Reptile Rendezvous: Wildlife Wednesday, April 2020

I suspect my garden is a meeting place for reptiles, and has been, well, since the beginning of the garden.  My constant garden companions are the Green AnolesAnolis carolinensis.  They’re everywhere:  slinking from behind the decorative shutters of my home windows, sidling up the trunks of trees, scurrying  through the undergrowth of the garden.  Sometimes, they come into the house.  Last week, my husband came from the kitchen to where I was in the back of the house, an anole firmly clamped on his finger.  He’d seen it in the kitchen, attempted to corral the lizard, which only encouraged it to dash under the pantry door.  Once in the pantry, the lizard’s options were limited and the intrepid lizard hunter cornered and captured the misplaced green thing. Mr. Anole clamped down on the hub’s finger hanging on with all its might.  Husband showed me his prize, we both had a giggle, then he exited the house to return the rogue reptile to the garden.  I didn’t have the presence of mind to catch a photo of the finger-with-lizard-attached, but it was a quite a sight.  The anole didn’t hurt the hub (nor, the other way around) as its little teeth are…really little and can’t penetrate human skin.  But if you’re a small insect (also known as food), those teeth will inflict some damage.

There are plenty of other reptiles in the garden, as well.  The season of the noisy,  amorous American ToadBufo americanus, has arrived.  Added to the calming sound of the pond waterfall, are now the guttural–and loud!–croaks of these fellas, also in the pond. Looking for feminine toad company, the warty dudes sing mostly after dark, until about midnight.  I like their serenades but wish they’d dial it down, just a bit.  There are little tree frogs, too, that I’ve never seen, but hear each spring and summer, starting now and continuing through July.  Chirp, chirp, chirp go these little frogs, but fall mute as I approach where they sit in the dark, hidden from my eyes.

Recently, the Blue Jays alerted their avian friends (and consequently, the gardener) to this chap:

He/she is a Rat Snake, Elaphe obsoleta lindheimeri, probably the same adult that I saw briefly last summer.  It’s a little hard to tell from the photo, but this slinky, slithery beauty is about four feet long.  It was lounging on the ground, stretched out along the base of my back fence which borders a neighbor’s property.

The neighbor was working in his back garden, so I peeked over the fence to let him know about the snake–he’s also a wildlife appreciator.  He grabbed a step-stool, peered over the fence and was thrilled to see the gorgeous snake.  We chatted for a bit, then I went indoors.  A little later, he emailed me to say that the snake had scaled (pun intended!) the 6 foot wooden fence and had plopped over onto their property.  Their sweet dog, Tula, was too interested in the snake, so he gently urged the snake to go under an attached fence, to lounge in his dog-free next door neighbor’s back yard.  He contacted the neighbor so that if she saw the snake, she wouldn’t freak out; he assured her that the rat snake isn’t harmful to humans.

Like most snakes, rat snakes are shy and avoid contact with humans.   They eat rats and mice (Yay!), but also birds, bird eggs, and other delectables smaller than themselves.  I’m not thrilled about the bird/baby bird meals, but to have a rat snake in the garden is a gift and confirmation of a healthy ecosystem.  

 

For the first time EVER in my garden, I observed a Texas Spiny LizardSceloporus olivaceus.

Green Anoles are common in my garden, but never-ever have I seen a Texas Spiny Lizard in my outdoor space.  I saw it crawling up the fence separating our back garden from my SIL’s garden.   I used the camera’s zoom feature as I couldn’t get too near this new garden buddy, as it was intent upon skedaddling as I moved in for closer shot.

When I worked at Zilker Botanical Garden, I regularly saw Texas Spiny Lizards; they were my garden companions in that place, much like the Green Anoles are in my home garden.   Like the Anoles, the Spiny Lizards eat insects, but also, smaller vertebrates.  Did you catch that that Anoles??

Spiny Lizards are bigger than Anoles by about three times in length, with more robust bodies.  They also have larger scales, with muted coloring allowing for their camouflage in native trees.  Spiny Lizards typically spend much their time in trees, so maybe they’ve been around, and inexplicably, I never noticed.  Regardless, I’m happy that one, at least once, graced the garden.

 

Then, there’s this clown.

I was watching a swarm of honeybees (yes, mine…) as they made their way to my SIL’s tree in the neighboring garden, when I caught sight of this character.  While I think that Mr. Green’s head (and that expression on his face!) is funny, I also think he’s a clever lizard.  He’s obviously lying in wait for a meal delivery of honeybee.  I’ve witnessed anoles hiding in the foliage of vines or perennials that also produce flowers visited by honeybees, then watched as Anoles snatch their bee prey at lightening speed, retreating into the protection of the foliage for a sweet, crunchy meal.

