Archive for category Native Wildlife

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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The Green Door

Harbinger of Spring

[Note: Photos in this piece were taken in my yard recently but besides serving as evidence of (mostly) native biodiversity, serve no purpose here other than to help you stay awake.]

Most of us probably have memories of favorite teachers. I know I do. During the acquisition of my last master’s degree some 20+ years ago, I was lucky enough to be exposed to four truly gifted, memorable professors. One in particular blew my mind wide open.

I am at heart a practical soul, grounded in earth and flowers. Never have I had an inclination to study philosophy or religion. Frankly, the books – oh yes, I had tried reading a few – always put me to sleep. That changed when I took the late Kalman Bland’s class, Other Worlds and Human Transformations. We read and discussed Plato’s Republic, learned about Thomas Kuhn and the scientific revolution. We read art criticism and the Book of Job, and much more. Dr. Bland never lectured us. Instead, using the Socratic method, he would ask a question and then expect the class to find an answer as he gently nudged us in the right direction. I loved this approach! With each new reading, he subtly steered us to weave seemingly disparate bits into a whole cloth of wondrous colors and insights. The papers he assigned us to write required some of the deepest thinking I’ve ever done for a class.

I am eternally grateful for Dr. Bland’s challenging class, because without it, I would not have figured out what I have been seeking most of my life: The Green Door.

Thomas Kuhn is an American philosopher known for his study of the so-called scientific revolution. He coined a term we all know – paradigm shift. Kuhn invented the term to describe what happens when there is a fundamental change in the basic concepts and experimental practices of a scientific discipline. As I understand it, paradigm shifts occur when someone re-imagines the fundamentals of their world view, and in so doing, permanently changes how the world is perceived by everyone. For example, when Nicolaus Copernicus created a model of the universe that postulated the Earth moved around the sun, that was a paradigm shift, a fundamental change in how the universe was perceived. No longer was Earth the center of the universe.

The Green Door I imagine is the paradigm shift I believe humanity needs in order to avoid destroying itself by abusing our planet so badly that it can no longer sustain us. Try as I might, I have not stumbled across a fundamental re-visioning of humanity’s relationship to Earth that has the power to electrify human thinking so completely that all are inspired to act to preserve rather than destroy our planet. Yes, many wonderful organizations and people all over the world are fighting to preserve biodiversity in their homelands, protect water and air quality, grow food organically, etc., but they are doing so within an old framework that puts such efforts at a great disadvantage.

In most parts of the world, I believe that humanity views the natural world merely as a commodity to which they assign a monetary value. Consider a phrase beloved by the real estate industry: undeveloped land. Beautiful stands of contiguous native forest, grassland, and even small farms are perceived by the real estate industry only as potential sources of income via “development projects.” Ecological value, much less spiritual value of land — these are not concepts that compute for the real estate industry. I have spent decades wracking my brain, trying to imagine a way to re-wire humanity to view Earth as a partner rather than a mere resource. I have not succeeded. In his book about scientific revolutions and paradigm shifts, Kuhn says such big world-changing notions only come to younger minds, under age 40 or so. That’s my excuse, anyway, for not being able to find a Green Door, a paradigm shift in humanity’s relationship with Earth.

I haven’t lost hope. I know a lot of smart young people are working on pieces of this critical puzzle. I just read last week about a new iron-based catalyst that converts carbon dioxide into jet fuel – no petroleum required!  I will continue to pray that these smart younger folks are close to a paradigm-shifting breakthrough that will manifest a human partnership with Earth that will allow all the world’s inhabitants to flourish for many future generations.

While I keep watch for a paradigm-shifting Green Door, I will continue to do what I can for my corner of the planet. I continue to add new well-adapted native species to my five acres of green chaos. I continue to support conservation-focused nonprofits working hard to preserve rapidly diminishing biodiversity and water and air quality, and I continue to write about my experiences in the hope that sharing what I’ve learned can lead at least a few souls closer to the Green Door of my dreams.

With that in mind, those of you who are members of the North Carolina Botanical Garden should see the spring edition of their magazine, Conservation Gardener, showing up in your mailbox early next month. The issue’s theme: preserving biodiversity. You’ll see a few articles in there that I wrote, including one on enhancing native biodiversity in your home landscape. You’ll also see articles about people and organizations in my area that are finding creative ways to enhance biodiversity on farms and suburban greenways.

And while we all wait for the weather to warm up and dry out, you may want to sign up for some upcoming webinars from the NC Wildlife Federation, including these:

Let’s all keep a sharp lookout for a paradigm-shifting Green Door.

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Spring Fever?

I ordered my seeds — well, most of them anyway — before Christmas. I sowed the first of them in the germination container in my greenhouse on January 21, because some plants require a longish period of growth before they are ready to bloom, or in the case of herbs, to reach a transplantable size. I blame pandemic isolation for the relatively large number of seeds I ordered this year. Also, Seeds ‘n Such, from which I ordered most of my seeds, charges a lower price per packet when you order more packets — a deal too tempting to ignore for this plant-lover. This company also provides fewer seeds per packet for most of their seeds, which allows them to reduce their per-packet cost, and limits the number of seeds that don’t get planted for lack of space.

