Tuesday, October 11, 2011

The last (probably) monarch leaves my yard

Monarch covered in morning dew
We were surprised to see this one lone monarch in our yard two days ago. I would have thought they would all have gone by now. She spent the night on an old withered-up milkweed plant and was covered in dew yesterday morning.

I moved her onto an aster in a sunnier spot in the garden, and after a few hours she was gone. I hope she makes it to Mexico after such a late start!

(More about monarchs on my website)

Fall nectar
The bumblebees are still going strong, nectaring on some anise hyssop volunteers that started growing in mid-summer. The flowers are beautiful, fresh, and must be full of nectar since there's a lot of bee activity on them. The asters and goldenrods still have flowers, but they're definitely starting to go to seed. The birds should be happy about that!

This year, I've found, though, that the asters, goldenrods, and joe-pyes have started to take more than their fair share of the garden. As much as I like these plants, I've started pulling out quite a few of them so other plants don't get squeezed out.

My other major project this fall is to put plastic plant labels next to all of my plants except the most recognizable and/or prolific. Too many times in the past I've bought new plants only to either forgotten where I put them (probably then pulling out these as yet unfamiliar plants as weeds) or they've been overtaken by more aggressive plants. I know these white plastic T-labels aren't the most attractive addition to the garden, but the benefits of not losing my new plants and not forgetting their names are more important. After a few weeks in the spring, most will be hidden anyway.

Monday, September 05, 2011

Monarchs released today

At the beginning of summer, I was beginning to think that we might not see too many monarchs, that it could really be the beginning of the end of the migration phenomenon.

Though monarchs do face many challenges--lack of milkweed, pesticides, degradation of their overwintering sites among others--at least here in Central New York, we managed to find enough eggs in our yard that we're ending up with 200 monarchs!

So far, we've released 155, with 45 still in their chrysalises. Unfortunately, it has rained all day and it's cool, too, so there today's "crop" of 15 monarchs still sit, just where I put them many hours ago.  Monarchs can't do much unless it's at least 60F, but even if it were warmer I suspect the rain would keep them from leaving.

I released them this morning just outside our back door, so they're protected somewhat by being under the eaves. This side of the house doesn't get the northern or western winds either, so I think they'll do fine. I'd be more than happy to keep them inside, but once they've hung around a few hours and their wings are dry, they're eager to leave.

They're just in time for the fall migration, since monarchs leave CNY about mid-September. All our monarchs should have eclosed (i.e. emerged from their chrysalis) by then. They're likely to encounter some challenges on their way to Mexico, especially the drought in Texas that will limit the availability of nectar. And then if and when they get to Mexico, their overwintering habitat is gradually being destroyed by illegal logging and by climate change.

For more info on my monarchs, visit Our Habitat Garden website.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Finally - more monarch eggs

So far this year, we've raised only eight monarchs, and we've seen only one or two adult butterflies (except our own that we released).

Finally, today I saw a monarch butterfly and I discovered ten eggs!

This year, every egg is more precious than ever since there have been so few monarchs not just here in Central New York, but elsewhere in the country. I'm tightening up my method for raising them. I'm going to keep no more than ten eggs / caterpillars -- collected the same day -- together in one container to minimize the chances of spreading any disease such as Oe.

The sad fact is that this makes a total of 18 monarchs (assuming they'll all make it to butterflyhood) this year; last year at this time we had 45.

There have been similar or even greater declines in our black swallowtails, American lady, and other butterflies. In fact, we haven't seen many butterflies of any kind very often.

Saturday, July 02, 2011

Bumblebee nest discovered

As I was walking up our front sidewalk, I noticed some bumblebees buzzing around, but there weren't any flowers in the immediate vicinity.

On closer look, I noticed them entering the ground. I found a bumblebee nest! I'm sure there's more than one in our yard since we have lots of bumblebees and lots of great places for them to nest--in other words, some bare ground, so scarce in suburbs with mostly lawn and asphalt.

What was interesting was that there were two entrances, about 6 inches apart.

The bumblebee in the photo is carrying some of his pollen/nectar mix on his legs. It will be used to feed the young bees as the colony gets larger and larger.

There's actually quite a high failure rate, and if they fail, I guess that means that the colony ends up producing no queens for next year. I don't know whether the queen of a failed colony can start a new nest midway through the summer.

I'm going to refrain from weeding in this area and hope to see some beautiful queens produced by fall!

Monday, June 27, 2011

UPDATE: Not all the eggs were house sparrow eggs!

