Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Irruption at the Feeder

Pine Siskin at the feeder

Sunflower seed and thistle mixture do not last long in the bird feeders, which I hung following the storms. A variety of birds fly in from all directions to take their turn, although a few squabbles sort out the pecking order. Chickadees and white-breasted nuthatches dash in and out for just one fat seed, chased by vociferous tufted titmice. A sedate red-bellied woodpecker takes its own sweet time, while cardinals and blue jays clear the area with their presence. Below the feeder on the ground white-throated sparrows and a lone fox sparrow perform their little skips and hops to scrap up spilt seed. This all changes when huge flocks of pine siskin descend and dominate the feeder for an hour or so at a time. This being an irruptive year for these sweet little birds, I am pleased to see them and prefer them emptying the feeder than the squirrels. 

Echinacea seed head picked clean by goldfinches

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Downed Oak

The wrath of hurricane Sandy did not untangle the woods behind our house, but brought down an oak out front. The top of the tree was snapped off like a matchstick. It landed, as if placed conveniently, on our septic field without destroying car or roof or power line. It is sad to see the destruction of such a majestic tree. The downed trunk and limbs gave me an opportunity to observe the top and innards of the tree up close and reminded me of the huge amount of biomass a tree supports. Amongst the splinters and twisted sinews, which still smell sweet of freshly severed wood, you can see the heartwood and sapwood. The bark of the tree is adorned with pale green foliose lichen. Leaf buds held on the tips of twigs amongst yellowing leaves will never fulfill the promise of spring.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

The season mellows

Red Admiral butterfly
There is so much to enjoy in this season of migrants and mellow yellow fruitfulness. The goldenrod flowers have faded, but there are splashes of yellow, orange and red besides turning leaf color. I have seen them on tail feathers of yellow-rumped warblers, the throat of a common yellowthroat and on the wings of migrating red admiral butterflies. The marigolds in the vegetable garden always seem to be at their prime just before they are nipped by frost. Red-osier dogwood stems (despite being chomped on by deer), chokeberry and winterberry furnish with reds. By contrast, amongst the pastel colors of the meadow, ripened seeds feed finches of muted color. Brown feathers of hen-of-the-woods fungus billow from the base of an oak tree. Today, the dark-eyed juncos returned.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Sun Medicine

Goldenrods (Solidago sp. and Euthamia sp.) bring certain vibrancy to the garden. Not just for their golden hues, but also for the myriad of insects that buzz, hover, crawl and dance all over them. In the sunshine their yellow plumes of tiny yellow flowers come alive. In just twenty minutes or so I observed a ladybug, metallic green sweat bees, a candy-striped leafhopper, a weevil, a spring azure butterfly, flower flies, solitary wasps, a sawfly and countless bumble bees. 

The Chippewa Indian name for goldenrod translates to “sun medicine” and the Latin name Solidago means, “to make whole”, owing to the plant’s many medicinal properties. For me, they heal a dark mood. Over 100 species of goldenrod are native and widespread in North America. They brighten up wooded areas, pastures, waste places and highways in the fall as golden energy prolonging summer’s warmth. In the winter when color has faded their seeds provide sustenance for sparrows, goldfinches and juncos.

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Summer winds down

The sun’s angle is shifting and along with that there are some other signs of the waning summer. Ghostly reams of silk of the fall webworm (Hyphantria cunea) hang from a branch of the gray birch. Fortunately this infestation is isolated to just a few branches of the tree and will not cause too much harm. The adult is an inconspicuous small white moth native to North America.

Marasmius rotula

Mushrooms appear on woody mulch, rotting tree stumps and along shady pathways. Some are bright orange and resemble chanterelles. But I am not expert enough to ID these and throw them in a pan for a tasty treat. Clusters of the tiny pinwheel mushroom (Marasmius rotula) provide a brief glimpse of fairyland.