The feeder for summer-visiting hummingbirds is just a few feet from where I hope to have a hanging basket of red petunias they will also enjoy.

Most years, I try a few new annual flower varieties. These non-native, showy summer blooms line a front walkway to my house, fill a hanging basket by the front door, and mingle with the vegetables to attract pollinators and provide fresh flowers for bouquets. For the hanging basket, I decided to try a petunia from the Hybrid Wave Series. You’ve probably seen these prolific bloomers in nursery centers. I could not resist trying a variety called Carmine Velour, which is described as being “stunning, non-fading, intense and bright, even when cloudy.” I’m hoping that the Ruby-throated hummingbirds that visit a feeder just across from the flower basket will approve of these deep red beauties. My packet only contained five pelleted petunia seeds, because this fancy hybrid is quite particular about its germination requirements. The instructions told me to allow a lot of time for germination and for the plants to grow to transplantable size. Finally today, 8 days after planting, one tiny seedling has emerged. Eight days isn’t really that long for a number of species to germinate, but because I’ve never tried this variety before, I confess I was getting a tad nervous. I’m hopeful that the other four seedlings will pop up any minute, especially because the next few days are supposed to be sunny, and these seeds require bright light to germinate well. I’ve got my fingers crossed that these prima donnas fulfill my expectations.

First to germinate for me was another new flower — a Gazania hybrid mix called New Day. These bright annuals should add some nice color to my front walk. They are purported to bloom well through summer heat and drought. Time will tell. Fourteen of the fifteen seeds in the packet germinated in 3-4 days. I approve of their enthusiasm!

I’m hoping creeping herbs like thymes and oregano will appreciate the heat of the rock wall that contains this flower bed.

I also decided to try growing some perennial herbs from seed. North Carolina summer humidity and heat are very hard on thymes and other Mediterranean herbs. I don’t usually manage to keep most of them alive for more than a couple of years. I rationalized that seeds are cheaper than plants, so I could try again. Plus, I’ve got a nice, hot, well-drained spot where the thyme, oregano, and marjoram can dangle over the rock border of the Furlough Wall of the bed Wonder Spouse built a few years ago. Tiny Sweet Marjoram and German Winter Thyme seedlings began popping up 5 days after planting. The flat-leaf parsley — a notoriously slow germinator — is still meditating on germination. The Cleopatra oregano is also still a no-show. Both could easily take another week or more before germinating, especially with the rounds of cold, wintry weather visiting my area every few days.

The almost-full moon last night before clouds obscured its rise above the trees.

Maybe it is tonight’s full moon. Perhaps it is the fact that the sun has begun to set later in the afternoon again, or that I heard the familiar shriek of a female Wood Duck earlier this week for the first time this year. Maybe it’s because my witch hazel ‘Amethyst’ is beginning to push out magenta petals and the Prunus mume trees are opening their first fragrant flowers, providing aroma therapy of the highest quality, but I have the distinct feeling that spring will arrive early this year. Just this week, the Northern Cardinals have begun singing. And for about a half hour on the one day this week that afternoon temperatures reached the upper 50s, a few Southern Chorus Frogs celebrated the break in the cold weather.

This morning’s “snow.”

OK, technically speaking, it snowed overnight last night, but it was such a pitiful effort that all evidence of it had disappeared by noon. And yes, the weather seers are threatening my area with freezing rain in a few days, but they are promising it will turn over to mere rain before the ice can create problems. It’s as if Winter’s heart just isn’t in the game anymore — at least not in central North Carolina where I live. I’ve lived in this state for all but the first year and a half of my life, and I’m old enough to remember March snows and springs that didn’t really begin until April. But climate change has erased those days for the foreseeable future. I have mixed feelings about Winter’s shortened duration, but I know the native wildlife that share our five acres would appreciate an early spring.

 

A hungry Red-shouldered hawk has taken to parking itself atop my bird feeders, no doubt hoping a songbird will walk into its talons. The white-tailed deer linger under the feeders at dusk vacuuming up any seeds dropped by the birds. The wildlife cameras are routinely capturing videos of a thin coyote patrolling deer trails along the creek. All would welcome Spring’s abundance I am sure.

For now, I must quell my spring fever, content myself with cheerleading new seedlings in my greenhouse, and appreciating winter sunrises on recently rare clear-skied mornings. Soon enough, the deep quiet of Winter will give way to Spring symphonies.

January 19 sunrise

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Growing Perspectives

I’ve lately begun to think of January 1 as the onset of Human New Year, because we are the only occupants of this planet who feel this day demarcates a new beginning. Plants and animals don’t count days at all, but they are affected by daylight length. It drives their reproductive cycles and migration times. Moon cycles are also important to the other occupants of our planet. The wildlife cameras posted along our creek consistently capture an uptick in number and species diversity during full moons, regardless of temperature. Gardening folklore has long documented the efficacy of using moon cycles to guide planting times.

