Edie’s Garden—A Place to Discover Nature

By Barb Elliot

Wildlife is abundant in Edie’s yard.  She finds birds, butterflies, moths, dragonflies, bugs,

Monarch newly emerged and ready for release. Raised from eggs laid on Edie’s Butterfly Milkweed.  © Edie Parnum.  Click to enlarge.

Monarch newly emerged and ready for release. Raised from eggs laid on Edie’s Butterfly Milkweed. © Edie Parnum. Click to enlarge.

beetles, bees, wasps, flies, and more – creatures she loves – living among her native plants.

It wasn’t always this way.  I saw the yard when Edie moved to this ¾-acre property in 2007. It was mostly turf grass. Except for a few native trees (Black Cherry, Red Maple, White Pine), no native plants grew here. Consequently, we observed few birds—just an occasional robin or starling—no other wildlife.  She knew she could transform her lifeless property into a healthy habitat for wildlife by reducing the lawn and planting native plants. It could become a place where she could discover, learn, and enjoy nature.

To create a healthy ecosystem on her property she wanted to:

  • Plant a diversity and multitude of native plants
  • Offer conditions for birds and other creatures to thrive and reproduce
  • Provide year-round food sources, water, cover, and places to raise young for wildlife
  • Welcome lots of birds—certainly hummingbirds
  • Create a place of beauty where she could be immersed in nature
  • Learn the species of flora and fauna and how they interact and depend on each other
  • Leave a legacy of nature for future generations with long-lived trees and shrubs

Gradually, year by year, she has succeeded in creating this haven for wildlife.  Eight years later I see thousands of native plants.  They include perennials, grasses, vines, ferns, and woody plants, i.e. shrubs and trees.  She planted densely, letting the plants touch each other as they do in the wild.  Her canopy trees are young, but the oaks and others will be massively productive for wildlife for decades.  Eastern Redbud, Flowering Dogwood, and Shadbush are already filling the understory.  The mature shrubs like Spicebush, Elderberry, and several viburnum species are now luxuriant.  At the ground

Red Milkweed Beetles eat plants in the milkweed family.  The beetles are protected by the milkweed's toxins and the black and red colors. © Edie Parnum.  click to enlarge.

Red Milkweed Beetles eat plants in the milkweed family. The beetles are protected by the milkweed’s toxins and the black and red colors. © Edie Parnum. click to enlarge.

level perennials, vines, ferns, sedges, and grasses, are profuse. This diversity of plants offer nuts, seeds, berries, nectar, and pollen.  Even the foliage of the native plants is indirectly a source of food.  Insects eat the leaves and become food for birds and other creatures.

Birds now find what they need to live and thrive. They eat the fruits, nuts, seeds, and nectar produced by the yard’s native plants.  Resident and migrating birds eat the insects hosted by her native plants. For example, Carolina

 

Chickadees can locate the 6, 000-plus caterpillars required to feed their young.  Of course, no pesticides are ever used.

Edie has added other features for birds.  She installed nest boxes for cavity-nesting House Wrens and Tree Swallows.  She allows fallen leaves to lie in many places. Eastern Towhees and Brown Thrashers rummage in this leaf litter to find insects. Carolina Wrens

 Trumpet Honeysuckle, a well-behaved vine with hummingbird-attracting red tubular flowers.  © Edie Parnum. Click to enlarge.

Trumpet Honeysuckle, a well-behaved vine with hummingbird-attracting red tubular flowers. © Edie Parnum. Click to enlarge.

often locate their insect delicacies in the brush pile. On a snag (dead tree) woodpeckers, including a Pileated Woodpecker, forage for insects in the decaying wood. A Trumpet Vine grows on this snag and attracts hummingbirds seeking nectar from its flowers. A bird bath and small pond offer birds water. The bird feeders supply a small proportion of food needed by some of the birds. Many, many birds (106 species) love this yard.

Her meadow, in my opinion, is the crown jewel of her property.  It is chock full of colorful perennials and grasses.  Birds forage for seeds in late summer, fall, and winter. Numerous butterflies (30 species so far), bees, beetles, and other pollinators are active on flowers

Edie’s Meadow in late summer.  Flowers attract butterflies, moths, and other insect pollinators.  © Edie Parnum.  Click to enlarge.

Edie’s Meadow in late summer. Flowers attract butterflies, moths, and other insect pollinators. © Edie Parnum. Click to enlarge.

blooming from April through October.  Even at night the meadow is alive with moths, beetles, and other insects and spiders.  Aiming a flashlight into the dense meadow plants, she can see the tiny, shining eyes of moths and other insects.  Bumble bees, too, sleep on the flower heads, resting for the next day’s work.

