piedmontgardener

I'm a gardener who also writes. Writing about gardening combines the best of both activities.

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A Virtual Opportunity to Learn More about Oaks

Northern Red Oak Acorns

Greetings, my fellow native plant lovers!

This post is to alert you to what sounds likely to be an excellent virtual presentation by experts on North American oak species, including how many of those species are declining and how we gardeners can help reverse that trend.

The Zoom presentation will be on Tuesday, November 9 from 7:00 – 8:30 p.m. EST.

For a small fee, tune in to learn much from the folks who know much.

For details, go here.

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Leave the Magic Where It Belongs

Southern Red Oak (Quercus falcata) beginning its autumn transition

If you haven’t read Douglas Tallamy’s book, The Nature of Oaks, I highly recommend that you put it on your to-read list. This book is shorter than his others, because he focuses on one tree species – oaks – instead of entire forest and field ecosystems. By so doing, he is more successful at vividly painting a picture of the complex web of life supported by these long-lived forest giants.

A White Oak’s Tale

To tell the story of oaks, Tallamy centers his tale around one oak tree, likely planted by a blue jay as an acorn several decades earlier. Every chapter chronicles one month in the life of the tree. The entire book is worth reading, but with autumn’s recent arrival, I want to focus today on leaves – the ones discarded by deciduous trees about this time every year, including most oak species. When left alone as Nature designed them to be, these fallen leaves form what Tallamy rightly describes as “priceless litter.”

Magic Beneath the Trees

March is the chapter in which Tallamy tells readers about the magic of fallen oak leaves (He spent his October and November chapters on acorns). As an entomologist, Tallamy is better acquainted than most with the millions of insects and other creatures – most quite tiny – that spend their lives in leaf litter. Soil ecologists call these creatures detritivores. They consume dead plant parts or the bacteria and fungi that help break down plant cellulose in fallen leaves. Dozens of species of moth caterpillars are part of this mix; they eat dead leaves instead of green ones. Of course, these creatures are also eaten by detritivore predators, which number in the hundreds of species. These leaf-litter dwellers provide a critical function by recycling nutrients in dead leaves back into forms plants can absorb via their roots.

All fallen leaves contribute to this mostly unseen web of decomposers critical to nutrient recycling that fuels all life. But oaks, Tallamy tells us, create leaf litter that sustains decomposer populations better than all other tree species. The 700,000 leaves that fall from a mature oak tree decay more slowly than those of most other species, providing ideal litter for up to three years. Decomposers need consistent conditions to survive. Bare soil cannot sustain them; it lacks the nutrients and even moisture levels they need. Slowly decaying oak leaves piled beneath their mother trees provide ideal conditions for the occupants of this intricate food web to perform their magic.

Water for Tomorrow

Tallamy notes that a thick carpet of leaf litter also acts like a sponge during rains. Instead of running off bare ground into storm drains, raindrops soak into leaf litter, which is especially beneficial during heavy rains. Tallamy notes that almost all of a 2-inch downpour – more than 54,000 gallons/acre – is absorbed by leaf litter in an oak forest. Slowly, that water seeps down into the water table, where we and the plants can use it in the future.

While that captured downpour is seeping through the litter, it is purified. Excessive nutrients (for example, runoff from overfertilized lawns) and pollutants are captured by the litter, allowing clean water to filter down to the water table. Instead of flooded streams full of pollutants and eroded soil, clean water slowly seeps downward, replenishing streams downhill gradually, ensuring that flora and fauna relying on those aquatic environments are not disrupted.

More Oaks for More Magic

Tallamy’s message in this book is straightforward. He asks that we all plant oaks appropriate to our region now. It is true that oaks planted now will not mature in our lifetimes, but that is not a reason not to plant them. Gardeners know. We plant for our grandchildren. We plant to enrich habitats for native wildlife. We plant to heal our deeply wounded planet. We plant for the magic created by our vision and effort – not just oaks, of course, but yes, definitely oaks too.

Northern Red Oak Acorns

This fall – the ideal season for planting trees and shrubs in the Southeastern Piedmont – please do plant some oaks and other native trees and shrubs. But there is something else you can do that will help. Stop destroying the leaves your plants return to Mother Earth this season. Leave those leaves in place wherever possible. If you must move them, move them gently, to minimize damage to the tiny creatures using those leaves.

Leave Your Leaves

In my yard, wherever practical, I simply rake fallen leaves around their donor trees. In the few areas where I’m still maintaining a “lawn,” I gently rake the leaves around nearby trees. I’ve created a wonderful, increasingly spongy leaf litter bed in my front yard over the last two years by raking about half of the fallen leaves from a massive southern red oak around two ornamental trees. Their leaves also contribute to the litter, but it is definitely those slowly decomposing oak leaves that have created a magically moist, fertile bed into which I’m now adding native ferns and spring ephemeral wildflowers.

