Bird Feeders: Widlife Wednesday, February 2019

This is a bird feeder.

Left, American Goldfinch (Spinus tristis); right, House Finch (Haemorhous mexicanus)

This is also a bird feeder.

Lesser Goldfinch (Spinus psaltria)

The first feeder, purchased at Wild Birds Unlimited, is filled with black oiled sunflowers, and many birds, not just the two in the photo, love the seeds.  It’s a popular dining establishment in my back garden.  The second feeder is courtesy of two native plants (Frostweed, Verbesina virginica, and Plateau goldeneye, Viguiera dentata), both of which bloomed during summer and autumn, and have since been rendered dormant by a couple of light freezes.  I’ve pruned neither this winter because these plants, and others in my garden, are currently providing meals, cover, and (eventually) nesting material for a number of bird species.

In the past 50-70 years, the paradigm for home garden beauty has been the swath of green turf, augmented with hedged, tidy, and typically non-native, evergreen shrubs lining the foundation of a home. Additionally, spots of decorative flowers, dictated by season, are popped into designated beds.  At the end of a season, those flowers are unceremoniously ripped out and replaced by a new batch of bloomers.  The bedding flowers, often sterile, are cultivars which are mass-produced for their beauty to the human eye, rather than for any importance to pollinators, birds, and other endemic wildlife.  This garden model is high maintenance, requiring frequent irrigation and chemical intervention to feed the thirsty and hungry plants. Herbicides and pesticides often partner with the chosen plants because problematic insects thrive in landscapes which rely on non-native plants. This garden mode certainly enjoys a kind of beauty:  it’s neat, with colors and textures that are controlled, expected, and predictable.

But I find this–a native plant, post-freeze, crinkly of leaves and tawny in color, providing a wintering American Goldfinch food and cover–an exemplar of garden beauty.

I know many people prefer the neat hedge, loud bedding colors, and trim lawn over the bare bramble of limbs, “dead” foliage, and spiky seed heads that define native plants in winter.  But wildlife–birds, insects, reptiles, and mammals–require native seeds and decaying plant material that nature provides; it’s a process that is part of the seasonal norm and is how living, self-sustaining environments evolved.  The symbiotic relationship between a plant and its animal or insect mark both biological balance and eternal beauty.

While growing wildflowers, and native trees, shrubs, and perennials never entirely disappeared from home garden practices, the native plants movement has enjoyed a renaissance in recent decades.  This back-to-native plants movement has bolstered wildlife in urban areas.  As urban areas encroach into and limit wild spaces, native plant additions to home and commercial gardens serve as a respite for wildlife.  Yes, non-native plants can provide food, but fauna benefits most when the flora it evolved alongside is present.

Not a great photo, but I like the stair step of the three male Lesser Goldfinches.  They and several buddies were all over this collection of dormant Frostweed and Plateau goldeneye.

While it may look “messy” to the human eye, dormant plants, with their prickly sticks and complex seeds, are a boon to birds.  I don’t prune my garden messy until late in winter, the exact wacking-back dependent on the unique the weather pattern of a particular winter-into-spring.  I also pay close attention to whether there are any birds feeding at the plants.  Once the plants are bird-free and days have lengthened and warmed, pruning time in my garden has arrived.

Both the American and Lesser Goldfinches are migrants who overwinter here in Austin, Zone 8b.  They travel in groups from available seeds source to available seed source, in a sort of avian progressive meal train.  Flocks will flit and nosh in my garden one day, and be gone to another gardening establishment the next.  Some stick around to snip insects from the trees and shrubs, bathe in the pond’s bog or bird baths, and eat seeds, either from the feeder or the plants.

Other wintering birds, like this Orange-crowned WarblerOreothlypis celata,  are daily visitors to a variety of plants in my garden.  This female (I think!) enjoys the seed from a dormant Frostweed.  During the blooming seasons, it serves as a rich buffet for many kinds of pollinators; in winter the seedheads splay on strong limbs, high enough to protect tiny bird diners.

The Orange-crowned also regularly stops at the suet feeder.  Purchased suet (like mine) or the homemade kind is nutritious for birds in winter, as it provides needed fat.