Common true katydid 
Pterophylla camellifolia

The evening chorus of stridulating insects has risen to the season’s crescendo. Every now and again I get a closer look at these amazing insects. This one, most probably a late juvenile male was found perching on a sunflower leaf.

Saturday, August 4, 2012

Mighty Joe Pye

Several Joe Pye Weed (Eupatorium fistulosum) plants are providing an impressive 8-feet tall screen along the back fence. They have grown from tiny seedlings, which I bought in a six-pack from LINPI (Long Island Native Plant Initiative) a summer ago. The dusty pink blossom is a nectar source for bees of all shapes and sizes. The yellow tiger swallowtail butterfly seems to be particularly partial to this towering plant and I have also seen black swallowtails, Monarch butterflies, skippers and cabbage whites flutter and sip from the large round clusters of florets.

Yellow Tiger Swallowtail on Hollow-stemmed Joe Pye weed

Monarch butterflies also visit the seedlings of common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca). Their distinctive, striped larvae have been seen eating the leaves, but for some reason they do not stay on the plant long enough to pupate. The same is true of the Laugher or Marbled Tuffet Moth (Charadra deridens) larvae, which are fuzzy with long, pale hairs. I have found them on the underside of the leaves of sunflower and canna lily, although their preferred food source is beech and oak.

A flash of yellow and sweet mellifluous chirping alerts me to goldfinches in breeding plumage pecking at Echinacea seed heads. Now for a sighting of the ruby-throated hummingbird! They must surely visit the fuchsia and cardinal flower when I am not around to see them.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

A Battle of Natives

I endeavor to keep a woodland clearing free of invasive plants hoping to build a pond in this partly sunny area. Gone are the multiflora rose, English ivy, and oriental bittersweet, although the wisteria vines are still persistent. In their place there is pokeweed (Phytolacca americana), Virginia creeper (Parthenocissus quinquefolia) and young sassafras trees (they grow so fast!). This time of year when the pokeweed towers above me I am goaded into action with fork and shovel to dig up its thick taproots before the flowers ripen to berries and spread the plant even more. I actually love this plant in the fall with its vivid pink stems and dark blue berries, which feed migrating birds. I let it go in other areas but here I need to keep it under control or it will be impossible to dig for the pond. It seems that when land is cleared of invasive plants the natives take over with exuberance. Virginia creeper is providing a thick ground cover and will even climb up the pokeweed. Nearby is broadleaf enchanter’s nightshade (Circaea lutetiana), which is another tall native perennial weed that forms dense cover. On the underside of its leaf, amongst the white fluff of woolly aphids, I came across a strange looking insect I have never seen before. The case bearer leaf beetle (Neochlamisus sp.), a larva in this instance, covers its body with its own fecal matter and it appears as a large blob of insect frass on stumpy legs. 

Cicada on "vacationing" Sansevieria

To herald in the season of chirping crickets, strident katydids and buzzing cicadas, I found a cicada resting on a mother in law’s tongue plant (Sansevieria) that is “vacationing” on my front porch. This was a good chance to get up close and personal with an insect I usually only hear as its sings way up in the tall trees on a hot summer afternoon. This was a fresh unblemished specimen, with huge brown eyes and margins of emerald green on its wings matching the plant’s stiff leaves, from which also dangled the dried brown case of its previous skin. Houseplants can be habitat too.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

A Sphinx and a Swallowtail

Try this for camouflage! A Nessus sphinx moth (Amphion floridensis) was found resting on the emerging leaves of a pitcher plant, which I have kept potted until my pond is built. The moth is often active during the day and can be seen hovering around flowers as it sips nectar. Grape and Virginia creeper, of which I have plenty, are its larval host plants.

At this time of the year I love to discover the myriad of insects that visit flowers and plants in the garden. The gorgeous caterpillars of the black swallowtail butterfly (Papilio polyxenes) devour parsley. They also visit the dill and can be observed passing through a couple of instars until they reach their prime and there are no more leaves to chew. Then they seem to vanish. Are they food for a hungry bird or is their shriveled, dark brown chrysalis impossible to find? I will continue to replace the pot of parsley, but not just for a culinary purpose, so I can feast my eyes upon adult swallowtail butterflies.

