Archive for category Native Wildlife
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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…
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.
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.
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
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!”
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.
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:
- Native Plant Finder, developed by the National Wildlife Federation, and
- Plants for Birds, developed by the Audubon Society
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.
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.
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.
I am a self-described crazy old plant lady. I am not ashamed of it. I’m not proud of it. It is simply who I am.
My connection to the Green World began when I was very small. That world has been my through-line, the ever-present song in my heart and story in my head that prevented me from tumbling down the dark well of despair more times than I can count or remember.
I am grateful beyond words for the privilege of being able to live on the same piece of land for over 30 years. This is my forever happy place. Years ago when I worked a desk job in an airless office building, I stayed sane by mentally walking around my yard, admiring a current bloomer, or reminding myself that the tomatoes would need picking when I got home. Every bit of effort I have expended on my land has been returned in beauty and story a million-fold.
I start most week days standing outside after Wonder Spouse drives off to his airless office. I listen and smell and watch for the current stories unfolding around me as an ever-increasing parade of vehicles zooms down our once-quiet country road. That traffic noise today was not enough to prevent me from hearing frogs chorusing in the adjacent wetland. Spring peeper songs have grown loud of late, thanks to absurdly warm nighttime and daytime temperatures. A small flock of cedar waxwings, their distinctive whistling calls revealing their presence in a large southern magnolia, flew off when I greeted them; their tight flock formations always remind me of schooling fish.
As I stood watching the waxwings, thousands upon thousands of seagulls that winter on a nearby reservoir flew overhead in ragged vee formations for over five minutes. They scavenge county dumps for food by day and shelter on the lake at night until their internal clocks tell them it is time to return to their coastal summer homes. Today, low clouds that will bring rain by noon – I can smell it in the air – caused the seagulls to fly low enough that I could actually hear them calling to each other, conjuring a memory of the smell and taste of the sea.
The pair of pileated woodpeckers nesting in a sycamore just on the other side of my creek called to each other loudly. They are mostly quiet these days, but when it is time to trade places on the nest, the returning parent calls to the other; the nesting parent replies immediately, sounding to my story-prone mind impatient to go off duty. Woodpecker species are early nesters. They, like the pair of barred owls calling to each other every late afternoon, are supposed to be in reproductive mode in late winter.
Red-shouldered hawks are also early-season nesters. I’ve lately spotted the pair that shares our land with us often sitting in a tall walnut beside my house, and today I was showed why. I stayed out so long watching seagulls and listening to frogs that they grew impatient with me. One flew right over my head calling, I think perhaps as a diversion, because shortly thereafter its mate flew soundlessly overhead beyond the walnut to a small group of towering loblolly pines, a long thin branch dangling from its sharp beak – nesting material! Not long after, the hawk that spoke to me also flew overhead. It stopped briefly in the walnut, I think to see if I was watching. When I pretended to be interested in something else, it joined its mate.
This location will be a tough one to observe – lots of camouflage to obscure their activities. But once over a decade ago, a pair nested just across the creek in a winter-bare sweet gum. Our elevated back deck gave us a perfect vantage point until the trees leafed out, and Wonder Spouse got some lovely photos of still-fuzzy nestlings as they began to move about and stretch their wings.
Strong, possibly dangerous storms are predicted for tomorrow, along with multiple inches of heavy rain. I thus decided to take advantage of this last bit of quiet before the storms to walk around the yard this morning with my camera. As is true for all of my region, many flowers are blooming weeks ahead of schedule. This early in February, a killing freeze is almost inevitable.
So today I walk, inhaling moisture-laden air perfumed by the fragrance of precocious flowers, grateful for my connection to this land and the time I have to appreciate it.
Winter cold finally arrived in my area about three days ago — highs in the upper 30s-low 40s, lows in the low 20s, and a wind chill that hurt skin accustomed to the weather of the previous four weeks, when nighttime temperatures rarely dropped into the upper 30s, and daytime temperatures stayed in the upper 60s and low 70s. During the 60+ years I’ve lived in North Carolina, an occasional winter warm weather interlude has not been unusual, but I can’t recall an entire month of such weather from mid-December to mid-January.
Such a prolonged warm spell caused many plants in my yard to break dormancy far earlier than normal — by at least six weeks. Many birds began displaying signs of territorial behavior as mating instincts awakened. Bluebirds burbled to each other as they discussed the merits of nesting box options. Insects were everywhere, as were the frogs, snakes, and lizards that eat them. It all felt very wrong.
The day before winter cold finally arrived here, I walked around the yard and took a few photos. Now that ice covers the abundant shallow water in channels on the floodplain, I suspect my late winter bloomers that opened four weeks early are probably now brown. I haven’t looked yet; that wind chill is mean. To remind myself of their loveliness, I include a few shots here, along with photos more typical of winter vegetation.
