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!

Dog Days: Wildlife Wednesday, August 2016

Welcome to Wildlife Wednesday for August–and a toasty one it is.  July definitely felt like the dog days of summer had arrived: it was hot and dry, with the relentless, searing Texas sun beating down mercilessly.  Weirdly, that didn’t keep me out of the garden–I’ve been tweaking and transplanting in the garden all summer. Truthfully, it’s not as hot as recent summers, though it’s been humid owing to the generous spring–and some late July– rain.

Because of the pond and bird bath water available, wildlife in my garden has been active and varied, though only (it seems) when I don’t have my camera at the ready. Regardless, I’ve enjoyed observing Dad Northern Cardinal, Cardinalis cardinalis, feeding his fledged chicks, but never nabbed a shot of the charming familial activities.  The Little Boy Cardinal, all scraggly and awkward, is cute:

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But I don’t have any photos of Little Girl Cardinal, though often see both siblings pecking seeds alongside one another on the ground.

I see the odd Carolina Chickadee, Poecile carolinensis, snitching seeds from the feeder, but more often, I hear one announcing his territory.  It’s always fun to observe and hear them–big songs out of tiny birds.

The Chickadees’ pals, Black-crested TitmiceBaeolophus atricristatus, dash in for their share of seeds, taking turns with the Chickadees as they feed while dodging the gluttonous White-winged doves.

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The bird baths and pond have hosted a steady stream of visitors sipping and cooling off, like this joyful bathing Blue Jay, Cyanotta cristata       .

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Announcing her intention of bathing, she’s making it clear that there will be no sharing of the bath.

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Pretty at this angle…

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Pretty at this angle.

I don’t think there’s a bird species anywhere that relishes a splash-in-the-bath more than these beautiful guys-n-gals.

Earlier in the month, I fretted about the lack of Lesser Goldfinches, Spinus psaltria, nibbling at the sunflower seeds.  I’m fairly sure I rankle a neighbor (or two…) when I don’t immediately prune done-with-flowering plants according to human sensibilities of beauty. But I’m glad I don’t prune because this past week, a little crew of Lessers arrived to partake of the sunflower seed buffet!

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Chatty and determined to eat their fill, I love watching them bop around the plants as they munch away. Lesser Goldfinches, as well as other bird species, enjoy seeds from a variety of perennials in my gardens.   In the fall, I’ll see another round of these cuties dining on the Plains Goldeneye seeds–it’s something to look forward to.  Enjoy your beautiful blooms, but once the blooming is done, leave the spent blooms to develop nutritious seeds for birds: they’ll visit your garden and you’ll enjoy the show.  After all, that’s what seeds are for–to feed wildlife.  Plants may look messy for a short time, but the pleasure of watching a variety of birds feed is well worth the short-lived untidiness of the plants, plus you’ll be adding to the health of your endemic wild critters.

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Honeybees have had plenty to nectar on and pollen-gather from this summer.

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Native bees are busy at their work.  This tiny bee (Perdita ignota?) and her friends have been all over the also tiny florets of an oregano,

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…while these two mating Horsefly-like carpenter bees, Xylocopa tabaniformis,

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Ole Blue Eyes is very determined.

…bring a new meaning to the term multi-tasking, as they flew “entangled” while nectaring on Mexican Honeysuckle blooms.

No bee here, but instead, evidence of a busy mama leafcutter bee sawing off bits of leaves to pack into her nest for her little bee-ones.

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I wish I could have watched her work.

Moths and butterflies are occupied, too.  Pretty-in-pink is this Southern Pink Moth, Pyrausta inornatalis, resting on a Henry Duelberg Sage.

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I was lucky late one afternoon to spy a Common Buckeye, Junonia coenia.

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Buckeyes are common–except in my garden, though I grow several species of Ruellia plants which is one of this species host plants. I guess I need to keep a keen eye out for eggs and/or caterpillars on the Ruellia.  Stunning in color and patterns, the males will perch on plants scanning for females–maybe this one was looking for a mate?

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At any rate, he posed nicely and I hope he met a nice girl.

It isn’t July–or summer, for that matter–without the dragonflies.  This jewel-like Blue Dasher, Pachydiplax longipennis, demonstrated patience with my photo taking .

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I saw him land, went inside the house to get my camera and promptly was distracted by something shiny. Later (at least 10 minutes later), I remembered why  I came into the house (please tell me that happens to you!).  I grabbed the camera, headed back out and Mr. Gorgeous was graciously waiting for me.  I guess he REALLY wanted to appear in this month’s Wildlife Wednesday.  

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There are plenty of other dragons and damsels in the garden, mostly because there are several ponds in the neighborhood. They’re excellent predators for mosquitoes and who can complain about that?  Go get’em, dragons-n-damsels!