The egg in the middle of the top row is a cowbird egg. ©Janet Allen
A few weeks ago, we collected eggs from the house sparrow nest. We do this routinely--three times so far this summer, and they're starting on another batch already. As I mentioned before, we don't enjoy doing this, but this non-native species actively harms our native songbirds, so we feel we have a responsibility to try to minimize their population.

We had sent a photo in to Cornell since they are researching variability in eggs, and the house sparrows are a perfect candidate for this research. I was surprised that there was so much variability and now I know why.

Cornell was going to use my photo in the next issue of BirdScope, but they just emailed me that they won't be able to use it. On closer inspection, they realized that the egg in the middle of the top row isn't a house sparrow egg, it's a cowbird egg! It's a little bigger and a little splotchier.

I always hate to see the cowbirds around. Even though they're native, they didn't evolve in our area and so our songbirds have no defenses against them. As with the house sparrows, it's human intervention that has caused the problem. In the case of cowbirds, the herds of bison they used to travel with no longer roam the prairies. When they moved east, they didn't live in unlogged forested areas ... but now there are so many roads in forests that cowbirds easily find songbird nests to parasitize.

Birds that evolved with cowbirds have strategies for dealing with them. Some toss them out, some build on a new nest layer on top of them, and so on. Songbirds that didn't evolve with cowbirds don't have these defenses and end up raising the cowbird babies instead of their own. Some experts say this might lead some songbirds, already challenged, to extinction.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Baby birds

Baby robin   ©Janet Allen
We have baby robins and baby wrens active in the yard. The robins are from the nest in our arborvitae next to the driveway, and the wrens are from our nest box along the back fence.

The robins are pretty quiet. They sit there just waiting for the parents to come. The adult robins also seem to be pretty quiet. All in all, this is the way I'd do it if I were a bird.

The wrens, on the other hand, are all full of chatterings. The little group travels among the trees and shrubs in the front and side yards, announcing their presence. This must work for them since their populations in the East and Central parts of the US are going up according to the Breeding Bird Survey, although the population according to the Christmas Bird Count is going down. I got these figures from the first edition of the Stokes Field Guide to Birds (my favorite field guide). The guide, though, is 15 years old, so the situation might be different now as it is with so many birds. Birds are in trouble!

By the way, this photo was captured by having to patiently sit for quite a while (sitting on a quickly-snatched compost bucket) when I spotted this baby. Getting good bird photos requires much more patience than I naturally have, but it's worth it to try to capture a good image of these appealing creatures.

Friday, June 17, 2011

First monarch - and - black swallowtail growing up

A monarch butterfly egg on a milkweed leaf
Our first monarch visited our yard yesterday (June 16). This is about a week before we've ever seen them here before. Central New York seems to be one of the last places they visit, since even people in Canada have already had them for a while.

I was surprised to see that the butterfly apparently visited only the common milkweed on the edge of my property and then must have gone in the other direction. I found only six eggs, which I brought inside. It completely missed all the other milkweed I have throughout my yard.

I put the eggs on a wet paper towel, and I'll be watching for the caterpillars to emerge in a few days. I'm considering some different methods of raising the caterpillars this year since I'm concerned about the Oe parasite.

A black swallowtail caterpillar eating dill
Our black swallowtail caterpillar is growing quickly. In this photo, it's eating some of the dill I have in the aquarium, but this pose is unusual. Most of the time it looks like it's just sitting there, not eating at all. This is typical of the black swallowtails we've had. They must be eating somehow because they're growing and are very healthy. They're not at all like the monarch caterpillars, though, which actively chomp on milkweed so quickly you can see it disappear.

The same result comes from both eating patterns, though: beautiful butterflies!

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Waste not, want not

A few days ago we found a very small black swallowtail caterpillar on some of our dill. We brought it inside to raise it.

This morning I noticed that it was shedding its old skin.

Then it turned around to begin to eat its old skin.

Almost gone. Yum!

Although it might seem unappealing, it's a great example of how other creatures (other than humans) don't let anything go to waste. Nature can create wonderful things in abundance without the pollution we create.

Maybe we should follow their lead (though I do draw the line at this particular practice ...)

Note: Biomimicry is a fascinating field of design/engineering. It learns from nature to create new products and practices.

An alarming event

As I was about to get some dirt from our out-of-the-way dirt pile (which we had collected from various places to use as needed), I discovered bishop's weed (aka goutweed) growing there! It was already flowering.

Having written an article about bishop's weed for the Wild Ones Journal, I knew it was something to be feared. In my research for the article, I had read of people who literally scooped up the top layer of soil in their yards, had it carted away, and replaced it with new soil.

The roots go deep, and even the smallest bit of root can again become a plant. It's tenacious. I have visions of it taking over our whole yard. We'll have to monitor this area for the next few years to make sure we eradicate it.

