Landscape Animators

Few people probably love the native plants of the southeastern Piedmont more than I do, but as much as I enjoy their nearly infinite diversity and adaptability, I think I would have long grown bored with them without being able to observe their interactions and interdependencies with native wildlife. For example, the native coral honeysuckle (Lonicera sempervirens ‘Major Wheeler’) is beautiful on its own, but that corner of my landscape truly lights up when the Ruby-throated Hummingbirds stop by for drinks.

From birds to insects to reptiles, amphibians, and mammals — all the wildlife inhabitants and visitors animate what would otherwise be a basically static landscape — no matter how much the trees and flowers sway in winds and rain. The animals generate many of the most interesting stories in my landscape as they go about their daily lives.

Yesterday morning as the sun rose, I spotted this cranefly on my garage door as it admired its shadow:

On an early morning trip to my compost pile, I discovered that my laziness in failing to cover a recent donation had attracted an unexpected visitor. A Spicebush Swallowtail was dining on a bit of beet leaf. I knew that Eastern Tiger Swallowtails like to collect at mud puddles to drink up trace elements they don’t get from nectar, and I knew that Red-spotted Purple Butterflies were notorious for their appreciation of unsavory items. But I have never seen a Spicebush Swallowtail dine on anything but flowers.

The recent increase in humidity has brought out most of the bugs, including ticks, mosquitoes, and biting flies. But along with these pests come the sky hunters — dragonflies — in every color and design imaginable. I caught these two taking a break from sky patrol:

I think the sky dragons are attracted to our little water feature in the front garden. They aren’t the only ones. I caught this Cope’s Gray Treefrog waiting for an evening chorus session on the side of my house near our little pond:

The treefrogs and the Eastern Narrowmouth Toads have been singing lustily around our little pond for over a month now. At first, it was just the toads chorusing, then the treefrogs joined them for a couple of weeks. Now, the nightly serenade sounds to be all treefrog all the time.

The calls of both amphibians are quite distinctive. I had never seen a Narrowmouth Toad until this year when I was digging a vegetable bed about six weeks ago. I accidentally unearthed two of them, and I wasn’t sure what they were until I did a little research. Then I was glad I had been wearing my gloves when I handled them, because their slimy skin secretions are toxic, designed to repel the ants that they eat.  Given the enormous number of ant species that live in my yard, I say bring on the Narrowmouth Toads!

These amphibians have been doing more than singing around my pond. It is now teeming with tadpoles. I can’t tell if they are all toad tadpoles, or if the treefrog tads are in there too. In this shot, I think toad tadpoles may be dining on a treefrog egg mass, but I’m not certain.

The water isn’t as green as it looks here, I promise. But it is definitely not as clear as it was during pre-tadpole days.

My final picture today is not of the landscape animators themselves, but of their nest. About a week ago as I walked to the compost pile, a bird flew past me in a blur, seeming to want to distract me. I assumed I had merely startled it — I often unintentionally surprise wildlife — and continued. But as I approached one of our huge mature dogwoods, another bird flew past me. It seemed to come right from the tree, so I turned and looked.

The dogwood is double-boled, with the split beginning not more than two or so feet from the ground. In that low crotch, I discovered a distinctive nest — Ovenbirds! We’ve spotted these ground-nesters often during the growing season, but we had intentionally never looked for a nest. I have never read of these birds building in a tree, but this wasn’t far off the ground, and perhaps it looked a tad more secure to them. My yard is inhabited by many black rat snakes, so I can well imagine that a tree might look like a safer bet to the Ovenbirds.

They’re called Ovenbirds, because their nests resemble Dutch ovens, with little holes where the birds go in and out. I think you can make out the structure in this photo that I took some distance away from the nest, so as to minimize their disturbance.

I think the entry hole is near the bottom, but it’s hard to be sure. Alas, less than a week later, I discovered that the nest had been torn apart. Whether it was the work of a snake, raccoon, possum, or greedy squirrel, I’ll never know, but the nest is gone, and I haven’t seen or heard the Ovenbirds since.

That’s the way of life with my landscape animators. Sometimes Death wins, but Life triumphs more often. And the dances between them are always captivating.

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