Great Blue Heron hunting by moonlight in our creek.

During this long pandemic-induced isolation from my fellow humans, I find myself increasingly attuned to moon and sun cycles, rains, and temperature swings. On winter mornings, I rise eagerly in hopes of a memorable sunrise. It’s the only time of year our eastern vista opens up, thanks to a sleeping tree canopy.

Dec. 28 sunrise

On what have so far been rare sunny winter days, I walk our five acres in search of revelations. When I slog through the mud that perpetually covers our floodplain-becoming-wetland, the red-shouldered hawks and pileated woodpeckers nesting in disintegrating trees killed by beaver-built ponds greet me with raucous calls. They remind me that I’m treading on their territory. I promise not to linger too long. This part of our property continues to teach me much about natural processes, the power of water, and humility.

Christmas flood. The creek is on the far left of this photo.

Decades ago in my callous youth after reading countless gardening books and magazines, I was confident of my ability to control landscaping outcomes. My facility at assessing site conditions and my knowledge of the growing requirements of many plant species made me cocky. No longer. Thirty-one years (and counting) on our five acres continue to teach me how much I don’t know.  I also continue to learn from an inspirational group of younger folks who approach the landscape as an ally, not an adversary. Elsewhere, I wrote about Nick Harper, who pointed out to me that because humans are responsible for most, if not all, changes to native environments around the globe, it is up to us to integrate ourselves into this human-modified world we now all live in.

Pollarded invasive non-native trees on local cattle farm.

For example, non-native invasive plant species cannot be blamed for doing what they are adapted to do. Instead of attempting to eradicate them with ecosystem-damaging poisons, Nick believes we need to devise ways to live with the invaders. As I wrote in the link above, Nick aggressively pollarded non-native invasive trees on the cattle farm he managed and fed the cuttings to the cattle, thereby simultaneously preventing the trees from flowering and providing his cattle with free, high-quality summer fodder. When I asked him if he had any familiarity with the invasive plant currently overwhelming my creek and wetland, Marsh Dayflower (Murdannia keisak), he said no. But when I told him this is a weed of Asian rice paddies brought to North America by South Carolina rice plantation growers, he advised me to search Asian literature sources on ways they manage it there. It’s a good idea. The plant is a weed there, but clearly isn’t destroying rice crops. Some mechanism must be at play that balances the ecological scales. I just need to find it – another item for my infinite to-do list.

As this new human year begins, I am recognizing how my perspective on gardening and ecology continues to evolve. In the long-ago days, I thought these were two different subjects. Now I realize that gardening without regard to native ecological contexts serves no one.

These days, every plant I put in the ground must feed someone. In the vegetable garden, I feed humans and the abundant native insects, arthropods, soil organisms, birds, and other animals that utilize the organically grown mix of veggies, flowers, and herbs nurtured there.

Elsewhere in our yard, my top priority is serving the native wildlife that lives here. Our “garden” does not look like the images in standard gardening magazines, but to my eyes it is beautiful, lush, and vibrantly alive.

My prayer for a new human year is that this moment marks a transition from humanity’s role as conquering destroyer to an ecologically integrated partner. We are the disease. We must become the cure. Earth’s fate lies in our hands.

Happy Human New Year

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Mostly Moonlit Wildlife Wanderings

This eight-point buck was kind enough to pose close to a camera.

I recently took a great many photos of final fall highlights of my yard, and I hope to get them posted here soon. I’ve been distracted by the recent addition of two new wildlife cameras, which Wonder Spouse has strategically installed along the creek that borders our property. The quality of the videos captured by the new cameras is impressive, and the recent full moon seemed to stimulate nocturnal activity. I am hoping to create a PiedmontGardener YouTube channel soon, so that I can post some of the more interesting videos we are capturing. For now, here are a few stills I extracted from some of the videos captured just last week. I’ve left the time/temperature information in the photos, because I think they give each shot a bit more context.

Moonlit creek wading.

In the video from which I extracted the photo above, this buck slowly wades upstream. I love the way the water captures his reflection. I didn’t realize just how many deer are now wandering my area until I saw them in these videos. One night last week, eight does ran one after the other in a line away from the camera, their white tails flashing as they disappear deeper into the forest. 

Not one, but two eight-point bucks.

We have seen one eight-point buck in the cameras many times, but we had no idea we have at least two bucks that size. And they wander the night together at least part of the time. These two hung out here for quite a while, sniffing the air, probably because this shallow piece of water is a favorite creek-crossing area for the does.

A black vulture surveys a favorite bathing spot.

A growing number of black vultures are spending a great deal of time along the creek, where they bathe in the shallows, then dry their great wings in the sun on the bare branches of still-standing trees killed by beaver-induced flooding. We now are capturing many daytime videos of these great birds bathing and arguing. It is fascinating to watch them wade into the shallow water, then dip their heads down into the water to push it up over their wings. 

