Bird Watching in the Nicest Possible Way

It’s here! It’s time! Even if you have never really watched birds in an “organized way before. Even if you have never heard of something called a “life list” (or if you have and you think that it’s very scary!)

Today begins a 4 day North American bird count called the Great Backyard Bird Count. And it’s just as simple as the name implies. What do you do? Well, starting today (February 12) through Monday (February 15) you count birds in a specified location (the organizers, Cornell Lab, put the word “backyard” in the name because they thought that that’s where it would be easiest for most people to count birds–at home.  If someplace better works for you, that’s fine–just choose the same location for all 4 days of your count).

Full details are found here, at gbbc.birdcount.org.  There you can register, get details on how the count works and helpful tips on how to ID some look-alike species.

You can also download the e-bird app to your mobile phone so that you can enter your counts there.

E-bird is an app (or a web site) that you can use year round to enter sitings of birds as well. You can also go there to check for sitings of the latest “eruption” of rare birds. You can narrow it down by state, town, recreation area–it’s quite specific. So it’s also nice for travel (for those who like to see birds while traveling).

This weekend, if you have a little time, and the weather permits, go watch some birds–and then send your data to Cornell. You’ll be part of one of the oldest “citizen science” projects that exists–and you might even have fun–or find a new hobby–when you do!

Wordless Wednesday

20160207_095523

As much as I am not a fan of snow or cold weather,  it certainly does make everything prettier. (We won’t talk about its insulating qualities for plants at this point because after a month of cold without any snow that’s pretty much a moot point. )

20160207_095412

But these photos,  taken Sunday overlooking one of our municipal golf courses, rival some of my Colorado shots (at least in my mind!). Maybe the novelty of snow hasn’t worn off yet.

It’s evident that’s folks, too, had been out enjoying the beautiful weather–look at all the tracks in the snow. There are footprints–both human and canine and even a set of cross country ski tracks.

This was truly a blue sky day!

 

Consequences of a Milder Winter

One of the benefits of living in a place with four seasons is that the cold weather kills over-wintering insects and weeds. Usually.

In years with milder winters, fewer insects and weeds get killed. Therefore, while we humans may enjoy the benefits of a warmer winter (I know I did–I won’t speak for everyone), the bugs and the weeds do as well.

20160207_113435

The photo above is evidence–already–of something to be alert for as spring nears. This is a neighbor’s hemlock. I just happened to notice it because the dog likes to stop and sniff it on our daily walks. It’s covered in that pest, the woolly adelgid (for those unfamiliar with that charmer, it’s the little white spots all along the spines of the plant–almost like an outdoor mealy bug, but smaller.)

Another thing I expect to see–since our last warmer winter was only 3 years ago–is an abundance of early annual weeds like chickweed. I am already seeing evidence of perennial weeds like dandelions and have been regularly all fall and winter. There’s just something wrong about seeing dandelions in December, January and February!

So what do we do? Well, since this is an organic blog, you know I am not going to advocate for pesticide for the weeds. It’s not going to be effective in the cold weather anyway.  For the few weeds that are around,  if the ground thaws on a warm day, simple hand pulling is a great way to deal with them–and it gives you something to do during those crazy 60 or 70 degree days when there’s really not much else we can do (in my climate anyway).

For the adelgid, those folks might want to consult an arborist. I know there are certain oils that can be sprayed, as well as insecticidal soaps but I am not sure of the timing. Spraying too early and too late in the season is ineffective and can harm the plant and lead to run-off that can harm waterways. No point in that.

As with most things in life, timing is everything.

 

 

What I Learn When I Clean

Honestly, when I clean the house, I find out so much about my plants. It may have something to do with the fact that I have 7 bay windows. Those windows hold a lot of plants.

But those windows also have trim and flat surfaces that needs dusting and of course windows that need washing if the dog has gotten in there barking at the squirrels.

So while I am cleaning the windows, I am checking out the plants. What’s happening? Do they look “okay?” is there any noticeable stickiness? That’s the first sign of an insect infestation, usually–the plant will produce what’s called “honeydew” in response to scale or sometimes mealy bugs or aphids.

You’ll find the stickiness on other leaves or on the surface of the windowsill or table or where ever the plant might be located. So that’s a good indicator of an insect problem.

Another thing I will find is lots of fallen leaves. Usually it’s not a problem. Dry winter homes cause this. If I find an unusual number then I investigate further (I have one plant with a scale infestation right now that is dropping leaves like crazy–in fact, the unusual number of falling leaves, rather than any stickiness, is what first alerted me to that plant’s particular issue).

20160204_163538

But what I never expected to find–and what I can’t really account for–is artillery fungus remains. I find it occasionally but I have no idea  why I am finding it indoors. It’s those black dots on the “ceiling” and molding of the bay window in the above photo.

To recap, artillery fungus is a particularly obnoxious type of fungus. It can permanently damage cars and paint or siding on a home. It looks just like what you see in the above photo–tiny black dots–except that out of doors they are often far more numerous and far more destructive because they can’t be removed by most known means like power washing.

