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Birding from the Car

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What on earth is this mess? Actually it’s a bunch of weeds almost obscuring a garden near the restrooms in Elizabeth Park.

The Park clearly needs more volunteers. But actually, perhaps not. While I was sitting in y car waiting to meet a friend, I was watching this weedy patch and the goldfinch were just loving it! They didn’t even seem to care that I was snapping photographs, or that folks were driving in the parking lot.

In fact the only thing that seemed to drive them away was when folks–some with excitable children–started to queue up for the bathrooms.

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The “fluff” from these flowers is what they were after. As you may know, goldfinch are late nesters. I suspect they may have been lining their nests with these seed puffs. The fact that there was a seed at the end of the “fluff” almost seemed to be an inconvenience. The finches seemed to be wiping the seeds in the study stems of these weeds in an attempt to knock it off. Apparently, it is not tasty–at least not to the goldfinch.

So next time you a have few minutes to wait, sit quietly in your car. It makes a great “birding blind.” You never know what you’ll see!

Composed Flowers

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We hear a lot about “composite flowers” as being great for our pollinators. When they talk about composites, they often talk about things like daisies, cone flowers, sunflower and other flowers with a central disk and a ray of petals radiating from that disk.

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Even these lovely “weeds”–fleabane is the correct name for them and they are in the aster family so you might want to leave them for your pollinators because the tiny little bees adore them–are a fabulous little composite flower. Such a tiny miracle of nature.

I’m here to propose a totally different sort of “composite”–or perhaps I mean “composed”–type of flower that is excellent for our pollinators.

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This photo above is of a great, underused native called veronicastrum. Maybe it’s the name the puts everyone off. The common name is Culver’s root, which isn’t much better. It is native to my part of the country, the eastern seaboard, basically. And normally, it is quite tall, towering over my head. This year it’s stunted–probably only 3′ or so. That’s what 2 1/2 years of drought will do to a native perennial.

What’s great about it is that all these individual spikelets bloom for weeks on end–and sometimes secondary spikelets will form further down the stem, prolonging the bloom time. I have seen several types of bees and solitary wasps all at the same time on this one perennial.

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This of course is our native milkweed, asclepias syriacus. It’s great for our monarchs but what a lot of folks don’t realize is that many bees like it too.

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Finally here is oregano. Notice all the tiny florets. Mine is constantly covered with bumblebees all summer long.

Obviously I don’t use this for cooking or I wouldn’t let it flower. I have some oregano that I use for culinary purposes (meaning that I don’t let it flower) in my vegetable garden. But from what I understand, these flowers are edible too. I would just hate to disturb the bees!

Boids

It’s getting to be “beetle ” time in the garden.  I am not really seeing too many beetles on the plants–I never really do–but occasionally I see the beetles on the screens at night, or hear them thwack into a window while I am reading at night.

Do you remember the Japanese beetle traps? They were popular in the 90s.  They were plastic bags with a scent lure designed to attract the beetles. They did attract beetles because of the scent lure–but then the issue became whether they attracted more beetles than they caught?

In any event,  after a few years, everyone stopped using them. I don’t think I have seen the traps in years and I can count on two hands each year the number of beetles I see.

So what is the magic in my yard? Boids–as the the Spoiler calls them, otherwise known as birds.

I have written about this topic before.  This isn’t news. Birds feed insects to their young. And what are grubs but insects!

Grubs–the larva of beetles–are some pretty protein packed food for young birds. And if the birds get them, you don’t have skunks or moles or voles digging up the lawn either.

It’s all pretty simple.  It’s the ecosystem working as it should.  But it can only work if you do not use pesticides.  Just a thought.

Do You Hear What I Hear?

As gardeners, we are always focused on the visual: we watch for new flowers opening or new vegetables ripening; we watch for insects or diseases; we try to determine if a branch dying back is just a natural occurrence or something more sinister.

But how often do we pay attention to what we hear in the garden? Sure, occasionally we may notice a particular bird singing if it’s loud enough or close by (or if it’s the dawn chorus in early spring which causes such a commotion it’s loud enough to wake most people).

If we’re working nearby an ornamental grass clump in a breeze we might notice that the fronds of grass are rustling in the breeze.

Or if we’re working in a shady garden, as I often do, we might have the same experience when there’s a breeze, of listening to the leaves of different trees moving in the wind.

But how often are we truly able to sit and just listen to what’s happening in nature? For me it’s almost never!

I took a little time to do just that on July 4th–an unexpected middle of the week holiday. And the explosion of bird calls was astonishing even to me, who, I thought, was generally attuned to this sort of thing!

I first noticed two robins having a “cheer-io” calling contest back and forth across  my yard. Then I noticed a third, more angry robin doing a sort of indignant “cheep” from somewhere else–I am guessing it was from the roof of the porch right above where I was sitting.

There was a male cardinal singing its heart out.

