Reptiles in the Garden

Last weekend I gave my last presentation of the spring, and the very next day I seized an opportunity to work in the garden for a change. It was a beautiful day, and of course in my eagerness to be outside, I forgot both hat and sunscreen, and I soon sported my first and hopefully only sunburn of the year. I wasn’t alone out there, either. Basking in the warmth of the day was this beauty, a male Texas Spiny Lizard (Sceloporus olivaceus).


He was so chubby that at first I thought it must be a female ready to lay eggs, but nope, his markings clearly indicate otherwise. It’s a little hard to see it in this image, but he has light blue stripes along the sides of his belly — females don’t have these.


He wasn’t afraid to let it all hang out, clearly. I’d like to think that if a female were nearby, he suck that chubby belly in, puff out his chest, and do a handsome pose. Clearly he should be practicing those defensive/offensive push-ups male Texas Spiny Lizards are known for (when confronted by other male Texas Spiny Lizards in their territory) — perhaps he could get in better shape. But then again, perhaps this round belly equates to “hot” in the lizard world.


On the other hand, he’s limber enough to do the splits, and to stay in that pose for a while while I took pictures.


Check out the markings on his gorgeous tail.


Yes, yes, you’re a pretty handsome insectivore after all, little big guy. TXspinylizardD-hole04-26-15

My son said he saw the lizard coming out of this hole in one of our raised beds. I wonder whether the lizard was using the little tunnel as a cool haven, or whether a female might be prepping to lay eggs in there. I haven’t had a chance to inspect the spot since then to see whether the hole has been covered up or not. If it is, I suspect there might be little eggs inside.


Despite being described as an arboreal species, I have these Texas Spiny Lizards all over my garden and rarely see them on a tree. I guess they have too much to feast on in the garden area. I imagine they’d blend in much better on the bark of a tree than on the wood of my veggie beds or on the rocks around on the pond. But I’m happy they’re willing to hang out on the ground with me.

Getting back to working on the garden, I decided to tackle the weeding of a small perennial patch in the backyard, and in doing so had to move aside several bordering rocks. It’s best to move such rocks carefully — all sorts of little creatures might be sheltering under rocks to stay cool and out of the light (scorpions, centipedes, snakes, etc.), and one wouldn’t want to get a jolt of surprise or worse, pain, from reaching under a rock blindly. But under one rock, I did find a wonderful garden resident.


It was a Tantilla snake, one of the Blackhead species. Some people call them Centipede Snakes, named for their favorite food. The small snakes also eat scorpions and other invertebrates. Like their prey, they are nocturnal and favor rocks to hide underneath. They are colubrid snakes and are non-venomous.


I think this snake must have realized I’m a Snake Whisperer and completely calmed down in my hand. What a beauty. It was probably about 10-12 inches long.tantillasnakec04-26-15

Of course, as soon as I set it down, the snake scurried off for shelter, making use of its fossorial lifestyle and digging right into the earth. But we were able to get a quick picture — you can see the earthy coloration of the rest of the snake’s body.

And so I went back to weeding that garden bed. Lo and behold, under the very next rock was another snake, a much smaller one. It was a Leptotyphlops snake, or a blind snake, about 6 inches long. It looked almost silver in the sunlight but shows a pinkish undertone in the pictures.


These little burrowing, nonvenomous snakes are often confused with earthworms due to their size and coloration. Their eyes are reduced in functionality, serving only to perceive light — they aren’t truly blind, but very nearly so. They spend most of their lives underground.


The main diet of blind snakes consists of ants and termites, along with their eggs, larvae, and pupae. It is believed that the snakes can follow the pheromone trail left by the insects in order to find their colonies. Sometimes blind snakes will also eat millipedes or centipedes. Their scales are smooth and tightly overlap, helping protect the snake from the bites and stings of ants. The tail ends abruptly, mostly rounded with a small point at the very tip.


This little snake was quite a wiggler, and I used a clear bowl with some leaf litter to hold the snake for a moment while I snapped a couple of pictures. But I didn’t want to stress the little snake out — I quickly returned it to the safe haven of its rock in the garden.

I’m so glad to run across these reptiles from to time in my garden. It means my wildlife habitat is functioning well in terms of the ecosystem —  predators such as lizards and snakes are natural and very important pest control. Of course at night, they have to be careful, too — we have hungry screech owls that are even higher in the food web, and they’d love a chance to catch one of these little snakes. The lizards, being diurnal, might be safe if they have a good place to hunker down at night. Always excitement in our backyard!