A vulture just dipping its head beneath the water as it ruffles its feathers to moisten them. Note its many friends loitering around the “pool.”

We have had a couple of rare early morning sitings of river otters that we suspected are now living somewhere along the growing beaver-built wetland adjacent to our property. Our new cameras have now captured them several times. We know there are at least three of them that hang around together, and we’ve seen the area they head into at dawn, where we assume they have a den. But this past week, a camera caught the three of them emerging from the creek to forage on our property. I couldn’t get a clear still shot of all three, but I did get these two as they returned to the creek. One is just entering the water and the other is looking over its shoulder for their companion still lingering on the floodplain out of sight here. You should be able to click on these photos to see larger versions.

River otters enjoying a moonlit foraging expedition.

This final extracted still shot surprised us. We had no idea that Great Blue Herons hunted in the moonlight, even when the temperatures are quite chilly. What an extraordinary delight!

A Great Blue Heron hunting by moonlight.

I love the magical moonlight reflections of these creatures with whom we share our land, and for whom we continue to try to stabilize and enrich their habitat — an increasing necessity as more and more nearby forest is replaced by monotonous suburbs devoid of native biological diversity.

 

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Spider Season

Marbled Orb Weaver

I know it is truly autumn when I can’t walk more than a few steps in my yard without getting a face full of spider web. The eight-legged ones are everywhere. Females grow fatter daily, full of growing eggs. As the hunger of the females grows, so does the size of their webs. I managed to see this beauty before I walked into the web she was rebuilding. A shaft of early morning sunlight had caught her, accentuating her lovely colors. Marbled Orb Weavers are shy; they spend most of their time hiding in leaves at the edge of their webs, appearing only when a victim is ensnared. But every morning, they dismantle the web from the previous day and spin a fresh one. She was so intent on her weaving that I was able to photograph her.

Wolf spider with egg sac

This mother wolf spider was also on the move that morning. She was not interested in posing for photos, but I managed this shot. I listened to a great presentation on North Carolina spiders this week by Dr. Matt Bertone, an entomologist from North Carolina State University. Dr. Bertone’s enthusiasm for his subject was apparent, and I was touched by his gentle pleas — several times — to appreciate spiders, respect their work, and view them as the allies they are. “Spiders are very good mothers, ” he said. They defend their egg sacs and their new-born spiderlings with their lives. 

Green lynx spider with egg sac

I named this green lynx spider Lana, because she lives on a massive blooming lantana that grows beside my front door. I’ve been watching her and two other of her kind for two months. Rudi lived in the Rudbeckia lacianata, guarding her egg sac as Lana is doing above, until one day she and her eggs disappeared. Verna is still alive and well and guarding her egg sac in a Vernonia. Both Verna and Lana grow smaller daily. Dr. Bertone mentioned that they don’t eat after they produce their eggs, because they will not leave them unguarded for even a moment. It is a little hard for me to watch these once vibrantly green, plump spiders visibly shrinking in size, paler in color. Every day, I exhort Lana’s egg sac to open, hoping that if the spiderlings emerge, Lana might take time to eat. 

Writing spider

This writing spider also lives in the lantana by the door. It is a very large lantana, and there is plenty of room for these predators to share numerous pollinators attracted to its brightly colored abundant blooms. I have named this spider Agatha. I occasionally feed her a milkweed bug, if I find one sucking the life out of a ripening swamp milkweed pod. She allows me to sit beside her in the sun while I rattle on about writing (she is a writing spider after all), and life, and death. 

I find myself struggling these days to find words that adequately describe the roller coaster ride of emotions pulling at me. But when I start to flail, I step out my front door, take a seat beside the lantana where Agatha and Lana dwell, and practice breathing deeply. Agatha and Lana remind me to live in the moment, not the what-ifs, to live to ensure future lives by being a good mother to all my green children, to appreciate the beauty that surrounds me.

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Autumnal Observations

Autumn color of Katsura Tree.

Autumn is making itself undeniably known in my part of central North Carolina. Every day, I see more leaf color along with more discarded leaves on the ground, scattered among acorns, walnuts, and many other fruits. Humidity has dropped (barring occasional tropical storm remnants), skies are deep blue, and in my yard, the air is perfumed by the unmistakeable fragrance of golden leaves of a non-native tree I planted 25 years ago. The Katsura tree (Cercidiphyllum japonicum) became a must-have for me when I saw it in the display garden of a local plantsman. He waxed rhapsodically over the autumn leaf scent, comparing it to ripe strawberries in sunlight and cotton candy. He was not exaggerating. Wonder Spouse thinks the fragrance that wafts from the autumn leaves of this tree on north breezes resembles cotton candy. My nose finds the scent to be more fruity — a cross between strawberries and ripe apricots, perhaps with a hint of sweet apple. The golden orange leaves and their distinctive perfume have become our signal that autumn has arrived. But it is most certainly not the only sign.

Cornus kousa on the left and Cornus florida on the right, both heavy with autumn fruits.

