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!

 

Serendipity: Wildlife Wednesday, December 2018

One day last week, having just arrived home and in the kitchen fetching a glass of water, the flutter of dove wings outside a nearby large window alerted me to the possible presence of a hawk in the back garden.  As I approached the window, a wet dove (probably from the nearby birdbath) was driven into the window in a panic. It fell, and tottered on the ground.  Its pursuer (a gorgeous Cooper’s Hawk) landed on top of the dove, mantled over the wet feathered victim, and took flight with the hapless prey (soon to be a meal) firmly clasped in its talons.  This drama took seconds to unfold.

Nature is predictable:  it employs the unfolding of flowers when expected, foliage relinquishing color on cue, and predator and prey relationships–bound in their eternal tension–playing out regularly.  Nature provides wonder at every step and turn, and gardens–nature’s intimate representatives–obliges with daily (and nightly) vignettes.

I pity the poor dove, but Cooper’s Hawks must eat and in urban landscapes, White- winged doves are plentiful, and some are destined to become food.  I have no photos of this dove hunt, but did spy a similar scenario while observing a pollination palooza on my White mistflower, Ageratina havanensis.  As I watched and photographed a variety of bees, butterflies, and flies, I saw a type of assassin bug, Zelus luridus, atop a leaf, clutching a native Ceratina bee.

After a few seconds of my hovering over the insect and its prey, the assassin was nervous at my presence (maybe I wanted in on the bee-for-dinner action?) and scuttled under the same leaf for cover.  I followed,

…and snapped a couple of shots (the best I could manage) and then left the predator in peace to partake of its meal.

After all, I prefer mac-n-cheese.

I lament that the wee bee is no longer alive to do its bee-thing, but so it goes in nature:  everything must eat and many will be eaten.  Nature is real and often harsh and not all stories told have happy endings for every character. That said, when I observe a garden visitor going about its business, I’m reminded of the remarkable events, positive or negative for those concerned, occurring under my nose or outside my window.

This Lyside SulphurKricogonia lyside, pollinated near the ground, below my direct line of vision one sparkly afternoon.

Camouflaged by color and quiet, this common butterfly only caught my attention with slight movement as it work about its floral dinner table.  Often more yellow and regularly in rapid flight, this one was gentle in motion as it nectared on the Prairie goldeneye bloom.

For anyone paying attention, the observation of pollinators on flowers, or birds in trees and shrubs, or reptiles, amphibians, and mammals on the ground, life and death is business as usual. Nature’s complexity, with multitudes of species performing in biological choreograph, is the heartbeat and blood flow of a garden.  Any notion that a pleasant surprise is a rare thing in a garden is absurd.  From a bird of prey hunting, to the nearly invisible nectaring of a well-concealed butterfly, the ordinary functioning of garden, and, in the bigger picture, of the natural world, is revealed, and remarkable.

Gardeners and those who observe wildlife, enjoy a vital role in promoting and protecting biodiversity.  Our love of the outdoors, coupled with the drive to create and cultivate, imparts a unique perspective on the importance of a healthy environment and connection with our fellow Earth critters.

Fiery skipper (Hylephila phyleus) nectaring on White mistflower.

Do you want a a garden that is alive and exciting?  Make a resolution to utilize native plants in your garden:  native plants are beautiful and tough, and you will see wildlife rebound and flourish in your midst.  You will be thrilled by many serendipitous encounters: all breathtaking, all humbling, and all life-affirming.

So ends Wildlife Wednesdays for 2018.   Please leave a link to your Wildlife Wednesday post when you comment here.  Happy wildlife gardening!

 

Some Like it Hot: Wildlife Wednesday, August 2018

With apologies to Billy Wilder and his silly romcom, Some Like It Hot,  I can’t think of a more appropriate title for this edition of Wildlife Wednesday.  Here in Austin, Texas we’ve sweltered through 15 consecutive days of over 100°F (37.7°C) temperatures, with 20 some-odd days over 100º in total for the summer.  On one of those days, the temperature reached 110ºF (43ºC).  Sadly, that’s not a record breaker, (it’s 112F in 2011) but it was oven-like nonetheless.  And, August is just beginning.

UGH!

These days in Austin, it’s not unusual to experience many days reaching over 100ºF and while that’s concerning, so far this summer the wild critters in my garden are weathering the blistering heat just fine–they thrive with available water sources, cover in the guise of trees and shrubs, foods in the form of seeds on perennials (and some in a bird feeder), and places to nest.

I lost my main passion vine (Passiflora caerulea) during some hard freezes this past winter, so I haven’t enjoyed viewing as many Gulf Fritillary butterfliesAgraulis vanillae,  as I usually see. Passion vines are the host plant for these orange beauties. Recently though, one or two Fritillaries have appeared and are laying eggs on a few sprigs of a second, and different, passion vine which volunteers in an open area of my back garden.  This Purple passion-flower, Passiflora incarnata, doesn’t bloom in my garden, but boasts enough foliage for the caterpillars to partake of on their way to adulthood.

