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.

The Herald of Spring

This morning my dogs and I visited our favorite leash-free nature-plenty park for a bit of exercise. We enjoyed following the paths through a winter assortment of evergreens, bare-branched deciduous woody plants, and golden-to-brown spent grasses and herbaceous plants (granted, the dogs were far more interested in animal smells while I, on the other hand, forego those risky smells and instead admired the plants). But I pulled up short when I spotted this treasure among the winter scene, tiny yellow-green blooms looking like miniature fireworks among the brown branches. I knew immediately that Elbow Bush was announcing the imminent arrival of spring ahead.


Elbow Bush, or Forestiera pubescens, is a deciduous Southwestern shrub that blooms much earlier in the year (Feb-Mar) than most other plants in the region. In fact, another of its nicknames is Spring Herald. Its blooms, which open before new leaves bud out, are important nectar sources for early-emerging butterflies and other pollinators. Later on, the female plants will produce dark-blue berries that are a favorite of wildlife.


Yet another name for Forestiera pubescens is Stretchberry. But here in our area, I know this shrub best as Elbow Bush, a name earned because the plant typically branches at right angles. It has tremendous wildlife value and makes a great understory addition, but gardeners should note that it does have a thicket-forming habit. So perhaps it might serve a naturalistic landscape best.

It won’t be long, and this plant like so many others will be covered in green foliage. Also spotted in bloom today — Mexican Plum, Agarita, and one wee little bloom on a Mountain Laurel (and all three were deliciously fragrant, too — I couldn’t help but check). Spring cometh!

Seed Dispersal Fascination

Walking through the winter garden today, I wandered among patches of brown, spent perennials and annuals long gone to seed. I let the seeds linger for the sake of wintering birds in need of food and to hopefully let them spread their habit a little.

Frostweed (Verbesina virginica L.)

Frostweed (Verbesina virginica L.)

I’ve always been fascinated by seeds — shape, size, patterns, and especially dispersal methods. Plant species over all their thousands to millions of years of existence have evolved remarkable ways to disperse their seeds. After all, it’s to their advantage to send forth their seeds, not just to ensure population survival but to also not have tons of little baby plants growing up at their feet, so to speak — stealing sunlight, water, nutrients, and space from their parents.

Frostweed (Verbesina virginica L.) produces copious seeds to feed overwintering birds.

Frostweed (Verbesina virginica L.) produces copious seeds to feed overwintering birds.

Different plant species have different means of getting their seeds out into the world, of course, but generally speaking they fall into several main dispersal categories:

  • Wind (Seeds float or flutter with help of the wind)
  • Expulsion (Seeds are forcibly expelled)
  • Gravity (Seeds bounce and roll)
  • Animals (Seeds stick to, are eaten and digested by, are eaten as fruits with seeds discarded, or are stored and planted by animals. Note that humans take seed dispersal to a whole other level — sometimes with disastrous effects, such as spread of invasive plants.)
  • Water (Seeds float to a new location)

Assorted cones

Furthermore, some plants only release their seeds in response to certain triggers, such as heat from the sun, water, or drying. As another example, certain pine trees might drop their cones all over a woodland floor, but the cones will only release the actual seeds in response to a fire hot enough to burn living trees in the area. Such a trigger-dependent adaptation is called serotiny.

Wafer Ash (Ptelea trifoliata) seeds have circular "wings" to help them flutter to the ground.

Wafer Ash (Ptelea trifoliata) seeds have circular “wings” to help them flutter to the ground.

Some seeds have parachute-like adaptations, such as the classic dandelion, that let them travel long distances on the wind, while other seeds have “wings” that help them flutter down or reach several feet away. Other seed heads spill out their seeds when a strong wind tilts the stem, such as the seed cup of a poppy.

My favorite example of expulsion, or forced dispersal, is that of the bluebonnet, whose pods twist and pop open in the warm sun, sending out their pebble-like seeds out a few feet away. Unfortunately, I don’t have any pictures of this action… yet!

For water dispersal, think of seeds that float, such as those of water lilies, lotus, and the all-time classic… coconuts.


Cedar waxwings feasting on Yaupon (Ilex vomitoria) berries

In terms of animal dispersal, I can attest, having three dogs, that seeds that have hooks, spines, or barbs (such as burrs and stick tights) are very effective in getting their potential offspring spread far away from the parents. Birds can carry seeds great distances simply by eating fruits and seeds off one plant and then pooping out the seeds many feet or many miles away. And then there are squirrels and blue jays, notorious for planting acorns and other tree seeds, some of which will surely grow.


The seeds of Inland Sea Oats (Chasmanthium latifolium) present themselves in a graceful arch, until birds and wind start to disperse the seeds.


As the seedheads of Velvet-leaf Mallow (Allowissadula holosericea) mature, they open to reveal a cool radial pattern.

Gravity comes into play with many species — obviously it’s going to influence where seeds land, regardless of overall dispersal method. Never underestimate the success potential of a seed that has simply dropped and rolled to a perfect soil and light location.

seedmaterials11-15Working with kids has made the study of seed dispersal all the more fun. Want to challenge your children or students? Have them use different craft materials to design their own seeds with different methods of dispersal. Then test their dispersal success — possibly with a fan, a tub of water, a measuring tape to determine expulsion distance, or cloth or stuffed animal as “fur.” Try it yourself, too!

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.

Thank You, Native Plant Society of Texas!

This October I was very honored to be the 2014 recipient of the Native Plant Society of Texas‘ new Digital Media Award for my Great Stems blog. I’m so pleased that my blog has had an impact on those seeking to learn more about native Texas plants, gardening, conservation, and supporting wildlife, as well as connecting youth with nature.NPSOTaward11-2-14

When I first started on my gardening journey several years ago, I also started Great Stems, partly to document my progress and partly to keep me committed to my gardening endeavors. Early on in my experiences, I began to focus on developing my yard into a wildlife habitat, and that’s when I immersed myself into the world of native Texas plants, the foundation of our state’s biodiversity. At the same time, Great Stems underwent a journey of its own. The more I learned, the more I shared, and in time I realized that many readers were using my blog as a resource to learn more about native Texas plants. Since then, my entries are written to hopefully inspire, educate, and encourage other gardeners to plant native plants for conservation and to support wildlife, while still keeping its original sense of journey and adventure. While my posts have slowed somewhat due to my job, my wildlife garden is still going strong, as is my commitment to educating adults and kids about the role of native plants in the ecosystem.

Thank you again, NPSOT. I truly am honored, and I am equally grateful to this wonderful organization and its members for all the support and educational resources that they offer, as well as all the countless hours of hard work they do for conservation and protection of our state’s precious native plants and habitats.


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.

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.


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.

Silverleaf sunflower

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.


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.


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.


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.


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.



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!


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.



Definitely the way to go.


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.


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.


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!