And two juvenile red tail hawks. They don’t quite caw. They sort of screech. It almost sounds like sea gulls.

I heard blue jays, a cat bird, a nuthatch and a house wren as well–and those were just the bird sounds!

Next time you’re in the garden, take time to listen as well as look. I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised.

 

It’s Pollinator Week–How Can I Help?

Pollinator Week occurs every year this time.  You can find out more about the initiative at the website, pollinator.org.

It was designed to draw attention to our dwindling pollinators like the monarchs,  originally.  But then bats became affected by white nose syndrome and it became clear that honeybees were in trouble, and our native bees were becoming more scarce and so Pollinator Week has really expanded to include all sorts of pollinators and to bring awareness to ways of gardening and backyard living that can help them.

Another cool thing that Pollinator Week does is draw attention to all the other different types of pollinators besides the ones mentioned above. Birds, flies, beetles, my beloved ants and insects–all of those can be pollinators and some of these can be endangered as well.

So how can you help? First, check out the website.  It will have resources for your part of North America  (sorry if you aren’t in North America–perhaps you recognize some of the plants mentioned for a similar latitude?)

Next, even if you can’t add any plants to your garden, practice responsible pesticide use in the garden you have.  We use no pesticides–& a pesticide is defined as a fungicide,  a herbicide or an insecticide–on our property. We don’t even use algacides in our pond.

But if you do, please use them responsibility.  Read and follow the label directions.  If you are spot treating something,  try to do it at a time when no or few pollinators are present–dusk is often a good time. And that is usually better for the plants (& the gardener) as well since it is cooler and causes less stress.

Finally if you are adding plants, consider natives.  It is a proven fact that they feed all wildlife in all stages of their lives more often than ornamentals.  But don’t feel that you must go crazy.  I will show you why  ( I hope) on Friday.

Leave Them Bee!

There is an ever increasing awareness of bees and their role in our ecosystem. In fact, I saw one statement that said that if every bee were to disappear off the face of the earth, humans would only survive for 4 days. Gracious! Surely in these days of cloning and other advances in technology, we could manage to stretch our survival out slightly longer than that, no?

But let’s hope it never comes to that, particularly with all the other dire news on what ever your news channel of choice is these days.

Still in all this awareness of bees, what I want to call most people’s awareness to is the gentle nature of bees. I don’t want anyone with a true allergy to bees to take any risks, of course–no one should endanger his or her life over an insect.

But for the rest of us without true allergies–those with just a morbid fear of insects (which sadly, is just too much of the population as I can attest to from years of retail gardening)–I am here to say that bees do not want to sting you.

Let me repeat that: bees don’t want to sting. Bees want to pollinate plants. That’s why they’re out there flying around. I can tell you that I have handled an awful lot of plants with bees on them and I have photographed even more and bees will not sting you.

There are exceptions to this rule. Don’t get into the middle of a swarm of honeybees. Those are not in the middle of “doing their job.” Those bees have been displaced and are riled up.

Don’t generally mistake bees for hornets or wasps–although early in the season, unless you step into a nest, hornets and wasps generally are fine as well. It’s only later in the season that they get “ornery.”

And don’t start flailing your arms and legs as if you’re trying to signal some sort of alien fleet if something–bee, wasp, hummingbird, or whatever comes nearby. That generally doesn’t end well.

But if you remain calm and keep your arms at your sides (which is a good idea anyway–who wants to be stung under the arm?), bees, wasps and hornets will generally fly up to you, look at you, and just fly right away.

It’s the same with bats. But that’s a whole different animal–literally.

A Voice for the Unloved

My long-time readers know how much I love ants. I think they are they greatest insects. And while we don’t ever want to go overboard and say, “Oh heck, ants are just like us!,” it’s true that if you want to compare a bug to human beings, ants are not a bad bug to start with and here’s why: they live in communities (that’s what those anthills are all about); they have defined roles (did you know that there are such things as “nurse” ants, “forager” ants and “soldier” ants, for example? In other words, ants have jobs to do just like we do!

And ants are pollinators as my long time readers know. They pollinate all sorts of spring wild flowers. But many of you have probably reaped the benefits of ant pollination in a more practical sense–I know I have.

If you grow grape hyacinth (muscari species) ants actually pollinate those. Ever wonder how or why they suddenly show up in strange places you didn’t plant them? You can thank the ants.

Ant pollination occurs in a rather unusual way. Certain plants have a structure called an eliaosome attached to their seeds. This structure is rich in lipids and proteins and attracts the ants, who pick up the seeds for these eliaosomes.

Once they carry the seeds back to their nests, the seeds are dispersed and the plants are transported–and in the process, pollinated. Pretty fascinating stuff.

I am not going to ask you to put up with ants all over your kitchen. Even I don’t do that. But please, if the ants are outside and safely away from your home, please let them be. This very active ant hill is on the edge of my driveway,  bothering no one.

And speaking of that, on Monday, we’ll talk about bees!