Sometimes They Land in Trees: Wildlife Wednesday, January 2018

Happy 2018 and welcome  to the first Wildlife Wednesday celebration of this new year.  Winter arrived in Austin in the last several days with an ice-numbing grip of below freezing temperatures.

I heard that snort and saw those eyes a’rolling!  I understand that compared to much of continental North America, my goose-bump inspired whining won’t win much sympathy, but darn it, it’s cold!  Truthfully, I’m just fine-n-dandy with the hard freeze, in great hopes that every mosquito in Texas is dead, dead, dead (not likely, though).  Also, with the frigid temps, my autumnally hued and interminably foliaged trees have finally let loose their leaves.

In the last couple of days, Red oak leaves blanketed the entirety of my back garden.

Maybe now I’ll be better able to observe the variety of birds who visit my garden, as the winter avian Texans (especially the tiny ones) prefer to flit among the bare limbs, in search of whatever they search for.  With the leaves as camouflage, that’s been hard to do.

This shot was taken on Sunday, just before the temperatures plummeted and the tree dumped most (but not all!) its leaves.

That said, for most of this past month, critter watching has mostly involved the birds at the feeders, with the random pitter-patting of maddening mammals and the skulking about of bothersome marsupials.

I’m tickled at the early appearance of two examples of the stunning American GoldfinchSpinus tristis.  American Goldfinches usually show up later in winter, so it’s a treat to see them now.

This handsome fella is wearing his non-breeding colors.

Do you need something?

Pretty boy!

In addition to that obvious and gorgeous adult male, is this female or juvenile male.

The coloring–both dark and light–are muted in this bird.

Wonderful wing bars!

Sweet face!

American Goldfinches belong to the same Family and Order as the House Finch, and House Finch eye disease, Mycoplasmal conjunctivitis, which I wrote about here, also affects American Goldfinch populations.  Fortunately, the two Americans who noshed at my feeder appeared free of the disease, the good news of which I reported on Project FeederWatch.  I still see a female House Finch with one infected eye which is completely closed due to the infection.  She feeds by searching for seeds on the ground, but she struggles to land when she flies and is vulnerable to predators with only one good eye.  All other House Finches who are in my garden–and there are quite a few– appear healthy.   The House FinchHaemorhous mexicanus, is a year-round resident, becoming more active as winter settles in.  Most bird feeders are designed with multiple perching stations, and birds share the stations with varying degrees of camaraderie.  Here, the House Finch clan dominates, with a red-accented male perching at the left and the more drab females completing the feeder trio.

Hey birds, over here!

Another duo feeding a the food bar is a second male House Finch sharing a meal with a Black-crested TitmouseBaeolophus atricristatus.

I’m not sure if the Black-crested is a male or female, but I’m confident that the House Finch is a young male.

The House Finch  poses nicely, the Black-crested snarfs seeds.

A Northern CardinalCardinalis cardinalis,  couple nests each year in a neighbor’s shrubbery,  but make daily forays into my garden to feed and bathe.    No photo this month of the scarlet feathered male, but the female is a head-turner in her own right!

A common Texas wintering songbird is the Orange-crowned WarblerOreothlypis celata, and I’m fortunate to have at least one who is regularly visiting.

Song birds love suet and it’s a good thing to feed them in winter.  I can’t provide suet for 7 or 8 months because Austin’s warm climate causes the suet to turn rancid quickly.  It’s a perfect winter/early spring food though and provides fat, which birds need.

This little Orange-crowned also enjoys the occaisional bath in the pond bog.

About to take the plunge!

I provide a commercial suet for my avian friends, but there are many recipes for homemade suet.  Check out these recipes if you’re so inclined

Facing the camera!

The pair of  Carolina WrensThryothorus ludovicianus, also visit more than just the feeders.   A favorite perch is a metal sculpture where each of the pair takes turns surveying the landscape.

Check out my profile!

The 360 degree view requires a look-see at the backside!

This favorite perching place is just below a little house built for the wrens, which they’ve inspected, but haven’t yet used for chick rearing.  Fingers-crossed that this spring, they’ll decide the neighborhood is worthy of their chicks.

Wrens forage on the ground, scavenging for insects and small seeds; they also enjoy the suet.

Eyeing something in the fallen leaves!


Finally, a bird who lands in a tree!  

Giving me the stink-eye is this immature Cooper’s HawkAccipiter cooperii. He/she had scattered the neighborhood doves, with no meal as a reward, and was resting in a neighbor’s tree, no doubt annoyed with missing lunch.  The beauty loped off just after this shot.  Cooper’s Hawks are year-round residents here, but easier to observe once winter’s  chill render some trees bare.

