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.

Looking for Nests

By Edie Parnum

Nests are hard to find.  Sure, it’s easy to see the House Wrens and Tree Swallows come and go from the nest boxes I have provided.  Most songbirds, however, build and raise

A House Wren about to feed a caterpillar to its young in Edie’s backyard.  Photo by Edie Parnum.

A House Wren about to feed a caterpillar to its young in Edie’s backyard. Photo by Edie Parnum.

their young in well-concealed cup nests.  Paying particular attention to the dense areas, I examine my trees and shrubs. I look, too, for lumps in the crotches of trees. I strain to see high in the canopy.  The breeding season is well underway, but I’ve found only two cup nests on my ¾-acre property.

Early this spring a female Robin built a nest out of grass, sticks, and mud in a dense holly below my raised deck.  I could look down and see her settled in the nest. Once I glimpsed four pale aqua eggs. Here was an opportunity to learn more about the nesting behaviors of the American Robin. From a comfortable but hidden vantage, I planned to observe the mother robin incubate her eggs, then watch both parents feed the nestlings.  Not so. One day the female and the eggs were gone.

Plenty of predators prowl around my yard.  A ravenous jay, crow, raccoon, possum, snake, or even chipmunk might have devoured the eggs and destroyed the nest. Last year Gray Catbirds screeched hysterically when a Blue Jay ate their eggs.

Besides the Robin’s, a Mourning Dove’s nest was high in my in my crabapple tree this spring.  While my nature-loving arborist was removing winter-damaged limbs, he exposed a flimsy nest with two eggs in the crevice of a broken branch.  He left it undisturbed.   From the ground I could glimpse a Mourning Dove’s eye peering at me from above the

My arborist found this Mourning Dove nest while removing winter-damaged limbs. Photo by Mark Masciangelo.

My arborist found this Mourning Dove nest while removing winter-damaged limbs. Photo by Mark Masciangelo.

limb.  Again, I hoped to watch and study the birds’ breeding routine.  After a few days of viewing the brooding dove, however, I could no longer see the bird nor any activity.  Why did the nest fail?  Perhaps the arborist’s intrusive activity caused delayed nest abandonment.  Of course, a predator could easily have seen and raided the exposed nest. Thankfully, both the doves and robins will nest again—successfully, I hope.

Besides searching for nests, I’m also watching for signs of breeding.  Catbirds, cardinals, house finches, song sparrows must be breeding here. Pairs of birds, singing loudly and persistently, cavort in my yard.  Some birds carry nest material.  Others have insects in their beaks. When they don’t eat the food, they’re carrying it to a nest—a sure sign of breeding. I hope to discover the nest where nestlings are being fed.

Though I have not seen it, I believe a pair of Brown Thrashers has a nest on my property.  Most suburban yards don’t host Brown Thrashers, especially not a breeding pair.  Thrashers like dense shrubbery, not the typical manicured landscape. With their bills they sweep and probe the ground searching for insects and spiders in last year’s fallen leaves. I was plenty pleased when a Brown Thrasher spent the winter in my yard.  This reddish-brown, jay-sized bird with a streaked belly stayed silent and sheltered in the arborvitae and other dense vegetation. Every few days I saw it stray from its hiding place and feed on exposed ground.  I assumed it would move on in the spring to breed elsewhere.

A Brown Thrasher feeds on the ground.  Photo by Howard Eskin.  Click to enlarge.

A Brown Thrasher feeds on the ground. Photo by Howard Eskin. Click to enlarge.

In mid-May, a Brown Thrasher, possibly the same bird, sang vociferously from the treetops.  Its loud doubled phrases are different from its close relative, the smaller Northern Mockingbird.  The purpose of the song is to attract a mate and defend a breeding territory.  Even so, I assumed my wintering bird (or new arrival) was just practicing and would not stay to breed here.  When the singing stopped a week later, I concluded it had departed.

To my surprise in late May and June I’ve occasionally glimpsed a soundless thrasher. Males and females are indistinguishable, but sporadically I have seen two birds together.  Could a pair be breeding after all? The thicket of forsythia and blackberries at the back of my property is perfect for thrashers. Every few days I spend a few minutes peering into the undergrowth and listening.   Once I saw it deep, deep inside the dense vegetation.  On another occasion I discerned a barely audible whisper version of the thrasher song. According to my research, thrashers are mostly silent during the nesting season but sing softly in the vicinity of a nest.

Surely thrashers have a nest in my shrubbery.  It is probably just a few feet off the ground, but hidden in the impenetrable thicket. My chances of discovering it are slim.  Because they consider me a potential predator, the birds probably engage in evasive behavior to lead me astray.  Undeterred, I keep looking and listening.

I need a vigilant, alert ornithology student to help find the nest. A sharp-eyed young person could spot the bug in the thrasher’s beak.  Together we could find the nest.  See the baby birds. Watch their parents put insects into gaping mouths.  Observe the naked babies grow pinfeathers followed by juvenile feathers.  We would thrill to witness them fledge and take flight into the world of my backyard.  Alas, without my student, I evidently can’t be a voyeur of birds’ private lives.