So far, we've pulled out what we could and have it in a black garbage bag inside a garbage can. We'll let it die for a while, then put it in the garbage. I hope that will keep it from spreading either in our yard or elsewhere.

It's upsetting to know that this plant is still being sold. It's a public menace!

Thursday, June 09, 2011

The world in miniature

I enjoy taking photos of the little things in my yard. I always have to remind myself to sometimes take pictures of the bigger picture, too, because I'm inclined to "think small."

It's so fascinating to look at the world from a smaller perspective. This photo shows one of my favorite plants--spiderwort (Tradescantia). This shows the size of the flowers and the plant.

Spiderwort is a good nectar plant and draws lots of bees, especially bumblebees. I really enjoy bumblebees, but I also noticed some little bees getting nectar, too. I think they're flower flies of some kind. You can see from the second photo that in comparison to the flower, this is quite a small bee.

The third photo shows this little bee closer up. It's quite intriguing, but it would be easy to miss it in the larger landscape. It's a little gem of an insect and rivals many larger creatures in beauty. And yet how many people ever really see it?

 Someone could probably traverse my smallish urban/suburban yard in a few minutes and think they had seen it all, but there are billions of little things to see when I "think small."

A digital camera is a very useful aid in exploring this world. It allows me to see things closer up when I'm looking at the digital image back at the computer than I could ever see in real life.

Computers and digital cameras are two things whose loss I would mourn. I know that the world (especially those of us living in the developed world) will have to create a more sustainable lifestyle. The challenge will be to keep those things (for me the digital camera and computer/internet) that truly enhance our lives and shed all the other stuff that are merely conveniences or trinkets.

Monday, June 06, 2011

A useful role for house sparrows

I know many people do not agree with people choosing to favor some species over others. In their view, house sparrows have just as much of a right to be here as native birds.

I agree that house sparrows themselves are not at fault -- we humans brought them to this country for our own purposes. However, I believe that we need to take responsibility to correct this situation. House sparrows are a disaster for native birds, and every house sparrow we have represents many native birds whose nests they have overtaken and whose young they have killed. To do our part, we routinely remove house sparrow eggs from our nest boxes.

As a non-native species, house sparrows are not legally protected as are native birds. We'd never interfere with native bird nests! And, of course, if we lived in the UK, these would be native birds, and we'd not interfere with them in that location. It's not about liking or not liking house sparrows (actually a weaver finch).

I'm delighted to know that finally this practice can serve an even greater purpose. Cornell Lab of Ornithology's researchers are studying the variations among house sparrow eggs to research various ecological questions without disturbing native birds.

As they indicate, "eggshell coloration and pattern may vary with available calcium, sunlight patterns, or habitat quality, and are expected to differ seasonally and geographically as well."

I submitted (a higher resolution version of) this photo of the eggs from a recent house sparrow clutch for their use. It is surprising to see so much variation in color and patterns.

Although I'm not happy removing any bird's eggs, I'm confident that this is the ethical course of action that will help our native birds and promote a healthy ecosystem.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

A fawn vs. Deer overpopulation

We had some excitement last night.

I glanced over and saw a doe and her fawn in a neighboring yard. (The neighbors were out of town.) I tried to signal the woman walking down the street with two VERY LARGE dogs that they were there. She stopped, but one of the dogs got away from her and went bounding toward the deer. The doe quickly ran away, and the fawn instantly dropped to the ground in this very awkward-looking posture. Meanwhile the dog dashed to the fawn. I was sure it was going to rip it apart, but the dog just sniffed it curiously. I grabbed the dog's leash and returned it to its owner.

So now we had this tiny fawn all alone. The mother was nowhere to be found. I fervently hoped that she would come back to get it during the night. And the next morning--not knowing what I would do if it were still there--I went to check. Phew! It was gone, and I was off the hook.

But it brings out a lot of issues. For one, who could not love this cute little fawn? It was definitely one of the cutest animal babies, and so vulnerable, too. I worried about it all night.

At the same time, though, I don't want deer in my yard, and I don't want so many deer destroying our natural areas, either. We have a serious problem with deer overpopulation. It's not good for our home landscapes, it's not good for our natural areas, it's not good for people who may collide with them while driving...and it's not good for the deer, either.

I feel very conflicted about this dilemma. I want the best for this little baby, but it also represents the huge problem of an ever-increasing deer population--a population which is beyond the carrying capacity of our region. I know it's a disaster to have so many deer. I also know that the solution cannot be a happy one, but one that must take into account a larger view of what is healthiest for the earth.