Baby Squirrels Peek Out… Also, Owls!

Despite our amused annoyance that a squirrel family is squatting in our new-and-improved owl house, it’s hard not to be heart-touched by the curious and playful little babies. They’ve been growing fast and are already peeking outside and trying to figure out how to safely get out of the house.squirrelsc04-10-15squirrelsa04-11-15 They also seem to share the window a little better than last year’s owlet siblings did.squirrelsd04-10-15

I just wish they wouldn’t chew on the box!screechowl04-11-15

The latest exciting news is that we have officially confirmed that we do indeed have an owl family in the older owl box, which we had moved to a different tree last fall. Unfortunately for us, though, it’s the one without an owl camera inside, so we have no idea yet how many babies are inside. But the fact that we see Mama Owl regularly now means that the babies must be big enough that she needs a window seat. It’s going to be harder for us to view the owlets as often as in years past — this owl box is wayyyyy in the backyard. But we’ll try!

And the Owl Cam Reveals… Squirrels

For the past few years, we’ve enjoyed watching Eastern Screech Owls nest in our two owl boxes. Last summer, after we had to remove a box filled with swarming bees, we used the opportunity to build a new box complete with a camera for peeking inside. We had hoped that the owls would just move right in this spring, but unfortunately each time we checked the Owl Cam, we found no residents — until last night, that is. What we found was not feathered friends but instead furry ones. There’s a squirrel family in our owl box. Sigh.


But they are pretty darn cute. As much as we would prefer the owls, we can’t evict this little family of wiggling, curious critters. We can only hope that our owls have moved into our 2nd box in the far backyard (where there is no camera).squirrelsowlboxb03-24-15

Somehow we went from a completely empty box to a full nest — these little squirrels already have their fur and have big open eyes. Clearly it had been a couple of weeks since we checked the owl cam! There are at least 4 babies in there with Mama Squirrel — possibly 5. Last night when we discovered them, they were nursing and sleeping away. This morning, they were crawling all over Mama and reaching up toward the light.squirrelsowlboxd03-24-15

Mama was not getting any sleep, so when she’d had enough of the little ones crawling all over her, she set about to grooming each of her infants.squirrelsowlboxe03-24-15

They got drowsy right away, and Mama soon joined them for a nap.squirrelsowlboxf03-24-15

At first one little babe just refused to settle down, until it tucked itself under Mama’s tail for a cozy spot.


Here’s a view in full-color mode. And there you have it — a new family of naughty little squirrelsies to wreak havoc at local bird feeders and drive our neighborhood dogs crazy.

Plateau Goldeneye and Other Fall Blooms

My family and I enjoy visiting Walnut Creek Park here in Austin with our dogs and friends all throughout the year. This beautiful 300-acre woodland park is busy with strolling families, determined trail runners, frolicking leash-free dogs, and trail-riding, hill-leaping, rock-jumping cyclists. The biggest draw of all is nature, with woods, grasslands, crisscrossing streams, and abundant wildlife. This fall, the park has been adorned with spectacular blooms and berries, perhaps thanks to the well-timed rains we’ve had this season and earlier in the year.

FYI, these photos were taken with my smart phone over a three-week period.


Just three weeks ago, Maximilian Sunflowers (Helianthus maximiliani) brought bright sunshine to line the trails.


While many sunflowers are annuals, Maximilian Sunflowers are perennial members of the aster family, and while they wait all year until fall to finally show their true colors, the pollinators are grateful once they do. 


Tucked into shadier areas, Calico Asters (Symphyotrichum lateriflorum) offered a subtle but happy fall presence.


Calico Asters are so named because their disk flowers offer yellow centers that age to a darker red. The plant can have both colors on display at the same time.


But the woodland areas also have their own yellow sunshine in the fall — Plateau Goldeneye (Viguiera dentata). This lovely aster is a prolific reseeder, but it is easy to manage. I have some special Goldeneyes in my backyard that were given to me by a dear woman who passed away this spring. They can reseed in my yard all they want, for each one is a memory of a wonderful environmental steward and friend.


Plateau Goldeneye is not only beautiful, it is the host plant for Cassius Blue and Bordered Patch butterflies.