There are always plenty of squirrels (stealing birdseed and digging in plant containers) who become meals for neighborhood raptors, though perhaps not as often as some might wish.  This squirrel was safe on the ground and near the house, munching away at fallen sunflower seeds and generally behaving well.

Eastern Fox Squirrel (Sciurus niger)

The Virginia OpossumDidelphis virginiana, is still around too, sometimes mosying through the garden during daylight, but not sleeping in the owl house–for now.

There are no Eastern Screech Owls in the owl house either, nor have I heard the adults’ signature trill at night.  I’m concerned that no couple is interested in the owl real estate in my garden and if there are no takers, that will be disappointing.  There’s still time for some owl action and owls are remarkably elusive; I won’t begin the no-owls-in-my-garden lamentation just yet.

So begins another year of garden wildlife drama.  Let’s celebrate lots of life in the garden during 2018. Please share your wildlife stories and remember to leave your link when you comment.

Good wildlife gardening to you!

A FeederWatch Find

In a recent post, Birding for Fun and Profit, I mentioned that volunteer birders across Canada and the U.S. are instrumental in assisting with research related to wild bird populations by submission of raw data observations of kinds and numbers of birds visiting yards and gardens. Aside from the pleasure of bird watching (and complementary teasing of friends and family which invariably accompanies the hobby), is the knowledge that bird watching advances true scientific efforts.  Project FeederWatch has tracked the advancement of certain avian diseases and requests its citizen scientists to report instances in their data logs. This past week, for only the second time (and first time during my “official”  Project FeederWatch period),  I’ve observed a bird with symptoms of red, swollen, and crusty eyes which is caused by the bacterium, Mycoplasma gallisepticum.

This little guy was at my feeder this past week, unfortunately  demonstrating a classic case of House Finch Eye disease, a kind of conjunctivitis caused by M. gallisepticum.

This male House Finch’s eye is almost completely closed due to inflammation.

First observed in the mid-1990s by Cornell feeder-watching volunteers, this disease has spread throughout the House FinchHaemorhous mexicanus, population of North America.  The poultry respiratory disease made a species leap to wild House Finch populations and because the beginning of the epidemic can be traced to a specific point (Maryland) and time (February 1994), and because Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s Project Feederwatch was in full swing, volunteers reported sightings describing House Finches with symptoms of eye disease and scientists got to work.

Within a few years, reports of diseased House Finches were common throughout the U.S.  With raw data provided by Cornell’s “army” of bird watchers and the creative impulse of a Cornell Lab scientist, Belgian-born ornithologist, André Dhondt, an interdisciplinary research team has studied the evolution of this new disease from its inception and analyzed its impact on a given population–in this case, the hapless House Finch.  In the two decades since M. gallisepticum debuted in that small population of Maryland House Finches, the process of disease evolution–mutations coupled with population dynamics–is better understood, and scientists are now utilizing the gained knowledge towards a fuller understanding of disease spread in humans and development of immunities.    For a fascinating read, check out this article: House Finch Eye Disease: Outbreak, Then Understanding.

As for my little diseased finch, I haven’t seen him in a couple of days. I have noted his presence on my data for the week. Last year, I always indicated  “yes” and “zero” responses to the questions of if I looked for House Finch Disease and how many finches I saw.  This week,  it’s still a “yes” but now with a “one.”  I’ve only seen one other House Finch with crusty eyes and that was on a female House Finch in May 2016. With each passing day that I watched her, she became less able to function at the feeder. Both of her eyes were swollen and nearly closed; she would flutter until she happened to land on a branch, or the feeder, or the ground.  It was clear to me that she couldn’t see well enough to fly and perch.  For her, feeding became nearly impossible due to her poor eyesight. Eventually, she stopped visiting my back garden.

For what it’s worth, the other eye of the finch I’ve observed this week is healthy and unimpaired and he’s flying and feeding normally.   Additionally, most birds aren’t afflicted by this disease; continent-wide, American Goldfinches (which I only see in late winter) and a few others have been impacted.

What to do?  Well, there’s really nothing I can do to help individual birds.  They might recover on their own, but more likely, they’ll starve or become prey for someone else once they’re so blinded that they cannot feed and fend for themselves.  I am wiping the feeding stations on the feeder each evening with a diluted bleach/water solution, and that’s one easy way to keep the feeder clean.  Feeders should be washed once-per-month, though I have to admit that I don’t do that as regularly as I should; I should make that change.  Other tips for healthy bird feeding include regularly raking or sweeping the area underneath feeders and spreading feeders throughout the garden so that birds aren’t crowded.   Always, if you catch a sick bird, contact a wildlife rehabilitator in your area–he/she will have the expertise to care for the sick bird.

While I certainly subscribe to the dictum of letting nature take its course, we gardeners and bird watchers can help our wild ecosystem partners thrive by simple changes in our gardening and bird-feeding practices. Let’s take care of our wild birds!


