Posts Tagged Pileated Woodpecker

Late Winter Pluses and Minuses

Witchhazel 'Amethyst'

Witchhazel ‘Amethyst’

It’s been too long since I posted here. My apologies. Late winter in my corner of North Carolina has been a mostly soggy mess. And as I type this, yet more rain is pouring down upon my mushy landscape. I have been posting small items regularly on the Piedmont Gardener Facebook page; if you use that social media tool, you may want to check out the photos and announcements of relevant events that I post there.

They're baaack!

They’re back!

As I’ve noted on the PG Facebook page, beavers have once again moved into the wetland adjacent to my creek. They have built a dam downstream and off my property, which has raised the water level in the creek so that every rain event involving more than a half-inch is causing the creek to overflow in numerous places along my property, even cutting channels into what has been a stable, flat floodplain for over 25 years. It’s a real mess, and we’re not sure what, if anything, we can do about it.

Trunk of a Leyland Cypress

Trunk of a Leyland Cypress

The beavers are actively foraging all up and down the creek. In addition to harvesting a few saplings, they even “tasted” two of the Leyland Cypresses still standing beside the creek. To discourage them from returning, I sprayed the entire lower trunks of all the Leylands with a deer repellant spray in the hopes that it would make them taste bad enough for the beavers to ignore. So far <knock wood>, it’s working, but all this rain probably means I need to reapply the repellant.

pileated holes

The work of Pileated Woodpeckers.

But not all my landscape surprises are less than wonderful. Case in point: a pair of Pileated Woodpeckers appear to have chosen a sycamore just across the creek to raise this year’s brood. Until the forest leafs out, I can see this spot from my living room window and back deck. That’s a good thing, because when I try to walk near this tree, the woodpeckers make it clear that I am not the least bit welcome.

Red-shouldered hawk

Red-shouldered Hawk

Another pair of late-winter nesters has settled in, as usual, in the wetland forest — Red-shouldered Hawks. They often lurk in the trees near our backyard bird feeders, but I haven’t seen them catch any songbirds. Frogs,  salamanders, and earthworms, on the other hand, seem to be dietary staples. Wonder Spouse took that spectacular hawk photo two days ago when it decided to hunt from a tree in our backyard. He actually took the shot from inside our house. He is a wizard with his camera — and his post-processing software.

Salad season can't come soon enough!

Salad season can’t come soon enough!

When we’ve gotten a few back-to-back days of sunshine, we’ve been hard at work preparing the vegetable garden for another season. All my seeds have arrived, and last Wednesday (2-16), I sowed my first batch of greens in my germination chamber. The ones in the above photo germinated in two days! I’ll enumerate the spring garden veggie varieties I’m trying in a new post soon. All the lettuces germinated instantly, along with baby kale and radicchio. The spinaches and parsley are only just now showing signs of germinating, which is entirely normal. When they are all well up and moved out of the germination chamber, I’ll sow another batch of spring veggies.

Onion starts -- planted!

Onion starts — planted!

The two varieties of onion plants I ordered arrived mid-week, and I managed to get them all planted in their garden bed yesterday. I know they don’t look like much now, but if the voles will leave them alone, we have big hopes for these.

onions close

It’s always amazing how these stubby little onion starts that arrive with shriveled roots plump up in just a few weeks. I was delighted to get them planted the same week they arrived. Usually I’m not this organized and they wait a week or more. I’m hoping my efficiency will pay off in bigger bulbs. Stay tuned.

Cold-singed Magnolia stellata 'Royal Star'

Cold-singed Magnolia stellata ‘Royal Star’

We’ve had a few bouts of deep cold and some ice — mostly freezing rain — which damaged my Magnolia stellata ‘Royal Star’ flowers. They opened too early, thanks to the absurdly warm December we had here. Fortunately, not all the buds opened before the cold, so I’m able to enjoy a round of new blooms during our current milder spell of weather.

