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!

Serendipity: Wildlife Wednesday, December 2018

One day last week, having just arrived home and in the kitchen fetching a glass of water, the flutter of dove wings outside a nearby large window alerted me to the possible presence of a hawk in the back garden.  As I approached the window, a wet dove (probably from the nearby birdbath) was driven into the window in a panic. It fell, and tottered on the ground.  Its pursuer (a gorgeous Cooper’s Hawk) landed on top of the dove, mantled over the wet feathered victim, and took flight with the hapless prey (soon to be a meal) firmly clasped in its talons.  This drama took seconds to unfold.

Nature is predictable:  it employs the unfolding of flowers when expected, foliage relinquishing color on cue, and predator and prey relationships–bound in their eternal tension–playing out regularly.  Nature provides wonder at every step and turn, and gardens–nature’s intimate representatives–obliges with daily (and nightly) vignettes.

I pity the poor dove, but Cooper’s Hawks must eat and in urban landscapes, White- winged doves are plentiful, and some are destined to become food.  I have no photos of this dove hunt, but did spy a similar scenario while observing a pollination palooza on my White mistflower, Ageratina havanensis.  As I watched and photographed a variety of bees, butterflies, and flies, I saw a type of assassin bug, Zelus luridus, atop a leaf, clutching a native Ceratina bee.

After a few seconds of my hovering over the insect and its prey, the assassin was nervous at my presence (maybe I wanted in on the bee-for-dinner action?) and scuttled under the same leaf for cover.  I followed,

…and snapped a couple of shots (the best I could manage) and then left the predator in peace to partake of its meal.

After all, I prefer mac-n-cheese.

I lament that the wee bee is no longer alive to do its bee-thing, but so it goes in nature:  everything must eat and many will be eaten.  Nature is real and often harsh and not all stories told have happy endings for every character. That said, when I observe a garden visitor going about its business, I’m reminded of the remarkable events, positive or negative for those concerned, occurring under my nose or outside my window.

This Lyside SulphurKricogonia lyside, pollinated near the ground, below my direct line of vision one sparkly afternoon.

Camouflaged by color and quiet, this common butterfly only caught my attention with slight movement as it work about its floral dinner table.  Often more yellow and regularly in rapid flight, this one was gentle in motion as it nectared on the Prairie goldeneye bloom.

For anyone paying attention, the observation of pollinators on flowers, or birds in trees and shrubs, or reptiles, amphibians, and mammals on the ground, life and death is business as usual. Nature’s complexity, with multitudes of species performing in biological choreograph, is the heartbeat and blood flow of a garden.  Any notion that a pleasant surprise is a rare thing in a garden is absurd.  From a bird of prey hunting, to the nearly invisible nectaring of a well-concealed butterfly, the ordinary functioning of garden, and, in the bigger picture, of the natural world, is revealed, and remarkable.

Gardeners and those who observe wildlife, enjoy a vital role in promoting and protecting biodiversity.  Our love of the outdoors, coupled with the drive to create and cultivate, imparts a unique perspective on the importance of a healthy environment and connection with our fellow Earth critters.

Fiery skipper (Hylephila phyleus) nectaring on White mistflower.

Do you want a a garden that is alive and exciting?  Make a resolution to utilize native plants in your garden:  native plants are beautiful and tough, and you will see wildlife rebound and flourish in your midst.  You will be thrilled by many serendipitous encounters: all breathtaking, all humbling, and all life-affirming.

So ends Wildlife Wednesdays for 2018.   Please leave a link to your Wildlife Wednesday post when you comment here.  Happy wildlife gardening!

 

Aflutter: Wildlife Wednesday, November 2018

My heart’s aflutter as I relish the beautiful Central Texas autumn and my garden’s a flutter with late season pollinators. As is typical in autumn, there are multitudes of pollinators busily working.  Especially in the early morning hours and at sundown and afterward, there are scads of flutterings everywhere, with ghostly, diaphanous wings highlighted by whatever light is available.  Most of those active during the day are small skippers and bees, but also in the mix are a huge variety of flies, larger butterflies and moths, and other winged insects, all making the rounds of the bonanza of autumn blooms.   Welcome to Wildlife Wednesday, a monthly blogging huzzah celebrating the winged, feathered, scaled, and furred which give gardens their buzz-n-hum.

I grow plants not only because of their looks, but for what they provide for wildlife. I’m not picky about color or form–I love’em all, but I focus on plants that nourish something at some point in the growing season.

Some plants in my gardens are dynamite pollinator providers and Frostweed, Verbesina virginica, is one of them.  This Greater bee flyBombylius major, nectared with intent one cloudy afternoon throughout a patch of Frostweed.

