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).