Posts Tagged Ruby-Throated Hummingbird

Interlude

About now most late summers I am moaning about the dog days. Anyone who has lived in my region for long knows exactly what I’m talking about. High temperatures, higher humidities, stagnant air so thick you need scuba gear to get from your air-conditioned house to your air-conditioned car. But not this year. At least not in my part of North Carolina.

Currently in full bloom in my yard, the Plumleaf Azalea is a hummingbird magnet.

Currently in full bloom in my yard, the Plumleaf Azalea is a hummingbird magnet.

We’ve had a few hot spells — afternoons when only the jewel-colored dragonflies move with alacrity. But as soon as we are well hunkered down to endure the swelters, a Canadian air mass comes swooshing down, bringing us unusually low high temperatures and several days in a row of steady, off-and-on rain. As I squish around my yard during non-rainy moments, I wonder if this is what it’s like to live in the Pacific Northwest.

Eager mushrooms are popping up everywhere.

Eager mushrooms are popping up everywhere.

Of course, this interlude from our typical late summer weather has a price — fungus. I don’t begrudge the toadstools sprouting everywhere. They usually wait until late September/October to appear, but this is their kind of weather.

The fungus I’m not so fond of afflicts my vegetable garden. The zucchinis have all surrendered to a combination of fungus and squash vine borer attacks. The tomatoes are losing their lower branches to fungus. Fruits are growing ugly black spots. Unless we get a dry heat wave, they won’t hang on much longer. The biggest surprise are the beans. Both Fortex (pole) and Jade (bush) are still astonishingly productive. The cosmos flowers are on the verge of surrender. But the Berry Basket zinnias party on.

Berry Basket Zinnias

Berry Basket Zinnias

Plants and animals proceed with their life cycles as best they can, obeying the calendar more than the weather. Seed production is in full evidence.

Milkweed pods opening to disperse their contents.

Milkweed pods opening to disperse their contents.

Our two months of unusually dry weather reduced seed cone production among my deciduous magnolias, but they still sport some reddening cones.

Umbrella Magnolia cone with friend

Umbrella Magnolia cone with friend

Late-summer wildflowers are starting to show off in earnest. Early goldenrods brighten the edges of woodlands, and Monkey Flowers adorn the floodplain.

Goldenrods are just beginning to glow.

Goldenrods are just beginning to glow.

Some flowers are fruiting and flowering together, like my native coral honeysuckle variety, ‘Major Wheeler.’ The berries are actually brighter red than the flowers.

Lonicera sempervirens 'Major Wheeler'

Lonicera sempervirens ‘Major Wheeler’

The tadpoles metamorphosing in our little front water feature decided last weekend’s prolonged damp, cool weather was ideal for emergence to full-time air-breathing status. Monday morning, we spotted about a dozen froglets nestled on plants adjacent to the water, most sporting bits of tadpole tail not yet fully resorbed.

Probably a Copes Gray Tree froglet

Probably a Copes Gray Tree froglet

The Copes Gray Tree Frogs laid their eggs in late spring. But the ensuing dry spell deprived us of their nightly serenades — a lullaby I enjoy most summers. But with the return of rain, they are back, at least on warmer nights. Perhaps the crop of newly hatched tadpoles helped to encourage the large ones to leave their birth pond.

Some of the froglets were green, some bronze, but my camera couldn't do them justice.

Some of the froglets were green, some bronze, but my camera couldn’t do them justice.

Plants and animals seem to be using these interludes to gather themselves toward the push to autumn. The froglets meditated on their leafy perches for about two days before disappearing deeper into the vegetation when the sun returned.

The Ruby-throated Hummingbirds used the rainy interludes to chug down as much sugar water from my feeder as they could.

Only males have ruby throats. Juveniles and females have white throats.

Only males have ruby throats. Juveniles and females have white throats.

The flowers they prefer to dine on were mostly closed for business during the cool rains. All the newly fledged birds from this year and their parents crowd the feeder from dawn to full darkness. I count six to eight birds jockeying for feeding slots all day long.