I ended the evening feeling very sad about the problems we face--and very uncertain whether humans are up to the challenges facing us.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

UPDATE: Our overwintering swallowtails emerge!

Just emerged. Its wings are still crumpled.
I was about to give up hope. After all, the idea of these little black swallowtail pupae overwintering on a freezing cold screen porch all winter, nine months after they became a pupa is itself preposterous. And the time we had this situation before, they had already emerged by this point in May.

But today, when I happened to glance at the aquarium that has housed these pupae all winter, I saw a swallowtail, with its wings still crumpled, having very recently emerged. It's currently still just hanging from the stick, waiting for its wings to become strong enough to fly away. I'm happy that this morning is one of the few days that there's some sun. I'd hate to release him into a rainy outdoors.

It's amazing to think that this is the first time it has seen the light of day since last July or so! 

UPDATE:  After hanging around a few hours, its wings were fully expanded and flight-worthy. He was ready to go out into the world for his first venture post-caterpillar.

Here he is sitting on some beautiful shooting stars.

I'm glad we have lots of zizia, dill, and parsley growing so if it manages to find a mate, there are places they can lay eggs for the next generation.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Our former tadpoles growing up

One of our former tadpoles, growing up
Over the past few years, toads have laid tens of thousands of eggs in our ponds. By the time they're ready to leave our ponds, there are somewhat fewer, and I imagine that after a few weeks out of the ponds, their numbers are considerably diminished. On days when many are leaving the pond, I've seen birds with little legs sticking out of their beaks.  But after all, how many toads could our yard support anyway? Natural attrition is built into the system.

Still, toads are so beneficial that we're hoping a good many survive. It's hard to know how many do survive since mating season in the ponds is the only time we see toads routinely. (Frogs hang around the pond all the time--one reason we really miss them.)

It's always fun to discover some of our own toadlets growing up. Yesterday, I moved a stone and discovered two adolescent toads! We don't know if they were last year's toads or toads from the previous year. (I put a dime near him to show his relative size.) We relocated them to an area with lots of cover, and we're sure they'll be helping us as they grow by eating increasing numbers of slugs and other pests.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Unusual visitors to our pond

A few years ago a pair of mallards visited our pond briefly, but we hadn't seen any since then ... until tonight. Our pond is just barely ten feet across, so I don't believe it's adequate to support a pair of ducks, but it's interesting to have them as visitors.

Our biggest concern about having these otherwise welcome guests is that they'll eat our toad tadpoles. We've had batches of toad eggs in both our upper pond (the one shown here) and in our lower pond, which is next to the house. The toads laid many thousands of eggs, so as long as they don't go into our bottom wildlife pond, then we'll probably have as many tadpoles as our yard can support anyway.

It was interesting watching the two enjoying the pond and stream. As I kept crawling closer, they seemed to become quite comfortable with my presence, but seldom took their eyes off me just in case.

They finally left the pond and stream and wandered into my meadow garden for a little while before taking off.

Friday, May 06, 2011

American lady butterfly laying eggs

American Lady butterfly laying eggs on pussytoes
I'm not sure when we've first seen American Lady butterflies in the past, but it seemed early. Maybe that's just because it has been so rainy and cold following such a long, snowy winter that it's hard to believe it's actually May. At any rate, it was certainly encouraging to see life beginning anew!

It always amazes me to see butterflies finding their host plants. I have a few good patches of pussytoes (Antennaria), but even so, they're dwarfed by all the other plants in the yard. Still, the ladies find them, as they must.

We're still waiting for the dill to grow so the black swallowtail butterflies will have something to lay their eggs on. Of course, they could also lay their eggs on parsley, but they always seemed to prefer the dill. We also have some zizia, their native host plant, which is starting to grow.

Monday, May 02, 2011

If you think YOUR life is boring...

Three toads spending the day in the pond skimmer
These three toads spent the entire day in the pond skimmer without moving a muscle. That might have been fine for the toad on the top, but I wouldn't have wanted to be the toad on the bottom!

I assume this is their sleeping time, resting up for the nighttime frolics in the pond. We've had at least four batches of eggs laid so far.

I've had to remove two mating pairs from the skimmer and put them in the bottom pond, but they seemed to disappear after a while. Maybe they gave up and went away.

I don't like to disturb them, but any eggs they laid in the skimmer would be going up through the return pipe, through the biofalls lava rocks and into the stream. I don't think they'd survive, so moving them is the best I can do. At any rate, we have so many thousands of eggs now developing that I don't think more eggs would necessarily mean more toads.

The saddest thing is to hear all the toads singing throughout the neighborhood, knowing that the majority of them are laying their eggs in swimming pools, which will soon be chlorinated.