Bird activity has picked up again. They were always around, of course, but now they are making more noise again. Red-bellied woodpeckers and blue jays make a constant ruckus as they gather characteristically small acorns of the massive southern red oak (Quercus falcata) that dominates the top of our hill. It appears to be a big year for acorn production; dropped acorns cover the ground beneath this giant.

Bright fruits of American beautyberry adorn its branches.

Fruit eaters from squirrels to Eastern bluebirds, mockingbirds, catbirds, and many other species are chowing down on dogwood and American beautyberry (Callicarpa americana) fruits. Our non-native Kousa dogwood (Cornus kousa) produced so much fruit this year that branches touched the ground until the fruits fell or were devoured.

Flocks of migrating robins clean off whole trees and bushes in a day or two. Migrating warblers are still passing through on their way to their winter hangouts, and finally this week, we’ve begun spotting rose-breasted grosbeaks at the feeders, refueling for their southward journeys.

The photo is blurry, but trust me, that’s a river otter peeking at me.

The plaintive calls of green-winged teals once again echo across the floodplain from the beaver-built pond where they spend their winters. Great blue herons are more visible as they stalk creek waters among browning vegetation. Besides the grosbeaks, the highlight of this week occurred this past Tuesday morning, when my garden helper, Beth, spotted two, perhaps three, river otters frolicking in the deeper part of the creek. She hollered for me to get my camera, but I only managed one blurry shot of one peeking at us from behind the safety of an ironwood (Carpinus caroliniana). Wonder Spouse has now aimed one of our wildlife cameras on that part of the creek in the hopes that it will photograph them more effectively than I could.

The green ash (Fraxinus pennsylvanica) forest that dominates our floodplain and which has become infested with deadly invasive non-native Emerald Ash Borers glows in the dim light of dawn and dusk as leaves turn a soft yellow before falling. Ash fruits still dangle in large clusters on the branches of female trees. Knock-on-wood — evidence of the imminent demise of these  ashes is not yet apparent. I am praying that the one experimental release of predatory wasps by experts from my state was successful beyond our wildest expectations.

With the departure of summer’s heat and humidity, I find myself tackling the infinite garden chore list as often as my joints permit. I’m collecting some of the abundant seed produced by native plants growing on our five acres so that I can share it with a friend who is attempting to re-establish native plants on a public greenway beside a local creek. The fall vegetable garden needs regular tending. I am happy to report that the broccoli crop is coming along nicely, along with myriad greens we will enjoy in winter salads. With Wonder Spouse’s help, the front water feature is drained, and plants in pots that live there all growing season have been cleaned up and relocated to their winter quarters inside the greenhouse.

Much remains to be done; the cooler air that continues to be delivered by frequent cold fronts reminds me constantly that many of the tasks remaining are time-sensitive. Fortunately for me, cooler air and the perfume from the Katsura tree’s leaves invigorate me body and soul as I race to complete as many tasks as possible before winter grips the landscape.

Follow me on iNaturalist

After being recently exiled from Facebook for the sin of using Piedmont Gardener as my name there (for many years), I have turned to an application I’ve been meaning to get to for some time — iNaturalist. If you aren’t using it and you love the natural world as I do, please check out this free application. You’ll find me there as piedmontgardener.

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A Week Beside Our Wetland

When Wonder Spouse and I moved to these five acres just over 31 years ago, about 1.5 acres were a floodplain. The area was dominated by a mature canopy of green ash trees; grasses and wildflowers grew beneath the trees. The creek that bordered our property was healthy, deeply incised, clear-flowing, full of crayfish, freshwater mussels, and fish. Intervals of years would pass without the creek overflowing onto the floodplain, which we mowed a few times during the growing season to minimize our chances of stepping on a snake. We planted native understory shrubs that should have been there: Spicebush, deciduous hollies, Virginia Sweetspire, Bladdernut, Beautyberry, Viburnum, and more. Growing in their ideal habitats, all flourished beneath the 70-foot ash forest.

A yearling saunters by at sunset.

Then the bulldozers came. Lots of bulldozers. The healthy second-growth forests that had surrounded us disappeared tract by tract as long-time landowners sold their family heritage to men eager to strip the land bare, replacing trees with subdivisions indistinguishable from each other. Silt deposits filled the creek — the consequences of sloppy construction techniques. Forests disappeared. Native wildlife that once had hundreds of acres to roam were squeezed into smaller and smaller patches of forest. One of the largest of those patches — probably the largest — is our land and the forest on the other side of the creek that, we hope, is too much of a wetland to attract the interest of the bulldozer clan.

Beavers that had lived a few miles from us along quieter streams were displaced by houses surrounded by fescue lawn deserts. They found refuge downstream from our land. A dam system longer than a football field has captured enough water to make a sizable, mostly shallow pond where Black Willows, sedges, and cattails dominate. The wetland raised the water level beneath our floodplain; its transformation to wetland is well underway. The ash trees doomed to death by the arrival of non-native, invasive Emerald Ash Borers will be replaced by rapidly expanding stands of Black Willow. Some of the shrubs we planted are hanging on; some couldn’t handle the rising water. Significant floods now happen somewhere between six and twelve times a year, depending on the hurricane season and cut-off low pressure systems like the one about to dump four or more inches of rain on us over the next two days.