By searching for nests, I’ve learned more about helping breeding birds succeed. I’ll plant more dense shrubs where birds can build and protect their nests. These shrubs will be insect-hosting natives instead of the non-native forsythia. Already I do not tidy up the thickets and corners of the yard.  Thrashers and other ground-feeding birds require the leaf litter to feed themselves and their offspring. Next fall I’ll welcome leaves into the perennial beds, too. And, most important, I’ll grow more native plants where birds can find plentiful insects to feed their young.

In some ways I’m unable to help and must trust the birds’ own survival abilities.  Predators abound, but the birds possess skills to protect their nests, eggs, and nestlings.  Vigilant and ingenious, they know how to keep their nest locations secret.  Thankfully, when a nest fails, most are able to produce a second brood.

It’s summer now, and I see lots of baby birds around the yard.  The nests are somewhere nearby. Birds are breeding here successfully.

 

Keeping a Yard Bird List

By Edie Parnum

Pileated Woodpecker.  Photo courtesy of and © Howard Eskin.

Pileated Woodpecker. Photo courtesy of and © Howard Eskin.  Click to enlarge.

Looking out my kitchen window as I habitually do, I spotted a large dark bird showing bold white flashes on its wings flying to a snag at the back of my property.   Luckily, I keep my binoculars within reach on the counter.  It was a Pileated Woodpecker, a first for my yard.

This Pileated Woodpecker was #105 on my Yard Bird List.  Every new bird added to the list is special to me.  My count makes me proud that I’ve planted bird-friendly natives that host a variety of birds.  However, because my young trees are too immature to attract this woodpecker, the pileated was a surprise. It visited my yard because I left the trunk and some major branches on a dead tree rather than cut it to the ground.

The snag in Edie's yard that attracted the Pileated Woodpecker.  Photo by Edie Parnum

The snag in Edie’s yard that attracted the Pileated Woodpecker. Photo by Edie Parnum.  Click to enlarge.

Keeping the yard list helps me hone my ID skills, visual and auditory.  A Least Flycatcher, one of those challenging
Empidonax flycatchers, once lingered in my yard for two days.  Seated on my deck, I could leisurely, but closely observe its diagnostic bold eye-ring, big head, short wings, and narrow tail. It did not sing, but occasionally gave a call, a little “pit” sound.  If I had been elsewhere on a bird walk, I
would have made a quick ID and quickly moved on to look for other birds.

Closely watching the birds in my ¾-acre yard improves my knowledge of their habits, food preferences, seasonality, and habitat requirements. I note the species of birds using each plant and the time of year.  In the spring, warblers, vireos, orioles, and other migrants glean caterpillars from the foliage of my Black Cherry and the young oaks and birches. In the fall, waxwings, mockingbirds, woodpeckers, robins, and other thrushes devour the crabapples.  A variety of sparrows eat seeds in my 1/10-acre meadow in the autumn.  Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers bore holes in the Sweet Gum and crabapples in the spring and fall. A Magnolia Warbler foraged in the Northern Bayberry last September, but I’m not sure whether it was eating the berries or bugs. I’ll take a closer look if it returns to the same shrubs next fall.

Magnolia Warbler.  Courtesy of and © Howard Eskin.

Magnolia Warbler. Courtesy of and © Howard Eskin.  Cllick to enlarge.

Do I count birds that fly over my yard without landing, you might ask?  Yes, although I can’t claim my improved habitat offers any sustenance to the flyovers.  Furthermore, I even added a distant, heard-only, Fish Crow to my list.   Perhaps I’m inflating my yard count, but I’m staying observant of all the birdlife around me. On the other hand, I didn’t count a Red-shouldered Hawk perched three blocks away that never flew over my property.

I keep a list of missing birds, too. I haven’t seen a Willow Flycatcher, Veery, or a White-eyed Vireo —how could that be?!   Lacking a stream or wetland on my property, I may never see a Louisiana and Northern Waterthrush.  Mature native trees are still scarce here, so the warbler list is slim–just 20 species.  Maybe during this fall migration or next spring I’ll find the missing Orange-crowned, Tennessee, Cerulean, Bay-breasted, Connecticut, Mourning, Wilson’s, or Hooded Warbler.  I probably won’t ever get an outlier like American Woodcock (wrong habitat), but I have hopes that a Northern Saw-Whet Owl will use my Eastern Red Cedar one day.

Keeping a yard list can be as simple as noting the birds on a piece of paper.  Or, even better, you can use eBird, a listing program that is one of the Cornell University Laboratory of Ornithology’s citizen science projects.  By entering your yard bird sightings into eBird, you’ll have access to the records of other local as well as far-flung birders.  Your data will be incorporated into Cornell’s records and be used to track bird populations by educators, conservationists, and ornithologists around the world.  http://ebird.org/content/ebird/ or http://ebird.org/content/pa/

Watching for birds is a part of my everyday life.  I can observe my feeder birds while working at my kitchen sink.  As I move around the house, I always glance out the closest window.  While relaxing on my deck, I’ve spotted many new yard birds.  I regularly take walks around the yard, too.  On good migration days, I go out early to look for new arrivals.  No travel is necessary, and there’s still time for the rest of the day’s activities.  Every day I’m connected to nature.