It’s not only migratory birds who enjoy plants or suet, but also residents.  The year-rounders, like this Carolina ChickadeePoecile carolinensis, regularly partake of the suet offering.  In my warm climate, I only hang the suet feeder from late October to April, or at the latest, early May.  Central Texas summers are far too hot for suet–it becomes rancid quickly.

I’m not against feeding birds, but I aim to plant at least some of what they’ve been eating for millenia, and pair that with supplementary sources.  I’m pleased to offer both.

Achieving a wildlife friendly garden doesn’t require radical changes, nor does it have to be all wild. With relatively simple modifications, gardeners can easily transform their gardens to wildlife habitats;  even a formal garden can serve as a wildlife habitat, with some thoughtful plant choices and particular plant practices.   Choosing native plants (when available) over introduced species, and leaving plants to their natural state are key drivers to the goal of a wildscape.   Birds and mammals nibble from natives and utilize limbs and leaves for nesting and cover, so deadheading and over-pruning should be limited.  Available water sources, some leaves and limbs left in discreet areas to decay naturally over time, and eliminating chemicals from the garden are all equal good wildlife gardening for restoring a healthy ecosystem for our wild brethren–and ourselves.  The National Wildlife Federation and your local Native Plant Society are great resources in the how-tos of creating a wildlife habitat.

Roughly 40% of Americans feed birds and we do it for a variety of reasons.  Those who study birds suggest that for people, feeding birds is a simple and satisfying way to connect with the natural world.  Audubon Society and Cornell Lab of Ornithology both suggest that bird lovers exercise caution in what they feed birds and where feeders are placed.  Development of aggressive behaviors, deformities caused by poor nutrition, diseases passed through contaminated feeders, and dependence on humans as food sources are all serious concerns in the long-range interests for birds.  Because the plight of birds is precarious, certainly for some more than others, it’s wise to learn about the birds who live in or travel through your region, and then make appropriate food choices.  For interesting information about how feeding birds impacts their populations, read these two articles, one by the Audubon Society  and the other by Cornell Lab.

All that said, it is fun to watch birds and part of the watching is the feeding.

“Three little finches, sittin’ on a feeder….”  Okay, it doesn’t quite have the same ring as the original ditty.

Share, and share alike! Three wintering male American Goldfinches dine with a resident female House Finch.

For myself, it was a love of Texas native plants that led to an appreciation of the wildlife that followed those plants.

If you plant them, they will come. 

Minor tweaks to the traditional 20th century better-living-through-chemicals garden practices will change your garden, your perspective on your part of the Earth, and will lead to new learning and adventures in the garden.

I like birds, so much so that I’ve added a section to my menu bar which will link you, dear reader, to past (and future!) articles about birds in my garden.  Enjoy!

What’s in your wild February garden?  Please leave a link to your Wildlife Wednesday post when you comment, and happy wildlife gardening!

Spring Critters: Wildlife Wednesday, April 2018

For those in the Northern Hemisphere, spring has sprung and we’re savoring the warming, blooming results.  For those in the southern part of our little Earth, the growing season is winding down.  But for all who pay attention, wildlife is around:  living, breeding, hatching, or, fledging and becoming independent, and preparing for winter.  Welcome to Wildlife Wednesday, celebrated on the first Wednesday of each month.  We gardeners love our blooms-n-foliage, but it’s the critters who need and rely on the blooms-n-foliage that  bring life to the garden. Viva wildlife!

At the end of February, I spotted the first of the Blue orchard beesOsmia lignaria, who’d burst out from their bee nurseries after pupating for a full year.  These deep blue, metallic bees were raring to go: ready to pollinate, mate and create new incubators for their bee babies.

Empty pupa shell. It housed the Blue Orchard bee for a full year.

Love among the blue bees!

As I write, the few adults left are adding their final touches on the eggs’ nests.  Their incubating progeny is tucked-in and safe for the coming year.

Caught in the act! One of the last adult Blue Orchards packing her nest.

There were so many bees looking for nurseries this year, that I scavenged more blocks of drilled wood and some extra cut bamboo to fill the housing needs.

