Prepping for Pollinators

Heavy rains this week combined with beautiful weather today made it a perfect time to get out in the garden. I’ve been pulling weeds fairly easily from the moist soil, pruning old plant parts, and playing in the dirt. I’ve also been playing with a new camera, but so far it and I are not seeing eye to eye, as it were. Alas.

Being out in the garden meant I got to see many new buds already emerging, and thoughts of pollinators and early blooming plants were on my mind.

pricklyash01-27-12.jpgBut first I’ve got to show off something I’m super-thrilled about — the Lime Prickly Ash lives! It dropped its leaves for the winter and then the dogs knocked it completely out of the ground (mom was not a happy camper). Fortunately, it was crazy cold that day and I was able to get it back in the ground fairly quickly, hoping desperately that the little guy was fully dormant. Well, thank goodness — the leaves, they be a’coming! We have extra boulders now surrounding the Prickly Ash — hopefully the dogs will heed the barrier.

Last year was the year of minimal gardening for me. The drought made me extra wary of stressing my young natives by pruning and encouraging root growth when no water was to be had. This year, we’ve fortunately had a bit of rain, and it’s time to take care of overdue matters, like the Texas Lantana:

winterlantana01-27-12.jpgAs you can see, it needs it! The Texas Lantana in the butterfly garden had become rather unruly, and little plants were able to grow under the woody branches whether I wanted them to or not. In the case of little Cedar Elm saplings or the unknown type of aggressive bush sage that I’ve been trying to get rid of, it’s not a good thing to have a woody barrier blocking your way to them. You can see lots of henbit below, as well. However, as I pruned back the Lantana and pulled out unwanted other things, I made a happy discovery:


Ten little Goldenrods! These will one day blossom into golden gems that are pollinator paradises. My first Goldenrod was wildlife-planted about two years ago (in the Lantana, of course). Last year one became three. And now I’ve got ten little ones that I will move into more appropriate spots. Here’s what they’ll look like one day (that’s the mama plant):


I’ve also got a few veggies planted — broccoli, snow peas, spinach. The herbs out there right now are for the Black Swallowtails. I didn’t see many of these gorgeous butterflies last year due to the drought, so I want to have plenty to feed the caterpillars in hopes that they (and we) will all have a better year. And so I have several different kinds of dill, parsley, and fennel — if I need a little for cooking, I’ll take it, but otherwise these herbs are all for the caterpillars.


Buds on many trees and little seedlings in the ground are sprouting. We are having a rather warm winter, so I worry that a hard freeze will have an ill effect, but I’ll do what I can to help them.

mistflower01-27-12.jpgHere’s a sample of the Gregg’s Mistflower seedlings popping up all over their bed. In other beds, I’m getting to play the “Name That Seedling” game.  I did see Standing Cypress and Purple Coneflower, a few Poppies, and maybe even a Gayfeather. There are other plants that will just have to grow bigger and maybe even bloom before I’ll be able to ID them. That’s the fun of spreading an assortment of seeds around — you don’t know what’s going to germinate!

henbit01-27-12.jpgAnd then there’s the henbit. I have a decent tolerance for this annual, despite it being a non-native that spreads like mad. But it’s a source of nectar for early pollinators when sometimes there’s not much else around, and it is sooooooo easy to pull out from the ground thanks to its shallow roots. So I take out henbit where I want but leave some in the wild areas for the pollinators. Once other plants are blooming, the henbit might be in more trouble.

gfcat01-27-12.jpgOn this pleasant day, the birds have been busy as always, and out in the garden I was joined by little butterflies, little bees, little flies, and one little caterpillar, a Gulf Fritillary. I’m going to have to tackle its Passionvine soon — the vine climbed into the nearby redbud last year and wants to do so again. The little Mexican Redbud is already about to bloom — I want it to be its own tree again, free from anything trying to strangle it!

