Green With Envy: Wildlife Wednesday, September 2020

On lucky days my garden is graced by some of Austin’s resident, non-native, Monk Parakeets.  Usually it’s a small group of two or three gregarious greens flying over and cawing loudly to let everyone know they’re in the neighborhood.  Occasionally, one or two of these gorgeous birds will pop in, perch in my trees, and purloin some seeds.  The munching Monks have generally favored the black-oiled sunflower feeder, but recently, this one decided that safflower seeds were just the thing it craved.

That said, the green-with-envy bird could only look, smack its formidable beak in anticipation, and wait patiently above the popular bird seed feeder, because the House Finches, Haemorhous mexicanus, are currently the dominate guests at the safflower food tube. 

Safflower seeds are all the rage, it seems.

While the Monk Parakeet waited, two hatch-year females took their time enjoying the seeds, no doubt frustrating the colorful giant.  Most days, each of the four safflower feeding stations are filled with finches and there was a bumper crop of fledglings this year, so there’s currently lots of finch action in my garden, in the trees and on the feeders.  I enjoy observing the House Finches:  they’re attractive, chatty birds with pretty songs and calls and they chirp with charm as they chop their seeds.   The females are striped in brown and cream, as are the males, who also blush red on their breasts, heads, and under wings.

Eventually, the petite finches became safflower-sated and the parakeet got the feeder to itself.  Austin’s Monk Parakeets are descendants of pets released over the past 50 years or so.  The Monks have adapted well here, as they have in other North American cities.  Monk Parakeets, Myiopsitta monachus, are native to South America and live communally, building large nests atop utility poles and tall trees.  As far as I’m aware, the Monks haven’t negatively impacted the environment or displaced any native birds.  It’s not unusual to see Monks hanging out with glossy, gleaming black-to-brown Great-tailed and Common Grackles, especially in open areas.  The birds all congenially march along, pack-like, gleaning seeds or insects from the ground before taking flight to trees, bright green wings in contrast and complement to the black iridescent ones. 

On some rare occasions, fires have erupted in and on the large Monk stick nests built at the top of electric poles, which obviously isn’t good either for the birds or the people and other critters who live below.  In the interest of safety, Austin’s fire department pull down nests built in questionable places which is a bummer for the Monk Parakeets, but better for all concerned.

My visiting Monk Parakeet was almost, but not quite, too big for the feeder.  It maneuvered around the feeder somewhat awkwardly, taking seeds successfully.

And while the green machine ate, look who had to rustle up some self-restraint and wait her turn. 

Who’s green–or brown and white–with envy now?

I hope your garden has some wild goings on and happy wildlife gardening!  Also, pop over to Flutter and Hum for garden vignettes;  there’s always a story there to enjoy.

Daddy Duty Almost Done: Wildlife Wednesday, August 2020

Spring is new life and verdant growth, but is also well behind us and with it, the boom of babies born.   There are still some critters in offspring production: insects, rodents, sparrows, doves and others, I’m sure, who produce youngins’ year-round, or nearly so.  But for many of my local wildlife, their baby-rearing days for this year are drawing to a close.  Baby birds are no longer helpless chicks, but are at fledgling and hatch-year stages; almost, though not quite, independent. Some lessons are still imparted by dedicated parents, like this handsome daddy Red-bellied Woodpecker, Melanerpes carolinus.

Such a pretty woodpecker!  His head is most definitely red, but it’s the blush on his belly which gives this interesting bird its common name.   

As dad picks up a black-oiled sunflower, baby red-bellied waits patiently on the trunk of the near-by Oak tree. 

C’mon Dad! I’m hungry!

I observed this sweet familial scene for about 15 minutes.  Dad flew to a feeder–mostly the sunflower, sometime the peanut–grabbed a morsel, then zipped back to the tree. When the snack choice was a sunflower seed, he’d spend a minute working the seed-coat off by hammering it as it was secured in the crevice of the bark.  I wonder how he’d learned–by experience or from his parents–that by placing the seed in the crevice, he could better work the seed without its falling on the ground?  Finding an easy source of available food and preparing it for a meal would a skill dad would want to pass on to junior.  Modeling is the best form of teaching!

It’s not yet clear if the fledgling is male or female, but there is the suggestion of rosiness on the back of baby’s head.  Time will tell.  Male Red-bellied red heads begin between their eyes and cover over the tops of their heads. Females’ red heads start toward the backs of their heads, leaving their sweet faces mostly non-red. 

The youngster knows a treat is coming and inches closer in anticipation!

 Yum!!  Thanks, Daddy!

Woodpeckers are common feeder birds, but they eat a wide variety of foods:  all kinds of insects, spiders, nuts from a variety of trees, and seeds from annual and perennial plants.  According to Cornell’s page on Red-bellied Woodpeckers, they sometimes eat lizards, nestling birds, and small fish.  I’ve watched as woodpeckers (Downy Woodpeckers, too) glean insects from the barks of trees, but I’ve never witnessed any munching on protein from higher-up along the food chain.  

“Yes, Little One, you might someday enjoy the crunch of a lizard.”

I watched these two in my back garden as they hung out on my Red Oak tree, but commonly, I’ve seen Red-bellied Woodpeckers–mom, dad, kids–hitch themselves along the thick branches of my neighbor’s large front garden Arizona Ash tree.  That tree now belongs to my SIL:  different neighbor, same house and tree.  

The ash is old and particularly weak-wooded.  During  a May storm, a major branch broke, landing in multiple pieces at the end of SIL’s driveway.  It was rather dramatic!  Thankfully, no one and nothing (except the branch) was damaged.  Interestingly, the break occurred at an established Red-bellied Woodpecker nesting site.  Especially in the last few years, I’d observed little red-heads hanging out from the hole that some dad started and some mom helped finish.  This spring, before the break, bully European Starlings chased off the Red-bellied Woodpeckers, which was sad.  In retrospect, I’m glad the Red-bellied babies weren’t in the nest when the storm came and the limb fell.

As neighbors stood around and marveled at the mess, recounting their own storm horror stories, I cast my eye on the portion that housed the woodpecker hole and nesting cavity.  SIL was on-board with me taking it–for what, I wasn’t yet quite sure. 

That piece of former woodpecker nest now sits in a garden just below the tree. 

The hole, drilled through the thick bark by determined, hammer-beaked woodpeckers, is a door/window into the tree.  The nest cavity was fairly roomy and the sides of the hole were completely smooth, an exemplar of fine crafting by woodpeckers.

At the storm-driven break, obviously weakened by the nesting of generations of Red-bellied Woodpeckers, I filled the former nest with potting soil after plugging the woodpecker hole with crushed granite.  I popped in a stem of Ghost Plant, Graptopetalum paraguayense and the plant is doing well in its new home.  I just need to water from time-to-time. Ahem.

I enjoy observing the excellent parenting skills of the various birds who visit my garden.  For a while longer, I’ll watch the juveniles’ antics as they mature.  Autumn isn’t too far in the future and the new generation will eventually leave, moving on to their own territory to find mates and continue the cycle.   

What wild things did you see in your garden this past month?  Please leave a link, if you’d like to share your garden’s wild ways.  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!