Edie has created a paradise for herself as well as the creatures that call her yard home. With binoculars and camera, she frequently takes nature walks around the yard.  The birds, whether eating, preening, feeding young, are always interesting.  Mating foxes are less expected.  Mating Garter Snakes, too. Even

Spicebush Swallowtail caterpillar on Sassafras, one of its host plants.© Edie Parnum.  Click to enlarge.

Spicebush Swallowtail caterpillar on Sassafras, one of its host plants.© Edie Parnum. Click to enlarge.

better, she loves to discover a caterpillar eating leaves. When she locates other tiny creatures—bees, beetles, wasps, and others—she takes their photos.  At night she uses lights to attract moths.  She photographs these creatures, too.

Using the photos of insects, she can usually make identifications and then figure out their role in this ecosystem. What plants do they depend on?  What plants depend on them? What do they eat?  Who eats them?  Are they parasites?  Predators?

The possibilities for discovery are endless.  Mostly, she revels in success of the healthy ecosystem she has created.

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Nature Discovery Day, August 29, 2015

Edie enjoys showing her garden with its native plants, birds, butterflies, moths and other creatures to nature-loving friends. On August 29th she will host Nature Discovery Day.  Throughout the day you can explore her yard, discover nature in action, and learn about habitat gardening. Guided walks for children and adults will be offered, too.  In the evening it’ll be Moth Night.

This event will be for a limited audience by invitation only. She’s inviting Backyards for Nature blog readers and their interested family and friends.  Save the date and watch for an invitation coming to you in late July or early August.

Bats in Peril

By Barb Elliot

OK.  I’ll confess.  I love bats!  Fifteen years ago my father and I built a bat house for them.  Each spring, I watch expectantly for “my” bats to return to their bat house.  And, every spring they have come back.  I always breathe a sigh of relief.

Barb's pole-mounted rocket-style bat box awaits the spring return of "her" bats.  © Barb Elliot. Click to enlarge.

Barb’s pole-mounted rocket-style bat box awaits the spring return of “her” bats. © Barb Elliot.  Click to enlarge.

Through summer and early fall I watch them at dusk.  I thrill to see two or three flying in large circles over my yard.  Watching them swerve and swoop, I marvel as they deftly capture night-flying insects.  Using echolocation — emitting sound waves that bounce off objects and echo back to them — they successfully locate, catch and consume mosquitoes, moths, and beetles that fly in the dark.  Each night they eat half their body weight (lactating females eat 100% their body weight) in insects– as many as 1,000 insects an hour!  Mosquitoes are not a problem in my yard.  By eating insect pests, bats offer their services to farmers, too. Farmers can use fewer pesticides and save money. Consequently, our food costs are lower, and an added benefit, pesticides are kept off our food and out of the environment.

Cluster_of_little_brown_bats_myotis_lucifugus Wikimedia Commons photo by Tim Krynak USFWS

Cluster of hibernating Little Brown Bats. Wikimedia Commons image by Tim Krynak, USFWS.

Nine species of bats, all insect-eaters, live in Pennsylvania.  Three species (Hoary, Red, and Silver-haired) migrate south in the fall, to find insects. The other six species, including “my” Big Brown Bats, head to caves or mines (known as hibernacula) where they hibernate until insects become plentiful again in the spring. In the cold, constant temperature of a hibernaculum the bats roost huddled together in groups.  They enter a state of torpor, lowering their body temperatures (from 108 degrees to 39 – 59 degrees F). Their heart rates slow (from 1000 beats per minute to 10 bpm) to conserve energy and they live off their fat stores.  Every three weeks, the bats rouse themselves.  Their body temperatures and heart rates rise briefly to normal summer rates before returning to their state of torpor.

Hibernating bats are dying in droves.  In 2006, a cold-loving fungus from Europe

Little Brown Bat displaying White-nose Syndrome.  Wikimedia Commons.  Image by Marvin Moriarty USFWS.

Little Brown Bat displaying White-nose Syndrome. Wikimedia Commons. Image by Marvin Moriarty USFWS.

(Pseudogymnoascus destructans) was found in bats in four caverns in upstate New York. This fungus, which thrives in the cold of caves and mines, causes a disease in bats known as White-nose Syndrome (WNS).  WNS is fatal and has decimated bat populations.  It damages bats’ muscles, connective tissues, and skin, and causes them to rouse more frequently (every 5 days vs. every 3 weeks).   Their fat stores are depleted during the winter, Death occurs well before spring.

White-nose syndrome has spread rapidly.  Confirmed in PA in winter 2008-2009, it is now in 25 states and 5 Canadian provinces.  The disease has killed over 95% of bats at every wintering site.  (See chart for the heartbreaking declines of our PA bats.)  PA has lost

Losses at 34 hibernacula are representative of PA statewide bat species declines.  Click to enlarge.

