It All Comes Full Circle

A few years ago, in the early stages of my wildlife garden, I planted my first Wafer Ash, or Common Hop Tree (Ptelea trifoliata). I was ecstatic about it, because I longed for Giant Swallowtail caterpillars to call it home (and dinner). These fun caterpillars are known for their characteristic bird-poop appearance, but the adult Giant Swallowtail stage is also spectacular — a gorgeous and very large yellow-and-black butterfly.

giantswallcat10-14-14This year we had to transplant that now large Wafer Ash to the opposite side of the yard, and I feared that it wouldn’t survive. But amazingly enough it did, and we have our latest batch of bird-poop caterpillars. These little guys are making me so happy, and I really do feel at the moment like the garden has come full circle — I’m right back to seeing one the favorite fauna species I planted trees for all those years ago.

giantswallcat10-18-14Wafer Ash is a small deciduous tree found in much of the eastern and southern areas of the United States and into Central America. Because it prefers part shade to shade for its light, it serves well as an understory tree. It earned its species name trifoliata for its characteristic three leaflets. Small white flowers in late spring give rise to wafer-like seeds come fall, hence one of its common names.

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But Wafer Ash is not actually in the ash family at all — it’s actually part of the citrus family. In fact, lemon, orange, and other citrus trees can sometimes host these little caterpillars, too. I’ve definitely noticed that they much prefer the more tender leaves — I wonder whether the female butterfly actually selects them that way. In the wild, I can’t ever seem to find caterpillars on hop trees with bigger, darker leaves.

giantswallcatb10-18-14When these caterpillars take a rest, they are often found along the bark or branches of the tree, perhaps for camouflage or to simply avoid predators that might more easily locate them on the green leaves. As if that bird poop appearance isn’t enough to deter would-be munchers!

Soft, Silver, and Sunny: The Silverleaf Sunflower

I’m enjoying all the fall blooms in the wildlife garden right now, but ones that have me particularly happy are the cheerful Silverleaf Sunflowers (Helianthus argophyllus) that are lining our dry creek bed in the front yard. They are grandchildren of the original plant I grew in the front yard a couple of years ago.20141014-IMG_2030silvsunflA

These delightful flowers of sunshine grow easily from seed. Admittedly, the flowers also happily spread wherever their seeds catch hold (or get dropped by hungry birds). Sure, I’m seeing more seedlings each year that I grow them, but this plant is so beautiful that I see it as a plus. Wherever I’m fine with them growing, I let them stay.

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The fuzzy — nay, hairy — blue-green leaves are incredibly silky to the touch. Can you tell in the image just how soft those leaves are? I can’t stop petting them when I walk by. It’s easy, too, to understand how they got the name silverleaf.

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The flowers and their attractive foliage are even catching the eyes of neighbors — I’ve had people drive by, roll down their window, and ask what kind of flowers they are. Now that I’ve got so many blooms, I’ve been sharing the coveted seeds, too. I do the same with our bluebonnet seedlings and seeds — bit by bit, my little-big garden is spreading beauty into our neighborhood.

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I will say this about the sunflowers — they get very tall, so tall that they might flop over, as you can see in the above photo. They are well over 7 feet in my yard, in fact. They also will lose their lower leaves as they grow, and in the hot sun they might look a little pitiful until you are kind and give them water (I’m kind enough to wait for rainfall). But they perk up quickly with that touch of moisture — just don’t over-water them. Because they can drop their lower leaves, it’s probably a good idea to plant them behind a small shrub or other perennial, something with a nice contrasting red, pink, or purple bloom, I’d say, or perhaps something with a harder texture. I’ll do that next year.

Oddly enough, this plant is shown to be found in Texas, Florida, and North Carolina. What about those states in between? I wonder. In terms of wildlife value, the plant provides nutritious seeds for finches and other birds, and it is a host plant for Bordered Patch and Silvery Checkerspot butterflies.

This season, I’m also taking some of the seeds and sprinkling them around my backyard. I’m going to surround us in happy plants!

Switching to Native Grass

20140928-IMG_1736nativegrassF Our backyard has been a challenge from the start, which for us was in 2008 when we began building our wildlife garden. The majority of the yard, filled with Bermuda grass, received the full effect of the Death Star (the sun) every day. Every step we took to convert our backyard to a habitat began with the removal of that Bermuda from rock-hard clay soil.