Apparently some grasshoppers find it tasty, too. This photo actually is of a muncher I saw at the Wildflower Center a couple of weeks ago. It didn’t bother to stop eating while I took its picture.


Above, Turk’s Cap (Malvaviscus arboreus var. drummondii) had a determined showing at Walnut Creek Park despite the abundant presence of Plateau Goldeneye. No worries, for it knows that its seasonal blooms will outlast the yellow ones of its aster companions.


The berries of American Beautyberry (Callicarpa americana) gave a pleasantly shocking contrast of magenta. It’s hard to keep jogging or walking when these beautiful colors beckon you to stop. Mockingbirds would rather you keep going, however. Once you are out of the scene, they’ll get to work eating those beautiful berries.


Clusters of Prairie Flameleaf Sumac (Rhus lanceolata) berries ripen in the fall to a dark red color. These tart berries can be soaked to create a lemonade of sorts, high in Vitamin C.


A few weeks later, the berries are shriveled, and the foliage changes to vibrant fall colors, well deserving of its Flameleaf name.


Sometimes the Walnut Creek woods open up to sudden pocket meadows, giving romping dogs opportunities to bounce above the grasses, chase rabbits, and collect many seeds in their fur.


Those grasses, catching sunlight with their wispy seedheads, have their own seasonal value, for they give wildlife an important food source throughout the cooler months ahead.funnelspiderl10-19-14

Not so much a bloom, this funnel weaver spider did at least come out of its cozy hiding spot to say hello as we traveled by.


Beautiful park, worth visiting if you are in Austin. Dogs, worn out and happy. Dog points earned for the family.

Shades of Purple — Sawfly Larvae!

In one of those wow moments, one in which you had more than your smart phone to take a picture, I happened upon a wondrous sight. These little guys might not be everyone’s cup of tea, but you might just have to admit they’re still pretty cool… check out these colorful larvae:


They are by gosh purple, and while they are caterpillar-like, they are not actually caterpillars. They are the larvae of certain sawflies, which are in the Order Hymenoptera (along with ants, bees, and wasps). They were munching on Indian Mallow down near Onion Creek.


I have Indian Mallow (Abutilon fruticosum) growing wild in my backyard — I’m going to have to keep an eye on the plants for potential sawfly larvae there, too. Why? Because they are so very cool… and purple! Apparently they are not a common sight — I feel very fortunate indeed to have spotted them. Purple! Nature rocks.

Dill Power

Here at Great Stems we grow dill, partly for cooking but mostly for wildlife.dill05-13 It being May in Texas now, this cool-season herb is overgrown in our garden and not as pretty as it once was. dillseeds05-06-13The blooms are giving way to seeds, but that’s not the problem. Aside from being long and lanky, much of it is now covered in aphids.

aphidondillB05-13These pest bugs seem to suddenly show up by the hundreds, thanks to females that can produce live young without the presence of a male (when fall weather approaches, the females will produce males to allow the formation of eggs for overwintering). The aphids aren’t noticeably affecting the dill, but the tiny pests and plant legginess made me long to at the very least give the plant a good trim. But as soon as I took a closer look at the plant, I ceased the consideration of that idea — the dill is supporting a beautiful population of wildlife I do want.

blackswallowcat04-21-13The biggest are the Black Swallowtail caterpillars. Gorgeous, they are.


Anyone else adore the little gripping legs of caterpillars? Those stubby-looking ones in the abdominal area are called prolegs, but they aren’t true legs. The true legs are up near the head, in the thoracic area, and those are the legs that will be retained for adulthood. See them? Back at the other end, on the terminal abdominal segment, some caterpillars (including Black Swallowtails) and other insect larvae have an additional pair of prolegs, called anal prolegs.

ladybug05-13Lady beetles, popularly called ladybugs, dominated the rest of the dill. They are fierce consumers of aphids, and they have found quite the feast on my overgrown herbs.

ladybugsmatingC05-06-13Many male and female lady beetles have paired up, and “in the mood,” they’ve been busy.

ladybugsmating05-06-13Actually, the females didn’t really stop to mess around, so to speak. The one above, for example, kept eating aphid after aphid, regardless of the male attached to her.

ladybugeggs05-06-13The result of happy lady beetle love? Happy lady beetle eggs, and lots of them.