Store-bought mulches cannot substitute for leaf litter mulch. They don’t contain the nutrients the millions of detritivores need to survive. It is past time for us to discard old landscaping practices that promote military neatness. Leaves are not the enemy. They are our salvation.

My local Audubon chapter (New Hope Audubon) is currently conducting a wonderful program in collaboration with Triangle Community Foundation and Keep Durham Beautiful, Inc. to promote preserving our leaf litter in place. It’s called Leave Your Leaves. The campaign provides brochures, posters, and yard signs promoting this program. You can read all about it here.

Even if your aren’t a Durham, NC resident, please consider visiting the Pledge To Leave Your Leaves link and signing the pledge. The grant that provided funding for this effort is tracking the number of folks who sign the pledge as a measure of the campaign’s success. If this campaign is successful, it will be easier to win future grants for additional environmental education programs.

 

Learn More About Healthy Yard Alternatives

Next Thursday, October 21, one of my area’s local conservation organizations (Chatham Conservation Partnership) is holding its quarterly meeting. It will feature several speakers presenting information on healthy yard alternatives. The good news for all my readers is that this meeting will be virtual. If you have the time and a decent internet connection, you are welcome to register and attend the meeting at no cost to you. For details on the meeting and how to register, go here.

A big step toward bringing the magic of a healthy ecosystem to your landscape is leaving fallen leaves in place to shelter the millions of tiny creatures who need them. They, in turn, feed plants with the nutrients they recycle. And the plants feed us all.

Bring back the magic. Leave your leaves.

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Metamorphosis

“Caterpillars are really just walking leaves, for that is all they eat.”

–Douglas W. Tallamy, The Nature of Oaks

I am reminded of this sentence in Tallamy’s latest book every time I encounter a caterpillar in my yard. It feels to me to be a deep and important truth, one that is easily overlooked by many, I fear.

He notes in another paragraph that he wants people to stop thinking of caterpillars and other insects as bugs. Instead, he asks us to remember that every stink bug, caterpillar, wasp, and ant is potential food for an animal, perhaps another insect or spider, perhaps a bird, perhaps a mammal. Wildlife needs those bugs to keep the cycle of life operational.

Eastern Tiger Swallowtails enjoy many native and non-native flowers, but their caterpillars eat leaves of a number of our native canopy trees, especially Tulip Poplar and Black Cherry.

Now, instead of caterpillars, I see leaves with legs. And although, Tallamy didn’t write it, I now see the butterflies and moths that these caterpillars become as leaves that fly — farther than an autumnal tumble from branch to earth on a chilly north wind. Flying lepidopterans allow leaves, albeit transformed ones, to travel much farther. I am hoping that some of the transformed leaves of swamp milkweed in my garden make it all the way to Central America in the form of a Monarch butterfly migrational journey.

It has been a tough year for the leaves-with-legs in my yard. Predatory wasps and birds got most of the early rounds of Monarch butterfly caterpillars that appeared on my common and swamp milkweeds. One moment, the tiny hatchlings would be happily chomping away. The next — nothing, save a few bits of frass (caterpillar poop) adorning leaves below those on which they were feeding.

Monarch caterpillars on Sept. 20.

Two weeks ago, I was elated when I spotted eleven small Monarch caterpillars dining on swamp milkweed near my front water feature. Wasps were no longer patrolling the plants, their life cycles completed for the season. I thought these leggy leaves had a real chance to make it to their next transformation. For nine days, they grew fatter. I felt certain they were close to their time to become bejeweled emerald chrysalises.

One by one, they began to vanish. Caterpillars wander when they are preparing to pupate. They deliberately leave their food plants and search for another place to build their magic metamorphic enclosures. I searched carefully all around for signs, seeking walking leaves dangling from stems of other nearby plants in the classic J position they assume before they melt into the gilded jewel boxes from which they emerge as winged leaves ready to fly south.

Finally one afternoon, I spotted a fat caterpillar walking on the ground around the water feature. I feel certain it was seeking a plant upon which it would metamorphose. Just as I excitedly pointed out this caterpillar on its transformational journey to Wonder Spouse, one of the Green Frogs spending the summer in our water feature jumped down from the rim of the pool, and before we could blink, we watched the amphibian grab the caterpillar, swallowing it in two big gulps. We were stunned. And horrified.

Green Frog sunning on rim of water feature

Of course, I know that frogs eat insects, but it never occurred to me that they would eat caterpillars as they descended the milkweeds to metamorphose. Later that day, I spotted perhaps the same frog staked out beneath a milkweed that still had two caterpillars dining on it. It was very clearly waiting for them to descend and become its next meal. I confess, I chased the frog back into the water feature, scolding it.

