Archive for category Native Wildlife

Winter Means It This Year

Winter does not appear to be kidding around this year. As soon as 2021 exited with one of the mildest Decembers ever, January ushered in 2022 with some serious arctic air that shows no signs of leaving for the duration of the month.

Our yard is generally 5-10 degrees cooler than locally reported temperatures, because of the slope down to the floodplain and creek that allows cold air to linger. So far this month, we’ve seen one and only one nighttime low above 32 degrees Fahrenheit. Most nighttime temperatures were well below freezing.

This January reminds me of the Januarys of my childhood and adolescence in the Piedmont of North Carolina. It was always miserably cold. We often saw bouts of snow (if we were lucky) and freezing rain (when we weren’t lucky). Native plants and animals remained in deep slumber. Pines and red cedars provided the only green relief in the landscape.

Since Wonder Spouse and I moved to our five acres of green chaos almost 33 years ago, we’ve had a few winters with deep snows, and a few very nasty ice storms, but they were usually followed by a spell of warmth that thawed any hint of frozen ground very quickly. Not this year. The ground in my yard is rock-solid. I feel as if I’m walking across uneven concrete — very cold concrete.

The shiny water in this image is the frozen shallow beaver-built pond where ducks usually frolic.

The beaver-built pond and wetland is very icy these days. Over two dozen mallards have been dabbling about in the shallow water all fall and early winter, but now that shallow water is frozen. The creek that supplies the wetland with water is deeper, and the water moves, so it has not frozen over. The mallards noticed, and now spend much of the day swimming up and down the deep part of the creek behind our house. Our wildlife cameras captured many videos of mallard interactions on the creek this past week.

Because this temperature trend is forecast to last until the end of the month, including several more predicted bouts of winter precipitation, I am wondering which plants won’t survive another winter. I grow several non-native so-called tender perennials, two of which are salvias — pineapple sage, and blue Brazilian sage. They have been reliably re-emerging in spring for over a dozen years now. Before that, they were killed by winter’s cold, so to keep them around, I always took cuttings in the fall and rooted/overwintered them in my little greenhouse. However, I stopped doing that some years ago, because it was unnecessary. Now I’m wondering if I’m going to regret that decision.

I usually start spring vegetable seeds in my greenhouse in early February, but the unrelenting cold is making me wonder if I should delay a bit. I’m glad I ordered seeds early. Some of my favorite varieties were hard and/or impossible to find. I’m guessing as the weather warms, vegetable seed options will diminish quickly. Seed catalogs are all online now, folks, and given the weather, electronic catalog browsing might be an excellent way to pass the time.

It has been too cold to risk lifting the row covers over my winter broccoli and lettuces, but I’m pretty sure that when I do I will find green mush. Row covers can protect crops down to about 25 degrees, especially if that temperature only lasts a few hours. Our nighttime temperatures have been in the teens every night all night. Gardeners are gamblers. This winter season, I harvested some wonderful veggies in December, which makes the January losses easier to tolerate.

I think the mallards have the right idea. When winter gives you a frozen pond, go dabble in a creek until the weather thaws. When winter gives me frozen ground, I stay cozy in my house, dabbling through catalogs and a pile of books that need reading, dreaming of the new season of flowers and fruits that will likely arrive before my winter napping is done.

Dabble on, my friends.

 

 

 

 

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We Are Not Alone — And We Like It That Way

A Great Blue Heron catching breakfast

Even though I heard them and often saw their tracks, I did not have a good idea about the numbers and diversity of native wildlife that regularly use the creek we live beside as a busy highway until we invested in some wildlife video cameras. In a typical Piedmont suburb, you may not see all of these species — although it is not impossible. But if you live beside or near water, especially a permanent stream, it is likely that you are sharing the area with a diverse array of native animals. [Note: You can click on any photo to view a larger image.]

Today I am sharing a few stills, in chronological order,  taken from videos captured over the last two months. Personally, I never tire of watching my wildlife neighbors as they seek and catch food, argue over territory, or merely pass by on their way to somewhere else. The cameras capture Great Blue Herons fairly often. We’ve even captured some interesting moonlight interactions between them and beavers. I like the recent shot above of this majestic bird with voice croakier than most frogs catching a fish on a chilly morning in early November.

We hadn’t seen foxes since last spring until they began showing up again on the cameras in November. A daylight video of one slurping up creek water during the drought confirms we have gray foxes. Their gait is a subtle prance, and their tails are spectacular.

