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!

It’s Bird Time: Wildlife Wednesday, May 2020

While most humans are staying at home–and it’s a smart thing to do–the birds of the world are in migratory mode, traveling great distances to find their mates and start their  families.  It’s bird time and spring migration is well-underway.   I’m fortunate that my garden is smack in the middle of the North American bird highway, allowing for a good variety of birds who winter in Central and South America and breed in the northern parts of North America, to wing in for a visit.  

The migrants mostly visit my garden for rest, but gobbling some insects and a dip-n-splash in the pond and bird baths are also part of their agendas.  Each spring, I welcome back birds that I observe, albeit briefly, once or twice a year.  Autumn migration happens too, from August through September, but in my garden, spring is the the primary bird show.

One of my favorite migratory birds is the Lincoln SparrowMelospiza lincolnii, who visit in both spring and autumn.  Cornell Labs uses the term “dainty” to describe Lincoln Sparrows; I’ve described their coloring as elegant:  adults are graceful, painted in subtly marked cream and grey, with highlights of varying shades of brown.  Lincolns aren’t flashy, but instead handsome, low-key little birds.

Lincoln Sparrows hop along the ground and through the shrubs foraging for insects. They’re quite shy and secretive, therefore difficult to observe, as any movement sends them aloft to safety.  I get my best views when they’re at the pond; they especially enjoy the bog. 

According to Cornell’s All About Birds website, the Lincoln Sparrows breed in far north Canada, with their migratory routes in the northern and Midwestern parts of the U. S.  Texas is included as the ‘non-breeding’ area, though the only time I see them is during the two migratory seasons.   I’m glad to welcome them to the garden whenever they like.

 

Another common, mostly spring, migrant in my garden, is the Nashville Warbler, Leiothlypis ruficapilla.   Grey and yellow with a ring of white around their eyes and perfectly round heads, they’re cute, petite birds.    See the little smudge at the top of this fella’s head?   That’s the blush of brown that signifies he’s a he.  Typically, the brown patch is hard to see.  I usually don’t notice it, even with binoculars, until I download a photo.

He’s showing off his good side,

…and staring (or is it glaring?) at the camera.  

As a species, I see more individual Nashville Warblers than any other migratory bird.  Instead of just one, once-in-a-while, for a few weeks,  it’s not unusual for me to see two, three, and even four, hanging out together, traipsing down the rocks for a dip.  They’re not great at social distancing.

Most Nashville Warblers migrate along the coastal regions, but they have migratory routes through almost all of Texas.  Yay for Texas birders!!  The Nashville Warbler isn’t more common in Nashville than in other place.  They’re so named because the species was first observed–then named–in Nashville, Tennessee by Alexander Wilson in 1811.  Just to make things complicated, there’s also a Tennessee Warbler, Leiothlypis peregrina, which has also come through my garden recently, but I couldn’t get a photo.  Or, at least not one that was anything but a blur.  

 

Everyone wants to catch a peek of a Painted Bunting, Passerina ciris, and it’s obvious why.

Considered one of the most beautiful, if not the most beautiful, bird in North America, All About Birds describes Painted Buntings as birds that “…seem to have flown straight out of a child’s coloring book.”  The males are stunning:  brightly colored and wildly patterned, and the females, while dull in comparison, are pretty great looking too, despite the lack of color pizzazz.   I’ve enjoyed several visits from one, or a couple of visits from several–I’m not certain which.  Most of my Bunting sightings were miss-it-if-you-blink glimpses, but I was tickled to watch this one bathe for a while in one of my bird baths that sports a little pump which bubbles water.

The female who visited was skittish; I saw her twice, only briefly.  I’ve typically seen more Buntings in May, so there’s still a good chance that more will come through.  Besides bathing their gorgeous selves, I’ve seen Painted Buntings nibble at the seeds of the native Mexican Feather grass, Nassella tenuissima, and at the seeds one of the early spring-blooming perennials, Lyreleaf sage, Salvia lyrata. There’s a lesson: if you plant native, the birds will come.

I think the bird charm prize must be awarded to this female Summer Tanager, Piranga rubra. The Summer Tanagers, usually one mature male, a female and one or two juveniles, show up at the end of April for a couple of weeks.  It isn’t the pond which draws them, nor is it the native plants that they hunger for.  So why do these bird hang out in my back garden?  For the honeybees!  

Summer Tanagers are adept hunters of bees and wasps, catching the insect treats in the air and eating them in trees, or sometimes, on the rooftop of a defunct beehive. 

While the photo isn’t particularly clear, as I watched, she definitely snagged a bee.  The bee is most likely from the hive named Woody, which resides to the left, just out of frame, but Ms. Bee-hunter plopped down on top of poor Buzz to snarf the snack.  Tanagers beat their bee snacks on a branch (or rooftop) then rub the bee on a surface until the stinger falls out.  Then gulp–and yum!  It’s a sting-free meal!