After scouring the area for signs of transforming Monarch caterpillars, I found only one dangling from a spent scape of a daylily. It was in the J position that afternoon, safely beyond the reach of greedy frogs. By the next morning, the leaf with legs had become a jade green chrysalis. I have moved it to what I hope is the safety of my greenhouse before predicted rains could potentially enhance opportunities for fungal contamination or predatory wasps/flies could harm it.

I visit it several times a day to encourage it on its metamorphic journey. October seems to be planning to stay warmer than “normal,” but one never knows when a cold front might blow in with the first frost. It’s not unusual for Monarchs to migrate in late October, so there’s every reason to hope for a positive outcome for this little emerald jewel box.

Still, my heart will lighten when metamorphic magic transforms the chrysalis into a leaf with wings that will carry it safely to warmer winter climes.

Safe travels, flying leaves…

 

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A Week Along the Creek

Critters along the creek were busy this past week, likely due to a combination of a full moon and — finally! — some much-needed significant rainfall. Most of these photos are pulled from video captures off our wildlife cameras, so my apologies in advance for their quality. I’ve left the temperature/date/time data visible, so that you can get a better sense of who was where when. Above is a male turkey out for an afternoon stroll on September 19 during the last of the heat wave and before the rains fell. The turkey hen and a growing chick were also out and about that day.

Here’s the hen by herself:

During the wee hours of the morning on the 19th, two other species were out and about. An opossum passed through several times, inspecting the ground closely for tasty morsels. A trio of does that are almost always together were also scrounging around during the warm night before rains broke the drought.

Our deaf cat, Rose, was out in her catio often during last week’s full moon nights. We know, because we can hear her bouncing around from level to level. We’ve always assumed she was excited by nocturnal movements of wildlife. We were right. Here’s Rose in a typical position at the end of her catio, watching for visitors.

The next night, Rose had several visitors. Left to right, there’s a doe, a skunk, and an opossum. I never leave food in the catio for Rose, but there are bird feeders nearby. I am guessing the critters are attracted to seeds dropped by birds, then wander around just in case something else tasty might be nearby.

A large group of black vultures, along with an increasing number of turkey vultures, have been living and bathing along the creek all summer. They often pose right in front of one of the cameras, as you can see here. The turkey vulture is the one with the lovely red bald head.

There’s at least one beaver actively moving about along the creek. One video this past week caught it swimming at night until a doe approached. The beaver slapped its tail on the water and charged out after the doe, which wisely ran away. Here, the camera caught it from behind, so you can see its wide tail.

We’ve seen at least two eight-point bucks strutting around. They are always together. The does have their own group. They cross the creek to climb the hill to my gardens every few hours, day and night.

Finally, the early hours of September 25 caught three more species. For the first time since late spring, a camera caught three river otters frolicking in the creek after it rose a bit from the rains. They’re hard to see here, but, trust me, there are three of them.

Raccoons are frequently caught by the cameras. This one was out about an hour and a half after the otters. And finally as is often the case when the moon is bright, a camera caught a night-hunting great blue heron stalking the same waters the otters had patrolled a few hours earlier.

That was last week along the creek. Noticeably absent were coyotes. Foxes and bobcats usually appear in winter and early spring.

I remain amazed by the diversity and quantity of native animals that share our five acres with us. We would never know they were here, if not for the wildlife cameras. They probably wouldn’t be here in such numbers if we hadn’t spent the last 32 years enhancing their habitats with well-adapted native plants. Build it. They will come!

 

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Central NC Peeps: Native Plant Palooza Tomorrow and Saturday

Eastern Tiger Swallowtail on a native deciduous azalea.

For all native plant lovers/gardeners within driving distance of Chapel Hill, NC, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that the annual fall plant sale at the North Carolina Botanical Garden is in-person again this year — and this weekend!

I’ve been salivating over the list of available options for several weeks now. Give yourself a bit of time to meditate on your abundant options. When you look at the listing, be sure to click on the “Detail” link at the end of the row for a given plant. That link will take you to detailed information. If you scroll down a Detail page to a section labeled “HORTICULTURAL, Plant Sale Text,” you’ll find less botanically technical and highly useful information on a given plant’s growing requirements, along with other useful tidbits.

Cardinal Flower

I recommend that you scroll through the entire list once, noting any plant that tempts you. Then start winnowing down your list to what is practical for you. Consider where EXACTLY you will plant your new additions. Especially if you are considering some of the abundant trees and shrubs being offered, be sure to factor in the eventual size your adoptee will achieve. I hope you will consider woody additions if you have room, because now is the best time to plant these species, after summer drought and heat have abated, so plants can focus on maximizing root systems before summer stresses return.

Here in central NC, we just got a magnificent rain, so the earth is soft and ready for planting. Add to that the spectacular autumn crisp air we get to enjoy this weekend, and you’ve got ideal planting weather.