Our wildlife garden is quite well established now, but we kept putting off tackling the remaining (and still large) “lawn” of Bermuda. The reason simply was the amount of effort involved, but this year I decidedly to make the process simpler by working small areas at a time, seeding them and letting them get established while protecting them from potential encroachment from Bermuda still around.

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Area normally in sun — picture taken late in the day. This photo shows the area after it rested under cardboard for several months.

Shovels, cardboard, and time were our tools. In the spring, we dug out a reasonable section of Bermuda completely by hand, taking care to get all the roots. Next, we covered the area with cardboard. Then we waited. I didn’t intend to wait for several months, but that’s what happened, and it worked out for the best. Sometime over the summer, I pulled off the cardboard to let rain soak the ground and see whether any Bermuda would reemerge. Hardly any did, thank goodness.

20140928-IMG_1736nativegrassESeptember brought promise of rain for us this year, and it was a fine time to go ahead and seed the Habiturf, a mixture of Buffalo Grass, Curly Mesquite, and Blue Grama seeds. The idea of the three grasses is that diversity of acceptable species has a better chance of crowding out any weeds or Bermuda that might try to establish there, and that diversity helps provide protection from diseases or pests that might otherwise cause problems in a traditional turf lawn.

20140928-IMG_1736nativegrassBFirst, we used a dirt rake and shovel to loosen up any compacted areas (necessary after months of dogs and people trampled the cardboard and soil).

20140928-IMG_1736nativegrassCThen we added a light layer of compost and raked it in. The chickens did a better job of mixing it than we did. I highly recommend them as garden helpers and tools.

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They would have particularly loved to find these beneficial rhinoceros beetle grubs that we found in the compost. The grubs were as big as a human thumb — you can see my husband’s thumb in the photo for comparison. But the chickens uncover enough of those grubs in the actual compost bin — the 5 or so we found during the grass process were rescued and delivered to secret places in the yard.

After mixing in the compost and rescuing giant beetle larvae, it was time for the seeds. I sprinkled them by hand — I opted for dense coverage until my husband complained about the cost of the seed. So I lightened up the coverage for the remaining portion. (Guess which section looked the best upon germination? Winner!)

20140928-IMG_1736nativegrassGWe tamped the seeds into the soil simply by walking on the area. Then I watered thoroughly. The soil had to remain moist for days in order for seeds to germinate — in Texas, this could be the biggest challenge for many would-be native grass gardeners. Fortunately, we had a spell of rain to help.

20140928-IMG_1736nativegrassGBTo help keep the dogs and chickens out, we created two barriers — one was chicken wire around the border, and I also laid down a sheet of light row cover, both for protection and as a way to help keep the soil moist for longer periods. FYI, the light row cover was more effective than the chicken wire at keeping the chickens out — chickens can both fly over and crawl under things quite easily. Fortunately, they were mostly interested in catching worms that were emerging from the rain, not eating the grass seed or seedlings. Mostly.

20140928-IMG_1736nativegrassHGermination was remarkably quick, thank goodness. The plentiful rain helped with that. Once the seedlings were about an inch or so long, I removed the light row cover and stopped worrying about the chickens getting in there. As the grass grows longer and fills in, I’ll share an updated picture.

I’m not looking forward to dealing with the rest of the Bermuda, but I feel better knowing the process has begun. It won’t be easy and it won’t be fun, but it will be worth it.

Rescuing Bees

Over the summer we discovered that we had unexpected residents in our second owl box, the one occasionally used by owls but more often by squirrels and then suddenly by honeybees.   beerescuec09-07-14While I prefer the bees to the squirrels, we knew it was best to rescue them. For one, it was supposed to be an owl box, even if it was the “extra” one the owls didn’t typically choose. Two, the chances of the bee colony making it through the winter in that box were slim. Three, my husband is allergic to bees and worried that he’d be at risk anytime he worked in the vicinity of the hive.

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Here you can see the bees are staying cool by collecting on the
outside of the box. This effect is called “bearding.”

It’s important to do everything you can to protect pollinators, whose decline is becoming more critical every day. We do our part by keeping an organic wildlife garden that has a diversity of colorful native flowers of all shapes and sizes, as well as water sources that allow insects to safely drink. We also have several bee boxes and even an insect hotel that welcomes nesting native bees. So while we knew we needed to let these precious pollinators go, we wanted to do so in a way that would protect the queen and colony. Time to bring in a bee rescue team!