They rarely sit still together.

They rarely sit still together.

Male birds are especially intent on fattening up. They’ll be the first to head south to their tropical winter nesting sites, so they can claim the best territories before the females return. I usually notice they are gone by mid-September. The last stragglers generally stop visiting my feeder in early October.

Peaceful interludes rarely last long.

Peaceful interludes rarely last long.

All the natives — hummingbirds, froglets, praying mantises, writing spiders, magnolias, milkweeds, dogwoods — feel the summer slipping ever more quickly past. Whether we see more rainy interludes or swelter through late summer, they know time grows short.

Now is the time to hunker down and finish summer projects, plan fall gardens, and anticipate winter seed catalog dreaming sessions nestled by a crackling fire with a hot cup of cocoa.

Like the natural world surrounding me, I am using these unusual rainy, cool interludes to rest and recharge, knowing that every time the sun returns, weed explosions will add to my nearly infinite gardening to-do list.

A carpenter bee dozes on a Queen Sophia marigold as it waits for the sun to return.

A carpenter bee dozes on a Queen Sophia marigold as it waits for the sun to return.

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Ephemeral Explosions

Bloodroot army on the move

Bloodroot army on the move

They are here — the spring ephemerals — our native spring wildflowers that pop out of the forest floor, bloom, set fruit, then vanish as the forest canopy leafs out above them.

Judging by the features of my landscape and the natives that were still on it when I moved in, I suspect that most of the really lovely native ephemerals once thrived on my land — trout lilies, hepaticas, spring beauties. Two species persist. Actually, they thrive. Consider the impressive spread of bloodroots in the above photo. That’s just a small subsection of the hill overlooking my creek that they cover annually.

They brighten this neglected bit of landscape every spring.

They brighten this neglected bit of landscape every spring.

In the 25 years I’ve lived here, I would estimate that my bloodroot population has quadrupled in size, with no help from me, I might add. I’ve always wanted to clean up this boulder-covered slope, remove all the invasive plants, add some additional wildflower species. But, so far, I haven’t managed to do so. Luckily for me, the bloodroots don’t seem to mind that I’ve neglected them. I am treated to their glorious, pure white, many-petaled flowers for a week or two every spring.

The flowers fully opened about an hour later when the sun grew stronger.

The flowers fully opened about an hour later when the sun grew stronger.

Looking up at them from the bottom of the hill this morning, I could easily imagine them as an invading army of fairies, the still unfurled leaves as shields protecting the flower warriors.

No corner of the hill escapes the ephemeral invasion.

No corner of the hill escapes the ephemeral invasion.

And the best news, of course, is that these wildflowers are so poisonous that the deer never even nibble on them. Native Americans used the red roots for dyes and as medicines, but I never touch them without gloved hands. I did move a few of these to my deer-fence-enclosed north slope two years ago. They have adapted well, expanding their numbers. As you can see in the photo below, I actually take care of this group, weeding and mulching the patch every year.

Pampered bloodroots.

Pampered bloodroots.

Down on the floodplain, another horde of spring ephemerals rules — mayapples.

Mayapples on the march!

Mayapples on the march!

While bloodroots occur naturally on rocky, cool slopes, mayapples are inhabitants of wetlands. They welcome intermittent floods, spreading their two-leaved umbrellas in wide swaths in wetlands not overtaken by invasive exotic plant species that outcompete these petite beauties.

The first year we moved to this five-acre patch of piedmont landscape, I spied a large group of mayapples thriving on the other side of the creek that serves as the eastern boundary of our property. No mayapples lived on my land, probably because the previous owner seemed to have treated the floodplain as pasture.

I love the variegation on their leaves.

I love the variegation on their leaves.

So I liberated a few of these beauties and planted them on the upper reaches of our south-facing active floodplain. They only get submerged during major floods, but the mucky soil remains moist most of the year. I think perhaps they like it there.

