Native, Invasive: Wildlife Wednesday, April 2019

Looking out the kitchen window recently, I noticed that my little female cat, Astrud, was staring intently at something.  I assumed that what she was concerned about was the neighbor’s big tom cat who, at times, sneaks into my garden, so I went outdoors to shoo him away.  Well, it wasn’t the neighbor’s tom cat that Astrud communed with, but instead, this juvenile Virginia OpossumDedelphis virginiana.

The two of them engaged in a relaxed standoff, neither seemingly fussed about one another’s presence.  I sat down about 10 feet away to observe; Astrud casually glanced at me, while the opossum snuffled and sniffed.  Opossums have poor eyesight, but a refined sense of smell and I’m sure he/she was assessing the situation with the nose.  Within a couple of minutes, Astrud lost interest in the opossum, trotting away to investigate something new and different.  The opossum, on cue, bundled under a gate, waddling off to unknown places.

Am I staring at you or are you staring at me?

It was a cute encounter and fascinating to observe.

I take a benign view of opossums.  They amble through my garden during the night, sometimes I see them early in the morning. When I dump the day’s veggie remains in the compost (usually after dark and I always forget to bring a flashlight), I jump when I realize there’s a marsupial munching on a meal.  I fret when one moves into the owl house, but otherwise, I consider opossums as part of the garden and local environment.  Opossums bother no one and eat a variety of foods, which, upon expulsion of the seeds, helps the spread of native plants.  They sometime eat rats and mice and I’m all for that.

I’ve come across people who are creeped-out by opossums.   I think their squeamishness results from wariness about opossum behavior.  Opossums are shy and mostly active at night. They’re secretive, skulking, and mostly unseen; nighttime activity is intrinsically uncomfortable for some folks.  Opossums also have that bare tail and lots of pointy teeth, and they’ll hiss to be scary if cornered, though generally, they’re not aggressive critters.  And–let’s be honest here–in the looks department, they’re not pretty.  They’re certainly not as pretty as the average cat; Astrud would win a beauty contest, hands-down.  But why do most people favor their cute kitties, who are outdoor, invasive killing machines, over a less-than-gorgeous native critter, one who has a place in the ecosystem, who evolved here and belongs here?  Opossums are some of the oldest mammals inhabiting North America.

I wouldn’t dream of installing an invasive plant in my garden–not for a minute–and I have tut-tutted when others, who, usually in ignorance or in response to poor advice, planted something that is invasive.  I’m always (okay, usually) polite in correcting information about native plants versus invasive plants, employing a teachable moment policyUsing well-adapted non-natives in the garden?  Sure, I have plenty of those and encourage others to use them, but I’m careful not to promote or utilize recognized invasives in my garden and encourage others to go native or use non-invasive, non-natives.

However, my go native self-righteousness doesn’t apparently extend to preventing my cats from roaming the garden.  I allow my cats (I have two) outdoors, and they’re not a native species to North America, though there’s certainly a good argument that they’re well-adapted.

Astrud is primarily an indoor cat.  She ventures into the back garden for brief visits:  she loves to go out first thing in the morning for a few minutes, and then again near sundown for an hour or so.  My other cat, Nuri, is a true indoor/outdoor cat, though is spending more time indoors as he ages and since he was diagnosed with heart disease.  Originally, I’d planned to keep Nuri indoors only, but that one time that I let him out, well, he decided outdoors was a great place to be a cat.  Of course all cats, mine included, might catch birds, but until the past few years I wasn’t aware of just how much damage outdoor domestic cats inflict on native birds.  Using information from 2013, it’s estimated that the “free-ranging” domestic cat population kill 1.3-4 billion birds each year in the US.

That’s a lot of birds.  As well, these same cats kill a variety of  small mammals and other wildlife.

So why let them out at all if I’m so concerned about preserving native habitat in my urban environment?  Why the inconsistency? I guess it comes down to the oh-so-human practice of hypocrisy–and like most humans, I am a practitioner thereof.

