Out For Dinner

We were in the middle of an early dinner, sitting at the kitchen table observing the late day sunshine stream through part of the back garden. A movement caught my eye and I saw a hawk land in the neighbor’s Crape Myrtle tree. The small tree’s spidery branches, jade green foliage, and lavender blooms reach up and over the privacy fence and peek into my garden, and that evening, supported a Cooper’s Hawk, Accipiter cooperii, as it perched and scanned the landscape for a bird meal. The hawk sat for a minute or two, enough time for me to drop my fork and grab the camera. I had a fairly clear view of the big bird through the window and didn’t want to spook the hawk by going outside, so a through-the-window photo was required! The hawk didn’t sit still though, shifting its position and looking this way and that way, so a front-on photo was impossible. But I like that this shot caught its head, visually framed between two intersecting limbs.

Additionally, as it perched in this spot, the rays of the waning sun showcased the hawk’s beautiful markings. This character is a juvenile; its eyes are golden, rather than the deep red-orange of an adult bird.

The hawk’s juvenile inexperience was also evident in its behavior. Looking for who-knows-what, after a minute or so in the myrtle, it flew to the open space beneath my large red oak tree (where Woody the beehive sits) and landed on the ground. It circled, wings out, then took flight toward the house, immediately banking right and then back toward the myrtle, landing instead in my Retama tree, Parkinsonia aculeata. This tree is about 10 feet to the right of the myrtle. I suppose the hawk wanted a different look-see around the garden; after all, the birds might be easier to spot from a different angle. Because I didn’t have a good view of the hawk’s newly chosen perch, I belted to the back of my house, taking this photo through my bedroom window.

This shot, focusing on a different part of the garden, is darker. There are no direct rays of the setting sun brightening the tree’s foliage or bird’s plumage.

My year-round, resident birds–Blue Jays, Cardinals, Chickadees, Titmice, Wrens, White-winged doves, and House Finches are less active now and whatever feeder activity they engage in is usually completed earlier than when this hawk showed up for dinner. I’m guessing it was hungry and is still refining its potentially formidable hunting skills, but doesn’t always meet with success. Cooper’s hawks mainly hunt birds and while I hate to see songbirds become meals, that’s the way of the natural world; that said, my neighborhood hawks are welcome to the abundant doves and seasonal starlings. I’ve been hearing lots of Blue Jay alarm calls recently and glimpse hawk action several times a week, either with the sudden scattering of multiple potential prey birds or with a large shadow through the trees.

As autumn ushers in shorter days and eventual cold and foliage drop, (not necessarily in that order), it will become easier to observe the various predators who make their homes near mine. I’ve provided a garden which both nurtures and protects prey, while tolerating predators, allowing a full circle of wild life–Bringing Nature Home. Rather than swaths of sterile turf and the non-nonnative plants garden aesthetic of the past, I grow a garden which replicates and reflects nature, supports life, and is found directly outside our windows and doors.

For some instructive reading about reclaiming nature in your own space, check out the book, Bringing Nature Home, by University of Delaware’s Professor Doug Tallamy, and his website, highlighted above.

What wild things have you observed in your garden? I hope there are plenty of wild stories to share. As well, I’m linking with Anna of Flutter and Hum for Wednesday Vignette. Happy wildlife gardening!

Snap!: Wildlife Wednesday, June 2020

In the garden, if no where else, this spring has been normal:  irises, columbines, and poppies set forth their early blooms exactly on time.  As the days lengthened and temperatures warmed, coneflowers, salvia species, and sunflowers flowered-up, right on cue.  Bees, butterflies, and birds are out-and-about doing their things: mating, nesting, seed-eating and pollinating. 

What has been weird and also wonderful (or mostly so) are appearances by a variety of reptiles that I rarely, if ever, see in my garden.  I’ve enjoyed a quick look from a Texas Spiny Lizard, never before seen in my garden, and visits by two different Texas Rat Snakes, a large adult and a small young one.  It’s not odd to see one rat snake from time-to-time, but several look-sees within a couple of weeks is a special treat. 

My most recent reptile encounter was with this critter, a Common Snapping Turtle.

I was gazing out a window early one the morning, trying to recall what day it was, coffee cup in hand, when I saw plants waving in the wind at the border of a path.  From the greenery emerged a turtle, bumbling onto the pathway.  By the time I approached the turtle, it had stopped its lumbering, no doubt because it sensed a larger predator nearby.   I’m confident this is a Common Snapping Turtle, Chelydra serpentina, because its geographic range is wide and includes Austin.  Another turtle species, the Alligator Snapping Turtle, Macrochelys temminckii,  is threatened, living in a limited range, primarily in East Texas.   Also, Common Snapping Turtles, while spending time in water, are also found in brush, whereas Alligator Snapping Turtles are mostly aquatic creatures, on the ground less often. 

I think this turtle is relatively young, as snapping turtles can grow quite large

I like this shot:  live snapping turtle headed one way on the path, ceramic armadillo (with accompanying ceramic babies) headed in the opposite direction.

