Migratory Machinations

My garden enjoyed an extended fall bird migration as the the feathered travelers made their way southward for winter. I didn’t catch photos of most of the migrants I saw, either choosing to simply observe or (more often) lacking quickness in the utilizing of my camera. It’s gratifying to see so many birds resting–if only for a day–and that my garden serves as a respite along their long and dangerous journeys.

Typically, bird watching is more fulfilling during spring migration, as there are not only a reasonable number, but also a greater diversity of birds who temporarily visit my garden from early April, stretching to early June. Historically, fewer migratory birds have come through my garden during fall, though this year, that wasn’t the case. It’s hard to say why there were more migratory birds in September and October: perhaps it’s the drought we’re experiencing, making the urban garden scene a better bet for food and water sources than the open areas of rural Texas. Or maybe it was just the right weather or wind stream pattern that allowed for sufficient numbers on a path that brought them to my garden.

I was fortunate to host a female Black-throated Green Warbler, Setophaga virens, for the better part of a day.

Like most migratory birds (as well as the native birds), it’s the promise of a refreshing bath and cooling drink that lured this cutie in and allowed me to appreciate her beauty.

The first time I saw one of these birds I thought it was the endangered Golden-cheeked Warbler, Setophaga chrysoparia, who nests no where else in the world except here in Central Texas. If you click on that link, you’ll see that, at a quick glance and if you’re a novice bird watcher, the mistake is an easy one to make. I’ve never seen a Golden-cheeked, but I’m oh-so glad that the Black-throated greens have seen fit to visit my garden space, even if those visits are ever-so-brief.

I like this cheeky am I not adorable? pose!

I hope she has safely made her way to southern Mexico/Central America and that her winter is spent eating well and resting.

For the last few springs, I’ve seen Nashville Warblers, Leiothlypis ruficapilla, in my garden. They always come as a troop of 4 or 5, never as a single bird, like so many migratory bird species. Nashvilles are feathered friends who enjoy another’s company!

In mid October, I was entertained for most of a week by a group of 5, both males and females, until a strong cold front sent them on their way south.

They’re shy and skittish at first, perching in the trees above and alighting on the plants below and beside the pond before they’re comfortable getting into the pond.

This Firecracker plant, Russelia equisetiformis, well-placed by the pond, serves as both perch and protection, before and after a bath.

Usually, there’s some time sitting on top of the pond rocks, nervously surveying the surrounding area for safety’s sake.

This one is a female,

…and this one is male. How can I tell? Check out the dab of rust-colored feathers topping his little head–it’s guaranteed to charm the ladies, or at the very least, one special lady.

In time, relaxed and ready, they take the plunge! I like these two, canoodling in the bog area.

Isn’t that sweet? Bird love in the bog! Most of my bird visitors favor the bog: the water is shallow, perfect for fluffy, flitty bathing and plants grow for cover from predators.

That said, there’s always a character lurking around, ready to disturb the peace, like this not-a-bird!

This Eastern Fox Squirrel, Sciurus niger, skittered up the rocks and scattered the birds, taking its turn for a drink at the waterfall. When disturbed, the birds disappear for a time, but they come back when all is quiet and they can bathe and drink in comfort.

Migratory season is mostly over. I did see a Nashville Warbler at the pond twice in this past week. Was it a tardy migrant, winging as fast as possible toward its warm winter digs? Or will it stay here until spring fever hits, joining several Yellow-rumped Warblers, Orange-crowned Warblers, and at least one Ruby-crowned Kinglet for bog baths, pond parties, and insect/suet munchies? Whatever they decide to do, they’re all welcome, temporary or permanent: these seasonal birds, along with the year-round resident birds, add their particular beauty to the diversity that is a wildlife garden.

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!