Listen to Mama: Wildlife Wednesday, October 2019

Listen to your mama, young Red-bellied Woodpecker, Melanerpes carolinus.

I tell that same thing to my 24 year-old son all the time, omitting the ‘little woodpecker’ part of course.  Because my fledgling lives half a world away, most of the time when I’m dispensing sage mama advice, I can’t actually see him rolling his eyes, but I’m reasonably certain that particular eye movement is occurring.  Sometimes, he does agree with me and that’s a definite mama win.

Recently while in my front garden, terra firma, I heard chittering from high up in my neighbor’s ash tree.  Mama woodpecker and her fledgling were conversing, but who knows–except themselves–what mother and child woodpeckers discuss?  Was she annoyed that she wasn’t getting any mama-me time?  Maybe he was complaining that he wanted to hang out on his own branch and not be always in mama’s sight.  He is entering those teen weeks and we all know how trying that time is.

For a brief moment, they were both distracted by something, their voices silenced.

Soon enough, they were back at it: mama digging into the deep crevices of the ash tree’s bark with her strong beak and eating her find, her teen chittering as she rummaged.  This tree is the nursery and home base to several generations of Red-bellied families. The nesting hole where the eggs are laid and chicks are raised lies on another thick branch just beyond the one in the photo, but apparently the family likes hanging out after the little ones are too big for sequester in the nesting hole.

I didn’t see dad in this charming family scene; maybe he was at my peanut feeder in the back garden or perhaps hunting insects at another tree.  I think this is the second woodpecker brood, as in the spring, there were chicks (two, I think) in the hole and I would imagine they are long-fledged by now.  Red-bellied Woodpeckers produce two to three broods each season.

The woodpecker youngster has become a regular visitor at my peanut feeder in the back garden.  At each sighting, I notice more red on his head and for that reason, I believe he’s a male.  The male Red-bellies have a large swath of red on their heads, the bright blush of feathers reaching down toward their eyes.  The female Red-bellies are also redheads, but with less area covered.

Why are they called Red-bellied Woodpeckers when they sport those snazzy red heads?  Firstly, there’s a blush of red on their tummies which is the descriptor of their name. Secondly, there’s another common species of woodpecker in this area, the Red-headed WoodpeckerMelanerpes erythrocelphalus, whose deep, rich red head out-reds the Red-bellies’ heads.  Got that?

Whatever mama and and her boy were yammering about up in that tree, it seems that the little dude has learned some valuable lessons from his parents.  He knows where the peanut feeder is and how to go about grabbing a snack without the supervision of his elders.

Good job growing up and great job parents!  The neighborhood welcomes more Red-belly Woodpeckers.

I hope this past month was a good one for your wildlife watching. Please share your wildlife happenings and remember to leave a link when you post here and 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!

True to Form: Wildlife Wednesday, August 2019

As summer muddles along here in Central Texas with fairly typical heat and humidity, this gardener slows down. Even so, I can’t resist the daily pull of the garden, even in mid-afternoon heat: too much action, life, and beauty greet my visits and I don’t want to miss it any of it.  Local wildlife isn’t bothered one bit by the long, sunny days–if water is available.  True to form, my mid-to-late summer garden provides good wildlife watching.

During spring and autumn bird migration, I’ll slice fruit and affix the pieces to a fence for the weary, hungry and thirsty birds.   While spring migratory season is over and fall migration has yet to begin, some extra oranges found their way to my kitchen and I wanted to share them with, ahem, the birds.

This rascal isn’t a bird, but I’ll bet you knew that already.

This Fan of the Orange is an Eastern Fox SquirrelSciurus niger.  Many types of birds and mammals enjoy fruit, and if you grow–or attempt to grow–fruit trees, this won’t be news to you.  While my orange offers were targeted for birds, I don’t mind (too much) that the squirrel devoured the juicy fruit.