Nature’s cycles continue, even while we humans are locked-down.  If you’re able, now is a good time to observe events that progress successfully without human intervention and to take comfort in those natural happenings.  I recognize that I speak from a position of privilege:  I have a home, (nothing fancy), but nevertheless, a single family home with accompanying land where I’ve nurtured a full-of-life garden.  I realize that many (most) don’t have what I have and I know that I’m very, very fortunate. 

But nature is a balm in a world turned upside-down and inside…inside.  Be well, look out for your loved ones and neighbors, don’t gather in groups, but make your way outdoors if possible.  And wash your damn hands!

What wild happenings have you seen while you walk, or in your trees, or on the ground?  Please leave a link to your wildlife story when you comment here and good wildlife gardening and watching!

March of the Butter Butts: Wildlife Wednesday, March 2020

‘Butter Butt’ is the affectionate nickname given by birders to the songbird, Yellow-rumped warbler, Setophaga coronata.  I’ve been fortunate to host at least one Yellow-rumped warbler each winter for the past few years.  These attractive warblers, muted in color when I see them in winter, are widespread throughout North America.  My home in Central Texas is in the middle of their geographically wide migratory path; many  overwinter here.

“My” little Butter Butt–and I think it’s the only one this winter–is a female, a member of the “Myrtle” subspecies.  There are two subspecies of Yellow-rumps:  “Myrtle”  warblers, from the eastern half of North America and “Audubon’s” warbler, from western areas.  The primary distinguishing features between the two subspecies are that the male Myrtle has a white throat and black mask across the eyes, while the Audubon’s throat is yellow and has no black mask.  There are other differences too, mostly in amount of white between the males and females on the wings and faces.

I’ve identified my Yellow-rump as female.  She lacks the black mask across the eyes that a male Myrtle Yellow-rump warbler wears.  Even without the mask and the bold coloring, she’s still very cute.

When Butter Butts molt (in late spring) their coloring is quite dramatic. You can see  photos of these beauties in their finest feathered forms, here.   Even without the dramatic breeding colors, I think this little bird qualifies as a head-turner in the looks department.

I typically see her at the suet feeder, or bathing in the bog area of the pond.  Plus she frequently forages along the ground in the garden; I have no clue what she noshes under the plants.  Seeds?  Insects?  Probably both!  Yellow-rumped warblers enjoy the widest menu choices of any warbler species.  They eat a huge variety of insects, gleaning those with their pointed beaks from trees and snatching with expertise during flight.  These warblers stand alone–maybe I should say they digest alone–with their consumption of bayberry and wax myrtle berries; no other warblers digest those two berry species.  Ornithologists believe that Yellow-rumps ability to eat the two widely available berries allows them to overwinter farther north than most other warblers. 

I’ve observed scads of little songbirds flitting in my trees and always assumed they’re eating parts of leaves or spring flowers with pollen, and maybe, some insects. But in observing this Yellow-rump as she hops along the limbs and darts through the leaves, it’s clear that she’s focused on insects, rather than nibbling at vegetation for her meals.  Ms. Yellow-rump is a bundle of energy, constantly in movement:  up, down, and all around.   I haven’t witnessed any bug-munching, but most afternoons when I look for her, she’s there, in the trees, hunting for protein.

According to Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Yellow-rumps forage on the outside branches of trees and along those limbs in the bottom third of the tree.  That’s exactly where I’ve noticed my warbler and thank goodness for that!  She’d be even more difficult to observe if higher up in the trees.

In winter, Yellow-rumped warblers spend their time in mixed arboreal landscapes–those areas with plenty of trees and fruit-bearing shrubs, like parks and urban gardens, all good habitats brimming with the needed munchies.  In their breeding areas, far north from Central Texas, they concentrate on insect eating, but easily switch to fruits, if available.  Yellow-rumps nest in coniferous trees, the female building the chicks’ homes along branches.  Both parents feed the chicks, which fledge within two weeks.  They grow up so fast!

These hardy warblers are adaptable, which is why their populations are relatively stable.  That said, it’s always a good when gardeners plant for birds:  native plants are best to provide berries and seeds, to provide cover for protection, and to provide a rich, diverse garden habitat.   Also, habitats free of insecticides is a must, since many birds (not only warblers) require insects for themselves and their offspring.

 

And there it is–the famous, often talked about, but only briefly glimpsed–yellow rump!