 

Astrud the Cat was enjoying her morning garden stroll and padded over for a look.

She wasn’t quite sure what to make of this new garden creature. 

Animal, vegetable, or mineral?

Whatever this thing is, I’m going around it–who knows what it’s up to?!

 

Well, the turtle had been up to something and that became clear over the next day or so.  My pond normally looks like this in May.

This photo was taken a year or two ago, but the pond plants are all the same.

After spring pruning and lily re-potting, the lilies send up stems topped by new foliage–lily pads.  The foliage spreads out, covering much of the pond’s surface.  The foliage protects the fish from the hunting eyes of predators and also helps maintain the average temperature of the water during the upcoming hot months. 

The day of the turtle sighting, I noticed that all the lily pads were arranged in a half-moon shape around the edges of the pond, the pads all bunched up, with no social distancing. Had something disturbed their normal pattern? The water was also murkier than normal.  Raccoons have sometime mucked around in the water, though no real damaged has ever resulted, other than terrifying the poor little fish.  I didn’t think much about either bit of evidence until the next morning, when I observed that of the lily pads remaining, most were upended.  The pads had clearly been chopped off from the base of the plants. 

This pad found itself in the bog area, face down, stem up:

Look at the the lily closely. Do you see the tadpoles swimming in the water covering the bottom of the lily? Toads of the future!

Other lily pads were free-floating on the pond’s surface, untethered from their roots.   I fished out the wayward pads and tossed their decapitated heads into the compost bin.

I lugged the lily plants to the surface and they were definitely eaten down, practically to their base.  Someone had a lily stem late-night lunch.  Or dinner.  Or breakfast. 

Common Snapping Turtles eat just about anything, including plant matter–and so he/she apparently dined in my pond!   I didn’t notice any goldfish missing, but it would be hard to tell if the turtle ate any of the gambusia (mosquito fish), as they’re small and  too numerous to count.  The turtle definitely ate greens and its meal might have included a side of protein. 

Since the turtle-led lily decimation, the pond’s water has been cloudier than is typical, in part because the lilies, along with the bog plant, Pickerel Weed, help filter the water, keeping it clear.  Interestingly, the turtle didn’t bother the stems of the Pickerel Weed, which is a bog plant;  they remain intact and unmolested.

The not-so-wonderful part of a snapping turtle in the garden is that the pond is lacking in lilies, it is nearly lily-less, and has resigned its moniker as lily pond–for now. 

The lily plants should recover and probably quickly;  I’ve already spotted some new stems, stretching upwards, making their way to the surface.  

Will the turtle come back for more pond salad?  I would prefer it move elsewhere, but my garden is open to wildlife.  Sometimes, toleration of wildlife wildness is part of a wildlife gardener’s commitment to critter survival.

For more information about snapping turtles, check out this short, educational video illustrating the differences between the Alligator and Common Snapping Turtles.  Watch your fingers!

We live in wild times, that’s for certain.  But the good kind of wild occurs in the garden, with the occasional munched plant(s) served up as sacrifices.  I hope your garden hosts both captivating critters and pleasing plants.  As well as being Wildlife Wednesday, I’m also joining with Anna and Wednesday Vignette.  Please post about your wild garden happenings and then pop over to Flutter and Hum for vignettes, garden and otherwise.  Happy wildlife gardening!

An Incomplete Cycle: Wildlife Wednesday, September 2019

I’m a proud and punctilious pollinator gardener. Even so, sometimes gardening goals are thwarted by circumstances well beyond pollinators’ needs and gardeners’ plans.

For years, I’ve grown passion vine in my garden.  Early on, I grew a Purple passion flowerPassiflora incarnata, that my mother gave me.  The original vine happily draped itself along a wooden fence, regularly attempting to clamber over perennial shrubs standing in its way.  Over time and with increasing shade, the passion vine declined, but to this day and in their best imitation of unwanted weeds, strands of the plant continue to pop up underneath the shade of the large oak tree .  The Gulf Fritillary butterfliesAgraulis vanillae and I know that these are not obnoxious weeds, but that the vine serves as a nursery and food source for the juvenile stages of the butterflies.

Some years ago, I planted another variety of passion vine, the Blue passion flowerPassiflora caerulea.  It grew along a trellis which separates the back garden from the compost bin and garden work space.   I enjoyed observing the blooms when they happened, but even more, I was entertained by the ebb and flow of a vine full of foliage, which hosted busy, hungry caterpillars who gobbled the vine to its skeleton state.  I knew that the vine nurtured the development of a new generation of Gulf Fritillary butterflies and that knowledge more than compensated for the stripped, and let’s be honest here–temporarily unattractive–vine.

P.  caerulea is evergreen during our milder winters, but dies to its roots when temperatures dip below 25°F for extended periods.  The vine didn’t return after a couple of very hard freezes during the winter of 2016.