For first crack at the plants tomorrow, you must be a member of the NC Botanical Garden, which I hope you already are. But no worries, you can join at the door before you enter Native Plant Nirvana! The sale tomorrow for Members’ Night begins at 4:00 p.m. From past experience, I can tell you that the line of excited plant-lovers forms well before that time. Also, parking can be tricky, so carpool if you can — in a larger vehicle that can carry your new babies safely back to your home. Some of the woody plants can be fairly tall.

Lizard’s tail — a wonderful wildflower for shady, moist spots

I was planning to be there myself until a knee injury this week sidelined me. Crutches and big crowds of enthusiastic native plant lovers are not likely to mix well. Fortunately, a dear friend offered to pick up a few plants for me. In an immense display of will power, I limited my list to three new species that I want to add to my growing hilltop meadow. Thank you, Beth!

If Friday doesn’t fit your schedule, note that the sale continues on Saturday. That day, the sale is open to the public — no membership required. But members get a 10% discount on plant sales, and membership levels are available for all budgets and family sizes, so please consider supporting this wonderful organization with your membership.

One last tip — any wise old gardener (like me) will tell you that most plants are more visually appealing and more successful in the landscape if you plant multiples of the same species. Odd numbers often look most visually appealing — threes, fives — you get the idea.

Please take advantage of this weekend’s perfect fall weather to indulge in some botanical therapy. Local native wildlife will thank you — and so will your plant-loving soul. Have fun!

Columbine with native Rhododendron friend

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Autumnal Ruminations

Native dogwood color from a previous season.

Changing light has been signaling its coming for the last month. Even as oppressive tropical air made deep breaths a challenge, the slant of light through the trees, the later-rising sun and its earlier sunsets promised it was coming.

The trees couldn’t wait for it. Without rain for over two months, many surrendered without coloring. Brown, dried leaves covered brown plants below as dust devils whirled in heat even the cicadas couldn’t handle any more.

The meadow two months ago before the drought took hold.

Unmoving, shallow water in the creek was stagnant and bathwater warm. Every day, black and turkey vultures gathered on dead sycamores for baths, taking turns to splash, then dry off in searing sun on a branch, wide wings spread to expose every feather.

I had never seen a great blue heron pant, but wildlife cameras by the creek caught one several times, beak open, throat convulsing, tongue slightly extended. A lone female coyote prowled during nights of heavy air, constantly sniffing. Only one doe managed to rear a fawn successfully this year, judging by the cameras. All of them had been heavily pregnant. Madame Coyote’s clan likely ate well this summer.

In the last two weeks, two tall bucks have been photographed pacing both sides of the creek, sniffing the heavy air for does, their eight-point antlers evident on moonlit nights as their reflections in the creek kept pace. One night, a lone beaver swimming by slapped the water hard when it saw the bucks, sending them crashing through the forest.

Fans of the hilltop meadow.

Yesterday and today, plentiful rain has arrived. Song birds are livelier than they’ve been in weeks. I can feel all the plants exhaling a long sigh of relief. My hands grow itchy with the urge to plant a few new wildflower and grass species in the growing meadow on the hill that has become a favorite hangout of seed-eaters, from finches to wild turkeys.

Rain on the roof lulls me into sleepiness. Tonight I will dream of Autumn’s arrival. I will revel beneath a blanket for the first time in months as chilly air following the rain arrives and settles over the landscape. The still-nearly-full moon will gleam through departing clouds. Barred owls will celebrate, their calls echoing across the floodplain.

Never have I been more grateful for the turning of the seasonal wheel. May rains wash us clean, may crisp air reawaken our hearts, may longer nights bring us dreams of better days for all of Earth’s inhabitants.

Praying for better days for us all.

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Farewell Summer!

Pearl Crescent enjoying a Coreopsis bloom in mid-June

My apologies for my prolonged absence. It’s been a long, strange summer — for most of us, I imagine. I’m planning on being here more reliably henceforth.

As you likely know, today is the last full day of astronomical summer. Finally in my yard today, we are getting measurable rain — a weather phenomenon that has been absent for over two months. Folks 30 miles to my east have experienced flash floods more than once during that time. My yard however, has been a dust bowl. You know it’s bad when tree leaves hang limp even in the early morning. It hurt me to walk around and see them suffering.

Today, however, perhaps to usher in tomorrow’s autumnal equinox, our skies are finally dark. Occasional showers have reawakened the long-dormant rain gauge. I imagine plants and animals alike are reveling in the water as much as I am.

This summer was tough on native butterflies. Posters on the local email butterfly group I follow have been lamenting all summer on the low numbers of lepidopterans observed. They’ve also commented on the low numbers of spiders. I’ve noticed both of these phenomena in my yard too. There was a spell of about six weeks when the only butterflies I saw were a couple of Pearl Crescent butterflies like the one above.