In addition to the witch hazel ‘Amethyst’ blooming well in the first photo of this post, my Cornus mas ‘Spring Glow’ trees are bursting with bright golden flowers. I’m hoping they will cross-pollinate each other this year and produce some of the red berries that give them their common name: Cornelian Cherry. I was thus heartened to see a pollinator on these flowers yesterday.

Of course, spring bulbs are well up. My crocuses were eaten by deer before I remembered to spray them with repellent. Snow drops and myriad daffodils are all loaded with buds and will soon be glowing in the landscape as it wakens from its winter slumber. Meanwhile, the lushest, greenest parts of my yard are the lichens, soft and fluffy from abundant rains.

Soon spring leaves will match the greens of the lichens.

Soon spring leaves will match the greens of the lichens.

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Sycamore Season

American Sycamore struts its stuff in the winter landscape.

American Sycamore struts its stuff in the winter landscape.

American Sycamore (Platanus occidentalis) is a beautiful tree in any season, but winter is its season to shine in our piedmont landscapes. You’ll find this native giant in moist environments — floodplains and rich bottomlands. But it doesn’t like prolonged wetness, so you won’t see it in swamps. Because it is resistant to pollution, you’ll see it planted along urban and suburban streets, but this is a mistake. More about that a bit later.

I count myself lucky, because my giant Sycamores grow beside the creek that borders the eastern edge of my property. Every year after the forest casts off its leaves, winter sunrises and sunsets bring out the best in these trees. As the sun tops the ridge to my east in the morning, first the white-branched tops of the Sycamores begin to gleam. As the sun climbs higher, its beams move down the white trunks, setting them aglow in the barren winter landscape. As the sun sets each evening, the process reverses. I watch sunbeams work their way up the trunk until only the tree tops are glowing. When a winter sunset turns the clouds red and orange, the Sycamore trunks reflect these colors. This slow-motion painting of the Sycamores is one of my favorite moments in my winter landscape every year.

Exfoliating bark on lower trunks.

Exfoliating bark on lower trunks.

If you’ve read my blog for a while, you know I’m a sucker for trees and shrubs with exfoliating bark. I think it adds a textural element while simultaneously increasing the color complexity of trunks and branches. No native forest giant exfoliates more dramatically than Sycamore. As trunks mature, they slough off chunks of gray-brown bark in large plates to reveal the smooth white inner bark, making older trees readily identifiable in the winter landscape from quite a distance.

The irregular branching structure of the canopy is also characteristic of this species.

The irregular branching structure of the canopy is also characteristic of this species.

This species is one of our larger native trees, regularly growing to heights of 75-100 feet. In Michael Dirr’s Manual of Woody Landscape Plants, he notes these trees can get as tall as 150 feet. Only Tulip Poplars are routinely taller in our native landscape.

Sycamores are also known for their unusually wide trunks that achieve diameters greater than any of our other native trees. The present-day champion Sycamore is about 11 feet in diameter, but earlier giants were almost 15 feet. These giant older trees are often hollow, and before the landscape became full of the man-made structures they’re named for, Chimney Swifts nested in these massive hollow trees. In my area, there’s a well-known tale about a family of early English colonists who made their home within the shelter of a giant hollow Sycamore until they finished building their log cabin.

Sycamore fall leaf color.

Sycamore fall leaf color.

Sycamore fall leaf color is not dramatic, but I like the mix of warm golds and soft browns. Sycamore leaves are often quite large; their veins are palmately arranged, meaning they resemble the way fingers extend from the palms of our hands.

Freshly discarded Sycamore leaves hold their color for about a week before turning darker brown.

Freshly discarded Sycamore leaves hold their color for about a week before turning darker brown.

The numerous fruits look like Sweet Gum balls from a distance, but a closer look reveals they are not spiky, but soft. The seed balls usually hang on the trees until the end of the year. Some time in late winter after a number of rounds of freezing and thawing, a soft wind will tickle the fruits to release their seeds into the air. In my yard, I’ve noticed that all my Sycamores tend to release their seeds simultaneously. I’ll look out at my winter landscape and briefly think it’s snowing while millions of fluffy Sycamore seeds float in clouds through the landscape. The seeds are arranged around a hard small woody center that was used to make buttons by early colonists. One of the other common names for Sycamore is Buttonwood for this reason.