The closer you approach, the lovelier they appear.

The closer you approach, the lovelier they appear.

I imagine my large patch of miniature umbrellas as a fairy recreation area. It looks ideal for fairy picnics, or perhaps a nice nap beneath the shade of these sturdy leaves. Eventually, a single white flower will appear in the notch between the two leaves. But not just yet.

The leaves are surprisingly thick between two fingers, and very smooth.

The leaves are surprisingly thick between two fingers, and very smooth.

The single flowers produce a little green fruit that someone decided looked apple-like. I’ve read that one can make a tart jam from the fruits, and that they are a favorite meal of turtles. But this is the only part of a mayapple that is not poisonous. Like the bloodroots on the hill, mayapples multiply unimpeded because the deer do not eat them. One year sometime back, a deer did eat about half of my patch. I always wondered if it staggered off somewhere and died, because no one came back to finish the rest, and they haven’t been nibbled on since.

Both bloodroots and mayapples are good reminders that beauty can be deadly. By all means, seek out and admire these spring ephemeral wildflowers during their brief moments in the sun. But don’t touch, and never nibble. They thrive because these hordes are well-armed indeed.

Hummingbird Alert!

Hummingbird Alert!

This is a note to my fellow southeastern piedmont dwellers. If you feed the Ruby-throated Hummingbirds, please put out your feeders now. As my Red Buckeye demonstrates above, the native flowers the early-arriving males depend on are two weeks behind schedule. Nevertheless, the hummingbirds are arriving at their usual time — now! Until the flowers catch up, these winged jewels of our summer skies need our help. Thanks!

 

 

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Aerial acrobats in the garden

Swallowtail butterflies mobbing the Joe Pye Weed.

Swallowtail butterflies mobbing the Joe Pye Weed.

Record amounts of rainfall this growing season continue to create ripple effects throughout my landscape and gardens. For the first time I can remember, I harvested two zucchinis today. Normally by this point in the summer, heat, drought, and insect pests have exterminated my squash crop. Not this year. Zucchini spice bread, anyone?

Likewise, the Fortex pole beans seem to be ramping up for another surge in bean production. The vines have already climbed their six-foot trellis, grown down the other side, and now I’m trying to persuade them to climb back up again.

Tomatoes? Oh yes, we’ve got tomatoes. The plants are fighting fungal diseases, but the fruits are coming in bigtime. Ornamental flowers, which have often surrendered to the heat by now, continue to bloom with abandon. I’ve got sunflowers, zinnias, nasturtiums, and cosmos among the annuals. Perennials like black-eyed Susans, coneflowers, salvias, verbenas, daylilies, and now cardinal flowers have never been happier.

A Spicebush Swallowtail enjoys the ever-blooming Verbena 'Homestead Purple.'

A Spicebush Swallowtail enjoys the ever-blooming Verbena ‘Homestead Purple.’

The rain has also produced a bumper crop of biting flies, gnats, and mosquitoes, among the aerial pests. But that’s not all bad, because the record abundance of flying insects has also brought record numbers of predators to prey on them. Insect eaters like Eastern Bluebirds, Blue-gray Gnatcatchers, Carolina Wrens, and Eastern Phoebes patrol the skies from dawn to dusk. Numerous bats take care of night patrol. And during the heat of the day, when the birds relax in the shade, the sky dragons take over.

A Sky Dragon pauses briefly before resuming its hunt for flying food.

A Sky Dragon pauses briefly before resuming its hunt for flying food.

I have not yet spent the time needed to learn the names of our local dragonflies, but I can tell you our landscape is blessed by quite a number of species, some small, some as large as the hummingbirds with whom they share the sky. Wonder Spouse was so struck by the diversity of dragonflies in our yard last weekend that he spent some time capturing them with his camera. In fact, all the photos in this post were taken by Wonder Spouse.

The butterflies thrust themselves deeply into the throats of the flowers of our Autumn Daffodil daylilies.