The flash of that bodacious booty is easily visible–at the correct angle, with tail feathers up–as they bop around the ground or zoom through trees, but catching these busy birds to photograph their famous bums is a little trickier. It requires patience and some good luck.

For more great information on this charming songbird, check out the Cornell Lab of Ornithology or Audubon’s site on the Yellow-rumped Warbler.

What wild things are in your garden?  Please share and leave a link when you post a comment–and happy spring and wildlife gardening!

February is for Wildlife Lovers: Wildlife Wednesday, February 2020

Virginia is for Lovers is a long-time advertising slogan used to appeal to tourists interested in visiting Virginia and it’s apparently been a successful one.  My riff on that slogan is February is for Wildlife Lovers in celebration of Wildlife Wednesday during this month where love and pairdom is paramount: a month of hearts and chocolates–and the birds and the bees–though for our purposes here, it’s the birds and the butterflies.

February is the month when human couples send flowers, share candy and/or make reservations at absurdly expensive and noisy restaurants.  But some of my backyard birds are also busy in the art of love, or at least, in the art of settling down to the business of wooing, mating, and preparing for a family of winged things.

I typically see either the male or the female Red-bellied WoodpeckerMelanerpes carolinus, but I rarely see both partners on the same day.    A couple of weekends ago, that paradigm changed, the female visiting first, in the tree.

It’s not a classically well-framed shot, but I love the stink-eye that she looks like she’s giving me.   Red-bellied eye-rolling is about to commence!

After moving up along a main branch of my Red oak tree, she fluttered down to the black-oiled sunflower feeder for a quick snack.  The female Red-bellies have little-to-no blush of red on their bellies and their splash of head red starts toward the back of their heads, extending down the nape of their necks.

 

A short while later, a handsome woodpecker chap visited the same tree and feeder.

“Did ya get a good shot of my rosy, woodpeckier chest?”

With more red on his face, head, and belly, he’s a brightly patterned catch.  I assume these two comprise the same couple who raised two clutches of junior woodpeckers last year.  Red-bellied woodpeckers are monogamous and each share in nest building and chick raising.   The males choose the nesting site, starting the pecking work on the hole;  if the female accepts the offer and the site, she and her partner finish the construction together:  the couple that builds together, stays together!   Red-bellies are known to use the same tree for their nests, but build a new nesting hole for each new set of eggs.

 

At about the time that the Red-bellied couple visited, I enjoyed a similar sighting of both a female, then male Downy Woodpecker, Dryobates pubescens, again on the same day.   The female has no red on her cute little head, but she’s adorned in snazzy black and white on her head, wings and back, with a lovely white tummy.

The male Downy has a dab of red atop his head, accompanied by similar-to-his mate black and white patterned feathers.  Like the Red-bellies, the Downies are monogamous and both partners parent offspring.  Last spring I enjoyed the privilege of watching Daddy Downy teach his little one how to flit from tree-to-feeder, then back again.  Daddy birds rock!

I look forward to a new set of woodpecker kids in the neighborhood.  The Red-bellied Woodpeckers nested in my neighbor’s tree–the one that my SIL now owns–and I’m certain that my SIL will enjoy watching these charmers as they build the nesting hole(s) and once again, become parents.

I don’t know where the Downy Woodpeckers nest.  They fly in a northwesterly direction from my back garden, but I don’t know what tree, or trees, they’ve chosen to secure their little ones in past breeding seasons.

More pairing is underway with the mating of Gulf Fritillary butterfliesAgraulis vanillae.  Butterfly wooing is quieter than bird wooing and mostly involves undulating flight patterns between the partners, who then rest somewhere as they seal the deal.

Due to our mild winter, there are active butterflies and not only Gulf Fritillaries, though they’re clearly in breeding mode with egg laying to follow.  While I’d like to have some hard freezes (this month–NOT in March!), I haven’t at all objected to butterflies during this typically drab time of year.  There are still some flowers for nectaring and my passion vine–the nursery for Gulf Fritillary caterpillars–is green and able to provide sustenance for the larvae, given that a hard freeze hasn’t yet killed it to the ground.

The breeding season for birds, butterflies, bees–and heck, everything else–is about to begin.  It’s a time that gardeners can provide food, in the form of seeds and fruits, and with diverse choices of plants, as well as water and cover.  If your garden is welcoming to wildlife, you can sit back and observe remarkable events in your garden:   you’ll enjoy watching the wildlife lovers and their offspring and you’ll become a wildlife lover.

Please leave a link to your post when you comment here and happy wildlife gardening!