This Gulf Fritillary rested on a plant near to where the passion vine grows. Had it just emerged from its chrysalis?

 

I’m fairly sure this plain little thing is a Dun skipperEuphyes vestris, but I’m not positive.

It worked the blooms of a salvia and stopped just long enough for me to snap a shot.

I don’t see American Snout butterflies, Libytheana carinenta, very often, so it was a treat to see this one on the foliage of one of my Softleaf yuccas.

I kept my distance and never successfully captured the butterfly with wings spread because it flitted away warily from the weird woman stalking it through the garden.  Snouts’ host plant is the Common hackberry, Celtis occidentalis, which is a tree that many modern Texans hate. Hackberry trees seed out everywhere and often in less-than-desirable spots, but they’re an important wildlife food source.  Along with the Snout, Hackberry trees also feed the Question Mark and Mourning Cloak butterflies, as well as providing fruit and shelter for birds.  Native Americans didn’t hate the Hackberry and used it for medicine and food.

This Funereal duskywingErynnis baptisiae, looks like it might have had a close-call  with a predator.

The bits of missing wing didn’t slow down its nectaring and pollinating mission.   It favored the sunflowers which are still in bloom.

I’ve had a difficult time identifying this petite pollinator, but I think it’s a Eufala skipper, Lerodea euflala.

Eufala skippers are considered “grass” skippers, as their host plants are grasses like Johnson grass, Bermuda grass, and sugarcane.  Both Johnson and Bermuda are common in Central Texas, but I don’t grow either in my garden.

Here’s yet another I dunno what this is, but firmly in the native bee category.  I thought she was one of my ubiquitous Horsefly-like carpenter bees, but she’s not quite that big.  She buzzed around the very pink Rock rose flowers, snuggling in to the reproductive parts of the flowers and covering herself with pollen,

…and showing me her backside.

I think she’s in the Melittidae family which collect pollen on the hairs of their bodies and nest in the ground.  She was fast flyer and a busy, busy bee.

This diminutive, metallic-green sweat bee sported loaded pollen baskets, full-to-bursting with creamy white pollen.  As I watched her, I think she was resting and not collecting pollen, on the end of the Mexican Orchid bloom stamen.

I’ve been privileged to observe a couple of big, beautiful Southern Carpenter bees, Sylocopa micans,  in the last couple of weeks.

Stunning black with a blue sheen on their wings and bodies, these bees have moved with intention through the Turk’s cap shrub, from red bloom to red bloom.  At least in my garden, the Turk’s is the clear favorite of these bees.  This bee species utilizes buzz pollination–a particularly efficient form of pollination–and as I observed the two visiting, I could see and hear that buzzing on the flower.

Hummingbirds are not bees (duh!), but they sure are buzzy as they zoom through the garden, and this summer, they’ve been in abundance.  This female, probably Black-chinned hummingbird, also worked Turk’s cap blooms.

Have I mentioned that Turk’s cap is a fabulous wildlife plant?

I don’t typically hang a sugar water feeder out for the hummers.  I have nothing against hummer feeders and they’re great for attracting and supplementing the tiny birds’ diet, but I’ve found that hummers prefer what I’ve planted in my gardens and don’t visit the feeders when I’ve placed them.  That said, the sugar water is important for hummingbirds, especially as they ramp up for their fall migration southward.

Volunteer sunflowers are still blooming, but the spent blooms are also setting seed.  A variety of birds feed on these seeds including ones like this female House FinchHaemorhous mexicanus,

…and this handsome male Lesser GoldfinchSpinus psaltria.

I’ll leave the stalks up until all the blooms are done and the seeds eaten.  Then I’ll cut back the stalks to about 2-3 feet tall and leave some on the ground, so that insects (native bees, primarily) can utilize the hollow stems for nesting through fall, winter, and next year’s growing season.

A pair of Carolina wrensThryothorus ludovicianus, nested nearby and are teaching their 2(?) chicks how to manuever through the neighborhood.

I’m confident this cutey is junior, baring his belly in birdly pride as mom and dad wren perched close by, chchchhching at me, while I snapped this shot.

This Green anole lizardAnolis carolinensis, can’t decide whether to dress for the heat in green or brown.

I didn’t hang around long enough to observe, but I’ll bet it chose the green outfit to fit in with the surroundings.

No matter if your garden is deep in the dog days of summer or chilling in the depths of winter, what wildlife happenings did you share in or observe this past month?  Please post about your wild happenings and leave a link when you comment here–and happy wildlife gardening!