Edit: I’m fairly confident that most of these lady beetles are the darn invasive variety, Harmonia axyridis, the very ones responsible for the decline of many of our native species. Frustrating. But let me continue, as the basic concepts I talk about here are still the same.

ladybugeggslacewing05-13Here you can see both lady beetle eggs (the orange ovals) and lacewing eggs (the individually placed white eggs dangling from threads). I hope the lady beetle larvae emerge first and then skedaddle away before the voracious lacewing larvae arrive. But I’m not too worried, as there are plenty of aphids for them all.

ladybuglarvaD05-06-13Ladybug larvae are rather alien-like in appearance, but they are gentle little things — well, not to aphids.


Hey, look at those great legs (or should I say, great stems? hohoho)! I guess my interest in insect legs doesn’t stop with caterpillars.ladybuglarva05-06-13

As it turns out, I have a lot of ladybug larvae on my dill. A LOT. And that’s a good thing.


Even so, it wasn’t easy to get a picture of both adult and larval stage together. In fact, right after I took this picture, the larva fled the scene, while the adult seemed to give chase. I have no idea whether there was a threat of predation, but I do know that adult lady beetles consume other insects and larvae, in addition to aphids.ladybugsC05-06-13


When the lady beetle larva is ready, it will enter its pupa stage. Over the next several days, a complete metamorphosis will take place, and eventually an adult lady beetle will emerge. Above you can see one larva already in pupa stage, the other just starting.ladybugpupaB05-06-13


The base of the dill was a popular spot for pupae. Once the adults emerge, it will take a few hours for their exoskeleton to harden and darken. Then it’s time for an aphid feast and getting a new ladybug cycle underway.


Oh but there’s more! This mealybug destroyer wanted its fair share of aphids, too. Mealybug destroyers (Cryptolaemus montrouzieri) are also members of the lady beetle family. They aren’t native to the states (they were introduced  from Australia in 1891 to do exactly what they do — eat mealybugs, aphids, and scale insects), but they seem to be helpful without affecting native populations of lady beetles. They actually look like larger versions of the mealybug pests they are known for eating — this is called aggressive mimicry.

There are other insects taking advantage of the aphid feast offered by the dill, but I’ll stop here. The dill, getting uglier by the day (its prime time is during cooler temperatures), gets to stay, too beneficial a haven to remove.

Giving a Turtle a Hand But Not Digits

It’s not every day that one has a chance to do a good deed and lose some fingers in the process. But recently my neighbor Jan gave us that opportunity when she reported that she had saved a snapping turtle from a terrible fate that likely would have awaited it as it crossed the highway frontage road near our house. She named it Jaws, and appropriately so. Perhaps Jaws was a female who’d gotten lost after laying her eggs somewhere — whatever the reason, the highway was no place for this turtle to be, and she was far, far from water.

snappingturtlea04-01-12.jpgJan carefully put Jaws into the back of her pickup and asked for assistance in getting the turtle back to the nearby pond from which it likely came. She jokingly offered to let me put it in my backyard pond. As much as I love wildlife, my hot-tub pond does NOT need a giant snapping turtle. Besides, with the turtle’s sheer size and weight, it might have displaced all the water! Actually, we estimated that Jaws weighed around 30 pounds, a pretty good size for a turtle.


What a smile! As if it is daring us to get in range…

Wanting my sons to have all sorts of memory-making experiences with nature, I first asked them to join me to go see the snapping turtle and then asked my oldest son if he’d like to help get the turtle to the pond — carefully, mind you. He said yes, then proceeded to spend quiet moments reflecting on all the ways he values his fingers.


Closer, please.

Common Snapping Turtles are pure prehistoric awesomeness, as I like to say. They have so much body that they seem to ooze out of their shell, and that’s one reason why they are so snappy — they can’t hide back in their shell in times of danger. But they actually are quite benign creatures overall — the powerful jaws only come into play if they feel threatened (or hungry). 

snappingturtleh04-01-12.jpgLook at the gorgeous claws.

snappingturtlec04-01-12.jpgAnd the nifty plates on the legs — a vision in armor. Actually, take a look inside the mouth, too. For one thing, you can see whatever plant part it munched on. But you can also see its wide tongue, one of the ways you can distinguish a Common Snapping Turtle from an Alligator Snapping Turtle. Just don’t look TOO closely, if you know what I mean.