Losses at 34 hibernacula are representative of PA statewide bat species losses.  Click to enlarge.

more bats than any other state.  Hibernacula that previously held tens of thousands of bats now hold just a few hundred or fewer.  Overall, PA has lost over 99% of its total bat population because the largest die-off has been in Little Brown Bats, formerly the most populous PA species.

WNS has killed over 5.7 million bats — the worst disease to affect North American wildlife

March, 2015 map from White-noseSyndrome.org

March, 2015 map from White-noseSyndrome.org showing spread of WNS to states and provinces.  Click to open in separate window.

in centuries.  It continues its deadly march.  Scientists at many laboratories and federal and state agencies are investigating ways to control WNS and protect bats.  If a solution is found, it could still take hundreds of years for some bat species to return to pre-WNS levels. After all, most bat species have just one or two pups a year.

Red Bat with 3 pups, though most bat species have just 1 or 2 pups a year.  Wikimedia Commons image by Josh Henderson.

Red Bat with 3 pups, though most bat species have just 1 or 2 pups a year. Wikimedia Commons image by Josh Henderson.  Click to enlarge.

WNS is a daunting disease, but there are things you can do to help bats:

  • Build a bat house for roosting bats.  Bats are particular about their roosts, so do a little research to understand their housing needs and location preferences.  See Install a Bat House  for detailed guidelines.
  • Contribute toward WNS research by donating to Bat Conservation International (BCI) and consider becoming a member of BCI.
  • Participate in the Appalachian Bat Count project in PA by counting bats at a maternity colony in the summer.  These counts are especially important because of WNS.
  • If a bat strays into your home, don’t harm or try to catch it.  Simply open a door or windows. After it gets its bearings, the bat should leave within 10 or 15 minutes.
  • If a colony of bats moves into your attic, take measures to exclude the bats only after mid-July when pups are able to fly.  If possible, provide an alternate roost as a new home for the colony.   See Bats in Buildings:  A Guide to Safe and Humane Exclusions or Penn State Extension’s bat exclusion and alternate roost information.
  • Learn more about bats and White-nose Syndrome and share your knowledge with family, friends, and neighbors.

This spring, I’ll be waiting and watching for “my bats” to return to my bat house.  I hope they’ll have survived White-nose Syndrome once again.  Look for bats in your

A healthy hibernating Big Brown Bat., Wikimedia Commons Image by Ann Froschauer, USFWS.  Click to enlarge.

A healthy hibernating Big Brown Bat., Wikimedia Commons Image by Ann Froschauer, USFWS. Click to enlarge.

neighborhood, too.  Please join me as an advocate for these often misunderstood, but extremely valuable creatures.

Resources:

Bat Conservation International 

White-NoseSyndrome.org

White-nose syndrome in Pa. bats could lead to endangered status, affect jobs.  Rick Wills, Pittsburgh TribLive, December 15, 2012

Special thanks to Dan Mummert, Wildlife Diversity Biologist, Pennsylvania Game Commission, Southeast Region, for sharing his expertise and WNS data

 

 

Chickadees in Winter

By Edie Parnum

On cold winter days, watching perky Carolina Chickadees lifts my spirits. Nasty wind, snow, and ice do not deter them.  At the window of my warm kitchen with its well-stocked pantry, I wonder how they survive the frigid weather. Weighing only as much as four pennies, they are the smallest birds that visit my feeders. They must be vulnerable to starvation and hypothermia.

Imagining they depend on my beneficence, I diligently keep my feeders filled. My

Carolina Chickadee fluffs its feathers and shivers to retain body heat.  Photo  Carolina Chickadee fluffs its feathers and shivers to retain body heat. Photo © Howard Eskin.

Carolina Chickadee fluffs its feathers and shivers to retain body heat.  Photo © Howard Eskin.  Click to enlarge.

chickadees land on the feeder with a jaunty bounce.  They never stay on the feeder perches to eat speedily like the House Finches.  The finches have large, strong beaks to break open seeds and can quickly chow down multiple seeds. Instead, chickadees use their tiny beaks to pick out an individual seed and carry it to a nearby branch. Holding it with their feet, they pound with their bills to break open the shell and access the meat.  They repeat this again and again.  Being a chickadee is hard work.