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We decided to call Bee Friendly Austin. Tanya and Chuck rescue bees, and they also have a working apiary and teach beekeeping classes. They arranged to arrive just before dusk, when the majority of bees would be back at the hive (and hopefully sleepy).20140907-IMG_1496beerescueb

Chuck and Tanya donned their bee gear and planned to use only a drill to unscrew the owl box from the tree and a sheet to cover the bees. Chuck did not smoke the bees first, as some might expect. He prefers to avoid that method.beerescuecb09-07-14

The act of removing the first screw with the drill was enough to disturb a handful of bees. Better to be safe than sorry — Chuck opted to get the sheet to cover the hive.

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Definitely the way to go.

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Three screws undone, and the hive was ready to come down. Chuck made it look so easy.

Meanwhile, our neighbors Jan and Gerry had their own bee colony in one of their owl boxes. How convenient for Chuck and Tanya to pick up two colonies during the same trip. And so they did.beerescued09-07-14 beerescueda09-07-14

It must get fairly warm inside those boxes, even in the shade. Here the bees are bearding again.

beerescuedb09-07-14Chuck used the same technique with the sheet, as it had worked so smoothly at our house. It worked just as smoothly the second time.

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You can see that a few bees were agitated by the process, but only a few. The sheet did a great job keeping the majority of the hive calm and together.

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There they go, off to their new location. Tanya and Chuck will transfer them to new hives, taking care to locate and protect the queens.

FYI, Bee Friendly Austin coordinates Austin’s annual Tour De Hives. This year’s tour is coming up soon — September 20, 2014. If you are interested in beekeeping, or if you just enjoy seeing one of the events that make Austin special, check it out!

 

Art Comes to the Wildlife Garden

Over the past several weeks, we’ve been upcycling metal scraps (leftover from a roofing project) and turning them into art. It’s been fun, to say the least, and I’m thrilled for the variety of whimsical creations that now dot the perimeter of our yard. Check out, for example, my son Logan’s Steampunk chicken.paintingsA08-31-14

While the hot Texas summer bakes, wilts, and withers plants right and left, we still get to enjoy bursts of color from different viewpoints around the yard.paintingsG08-31-14

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My mom thought the idea sounded grand, so we brought some metal sheets out to her house in Nacogdoches. There, she whipped up some beautiful masterpieces of her own, including surprise portraits of our three dogs, Loki, Grover, and Sheba. My aunt Marilyn then brought them back to Austin for us during her own travels back and forth to Nacogdoches. We love the painting — how very special it will always be to us!

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Mom’s other painting was equally fun and delightful, and we love it just as much. Knowing our fondness for Screech Owls, she painted an owl that would stay in our backyard year-round (whereas our real Screech Owl family always departs in May when the fledglings leave the nesting box). Guess where in the yard we placed this wonderful art? Yep, near the owl box.paintingsH08-31-14

 

My son Nolan brought more whimsy to the yard with his mystical, magical chicken art. I’m proud of him for jumping into the project.paintingsF08-31-14

Above is my take on a Painted Bunting, and while I love our compost bin for many reasons, including aesthetics (believe it or not) and functionality, now it’s even more pleasant to look at for the painting that sits above it.

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Even our sweet chickens got in on the act — the six young girls contributed their own art for their backyard haven. It was a little messy, admittedly, but they were good sports.

There’s one more I haven’t mentioned — the one that started them all. It resides in the beautiful coop we built this year. The coop’s roof is the reason we have the extra pieces of galvanized steel in the first place.

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I painted it while home miserably sick one weekend. It didn’t make my cold improve, but it made me feel better in other ways. Plus, it looks great in the chicken run. It’s called “Bawk.” :)

Most of the above paintings are done with acrylic on galvanized steel. For the ones my mom made (the dog portraits and the owl), Mom used spray paint leftovers to first create a background, then used acrylic to paint the main images. I sealed all of them with a low- odor spray varnish designed for outdoor use (then I sealed them again — I was a little paranoid that Texas weather was going to be rough on them).

We still have a few pieces of metal left over — more art to come!