A discarded Sycamore leaf. They are thicker than many leaves, usually persisting intact through much of the winter.

A discarded Sycamore leaf. They are thicker than many leaves, usually persisting intact through much of the winter.

My research tells me that Sycamore wood’s interlocking fibers make it hard to split, so it was used in earlier times for handles, boxes, and other such items. Now the wood is mostly used for veneer, particle board, and pulp.

Michael Dirr advises us to enjoy Sycamores if they occur naturally in our landscape, but not to plant them along urban streets. Stressed trees are prone to fungal diseases, and even healthy trees constantly shed branches (hence the lovely long white trunks) — and those enormous leaves in autumn.

Another source tells me that Sycamore sap makes a pleasant drink, and can be boiled down into a syrup. However, the sugar content of Sycamore sap is much lower than it is in, say, a Sugar Maple, so harvesting it for syrup is not practical.

On my floodplain, the large Sycamores have many hollow spots where branches have naturally fallen off. I’ve noticed that woodpeckers make frequent uses of these spots for nesting sites. Several such Sycamore hollows have been “remodeled” by Pileated Woodpeckers. Their dark rectangular nesting holes are easy to spot in the white branches of a winter-bare Sycamore.

If you’ve got a spot in your landscape for this magnificent native tree, do give it a try. If you’re lucky enough to already have it occurring in your yard, be sure to appreciate its aesthetic qualities this winter. And keep an eye out for wildlife occupants. Humans are not the only animals who appreciate Sycamore’s many attributes.

The last autumn leaves were still clinging to my Sycamores only a week ago.

The last autumn leaves were still clinging to my Sycamores only a week ago.

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Transitions

Signs multiply daily. Reddening leaves:

Cornus florida

Cornus florida

Virginia Creeper vine

Virginia Creeper vine

Fruits swelling.

Big-leaf Magnolia cone

Bigleaf Magnolia cone

Carmen Bull's Horn Italian Peppers and some yellow Italian heirlooms

Carmen Bull’s Horn Italian Peppers and some yellow Italian heirlooms

Cornus kousa fruits will redden soon.

Cornus kousa fruits will redden soon.

Halesia diptera fruits dangle from every branch.

Halesia diptera fruits dangle from every branch.

I first heard about it from the flock of American Robins that blew in about three weeks ago. As they stripped purple Pokeweed berries from magenta stems and gobbled elderberries, branches bent from their weight, they muttered among themselves: “Autumn’s on its way.”

Pokeweed berries

Pokeweed berries

Raucous cries of Pileated Woodpeckers echo through the forest as they argue with greedy robins and complain about magnolia cones ripening too slowly. A few mornings ago just after sunrise, three of these crow-sized woodpeckers called and flew in circles over my head for a minute or so. Two were chasing a third, making it clear that the interloper was not welcome.

Umbrella Magnolia cone

Umbrella Magnolia cone

Southern Magnolia cone

Southern Magnolia cone

Ash Magnolia cone

Ashe Magnolia cone

And today, as Wonder Spouse and I walked beside the creek, we startled Wild Turkeys on the other side. They squawked once, then ran silently to the blackberry thicket, where they disappeared amid its prickly greenness.

We were down by the creek so that Wonder Spouse could photograph this beauty for me:

Franklinia alatamaha

Franklinia alatamaha

Our wonderfully wet, mild summer made our two Franklin Trees very happy. Both grew several feet higher, and the mature specimen produced more flower buds than I have ever seen before. Spent snowy blossoms littered the ground beneath it, still faintly emitting their gentle rose-like scent. I held down the branch, so that Wonder Spouse could take the shot. You can see its close kinship to camellias by the form of its breath-taking bloom. The leaves of our smaller tree are already sporting garnet hues. But the flower-producing tree remains green-leaved.