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Speaking of predators, the assassins are active, as well as being some of the coolest looking bugs around.  The Wheel BugArius cristatus, is looks like he just exited  from a space ship.

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Both males and females have the toothy-wheel protuberance on their thorax, though the exact purpose of this crest is not known.  Probably it’s to freak out everyone.

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Actually, these beneficial insects are quite shy and don’t seek conflict.  Of course, that’s true of most insects–and other wildlife.  Wheel Bugs and their kin feed on aphids, caterpillars and other assorted insects and thwart predators with their stinky essence.

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A related assassin bug is this Zelus luridus.

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I observed him (her?) lurking about on the developing seed heads of a fennel plant.

Another was perched on top of the plant,

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…but later in the day, during mid-afternoon when it was very hot, this smart one decided to use the seed umbel as an umbrella and crawled underneath for some shade.

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In vertical stance along the stem, the bug is shaded.

I’m fairly sure that I spied this one was holding an iddy-biddy umbrella drink in its claws.

A good idea, if you ask me.

A day or two before, I’d seen another assassin (or maybe the same?) with a hapless and stunned little native bee in its grips.  As I leaned in for a closer look, the predator winged to the ground, with prey “in hand.”  Assassins prey on all soft-bodied insects, including some of the good ones.

Late July saw the dog days disrupted briefly with a gift of gorgeous, soaking rain.  Woo-hoo!!  The reprieve from summer’s heat didn’t last for long though and August is always tough here in Texas.  Alas, autumn is just around the corner.

Until next month…

Did wildlife visit your garden this past month? Please post for August Wildlife Wednesday. Share the rare or mundane, funny or fascinating, beneficial or harmful critters you encounter. 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!

Birds, Bugs, Beast: Wildlife Wednesday, June 2016

Another month is past with another round of watching wildlife do their thing in my garden.

Or, is it their garden?

It’s a lot about the birds for May, especially those who migrated through Central Texas as they vacated their winter quarters in Mexico and South America and are traveling to their summer breeding grounds–which is pretty much anywhere north of my garden.

I saw this darling ray of sunshine (or perhaps there was more than one??)  on a number of occasions, flitting in the shrubbery and bathing in the bog.

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This pretty fella is a male Yellow WarblerSetophaga petechia.  What else could he possibly be called?

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Texas is on the migratory path of this dazzling fellow and the rest of his kind, but his summer breeding area ranges throughout most of the remainder of North America.

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I’m fairly sure I spotted a female Yellow, but never got a good shot of her.  Along with bathing alone, he shared a splash with another warbler–both had a good time and were drippy and squeaky clean at the end.

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The not Yellow Warbler is either a female or immature male Chestnut-sided Warbler, Setophaga pensylvanica.

I had the hardest time identifying this bird because most bird photos are of males–and why not?  The males are typically stunning in color and form and therefore make the most interesting subjects.  It was only when perusing the Birds of Texas Facebook group–which I joined not long ago–that someone posted a photo that looked just like my little gal or guy.  Yay–a match!

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I’m not generally a fan of FB, but it has its uses, that’s for sure.

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Actually, I’ve learned quite a bit following these crazy, nutty, obsessive Texas birders–and don’t even get me started on the photos that are submitted–WOW, nothing short of amazing!

Another eye-catching yellow bird that I’ve seen many times before (not this particular bird, mind you, but members of its species) and that I finally captured in photo form,  is the Common YellowthroatGeothlypis trichas.   

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I don’t think he’s the least bit common–especially in looks. I love his bandit’s mask, white headband, and bright yellow feathers–he’s a real head-turner.  I’ve seen females of this species too, though they’re quick, quick, quick through the greenery as they’re searching for bugs. The females tend to olive-green/with a little pale yellow, but are of the same shape. Another migratory species through Texas, I’m sure this guy and his gal are on their way to northern territories to make more of the same common warblers–good luck to them and their offspring.

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In spring 2015, ONE day, I spotted a male Rose-breasted GrosbeakPheucticus ludovicianus, visiting my garden.  This spring, for several days, a lone female snacked at my sunflower seed feeder.

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She’s not as showy as her male counterpart with his brilliant rosy chest, plus she was skittish and good captures were hard to achieve.  I hope she has a mate and that she’s on the nest by now–or preparing her nest.

Another bird that I spied last year but didn’t get photos of is the American Redstart, Setophaga ruticilla.  

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Such a pretty bird!   I think this is a female–the males are black, orange, and yellow–but she’s just gorgeous.

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She flashed butter-yellow patches on her wings and tail feathers as she darted through the shrubs, on her way to the bog.  Later, I saw her again dashing through my Shumard Oak tree which is where I saw others like her last year.