 

Good Morning, Texas Persimmon

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I don’t remember which year we planted our first Texas Persimmon (Diospyros texana), but I estimate it’s about 7-8 feet tall now. So maybe about 4 years ago? It’s a female Persimmon, as the species has male and female trees, and only the females produce the flowers and fruit. Our little tree didn’t start producing fruit right away, of course, and when it did a couple of years ago, it started out with 2 fruit total on the entire tree. I eagerly waited for them to ripen, but one fell off and got yucky, and the other disappeared. I’m guessing squirrel or opossum. Last year, the tree produced 12 fruit total. Not many, perhaps, but a reasonable increase from the previous year — after all, it was 6 times as many! Once again, the fruit disappeared just as they began to ripen. Those wonderful wildlife, birds and mammals and whatnot, I enjoy attracting were not being fair and sharing the bounty!

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This year, the Texas Persimmon is so loaded with fruit that it’s leaning way over. Most of the fruit are still green, but a few are changing color. In fact, when I approached this morning, one dark beauty stood out in front and caught my eye.

20140821 txpersimmonb1251Within a flash it was in my hand. MINE, you squirrels and birds! I was so astonished that I got it first that I almost didn’t know what to do with it. Well, really, there was only one option.

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One little persimmon isn’t enough for a recipe. So, after giving it a rinse (and taking the time to get my camera), I bit into the juicy persimmon. Delicious and naturally sweet… and loaded with big seeds. Five of them, to be exact. Ah yes, I seem to recall that persimmons invite a little extra work in preparing them for cooking.

If I manage to collect enough ripe fruit before the wildlife find them, I plan to make some Texas Persimmon jelly. I’ll share the recipe when I do, of course. YUM.

 

 

If You Have to Look Down on Someone, Be an Owl

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Mama Owl is ever used to us wandering around the yard. It used to be that she’d mostly ignore us — we were just big, talking, moving, non-flying creatures (along with four-legged furry ones that accompanied us) that really had nothing to do with her family up high. But now that we have chicks (technically pullets now) that get daily time roaming the yard and garden, she has free daily entertainment. The six pullets are much, much bigger than a screech owl is — we’re confident she wouldn’t attempt to go after one — but she certainly watches them with great interest.. like a hawk, if you will. That’s how my husband managed to get the photo above — I suspect she expected to see a chicken when she looked down to check out the noises below.

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Mama and Papa Owl are fantastic parents and don’t seem to mind us taking a few annual pictures as they feed their young. We try not to disturb them too much, staying out only a few minutes to get some images and then letting them enjoy the rest of their nightly hunts.screechowlc05-04-14

Above, Papa Owl has arrived with a house gecko. Mama Owl had just delivered food to the babies and was still at the nesting box, so we assumed she’d leave for another hunting trip and he’d bring the food in to the wee ones.screechowld05-04-14

Surprisingly, that’s not what happened. Mama Owl flew over to Papa and got the gecko and brought it to the babies herself (Papa Owl is still visible on the left in the image). Very, very interesting.screechowle05-04-14

At one point she landed on the limb above our heads, in just the right spot — a gap among the branches — for a clear view of her. I love the image, as it reminds us just how small Eastern Screech Owls really are. They are at most 10 inches high and weigh 1/2 pound or less. Their wing span is up to 2 feet, however.

We’re expecting to catch glimpses of the fledglings any day now. Mama still hangs out in the nest, so they’re not big enough to squeeze her out yet, but most likely soon. Can’t wait to see those adorable Muppet-like faces!

 

Transforming the Front Yard

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Our front yard has been a bane of my gardening existence for a while, primarily because of two trees and a lack of desire to put down a chunk of money necessary to achieve the vision we have for said yard. The two trees are fully mature Arizona Ashes that provide extensive shade for our yard. We expect them to start dropping limbs any year now, but still they live on. However, we want to put in a walkway and retaining wall along the front of the house, but to do so means slicing through major roots of those trees, which would speed up the process of their demise before we’re ready (certainly before they are). So we’ve held off on that big project. It’s why the front hasn’t been as much of a focus for us as has been the backyard.

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But we’ve been doing some front-yard work just the same. We’ve planted trees (Anacua, Texas Ash, and Escarpment Black Cherry) that will one day take the place of the Ash trees and provide their own shade to the yard and house. We also turned an ugly trench into a lovely dry creek bed with a flat bridge. You’ll see current photos of that former trench in some of the images that follow. frontyardH04-20-14Additionally, for a couple of years now, we’ve been nurturing a natural growth of Cedar Sedge in a portion of our yard, knowing that we wanted to see it spread across the yard in lieu of turf grass. In the back of the image above, you can see the patch of sedge we’ve been taking care of, as well as scattered clumps as new sedge fills in empty spots.