And lastly, I’m happy to see that the Pomegranate has its leaves emerging. We had no fruit last year, but it is still a young tree. Last year, its second year since we planted it, was clearly a growth year for the tree — it grew taller than our roof! We’re crossing our fingers (again) that we’ll get fruit this year — I by gosh want to make Pomegranate Guacamole!

I’m glad to be back outside and I’m ever so grateful for the occasional rain we’ve had. It’s so satisfying to be able to prep the beds and get them ready for new growth, new blooms, and maybe even a few new plants to fill the gaps — we’re eager to welcome more emerging pollinators!

Austin’s Great Apes

Austin’s gone bananas, but we’re used to that in our weird city. Bright and early yesterday morning, hundreds of gorillas trampled a 5k distance, chasing down bananas and showing off their unique fashion sense.


The annual 5k Austin Gorilla Run benefits endangered mountain gorillas in Africa. A worthy wildlife cause, a morning of exercise, another chance to keep Austin weird, and gorilla suits for our very own? My son and I, along with family friends, jumped at the chance to participate. I was the sexy one in the cottontail.


In all, more than a 1,000 gorillas (and a few bananas) attempted to take over downtown Austin.


The weather was perfect, cool enough to keep us from getting too hot — and yet walking on the bridge over the river invited a rather brisk draft up our backsides!

I wish I had more photos to show you of great gorilla fashion, but I was busy being a gorilla (and a bunny). So instead I’ll point you to image sets by some wonderful photographers.  Check out this and this.

gorillasb01-21-12.jpgWoe to bananas this day, this great (ape) day.

And Then There Were Reptiles

Meet the two newest members of our family. They are ssssimply worth sssssmiling about! Though we certainly didn’t need more animals in this zoo we call home, the boys were eager for a snake, and I finally said yes because I’d wanted a snake for a teaching companion when I talk to kids about wildlife. Somehow I managed to bring two snakes home. Don’t ask.


And so we have two very young snakes, adorable and loaded with personality.


Morse is the most outgoing and friendly. Just look at that smile!

morsec01-12.jpgShe is a corn snake, one that is an anerythristic motley (meaning she lacks red pigmentation and has that dotted pattern you see on her dorsal side). She likes to climb and explore, but she is also content to entwine herself through your fingers or to wrap around your wrist until you have a serpentine bracelet.


I say that she’s a she, but I really haven’t confirmed the gender of either snake. She does seem to taper the way female snakes tend to, but as my friend learned with her Baird’s Rat Snake, that is no guarantee (her snake turned out to be a boy despite all indications otherwise).


Morse’s name was inspired by the dot-dash-dot pattern that her motley pattern makes.


She, like other corn snakes, is a constrictor. I love how it looks like Morse tied herself in a knot.


Our smaller snake is a rat snake/corn snake hybrid, and his markings are just beautiful. He looks more like snakes you might find in the wild here in Texas, which is why I was so drawn to him. He is younger and smaller than Morse and quite a bit more shy. Poor thing, it took us forever to name him. For the longest time, we had to call him Little No Name, but now he is Walker. An odd name for a snake, you might think, but let me explain.


When I met this little guy, he seemed very frail in my hand, but the folks at the exotic pet store assured me that it was because he was shedding, and shedding snakes are sensitive to being touched. However, at home and post-shed, the little guy still seemed fragile, and on closer observation, I realized that he couldn’t grip in his middle section — I don’t know whether he’d been injured at the store or whether he has a spine or nerve issue from his incubation period in the egg.


For Walker, this means two things — he can’t climb well, and he needs extra special care when we hold him so that he doesn’t fall.

lnnf01-17-12.jpgHe’s most content staying on the ground, of course, and he moves quite comfortably on a relatively flat surface. And so we named our legless pet Walker, after MUCH deliberation, discussion, voting, and compromise between members of my family. A little bribing might have happened, too — hey, we know how politics work! For the record, Walker is his last name — now we’re deliberating, discussing, and so forth on the initials that will someday be in front of his name.


