Winter Birds

As spring is almost upon us and wildlife is ever more active, I realize that it’s been a while since I’ve published a variety-of-birds post. I’m still an active Project Feederwatch participant and remain interested in the urban bird population here in Austin, especially those who spend time in my gardens. I haven’t taken as many photos of birds as I typically do during winter as cataract surgery with down-time afterwards, followed by a gardening year’s worth of winter pruning has kept me busy and away from the camera. But avian antics are ongoing and I’ve caught a few of those to share.

For the first time in several years, I’ve enjoyed the presence of more than just one Yellow-rumped Warbler, Setophaga coronata and one Orange-crown Warbler, Leiothlypis celata. These charming song birds over-winter in warmer climates of North America and I always have at least one of each hanging out in my garden. This winter, I’ve observed as many as four Yellow-rumps together, all nibbling nicely under the peanut feeder. I should have grabbed the camera, but opted to simply watch and appreciate. Mostly, it’s been two or three, zooming around the garden, perching in the trees and chasing off competitors. One in particular–this guy,

…is the self-appointed Badass Bird King of the Garden, chasing the other Yellow-rumps and Orange-crowns away from “his” feeder. The little stinker dominated the icicled suet feeder during the ice storm in January.

Lots of birds were active during the ice storm and I made certain that they had plenty of seeds during those cold days. I also dripped outdoor faucets so water remained available.

This Northern Cardinal, Cardinalis cardinalis, safflower-seed-in-beak, brightened those dull days of ice. All of last year, two different Cardinal couples were regular visitors to my garden, though both couples nested elsewhere. So far this year, I see only one male and one female.

Both common woodpecker species show up for their daily dose of peanuts. This male Downy Woodpecker, Dryobates pubescens, comes rain or shine, warm or cold. I haven’t seen the female in a while; is she already on the nest? I can only tell them apart as the female lacks the red hat that the male sports so handsomely.

Year-round there are always plenty of chatty House Finches in my garden. The House Finch, Haemorhous mexicanus, ranges throughout the U.S., Mexico, and parts of Central America. They may be common birds, they’re fun to watch and are, wings down, the most talkative of any of my resident birds.

This couple didn’t mind dining amongst the icicles. Their favorite food are safflower seeds, but they also eat sunflower seeds and sometimes, peanuts.

Like the Yellow-rumped Warbler, the Orange-crowned Warbler, Leiothlypis celata over-winters here in Central Texas. Both Orange-crowns that have spent winter in the garden are females; they don’t have the orange “crown” of the male. Males flash their crowns to impress females, establish territory, and warn predators. I really like this tiny bird. It’s not as colorful as many other warblers, but it’s lovely to observe as it flits through shrubbery or in trees looking for insects and takes offerings from the peanut or suet feeder. Look at that sweet face!

In these next two photos, you can see bits of yellow underneath the tail feathers on the Yellow-rumped Warbler.

Birders have affectionately nicknamed Yellow-rumped Warblers Butter Butts because of these yellow feathered bums. This winter I hadn’t made much effort to photograph the yellow rumps, but before these cuties migrate north to their breeding grounds in the central part of the U.S. and southern Canada, I really should snag a shot of a butter-colored butt.

Of course I should!

One last showy resident bird, the Blue Jay, Cyanocitta cristata, is noisy, gregarious, and typically I see seven to ten of these characters everyday, snitching the peanuts-in-the-shells that I put out each morning at sunrise. Later in the day, they settle for the shelled peanuts and sunflower seeds–and spend time yelling at other birds.

The Eastern Screech Owl couple were in the garden until their nest box was raided. I suspect that a Grey Fox (I’ve spotted one, or more, in our neighborhood) is the egg thief. I grieved for the couple’s loss, but they started their family very early this year and still have plenty of time for another clutch. I hoped they might return our nest box, but so far, except for two days, mama owl hasn’t chosen to spend time in our nestbox, trying it out for her next family. I doubt that they’ll return to our garden this year and it’s likely they’ve found another, safer place to raise their chicks. I wish them all the best–but I’ll miss watching them.

Spring is on its way and change is inevitable. Migratory birds have begun their movement northward, local birds are wooing and nesting. Winter, the dormant time of year, sees the garden active with birds, but spring brings new life and the promise of a future.