During dinner one evening and while gazing out the big window,  I saw this tiny bird angling toward the pond. (That seems a destination of choice for many of the warblers. Good move, putting a pond with a shallow bog in the garden.)

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I believe this is a MacGillivray’s Warbler, Geothlypis tolmiei, probably a female.

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The light wasn’t optimal and these are the best captures of this bird I could manage. According to Cornell Lab of Ornithology, this bird doesn’t migrate through Central Texas, but in fact, migrates through West Texas, breeding during summer along the West Coast of North America.  But none of the other grey/yellow warblers have the exact white eye arcs, nor the hood of gray that extends toward the chest that this cutey displays.  The Cornell site on MacGillivray’s (above) mentions that some individual Mourning Warblers can show traits of MacGillivray’s, but I’m going to stick with this ID–unless a reader steers me in another direction.

There were other migrants I saw and heard:  an Eastern Wood Peewee one evening at sundown chirping and dancing from a wire to catch insects, and on another day, a  Wilson’s Warbler–heading to the pond.  Alas, no photos of either.  In most cases during migration, the visitors were only here a day or so, then they were gone.

I’m already looking forward to fall migration!

As for the neighborhood birds, there was plenty of action from them as well. My Brazos blackberries were ready for harvesting this past month and certain birds got into the berry-picking action, like this Northern MockingbirdMimus polyglottos.

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Yeah, I’m lookin’ at you, Mr. Mock!!

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I hope you enjoyed those berries, because they’ll never make it into cobbler with you having eaten them!

The resident Black-crested Titmouse,  Baeolophus astricristatus, couple are around and singing while raising a small brood.

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There was definitely one youngin’ (who flew too close to me one day, surprising both of us, and who probably received a talking-to from mom or dad).  Maybe there were more of those titmouse kids?

As well, the Carolina ChickadeePoecile carolinensis, couple took turns at the feeder and preened in the trees.

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I haven’t seen them with offspring, but I hope they raised a family.  The world, not to mention my garden, could use more of that cuteness.

And this gangly, awkward teen,

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…will someday be as handsome as his dad.

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Northern Cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis)

 

As for the bugs part of this post, Black Swallowtail, Papilio polyxenes, have laid eggs on the fennel,

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…and a few caterpillars have eaten their fill.

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I haven’t found any chrysalises, but I’ll keep a keen eye out for one; it’s always a treat to observe an adult butterfly as it emerges.

Also nestled in fennel, was this attractive bug, a SpittlebugProsapia bicincta.

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I didn’t see any of its spittle–which looks like you’d imagine–but I’m certain there was some, somewhere.  The spittle covers the nymph stage to provide protection from cold, heat, and predators.  These bugs are not friends in the garden as they pierce plants and suck the sap.  In most home gardens they don’t cause much damage, but you want to keep tabs on these critters.  If I see more than a few, out comes the bucket of soapy water and into the bucket goes the insects–if I can catch them.  If I’m feeling especially murderous, squishing said bugs is the modus operandi.

Native and honey bees worked flowers when it wasn’t raining, but I didn’t catch any photos of their activity this month.   However, some native bees moved into the second native bee house that Bee Daddy built.

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Clear photos of these two bees eluded, but both–and others– were intent on nesting.

I never figured what species one of belonged to, whose little face and antennae were constantly at an opening for a week or so.  Several others, head first in the bee holes (presumably tending to their eggs/larvae), striped abdomens sticking out, are most likely some type of carpenter bee–but I won’t hazard a guess.

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I’m just pleased they’re making use of the homes.

Not an insect, this spider has also moved into one of the bamboo pieces of the house.

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It might be one of the many kinds of Bold Jumpers, Phidippus, spp. She peeks out often, but if I get too close for a look, she skedaddles back into the bamboo tube.

Finally, The Beast:

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Eastern fox squirrel (Sciurus niger)

There’re more than one of these beasts in my garden (gardener shakes fist at squirrels), but this one charmed as I puttered one afternoon.  Pesky and annoying, they’re also smart and adaptable.  And funny.

An update about my Eastern Screech Owl family:  for the last two evenings, just at sundown, I’ve seen all 5 juveniles and both parents.  The family roosts during the day in a large Bur Oak tree, two neighbors away, but fly to my immediate neighbor’s Ash tree at sundown, then follow their parents as the nightly hunting, teaching, and learning begins. The next-door neighbor reported last week that two of the babies bathed in a bird bath outside her bedroom window one morning at about 6:15 am.  Apparently, the two little owlets put on quite a show!

Did wildlife visit your garden this past month? Please post for June Wildlife Wednesday Share the rare or mundane, funny or fascinating, beneficial or harmful critters you encounter. 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.