are growing weary with the oven-like temperatures.

Purple Coneflower, Echinacea purpurea, always puts on a good show, though the blooms are mostly done and seeds are spent; I’m currently pruning them to the ground, their rosette set to weather the remainder of summer. Coneflowers generally return in autumn with rain and cooler temperatures, not as tall or prolifically, but flowering nonetheless. While that’s something to look forward to, temperate weather seems almost an impossible dream right now.

While I’m pleased with most of my established and new plants, I’ll need to remove many irises and all of the day-lilies and crinum lilies. The full-day summer sun is too much for these bulbs. I’ve also grown a couple of shade-loving spring ephemerals and they’re now frying in this sunny, hot garden. If they survive until fall, I’ll need to move them elsewhere.

As I observe the good, the meh, and the ugly of this new garden, I realize that changes are required and I look forward to the time when I can tweak the problem areas. It’s way too hot to contemplate the particulars of that work for now, so I’ll have to be content with mulling, fretting, and flip-flopping about what I want to plant.

A garden is ever-changing, never completed, and full of challenges .