Native solitary bee numbers were variable. For the first time in forever, I had both American bumblebees and brown-belted bumblebees abundantly present on my flowers. Solitary wasps were also present in great numbers, and I think this may have been bad news for my caterpillars. Every time I’d spot a Monarch caterpillar or a black swallowtail caterpillar on my plants, the next day, it would be gone. Wasps were everywhere, searching every leaf, so I suspect they were catching the caterpillars to bury in their nest tunnels to feed their hatchlings. It could have been birds too. They were here in relatively normal numbers this summer, I’m happy to report.

Giant Resin Bee on Common Milkweed inflorescence

Besides the drought, the worst news of the summer for my local Green World was the appearance of a new invasive exotic species. Giant Resin Bee, also called Sculptured Resin Bee (Megachile sculpturalis) is native to Eastern Asia. It was apparently introduced to the US in the 1990s, and showed up in significant numbers at my house this summer. It’s a kind of carpenter bee, but unlike our native carpenter bees, it doesn’t create its own nesting tunnels. Instead, it appropriates tunnels belonging to other insects, especially our native carpenter bees. The link above provides all the information you need to know about this recent invader.

I noticed these bees about mid-June when they were all over my blooming Common Milkweed and Narrow-leaved Mountain Mints. These are big bully bees. They would land on flowers hard, shoving all native pollinators aside as they claimed nectar and pollen for themselves.

I took a photo and posted it to my iNaturalist account in hopes of learning the identity of what was at that point a mystery bee. I got an answer very quickly. The entomologists on iNaturalist must have been watching for reports. In fact, just a few days after my Giant Resin Bee photo was identified, I got an email via iNaturalist from an entomologist in Vienna, Austria working on her Ph.D. on this species. She is doing DNA analysis on this species collected from all the parts of the world to which it has spread. Her goal is to determine migration patterns of the bees, based on DNA analyses of populations. She asked me if I would be willing to collect bees, freeze them to preserve their DNA, then give them to a colleague in the US who would collect them and ship them to her for analysis. Of course, I said yes — citizen science for the win!

These two invaders chased off every other pollinator that had been enjoying the milkweed flowers.

I spent a number of hours patrolling my flowers to collect as many bees as I could for the study. I became adept at spotting the males; they have a characteristic yellow “mustache.” There’s a good photo of this feature in the link above. The females are bigger, less numerous (thank goodness), and showed up about a week after the males appeared, which, the entomologist from Vienna told me, is normal.

All told, I collected 40 Giant Resin Bees, mostly males, which completely flabbergasted Julia (the entomologist). She had never heard of anyone seeing, much less collecting, that many bees. And I think, alas, I know why. There’s one last detail I haven’t told you yet.

Giant Resin Bees evolved in the same part of the world as kudzu, and it is what is called an “effective pollinator” of that plant, which means that when Giant Resin Bees visit kudzu flowers, the flowers get pollinated and set seed. This is a nightmare scenario for those of us living in the Southeastern United States. Up to now, kudzu — although a notorious invasive species — has not been as big a threat to native ecosystems as many other non-native invaders, because it only spread vegetatively. Our native pollinators were not effectively able to pollinate kudzu flowers because they didn’t evolve with them, so kudzu was only rarely setting seed. Thus, all we have had to worry about — as if that wasn’t enough — is the terrifying vegetative growth rate of kudzu, which grows several feet per day during our growing season. But if it starts setting seed reliably, and those seeds spread out via animals and/or natural weather processes and germinate, the potential for kudzu world domination explodes!

When I learned of the Giant Resin Bee-kudzu link, I wrote my favorite local expert, Johnny Randall, Director of Conservation Programs at the North Carolina Botanical Garden, to ask him how worried I should be about kudzu world domination. He told me that if the Giant Resin Bee continues to spread and pollinate kudzu, the only thing standing between us and a Kudzu Apocalypse is a native weevil with a fondness for eating kudzu seeds. I never thought I’d be praying on behalf of a native weevil, but this kudzu-seed-eater has my full support!

Why did I collect so many Giant Resin Bees on my kudzu-free <knock wood> five acres? Because my “neighbor” across the road from me permits kudzu to roam freely over most of his multi-acre property. If not for the busy road that separates us, kudzu vines would have certainly crossed over to our yard years ago. My guess is that kudzu flowers drew the Giant Resin Bees to my neighbor’s yard, then some flew across the road and discovered the abundant native flowers blooming in my gardens.

You’ll see in the link further up that local extension agents are asking folks to report sitings of this bee. They don’t really have a handle on how many are here in the Southeast. I’m betting that if you live near kudzu like I do, these bees will be on a flower near you next June. Be sure to report them if you see them. Meanwhile, I’ve still got 40 frozen Giant Resin Bees in our freezer awaiting pickup by a local entomologist.

 

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A Three-Fertile-Turtle Week

Common Snapping Turtle

A possum has been living beneath our front walk/deck for quite some time, possibly years. It strives to avoid us, and we pretend we don’t know it’s there. Until May 21. My area currently suffers from abnormally dry conditions, and the plants and animals are beginning to be obviously affected by the prolonged absence of rain. True drought is imminent, unless the skies bring us copious rains soon.