A Gray Fox prances past the camera

We usually catch bobcats in the spring and fall, but these solitary creatures were always alone — until the camera caught this pair. We hypothesize they may be litter-mates still hanging around together. You can’t see the temperature reading on this one; it was 35 degrees.

A rare sighting of two bobcats together

Recent forest destruction to make way for yet more suburbs has pushed more deer our way than in recent years, including at least five bucks of varying sizes. The young buck in this capture completely ignored the pair of raccoons across the creek.

We often see raccoons on the far side of this part of the creek. They walk along the edge of the water feeling with their front paws for tasty morsels.

Opossums are usually a blur on the video captures, putting to rest the notion that these critters are sluggish. However, this night was so warm that the opossum here was taking its time as it foraged beside the creek.

We are lucky to see and hear Pileated Woodpeckers often, thanks to the dead and dying trees in the beaver-built wetland across from us. However, we had never seen one of these crow-sized birds foraging on the ground until a camera captured this one in action.

This handsome fellow was tearing apart rotting logs beside the creek, searching for tasty insects within.

The cameras capture raccoons year-round. This recent shot shows a damp one that had just swum across the creek. We often catch them swimming, regardless of temperature. They seem to prefer to use the shortest route between points to get where they’re going, even if that means a dip in cold creek water.

Especially in spring and throughout fall and winter, coyotes patrol the creek nightly. We’ve never seen more than two at once on the cameras, but we hear more than that howling nearby, especially when it is cold.

A healthy-looking coyote on the prowl

These last two shots were taken within minutes of each other last week on a very cold night. All the creatures were active, probably because it was so cold and the moon was bright. Despite an array of predators, this camera often captures cottontail rabbits casually foraging out in the open. We don’t know if they are very lucky bunnies, or if there are just so many of them that all can’t be eaten. We were surprised by the brazenness of this bunny that is almost stepped on by a big buck.

Bold bunny

Given this final photo taken just minutes later, we think the bunny somehow knew that this buck was not the least bit interested in cottontails. Instead, he was defending his turf against another big buck, as evidenced by this antler-locked tussle caught on video. We expect to start finding discarded antlers soon, given the constant presence of the bucks this year.

They lock antlers, then try to push their opponent backwards. This encounter did not last long and seemed to end in a draw.

The forest around the creek I live beside is the only remaining high-quality wildlife corridor remaining on my road. All the native animals are being squeezed into this narrow corridor which leads to the Haw River nearby. My prayer for this new year is that somehow a way is found to persuade the long-time owners of the forest around this creek to put the land into a conservation easement. This would protect the land from the bulldozers forever. It would create a refuge for all the creatures in my area, and provide a safe way for them to travel to other bits of remaining forested land. If I were wealthy, I’d try to buy out the landowners myself. Alas, that’s not an option.

Barring a monetary miracle, all I can do is what I’ve been doing. I’ll keep adding native food and shelter plants to my side of this critical wildlife corridor in the hopes that the creatures can manage to survive despite their displacement by now nearly ubiquitous suburbs, all of which are erased of almost all native vegetation before humans move in.

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Dark Matters

I learned a new ecological term this week. Johnny Randall, the Director of Conservation Programs at the NC Botanical Garden, mentioned it while we were discussing material for an article we are collaborating on for the spring issue of their magazine, Conservation Gardener. Although the term was new to me, the meaning behind it was not unfamiliar.

Dark Diversity

Three researchers from the University of Tartu in Estonia developed the concept of dark diversity in a paper they published in 2011. Their term was chosen to parallel the notion of dark matter in astrophysics. As with dark matter, dark diversity can be inferred from data, but it cannot be seen or directly measured.

Conservation ecologists, especially those attempting to restore or sustain ecosystems, are using the idea of dark diversity to help them assess the health of the system they are studying. Imagine a healthy ecosystem, one with all its components, where every plant, fungus, insect, bird, etc. that should live there actually does live there. This is almost never true anymore. Humans have fragmented and/or destroyed so much now that nearly every bit of forest, field, stream, coral reef, etc. is missing species that were, until fairly recently, components of those ecosystems.

Soft gold of changing leaves of green ash trees on the floodplain

Thus, these days when conservation ecologists attempt to preserve/restore special examples of ecosystems, often those containing rare plants, they not only must identify the species present on the site; they must also attempt to figure out what species are missing. Species still present can be seen and counted, their viability assessed; this is visible diversity. The absent species, the ones that should be there but aren’t define dark diversity.