Every time I think the record numbers of swallowtail butterflies are waning, another wave of fresh-winged beauties descends on every bloom in the yard. The Chinese Abelia still plays host to dozens, even though its sweet white flower clusters are beginning to diminish, but that’s OK, because the Seven-Son Flower Tree is in full, fragrant bloom, attracting every pollinator in the neighborhood, from butterflies to bumblebees, mason bees, and hawk moths. I cannot use my front walk without getting bumped into by a floating winged beauty.

An Eastern Tiger Swallowtail enjoys the Seven Sons Tree.

An Eastern Tiger Swallowtail enjoys the Seven Sons Flower Tree.

The abundance of butterflies has been a bonanza for predators as well. Myriad dragonflies pick off the lazy flutterers in mid-air, scattering severed wings of gold and black along the walk.

And the most certain early sign of autumn abounds: spider webs. As fast as I knock one down walking anywhere in my yard, the industrious weavers rebuild. A particularly clever female Writing Spider has declared her domain over the water feature in our front garden. The abundant blooming spires of Cardinal Flowers are irresistible to butterflies, and this fattening weaver is taking full advantage of that fact, even bending the top of one spire to anchor her web.

The direction of the bend points to the fat weaver's sticky trap.

The direction of the bend points to the fat weaver’s sticky trap.

Yesterday, I saw her trap and devour at least two large butterflies. Today, she seems to have doubled in size.

Female Writing Spider awaits her next victim.

Female Writing Spider awaits her next victim.

Perhaps in response to her rapid growth, today a male Writing Spider has built a modest web adjacent to this queen, even using a corner of her web as an anchor. Much smaller than the female he lusts for, he will wait for just the right moment to woo her. It won’t be long, I predict. Usually the females deposit their egg sacs in thick, winter-proof webs well before the leaves begin to fall in earnest.

Male Writing Spider. Note the smaller zigzag woven into his web. That's mist from the water feature on the right side of the photo.

Male Writing Spider. Note the smaller zigzag woven into his web. That’s mist from the water feature on the right side of the photo.

Cricket songs now rule nights and mornings, replacing the steady thrum of summer cicadas. Occasional cold fronts rush in behind lines of thunderstorms, freshening our air for a day or two before summer reasserts itself, cloaked in humidity.

Autumn will dominate soon enough, that we know for sure. For now, we can revel in the transitions, as plants and animals shift from growth to fruit to sleep.

It’s a transitional time of year for many people too. Schools start, and birthdays occur in bunches, as those born under the sign of Virgo celebrate another dance around the sun. I send best birthday wishes to all my Virgo kin and friends, and most especially to my favorite nephew, AJR, who celebrates what many consider a milestone moment tomorrow. Happy Birthday, sir. May your journey lead you everywhere you want to go.

Happy Birthday, Virgos!

Happy Birthday, Virgos!

 

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Love’s Labors Lost … and Won

The price of excess enthusiasm

On this day that has come to serve as an acknowledgement of love, I thought I’d share a few pictures that illustrate how the amorous intentions of flora and fauna in my Piedmont, NC yard are faring this year. You may recall the precocious flowers of my Royal Star Magnolia that I documented here.

As you can see from the photo at the top of this entry, the groundhogs got their revenge yesterday just before sunrise, when the temperature on my hill registered 15.7 degrees Fahrenheit. That’s plenty cold enough to zap delicate white petals floating twenty feet in the air. I count that as a love labor lost; those flowers won’t be getting pollinated. However, fat fuzz-covered buds still abound on this tree, so perhaps love — in the form of new blooms — will win, as warm air returns to my area today.

The blooms of plants close to the ground, such as daffodils and crocuses, were unimpressed by Nature’s latest little cold joke. My Lenten Roses, though completely neglected by me so far this year, are cranking out flowers in profusion:

Hellebore love laughs at cold weather

The Hamamelis x intermedia ‘Aurora’ that I planted last November is showing off just a few lovely orange-and-yellow strappy petals. I can testify that they are as deliciously fragrant as advertised, and quite impervious to cold snaps.