The air has uncharacteristically – for this time of year – lacked humidity, so our little front water feature requires regular topping off to keep the growing population of tadpoles happy. I was doing that on May 21 just before noon, also watering the plants that surround the little pool, when the possum ambled from beneath the walkway almost beside me. I think it heard and smelled the hose water. I pointed out that it was violating our agreement and that it should scurry back out of sight, but it just stood there blinking at me.

So I sprayed it with the hose. Not hard, but enough to get it wet. I figured that would send it back to its hiding place. But I was wrong. Instead, it turned its other side toward me as if to say, “Please dampen my other side too.” So I did. When it was thoroughly wet, it returned to its spot beneath the deck and did not re-emerge. It was that kind of week around here. The local wildlife seems to be more comfortable showing itself every day.

A wild turkey hen foraging beneath the bird feeders.

Earlier that week for several evenings, a wild turkey hen wandered into our backyard to pick at seeds fallen from the bird feeders. She then wandered up the hill to what I’m calling my Hail Mary Prairie – a tale for another time. Sounding a bit like a chicken, she muttered to herself as she strolled around the yard. We haven’t seen her the last few days, and one of our wildlife cameras showed us why. It captured her escorting six tiny chicks. No more time for solo-muttering for her.

Our wildlife camera caught these wild turkey chicks (left) following a hen (already across the creek).

And then there are the turtles. On May 18 after lunch, I headed back to my vegetable garden to complete weeding the onion bed. To my delight, I encountered a River Cooter just a few steps from the garden gate. She was in the middle of laying eggs. This swamp-dwelling species has occupied the adjacent wetland for decades, and every few years we encounter a female laying eggs. They always climb the hill and dig well above the flood zone, no doubt instinctively knowing that the eggs would otherwise drown. I’ve read that often the young turtles hatch in late summer or fall, but remain underground with the eggs until spring, when they emerge. I took a ridiculous number of videos of her while she worked. Also some still shots, which I share here. She was quite tolerant, basically ignoring me as she laid eggs, then compacted the ground. If I hadn’t immediately flagged the spot, I doubt I’d be able to find it after the next rain.

But wait, there’s more! On the afternoon of May 21, Wonder Spouse encountered another species of turtle laying eggs inside our backyard. Interestingly, this one also chose a nesting spot not far from a gate. Significant? Beats me. This was an Eastern Painted Turtle, another species quite common to the slow-moving waters of local wetlands, but one we had never encountered laying eggs before. Like the much larger River Cooter, she tolerated my excited babblings as I photographed and videoed her egg-laying efforts. When she was done and finished compacting the soil above her eggs, she pushed some nearby dried leaves over the spot. If I had not watched her lay her eggs, I would never have known the nest was there. It made me wonder how often I’ve missed egg-laying visits from this species. And, yes, I flagged the spot as soon as she headed back down the hill toward the wetland. 

That evening, I casually said to Wonder Spouse, “Well now all we need is an egg-laying snapping turtle to complete the trifecta.” You guessed it, on the morning of May 22 when we checked on a new flower bed I planted two days ago with milkweed seedlings, we encountered a very healthy Common Snapping Turtle finishing up what must have been a night of egg-laying. She found the freshly cleared and moistened milkweed bed an ideal spot for her digging. 

By the time we spotted her, she had compacted the soil over a rectangular area, where we assume she had laid her eggs. She appeared to be quite tired and had sort of buried her back end in nearby soft soil. At first we thought she was going to lay more eggs, but as we watched, we decided she was just trying to camouflage herself a bit. Ms. Snapper was far less tolerant of human observation. If she could see me, she stopped moving. If I tried to walk behind her, she’d crane her very long neck around her back to keep an eye on me. Thus, I took mostly still shots of her doing nothing in particular. I had to go into the house before she decided it was safe to head back to the wetland. Of course, I was watching her from a window with binoculars, and when she headed downhill, I ran out and managed to shoot a few videos of her return to the wetland. She remained annoyed with me, refusing to move if I got too close. Finally, she was close enough to tall vegetation and muddy soil that she felt comfortable lumbering along with me trailing her from a respectful distance. Not wearing mud-proof shoes, I watched her bend the tall stalks of marsh grasses as she headed toward the water until I lost sight of her altogether. 

Now, of course, I find myself wandering the property a couple of times a day with a sharp eye out for fertile turtles making deposits. I wonder if they somehow knew that high temperatures were in the forecast – perfect for incubating eggs. Or perhaps it was the full super moon that glowed orange in the sky earlier this week. For me, it will be always be an egg moon, named for all the native creatures currently reproducing themselves around me. 