snappingturtlee04-01-12.jpgJaws also had perfect little nostrils on the tip of its nose. Can you just imagine the turtle laying low in the water and muck, reaching its head up to the surface every once in a while to take a breath of air?

snappingturtlef04-01-12.jpgAnother distinguishing characteristic of a Common Snapping Turtle is its long tail.

snappingturtlei04-01-12.jpgLook how it fills the wheelbarrow. Big girl. Or boy — apparently you can tell by looking at the base of its tail, but sometimes such information isn’t worth going after, haha. Keep in mind that a Common Snapping Turtle’s neck is long and flexible, and this is what makes handling one such a risky venture. It can snap out forcefully and fast, sideways or vertically, in the blink of an eye.

As much as I tried, I couldn’t get a picture of just how fast the snapping turtle snapped its jaws outward while my son moved the turtle from truck to wheelbarrow and wheelbarrow to pond. Perhaps a wise person would have switched to video mode, but I feel certain that in that case the turtle would have caught fingers for real and then I’d have a Youtube moment, as well as extreme mother guilt.

snappingturtleg04-01-12.jpgAll things considered, I’m glad that Jaws has an aquatic home once again and that everyone still has their digits. Thanks, Jan, for watching out for our wildlife and to both Jan and Logan, you earn a Medal of Bravery. Me, I stayed behind the camera. For documentary purposes, of course.

Pine Cone Thief

I must have done something right if wildlife loves my pine cone treats so much that they steal them away in broad daylight. I’d covered the pine cones in a mixture of natural peanut butter, corn meal, cranberries, and quality seed (black oil sunflower, safflower, thistle, peanuts) — yummy energizing goodness that’s rich in fat, protein, and carbs for birds trying to stay warm in the cold.

pineconetreats12-9-11.jpgNormally, I’d have these pine cones hanging from a branch or hook, but the wire broke on both of them, and I got lazy and put them in a saucer outside my entryway window, it being a great spot to see our avian visitors. Maybe that’s not being lazy — maybe it’s just clever! Well, except that they’re getting stolen by creatures that CLIMB, so I’ll go so far as to say it’s a good idea that needs a little tweaking.

Well, within a day, one peanut-butter delight was whisked away to some cozy little cubby hole. Some naughty squirrel has been having quite a feast, I dare say.


Bewick’s Wren

I’ve been hovering around, keeping my eye on the remaining pine cone. Even so, on day two there was an attempt to steal said pine cone, but I found it below the gate. On day three, I thought the pine cone was lost for good, but I happened to spot it in the middle of the yard. At least now I have a clue as to which greedy squirrels it might be — they appear to be trying to take it toward the trees in the next yard, where they have a nest.


 Yellow-Rumped Warbler

But I keep rescuing the pine cone and putting it back. In the meantime, I’m trying to find a source of more plain pine cones, but looking for them in the Christmas season is not the easiest of endeavors, I must say. I’m going to have to gather quite a collection of them next time I find myself in a pine forest.


Carolina Wren

By the way, we have a new homemade feeder at the house, and I love it!


My husband made me this wonderful log peanut-butter feeder, using a 1 1/4″ spade bit and an electric drill. We filled the holes with Wild Birds Unlimited BugBerry Bark Butter that has tasty mealworms in it. I know there are birds visiting it, but so far I’ve only seen evidence of some food missing from the holes, and one glimpse of a bird taking flight as I approached the window. One day I’ll have a picture of a bird enjoying the feeder! I suspect it will be most popular with woodpeckers and creepers.

I guess I best get out there and smear peanut butter on the birds’ favorite perch from last year. I might not have pine cones left much longer!

Creature Features

This drought has been crazy. Aside from birds, I’m just not seeing the usual wildlife species that hang around the garden — most notably butterflies are absent. I think it’s just too ridiculously hot. That being said, I’m seeing all sorts of other cool creatures around, and happily so.


We came home one day to a stick insect not-so-camouflaged on our garage door. I moved it over to a tree where it seemed much more at home. Pictures got harder, though.


Check out its scorpion-like display:


Clearly I liked it more than it liked me.

Our front pond has been busy with aquatic life. Apparently, it’s become THE place to lay eggs.

croakingtoad07-1-11.jpgThe male toads are singing each night, doing their best to entice a female for a dip in the pond.