It is generally thought to come from the breakdown of “cheaper” forms of mulches like those dyed mulches made from ground up pallets. But clearly, indoors, I don’t have any such thing.

It’s obviously coming from some component in my house plant soil. And here’s where it gets interesting. After the great fungus gnat infestation a few years ago, I went cold turkey from the commercial bagged soils. I now only use the soils you can get in garden centers. I exclusively used soils that I bought in garden centers all season long this past summer. So whatever is breaking down in those soils must be causing this problem.

I would still rather have this minor issue than another fungus gnat infestation (which I have not had since I have switched to “good” quality garden soil.) But I will leave that coice up to you.

Wordless Wednesday

20160130_155225

This time of year, the pond is a blessing and a curse. It has to do with the fact that there’s water in it–and the fact that we’re still in a moderate to almost severe drought–we’re right on the edge now.

Last weekend as I was cleaning, I heard the dog yapping away. It was her “there’s squirrels in the yard” bark so I wandered over to an upstairs window to take a look. Sure enough, a squirrel was running down the rock face that backs up the pond, going out onto the ice and drinking from the fountain. Nice for him/her/it.

But the weekend before, just before the snow, the pond was completely iced over. The ground was frozen hard and the dog pulled me right to the edge of the pond. I looked and immediately pulled her back. All I could see were 2 squirrel legs sticking up out of the water–“touchdown squirrel” as it were–upside down.

As near as I can guess, the poor critter must have leaned over the edge where there was a bit of water showing, and pushed the ice away to get at it. But of course, the ice pushed back and it got trapped and that was that. There it was until the ice thawed this weekend and I could fish it out and give it the “compost” burial that the other unfortunate critters that slip in on occasion get.

No matter how many bird baths full of water I keep out, the pond still is a death trap on occasion. I always feel sad about that.

Where’s Your Pantry?

Normally, when I cook, I grab dried herbs or spices from my cabinet.

But on occasion, I am blessed to be able to go out into the yard–or even closer,  onto the sun porch –to grab some fresh herbs.

I have heard that the balcony is going to be the new garden.  That makes a lot of sense as people downsize.  Lots of books are coming out about smaller gardens and about gardening as we age as well  (or perhaps I mean gardening well as we age ).

20160127_162358

In any event,  one of the blessings of this warmer winter has been far less snow than the past 2 years. So I can get out into the yard and get thyme for stew when I want it.

20160127_162528

The parsley in this same garden has gotten fairly beaten down by the weather but I saved a pot on my porch for soups and stews as well.  It’s great to have these fresh herbs on hand for cooking when you need them.

Of course lots of grocery stores now carry fresh herbs–even organic ones–for cooking. But I am not the sort of cook that is organized enough to think about that sort of thing. I think about it as I am cooking.  And I am not likely to run out for a pot of herbs–or even some fresh cut ones–then. Perhaps you are different.

This is why I always have pots of fresh herbs–in season –as near to the door as possible.  I am one of those impulsive type cooks.  I am probably the same type of gardener.

Finding Spider Mites

On Monday,  I talked briefly about having a problem with spider mites on your house plants. Spider mites–those tiny, almost microscopic little spiders that can be red, brown, grey, two-spotted  (or so I am told-you couldn’t prove that to me!)–anyway, you get the idea.

They are fairly easy to spot if they are the web-building kind, but by the time they have built enough webs and are merrily sucking the juices out of your house plants, it is to the point where you need to ditch the plant.

This is the point in my house plant lecture where I always say that we know Stephen King is not a gardener. Then I go on to tell horror stories about insects and say, “Right? If Stephen King were a gardener,  this would be in a book by now.” And this is true for spider mites.

They reproduce so quickly–like aphids,  it’s every 3 days. So once you have a good colony of spider mites going, it’s almost impossible to keep up–or to control them. Ditch the plant.

And because they are so tiny–they are about the size of the tip of a pin, not the head–you really need great light, stellar eye sight, or a good hand lens to find them.

But there are some defenses. First,  know what plants are susceptible.  Ivy will always get mites.  It is a given.

Those lovely little miniature rose plants they sell for Valentines Day–the plants, not cut flowers–are also susceptible.  Juniper bonsai grown indoors will usually succumb.

Those are just 3 of many possibilities.

So how can you know if a plant has mites (before it shows symptoms). One of the best ways is to take a leaf (if the plant has big leaves)  or take the whole plant, hold it over a sheet of pure white  paper  and shake or tap it vigorously.

Then move the plant away and study what has fallen on the paper.  If anything is walking, you have mites.

Something else you can do for a plant like ivy,  which is definitely susceptible,  is to give it a cold water shower every week or 10 days. That should wash away any mites before they get totally out of control.

In late February,  I will talk about the other indoor pests to begin watching for. But for now, watch for scale and mites on your prized house plants.