Sunday, April 17, 2016

Get to Know the Creatures in Your Yard

Have you ever just sat in your garden and looked at the world of the insects, bees, reptiles, birds and the plants? I mean, get down on their level and see the world as they see it. My favorite thing to do is to take a cup of coffee and go to the garden just as the sun comes up. The smell of the flowers and herbs is almost overwhelming. Last week I sat and watched, for the longest time, an Anole and his antics sparked my curiosity.

The Green Anole (Anolis carolinensis) is indigenous to the southern United States. With a dorsal coat of lime to emerald green (very rare and gorgeous specimens are tinted blue), the green Anole is an agile climber and dines on spiders, grasshoppers and other insect prey. These green guys are personable little lizards that seem to enjoy being hand-fed too. That is if you like picking up spiders and grasshoppers.

These little herps (slang for reptiles and amphibians) are also sometimes referred to as the American chameleon due to its ability to change color from several brown hues to bright green. However, it is not a true chameleon. The color changes are caused by hormones, background color or mood. Anoles also do push-ups to regulate their inner temperature. They are ectothermic which means their environment determines their body temperature. On a hot afternoon if you see a male Anole doing push-ups and there is no female around, chances are he is cooling off. Green Anoles tend to remain green when temperatures are more than 70 degrees F., whereas they tend to remain brown during cool weather conditions or when stressed.  And get this - its toes have adhesive pads to facilitate climbing.

This little green guy that I observed was doing push-ups all by himself. I was saddened. I’m sure you’ve seen them where you live.

This behavior is to catch the female Anole’s eye. Which leads to this.

Females pay attention to this display of fitness, sort of like watching Chippendale Dancers (not that I have ever seen any Chippendale Dancers).

Female lizards rate their guys by the size of their. . . .wait for it. . .dewlap. It is the bright-colored patch that the male lizard sports on their necks or on their bellies. Doing these push-ups is much like a body builder flexing his muscles.

So once in a while forget your gardening to do list and slow down, rest, relax and discover the soap opera that goes on daily in your garden. You may not get ahead of those weeds, but you will find unexpected drama unfolding. A leisurely pace has its rewards!

Monday, February 22, 2016

Just Do One Thing!

My good friend, Liz the realtor, guilted me into the continuation of this blog about gardening, nature, the east Texas piney woods and dumb stuff I do. I think she just wants to read about the dumb stuff I do. If you enjoy my blog, please don't just like it on Facebook. Leave an anonymous comment at the bottom of this page. Heck, you can always say,"boy, Ann, that is dumb."

I want to talk about gardening for wildlife. I know, I know, we live in the middle of huge wildlife preserve here at Holly Lake Ranch. In talking about gardening for wildlife, I am not referring to planting so the deer will eat it (but actually that happens anyway). There is a type of gardening that sustains our wildlife and here are some ideas for attracting the kind of wildlife you really want in your garden.

Let’s start easy. . . . with just one thing. Imagine if doing just one thing for wildlife really could really make a difference in their existence. I know this sounds weird, but it’s true. We could make a huge difference for our local wildlife if each of us chose to do just one thing in our garden. Really.

You don’t have to re-landscape your flower beds. You don’t have to rip out your entire lawn (although doing that would be a great improvement for wildlife right there). You don’t have to become a native plant expert. You just have to choose one helpful task and do it. If we each did just that much, struggling wildlife populations would have a better chance.

One task could be to welcome bugs to your wildlife garden. Whaaat? Are insects good for the garden? The answer is yes. We tend to notice those that damage our plants and overlook the ones that are harmless or beneficial to the ecosystem that is our garden.


Worse yet, we use pesticide that kills all bugs because we paint all insects with the same brush. 

The fact is that many, probably most, insects are invaluable components of the ecosystem. You might want to consider organic gardening. Think of it this way – no bugs; no birds. It is wise to learn and recognize and appreciate these gardener friends. Here is a good resource published by Texas A&M. Beneficials in the Garden

Welcome pollinators and butterflies to your garden. Did you know there are more than 4,000 species of native bees and 725 species of butterflies on this continent? It takes 2 million flowers a bee has to tap to make a pound of honey and the estimated annual value of the honey bee to US agriculture is over $9 billion dollars. The honey bees are responsible for pollinating 1/3 of US crop species too. We need all kinds of bees even Bumbles and Mason! 

Consider planting the flowers they love, adding a water source and providing housing for them. Besides a hive, bees like upside down flower pots, old logs, or a board or two on the ground. Being a little untidy in the garden and on your property can be a big help. To make your butterfly garden successful,you need to supply both nectar and larval host plants. Nectar plants feed the adult butterflies and larval or host plants feed the caterpillars. Different species of butterflies have different needs, especially when it comes to the native butterfly host plants. Caterpillars are important. Without caterpillars, there are no butterflies. Well, duh!