January jasmine (Jasminum nudiflorum) usually starts blooming in February, a few blooms at a time until March approaches. Many folks confuse them with forsythia, but a close examination makes the differences abundantly clear.
A native late winter bloomer, Hamamelis vernalis, is usually only showing a few petals by now. But the warmth caused the cultivar I grow to open more fully, scenting the air with a light, clean perfume that I always associate with spring cleaning.
An array of winter buds, remnant leaves, and bright moss lush from winter rains also caught my eye.
Late on the afternoon I took these shots, I was on my back deck when I noticed an insect on a window. I couldn’t believe my eyes when I realized it was a Green Lacewing adult, much smaller than the ones I routinely see in my garden during the growing season. It saddened me to know that this delicate-looking beneficial insect would certainly perish soon. If the freeze didn’t kill it, the absence of food certainly would.
The day dawned purple with just a crack of light at the horizon. I see this effect sometimes when rain clouds approach from the west just as the sun begins to push skyward in the east. Past experience has taught me that sometimes such sunrises are spectacular, so I grabbed my camera and stood in the mild air on my back deck to await developments. As I waited, a soft breeze from the west ruffled brown leaves still clinging to trees, killed before they could color by an early hard freeze.
As I had hoped, a hint of pink joined the purple and pale peach painting the backdrop behind trees. A few birds murmured softly, stirred to conversation by rising light.
The crack of light along the horizon widened, leading me to hope perhaps sun would win over promised rain showers. Before I saw it, I heard a deer splash across the creek, then gallop across the dim floodplain.
Brighter pinks began to signal the sun’s approach to the horizon.
Trees bared for winter glowed in firelight colors as the rising sun transformed midnight purples to pale lavenders.
Almost above the horizon, sky fire reflected in creek waters below. Red-winged blackbirds resumed their daily harvesting of tiny seeds from thousands of sweet gum balls dangling from a canopy giant. In dawn’s quiet, I could hear their quiet conversations amid the gentle pitter-patter of seeds landing on dry leaves below, where a flock of mourning doves waited to gobble blackbird-released sweet gum bounty.
About a half hour later, I walked out front for a moment. Bright sun dazzled my eyes as fast-approaching western clouds squeezed sunlight into rays spotlighting my quiet woodland. A flock of robins was back at work in a large southern magnolia, making sure they hadn’t missed any succulent scarlet fruits clinging from cones by silken threads.
High above, a flock of seagulls flew in ragged vee formation heading north on their daily commute. Mostly herring gulls, thousands winter well inland from the coast on a man-made lake a few miles to my southeast. The still-rising sun illuminated their bodies from below, transforming them into silent angels winging to their breakfast grounds — large shopping malls closer to nearby cities, where thoughtless humans litter parking lots with discarded purchases from food courts and restaurants.
Pileated woodpeckers began their morning calls amid vigorous drumming. White-throated sparrows whistled melancholy melodies.
As I stood enjoying songs and soft colors, gentle rain began falling even as the sun still fought for dominance. I heard drops rattling dry leaves before I felt them. Two breaths later, the sun lost its battle as rapidly moving rain clouds overran the eastern horizon.
The early bird may get the worm, but the early riser gains a sunrise saga beautiful beyond words and photos — and a reminder to savor the fleeting moments of constant change.
I know I’m not the only person out there who had a rough summer. Trials and hiccups aplenty came at me for many months. I could not wait for the autumnal equinox in September, thinking the season change would bring relief. Instead, it brought the worst drought experienced by my five acres in twenty or so years. Unrelenting heat and the absence of rain left the creek bordering our property completely dry, except for deeper pools, where great blue herons happily devoured fish trapped therein.
The contrast between this September and last year’s relentless hurricane rain flooding could not have been more stark. Climate change smacked me and my land hard two years running.
Substantial Damage to Our Protected North Slope
In June, the antique septic field associated with our 50-year-old house was replaced with a new one. The devastation to my deer-fence-enclosed north acre full of native rhododendrons, magnolias, viburnums, vacciniums, and shade-loving choice wildflowers threw me into a tailspin of depression. Wonder Spouse and I planted these beauties as tiny things – all we could afford – 20-30 years ago. As previous posts here can attest, they have flourished, blooming more wonderfully every year.
Even though we marked off our botanical treasures with flagging tape, even though Wonder Spouse took off two days of work to oversee the trenching, that once-beautiful area was significantly damaged after he returned to his office and I was away at an appointment. On top of that, we were forced to remove a mature water oak before the work began, because it had early signs of heart rot. We couldn’t risk having the tree topple and rip up the newly installed septic field.