The butterflies thrust themselves deeply into the throats of the flowers of our Autumn Daffodil daylilies. See its tongue curling above its head?

Dragonflies are efficient hunters, and yes, they do grab and devour an occasional butterfly on the wing. But they glitter like jewels; their wings appear to be made from delicate lace, yet are strong enough for aerial maneuvers any stunt pilot must envy.

An emerald Sky Dragon pauses on a boulder.

An emerald Sky Dragon pauses on a boulder.

As much as I love the butterflies, this year we can lose a few to the dragonflies. My Chinese Abelia, a massive shrub about 10 feet tall and equally wide, has been blooming since June — and continues to do so. All day long, it is visited simultaneously by at least a hundred butterflies. I’ve never seen so many!

When they fill up on the Chinese Abelia, the Eastern Tiger Swallowtails stop by the lantana growing along the front walk.

When they fill up on the Chinese Abelia, the Eastern Tiger Swallowtails stop by the lantana growing along the front walk.

Between the drifting flight of butterflies and the zooming quick starts and stops of the dragonflies, I get bumped into on a regular basis as I walk around my yard.

This dragonfly appears to be made of lapis lazuli, or perhaps sapphire.

This dragonfly appears to be made of lapis lazuli, or perhaps sapphire.

Patterns on the wings of the dragonflies are likely diagnostic. I really must learn the names of these hunters.

The white wing bars on this one make it more noticeable in flight.

The white wing bars on this one make it more noticeable in flight.

This one appears to be designed to blend in with the trees.

This one appears to be designed to blend in with the trees.

Butterflies, of course, are silent creatures. If I stand right next to the blooming abelia, I can sometimes hear a gentle fluttering of wings by the Spicebush Swallowtails, which never seem to remain motionless for more than a few seconds. Dragonflies make a bit of a buzzing noise as they zip erratically through the air, snagging snacks on the wing.

But for aerial maneuvers with sound effects, you can’t beat the Ruby-throated Hummingbirds. This season has brought a bumper crop of them to the front feeder. The bejeweled beauties visit it from dawn to full dark. It seems to be a pit stop for them when they tire of dashing from coral honeysuckle to cardinal flower to salvia to abelia, all the while chittering as they argue over the rights to a particularly tasty nectar source.

After an early morning harvest session in the vegetable garden, I spend probably too much time sitting in the shade and watching the aerial show. I’m not the only one. I often spy a Green Anole perched on a shrub or vine within grabbing distance of unwary butterflies. And a large Green Frog usually meditates in one of the pots of sedges and pitcher plants sitting in our front water feature. The cicadas thrum, the hummingbirds swoop and squeal; in the distance, a Yellow-billed Cuckoo calls from the treetops, predicting more rain.

Pesky bugs and all, it’s the best summer we’ve had in years. I reckon I’m not going to feel to guilty for enjoying it as much as possible.

A Sky Jewel grabs a quick drink from the feeder that I keep supplied with fresh fuel.

A Sky Jewel grabs a quick drink from the feeder that I keep supplied with fresh fuel.

 

 

 

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While they sleep …

Swelling flower bud of Magnolia 'Elizabeth'

Swelling flower bud of Magnolia ‘Elizabeth’

Just before dawn this morning, thick frost glimmered in the fading light of a full moon. As the sun topped the nearby ridge, surfaces sparkled — walks, benches, lawn, even the trees. The thermometer on my cold hill bottomed out at 26 degrees Fahrenheit before the strengthening Spring sun began its work — Winter cold. Too cold.

The Spring Peepers, which have lustily chorused off and on since late December, have been utterly silent for four days. The American Toads, which had added their exquisite soprano trilling descant to the thrumming of the Peepers two weeks ago, have also gone quiet. The Green Anoles, which sunned themselves on our gutters on warm days all winter, have not ventured from their sleeping chambers in a week. To be sure, our weather has not been fit for cold-blooded amphibians and reptiles.