I purchased a new P. caerulea two years ago and planted in a different spot so my garden would continue to host Gulf Fritillary butterflies.  Last year was the vine’s first year of growth and didn’t see many fritillaries around.  I wasn’t particularly fussed about the lack of flying orange beauties because each year is different: some years there are scads of a particular insect, other years that insect might be scarce, but something else is plentiful.  So nature goes.

Recently, this well-worn Gulf Fritillary flitted around the passion vine over the course of a couple of days.

She stopped at various points along the vine, curling her abdomen to oviposit,  doing her bit to continue the species.

Do you see her lovely golden egg on the left side, toward the bottom left of the right side leaf?

I’ve seen a few caterpillars on the vine, good sized ones at that, but not many, and certainly not in numbers representative of the adult fritillary action around the vine.

Additionally, while there’s some foliage damage, there aren’t the number of munched leaves I would expect with a healthy crew of baby fritillaries feeding on the foliage.

So, what gives?

For a while, I was concerned that maybe I’d purchased a plant treated with the neonicotinoids. Neonicotinoids are pesticides toxic to insects and used in the agriculture industry to control insects considered pests.   The neonicotinoid downside for pollinators is that butterfly and moth host plants with insecticide-fused foliage and flowers kill the insects reliant upon those host plants.  Caterpillars (larvae) eat the foliage, ingest the poisons, and before the caterpillars morph to their adult stage, they die.  The peril for pollinators becomes obvious when a landscape plant, promoted and sold to support the life cycle of a pollinator (egg, caterpillar, adult), carries an insecticide and delivers that insecticide to larvae. The larvae will never morph to adult pollinators.

I purchased the passion vine at a nursery whose products I trust and I recall asking whether the plant was grown with neonics; the answer was a firm ‘no’.  As an aside, when I’ve purchased milkweed plants for monarchs, I always look for aphids on the leaves–and buy the plants with aphids.  Aphids are fond of milkweed and while rendering the plant somewhat unattractive, their presence indicates a pesticide-free plant.  Neonicotinoids are especially effective pesticides against aphids, so aphids serve as a good canary in the coal mine indicator of whether there is a deadly insecticide in the plant. When I see a milkweed plant with perfect foliage–no aphid in sight–I’m suspicious about the possibility of a neonicotinoid tainted milkweed and I don’t purchase it for my garden.  Until fairly recently, the nursery trade used neonics in growing some plants, but with evidence of how the damaging the pesticides are to pollinators, many growers have ceased, or soon will, using these chemicals.

Even if–and it’s a big if–the passion vine I purchased was originally grown with neonics, the chemicals are probably depleted by now, or in such small quantities, that there is no real impact on the larval stage of fritillaries.

As I’ve observed the eggs laid by the adult fritillaries, I’ve also kept an eye on the rogue Purple passion vine “weeds” in my back garden. Interestingly, I haven’t seen any eggs or larvae on those passion vine bits either.

The plot thickens.

What also thickens is the caterpillar goo that I’ve seen on a couple of occasions on the passion vine.  This glop of slime is all that remains of a good sized Gulf fritillary caterpillar.  Clearly, this larva will never be an adult butterfly.

I haven’t found any fritillary chrysalises this summer, though they’re very good at camouflage and I’m not necessarily a keen cocoon sleuth.

Why am I observing so few late stage (larger) caterpillars and why are the fritillary larvae not evolving to chrysalis stage? Is there something–parasite or disease–preventing the full life cycle of the Gulf Fritillary butterflies in my garden?  I’ve noticed lots of wasp activity, especially around the passion vine, and there are other insects which also parasitize and kill caterpillars, as well as a variety of viral diseases which kill butterfly larvae.  Could it be that the early stages of caterpillar development are thwarted and others are nipped in later stages?

The truth is that I don’t know why there are adult Gulf Fritillaries in my garden, seemingly healthy and regularly laying eggs, but with few caterpillars developing, and so far, no observable chrysalises.  In reading about Gulf Fritillary butterflies, I haven’t found anything similar to what I’m witnessing this summer with my vine and its butterfly buddies.  The adult fritillaries I’ve seen are hatching and maturing somewhere, and then flitting to my garden.  The cycle appears to glitch once they’re here.

In life–and in the garden–answers are not always clear and solutions sometime elusive.  I’ll continue observing the Gulf Fritillary activity as time trundles on. I hope that I’m able to witness the Gulf Fritillaries return to their full cycle of life:  mated adults, laid eggs, offspring nurtured and matured with consumed foliage, and a new generation of valuable pollinators in place.

For more information about neonicotinoids, check out these links:

Buying Bee-Friendly Plants: Neonicotinoid-Free Nurseries, Growers, and Seed Sources

Neonicotinoids and Bees, Xerces Society

EPA Cancels Registrations for 12 Neonicotinoid Pesticides, The Scientist

Do you have unsolved critter mysteries in your garden?  Please share your wildlife happenings and remember to leave a link when you post here and happy wildlife gardening!