I’m oversimplifying the concept a bit, but, basically, ecologists estimate dark diversity by looking at species diversity in the region in which their study site is located. If, for example, a section of forest being restored was missing wood thrushes (one of my favorite summer visitors of our forests), but those birds were known to live in patches of forest in the region, wood thrushes would be identified as part of the dark diversity of the study site – a species that should be there, based on its presence in the region, but is absent.

As I can best understand the concept, by measuring the amount of dark diversity, ecologists can better guess how difficult it would be to restore a given site to full diversity – to bring back all the missing species that should be living on a site but aren’t.

Dark Diversity on Our Five Acres

When Johnny Randall mentioned the concept of dark diversity, it immediately resonated with me, because Wonder Spouse and I have been playing with the dark, as it were, on our five acres for over three decades now. When I first saw this land on a cold January day almost 33 years ago, it was an ecosystem with substantial dark diversity. The previous owner had eliminated almost all the native grasses, wildflowers, shrubs, and understory trees, leaving only towering canopy-level trees and a lawn full of non-native grasses. I could hear birds, but I rarely saw them in our yard. There was nothing for them to eat near ground level, and no good nesting sites.

Snowy floodplain five years after we moved in.

However, the floodplain forest on the other side of the creek teemed with ferns, wildflowers, and a healthy shrub layer. Bird song echoed across our empty yard from that area. I knew that all of those species should also be living on our side of the creek. Those species not present on our land but living nearby were dark diversity – the missing pieces. I wanted to bring them back.

Through trial and error, luck, and hard work, we have rebuilt much of the species diversity that lived on our property before it was damaged by the previous owner. Fruit-bearing shrubs provide food for an array of species. Dense plantings of shrubs, grasses, ferns, and wildflowers provide food and shelter for insects, reptiles, amphibians, birds, and an array of mammals.

A barred owl with a mouthful of mouse caught by a wildlife camera on our side of the creek.

I am certain that our amateur habitat restoration efforts would not pass muster with the professionals, but I think our results speak for themselves. What once was unseen – dark – is now visible. The species that were nearby but absent on our land have returned. I do not have adequate words to describe how deeply gratifying it has been to bring the dark into light, to bring the missing species home.

Contemplating the dark seems an entirely appropriate occupation as we rapidly approach the darkest night – winter solstice. A wise person recently told me that, when navigating dark times, it is important to trust the invisible. It seems wise folks from astrophysicists to ecologists follow this guidance. Darkness – what we cannot see with our eyes – teems with life, with knowledge. It may well be true that we can learn more from the unseen than from our visible world.

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Grateful for Home

View from our back deck last week.

Where is your heart? I ask, because I’ve been thinking about a familiar cliché – home is where the heart is. I’ve been asking myself that question as I ponder what I am thankful for during this season of blessing-counting. Where is home for me? Where is my heart?

My instant answer is that my home is, above all else, my soul mate, my Wonder Spouse. With him, I am always warm and safe and entirely loved. He is a blessing I try never to take for granted.

Home of Red-shouldered hawks one past spring

Home is also this five acres of land Wonder Spouse and I have nurtured together for over three decades. To the real estate industry and government, we are owners of this piece of Piedmont paradise, but we know better. We are collaborators with all that lived here before us and those who have arrived since. We know the trees do not belong to us, though we do our best to care for them, and always appreciate them. We know the birds, frogs, foxes, and turtles who dwell among us do not belong to us, but we welcome their presence and try to encourage it by creating habitats that are heart homes for them.

Common snapping turtle laying eggs.

Wonder Spouse and I have worked hard to make our five acres healthier and more diverse than when we first arrived. Stripped gradually of human artifices such as lawns and non-native plants that feed no one, this Piedmont patch grows more alive with every passing season. Truly, this land is our heart, our home, our family, and we feel deeply blessed to have found it, joyfully embracing our work to return it to vibrant native diversity.

I know how blessed we are. Many humans around the globe have no home. They are hungry, often cold and afraid. To my mind, the inequities among humans reflect attitudes about all our relationships, beginning with how we treat Mother Earth and all her non-human inhabitants. Perhaps the perpetrators of these inequities rationalize their behavior by believing they are doing it to Someone Else.

Marbled Orb Weaver

However, I believe that anyone with open eyes can see the interrelatedness of everything, from the air we breathe and the water we drink to the food we eat. Equally accessible sustainable ecosystems are necessary for all our families to thrive.