That enclosed acre is on a slope, which is great for siting rhododendrons, but when earth is scraped, then compacted, erosion from rare-but-heavy rains quickly created myriad little gullies. Soil washed from hilltop to hill bottom, depositing more than an inch of silty mud. I am not ashamed to admit that I cried for two weeks, mourning the loss of trees and shrubs ripped away by machines, the much-missed shade of the venerable water oak, and the wildflowers obliterated by careless men oblivious to the vibrant beauty before them.
Eradication of Surrounding Forest by Bulldozers
Most of the areas near us that were forest thirty years ago have either already been erased and replaced with monotonous subdivisions, or that devastation is ongoing as I type. Every day, more displaced wildlife from those areas arrives on our land, as evidenced by what our wildlife camera beside the creek captures weekly. A considerable beaver population has been forced on top of the wetland adjacent to our property. Up to now, they had been content to maintain their growing pond on our neighbor’s land, but yet another new subdivision (housing prices starting in the mid-$600s!) has pushed them to expand their dam so that our bottomland is rapidly going under water.
Ongoing Radical Transformation of Our Two-Acre Floodplain/Wetland
That was the third strike against our floodplain this year. The first came in April when deadly Emerald Ash Borers were confirmed to be invading the 37 mature (70+ feet tall) green ash trees that dominate the canopy in that area. The second came in late summer when a plant I had never seen before that had spread over most of the floodplain finally bloomed and I was able to identify it as a non-native invasive plant from Asia that, I’m told, has already overgrown all the floodplains of the NC coast and is now moving rapidly into my Piedmont region. It is called Marsh Dayflower (Murdannia keisak), and it is a nightmare. I never thought I’d type this sentence, but Marsh Dayflower dominance makes me long for the days when Japanese stiltgrass (Microstegium vimineum) was my biggest problem. Strike three – the beavers – are actually using Marsh Dayflower to their advantage. They rip it up, mix it with mud, and pack it between the logs they cut down to build their dams, making the dams even more impervious to the force of moving water than before. This is a mutually beneficial relationship, because when stem segments of Marsh Dayflower are broken, as for example, when ripped up by beavers, every segment grows roots, thereby multiplying this invader even faster.
After two years of epic landscape destruction/alteration, any illusions I ever had about being able to control what happens on my land are entirely dispelled. I always understood that, at best, I was a design collaborator as I tried to work with the native ecosystems on our land. However, the last two years have convinced me that the native ecosystems are almost as ineffectual as I am at managing changes we were never designed to handle. Wholesale eradication of habitats by bulldozers in combination with a growing number of non-native invasive species of animals, plants, fungi, and bacteria and the overwhelming introduction of herbicides and pesticides killing wildlife by the millions if not billions, are completely disrupting the natural processes native ecosystems evolved to handle change. We can’t keep up. Species are dying at record rates. It is enough to make a lifelong gardener want to surrender – almost.
A month or so ago, I attended a lecture by a pair of enthusiastic master gardeners from an adjacent county. They described how they transformed their half-acre home lot into a flowering paradise, bragging that 50% of the plants they have added are native to the southeastern US. To justify planting 50% non-native plants, they quoted an “expert” gardener who states that “just because a plant is native, that does not make it better… Choose the right plant for the spot, no matter its origin.” In an exercise of enormous self-control, I did not argue with them. It was their talk, their intentions were good, and it was not the appropriate setting to object.
But I do object, and the last two years on my land are ample reason why. In North Carolina, master gardeners are trained by employees of land grant universities, mostly North Carolina State University. These are good folks with good intentions, but they serve the agriculture and horticulture businesses in the state. Their top goal is to help these businesses be successful. One way to do that is to help the horticulture industry sell plants. Pretty non-native ornamental plants not eaten by native wildlife because they don’t recognize them as food make a lot of money for the horticulture industry.
[NOTE: One of the finest agricultural extension agents I know has pointed out to me that when they work with home gardeners, their goal is only to make those home owners successful gardeners, not help the horticulture business sell plants, regardless of origin. I did not mean to imply otherwise; I think that may, however, often be an unintended consequence of not providing an ecological framework for gardeners. As I responded to her, when agents keep pushing old thinking (right plant for right place regardless of origin) about how to approach home landscapes, they are not helping to save native ecosystems. In my conversations with agents and master gardeners from other counties, it is clear that most don’t understand the role of native plants in ecosystems. They categorize natives as “thugs,” for example, if they multiply assertively, without understanding the ecological role of such plants in nature. In my opinion, such non-contextualized statements do more harm than good. ]
Fifty years ago, this may not have been a terrible thing. But oh how much our world has changed here in North Carolina in the last 50 years. Expanses of forests and fields that once provided buffers and havens for native wildlife and plants are nearly gone in much of the state. Wildlife species are disappearing. Pollinators are dying from poisons; the birds that eat them are also disappearing. Humans need those ecosystems to moderate air pollution, control erosion, pollinate and protect our crops, etc.