Wonder Spouse and I have been enhancing the native microenvironments on our five acres for 32 years now. It is deeply satisfying to know that our efforts have been noticed by many other species, and that they feel welcome to live and procreate beside us, even if a few innocent milkweed seedlings are sacrificed in the process.

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For Earth Day: Living Half-Wild

300_puddling ETS group

Dr. J. Drew Lanham was the speaker for this year’s Evelyn McNeill Sims Memorial Lecture at the NC Botanical Garden. The continuing pandemic required his presentation to be virtual, and I am a bit sad about that, because Dr. Lanham was a lyrical, charismatic speaker even on a video screen. I imagine he would have mesmerized a live audience. Plus, selfishly, I would have loved to have been able to ask him to autograph his book for me. I highly recommend it.

Dr. Lanham is a native of Edgefield, SC. He is an Alumni Distinguished Professor of Wildlife Ecology and Master Teacher at Clemson University. He describes himself as a rare bird, because he is a black man and a birder and conservationist. His book is titled, The Home Place: Memoirs of a Colored Man’s Love Affair with Nature.

From the very first pages of Dr. Lanham’s book, I knew I was with a kindred spirit. The passages in which he describes the natural world are effortlessly vivid and lyrical. His profound connection to his family’s farm and surrounding lands on which he grew up is recounted beautifully. His love for his parents and siblings combines with his love of their land to create his deep sense of home. This anchor to his home place likely contributed to his resilience navigating the social inequities faced by people of color in the United States. Dr. Lanham does not pretend those inequities do not exist. I think his connection to the natural world helped him survive difficult times.

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Dr. Lanham describes his evolution from boy and young man who mostly conformed to society’s expectations to the man he is today, a man more comfortable with who he is, a man who is often more happy in the natural world than the human-built one. He writes, “But I try to live half-wild, not judging, skirting convention and expectation. I spent too many years inside four walls.” I can totally relate.

As is true of many southerners of his generation, Dr. Lanham was raised in the Christian faith, but he was never comfortable with the angry God described in church, the one who was always watching. These days, he writes, “I’ve settled into a comfortable place with the idea of nature and god being the same thing. Evolution, gravity, change, and the dynamic transformation of field into forest nurture me. …There is righteousness in conserving things, staving off extinction, and simply admiring the song of a bird.” I am right there with him.

Dr. Lanham has been all over the world, but his home place in South Carolina straddled the Piedmont-Coastal Plain transition zone. He understands both landscapes very well. His description of my beloved southern Piedmont region – a zone that encompasses parts of states from Virginia to Alabama – breaks my heart with its accuracy:

“Things are in pieces here, fragments of what used to be. A bit of forest, a bit of field, a wetland rarely – all surrounded by a sea of cement. Acres and acres of asphalt. Even where I find forest, the trees are often planted like row crops. …In most places, the thin crust of topsoil that remains struggles to hide the gummy clay underneath. When the infrequent rains do come, the Midlands weep erosively.”

Dr. Lanham concludes his book by describing his increasing comfort with his role as a proselytizer on behalf of the natural world he loves. He ponders how to re-connect humanity to the natural world from which it arose, on which it relies. As I wrote here, it is a dilemma I also struggle with. He concludes on a hopeful note:

“Trying to do what’s best by nature is a guessing game with long-term stakes. Good decisions mean that the soil and water will prosper. The trees will prosper. The wild things will prosper. In that natural prospering, all of us will become wealthier in richer dawn choruses and endless golden sunsets. The investment is called legacy. If I can see, feel touch, and smell these things once more on a piece of land I can call my own, I’ll be home again. …Home, after all, is more than a place on a map. It’s a place in the heart.”

In his video presentation for the NC Botanical Garden, Dr. Lanham noted that “It’s important for us to be aware of who we are so that we can be better than the day before.” I think he meant that unless we acknowledge our failings as a society, we cannot change them. We are failing each other, and we are failing our home planet, because too many of us are not aware, and therefore see no reason to strive to be better.

He also shared two personal mantras he repeats to himself often. One speaks to the need for awareness of our place on the planet: “Same air, same water, same soil, same Earth, same fate.”

IMG_9920 cinnamon fern and wetland

The other mantra is for himself as a writer tied to the rhythms of the natural world: “Watch, revere, write, repeat.” Of course, that phrase sealed my conviction that he and I are indeed both half-wild kindred spirits. I’ve been following that very guidance for decades. It has never felt more pertinent than it does on this Earth Day.

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Spring Update, Part I

Halesia diptera flowers2

I’ve been having trouble keeping up with the pace of spring this year. Maybe it’s the birthdays that keep piling up, maybe it’s climate change. Maybe it’s a bit of both. Every day I walk these five acres we’ve worked with for 32 years something — usually more than one thing — merits my attention — and my camera. Native deciduous azaleas seem to transform from swelling buds tinged with color to full-blown explosions of flowers and fragrance. As I type this, blooming azalea colors range from yellow to orange-red to pale pink, deep pink, lavender, and white. I am so glad we’re entering a bit of a cool spell tonight. I am hopeful that the blooms will last a bit longer in cooler weather.