On this American day of thanksgiving when you give thanks for your family gathered round tables laden with abundance, for their health, for whatever other blessings you acknowledge, please consider also giving thanks for the fact that none of those blessings is possible without the blue-green planet that nurtures everything, home to us all. Give thanks for Mother Earth, and consider making a promise with your family to do more for her sustainable health. It is the only way we may be assured of Thanksgivings for many generations to come.

Happy Thanksgiving from our family to yours.

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A Synopsis of the NC-IPC 2021 Virtual Conference – Day One

Seeds of two-winged silver bell contrasted against its fall leaf color

This past week, I attended the annual conference of the North Carolina Invasive Plant Council (NC-IPC). The continuing pandemic necessitated that the conference was virtual. The up side of that was that I didn’t have to travel or pay anything to attend. The down side was that I was thoroughly depressed by most of what I heard from the experts. This post summarizes the presentations given on the first day of the conference.

NOTE: To offer a little visual relief, I’m interspersing recent photos taken in my yard. They have nothing to do with the subject, except to serve as reminders of the beauty and diversity of native Southeastern Piedmont flora and fauna.

Most of the people who attend this conference about non-native invasive plants are professionals who deal with these plants daily as part of their jobs. Many of them work for conservation organizations that are trying to preserve special ecosystems and/or rare/endangered plants in preserves scattered across North Carolina. Some attendees are university students and professors who study related subjects, such as the impacts of non-native invasive plants on our native ecosystems. Some are associated with botanical gardens and plant nurseries. Some run small companies that specialize in invasive plant removal and habitat restoration. And some are just plain folks like me, who like to keep abreast of what invaders the professionals are most worried about and the methods they are using to combat non-native invasive plants.

Before attending the conference, I assumed that the NC-IPC was still a non-profit organization, so I sent them $20 to re-join the group. However, after the conference, I got a note from an officer in the group who thanked me for my donation and warned me it isn’t tax-deductible, because the group lost its non-profit status. He did not elaborate, but I’m guessing that this all-volunteer organization fell into disarray during the pandemic, and necessary paperwork wasn’t filed. I’m sure they aren’t the only organization still struggling with such issues. The NC-IPC officer did note that the group is working to regain its non-profit status. I wish them well.

Bottlebrush grass

Attendees were assured that all virtual presentations were recorded and will be made available to us. I hope so. I missed bits of some of them, and others showed relevant URLs in slides that I didn’t have time to jot down. I’m hoping they’ll simply put them all up on their web site, so that everyone can benefit from the presentations.

While we wait for the recordings to appear, here’s my summary of what I learned on the first day of the conference. I apologize to presenters in advance for any inaccuracies in my summaries. It is hard to take notes, watch slides, and investigate URLs simultaneously.

Exotic Invasive Seed Bank

The professor from UNC-Asheville who gave this talk demonstrated some out-of-the-box thinking that I appreciated. She spoke about Living Web Farms, an organization in three locations in the Asheville area. She described the group as experts on the cutting edge of all aspects of organic, sustainable gardening/living, and she mentioned a product they use, called EM-1, which is a microbial inoculant. As best as I can tell, EM-1 is a concentrated soup of fungi and bacteria that, when diluted and applied to soils, stimulates impressive vigor in plants. The professor said the presentation she heard about it made claims about EM-1 that included elimination of body odor, among other things. She did not provide details.

However, she did apply EM-1 to the soil in her established vegetable garden and got what she considered to be very beneficial results – improved vigor, more fruit production, disease resistance – everything a gardener wants. It also supposedly provides improved seed germination. This clever professor decided to test that last claim by applying EM-1 to test beds of seeds of plants, such as alfalfa. In some plots, she added a bit of sugar or molasses to the mix, because, she said, sugar often improves seed germination. This was news to me.

Will this year’s fall broccoli crop grow even more impressively if I add EM-1?

She discovered that EM-1 most definitely improved germination rates of seeds in her test plots. She wondered what would happen if she added a higher-than-recommended concentration to seed beds. The alfalfa germinated at impressive rates, but the radicle – the root tip – died, which meant the entire plant died. This led the professor to wonder if applying this higher concentration of EM-1 to beds full of seeds of non-native invasive plants would cause these species to also germinate and die. I won’t bore you with the details, but it appeared likely that she did succeed in encouraging germination of weed seeds at high rates, and those seedlings then died.