No vacancy!

There are empty holes in this hotel, but we need to make more bee nurseries for the later season, different  bees.

I’ve placed an order with Bee Daddy for more holey wood and cut bamboo for next years’ bee babies.  So long Blue orchard bees–and thanks for your work in my garden.

 

Winter avian residents are eating, drinking, bathing, and squabbling in the garden.  That said, spring migration is imminent and I’ll soon say a bittersweet farewell to the feathered winter Texans that who share my garden.  The Ruby-crowned kingletRegulus calendula, was a shyer fella than either of last years’ pair, but I managed glimpses of his cuteness.

I saw more American goldfinchesSpinus tristis, than I usually do in winter, though only captured a few shots of these yellow, black, and white beauties.

A handsome male in his not-quite-breeding plumage.

I usually see greater numbers of Lesser goldfinchesSpinus psaltria, throughout the year, but this winter, they’ve been scarce.  Still, there were a few.

It’s a date!

Interestingly, my sister-in-law, who lives in west Austin (we’re in central Austin), experienced just the opposite:  plenty of Lessers, few Americans.  Wildlife have their preferred hangouts–much like people–critters appear in greater or fewer numbers, depending upon what’s available in food sources and cover–and whatever unknown quality they’re looking for at a particular time.

 

A favorite bird showed up this past month!  Cedar waxwingBombycilla cedrorum,  flock together on the wing and in the trees.  These gregarious birds typically perch too high (and invariably, it’s too windy) to capture good shots, but I lucked out a few times.

You can see the red “wax” on the tip of the wing of the upper bird. It’s not clear what this bit of bright red is for, but may be related to attracting a mate.

Rakish mask, bright yellow flare at the tip of the tale, and a splash of red–who wouldn’t find these birds attractive?

It’s rare to find them alone; they enjoy one another’s company and sometimes, the company of others.

Cedar waxwing chatting up a female House Finch.  I love the look on the finch’s face.  Whahh???

I’m still hearing them as the flock from tree top to tree top.  They’ll be around for a while, but they breed far north of here and they’ll migrate soon enough.

She’s gorgeous–and knows it!

 

This is the third year that at least one Lincoln’s  Sparrow,  Melospiza lincolnii,  has visited in late winter/early spring.

The coloring is subtle, but lovely.

A view from behind; it’s a beautiful pattern in those feathers.

An elegant looking little bird, Lincoln’s Sparrows hop jauntily through the garden in search of seeds and flutter and flap in the bog of the pond.  There have been at least three of them at various times, though I certainly can’t tell one from another.

Named for a traveling companion of John James Audubon (yes, THAT Audubon), Mr. Thomas Lincoln, these charmers are in my garden briefly before they migrate.   I sure enjoy watching them hippity-hop for seeds and preen-n-shake after baths.

 

Another winter Texan whose appearance I anticipate is that of the Yellow-rumped warbler, Setophaga coronata.  Butter-butts (as Yellow-rumps are affectionately known) have been no-shows in my garden until recently; only in the last couple of weeks did one (actually, three) appear.  I’m happy to welcome them–better late than never!

Not a great photo, but you can see his yellow rump and isn’t that what it’s all about??

Look how cute I am!!

 

I’ve put the commercial suet away, as it’s too warm now, but the one Orange-crowned warbler, Oreothlypis celata, who enjoys the suet, still shows up to bathe.

The streaking on the breast is pretty. I wish I could capture the orange crown. Maybe next year…

He’ll be leaving soon too. Sniff.

As for the year-rounders, they’re always welcome.   A rare set of photos of the female Red-bellied woodpecker,  Melanerpes carolinus, shows her beauty.

The male’s head is completely red;  it has no gap in the color,  like this female.

Red-bellies are shy birds;  I see the male daily; the female is a rarer visitor, but both love  suet.  Since removing the suet, they partake of the black-oiled sunflower seeds.  I don’ t know where they nest, but hope to see their offspring later in the year.

 

Blue JaysCyanocitta cristata, are always photogenic–and chatty.

Are you talking about me?

‘Nuff said!