The plants in my yard agree. Half-open flower buds have opened no further. Some have browned from freeze damage. Others seem suspended in time, waiting for temperatures that match the astronomical calendar, knowing the equinox was last week, wondering like me, I imagine, why March turned so cruel in its waning days.

But while the plants and cold-blooded animals sleep, the warm-blooded ones are scrounging for food. A herd of five pregnant does devours every blade of green from our floodplain at dusk, when they emerge from their hiding places on the other side of the creek. Dark shadows in darkening light, they drift around the trees, more ghosts than flesh in the dimness.

The birds, on the other hand, have refused to concede to Spring’s reluctant arrival. Growing flocks of American Robins patrol the landscape, plucking fat earthworms from rain-moistened soil, muttering in delight at each new-found morsel.

The Red-shouldered Hawks circle the floodplain, then dive at crowded bird feeders in the hopes of pinning a slow-moving Mourning Dove or a greedy Red-winged Blackbird that lingers too long for one more bite. When the birds elude their grasp, they settle for patrolling the ground, pulling back fallen leaves with sharp yellow talons to reveal earthworms, which they greedily devour. When they’ve had their fill, they fly off with more; hungry nestlings must be fed, even while their favorite cold-blooded prey sleep securely in their winter hide-outs.

Nestlings must eat regardless of weather.

Nestlings must eat regardless of weather.

Flocks of Purple Finches grow daily. I think groups migrating from further south have heard about the snows in their summer homes up north. They linger at my feeders — free food — all you can eat! A pair of Carolina Wrens busily inspect flower pots, deck underpinnings, and an open garage for potential nesting sites. Wood Ducks paddle up and down the creek, preferring water warmer than the air.

A Great Blue Heron stalks from sand bar to sand bar. Rising into the air on massive wings, its majestic flight starkly contrasts with its harsh squawk of frustration at finding nothing tasty.

Alert for anything that moves, the hungry Great Blue Heron remains statue still.

Alert for anything that moves, the hungry Great Blue Heron remains statue still.

Suet feeders are perpetually busy from dawn to full darkness. Woodpeckers and nuthatches are feeding nestlings, and insects are difficult to find in the frigid air. They are joined by increasing numbers of warblers, which must be arriving for spring nesting season. Like the woodpeckers, suet is their fall-back food until the insects finally emerge.

This morning as I filled the feeders, I heard the characteristic melodic gurgling call of Brown-headed Cowbirds. They usually arrive a few days after the warblers, lingering at my feeders until they pair off, and egg-heavy females deposit their eggs in the nests of unwary warblers.

Warm-blooded life does not seem to have the luxury of waiting for Spring to assert itself. Somehow it must carry on despite the dearth of natural food and warming nights. I keep my feeders filled and birdhouses clean, in the hopes that this eases their struggle a bit — for my local population anyway.

The weather forecasters predict that our perseverance will be rewarded. Warmer days are promised soon. I think perhaps they might be right. I spotted a bright yellow Eastern Tiger Swallowtail this afternoon struggling to make headway against a gusty northwest wind.

Any minute now, Ruby-throated Hummingbirds will be arriving for their spring nesting season. I’d best dust off their feeders ASAP, because their usual early food sources — blooms of Red Buckeye and Eastern Columbine — remain tightly closed against the unseasonable chill.

Not even a flower bud is yet in evidence on the native Coral Honeysuckle beloved by the hummingbirds.

Not even a flower bud is yet in evidence on the native Coral Honeysuckle beloved by the hummingbirds.

Like the warm-blooded life surrounding me, my garden and I must persevere. Lettuce transplants huddle beneath garden fabric in the vegetable garden. I’ve been afraid to check on them, fearing that lifting the fabric might chill them more. And the tomato and pepper seeds I sowed a week ago have mostly germinated in the greenhouse. I’ve raised the thermostat to reduce the chances of cold air being fanned onto new-born seedlings.