Wild things have many obstacles to their survival: loss of habitat, agricultural and home garden chemical use, increasing urbanization…and domestic cats.  My cats have hunted and killed native wildlife in my garden; fortunately, only a few have fallen to their skills.  Still, some small snakes, lizards, and yes–birds have been killed by my pets and I’m ashamed that I allowed them outside to inflict harm to endemic species.  That said,  as I’ve learned more about our native fauna, I’ve worked hard to provide a safe haven for wildlife in my garden and my cats are only out when I’m home and can keep my eyes on their actions.

What to do?  Well, the best thing is to keep cats indoors.  They’ll live longer and wildlife will be safer.  Going forward, any cat I adopt will be an indoor cat, but my two are older and daily habits are tough to break. Astrud is basically an indoor cat, with a few minutes outside most days.  With Nuri, it’s more complicated, because he’s always been indoor/outdoor fella and it’s hard to teach an old cat new tricks–or something to that effect.

I limit the cats’ outside time–especially during spring and autumn bird migration, and when the resident baby birds fledge–to early nighttime and when I’m in the garden supervising their feline affairs.  Most of the time, both cats wear a BirdsBeSafe collar, which is made by good folks to help birds be safe from cats.   Doesn’t Nuri look handsome in his BirdsBeSafe collar?  And his bird companions don’t seem to mind him at all!

The theory behind the collar is that it’s not a bell on a collar (ahem–the dinner bell) which will protect a bird from a stalking cat, but the bright colors on the collar, which (specifically) song birds discern.   Cats are good predators in part because their coloring serves as camouflage and they move stealthily, so that a bell probably won’t sound in time for a bird to escape.  But with the BirdsBeSafe collar, songbirds are alerted by movement and bright colors, and will fly to safety.

For more information on this collar, check out this 2015 article from Science Direct about the effectiveness of the BirdsBeSafe collar.

While birds might be safer with a cat wearing the collar, the collar won’t help butterflies or amphibians from becoming victims.  The collar on the cats is only a partial solution to allowing my purry invasives out in the garden, but for now, it works: my fuzzy-butts have some outdoor time (with supervision) and wildlife is generally safe in my garden.

What wild critters are in your garden? Do you have workaround to make your garden safe for wildlife, while allowing pets some outdoor time?  Please leave your link when you comment here and happy wildlife gardening!

Return of the Blues: Wildlife Wednesday, March 2019

Ah, the winter blues.  More accurately, the late winter blues.  Blue Orchard Mason bees, Osmia lignaria, are exiting their year-long incubation chambers and buzzing my garden.

The goal for their short lives is to mate, rummage around flowers and foliage for nesting material, lay eggs, and pack the eggs safely to ensure the next generation of bees who will appear, on cue, next February.

The blue bee bonanza is an annual event in my garden.  These beautiful insects–an eye-popping, rich, iridescent blue–zoom from the native bee houses where they grow up, to the garden and beyond, and then back again, as they mate and then gather pollen and other material for the next generation’s nesting chambers.

These bees are important for commercial orchards, but thrive in welcoming home gardens, too.  In our garden, we’ve placed several boxes with drilled wood and lengths of cut bamboo.  These bee houses are utilized by a variety of native bees throughout the year.  Because the Blue Orchard bee adults emerge in February, they’re the first native bees to pack away their babies in the bee houses.

Packed nursery holes, as well as some where a bee (or bees) have exited, and a new adult.

After mating,

…the females begin their egg-laying process in a hole in wood or masonry which is of a size and length that the adult female finds appealing.  The first eggs laid–those at the back-end of the cylinder–are female, and the eggs at the front–potentially the most exposed–are male. Between each egg laid, mom bee builds a wall of mud and pollen so that each is snuggled into its own room.  The entire nursery, all chambers therein, is then sealed firmly until the next year.

Do the girls get pink rooms and the boys, blue?  Nah, the rooms are gender-neutral, as far as color choice goes.  However, gender differentiation is present: the female eggs-larvae-adults are at the furthest end of the nursery cylinder so that those most responsible for successful procreation are best protected, or so suggest the entomologists who study these bees.  The male eggs-larvae-adults are situated at the front of the nursery cylinders, emerging as adults first, so that they’re ready, eager, and awaiting their potential mates.