Garden for the birds. I love birdscaping. It is one of the very few activities that truly follows the motto “If you build it, they will come.” By arranging your landscape or garden to create welcoming habitats for birds including rest stops for migrating birds, places for breeding and raising their young, and food and shelter for winter residents, you will provide for birds’ basic needs. Birdscaping is much more than putting up a few bird feeders.

Lastly, lead by example. Teaching your family, friends and neighbors to take the same action will magnify your efforts and help a lot more. Now I’m not saying there’s some kind of magic bullet that would solve all of the dangers facing our native wildlife, but doing one thing will certainly help to slow their decline.

Hey, I'm eating here!

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

You Say Tomato; I Say Tobacco

My family is used to my weirdness. Case in point. . .my hubby, finding a hornworm, still attached to a moonflower, laying on our kitchen island.

He just raised his eyebrows and did not ask. I tell him it is all in the name of science. I had the worm there in order to take a photo and then dispatch it to tomato hornworm heaven. I apologized by saying I got sidelined reading up on this green jewel.

I think most gardeners are inclined to immediately squish this green worm. I am guilty of that as well. But first lets take a look at what we have here. The tomato/tobacco hornworm feasts voraciously on plants of the nightshade family which include tomato, pepper, potato, nicotiana and moonflower. I have also seen them eat virginia creeper. 

A clue that you have a hornworm is a plant that looks like this.

Or, you see the little round frass. 

The hornworm caterpillars get their name from the signature horns that grace their hind ends. Loathed by gardeners in its caterpillar stage, the tomato hornworm, has eight V-shaped marks on each side and a signature horn on the rear.

The tobacco hornworm, which closely resembles its tomato preferring cousin, has seven diagonal white lines on its sides and a curved horn. But, hey, who is counting.

Both caterpillars turn into large moths, known as sphinx or hawk moths, with four- to six-inch wingspans in colors ranging from brown and gold to pink and gray. Sometimes we call these moths hummingbird moths because they resemble, wait for it, hummingbirds. Like a hummingbird, they feed on a deep-lobed flowers and are most active during late afternoon and dusk.



Moths, the nocturnal brothers of butterflies, are generally under-appreciated and yet many are as striking as their celebrated butterfly siblings.  Like butterflies, moths  perform necessary pollination tasks and serve as primary fodder for bats, birds, even small mammals.
One very good reason in keeping the caterpillar form of this moth around is that it is the primary pollinator of the agave plant. The Arizona desert agave makes tequila possible. No worm; no tequila. And, that my friends will be a sad, sad day.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Is That an Eagle, Sparrow or Crow?

I get a plethora of few phone calls from time to time asking for an identification of a certain bird. The phone call goes something like this: "I have a little brown bird in my yard. Do you know what it is?" After many questions, the caller and I usually narrow the identification down. So to help you, I thought you might like what I learned at a Davis Mountain bird identification class. The first thing the park ranger told us was to put away our ID books. I knew I was doomed!!

Categorize the bird – there are many different categories of birds. One of the first things you should do is learn these categories and peruse the birds in them. No need to memorize these right now. But, as soon as you see it, try to put the bird into one of the following categories:
  • Seabirds
  • Heron-like birds
  • Swans, geese, ducks and duck-like birds
  •  Hawk-like birds
  • Chicken-like birds
  • Marsh birds
  • Gull-like birds
  • Shorebirds and small waders
  • Pigeon-like birds
  • Owls and other nocturnal birds
  • Jays and crows
  • Shrikes and vireos
  • Swallows
  • Chickadees, nuthatches, wrens
  • Thrushes, mimics
  • Warblers
  • Tanagers, grosbeaks, buntings
  • Sparrows
  • Blackbirds, Orioles
  • Finches

Size – How big or small is the bird? You can use size relativity to get a general idea. Size relativity refers to being bigger or smaller than a sparrow, robin, crow or pigeon.

Study silhouettes – this is an important part of identification because most times, when a bird is flying, you can’t see all field marks. So pay attention to body, beak, tail and legs. Then ask yourself:
  • Is the body short or long? Narrow or plump?
  • Is its beak fine, long, or short and stout (insect or seed eater)? Is it dagger-shaped, hooked or straight
  • Are its legs short or long? What color are the legs?
  •  Do the wings look rounded or pointed?
  • Do the wings have wing bars? Are they single, double, bold or obscure?
  • Is the tail notched or straight across?