Leucanthemum daisy heads, now chest high, make it easy to view insect visitors. Yesterday evening I came across a rather large mosquito (Toxorhynchites rutilus) sipping nectar. Members of this group of mosquitoes do not require a blood meal for a source of protein. Their larvae devour the larvae of other more harmful mosquitoes. So there are some mosquitoes that are beneficial!

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

House Wrens Raise a Family

A week or so ago sweet baby bird-chirping could be heard from the direction of one of the tiny nesting boxes that hang from the dogwood tree. The wren parents have been seen running relays to provide food for their offspring. They perch on the tree with insect in beak waiting for the other parent to emerge. As they enter the box in a quick flash the young ones can be heard chirping loudly and the whole box visibly shakes. The feisty birds fiercely defend their house. Their clamoring call has alerted me to a marauding blue jay as it tried to pierce a young chick through the box hole with its beak. My old felines get no peace when they lie on the warm stones on the terrace beneath. Soon the fledglings will depart and I will miss the drama, chatter and song of the little wren family.

Round-leaved pyrola

There are other small survivors that return to the garden every year and are surely remnants of the native woodland. Besides false Solomon’s seal (Maianthemum racemosa) defying the ivy, I have found round-leaved pyrola (Pyrola americana), growing amongst hostas.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Oaks flower, birds arrive

The storm that brought rain to our area was driven by warmer air. And so the warblers arrived! Yesterday after the rain abated I just had to step outside my front door to hear the telltale warbles and buzzes of some neo-tropical migrants. The tall oaks are in flower and way up there, flitting amongst newly opened leaves, were the tiny birds feeding on the catkins’ pollinating insects. The “zee, zee-zee” buzz of the black-throated green warbler (Dendroica virens) was plainly heard. I could see the black-and-white warbler (Mniotilta varia), an acrobat on a high branch, as it foraged for insects along the bark. The yellow-rumped warblers (Dendroica coronata) are singing now and flashing their breeding plumage. Early this morning I awoke to the song of a hermit thrush and dashed outside, to hear the dawn chorus. I did not have to use my bleary eyes in the grey light. I just listened. Besides the thrush, a Baltimore oriole chimed in along with a Carolina wren, blue jays and cardinals. The house wren was singing its heart out, while perched on one of the nesting boxes that hang from the dogwood tree.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

House wren territory

The house wren has returned to claim its territory amongst the boughs of the flowering dogwood tree. Both bird and tree are putting on quite a show. The strong, staccato warble of the tiny bird can be heard throughout the day. On the tree, greenish-yellow flowers are encircled by four heart-shaped bracts, massed in layers of white that float in the breeze and seem to be especially vibrant at sunset or on this overcast, rainy day. The much-needed rain is a relief permitting the tree canopy to leaf-out as spring green. Virginia creeper vines are also coming out of winter hiding.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Red Hues of Spring

Mayapple (Podophyllum peltatum)
 The canopy of the wood has a red blush of maple blossom and high up amongst the bare branches of the chestnut oak a pair of tiny birds is flitting and fluttering about. They are hard to identify as they are so small and move very fast - just two little olive-colored birds. When one of them raised its scarlet crest I knew at once they must be ruby-crowned kinglets! Now I listen out for their high-pitched whistles and warbles as I peruse the ground below for emerging plants. There is mayapple about to open its umbrella of leaves and, to match the hues of red above, wild columbine is just starting to flower.
Wild Columbine (Aquilegia canadensis)

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Know Thy Weeds

In this early spring there are already flowering plants growing wild where my lawn used to be. Unlike the large-petaled and gaudy crocuses and daffodils planted in place, there are plants that just seem to turn up. I could describe these as weeds i.e. plants growing where they are not wanted. But for me right now these tiny plants with their delicate flowers are forming a good groundcover that will be replaced by violets later in the month. They attract wildlife and are edible for the gardener too.