Gardening is always an act of faith. This season, however, is requiring a bit more of it than usual. Believe, my friends. Soon we’ll be up to our knees in tall grass, mosquitoes, and summer squash.

But don’t blink. I have a feeling we’re mostly skipping Spring this year.

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Trumpets in the Trees

Trumpets dangle from a floodplain pine.

A day or so ago, someone found my blog by searching on this question: “Does honeysuckle make beans?” I knew at once that someone had mistaken a Trumpet Creeper (Campsis radicans) vine that had produced seed pods with our native Coral Honeysuckle. These pods are long and quite bean-like to a casual observer. Because the bright orange-red flowers are tubular — similar to the shape of our native Coral Honeysuckle — I’m not surprised that someone mistakenly assumed that it was a honeysuckle vine with “beans.”

A closer look at this high-climbing (up to 35 feet) native vine reveals its many differences from Coral Honeysuckle (Lonicera sempervirens). First, Trumpet Creeper flowers are considerably larger than those of our native honeysuckle, and they usually are a bit more of an orange-red. Next, the leaves are completely different. Trumpet Creeper leaves are pinnately compound and much larger than honeysuckle leaves.

The vines themselves are different too. Honeysuckle vines wrap themselves around objects they climb. Trumpet Creepers produce aerial rootlets — similar to those of non-native English Ivy — which attach themselves to trees, buildings, telephone poles — whatever is handy. And, like the rootlets of English Ivy, Trumpet Creeper aerial rootlets can damage mortar between bricks, so don’t let it climb on any structure you want to last.

The fruits of these two native vines are completely different. Coral Honeysuckle produces little red berries, which are enjoyed by wildlife.  Trumpet Creeper fruits are, botanically speaking, capsules, but anyone looking at them would call them long beans. The pods turn brown when they are ripe and split in half to release papery seeds. In late summer and fall, I find their emptied pod halves all over my floodplain.

As far as I know, no wildlife eats the pods, and deer don’t much like to graze on the leaves, although the leaves are food for the caterpillars of the Trumpet Vine Sphinx Moth. But those big trumpet-shaped flowers are irresistible to Ruby-throated Hummingbirds, which is reason enough for me to leave these fairly aggressive natives alone in my landscape where I can.

You must watch this native vine. It pops up from underground roots all over the place in softer soils, and it can shoot up a telephone pole or the side of a house phenomenally fast. Drought doesn’t much slow it down. Rain sends it soaring. If it sprouts in your lawn where you don’t want it, mowing will control it.

On my five acres of Piedmont, I allow Trumpet Vine to flourish uncontested on our floodplain. A number of vines have scaled the mature pines there, where they often successfully outcompete poison ivy. From June through August, orange-red trumpets dangle from the treetops, much to the delight of chittering hummingbirds zooming from flower to flower.

Trumpet Creeper is native to the southeastern United States, but it has managed to spread itself up and down the East Coast and well into the middle of the country too. It has a couple of other common names, including Trumpet Vine and Cow-Itch Vine. That last name likely arose because some folks get an itchy rash when they touch the leaves and vines of this native. I always wear gloves when I handle it; I don’t want to find out the hard way whether or not my skin reacts to it.

Here’s a link that offers you photos of the pods and the various flower color variations you can find in the wild. Horticulturalists have developed quite a number of varieties of this vine that offer you some color choices.  For example, ‘Minnesota Red’ is a nice, deep red. ‘Flava’ and ‘Judy’ both sport yellow flowers, and ‘Madame Galen’ offers deep orange-apricot flowers. All of the cultivars share the native version’s vigor, so site this vine carefully if you decide to add it to your landscape. And whatever you do, don’t feed it! It doesn’t need the help, trust me.

Despite its somewhat aggressive tendencies, I think any Piedmont landscape is improved by having a few Trumpet Creepers growing up sturdy trees in out-of-the way spots. If you’ve got such a locale, consider giving this native vine a try. The hummingbirds will thank you.