We also have hard data from scientists now that demonstrate that landscapes must contain 70% native plant species to adequately feed nests of baby songbirds. That’s seventy percent, not fifty.
This is not a Drill!
We need every patch of native plants we can introduce on public and private lands not covered by concrete and buildings. We no longer can afford the luxury of filling our landscapes with non-native plants that provide no ecosystem services. We can no longer indulge in 50-year-old thinking. This is not a drill, people. Native plants are our only hope of saving what’s left of our native ecosystems, especially the rapidly disappearing wildlife species.
Only a radical shift in the way we think about our public and private landscapes will serve the future now. It is past time to discard old thinking and focus on saving as much as we can. I pray every day it is not already too late. And I’m not just sitting at my computer wringing my hands in frustration. After my initial depression dissipated, I got busy. With the help of Wonder Spouse and my amazing garden helper, Beth, we have planted many new species and introduced existing natives to new sites opened up by the uninvited changes to our land. Our land had a tough summer and a hard fall, but I’m determined to do everything within my power to make next spring a much better season. I’ll describe some of what we’ve been doing in another post I hope to write soon.
In the meantime, if you care about the future of our planet, especially the rapidly urbanizing area of the southeastern US where I and most of my readers live, if you have children and/or grandchildren, I beg you to empty your brain of the old ways of tending your landscape and join me in the radical changes required to salvage as much as we can of our native ecosystems. It will be different, but more beautiful than ever. Most important, it just might help us all hold on to a healthy, balanced, vibrant world – a fitting legacy for those who follow us.
Wonder Spouse and I have been privileged to live on the same five acres of North Carolina Piedmont for 30 years. When I first saw the land covered in melting snow on a January day in 1989, I knew enough to recognize its potential. A diverse array of mature trees offered clues about soils and microclimates. In my mind’s eye, I could imagine the native species that should be present, and others that would do well if I added them.
Still, my little green haven exceeds my expectations nearly every time I walk it. Something — or someone — new is always appearing, and I believe it is because Wonder Spouse and I have deliberately chosen plants that have filled in some of the missing pieces of native ecosystems that I detected three decades ago. As a friend recently wrote to me, “If you plant it, they will come.”
When some birder friends of ours stopped by last fall and walked our land with us, they said they observed/heard about 60 bird species during the course of our walk. The high number is in part due to the growing beaver-built pond and wetland off our property on the other side of the creek. The raised water levels have attracted all manner of aquatic species of birds, mammals, reptiles, and amphibians. Many of those species occasionally wander over to our side of the creek to explore. I know this for a fact now, thanks to the critter camera that Wonder Spouse gifted me with this past January. We attached it to a tree and aimed it at a path along the creek, where we often see deer tracks. Thanks to the camera, we now know that many species besides deer routinely travel that path.
I realize that most folks aren’t lucky enough to live beside a healthy wetland, but even a quarter-acre lot possesses microclimates created by directional exposure and topographic variations. You can instantly serve more native wildlife guests by providing a small water feature, such as an ornamental pond. We have such a feature at our front entrance. Every year, frogs from the wetland find it, chorus lustily, then deposit gelatinous eggs that become tadpoles that eventually morph into new frogs. Amphibians are always on the lookout for such ponds, because they are usually protected from at least some of their predators, raising the odds of success for tadpoles to become frogs.
On this Earth Day 2019, I encourage all my plant-loving readers to revisit your landscape designs for additional opportunities to provide habitat for native wildlife. Rapid urbanization of the southeastern US Piedmont region is destroying many areas that once sheltered our wildlife. Ecological degradation caused by environmental pollution, invasive non-native species intrusion, and climate change-related weather shifts is causing dramatic reductions in our native wildlife from insects to birds to larger animals. Every human home landscape can make a critical difference to the continuing survival of our native wildlife.
You may not see quite the diversity of species my critter camera has captured on my five acres, but you will notice an uptick in beautiful songbirds if you plant native shrubs that provide food and cover and perhaps add a few nesting boxes and a bird bath or two. Those same shrubs will provide habitat for the caterpillars songbirds use to feed their nestlings. But they won’t eat them all, meaning you’ll see an uptick in butterflies and moths.
Your yard will come to life before your eyes. Your landscape will be vibrantly beautiful and healthy. And you will have the satisfaction of knowing you are doing your small but vital part to keep the blue-green jewel we call Mother Earth alive and healthy.