Why does this matter to those of us attempting to control invasive plants? Because seeds of plants like Japanese stiltgrass can remain viable in the soil for 7-10 years. However, if one had a way to encourage all those seeds to germinate and die simultaneously, it might be possible to exhaust their seed banks (seeds lurking in soil), thereby reducing populations of these pernicious species.

I think this is a gosh darn clever notion. I especially like it because no poisons of any kind were necessary. I hope she pursues and refines this research so that “regular folks” can try this approach. Meanwhile, I have ordered a bottle of EM-1 to test out on my vegetable garden. I’ll let you know what happens.

Bird Friendly Landscaping

The woman who spoke next is the current president of my local Audubon chapter. This local group has been advocating successfully for restoring native plants to landscapes in order to improve habitat for native wildlife, especially birds. The group’s very professional Web site is jam-packed with wonderful information on this subject. Readers interested in learning more should start here.

Using Imazamox to Control Japanese Knotweed

I confess I sort of snoozed through this man’s talk. If the subject is of interest to you, check the NC-IPC Web site for videos of the conference when they appear.

The Skewed Logic of Invasive Defenders

The man who gave this talk is an active conservationist who has founded local groups to restore/preserve native ecosystems in areas where he has lived. He is a very thoughtful, articulate guy, and feels obliged to argue with folks who write/speak in defense of non-native invasive species. Whole books have been written about this. These invader-supporters advocate a live-and-let-live approach, saying non-native invasive species have a right to be here even if that means entire native ecosystems perish as a consequence.

Spicebush fall color

The speaker’s presentation described the most common arguments invasive-defenders make, and then identified the fallacies in those arguments. He also recounted how he has debated – in writing and in person – with some of these invasive-lovers with mixed results. In Nature’s Best Hope by Douglas Tallamy, one of the appendixes in the book offers counter-arguments to those who advocate on behalf of non-native invasive species. It saddens me that this is necessary.

NC-IPC’s Ficaria verna Program (as a model for others)

The common name for this invasive plant is Fig Buttercup. It is a relatively recent invader to our area, notorious for overwhelming native wetland habitats. It has a pretty flower, which is how it got here. The presenter described how the NC-IPC has allotted money for an education campaign about this plant in the Research Triangle area of North Carolina, where the invader is beginning to get a foothold. For those of you who live in this area, check out the application (Find Fig Buttercup Near You!) they’ve built to help you figure out how close this invader is to your property. This link from the Duke Forest web site describes this invader and why it is a problem. Please keep an eye out for this invader wherever you live. It is tricky to eradicate.

Invasive Plants in Urban Forests: Effects on Forest Structure and Arthropod Communities

The woman who gave this presentation described her Ph.D. thesis, as indicated in the title. I’ve found that newly minted Ph.D. earners are often unable to summarize their work. After all, they’ve been immersed in the minutia of their subject matter for years. They probably dream about it. It is thus understandable that this young woman began by describing in exhaustive detail the methodology she employed in her study. Forgive me, but it was lunch time by then and I was hungry. It was the last presentation for the day, so I left the meeting to eat lunch. I figure I’ll zip through the video to her conclusions when that video becomes available. I’ll be surprised if she did not find a reduction in overall arthropod species, and probably a change in species proportions, because that’s what usually happens when invasive species disrupt native ecosystems. But I’ll check when the video becomes available.

Thus ended the first day of presentations. I found the presentations during the second day to be, in order of presentation, really annoying, interesting and inspiring, interesting, and very depressing. I offer details in the blog post that follows this one. I’ll post it tomorrow.

Yesterday’s moonrise against a sky still tinged with color from sunset

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More upcoming virtual presentations

All gardeners know that fall is for planting. It also marks a rise in wonderful presentations on gardening-related subjects. Case in point: the amazing Debbie Roos, one of the agricultural extension agents for Chatham County, NC, will give what promises to be a great webinar from 6:00-8:00 p.m. on November 10.

To read more about Creating Wildlife Habitat with Native Plants and to register to virtually attend, visit the link. You will learn much, I promise!

Japanese honeysuckle strangling innocent woodland bystanders

For those of you deeply interested in invasive plants, the expert members of the NC Invasive Plants Council will be virtually gathering for two half-days of presentations on November 9-10. Presentations can get a tad technical for the layperson, but you will learn about control methods, which species the experts are most worried about, and other useful information.

You can attend for free, but please consider joining the group to help fund their efforts. To see the agenda and register, 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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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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