A relatively minor winter flood event.

The floodplain is no longer flat. Multiple channels of flowing creek water now cover it. You must wear boots to wade across them if you want to walk to the end of the property. Massive silt deposits line the edges of the channels, sediment dropped by flood waters that lose speed as they leave the original creek channel. Topography and vegetation are nearly unrecognizable when compared to where we started three decades ago.

The dynamic nature of this area has been my great teacher. I have learned humility — no longer do I think I am the decider of what plant grows where. Nor do I know from one day to the next what plant or animal I might meet in this ever-growing wetland. The area definitely keeps me on my toes — safely dry within my muck boots, of course.

My strategy now is to plant as many well-adapted native plants as I can afford into this wetland area to increase species diversity and, I hope, to provide food and shelter for the ever-growing wildlife population sharing our land with us. We think our attempts are proving successful, if what we see captured on our wildlife cameras is any indication.

A hungry cottontail rabbit braves an area frequented by nocturnal-prowling predators.

We have two wildlife cameras strategically placed on our floodplain near the creek along an obvious wildlife path. The less expensive one we got first contains one camera that tries to take both day and night shots. Image quality is sub-optimal, which is why we invested in a more expensive model with two cameras — one for day shots, the other for nighttime photo captures. We download both cameras once a week to see what animals wandered by. Species numbers and diversity vary widely from week to week and month to month. Last week’s download produced a nice array of species, and included an action sequence of a fight between species. Another sequence prompted me to learn a new term — gang brood. Photos and explanations follow.

As you might guess, deer are frequently caught by the cameras, but they are definitely more active during some parts of the year. Bucks, for example, had not been seen much until this past week. My theory is they don’t like to show themselves until their new antlers make an appearance. Several showed up this week sporting velvet-covered antler nubs:

The does are extremely pregnant. We haven’t seen them on the cameras or in our yard much lately. We assume they are laying low while gestating. One of the does caught on the camera is very, very pregnant. I suspect she will — or may have by now — produced twin fawns.

And now for the fight. This is a first for our wildlife cameras — a tangle between a possum and a raccoon. These are nighttime shots and the animals were moving so there is motion-blur. The whole sequence occurred within one minute. We think perhaps the raccoon thought it might try possum for dinner, but the possum declined.

After the raccoon left, the possum lingered long enough to be sure the raccoon wasn’t returning, then disappeared into the tall grass — taking the opposite direction from that chosen by the raccoon:

The raccoon shows up in photos later in the week, but the possum does not. We suspect the possum simply decided to avoid the area.

The cameras caught four different bird species during daylight hours this week. The older camera caught a fuzzy shot of a black vulture. A group of them likes to hang around the creek and bathe in a shallow area. It’s not unusual to see crows caught occasionally by the cameras. They seem to be everywhere, perpetually curious. The camera catches shots of Red-shouldered Hawks fairly often. Wetlands are their habitat. This one was doing what we often see them doing — grabbing juicy earthworms from the fertile, wet floodplain soil.

Another bird species concludes this edition of Wetland Wildlife. Canada geese have been loudly present on the beaver pond since late winter. In past years, the pond was the nesting site of one pair of geese. As their goslings matured, the family would swim up the creek to an area near our backyard, then wander up the hill toward the greenhouse, nibbling vegetation as they strolled. We’ve been waiting for the cameras to capture this behavior, but were very surprised when last week’s footage revealed three adult Canada geese and goslings of two distinct ages, all hanging around together. That’s when I went online and learned about gang broods. Read about this behavior here in the section on behavior. It appears that some Canada geese parents band together with other parents and goslings, likely as a form of mutual protection from predators. This is just another example of what the growing wetland on our property is teaching us about the natural world.

In the Canada geese sequence that follows, you can see watchful parents scoping out the area before goslings appear. The final photo in this sequence was the last one of these birds on the camera. I am guessing that parents lost patience with offspring and rushed them off before the camera had another chance at a shot.

I predict that in the next few weeks the cameras will be capturing many photos of does with fawns frolicking around them. It also should soon be time for the wild turkeys to make an appearance. We’ve spotted the toms in an adjacent field by themselves. We know they separate from nesting hens to draw off predators. Last year after the chicks had grown a bit, a group of about a dozen hens, chicks, and toms were caught by the cameras on numerous occasions. Here’s hoping we get a repeat. Stay tuned…

 

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Birds and Blooms

A female Rose-breasted Grosbeak atop the feeder with a female Red-bellied Woodpecker enjoying the suet.