This winter was different from the last few winters: fewer Starlings (yay!), but also, fewer Yellow-rumped and Orange-crowned warblers (boo!).   There were more American goldfinches and fewer of the Lessers.  Hawks wouldn’t stay out of the garden, but the Eastern Screech owls, who’ve been nightly companions for years, have vacated the neighborhood.  Things are changing and as migration season kicks in, I hope to observe unusual birds as the come to rest, feed, and bathe on the path to their breeding grounds.

 

Finally, a non-bird.

Yup, these cuties are back and rumbling around!  The unofficial mascot of Wildlife Wednesday–Green AnoleAnolis carolinensis, hasn’t lost his wariness of this gardener.  He has nothing to fear from me, I adore these charmers.

As an aside, I was asked by the nice folks at Gardening Know How to write as a guest blogger and wrote about our beekeeping adventures.  You can find a link to the articl here.    Thank to Gardening Know How for the opportunity to spread the word about bees–some of my favorite critters!

Whether you’re gearing up for growing, or settling down for resting, what critters kept you company this past month?  Please share your photos and stories of wild critters this past month.  Remember to leave a your link when you comment.

Happy wildlife gardening–and viva wildlife!

 

Movin’ On: Wildlife Wednesday, April 2017

It’s springtime here in Austin, Texas and there’s plenty to relish, especially regarding the many gifts of nature:  pleasant temperatures, glorious sunshine and well-appointed rainfall, iconic wildflowers and other blooming beauties, and active and abundant urban wildlife. You don’t have to go far–there’s no requirement for lengthy drives into the Hill County or blister-producing hikes–to savor  the benefits of spring pleasures if you plant for wildlife in your own garden space.   When you grow native annuals, perennials and trees, as well as adapted non-native plants, you will reap a blooming bonanza in your garden.  Wildlife of all sorts will come, as they’re granted rest and reprieve, nourishment and protection, most especially during migration and into the breeding season.  Welcome to Wildlife Wednesday where we showcase wildlife and appreciate their place in our own back yards and in the larger world.

This past month I  haven’t observed the variety of migratory birds that I recall from 2016, but there were a few who made brief stops near the pond, or who rested in newly foliaged Red Oaks.  A pretty White-eyed Vireo, Vireo griseus, a lone and stunning Black and White Warbler, Mniotilta varia, a handsome Dark-eyed Junco, Junco hyemalis, and four female Red-winged Blackbirds, Agelaius phoeniceus,(obviously engaged in a girls’ day out), comprise the sum total of spring migratory birds gracing my garden.  With each observance, I either didn’t have my camera ready, or chose to simply marvel at the bird’s presence;  I have no photos of these birds to share.

My avian winter Texans visit the back garden less frequently and I assume that most have moved on to more northern gardens and greenbelts, with the hope of a mate and chicks.   I haven’t seen any Orange-crowned Warblers, Oreothlypis celata in several weeks, but throughout winter and earlier in March, one, or several, were daily garden charmers as they perched on limbs or hunted for insects from spring blooms.

Clinging to the stem of a Yellow bells (Tacoma stans) while surrounded by Giant spiderwort (Tradescantia gigantea).

This one poised to flutter to the bog area of my pond, which is a favorite bathing spot for all the birds in the garden, residents and visitors alike.

Jump!

If you look closely at the following photos, you can spot the smudge of orange, which male Orange-crowns flash in territorial warning when necessary, but which is drab and undramatic when life is simple and there are no threats to manhood, or perhaps I should say, birdhood.

 

I still see Yellow-rumped Warblers, Setophaga coronata, like these two breeding-plumaged boys, preparing for a buddy bath.

The photo isn’t the best, taken early and pre-coffee and through a window, but I was tickled to catch them hanging around. Do you see the difference between the two?

You’ll notice that the one toward the bottom has a yellow throat–he’s an Audubon’s subspecies and typically found in the West.  The other with a white throat, is a Myrtle subspecies and they’re more common in the eastern part of the United States and in Canada.  I have no clue why both were in my back garden, but it was a treat to see and photograph both in the same frame. More proof I suppose that Texas truly is a crossroads for migratory birds.

Too bad those blackberries aren’t ripe.