Sometimes one even gets lucky!

Toad eggs are laid in long gel-like tubes. The eggs are laid in mass quantity.

Within just a day or two, the eggs become blobs, also known as embryos.

Here’s a closer view:


Soon the blobs/embryos become the tadpoles we know and love.

tadpoles07-01-11.jpgDespite the great numbers of eggs laid, very few make it to adulthood to live the life of a toad. They become food for other creatures, including the one below.

dragonflynymphb07-1-11.jpgEwww, you say? I say not! That, my friends, is a dragonfly nymph, and who doesn’t love dragonflies? Other than the bugs they devour, I mean.

dragonflynympha07-1-11.jpgWe find these nymphs — damselfly nymphs, too — in our ponds all the time. It turns out that dragonfly nymphs can play dead. They stay very still if briefly removed from the water, but –whoosh!– they’ll zip back to the water depths the moment they feel that water surround them again.


Here’s the exoskeleton left behind after an adult dragonfly emerged and flew away. Those weird-looking white strings are actually tracheal tubes that once transported oxygen. I’m so curious what kind of dragonfly completed its life cycle in our little pond. I’ll never know, I suppose, but I have seen a Neon Skimmer flying around the pond. Who knows… maybe!

Back in the back, our hackberry has these nifty little leaf galls. It turns out that these are caused by Celticesis midges.


The adult midges, which are little flies, lay eggs on the underside of a hackberry leaf, and the plant tissue forms galls around them. The larvae have a miniature habitat inside the gall, where they eat and develop.

In other news, we had an sssstupendous set of ssssnake sightings last weekend. On a hike at Walnut Creek park, we decided to take paths less traveled for a change. Within moments we discovered this beauty:


It’s an Eastern Hognosed Snake, flattening its head and hissing something fierce. While I didn’t disturb it more than to take a picture with my camera phone, if I’d gotten much closer, this snake would have flipped upside-down and played dead. Part of me wishes I could have witnessed that, but I just don’t like to stress out wildlife (more than is required for a quick photo op, that is).

In a different area of the park, we found a little snake traveling along dried-up sections of the creek.

racersnake06-11.jpgCamera phones and wild snakes just don’t work well together. I really should at least carry a pocket camera on these hikes. But I think this might be a juvenile Yellow-Bellied Racer. It was very small and quickly found a hole to curl up into.

Just seeing these two snakes had already made our day, but when we returned home, we found a little snake in our hallway!

tantillasnake07-1-11.jpgWe rescued it and took it outside. I tried to get a picture, but that little snake moved to hide in the leaves as fast as its little no-legs could carry it. The best I can tell you is that it is possibly a snake in the Tantilla genus (perhaps Flathead or Plains Blackhead), or perhaps it is a Rough Earth Snake.

Just a few days later, my friend Diane shared a picture of a molted skin left behind by a friend’s pet snake her family was snake-sitting. She didn’t know the species, but from her description, it sounded like it might be a corn snake.


Have you ever seen a snake skin include the head and eye areas? Holy moly, now THAT’S a creature feature.

And the harvestmen are back, this time congregating in the highest eave on my house, making it nearly impossible for me to (get my husband to) kindly move them back to the greenbelt behind the house. Hopefully visitors to my house won’t look up. I’m not taking a picture. Hey, even a wildlife lover can have something to cringe about! They’re good garden predators, so I don’t *really* mind them. In some ways, harvestmen, a.k.a. daddylonglegs, are even kind of cool. But they do creep me out. It has something to do with discovering thousands of them bobbing inches above my head (and my big mass of hair) when I was crawling through a cave.

Instead of harvestmen, I’ll end with a skipper, one of the few butterflies we do get to see from time to time even in this horrible drought.


skippera06-11.jpgNo legs, two legs, four legs, six legs, more — they put the wild in this wildlife garden!

Helping Wildlife in the Hot Summer

On KLRU’S Central Texas Gardener this week, I get to talk about one of my very favorite subjects, wildlife. Tom Spencer and I discuss ways to help wildlife during the blazing hot summer. Despite our brief bit of rain this week, the South continues to suffer from heat records and drought, and wildlife can be hit pretty hard by the severe conditions.


Low saucers of water are great for toads.