Bees, Birds, Butterflies: Wildlife Wednesday, November

Today is the first Wednesday of the month and time to appreciate the critters who live in our gardens, adding beauty and life while sustaining pollination and seed distribution.  Birds, bees, and butterflies are always welcome visitors, but others contribute their threads to the wildlife fabric of the garden. October is typically a glorious month  in Austin, Texas and this past month was exemplary in things weather and garden related.

Masses of fall blooming perennials have spurred pollinator activity.  Native bees, active most of the growing season, have been all over obliging blooms. This Green Sweat BeeHalictidae, and its metallic buddies have reveled in the Plateau goldeneye, Viguiera dentata, flowers.

Looks like someone munched the petals before Ms. Bee arrived, but ragged, clearly nibbled-on petals don’t slam the brakes on pollen and nectar gathering.

Caught in flight!

Proboscis deep in bloom.


Small Striped Sweat BeesHalictidae, also favor the goldeneye blooms.

No photos as evidence, but I’m observing these yellow and brown ladies busily filling nest holes in a bee hotel affixed on my back patio.


Horsefly-like Carpenter bees, Xylocopa tabaniformis, always abundant in my garden, are slowing down as the light is changing and temperatures are cooling, but they’re still  buzzing the blooms and drilling wood for nests.

This bee rocks a pollen-filled coribula.  One wonders how they fly, so loaded with pollen.


Honeybees never miss pollinating action and are in full honeyflow mode.  The back garden is awash with the fragrance of honey.

This girl is enjoying the bounty of Shrubby blue sage (Salvia ballotiflora).


Birds are always a thing in the garden and recently I’ve glimpsed an Eastern Screech Owl and heard its territorial trills; the owls are year-round residents in the neighborhood, though elusive during summer months.  Also, the local hawks are more active, swooping through the trees and scattering birds at will.  In addition to the year-round residents,  winter avian Texans–“snowbirds”–are arriving to shake things up a bit.  This past weekend I spotted a pair of Ruby Crowned Kinglets and  an Orange Crowned Warbler.  Last year, those two kinds of birds, as well as others, spent late autumn, winter, and early spring in my garden.

One of the regulars, this Blue JayCyanocitta cristata, wrangled with an oak acorn for several minutes.  I thought he might consume the whole thing while perched on the fence, but he eventually placed the pecked remains of the acorn in his beak and took off for a more private place to finish his meal.


The Red-bellied Woodpecker, Melanerpes carolinus, wears a striking red-head, but it’s the blush on the belly for which this cheeky bird is named.  That bit of blush is just barely visible in this shot.  I usually hear, rather than see these birds, but they are common where I live and they will visit the garden, especially once the suet is out for the taking.  In my neighborhood, there are several nesting pairs.

For the record, there is a Red-headed Woodpecker, also a year-round resident, who has a very red-head, which you can see here.  I’ve never seen this species in my garden.

As goldeneye blooms fade, seeds develop and the finches move in for the munching.  This male Lesser GoldfinchSpinus psaltria,  snacks on seeds amid the blooms, spent blooms, and foliage.  His mate was there as well, but harder to see and photograph.  These little birds are around year-round visitors, but only appear depending upon on what seeds are available in the garden.  Lesser Goldfinches and American Goldfinches prefer the seeds of native plants.

Carolina wrensThryothorus ludovicianus, serenade the neighborhood regularly; this one stationed himself on a neighbor’s rooftop early one morning.


Butterflies and moths also decorate the October garden.   Most seasons there are plenty of  Giant Swallowtail butterflies, Papilio cresphontes, but this year they haven’t been as numerous.  I watched this one nectaring at Turkscap, Malvaviscus arboreus var. drummondii.  The top-most bloom is visible behind the head of the butterfly; proboscis is unseen, no doubt engaged. 


I’ve often seen this little winged-thing, especially in late summer/early autumn, but finally identified it as  a Spotted Beet Webworm MothHymenia perspectalis.  The other flower it prefers is the Blue mistflower, Conoclinium coelestinum. 


This petite Reakirt’s Blue (Hemiargus isola), is another pollinator savoring the nectar of the Plateau goldeneye.

The underwings are neutral in color–females darker, so I think this is a male. The upperwing is where the blue is visible. Alas, this one wouldn’t open long enough for me to catch its lovely shading.

Sharing a bloom with a honeybee!


The Pipevine Swallowtail butterflies,  Battus philenor, are daily visitors.  I don’t grow the host plant, pipevine, but I know that several neighbors have the plant in their gardens.  Thanks neighbors!

Nectaring from a Frostweed (Verbesina virginica).