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Landscape Animators

Few people probably love the native plants of the southeastern Piedmont more than I do, but as much as I enjoy their nearly infinite diversity and adaptability, I think I would have long grown bored with them without being able to observe their interactions and interdependencies with native wildlife. For example, the native coral honeysuckle (Lonicera sempervirens ‘Major Wheeler’) is beautiful on its own, but that corner of my landscape truly lights up when the Ruby-throated Hummingbirds stop by for drinks.

From birds to insects to reptiles, amphibians, and mammals — all the wildlife inhabitants and visitors animate what would otherwise be a basically static landscape — no matter how much the trees and flowers sway in winds and rain. The animals generate many of the most interesting stories in my landscape as they go about their daily lives.

Yesterday morning as the sun rose, I spotted this cranefly on my garage door as it admired its shadow:

On an early morning trip to my compost pile, I discovered that my laziness in failing to cover a recent donation had attracted an unexpected visitor. A Spicebush Swallowtail was dining on a bit of beet leaf. I knew that Eastern Tiger Swallowtails like to collect at mud puddles to drink up trace elements they don’t get from nectar, and I knew that Red-spotted Purple Butterflies were notorious for their appreciation of unsavory items. But I have never seen a Spicebush Swallowtail dine on anything but flowers.

The recent increase in humidity has brought out most of the bugs, including ticks, mosquitoes, and biting flies. But along with these pests come the sky hunters — dragonflies — in every color and design imaginable. I caught these two taking a break from sky patrol:

I think the sky dragons are attracted to our little water feature in the front garden. They aren’t the only ones. I caught this Cope’s Gray Treefrog waiting for an evening chorus session on the side of my house near our little pond:

The treefrogs and the Eastern Narrowmouth Toads have been singing lustily around our little pond for over a month now. At first, it was just the toads chorusing, then the treefrogs joined them for a couple of weeks. Now, the nightly serenade sounds to be all treefrog all the time.

The calls of both amphibians are quite distinctive. I had never seen a Narrowmouth Toad until this year when I was digging a vegetable bed about six weeks ago. I accidentally unearthed two of them, and I wasn’t sure what they were until I did a little research. Then I was glad I had been wearing my gloves when I handled them, because their slimy skin secretions are toxic, designed to repel the ants that they eat.  Given the enormous number of ant species that live in my yard, I say bring on the Narrowmouth Toads!

These amphibians have been doing more than singing around my pond. It is now teeming with tadpoles. I can’t tell if they are all toad tadpoles, or if the treefrog tads are in there too. In this shot, I think toad tadpoles may be dining on a treefrog egg mass, but I’m not certain.

The water isn’t as green as it looks here, I promise. But it is definitely not as clear as it was during pre-tadpole days.

My final picture today is not of the landscape animators themselves, but of their nest. About a week ago as I walked to the compost pile, a bird flew past me in a blur, seeming to want to distract me. I assumed I had merely startled it — I often unintentionally surprise wildlife — and continued. But as I approached one of our huge mature dogwoods, another bird flew past me. It seemed to come right from the tree, so I turned and looked.

The dogwood is double-boled, with the split beginning not more than two or so feet from the ground. In that low crotch, I discovered a distinctive nest — Ovenbirds! We’ve spotted these ground-nesters often during the growing season, but we had intentionally never looked for a nest. I have never read of these birds building in a tree, but this wasn’t far off the ground, and perhaps it looked a tad more secure to them. My yard is inhabited by many black rat snakes, so I can well imagine that a tree might look like a safer bet to the Ovenbirds.

They’re called Ovenbirds, because their nests resemble Dutch ovens, with little holes where the birds go in and out. I think you can make out the structure in this photo that I took some distance away from the nest, so as to minimize their disturbance.

I think the entry hole is near the bottom, but it’s hard to be sure. Alas, less than a week later, I discovered that the nest had been torn apart. Whether it was the work of a snake, raccoon, possum, or greedy squirrel, I’ll never know, but the nest is gone, and I haven’t seen or heard the Ovenbirds since.