The two bees in this photo are males; one is fully emerged, the other peeking out, ready to take on his corner of the world.

Males have a white patch on their faces which is a mustache-like clump of white hairs.

Hairy dudes.

This fella rested on an upturned plastic bin under one of the bee houses.  He posed handsomely for me.  Or was he challenging me to a duel?  Or perhaps wondering what I am?  Who knows what a bee thinks?

The females (with the males, of course) mate, then begin preparations for laying eggs and provisioning for their offspring.  This female wriggled and writhed around the pollen-laden center of a Desert mallow bloom. 

Unlike honeybees, who carry their pollen packs on their legs in what are formally known as coribulae or pollen baskets; I call them pollen pantaloons, but that’s just me. Blue Orchard bees,  members of the Mason bee family, carry gathered pollen on their tummies.  This is the best shot I  managed of a female heading into a nesting chamber with pollen.  These gals are fast fliers!  I’ve observed creamy white pollen-coated tummies, as well as cheery yellow and orange, color depending upon what bloom, or blooms, the female worked.

The females fly into the holes head-first, making their way to the back of the cylinder, then working their way forward–one egg and egg prep–at a time.  Mom bee rolls the pollen into balls, adding nectar and microorganisms, to make pollen bread. Each egg is laid on its own ball of pollen bread, which will be the food source for the larvae.  A mud wall is built, sealing in the egg and its food source.  Then mama works on the the next egg and chamber, so it goes until she reaches the front of the hole, which she seals thickly with mud and pollen.

The female has chosen this bamboo cylinder for her nursery. To the left, see the two cylinders with holes; adult bees, plopped in last year, have exited their nursery chambers.

I don’t grow any fruit trees, though I have some early spring blooming trees in my garden  There are flowering fruit trees in my neighborhood–peach, apple, and pear–and I expect that the blue bees nesting my garden visit those flowers.

Building native bee houses, or hotels, is easy.  Using untreated wood and providing a variety of different sized holes for different sized bees, you’ll attract a wide array of native bees to your garden.  You can even leave cut logs from downed, or pruned, trees in your garden, and with some aging of that wood, the native (carpenter) bees will find them.  Check out these links for instructions and ideas about attracting these fascinating and beautiful pollinators to your garden.

https://www.nwf.org/en/Garden-for-Wildlife/Young/Build-a-Bee-House

http://www.foxleas.com/make-a-bee-hotel.asp

As much as the appearance of new buds on trees or the thickening of bloom stalks on spring perennials, the arrival of the adult Blue Orchard bees heralds the onset of Spring in my garden.  New life emerging and continuation of the alliances between flowering plants and their pollinators confirms a time-honored environmental zeitgeist of the natural world.

What indicates spring–or autumn–for your garden?  Please share your wildlife garden observations and insights, then leave a link to your post when you comment here–and happy wildlife gardening for March!

Fragile, Enduring: Wildlife Wednesday, January 2019

Happy 2019–may it be a year of peace for all and good gardening for those who seek, and find, solace in the outdoors.  Today is Wildlife Wednesday, marked on this first Wednesday of the month, with the goal of chronicling the wild ones in our gardens and celebrating the connection with nature that a garden delivers.

One afternoon recently, I wandered my garden, reviewing the limited freezer-burn damage on certain perennials, and a lone butterfly caught my attention as it fluttered past me, wacky and zig-zaggy, but with purpose.  It alighted on a nearby ceramic sphere which has, from time-to-time, supplied landing for other winged creatures.

The butterfly was still for a time, then turned around, modeling its stylized wings, allowing photographic capture from different angles.  While it seemed that the butterfly invited viewing at varying perspectives–proud of its pulchritude, no doubt–I’m not sure that he/she appreciated the photography session.

It to dared me to get closer. I didn’t.