What is the bird’s behavior? Different birds have different behaviors. For example: 
an Eastern Phoebe repeatedly bobs it tail,

Brown Creeper hitches itself up a tree,

move down a tree,

the American Dipper does somersaults in flowing water
Use your bird book’s range maps – These maps show whether or not a bird is located in a specific area. Maps may have 1-4 colors (winter is blue, yellow is migration, brown is summer and purple is year round). Range is very important part in identifying birds. Here are two warblers and their maps:

Cape May Warbler

Magnolia Warbler

Do not depend on color!! Birds have different plumages at different stages of life, different times of the year and multiple birds have the same color. Use color as your LAST RESORT. Here are two DIFFERENT birds.

Male House Finch
Male Purple Finch

Female Pine Siskin

Female House Finch

Use a field guide – All the information you need about a particular bird is in one place. You can use a hard copy or there are some new electronic guides available for your iPhone or iPad. Field guides have the categories that birds are in and they separate them by family. Juvenile and adult, male and female photos in field guides are a tremendous help.

Oh, and get a good set of binoculars. With a field guide and binos you are all ready to bird and start your life list!!

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Witch's Broom

My friend, Jean B., asked last fall if I was no longer writing my blog and I said, “Oh, yes, I am still writing away.” Not! Truth is I have been so very, very busy lazy. I was beginning to think last year no one was reading my blog, commenting or didn't find it interesting so I just quit! So there! But, just like a bad penny, I am back.

Ever see one of these?

On Timberidge Trail

This is a great example of a broom or witch’s broom. These are point mutations that cause the formation of dense, dwarf growth and abnormal tree branching in an otherwise normal tree or shrub. I have seen them here on our pine trees. Brooms can be caused be a variety of factors including diseases, aphids, environmental stress and random mutations. 

Horticulturists and plant collectors utilize these mutations to create cultivars such as dwarf conifers and weeping trees. The Japanese cultivate miniature Bonsai trees from these mutations. Because of this, brooms are often a prized commodity and ‘brooming' or 'broom hunting’ is an active past-time for some people. Folks that find their first brooms are sometimes called ‘Baby broomers.’ Broom hunters are a focused lot and have been known to screech to a halt on a major interstate in their relentless pursuit of conifer conversation pieces.  So keep an eye out for brooms – and broom hunters!

But more importantly, I think brooming teaches us to really look at nature. Sometimes we miss a lot. Looking down we miss what is up in the trees. Looking far away we miss what is right under foot. Sometimes we are so rushed we miss the sweet smell of a flower, a colorful bird, the community of plants, the diversity of seeds and seedlings. But with a little practice, we can learn to notice. And we just might discover a new plant right under our nose, (and a lot of other wonderful things as well).

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

When Should I Take Down My Hummingbird Feeders?

When should I take my hummingbird feeders down? That question always pops up in the early fall when ‘swarms’ of hummers are seen at feeders. And, my answer is always that depends.

Hummingbirds are migratory, tropical birds. As the ice sheets retreated during the last ice age, hummingbirds expanded their ranges northward in search of food and nesting places. Some of our songbirds adapted completely by becoming vegetarians in winter and therefore do not migrate. Hummingbirds are carnivores (insect eaters) and use nectar as fuel for their insect gathering activities.

But the abundance of insects and nectar aren't the only things that affect the hummers need to migrate. Generally hummingbirds migrate in response to hormonal changes that are triggered by the length of daylight. And, when you think about it, the length of daylight affects the blooms of plants and the abundance or lack thereof of insects.

Nothing you do will force these little guys to fly south! If you remove your feeder, birds will just feed elsewhere, but may not bother to return to your yard the next year. I recommend continuing to maintain feeders until freezing becomes a problem.

By mid-September, essentially all of the Ruby-throated at our feeders are migrating through from farther north and are not the ones that we have seen at our feeders during the summer. That is why you see so many at feeders during the fall. And the number migrating south may be twice that of the northward trip, since it includes all immature birds that hatched during the summer, as well as surviving adults.

You've always heard that things are bigger in Texas. Well, if you want to see bigger in the hummingbird world, you must add to your bucket list the Hummingbird Festival in Rockport, TX. You can find information here: This is the staging area where all hummers going south stop to ‘tank up’ on fuel in order to cross the gulf. It begins around the first weeks of September when northern and eastern hummers start showing up along the Texas Gulf Coast. For several weeks hummers in hundreds of thousands congregate here and begin a feeding frenzy. 

This area has good cover (live oak trees) and a natural population of Turk’s Cap.
Goose Island Oak, Rockport Texas

Pink Turk's Cap

So when do you take down your feeders? It depends. Rubicon Wild Bird store in Flint, TX south of Tyler had a Ruby-throated stay until January 2013 and then one until November 2013 and a Rufous as late as December 30, 2013. So keep those feeders up until you are absolutely sure there are no more hummers or better yet when temperatures reach freezing. And, remember NO RED FOOD COLORING!