That’s the way of life with my landscape animators. Sometimes Death wins, but Life triumphs more often. And the dances between them are always captivating.

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The Birds of Summer

Rose-breasted Grosbeaks refuel.

I know that summer is nearly here when the Rose-breasted Grosbeaks refuel at my feeders every late April-early May. These males showed up last Saturday. Usually, the males arrive first, then the females join them and linger a few days after the males leave to claim breeding turf. That pattern held this year. The females showed up late Sunday, and I saw one lonely female hanging out at the feeder this morning. Their massive beaks demolish the safflower seeds I offer at astonishing speeds. But I deem it worth the price of seed to see these lovely birds every spring, and again in the fall when they pass through on the way to their winter hangouts. You have to admire the feisty Chickadee in the photo above as it stares down the Grosbeaks, all of which are about three times its size.

By the time the Grosbeaks arrived, I had spotted a male Indigo Bunting hunting bugs in our backyard a week earlier. He’s there most every day now, so we suspect there may be a nesting female somewhere in the nearby shrubby area that is, shall we say, less than manicured.

The warblers, buntings, and many other summer visitors seem to appreciate all of our wilder areas. Our bird populations and species diversity have increased enormously over the 20+ years we’ve lived here. Truly, if you build it (i.e., provide their habitat requirements), they will come.

Seeing these two species caused me to mentally tick off my list of expected summer visitors. I’ve spotted the hyperactive Blue-gray Gnatcatchers zipping through the underbrush several times, and I spied one with nesting material in its mouth as I was watering my vegetable garden yesterday morning. These tiny dynamos are insect-eating machines, and always welcome in my gardens.

Just two days ago, I finally heard the hunting chip-chip call of a Summer Tanager. I rarely see these denizens of our summer treetops, but I hear them often as they move along branches hunting bugs. Occasionally one will visit a bird bath — always a treat.

When I heard the Summer Tanager, I realized I hadn’t yet heard the unmistakable call of the Yellow-billed Cuckoo. I always associate their calls with thick humidity and searing heat. Sure enough, yesterday, one called from the Northern Red Oak that towers over my home — just in time for our record high heat.

The winter-visiting birds have mostly departed. Although Northern Flickers are reported to be year-round residents of my region, I haven’t heard or seen one for over a month, which is normal for my Piedmont yard. They always vanish in the summer.

Likewise, the White-throated Sparrows no longer call plaintively in the early morning. Most have left, although I spotted one at the feeder this morning — probably what birders call a non-breeder.

All the various warblers are back. I can hear them, but I rarely see them. I’m hoping a Blue Grosbeak will visit a feeder when I’m watching. They usually nest in the wild blackberry thicket on the other side of our creek.

Last but never least, the Ruby-throated Hummingbird males have been back for about a month. The females are probably here too, but I haven’t seen one yet. Although I’m keeping fresh sugar water available in the feeder by my kitchen window, I’ve never seen more than one male stop by for a drink. However, I’m hearing their chatter all over my yard.

One male scolded me yesterday when I unintentionally startled him as I watered a squash plant. He was intent on visiting a patch of still-blooming Eastern Columbines, and he didn’t see me until he almost flew into me. I suspect the abundance of blooming flowers in my yard is the reason my hummingbird feeder is unpopular. That will change as summer heat slows blooming, and fledglings seek easy food sources.

The rhythms and dances of Piedmont summer are building to their usual crescendo, which I associate with the Summer Solstice. The thrumming of cicadas should punctuate the air any day now. The blinking lights of fireflies grow more numerous with every passing warm night. And the Cope’s Gray Treefrogs chorus lustily every time the humidity rises enough to hint at the possibility of a thunderstorm.

All I need now to complete this Piedmont summer scene are a few ripe tomatoes. And the good news is that every tomato plant in my garden is already sporting promising green globes. Oh yes, I do believe I can almost taste that Piedmont summer goodness.

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