Wonder Spouse and I don’t live in a suburb. Thirty-one years ago, we found five acres on what was then a country road. Now that once-quiet road roars with traffic twenty-four hours a day. Dozens of new subdivisions connect to it; multiple schools were erected nearby; even a fire station is now staffed 24/7, so trucks and ambulances, sirens blaring, pass by at all hours.

Our five acres are a haven of peace amidst the ever-growing chaos, especially because a growing beaver-built wetland adjoins our land on two sides. Wildlife abounds because of the wetland, and because we’ve spent 31 years planting native trees, shrubs, grasses, and wildflowers well-adapted to our land. My brain explodes at the mere thought of trying to count every native species now living nearby or on our land, and that’s a good thing.

One of the ways I know our efforts to build suitable habitats have been successful is by the creatures that visit. Most species that nest in my region nest near or on our land. Waterfowl overwinter in growing numbers in the wetland, and migrating birds stop by in spring and fall to refuel before heading off to complete their journeys.

Male Rose-breasted Grosbeaks

This spring has been exceptional most notably for the prolonged visits of Rose-breasted Grosbeaks. Today makes the nineteenth day in a row that male and female birds of this species have visited our feeders and foraged in our trees and shrubs. These visitors are much more shy than the year-round birds that routinely scold me if I let their feeders go empty. I had been unable to get any photographs of them, so I asked Wonder Spouse to get out his long lens and tripod to capture these beautiful visitors. Yesterday, he set up his camera indoors in front of the window with the best view of the feeders. He got a number of decent shots, but unsatisfied, he eventually took his apparatus outdoors to try for shots unobstructed by a pane of glass. The grosbeaks did not visit the feeders in the same numbers or with the same frequency, but he did get some very nice photos I’m sharing in this post.

While he was outside, Wonder Spouse couldn’t resist photographing some of the abundant blooms currently open these days. I especially wanted him to shoot the Tangerine Beauty Crossvine (Bignonia capreolata ‘Tangerine Beauty’) growing on a sizable loblolly pine and blooming ten feet above my head where my camera couldn’t do it justice. He also couldn’t resist the abundant and colorful water-loving irises blooming on our increasingly wet floodplain. Most of them are Louisiana iris varieties; a few other water-loving types are also blooming happily in the muddy water. I’ve lost track of the variety names of the irises, but who cares? Their vibrant, colorful presence is all I need.

Tangerine Beauty Crossvine blooms

Without further explanation, here are some of the photos taken by Wonder Spouse yesterday. I think we can all agree that his many talents include strikingly beautiful photography. Remember you can click on any photo to see a larger version of it, and that doing so will reveal captions that identify most photos. Enjoy.

Birds Visiting Our Feeders

A Few Blooms

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Earth Day 2020: It’s Not Easy Being Green

Kermit the Frog’s well-known song about the travails of being green was about the sense of isolation that comes from being different from other folks. I think it applies equally well to the challenges facing the Green World. These challenges are delineated in detail in Douglas Tallamy’s latest book: Nature’s Best Hope: A New Approach to Conservation That Starts in Your Yard.

In his book, Tallamy’s frustration with humanity is frequently evident. The introduction and first four chapters provide a vast amount of research-based data on how and why Planet Earth’s ecosystems are in imminent peril. His conclusion is inescapable and direct: the actions of humanity are responsible for the destruction of the natural world upon which all life relies.

In the introduction, he categorizes people into three groups: animal-lovers, plant-lovers, and the utterly indifferent. The categories reflect his strategy for reaching each of the groups. For animal-lovers, he explains their critical dependence on plants. He shows plant-lovers why animals, especially insects, are essential to the survival of most flora. And for the indifferent, “the hardest group of all to engage,” he did his best, he says, “to explain why we will lose humans if we don’t preserve the plants and animals that keep our ecosystems healthy and sustaining.”

Dr. Tallamy’s solution to the ongoing demise of life on Planet Earth is a concept he calls Homegrown National Park:

“What if each American landowner made it a goal to convert half of his or her lawn to productive native plant communities? Even moderate success could collectively restore some semblance of ecosystem function to more than twenty million acres of what is now ecological wasteland.”

By restoring functioning native ecosystems to our landscapes, he says, we will be creating a far larger national park system than currently exists, where native animals and plants can flourish. And it is a park we will be able to visit whenever we like by simply stepping outside our homes and offices. It is a wonderful vision, reminding me a great deal of a notion I helped develop and continue to pitch for my region called Piedmont Patch.

Tallamy does not introduce his Homegrown National Park concept until chapter five. His opening chapters provide a brief history of earlier conservation efforts and begin to offer reams of data interspersed with explanations of underlying scientific ecological concepts as he proceeds to build his case according to the standard scientific writing approach. After chapter five, he offers four more chapters full of data-based factoids and solidly reasoned arguments on ways to rebuild carrying capacity and the impact of invasive, non-native species.

Here’s a factoid from chapter six: A massive scientific study called the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment was published in 2005 and concluded then that by the turn of the century (20 years ago), “we had destroyed 60 percent of the earth’s ability to support us.” That factoid should make anyone who loves their children and grandchildren swallow hard. Alas, it is buried in the middle of a chapter, as are many other staggering bits of information, where only a careful reader will ever see it.