The Cedar Sedge has been enjoying its coveted status and has obliged us by reseeding itself nicely across half of the yard. Now it’s time to give it a helping hand and shape the yard a little. frontyardB04-20-14

With that, we’re providing some mulched pathways, transplanting sedge clumps from some areas to others, and giving the sedge a major push for its takeover of the other half of the yard. The above image shows some of the sedge clumps we moved from the new pathway to the freshly-bare, weed-free areas. On the other side of the path are Inland Sea Oats and other shade-loving plants.

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A mulched pathway isn’t really my first choice for the front yard, but it’s what we can afford right now and it will handily deal with the weeds. Actually it looks lovely under the trees, and we might line it with rocks as we collect them. We dug out all the weeds by hand, then lay down cardboard before putting down the mulch. Once we dig out the remaining weeds, the pathway will continue and curve around to make a complete half-loop along the front of the house.

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What I love about Cedar Sedge is its gentle presence. It’s easy to move about, it spreads without being obnoxious, it only needs a bit of water now and then in the heat of the summer, and it’s easy to remove for creating beds or planting new perennials. It’s not trying to take over the world — it just wants to be subtle, pretty, and set a zen-like mood. I’m so glad I realized the sedge was there in the yard. Once I stopped mowing it over, it had a chance to shine.

frontyardA04-20-14 The plants along the dry creek bed are quite happy, without a doubt the bluebonnets most of all. What a beautiful mass of bluebonnets — seed pods are already forming.frontyardC04-20-14Other perennials and wildflowers are in bloom, providing lovely contrast to the blue of our state flower.

I’m quite thrilled to see long-desired improvements to our front yard, especially ones that will take away any need to mow the front yard ever again. We’ve got a small area left to weed, and then no more mowing (at least in the front)! YAY. Still can’t do the retaining wall, but we can wait — shade is more important in Texas.

Our Owl Parents Return

Our Eastern Screech Owl mama and papa are raising more babies this spring to join our wildlife family! I believe this is Papa — his darker coloration is the clue. 20140327-80owl

We’re a little worried because we’ve been hearing a Great Horned Owl most evenings lately. Normally this would make me happy, but Screech Owls are sometimes on the menu for Great Horned Owls. I’d be so sad if anything happened to our little owl family — they’ve been with us for a few years now.

Cheers to my husband for the great photo!

 

Red-bellied Woodpeckers Make Their Home

Why, hello, Spring! Between holidays, work, presentations, and a slight obsession with chickens, I’ve woefully neglected my blog. But ever does the wildlife habitat continue. I thought I’d venture back to blogging with our newest family in the making — a pair of Red-Bellied Woodpeckers are working on their nest in a dead tree behind our fence, happily situated so we can manage to watch them from our yard.

RBwoodpeckermalec03-22-14Here is the male. He frequents our birdfeeder, which we keep amply supplied with peanuts for him. Well, he does have to share with other visiting woodpeckers, blue jays, and other feathered friends who also love peanuts. That was the deal we made.

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The female is rather shy and elusive, but I managed to capture her (along with her partner) in the image above. While males have red across their head from the bill to the nape, females have red on their nape only.

RBwoodpeckermaled03-22-14It’s hard to tell whether the birds are actually nesting right now or still excavating their cavity, but if the latter, they’ve been working on it a long time. I do know they are working hard.

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In this image (above), you can see the blushing belly that gives Red-bellied Woodpeckers their name. It’s a common mistake for people to call them Red-headed instead of Red-bellied, but Red-headed Woodpeckers are another species entirely and have red feathers over their whole head, not just in faux-hawk fashion.

Along with their vast assistance in controlling insect populations, the fact that Red-bellied Woodpeckers make nesting cavities like this is very important in nature. Abandoned cavities become potential homes for other cavity-nesting animal species, such as Screech Owls, Bluebirds, Wrens, Chickadees, Nuthatches, and small mammals. On the other hand, invasive European Starlings, who also use cavities, are a threat to any native species in a cavity, because the Starlings often don’t hesitate to kill adults or young inside the nests in order to gain occupancy. I’m hopeful that our Red-bellied family will be safe, though.

We’ll stay on the lookout for signs of young in hopes of sharing an update in the near future.