Believe it or not, I’m less focused on flowers these days than usual. Animal antics have grabbed most of my attention. I’ve got a pair of bluebirds feeding five nestlings in one of the new boxes we added a few weeks ago, and that is exciting. However, the wood ducks win the prize for captivating us. 

I’ve read up on wood ducks lately to try to understand what we’ve been seeing. Did you know wood ducks will nest in tree hollows as high as 50 feet off the ground? The day after the ducklings hatch (up to about 14 usually), mama duck gives them a signal and one by one they leap from the hole and tumble to the ground. Seriously! My reading tells me that the ducklings sort of bounce when they hit the ground. As soon as all are out, mama duck leads her babies to feeding grounds, which can be as far as a mile from the nest. As you might imagine, a lot of ducklings are picked off by predators before they get there. Even if the ducklings make it to the water, predators including large fish and snapping turtles may grab them from beneath the water. 

We always see and hear the wood ducks this time of year. Male-female pairs swim up and down our creek. We suspect they feed in the beaver-built wetland on the other side. When the females are startled, they shriek loudly. It’s quite a disconcerting sound when they see you before you see them.

We thought it might be nice to offer a pair a nice new wood duck house, which we mounted about 8 feet off the ground right next to the creek. We figured the ducklings could jump out and land either in or right next to the water, minimizing risk from at least some predators. The box, however, has been ignored. Instead, a mama duck appears to have laid her eggs in a dying old oak in our back yard. Thirty feet up there’s a sizable hole where a branch once grew. One day a few weeks ago just at dusk, I watched a pair of wood ducks fly toward the tree. The male flew right past, but the female dove straight into the hole, barely slowing to soften her landing. It seemed clear that the male’s role was to divert attention while the female dove into the hole as fast as possible. Binoculars in hand, I watched for some time, but she did not emerge before the sun set. 

I read that females sitting on eggs fly out at dawn and dusk to feed before returning to the nest. Males don’t incubate the eggs at all. I’ve never managed to see her leave the nest in the morning, but I’ve seen her dive into the hole at dusk several times. Lately, the male hasn’t been with her. I’ve read that after the females begin incubation, the males go off and hang out together elsewhere. 

Wonder Spouse and I are trying not to worry too much about the ducklings. The distance from the tree to the creek is about 100 feet. The terrain is overgrown with massive boulders on the far side of the tree. Wonder Spouse removed a section of the fence between the tree and the creek (there to deter beavers), so that the ducklings won’t pile up at the fence trying to get to the water. A pair of red-shouldered hawks is nesting in the area; they sit in trees near the oak often, looking for their next meal. Theoretically, I am supposed to be dispassionate about the fate of the ducklings, but they are in our backyard. Somehow we feel responsible for them. You can bet that if we are around when the ducklings take their big plunge, we will be out there trying to run interference for them.

Today, however, the wood duck drama took yet another turn. A few days ago, we saw a male-female pair loitering in an ash tree about 50 feet from the oak tree. Using our binoculars, it appeared that the couple was conversing back and forth while looking intently at the nest hole. This afternoon, they returned to the ash tree, again conversing. Suddenly, the female flew to the nest hole in the oak. I am fairly certain this was not the female I had seen diving into the hole on several occasions. This one clung to the edge of the hole and stuck her neck inside, peering in. Liking what she saw, she disappeared inside, briefly stuck her head back out to say something to her mate still sitting in the ash tree, then disappeared again. About ten minutes later, she appeared again at the entrance to the hole, paused a moment, then flew to join her mate in the ash. They soon flew off together. I believe we had just witnessed wood duck egg-dumping behavior. I’ve read that instead of making their own nest, some wood duck females find another wood duck nest and simply add a few eggs of her own to those already on the nest. Apparently the owner of the nest incubates them as her own. The experts aren’t sure of the adaptive value of this behavior, beyond the obvious notion of literally not wanting to put all of one’s eggs in one metaphorical basket.

Wonder Spouse was able to grab his long lens and grab a few photos. The male was sitting quite still in the afternoon sun, providing a nice photo opportunity. The female never stopped moving at the entrance hole, so her shots are more blurry. Still, I think you’ll get the idea.

I confess I am emotionally invested in what happens next. If I’m lucky enough to witness how this story ends, I’ll be sure to let you know.

For my North Carolina Readers:

Audubon North Carolina is encouraging all native plant and animal lovers to register their support for a bill currently before the NC Senate that would ensure that native trees, shrubs, and flowers are used to landscape all state properties and state-funded projects. If you’ve read my blog much, you can imagine how much positive impact this could have for our native flora and fauna. You can read more details and sign their petition supporting this effort here.

 

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