I enjoy watching chickadees in the wild, too.  Yes, I do go outside in winter—my down jacket keeps me warm.  Walking through the woods, I often hear their “chickadee-dee-dee” call before spying them.  Sometimes merely a soft “sit-sit” sound alerts me.  In winter chickadees, along with Tufted Titmice, are leaders of a mixed flock of birds. These little sounds help the birds stay in touch as they roam a mile-wide circle.    The flock usually includes White-breasted Nuthatches and Downy Woodpeckers.  Sometimes Hairy Woodpeckers, Brown Creepers, kinglets (both Golden-Crowned and Ruby-Crowned), and others tag along, too.  The chickadees and titmice have this following because they are exceptionally alert to predators and adept at finding food.

Chickadees search for food all the time. Using their beaks they continuously probe the crevices of bark, branches, and buds.  Little acrobats, they use their strong claws to hang upside down and investigate the undersides of branches and other vegetation.

Chickadees feed their nestlings exclusively insects and spiders gleaned from foliage and tree bark.  Photo courtesy of and @ Steve Creek, Wildlife Photographer.

Chickadees feed their nestlings exclusively insects and spiders gleaned from foliage and tree bark. Photo courtesy of and @ Steve Creek, Wildlife Photographer.  Click to enlarge.

Even with my binoculars, I can’t see what the chickadees are eating.  Their eyesight is keener than humans’.  With twice as many receptors in their eyes and the ability to see ultra violet light, they locate their prey: tiny, camouflaged eggs, larvae, and other hibernating insects and spiders.

Scientists tell me fifty per cent of Carolina Chickadees’ winter diet comes from these dormant creatures.  Insect food is proportionately higher in fat and calories than plants. Nevertheless, they relish the sunflower and safflower seeds at my feeders.  Sometimes they eat suet and peanuts, too.  In the wild they consume seeds, berries, and cones.  Frequently I observe them devouring seeds while dangling from the balls of a Sweet Gum tree next to my house.  Native plants like Eastern Red Cedar, Poison Ivy, Eastern White Pine, Tulip Poplar, and various birches and goldenrods are favorite foods in my yard and beyond. They cache some food items, remembering the location to retrieve when needed.

Chickadees possess special adaptations to withstand the cold.  Before the winter season starts, they grow 50% more feathers.  To minimize heat loss they fluff up their feathers to

A Mourning Dove fluffs its feathers to keep warm. Chickadees and other birds will use a heated bird bath for drinking and bathing when other water is frozen.  Photo © Edie Parnum.

A Mourning Dove fluffs its feathers to keep warm. Chickadees and other birds will use a heated bird bath for drinking and bathing when other water is frozen. Photo © Edie Parnum.  Click to enlarge.

create air pockets—I think of my down jacket.  Researchers say, however, shivering is the primary way chickadees maintain their body temperature.

Carolina Chickadees’ most difficult challenge is to survive the long, cold winter nights.  I spend my nights in a heated house covered with layers of blankets—oblivious to the possibility of freezing to death. At night a chickadee will roost singly in a cavity or dense vegetation—seemingly an inadequate strategy for retaining body heat through the night.  It can, however, lower its body temperature by 10 degrees to minimize loss of calories. Remarkably, chickadees can endure temperatures as low as -35 degrees.

I wonder if feeding the chickadees and other birds helps them survive the winter.  They obviously like my well-stocked feeding station.  Before, during, and after snowstorms, birds flock to my feeders in especially large numbers. They can’t access their natural food items when covered with snow, especially when coated by ice.  Nevertheless, chickadees using feeders do not become addicted to “bird” seed. They rely on insects and plant food in the wild as well. In fact, chickadees living in remote areas depend completely on natural food.  Their survival rate is almost as high as for birds whose diets are supplemented at feeders. Chickadees probably do not require my assistance.

A pair of chickadees survived the winter in Barb’s yard and laid seven eggs.  Photo © Barb Elliot.

A pair of chickadees survived the winter in Barb’s yard and laid seven eggs. Photo © Barb Elliot.  Click to enlarge.

Alas, many chickadees do die during the winter. Despite their impressive adaptions to the cold, 50% don’t survive.  We shouldn’t worry, however. The healthiest, best adapted will live to breed in the spring and lay 3-10 eggs.

Now in late January, chickadees still have weeks of freezing winter ahead.  Nevertheless, the chickadees know the daylight hours are getting longer and spring is coming.  Already, I’ve heard them sing “see-bee, see-bay,” their mating song. They are practicing for the breeding season when they will attract a mate, defend a territory, build a nest, lay eggs, and feed their young.  I take heart, chickadees will survive and thrive for years to come.

Carolina Chickadee identification, life history, and sounds: http://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/carolina_chickadee/id

Recommended native plants for Carolina Chickadees (note especially Trees and Shrubs): http://www.valleyforgeaudubon.org/bfn/pdf/recommendedPlants031410FINAL.pdf