Walker is only about 11 inches long right now, compared to Morse’s 16 or so inches.
But he’s a happy eater, and we’re giving him a little extra food to help him grow faster. He
stubbornly refuses to drink any water, however, at least not in front of me. Morse, on the other hand, likes me to hold her while she lowers her head down to the water’s surface and guzzles. The saying “You can lead a horse to water but you can’t make it drink” almost earned Walker the name Horse, but good thing for him we didn’t want his name to rhyme with Morse.


Walker is our shy guy. It could be that he’s showing his rat snake side (corn snakes are naturally more docile, whereas rat snakes are known for their much more skittish behavior), or it could be that because he is injured he’s understandably wary of being handled. In any case, two things are happening already — a) he’s getting stronger, and b) he’s getting much more comfortable and trusting. But he’d still prefer to be tucked into a dark little cave (almost earning him the name Tucker or Bear).


Both snakes will peek out of their hiding spots to see what’s going on. Above, Walker had hidden himself under a tissue box but couldn’t resist looking out. Morse, below, was on her way over to taste the camera, flicking her tongue at it.



Sometimes Morse will stick her head out of the Aspen bedding in their habitat and look like a submarine’s periscope, or like the Dianoga in the Star Wars garbage compactor scene.


Now there’s a size comparison for you — these young snakes are itty bitty!


What else can we say about these snakes except that we love them!

Clay Family

This winter, the family decided to have fun with clay.

claybatpullsa01-15-12.jpgHere are my bat fan pulls. They are Mexican Free-tailed bats, of course, in honor of Austin’s giant colony at the Congress bridge.


I also tried my hand at making a Carolina chickadee. I kept looking out the window at the real birds for models.


It’s hard not to adore Nolan’s bluebirds. They are kind of like blue ducks, but we’re all okay with that.


He also made a great and most vibrant Painted Bunting.


Logan made this Ruby-Throated Hummingbird for his great-grandmother. He also made other birds and even little itty bitty bats.

claybirdse12-11.jpgMichael played with brown clay for a long time, and we made all sorts of jokes about chocolate poo. And then all of a sudden out of his hand appeared a hawk!

We’re not clay experts, but we had a great time. Many of our clay items became holiday gifts for family, and we also made homemade wooden block puzzles this year. We’re just big fans of making gifts from the heart. I’m already thinking about next year’s homemade gifts. What shall they be, what shall they be?

A Bounty of Big, Beautiful Pine Cones

After the squirrels dragged off my last peanut-butter pine cone, I had to come up with alternative peanut-butter feeders for the birds, as there was not a plain pine cone to be found in our area, not even for purchase. Oh, I used our old peanut-butter perch, and my husband made me a new log feeder (seen in images below), but I bemoaned the loss of our pine cones, such fun little feeders, and I scolded those naughty nabbers, the ever-getting-fatter bushy-tailed pigs squirrels.


To my great delight, Marilyn K., who blogs at Adventures of a Vagabond Volunteer, offered to send me some pine cones, as she was surrounded by them at her current location in California. Marilyn is volunteering at different national wildlife refuges around the country while seeing some of most beautiful flora, fauna, and landscapes nature has to offer. Well, send me those pine cones she did, and within a few days about a gazillion pine cones arrived on my doorstep. I’m just giddy! They are the most gorgeous pine cones I have ever seen!  