Water sources, of course, are priority one, and they don’t have to be big, fancy, or expensive. A saucer (or several) of clean water will do. We’re in the process of building another one of our budget-wise small ponds, so hopefully I’ll be able to report on it soon (and by typing this, I hope to ensure that it WILL be soon).


Caterpillars have specific host plant needs, like this Two-Tailed Swallowtail caterpillar munching on Wafer Ash.

Native plants are another priority, ones that serve as caterpillar hosts and/or offer seeds, fruits, pollen, nectar, nuts, or berries for the wildlife. I also supplement with birdfeeders, some with mixed seed and others with thistle, and I have several hummingbird feeders, as well. This gives birds all sorts of options to choose from.


Songbirds love black oil sunflower and safflower seeds, peanuts, thistle, and other nutrient-rich foods. Just leave out milo and millet.

To invite songbirds, I like to use a mixture of black oil sunflower, striped sunflower, safflower, thistle, and peanuts. Sometimes I add cracked corn, but if pesty English House Sparrows start to show up, I leave out the cracked corn to discourage them. I generally create my own mix, and I don’t buy milo or millet because of the birds they attract.


Milo and millet attract pest birds like English House Sparrows and Starlings.

Milo and millet are favorites of English House Sparrows and European Starlings, two non-native, invasive, and aggressive bird species. By aggressive, I mean that they will kill native birds such as Purple Martins or Bluebirds, drive birds out of their nesting areas, and destroy their eggs or young. Not only that, but they’ll eat all your birdseed before other birds can get to it! I’ve seen them get territorial at feeders, too. It’s very important to discourage these pest birds (and don’t let them use your nesting boxes or gourds).

White-winged Doves also love millet and milo. They are native birds, but they will quickly share the news that you are providing those seeds, and the next thing you know they and 30 other dove friends will be at your feeder all day long, taking turns with the English House Sparrows and Starlings and never letting any other birds have any.


Just the feeder should be red, not the sugar-water mixture inside.

With hummingbird feeders, I recommend easy-to-open, easy-to-clean plastic hummingbird feeders that are all red in color. Glass is okay, too, but the feeder can break easily if it falls.


This saucer-style Hummzinger feeder has a moat for water to keep ants away.

You should be able to see every spot you are trying to clean — no nooks or crannies, and for your own ease, the fewer steps necessary, the better. Often, little bee guards (which are considered ineffective) or decorative flower attachments are a pain to clean, and that makes it more likely mold will grow.


This feeder is seen at many stores, but it is difficult to keep clean, and those yellow flowers attract bees and wasps that might sting or chase off hummingbirds.

Why are all-red feeders the best choice? Those feeders with yellow and/or white flowers or other decorations sometimes bring in bees and wasps that are attracted to yellow and white colors. But bees and wasps can’t see the color red! Hummingbirds, on the other hand, love red. Bees and wasps also sometimes act aggressively toward hummingbirds and will even chase them off. My dad once witnessed a bee sting a hummingbird, and the hummingbird could not fly for several minutes. My dad watched over the bird until it was recovered enough to fly away.


Iron from rusty feeders can build up in a hummingbird’s body and lead to its death.

I know that there are a number of pretty metal feeders out there, but stay away from them, please. Metal rusts, and the iron from the rust gets into the liquid and is consumed by the hummingbirds. However, they can’t get rid of the iron in their tiny little systems, and it can build up to the point of causing death. The hummingbird feeder in the above picture not only has rusty metal, but it also has yellow flowers and breakable glass. A triple threat!

The recommended mixture for hummingbird feeders is 4 parts water to 1 part ordinary white table sugar. Please don’t add red food coloring or buy red “nectar” mixes or use any other kind of sweetener.

hummerh09-02-10.jpgTo keep feeders clean, I use water and vinegar, cleaning the feeder holes with a tiny brush and the inside of the feeder with a baby-bottle brush. I also make sure to replace the sugar mixture about every 3 days. Even with my five hummingbird feeders, the clean-and-refill task is quite fast.

The same goes with birdbaths — keep them clean (a kitchen scrub brush with some vinegar works great) and replace the water every 3 days. This not only helps keep the birds safe, but it keeps mosquito larvae from completing the cycle to adulthood, at which point the little flying vampires would look to you for their next meal or meals.

My thanks to Linda, Tom, and the friendly CTG crew at KLRU for making me feel at home on the show. And thanks to everyone watching out for wildlife this hot summer!