Bienvenue et au revoir: Wildlife Wednesday, November 2019

It’s November and my garden is still in active flowering and life giving mode.  In recent weeks I’ve said a happy howdy y’all to a resurgence of Gulf Fritillary butterfly larvae and a slightly regretful, but ultimately joyful so long ’til next spring to migrating Monarch butterflies.  That’s the wildlife gardening way: seasonal change is more than an onslaught of blooms or a conversion of foliage color.  It’s also about the cyclic lives of those dependent upon plants for their survival, as well as the fostering of a healthy environment in which wildlife will thrive.

I’m pleased to report that there are scads of Gulf FritillaryAgraulis vanillae butterfly larvae currently chowing down on my passion vine foliage.

Welcome to the passion vine buffet!

I’m fine with the dining on the leaves, but I wish the cats would leave the budding blooms alone.

Many Gulf fritillary larvae are busily munching, when earlier in the season there was a dearth of larvae activity, which you can read about in my September Wildlife Wednesday post.

I was perplexed at that time, because adult butterflies were clearly laying eggs and some caterpillars were hatching and working the vine.  But there were few caterpillars surviving to chrysalis stage and at least some were clearly parasitized during their later instars.  That the foliage wasn’t eaten as vigorously as is typical piqued my curiosity, but after some observation and reading, I concluded wasps were the culprits, preying on the caterpillars and reducing their numbers.  As with all natural cycles, the tide has apparently turned: there are significantly fewer wasps around and the Gulf Fritillaries are in ascendance.

Peanut Party: Wildlife Wednesday, July 2019

In my garden, I’ve never hung loads of feeders.  I’ve limited the feeder frenzy to one, occasionally two, black-oiled sunflower seed feeders at any point in time, augmented during the cool season with one feeder for commercial suet cakes.  Recently I began offering peanuts at my backyard bird buffet.  Peanuts are power food for birds.  Packed with fat and protein, as well as plenty of other avian-appropriate nutrients, peanuts pack a punch for bird nutrition, and often, for the bird-lover’s pocketbook.

Last summer I began filling a ceramic pot I’d made with unshelled peanuts.  The pot was originally crafted for a succulent (I even placed a hole in the bottom for water drainage), but I decided that, given my poor history of watering container plants and especially where I placed the pot, that it might make a more successful  bird feeder.

The Blue Jays, Cyanocitta cristata, squawked, flapped their feathers, and applauded–and then they ate!  Now, each morning, bleary-eyed and before coffee, I pop a couple of handfuls of peanuts in the little square pot and the jays have at it. There’s usually at least one Jay in the tree under which the pot sits, waiting patiently for me to deliver the goods, and then vamoose.  There have been times that the jays line up on the fence where the pot is affixed, politely taking turns swooping to the pot, each grabbing a breakfast bit and swooping off to enjoy in some neighboring tree.

I’ve seen photos of Titmice and other birds enjoying unshelled peanuts, but in my garden, it’s only the Blue Jays who partake.  Squirrels never eat the peanuts either, though I know that may bird lovers complain vociferously about the peanut-stealing squirrels.  I guess I should count my peanut blessings that it’s only the Blue Jays after the peanuts; they certainly consume enough of them.

A few months back, I purchased a feeder for shelled peanuts because I wanted to provide this yummy, healthy food to a greater variety of birds. (No dis on you jays, but I like some bird diversity munching my offerings.)

And munched they have!  The peanut feeder is the place to eat now, so much so, that I’ve had to limit the supply of peanuts.   The male Black-crested TitmouseBaeolophus atricristatus, pays no attention to me snapping his photo, as he’s focused on his snack.

He works the wire with claw dexterity.

The neighborhood Red-bellied WoodpeckerMelanerpes carolinus, is a shy-guy (as is his mate), but when he lands on the feeder, he is the master of the peanuts and defends his meal.

While his head is red, it’s the blush on his belly which gives him the moniker red-bellied.  And he likes his peanuts!

The female partner also visits and snatches her share of the legume.   Not as flush with blush, she still rocks that red hat and snazzy plumage pattern.

The biggest boon to providing the shelled peanuts is that I now observe a family of Downy Woodpeckers, Dryobates pubescens, regularly in my garden.   Daddy Downy dons the jaunty red beret.

Hang on there, buddy!

Mama gets her share of protein, too.

The pair of Downies had one chick (that I’m aware of)  this spring.  I watched Daddy Downy feed his fledgling and show her the ropes on maneuvering around the feeder. Baby looks like Mama, but with shorter tail feathers.

The number of Downy visits have lessened in the past few weeks, but I still spy furtive visits, especially in the evening.  It’s good dinner-time entertainment.

Green goblins!  Austin hosts several colonies of Monk Parakeets, Myiopsitta monachus.  Not native to this area, these gregarious greens fly over my house often, squawking their squeak, but rarely stop in my garden.  One afternoon, I spotted two in the oak tree where the peanut feeder hangs.  One popped down for a nosh.

This ninja bird is otherwise known as a Great-tailed Grackle, Quiscalus mexicanus,  the Gracks have become nuisances at the peanut bar.  Like the so many others, these brassy birds share a love of the nut, but also scatter the smaller birds like titmice, chickadees, and Downy woodpeckers when  they zoom in for the feed.

Peanut in beak, ready to eat!

I usually see Red-winged Blackbirds, Agelaius phoeniceus, in spring, but this handsome dude has hung around all June because of the available peanuts.  Red-wings breed in this region, though none have ever spent time during summer in my back garden.  I’m glad there’s something to attract him.

I hear him before I see him because of  his melodic, high-pitched call as he perches in the tree where the feeder hangs.  He’s cautious about flying to the feeder, but once arrived, he’s is all in.

The tiniest is the the quickest!  Carolina Chickadees, Poecile carolinensis, are nut lovers too, but so quick at their snacking that it took some time for me to get an unblurred photo.  This little one picked bits of peanut from those behind the mesh.  Do you see that peanut mush at his beak?

Scoping out choices: which peanut should I grab?

An unwelcomed visitor is this fella, a European Starling, Sturnus vulgaris.  It’s rare to see only one at a time and this summer there’s a whole clan swooping in daily to gobble up the peanuts.  I  admire Starlings’ beautiful plumage, but they are bullies and I don’t like them muscling in on the peanut action.  When I first offered peanut pickings, I filled the feeder in the morning and it was empty by late afternoon.  Per advice from Wild Birds Unlimited and since the native songbirds mostly nosh mornings and evenings, I’ve mitigated the Starlings’ peanut gluttony by offering only a small amount of peanuts in early in the day and another small amount in evening, leaving the feeder empty for the afternoons.  The schedule change has allowed a slight decline in Starling visits and I’m not emptying my bank account keeping them in peanuts.

The poor, hapless White-winged Doves, Zenaida asiatica, have no game at the feeder.  They land on top, bumble around trying to figure out how to work the mesh. Inevitably, fluttering to the ground because they can’t hang on to the cylindrical feeder, they feed on fallen peanuts.. Doves are ground feeders and competently snatch up leftover peanut bits–as long as they’re terra firma.

The feeder hangs close to this ceramic pot holding graceful Basket grass, Nolina texana.  The doves (and some other birds) root around the plant, pecking and picking peanut droppings.  There’s no peanut mess for me to clean up, but birds poop on the foliage.  It’s always something.

I started this peanut gallery with Blue Jays and will end with them.  Jays like peanuts:  shelled, unshelled–they love’m all!

How is your wildlife?  Are they foraging in your foliage or feasting at your feeders?  Please share your wildlife garden stories and remember to leave a link when you comment here–happy wildlife gardening!

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!