Seriously, this is the mother lode of pine cones. And there are enough pine cones to last me a very long while, especially as I intend to go back to wiring them so those sneaky squirrels can’t sneak them off to their sneaky hiding spots. But the biggest and bestest of them all was this Godzilla pine cone, dropped by a gray or ghost pine. Check out the size difference:

coulterpine.jpgI know there are too many pine cones in this wonderful bounty for one wildlife-loving family to use. I’ll likely share some with the kids I work with and with other wildlife gardeners, so they can make their own feeders. I’ve decided, though, that the giant pine cone shall remain peanut-butter free. It will be too much fun to show it to kids at a nature talk.

yrwarbler01-12-12.jpgI am indebted to Marilyn, who took time from the holiday season and all her adventures to mail me pine cones from across the country. Marilyn, let me speak on behalf of all the wildlife back in Texas who will benefit from your act of kindness — thank you so very much! The birds are already delighted, and they work their way through our peanut butter/corn meal blend incredibly fast. The squirrels aren’t shy about trying again, either — but if they can’t steal away the pine cones, they’re content to at least eat what they can.


This Bewick’s Wren feasted with determination.

And possibly this was the reason —  another Bewick’s Wren was squawking from the nearby perch, impatiently waiting his turn. Hey, it’s not my fault all the peanut butter on the perch was gone!


My husband has been enjoying all the wildlife visitors and captured some wonderful images of his own. The Red-Bellied Woodpecker below is one of the birds we’d actually made the log feeder for, and I’m glad it approves.


This little warbler kept playing peek-a-boo.

And if there was any doubt about whether a squirrel would have a problem going up a shepherd’s hook, let us show you:


squirreld01-09-12.jpgSuch clever little tricksies, them squirrelsies….


A Look Back at 2011, Our Third Year

I’d like to start off the first post of 2012 by looking back at how our wildlife garden progressed in 2011, its third year of existence. Normally this post would actually have taken place as an anniversary post (or birthday post?) in mid-October, but I kept having to put it off. And right before the end of the year, my bad back became inflamed, and there went my last chance to post in 2011, as extended computer time was out of the question. But I ate my black-eyed peas on New Year’s Day (a Southern tradition), so I’m already hopeful that 2012 will be grand. And I’m starting the year off right by getting my update FINALLY done, even if it is way past overdue.


 To see the full update, visit the new garden page for 2011 (you can also get to it via the sidebar at right).  You can see how far our habitat has come by viewing years 2008-9 and 2009-10.

The year 2011 was very tough for flora and fauna in Texas. Plagued by a severe lack of rain, the state lost millions of trees to drought and fire, and this meant that wildlife struggled to find both food and water. Our own habitat never reached a pretty appearance — our goal was only to use just enough water to keep habitat plants alive. However, we did transplant a few plants around, and those placed in our new garden berm (woefully not yet filled in) did quite well even in the face of drought. In the fall, we added a few more very small trees, so small that I’m not sure they can officially be called trees yet (they look more like short sticks with a bit of green stuck to them).


Although plant progress was slow, we made up for it elsewhere. Several projects around the property reached completion. Our new gate tops the list.


In the back, the flagstone porch transformed the look of our yard.


But we also worked a lot with cedar. This includes ladder-style trellises that I’ll exhibit one of these days if ever a vine below will grow (the drought is to blame), and our new log feeder. But the biggest cedar project was the new pathway winding through our sideyard. It has held up very well, and we see different animals daily walking along it.


Nearby, we created a new shade pond for wildlife near the birdfeeder. Birds enjoy its bubbling stone, toads christened it with tadpoles almost immediately (when it was warmer, of course), and it has become an important watering hole for many nighttime mammals. This probably partially led to the Great Skunk Incident of 2011, but really, the drought is to blame. And frankly, the whole point of the pond is to provide water for wildlife, so skunks might as well feel welcome. They just need to stay out of the dogs’ domain in the backyard, thank you very much.


Aside from the Great Skunk Incident, I’ll have to declare 2011 the year of the birds for our habitat at Great Stems. Partly due to our bird-friendly habitat and partly due to the drought, we saw more species and numbers of birds than ever before. Hummingbirds, screech owls, woodpeckers, wrens, warblers, finches, and all the usual suspects were among the many species that visited (and still visit) our garden.


Whoooo knows what 2012 will bring? It will be exciting, I’m sure!