Like the Reakirt’s Blue, this Long-Tailed SkipperUrbanus proteus, showcases a beautiful blue coloring on its upper wings.  This one wouldn’t model that for me though, preferring to feed–wings up–on the Shrubby blue sage blooms.  A common, large skipper living in a wide geographic range, I usually observe them only in the autumn months.


Monarchs!  The magnificent, migrating Monarch butterflies, Danaus plexippus,  graced my garden as they made their way to Mexico for winter.

A female on a Turkscap.

It’s apparently been a good year for these beleaguered insects–thank goodness!  I’ve read that because of unusually warm temperatures in Canada and the north central parts of the U.S during early to mid October, that a bonus hatching of adults occurred–an “extra” generation of Monarchs.  That’s an odd thing and while Monarch enthusiasts are happy about those “extras,” it remains doubtful that they can migrate south quickly enough to escape the cold temperatures which have finally arrived, and make it safely to Mexico before the mountain wintering site becomes too cold.  Additionally, those concerned with the abnormally warm northern temperatures recognize the long-term negative affects of climate change and how it is impacting this species of butterfly.

I’m still seeing a few Monarchs, but I think the mass of them are already south of Central Texas.

Another female on a Gregg’s mistflower (Conoclinium greggii).


The charming Gray HairstreakStrymon melinus, flutters through my garden all summer.  Usually, I see this,

Resting on the leaf of Shrubby blue sage after much sipping and flitting.

…wings up (well, down in the above photo!), with only the undersides visible.  While that’s certainly fun and I never complain at seeing a butterfly in action, it’s nice when they spread their wings out–just long enough for a shot:

This one relishes the flowers of Zexmenia (Wedelia acapulcensis var. hispida).


Rarely has a day passed when a Painted Lady, Vanessa cardui, hasn’t been in attendance.  Preferring flowers in the Asteraceae family, I can only guess that this one is in its happy place while nectaring on a Frostweed.


The Blue mistflower, Conoclinium coelestinum, isn’t quite the butterfly magnet that its cousins, Gregg’s mistflower, Conoclinium greggii or White mistflower, Ageratina havanensis, are, but this Horace DuskywingErynnis horatius, isn’t complaining about  what the lovely blue blooms offer.


It wasn’t just the three B’s (bees, birds, butterflies) in my garden that were interesting; there were plenty of other contributing critters to appreciate.  A Carolina MantisStagmomantis carolina,  hung out on the screen of a bedroom windows one weekend afternoon.  Fascinating predators, they hunt and eat a variety of insects and have been known to catch hummingbirds!

That afternoon, this mantis missed some easy hunting, as she was on the window not facing the honeybee hives we checked, causing the bees to stir up a bit. Had she been on the other window, our lost bees would be her gained meal.  No matter, as the size of this mantis suggests she’s had plenty to eat–honeybees, and all sorts of other insects.


Green anole lizardAnolis carolinensis, gives me the stink-eye while deciding whether he wants to be green or brown.  I’ve seen lots of babies recently, but this one was larger than a baby, though not fully grown.


Ready for Halloween, this Milkweed assassin bugZelus longipes, dresses the part!

An insect predator of aphids, houseflies and others smaller than itself, the assassin bug also enjoys a drink of nectar from Frostweed.


Yet another seasonal icon, I observed this large spider hanging outside my kitchen window over the course of a couple of days.  I never got a good look at her–she skittered away whenever I approached, but I saw she bundled a few honeybees in her snare.

I’ll just call her Biggus spiderus–and leave it at that!


I’ve seen several examples of this insect from time-to-time.

It may be a Broad-headed Bug, but this nymph looks like it should be called a Broad-butted Bug!

I always assumed it was some sort of ant, but couldn’t find anything in my go-to resources that matched.  I finally uploaded this photo and description of the mystery insect to the fine folks at  A nice bug person responded with an identification of a nymph Broad-headed Bug, Family Alydidae, the adults of which I’ve seen aplenty in my garden.  When I looked at the photos, the Broad-headed bugs looked like types of Leaf-footed bugs, Family Coreidae, which, as it happens, they were once classified with.   Broad-headed bugs are now classified in their own group.


One last mystery comes in the form of this handsome fella that I watched working Frostweed blooms.  It looks like a fly, but my search for an identification proved fruitless.  I uploaded this photo to BugGuide, but I haven’t received an identification yet, so this one is unknown and unnamed for now.  Any ideas out there?

This insect crawled from bloom to bloom.  It certainly possesses a fine set of wings, though.

Celebrating lots of life in the garden for Wildlife Wednesday, I hope your garden is full of wildlife happenings and reaping autumn bounty. Please share your wildlife stories for this past month and remember to leave your link when you comment.

Good wildlife gardening to you!