Hamamelis x intermedia ‘Aurora’

Many of the birds that live in and around my yard are talking about love these days. The Barred Owls proclaimed their territory and ardor a month ago. I suspect they are nesting now, because I don’t hear them much these days; birds tend to be much quieter when they are nesting.

Likewise, two weeks ago, a female Wood Duck paddling on the creek adjacent to my yard was shrieking in annoyance every time I accidentally got too close. Now she has gone silent. Did our absurd winter warmth coax her into early nesting?

Also two weeks ago, I watched a pair of Red-Shouldered Hawks build a nest in a tall pine near the end of my floodplain. Two years ago, a pair successfully raised four chicks to adulthood, nesting in a Sweet Gum that we could see from our window. Wonder Spouse took some excellent photos of this family, including this shot of Mother Hawk with her brood:

Mother Hawk and brood

Last year, a pair of hawks refurbished the same nest, but we are fairly certain they did not succeed in bringing new life into adulthood. We watched the pair take turns sitting on eggs for about three weeks, then all activity stopped — love’s labors lost.

This year, we are hoping that the pair nesting in the pine will have better luck. I’ve read that Red-Shouldered Hawks mate for life, but they don’t live long, averaging only a little over two years most of the time. I don’t know if we’ve been watching the same hawks every year, or if perhaps the hawks on the pine nest are new to our yard. They may be offspring of the successful nest of 2010, because I watched the female borrow sticks from the old Sweet Gum nest, relocating them to the Loblolly Pine nest. Would offspring be more likely to notice and use their birth nest than an unrelated hawk? I don’t know.

Shortly after nest-building in the pine stopped, I tiptoed down there and tried to photograph the nest. It’s about 35 feet up, securely lodged between sturdy branches, with plenty of needle-covered branches above it to shelter the nest from weather and sun. It’s not a great shot, but this is the best I could do:

New Red-Shouldered Hawk nest

Woodpecker drumming started up a few weeks ago too, and I’ve spotted several newly excavated holes near the tops of dead trees on the other side of my creek. At least one hole is the rectangular shape characteristic of Pileated Woodpeckers, which we hear and see regularly. The woodpeckers and nuthatches have been devouring huge quantities of suet from our feeders lately. If they aren’t yet actively nesting, I’m thinking they are just about to.

The male goldfinches have not yet started to brighten their plumage to summer sunshine standards, and mixed winter flocks of chickadees, titmice, and warblers still actively forage in our yard. We’re in moderate drought here, so the bird baths that I keep stocked with clean, fresh water are very popular.

A Tufted Titmouse stops by its favorite watering hole

At least once a day, a pair of Eastern Bluebirds that has been noisily inspecting nest box options for several weeks stop by to bathe, splashing out two-thirds of the water in the process. The pair that nests in the Purple Martin house every year always raises two broods — love’s labors won twiceover!

If a love lesson can be drawn from observing the plants and animals in my Piedmont yard, I’d say it is that persistence pays. Love is hard work, but successful labors of love yield lasting beauty in the comfort of family. That’s a Valentine’s Day sentiment I think we can all endorse. Happy Valentine’s Day, Wonder Spouse — and to everyone else out there laboring for love.

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Cherry Jubilee

Black Cherry Flowers Just Beginning to Open

About four days ago, the big Black Cherry (Prunus serotina)  in my yard began opening the first of its many flowers. It was a cloudless, perfect spring day, and looking up at the branches of this two-trunked 60-foot high denizen of our upper floodplain, I saw that another cherry celebration was commencing.

Three native trees growing in my southeastern Piedmont yard consistently attract the biggest bird feeding frenzies when their fruits ripen: Dogwood, Southern Magnolia, and Black Cherry. In all but late killing freeze years, fruit set on these species is consistently excellent — the local pollinators love their flowers as much as the birds covet their fruits.

