New Digs: Wildlife Wednesday, January 2020

Another trip around the sun is completed, the calendar page has turned, and 2020 is here.   In this darkest season, my garden still enjoys some blooming, hosts a few insects flitting, and cheers with plenty of native and wintering birds feeding, calling, and singing.  I’ve begun winter pruning, though with a only few light freezes under the garden’s belt, many plants aren’t yet dormant.

My garden is a full-on wildlife habitat.  Most of the garden provides something for someone:  seeds and fruits, nectar and pollen, cover and protection, and plenty of nesting material. In my garden, water is provided and chemicals are avoided. Other than maintenance and occasional revamping of a garden space due to loss of light or some other environmental shift, my garden flutters and hums (thanks for the phrase, Anna!) with busy wildlife and minimal effort.

I live in a fairly typical American urban neighborhood.  For most of my years here, especially after I transformed the standard issue, turf-centered landscape into the vibrant, native plant-focused wildlife habitat that it is now, my garden served as the lone example of a urban habitat planted with something other than grass, a tree or two, and a couple of evergreen foundation plants.  Though most house dwellers stick with their sterile, water-hogging grass and turf remains the dominate landscape feature, more gardens have appeared, utilizing pollinator plants and native grasses, along with pathways to enjoy the beauty that the gardens provide.  Our neighborhood also now boasts a gorgeous and well-planted community garden; kudos to the many volunteers and neighborhood leaders who made that happen.  These steps toward more diverse gardens and landscapes is a solid and positive trend, even if it’s been at a slower pace than I would prefer.

Baby garden steps.

Since we moved into our home in 1985, we’ve enjoyed a nice relationship with a kind neighbor.  She’s been retired most of the years we’ve lived in our house.  She saw us bring home our babies, as we saw her with visiting grandchildren.  She would chat with me in my garden, complimenting its beauty and peace, though I believe she thought me a garden nut.

She’s not wrong there.

When I’d offer to plant for her or change something in her landscape, she would decline, declaring her yard was exactly as she wanted it.  The neighbor aged, but preferred to stay in her well-loved home for as long as possible.  But suddenly in early November, she told me she was moving to a town in the Texas Hill Country where her daughter lives.

Prior to this unsurprising news, she and I had discussed the inevitability of her moving “some day” and I asked her to let me know when she decided that it was time to move.  My sister-in-law (going forward, SIL), The Hub’s big sister, might be interested in purchasing a one-level home, rather than remaining in her lovely, two-story condominium with its dangerously steep stairs.  Many phone calls later, with a minimum of wrangling and negotiating, legal papers duly signed and the check for purchase delivered, my SIL is the three-week long proud owner of this charming home.

Isn’t it cute?  And guess who will garden it?!

Just look at all that grass and visualize instead something more diverse: color and texture varied, interesting in form and beckoning to wildlife.   In my gardener’s mind, I  already see pollinator plants blooming in shrubs and perennials of many colors and graceful native grasses sparkling in spring green and swaying in autumn breezes.  This garden transformation will be a long-term project; afterall, it took me years to “complete” my garden–and no garden is ever really complete.  Plus, this is a much larger lot than my own slice of the Earth and I’m no kid these days, as my achy knees will confirm!

I hope I’m up to this gardening task.

I’ve already planted the small bed that borders the front porch (first photo), though mulching is on the to-do list.  We’ve agreed to lay mulch between our homes, as there’s plenty shrub action on either side of the border.

 

Stepping through her iron gate and into the back yard–someday garden–reveals a huge space, opening the imagination to all sorts of possibilities, no doubt accompanied by sore muscles and a stiff back.

 

This fence between our properties is about three years old and some of “my” plants have already migrated over and under the wall, settling in for the flower show.

Trust me, I’ll add plenty more.

As is typical in most American landscapes, the layout of this property relegates the actual gardens to narrow, small areas–for shrubs, perennials, bulbs, and ground-covers–with the starring role given to the expansive swaths of turf. As a general rule, a well-designed garden places larger plants toward the back, with shorter plants in front.  The narrow beds allotted on this property will be the signature challenge to its wildlife habitat transformation :  transplanting the smaller, original specimens with newer, larger specimens of wildlife-friendly shrubs, native grasses, and understory trees,  then re-planting the smaller plants toward the front of the beds.

 

In the center of the back yard towers an aging Arizona ash tree.  Someday, it will be gone, but for now, it provides glorious shade in summer and plenty of perching opportunities for birds, including the many Screech Owls that have nested in our owl nesting box, which sits in our Shumard red oak tree, about 60 to the left of the photo.

Here’s a view from the back of the property toward the rear of the house.

 

Another view, this one is toward the opposite neighbors’ house, and you see that  between SIL’s property and those neighbors, stands a chain link fence.

Maybe vines (blackberries, pretty please!) will grow there one day as the fence is in full sun, all year-round.  There’s talk about planting some fruit trees in that section of the lot, taking advantage of life-giving full sun.

Weee!   Meyer lemons!  Peaches!  Plums!

Oh dear.  Perhaps it’s best I don’t get carried away…

Fallen leaves drift to the grass from a stunning native Bur oak tree in the southeast corner of SIL’s lot.  During the growing season, this corner is quite shady because of that Bur oak;  ferns are lush and happy there and in time, other shade-loving perennials will feel right at home, too. In autumn, the leaves cover the grass; they’re huge!  SIL is planning to hire an eco-friendly lawn company who uses electric equipment rather than gas-powered and who mulches leaves, rather than bagging for pick-up.

 

My former neighbor installed a small pond about 25 years ago under the shade of the ash tree.  My SIL is an avid backyard birder (Yay!  Another bird nut!) and she’s already set up her feeding stations in this spot.  In fact, since moving in, she’s already bested me in bird watching: she observed two Ruby-crowned KingletsRegulus calendula, at her pond to my one. 

SIL will clean out her pond in late winter, adding more rocks so that the birds have an easier time accessing the water for bathing.  It should be an excellent spot for the birds to congregate–and be watched.

 

I miss our former neighbor and still half-expect to see her amble out her front door toward me with that wry grin on her face, both of us understanding that a quirky conversation will ensue.  I wish her well in her final years; she’s in her mid-80’s, but still active and I hope that continues.  That said, I’m happy to have my SIL next door; we’ve always gotten along well–she’s a sweety–and I know she’ll be a great neighbor.  As well, she has an appreciation of gardens and gardening and understands the importance of biodiversity in the urban environment.  With her new digs comes exciting opportunities to dig:  to develop a welcoming environment for birds, mammals, reptiles, and insects and to create set of unique gardens full of plants providing color, form, interest–for all.

While there was no actual wildlife in this post, I’m interested in reading about the wildlife you enjoyed in your garden.  If you wish, please leave a link to your wildlife gardening post when you comment here about your wildlife garden happenings–and happy wildlife gardening.

 

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!