Hairy bittercress (Cardamine hirsuta) attracts butterflies such as the Spring Azure. It bears clusters of tiny white four-petaled flowers on long stalks above a basal rosette of deep green compound leaves. Seeds are held in long, narrow pods, which release seeds explosively far and wide. If you want to stop the spread of this annual plant pull up the basal rosette of leaves before the seeds ripen and use as a bitter herb. As with other members of the mustard family its leaves are loaded with vitamins, minerals and antioxidants.

Common chickweed (Stellaria media) got its name because chickens eat it. This plant turns up anywhere there is disturbed, cleared ground on the edge of yards and is often considered to be the bane of vegetable gardeners. This plant can form large dense patches and here on my ex-lawn robins and other birds relish its seeds. It has a pretty little flower of five, deeply lobed petals that look like tiny, ten-pointed stars. The succulent stems bearing fleshy leaves are easy to pull up and can be an ingredient in a wild green salad. When cooked it tastes a lot like spinach.   

Sunday, March 4, 2012

The trees have feathers

On a walk in some nearby woods I came across a tree adorned with countless little shelves of fungi all the way up its trunk. It looked quite spectacular. Shelf fungi also add colors, texture and form to my winter woods. They grow layer upon layer and in great profusion on tree stumps, trunks and nooks and crannies of log piles. The turkey-tail fungus, Trametes versicolor, is especially colorful en masse and each shelf has contours of rich browns, yellow, orange, blue or purple. The variation in color is due to different minerals extracted from the decaying wood. 

Monday, February 27, 2012

Birds of a feather flock together

I was out and about in the garden looking for a touch of spring on a cold, bright day. Sure enough snowdrops and golden crocuses, the stalwarts of late winter, were there piercing through leaf litter and the duff. It is always satisfying to push back the winter debris from them and with my hand crush brittle oak leaves into mulch.

A raucous squawking, squeaking (and was that a “kon-kar-reee”?) made me look skyward into the bare branches of a tall oak tree. There had gathered a large flock of grackles and two interlopers, which were indeed red-winged blackbirds. The birds looked their finest, perched up there so high with the backdrop of ethereal blue sky and with winter sunshine for their iridescent feathers and bright red epaulettes. They flitted about re-positioning themselves,  “cheks” and “chuks” punctuating their chatter. Until all of a sudden they fell totally silent. Then every bird was still, heads cocked as if listening intently. Was there perhaps a hawk about? After a few minutes the danger had passed and the flock resumed their noisy conversation. Spring was in the air that day and the blackbirds have returned from their wintering grounds!

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Pulling Ivy

             Ivy Ghosts
English ivy (Hedera helix) is a fellow ex-pat. but not a well-behaved one in my garden! This plant shows restraint in its homeland, but on this side of the Atlantic it has no natural enemies and becomes invasive. Woodland areas overrun with ivy are known as “ivy deserts” because nothing else can grow through it. Also, it does not provide habitat for wildlife, except perhaps for rats. Recently, I spent a mild winter afternoon trying to save two large trees (ivy ghosts) from being strangled by the stuff. I cut through the ring of large woody stems (some with the thickness of my forearm) near the base of the tree trunk and released the vines by pulling them up and away as far up as I could. Days later the ivy left on the tree is still green and not dying at all! It seems that the vine’s adventitious roots continue to absorb water from the tree bark. An arborist will have to finish the job for me. 

At ground level, pulling ivy is also a year-round battle. I use a method recommended by 
Ivy Out http://www.ivyout.org/ivyremove.html) and roll it up into large logs. Indeed, the soil exposed after rolling an ivy log appears to be dead and dry. A layer of leaf mulch is essential to stop erosion and to build the soil before I can begin to restore the area with native plants.