This female tanager has been in the back garden most mornings for a week or so and a joy to watch.  

She’s alighted on the black-oiled sunflower feeder several times.  I love the disgusted look on her face as she must be thinking:  I’m not gonna eat this.  Do other birds actually eat this junk?  

True to form, as she perched on the feeder, she kept a keen eye out for flying insects, ready for action when one became available. 

Compared to the bright red male she’s not as colorful.  But her intelligence is obvious and she’s also a pretty, pretty bird.  

I observed a mature male once early in the migration season, but he was gone in a flash.  An immature male has also been hunting bees, alongside the female.  

That seems to be a pattern:  in late April, I’ll see a mature male; maybe he hangs around, maybe not.  Then I observe both a mature female and an immature male, both hunting in my back garden for a week or two–then, they’re gone.  Central Texas is Summer Tanager breeding ground, but I only ever see them from late April and into early May.  They’re welcome to hang out though, as I always have a supply of bees.

The juvenile males are showy, even with their undecided coloring–splotches of red here, dabs of yellow there.   But like their elders, observing their keen hunting skills is a treat–and a privilege.

 

This little dab of sunshine zoomed around the garden, landed in a tree and then proceeded to give me the stink eye.  A male Yellow Warbler, Setophaga petechia, I typically have a gaggle of males and females show up in spring, flit around the pond for a few days, then move on to parts unknown.

It’s not a very good shot of this lovely, tiny bird;  I’m including it just in case it’s the only one I see this season. He’s a pure yellow, with burnished streaking throughout the breast.  The females are also yellow, though in a muted hue, and lack the breast streaking.  Both have adorable faces.  All of Texas is in their migratory path and north of Texas, they breed throughout a huge swath of North America. I hope to see more of them in the next few weeks.

 

A different yellow caught my attention one evening, near sundown. Again, it’s not a great shot, but I’ve never seen a Blue-winged Warbler, Vermivora cyanoptera before.

I don’t think the bird was in my back garden for more than a minute and I feel fortunate that I grabbed the camera and snapped the shot.   Considered a rare bird for Central Texas, there are occasional sightings of Blue-winged Warblers during migration season.  Blue-winged Warblers migrate through the eastern half of Texas and breed in the upper Eastern/Midwestern areas of the U.S.  I think this one is a female, as she lacks the dramatic black eye mask of the male and had less white on her wing-bar.  

A rarer bird for Central Texas also appeared in my garden a few days later. It wasn’t in the garden for long and certainly didn’t stay still at all, but this Golden-winged Warbler, Vermivora chrysoptera, provided some excitement for me.

With a quick perusal of Cornell’s site, I assumed this one was a female.  As it happens, Golden-winged Warblers and Blue-winged Warblers interbreed and hybridize, creating varying color combos.  Originally, ornithologists thought that the hybrids were separate species, but now think differently.  I believe this one is a “Brewster’s” which sports a white throat and more gray coloring.  A different hybrid (“Lawrence’s Warbler”) tends more yellow.

I’m especially honored to have observed this little beauty, even for just a few moments, as it’s a bird which has endured one of the greatest population declines of all songbirds.  The largest population is in Minnesota, and Cornell Lab of Ornithology, along with an organization called the Golden-winged Warbler Working Group, have developed a conservation plan to grow the population.  I hope it succeeds.  Golden-winged Warblers breed in the same region (Great Lakes) as Blue-winged Warblers, though in a much smaller area.

It feels like there haven’t been as many birds coming through my garden this past month, but May is usually the primary migration month, at least for my garden.  That said, I’m thrilled with the two rare bird sightings and grateful that my garden provides some safety and respite for these remarkable creatures.

If you’re interested, Cornell Lab sponsors Global Big Day, this upcoming Saturday, May 9, 2020.   The purpose is to observe and celebrate the birds around you–wherever you may be.  Birders big and small, expert or novice, gather in their spaces (social distancing, of course–that’s the birding way) and report the birds observed.  It only requires a few minutes of time, or you can watch on-and-off during the day.  Once the data is in (either through e-bird, or by email) it’s a fascinating look and a quick snapshot at what birds are where, all around the world.  Check out the link above if you’re want to participate–it’s easy, fun, and educational. 

You never know who might see in your garden. 

Today is Wildlife Wednesday and if you’re so inclined, share your wildlife happenings here.  Also, it’s Wednesday Vignette, so I’m also linking with Anna at Flutter and Hum.  Check out her site for gardening stories of all kinds.

Happy wildlife gardening!

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!