More info on my frogs and toads is on my website at www.ourhabitatgarden.org/creatures/amphibians.html.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Toads mating!

The black and white string in the top left quadrant is the string of eggs
The toads started singing a little late this year, but we finally have success!

The past few days we've had a group of toads hanging out in the pond skimmer--apparently their favorite place. We've heard a lot of singing the last two nights, and they've still been singing in the morning when I get up.

One pair finally got together to lay eggs. Note how much larger the female is than the male. There are still five males hanging out in the skimmer, so we hope some more females come around tonight.

We especially would like them to find our pond. If they don't, they usually end up in someone's swimming pool, which means all the little tadpoles die when the owners add chlorine.

More on amphibians on Our Habitat Garden website.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

A towhee visits our yard

We were happy to see a towhee in the yard. At first glance, we thought it was a robin since it has the same coloring. But a towhee has much more vivid coloring and much more clearly-defined borders of white and black. Unfortunately, he wouldn't turn around for a good photo of this, but these birds are striking.

We especially like to watch him scratching about in the leaves under the clethra shrubs, apparently his favorite place. He does the little insect scratching motion just like song sparrows and other true sparrows do, but in a much more vigorous way.

I'm glad we've left this leaf litter, which can be a rich source of little insects for birds. So many people seem to think any natural materials under shrubs have to be raked up and discarded like trash. What a shame!

Saturday, April 09, 2011

First butterfly of the season!

When I stepped outside today, a butterfly flew over my head. Although I didn't see it clearly, I believe it was a mourning cloak. The photo (taken a few years ago, not today) shows a mourning cloak, somewhat battered. I'm not surprised that it should be a mourning cloak since they overwinter as adults, in contrast to other butterflies that overwinter in other various stages.

For example, we're still waiting for my black swallowtail pupae to emerge. They've been sitting in their pupal form in the aquarium since mid-summer last year! When the temperatures reach 60, I expect they'll start thinking about emerging.

I also saw a number of bees today, though I saw my first bee a few days ago. But I wonder what they're eating? There are very few things blooming--not even the pussy willows, which are still gray catkins.

Maybe the early bees just take the chance that they'll be able to survive and thus get a head start. If so, then these lost the bet...

Sunday, April 03, 2011

Chipmunks return!

I saw my first chipmunk yesterday (April 2). This was the first winter I can recall when I didn't see a chipmunk during a January thaw. Why? Because there never was a thaw. There was a constant, usually very thick, layer of snow the whole season. It's really a wonder how chipmunks can survive in their burrows for so long without seeing the light of day or getting fresh air.

I know many people regard chipmunks as vermin, but I don't have a problem with them. I haven't noticed any great damage--I even have tulips come up year after year, and I haven't planted any in ten years.

And what if they did a little damage? I get more enjoyment watching them than I would having another tulip. Humans can't just keep the whole world to ourselves.

Shrubs took a hit this winter

Our chokeberry shrub
The snow was unrelenting this winter. Snowstorm after snowstorm--and sometimes ice storms--piled mountains of snow on mountains of snow. This constant layer of snow probably helped our herbaceous plants, but it was hard on our shrubs.

As you can see in the photo, many of the branches were snapped off. I'm cutting these broken branches off cleanly, but some shrubs will have to be cut back almost to the ground. I'm sure they'll regrow, and it may even allow some to grow into better shapes than they were in before.

The shrub I worry about the most, though, is my buttonbush (Cephalanthus occidentalis). It was flattened this winter, and its branches were still trapped under the last bit of snow until yesterday. I hope it is able to straighten up some. It's still a young shrub, but it had three or four flowers last year.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Starting up for pond and stream for the year

The snow and ice finally melted enough so we could start the pond and stream again. A real sign of spring, even though there's not yet much green.

It always amazes us that it's so easy to get started each year--just pop in the pump, which has been in a bucket of water in the basement all winter, plug it in, and it starts. (Of course, the water is finger-freezing cold while setting in the pump and so on, but that's John's job, not mine...)

The birds noticed immediately that their small flowerpot-saucer birdbath had been replaced with a "real" stream. I expect the robins will be especially happy, since they're our stream's most dedicated bathers.

It's so nice to again hear the stream flowing, though it's still so cold that we have to go outside to hear it.

Next spring milestone we're awaiting: toads singing!

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Robins like winterberries in spring, too

These winterberries (Ilex verticillata) may be wizened and not nearly as appealing as they were during the winter, but now that the northern mockingbird is no longer claiming them as his own, this robin is getting a meal.

Fresh new berries won't be available until the serviceberries (Amelanchier canadense) are ready in June.