This autumnally hued butterfly is a Red Admiral, Vanessa atalanta, and is common throughout the continental United States and other parts of the world, including Europe, Northern Africa, and Asia.

It’s a butterfly of the Earth.

Not endangered in any part of the world, this member of the Nymphalidae family primarily feeds on tree sap, bird poop, and fermenting fruit, more than imbibing from blooms.  I recall one nectaring at some flower in my garden, but I can’t remember which flower–I’ll need to pay more attention next time.  As far as I’m aware, I don’t grow any of its host plants (those plants that the adult lays eggs upon and that the caterpillars eat from), which consists of various types of nettles.  But there must be host plants in my area because Red Admirals are regular visitors in my garden throughout the year: spring, summer, autumn, winter.

The butterfly perched on the globe in daylight, near the sun’s reflection; the un-butterflied half of the sphere remained in darkness.

 

The blue globe, with its swirls of green in foliage reflection, evoked for me the beauty, and innocence, of the first view of our lovely Earth, taken 50 years ago on December 24, 1968, by astronaut Bill Anders, as he and his crewmates orbited the moon aboard Apollo 8.

Earthrise.

During the fourth orbit of the moon, Anders captured the historic and iconic view of our little blue and white planet, seemingly alone and vulnerable, but stunningly beautiful.

 

Anders snapped the iconic Earthrise photo during the crew’s fourth orbit of the moon, frantically switching from black-and-white to color film to capture the planet’s exquisite, fragile beauty.

“Oh my God, look at that picture over there!” Anders said. “There’s the Earth coming up. Wow, is that pretty!”

Before the flight, no one had thought about photographing Earth, according to Anders. The astronauts were under orders to get pictures for potential lunar landing sites while orbiting 70 miles (112 kilometers) above the moon.

“We came to explore the moon and what we discovered was the Earth,” Anders is fond of saying.

 

Earthrise changed how we saw the Earth and is credited with emboldening the environmental movement.  The photo remains a symbol of Earth’s beauty and fragility, but also of our eternal relationship with, and sense of responsibility toward, our only home.

I remember bits about the Apollo missions, as viewed on my family’s black and white television set and as seen in color photos in LIfe and Time magazines.  Earthrise has been a part of my life since childhood.

In my own gardening experience on my little plot of the Earth, at a local botanical garden where I gardened for a time, and at others’ gardens that I’ve tended, I’ve been all-in for the flowers and foliage. My original interest in gardening focused on creating interesting spaces of color and texture which would require less maintenance than an expanse of lawn.  I was attracted by and interested in native Texas plants, but have always included hardy non-invasive non-natives that add structure and variety, augmenting the diversity of the gardens.

Over time, I’ve observed what other gardeners and naturalists have observed: wildlife– pollinators, birds, amphibians, mammals, and reptiles–appear when an environment is welcoming and conducive to their needs.  Gardens with limited (or no) chemical intervention, and which provide water, cover, and food, nurture and protect complex ecosystems.  I’ve come to understand the synchronistic thread which binds plants to their insects, birds, and other wildlife, and now appreciate how wildlife enriches–and is enriched by–gardening choices. Like Astronaut Anders, who came to discover the moon, but instead, found the Earth, I explored gardening and discovered wildlife.

I still love a pretty plant, but I strive to garden for wildlife.  My gardening choices favor the feeding and protecting of wild creatures endemic or migratory, who live in or visit my garden. More than when I embarked on this avocation, I recognize the value of the whole system–plants, wildlife, environment–rather than following garden fads, or planting, willy-nilly, with little regard to the whole picture.

I hope your gardening experiences involve wild critters and if not, that you’ll spend some of 2019 studying your region to learn how to best provide for wildlife, and thus bringing life to your garden.

For more about Apollo 8 and the Earthrise photo, check out this Washington Post article (be sure to watch the embedded video which re-creates the situation which made the photos possible!) and also, this mini-documentary from PBS, Earthrise, .as told from the perspectives of the three astronauts.

Please leave a link to your Wildlife Wednesday post when you comment here.Happy New Year and good wildlife gardening for 2019!