Gardening on the Land

Last August, a native plants and wildlife gardening buddy, Deb, sent to me a link to a New York Times article which I’d somehow missed in my own subscription. Written by author and podcaster, Margaret Roach, the article profiles landscape architect Darrel Morrison’s gardening philosophy, developed throughout his remarkable career. Roach also highlights Morrison’s knitting of ecological diversity with traditional design elements, as well as a thorough description of his “four principles” of landscape design.

The first principle involves planting for “natural diversity” to lessen water and chemical use in the garden and to mitigate climate change. Morrison suggests that a variety of plants native to a region offers the best outcome to achieve a diverse garden. Avoiding the use of invasive non-native plants is paramount to achieve this goal.

Morrison’s second principle promotes an “experientially rich” garden, one with active pollinators and other wildlife. Additionally, gardening with plants of differing structures and growth habits adds life and movement, enriching the garden community.

The third principle is that a garden should reflect where it is. My garden in Austin, Texas should look, feel, and smell different than one situated in Eugene, Oregon or Madison, Wisconsin. A garden should be of its geographic place.

Morrison’s final principle is that of change. A garden should be “dynamic,” changing with time and seasons, which is opposite to the typical American outdoor space of expanse of green turf and pruned shrubs which looks the same year-round. I like Morrison’s quote on this particular point: “Painting is two-dimensional; architecture and sculpture, three-dimensional,” he said. “But landscapes are four-dimensional, with time being the fourth dimension.” Seasonal change, and planning for it, is important.

March/April blooming Gulf Coast Penstemon, Penstemon tenuis.
Gulf Coast Penstemon in late July-August: dried seed heads that have opened and spread seeds; leaf stalks turned burgundy with summer’s heat and drought. At the base, evergreen rosettes keep the plants’ place in the garden.

In my garden, I’ve mostly followed these principles, though I’ve never assigned names to them. While I am a native plant enthusiast and grow quite a few, I’m not a purist. Most of my non-native choices are Mexican, as these are all excellent pollinator plants and hardy in Central Texas. Other non-natives provide for structural and/or evergreen appeal. Some non-natives have an emotional connection, as they originally came from my parents’ garden or as pass-along plants from friends.

Early on in this garden adventure, I developed some guiding principles of my own. I knew that I wanted a garden of mostly native plants, chosen for their beauty, resilience, and variety. I also wanted plants that require little supplemental irrigation. In short order, I recognized that planting natives meant that a whole new world of wildlife soon followed. In brief: if you plant them, they will come. My garden is alive with movement and life–in the air that surrounds and on the ground that supports.

For me, design elements are least important, though I recognize that it’s a more attractive garden if there is a conscious blend of evergreen and deciduous, a deliberate pairing of soft form with structure, and glorious pops of color throughout the year, changing with light, time, and temperature. Whimsical or elegant, non-plant items also enhance a garden and add a human touch. Pathways allow experience of the garden.

My garden is different today than it was five years ago, ten years ago, twenty years ago. The back garden was once full-sun, but oaks grew it to mostly shade. With recent freezer-burned thinning of the trees’ foliage, it now straddles those two extremes. The front garden was shady; going forward, the Texas sun will shine on it for years to come, until a small oak tree grows up and eventually casts its form over the garden.

Garden creation requires experimentation and mistakes are part of that process. Garden creation also requires patience and observation.

At the conclusion of the linked article about Darrell Morrison, the author recounts a story about how he began his work on the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center in Austin:

For Mr. Morrison, ever the willing pupil, every place has something we can learn from, especially the natural areas.

In 1992, when he was engaged by the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, nine miles from downtown Austin, he borrowed a sleeping bag and tent, and spent the first night camped out on the 42-acre site.

“It’s a good thing to do: to see the sun go down, smell the smells of the junipers, hear the morning birdsong,” he said. “I think you do know the place better for it.”

Apparently, that got the former first lady’s attention. Years later, Mrs. Johnson was receiving guests at a reception. She had suffered a stroke and her eyesight was diminished, so when Mr. Morrison reached the head of the line, he reintroduced himself: “You may remember me, Mrs. Johnson. I’m Darrel Morrison.”

“Of course, I remember you, Darrel,” she replied. “I tell all my friends how you slept on the land.”

I garden in a moderately sized urban lot in a large city. While I’ve lived here a long time, I’ve never slept on my land, aside from some lazy afternoon snoozes in the swing chairs. But I have watched this space. I’ve observed the sun and shade, seen sunrises and sets, and felt the breezes. I’ve noticed the insects and birds, and lived with plants from seed to compost. The garden and I have experienced triple digit temperatures, snow and ice, and floods and drought.

I’ve gardened on the land.