Today before the clouds and winds intensified, I ran out and snapped a shot to document the progress of the Black Cherry’s flowers. They are more than halfway done, judging by this shot:

Black Cherry Flowers

Note the attractive bark of the trunk behind the dangling branches full of flowers. If you click on these photos, you’ll be able to see the arrangement of the flower clusters. Botanists call this multi-flower cluster form a raceme. Individual flowers are arranged along a central rib. After pollination, the individual black cherries (botanically, drupes) develop from those flowers, creating long clusters of small fruits that begin green, and eventually ripen to red, then a deep purple-black.

When the fruits are fully ripe, the entertainment portion of the program begins. By far the funniest birds to watch are the Pileated Woodpeckers. These crow-sized woodpeckers (our largest) display impressive acrobatic skills as they dangle from thin branches to devour large beak-fulls of what must be very tasty fruits.

But the Pileated Woodpeckers don’t have the tree to themselves. Every other woodpecker, warbler, bluebird, robin, and other fruit-lover all compete for the black cherries.

My references tell me that Black Cherry fruits taste bitter to human mouths, but they supposedly can be made into a tasty wine. I can’t imagine how anyone ever figured this out, unless they lived in a forest bereft of birds. By summer’s end on my tree, all that’s left of the fruits are a few that dropped to the ground during the feeding frenzy — and those are the object of avid insect attention.

You may know that the wood of Black Cherry trees is highly valued by the furniture industry; it’s more valuable commercially in the northern part of its range. Here in the southern Piedmont, you’ll find many small trees growing along roadsides and fencerows (birds land and deposit seeds in such spots). In our region, most of the big trees grow in moist hardwood forests; that’s where my big one lives. But large specimens can also occasionally be found in uplands.

At least one cultivar — ‘Spring Sparkle’ — features aesthetic growth habits more suitable to home landscapes. If you ask me, even the plain old species — when sited favorably — is well worth the space it occupies — for the mouths it feeds — and the entertainment it provides.

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Love among the trees

Valentine’s Day may still be a few weeks away, but don’t tell that to the birds in my yard. Already, the early nesters are wooing mates and preparing nesting sites. Woodpecker drumming is punctuated by the raucous calls of Pileated Woodpeckers. These crow-sized beauties prefer larger stretches of fairly mature contiguous forest, so I worried when the adjacent woods were logged. But in that strip of alluvial forest left by the loggers, these big woodpeckers have hollowed out a new rectangular nesting cavity in the top of an old maple that lost its top branches to a storm some time ago.

Practically adjacent to the woodpecker’s new abode is the mass of sticks that comprised the nest of a pair of Red-Shouldered Hawks last year. We watched them build that nest lodged in the crook of a tall sweet gum just across the creek; they raised four chicks to maturity. The hawks built the nest so that we had a largely unobstructed view from our window.

We focused our spotting scope on the nest and watched the family’s progress — although that became increasingly difficult as the trees leafed out. Ace photographer Wonder Spouse documented the family’s progress with his camera; a photo of the mother with two of her brood appears at the end of this entry.

I’ve read that hawks often re-use the same nesting site, so we’re keeping our fingers crossed that the pair we now hear calling to each other will allow us to watch them raise another brood. Before last year, they re-used a nest in an old pine several seasons, so our hope isn’t unrealistic.

The territorial urge is definitely rising in many of our avian neighbors. When we walk on the floodplain, the hawks vocalize their objections to our presence, and the cardinals (I conservatively estimate at least a dozen pairs live nearby) are chasing others of their gender away from bird baths, and sitting in tree tops bragging about how pretty they are.

I can think of no better argument for planting trees in a piedmont garden than to provide cover and nesting sites for the feathered beauties that fill the air with song — and eat thousands upon thousands of insects that would otherwise plague our gardens and backyards.

Red-Shouldered Hawk with two of her chicks

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