Proboscis deep in the flowerets of Frostweed, these flies spend lots of time at the blooms.

I’ve observed a number of these fuzzy flies this fall.

The same is true for the Tachnid fly, nectaring on another pollinator powerhouse plant,  Prairie goldeneye, Viguiera dentata.

Ive  primarily seen the Tachnids in the fall on goldeneye and Frostweed. I’ve nick-named them my ‘hairy-butted buddies’.

We give lots of credit to beautiful bees, butterflies, and moths, but all kinds of insects pollinate, including the lowly fly.  As well, there’s a great variety of flies, more than just those that annoy at picnics.

Syrphid flies are ubiquitous in my gardens during the late summer and autumn months.

This one is a Common Oblique SyrphidAllograpta obliqua, but I’ve observed other species too, which I hope to capture in photo form for next month. The blue blooming beauty is the Henry Duelberg sage, Salvia farinacea.  It’s another plant which has a long and popular blooming cycle.  Pollinators are nuts about it.

Like the Syrphids, Fiery Skippers, Hylephila phyleus, love the Henry blossoms, and their autumnal coloring complement the vibrant blue of the Henrys.

Wings spread!

Wings closed!

 

It’s a huge year for the beleaguered Monarch butterfly, Danaus plexippus.  Because of good weather conditions in their northern breeding areas, their numbers are up from the last decade or so.  While I didn’t have many come through my garden as they migrated to their wintering grounds in Mexico, enough visited and fed hungrily that I’m glad that I grow plenty of nectar plants for them to choose from.

This female nectars on the excellent wildlife plant, Turk’s cap (Malvaviscus arboreus var. drummondii).

Cousin to the Monarch is the Queen butterflyDanaus gilippus.  It’s more common than the Monarch and a resident of Central Texas.

I like this shot of a family reunion:  Monarch and Queen enjoying a meal of Goldeneye together.

 

The prize for most common of the large swallowtails in my garden definitely goes to the Pipevine SwallowtailBattus philenor. I grow a host plant, the White-veined Dutchman’s pipe and have enjoyed these gorgeous butterflies all growing season as they visited.  Their life-cycle for this year is closing, but my Dutchman’s pipe has seeded out and the mother plants will overwinter, so there should be plenty of the host plant for next year’s butterfly babies.  I’ve already promised to share seedlings with gardener buddies next spring.

 

Dressed in fall colors are a couple of year-round visitors, a Red Admiral, Vanessa atalanta,

The Admiral is nectaring on a Plateau goldeneye. The purple daisies in the background are Fall Aster (Symphyotrichum oblongifolium).

 

…and a Gulf FritillaryAgraulis vanillae.

The Fritillary is nectaring on a West Texas native, Shrubby blue sage (Salvia ballotiflora).

 

In addition to eating, insects are mating to assure a next generation.  These two Clouded skippersLerema accius, pitched woo on the foliage of a Turk’s cap.

 

I had a difficult time identifying this lovely critter, but  I believe it’s a Four-spotted PalpitaPalpita quadristigmalis.

It doesn’t show the four spots, but that could be the limitations of my camera or that the wings are a bit tattered and the shape of the wings and body are similar to the targeted insect. I think this is one of the multitudes of early evening/nighttime pollinators, though it’s hard to tell.

Did you think I forgot about the bees?  Nope, of course I didn’t!  My honeybees are all over the place and even with our many rainy days,  if just a bit of sunshine streams through the clouds, the bees are out-and-about.

The Green Sweat bee, Halictidae, sports a gorgeous color which complements its food source.  These pretties have been active in the past month or two.  Some nest in wood, others in the ground.

 

This fast-flying, quick-nectaring bee was hard to catch, but I think it’s a Longhorned bee, Apidae.  The individuals I’ve seen have favored the Henry Duelberg blooms as shown here.

 

More common in my garden are the Eastern Carpenter bees.  This one is also a fan of the Henry Duelberg blooms.

That Henry Duelberg sage–it’s a pollinator winner!

 

Alongside the pollinators, some hangers-on appeared.  I typically see Obscure Bird GrasshoppersSchistocerca obscura, in the fall and this year didn’t disappoint.

Hanging on a window screen, he/she looked warily at me as I sneaked a shot.

There’s nothing obscure about this big beauty!

 

Common Green DarnersAnax junius,  dart here and there in the gardens, and when they alight, are camouflaged by foliage–hard to see, but lovely to behold once observed.  This one was easy to spot and cooperative with the photographer.

 

There is much happening in my fall garden!  What’s in your autumn–or spring–garden?  Share you wild happenings and don’t forget to leave a link when you comment.  Happy wildlife gardening!