Green anoles, Anolis carolinensis, are active for most of the year, except for the deep of winter.  In summer, it’s rare that I’m in my garden that I don’t see at least one of these garden cuties.  I like the way this one drapes its claw over the leaf edge of the Twist-leaf yucca, Yucca rupicola. The lizard looks like it’s in total command of the situation.  I  expect the anole to don a pair of shades or a hip hat, and sip from an adult-lizard beverage of choice.

 

Nature’s life and death dramas play all the time in my garden.  Oregano blooms, favored by a variety of pollinators, make good perches for garden predators and Milkweed Assasin bugsZelus longipes, commonly hang out on the oregano and hunt.   This assasin had the poor honeybee firmly vised.

A closer look at the assassination.

Excepting a surfeit of predators (which I’ve never seen), I let pollinators and predators go about their business–no matter the outcome.   In nature, it’s all about balance.

This has been the Summer of the Bordered Patch butterfly, Chlosyne lacinia.  Several generations hatched, morphed in caterpillar stages, and then flitted through the garden as adults.  I grow plenty of sunflower types and those plants have nurtured a boon of butterflies, which have been pops of moving color in both larval and adult stages.

To encourage butterflies in your garden, tolerance for munched leaves is a must.

Butterflies and moths lay their eggs on host plants.  Then larvae hatch and eat the foliage of those plants.  The foliage isn’t pristine during the caterpillar progressive meals, but once the eating frenzy is finished and the cats are sequestered in their cocoons, the foliage recovers. A common fallacy is that there is something wrong with foliage that has been eaten, and that the offending insects must be destroyed.  But insects and plants evolved together and share synchronistic relationships:  plants are required for healthy insect populations and insects utilizing their host plants for food eat only what they need for their next stage of development and generally won’t eat foliage to the detriment of plants–nature just doesn’t work that way.  Plants usually rebound to provide for the next generation of pollinators.   As for problematic, invasive insects (for example, aphids and red spider mites), a few blasts of water will usually take care of them.

 

Big, beautiful Southern Carpenter beesXylocopa micans, usually show up in mid-summer and this year a couple arrived on cue.  I like this bum-shot of the bodacious bee.

No, it doesn’t have a red tail issuing from its backside, but instead, the bee is perched over the flower, its proboscis (unseen) thrust into the base of the plant, slurping nectar.  This activity is known as nectar stealing or robbing and, at first glance, doesn’t appear to aid pollination.  The thief either eats a hole into the tissue of the flower, or exploits a hole already in existence, then–proboscis engaged–sips away, bypassing the more typical pollination process.

When pollinators land on flowers and drink from the center of the flower where the reproductive parts are located, it’s a mutually beneficial relationship:  the pollinator gets nectar, the plant is pollinated and reproduction happens.  So is nectar robbing actually theft and is pollination averted?  Maybe not, as the insect (or other pollinator), land on the bloom in such a way that its various body parts make contact with the reproductive parts of the flower.  After nectar robbing from one flower while lying all over that flower, the bee then flies to other flowers.  With pollen grains attached to the bee’s abdomen, legs, and parts unknown, grains are deposited on the following flowers and pollination is achieved.

These gorgeous bees are so large that when one buzzes by me, I feel a slight whoosh in the air!  I’ve seen them at different plants, but in my garden they prefer Turkscap, Malvaviscus arboreus.

Addendum:  I thought this bee was probably a Southern Carpenter, but for good measure, before I published, I sent an identification request to BugGuide.net.  The first response I received was, I believe, incorrect as it suggested the bee was a species from California.  That would be hard as the bee and I reside in Texas.  However, I’ve since received a second identification (Friday August 9) suggesting that this bee is a Large Carpenter bee,  Xylocopa mexicanorum. 

 So…welcome to the wonderful world of insect identification!

So what’s in your garden as summer plods along?  Please post about your garden critters and leave a link  to your post when you comment here and happy wildlife gardening!