Chapter seven is on invasive non-native plants; he calls them alien plants. As someone who has been sermonizing to anyone willing to listen about the negative impacts of these invaders for 25 or so years, I found this chapter helpful, because Tallamy succinctly dissects every point made by those who would have us believe that these invaders are no big deal, just Nature being Nature. Be assured, I will have his well-constructed arguments at the ready the next time someone tries to persuade me about the “benefits” of invasive non-native plants. Here’s just one of his very helpful explanations on this subject:

“Every time a native plant is removed from an ecosystem, or even diminished in abundance, populations of all of the animals that depend exclusively on that plant are also removed or diminished, as are the natural enemies of those species. In sum, then, at the local scale – the scale that counts ecologically – invasive plants typically decimate local species diversity, and claims to the contrary have not been supported by rigorous field studies” (emphasis mine).

It is not until chapter eight, Tallamy’s chapter on the critical need to restore insect species, that he finally offers a key piece of practical information on helping landowners restore native plants to their properties. He explains the concept of “keystone plants,” the species in a given ecosystem on which the greatest percentage of other ecosystem members rely. For example, when looking at which plants support the most caterpillars, the larval forms of moths and butterflies (Lepidoptera), he and his research assistant discovered that “wherever we looked, about 5 percent of the local plant genera hosted 70 to 75 percent of the local Lepidoptera species!”

Oak (Quercus spp.) is a Tallamy top keystone genus.

Tallamy therefore advises that it is essential to plant keystone species appropriate to your area when you decide to restore native plants to your property. His research assistant, Kimberley Shropshire, spent a year compiling a massive database that identifies which insect species rely on which plants. This database has been used by two different conservation organizations to develop free applications for the public to use when planning native restorations of their properties. Tallamy buries this important (to my mind, anyway) bit of information in the middle of chapter eight.

Willow (Salix spp.) like this blooming black willow, is another Tallamy keystone genus.

After you enter your zip code, these applications generate lists of native plants suitable for your area, and the lists are ordered, so that keystone species – the plants critical for supporting the most insect species – are listed first, encouraging you to include them in your design. A few pages later, Tallamy explains why this is critical to the successful creation of a functioning ecosystem on your property: “A landscape without keystone genera will support 70 to 75 percent fewer caterpillar species than a landscape with keystone genera, even though the keystone-less landscape may contain 95 percent of the native genera in the area.” In other words, you’ll be planting a pretty native landscape of no use to native birds and other wildlife if you omit keystone species from your design.

The two applications based on Shropshire’s research are:

In chapter ten, Tallamy explains why he thinks his concept, Homegrown National Park, will work. He suggests that reasoned arguments and education will turn the tide with HOAs, which is what I would expect a man of science like Dr. Tallamy to believe. He’s not entirely wrong. I know of a couple of local HOAs that have been slowly persuaded on the merits of native plant landscapes. Scientific arguments were part of the process, but much emotion-based persuasion was also involved. I believe financial arguments are also critical to persuading HOAs and landowners, and Tallamy ignores this aspect entirely. He also doesn’t mention the need to persuade the real estate and horticultural industries that native landscapes can still be money-makers for them.

In his final chapter, Tallamy gets around to explicitly listing ten steps landowners can take to make Homegrown National Park a reality. It is a short chapter, because, I imagine, he expects that readers have already digested the carefully laid out research and arguments in the previous 204 pages. They are solid, easy-to-implement steps. I hope and pray his notions take hold and sweep the nation.

Goldenrod (Solidago spp.) is an herbaceous keystone genus.

However, unless many of us who already have a decent grasp of ecology and native plants and animals make Tallamy’s book a jumping-off point for persuasion-based presentations of our own, I fear that the vast majority of Americans in his third category – the utterly indifferent – will not be moved to even read the book.

Aster (Symphyotrichum spp.) is another keystone genus.

Let me be clear. In my estimation, there is nothing wrong with the content of Tallamy’s book. His research and conclusions are rock-solid. But as a professional writer and editor of many decades, it is my opinion that this book would have benefitted greatly from a developmental edit that could have shaped its contents into a more persuasive and accessible form specifically targeted to his most challenging audience – the utterly indifferent plant-blind humans who don’t see or appreciate the natural world the way he does, the way I do, the way most of my blog followers do.

Yes, this book gives us Greenies more ammunition for our arguments with HOAs and neighbors; the Frequently Asked Questions section at the back of the book will be especially helpful with that. But will this book persuade the indifferent? I fear it is unlikely.

On this Earth Day and every day, it’s not easy being green, as any plant, hungry caterpillar, or ecologically aware human will tell you. Tallamy’s new book provides us with important information to share with those indifferent to Nature’s wonders. But in my estimation, on its own, it is not a book that will persuade those still blind to the natural world to join the green side. I very much hope I’m wrong.

Happy Earth Day to all!

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