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!

Wednesday, August 6, 2014


So, I like Catalpa trees. . .probably the only person that does. When we were kids, we used the pods for sword fights; as an adult I love the orchid-like flower.

I walk under a big Catalpa every morning on my way to the garden or compost pile. Coming in to the house one morning last week, I felt something on my back and after dancing around for 5 minutes discovered about 20 caterpillars on my back and in my hair. Yipes! I've got worms - Catalpa worms!

The Catalpa caterpillar is the larva form of the Hawk or Catalpa Sphinx moth (Ceratomia catalpa), a gray nondescript moth.

What interests me is that the moth and the tree have coexisted for thousands of years and depend on each other. The tree is the only tree that the caterpillar eats. In fact the caterpillars can completely defoliate a tree 3-4 times during a summer yet the tree survives and most always come back looking healthy. No other tree can withstand this devastation.

The catalpa sphinx overwinters as a pupa in the soil under the tree on which it has eaten. In spring, pupae work their way to the surface of the soil and moths begin to emerge shortly after the Catalpa tree has leafed out.

And, like anything else, someone has found a way to make a buck selling the caterpillars. Fisherpersons (is that a word?) sometimes propagate the trees just to harvest the caterpillars. They are considered excellent catfish bait – the caterpillars not the fisherpersons. A caterpillar can be divided into 3-4 pieces of bait and because of the caterpillar’s skin is tough it isn't easily taken off the hook by the fish. The caterpillars can even be frozen and thawed and used. . the catfish are none the wiser. Or, the caterpillar can be “pickled” with corn syrup and stored in a jar in the refrigerator to be used as bait. I even found a guy selling a special container in which to freeze your caterpillars.

Another positive is that the frass (poop) fertilizes the tree and anything else under the tree. . .Yipes! I probably had caterpillar poop in my hair.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

It Is All About Attraction

Gardeners are delighted to see "nature" visiting their gardens. If you want to invite more of these visitors to yours, try adding their favorite plants. As with all beneficial species, it is best to choose plants that are native or well adapted to our area.

Often gardeners lament for the lack of butterflies in their gardens. For butterflies, it is important to choose both larval host plants and nectar plants. The larval host plant is the plant a species prefer to lay their eggs on; the nectar plant is a food source. Most all species of butterflies prefer native plants on which to lay their eggs. Try: 
Question Mark

Cedar Elm


Purple Passionvine

Gulf Fritillary





For nectar, plant Coneflowers, Turk’s Cap and Lantana. 

Red Turk's Cap


Native plants to our area that provide both a host and nectar source are Flame Acanthus and Mexican Plum.

Flame Acanthus (deer do not eat this plant)

 Mexican Plum - a good alternative to Bradford Pear

The added bonus is that many plants, such as Flame Acanthus, Butterfly Weed and Lantana, that attract butterflies also attract hummingbirds. A two-fer if you will.

Other perennials to try are Obedient Plant (it is not obedient as my friend, Cecil, would say), Autumn Sage, Coral Honeysuckle and Red Yucca.

Obedient Plant
Autumn Sage

Red Yucca

Coral Honeysuckle

But why do butterflies and hummingbirds prefer native plants to other blooming non-natives? Native plants are part of an ecosystem of other plants that support birds, butterflies, and other wildlife. These plants and animals have lived together in communities for ages and they have adapted to live in balance. Native plants exist naturally in the area. 

So think twice when making a purchase of a plant that naturally grows in another part of the world. Chances are the native critters of your backyard won't like it. Kinda like me and sushi.

Garden on!