Butter Butts have been constant companions since November, but will soon be gone, making their way north to the upper mid-West and Canada for summer,  My early mornings won’t be the same without them.

 

One of the last winter Texans to leave for northern lands are the Cedar Waxwings,   Bombycilla cedrorum.  Such beautiful birds, they’re always in a flock, gabbing and preening, and usually situated at the top of trees, where it’s too blustery to get a good photo. Even if I managed something decent, it would be of their butts and who wants to see that?   I was on the phone with a friend when a couple of them dropped in to bathe and drink in the birdbath with the bubbling fountain. I told my friend that I HAD to hang up NOW so I could get some good, close shots of these dandies and she was gracious enough to let me go, forthwith.  She’s understanding about my various idiosyncrasies and I knew she wouldn’t be offended at my hasty hangup.

As I write, I hear their high-pitched keening in the breezes outside, their voices carried into the house, keeping me company.  Soon enough,  that keening will no longer linger in the breeze and will be silent; I’ll realize that they’re gone for summer.

I miss them already.

One day next November, I’ll hear their call again–high-pitched and insistent. I’ll be thrilled that they’ve once again joined me for winter and much of spring.

 

I take pleasure in the typical off-and-on visits from Lesser Goldfinches,                     Spinus psaltria, but they’ve been scarce this year.  I have delighted in several visits from a little band of American GoldfinchesSpinus tristis.  

Mostly, they’ve frequented the birdbaths,

First you see my front,

….then you see my back.

…the bog of the pond,

…or perched prettily in the shrubs and trees.

Until I downloaded this photo, I didn’t realize that there were two other goldfinches at the right edge of the above photo.  Like the Cedar Waxwings and teenage humans, Goldfinches tend to hang out in groups, though they’re quieter than the Waxwings–and the human teenagers.

If you’re fortunate enough to host these birds during their summer breeding, they will nosh at feeders, but prefer native composite (Asteraceae) seeds; flower seeds of the many varieties of sunflowers are finch (of all species) favorites.  The trick for attracting Goldfinches, as well as many other native songbirds, is to let the seeds develop after the bloom period.  Many gardeners want to prune back “spent” blooms because there’s nothing left  for pollinators and we’ve been “educated” that spent blooms are unattractive.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  Flower seed heads are attractive and the second round of feeding on a plant comes after the bloom-n-pollination/nectar gathering time: it’s the feeding time for birds, mammals and other insects besides pollinators.  When you see a host of birds eating seeds at plants, it’s a lovely and affirming sight and that nourishing of wildlife is the purpose of plants.

While the migratory birds are movin’ on to their summer breeding sites, I’m left with my resident birds, like this bathing male Northern CardinalCardinalis cardinalis.

Well, that’s not so bad.

 

Blue orchard beesOsmia lignaria, are almost finished with their seasonal contribution to the world and my garden.

The few remaining adults left are packing away their eggs and soon-to-be-larvae. There are plenty blue bee babies cookin’ for next year.

 

My favorite native bees, the Horsefly-like Carpenter bee,  Xylocopa tabaniformis, are out in droves and pollinating up a flower-storm!

Stealing nectar from an Autumn sage (Salvia greggii).

More nectar at a Gulf penstemon (Penstemon tenuis).

Zoom!

Got it!

Uh, the pollen and nectar of the white Autumn sage are the other way…

 

Ubiquitous Texan Crescent butterflies, Anthanassa texana, are also making the rounds of blooming bounty.

 

This Pipevine SwallowtailBattus philenor, is battered–but not defeated–in its quest for nutrients from flowers of the Giant spiderwort.  There will be more of these gorgeous and useful insects in my gardens in coming months.

He may display rag-tag wings, but he works the garden diligently and for free!

Whether your garden enjoys migrating or resident critters, did wildlife visit your garden this past month? Please post for April Wildlife Wednesday. Share photos and stories of your garden wildlife to promote and appreciate your region’s natural habitat and diversity. When you comment on my post, please remember to leave a link to your Wildlife Wednesday post so readers can enjoy a variety of garden wildlife observations.

Happy wildlife gardening!