Sunday, July 20, 2014

The Beak of Death... Second Generation

This one's just for fun. We've had birds fledging all over the durn yard, lately. Young towhees, wrens and yes, bluebirds. The wrens were nesting in a bag hanging on the wall of the shed. No idea where the towhees have been hiding themselves. Both the Carolina Wrens and the Eastern Bluebird pictured are primarily insectivores... agents of pest destruction.

So, for your viewing enjoyment--baby pictures!

Three baby wrens captured inside their bag with the iPhone camera.

Just looking from the window, you don't notice all the blue. Hiding between a rock, a hard place, and a penstemon. 

Sunday, July 13, 2014

The Beak of Death--Pest Control Via Bluebird

I was afraid that this post would end up being about just the pest, so I'm thrilled to tell you that my little pine tree has survived the onslaught due to physical intervention and the gastronomic inclinations of our neighborhood bluebirds.

Egad. It's a swarm!
So let me introduce you-- to the Red Headed Pine Sawfly... or at least its larvae.

May it rest in peace.

This cluster of caterpillar-like-thingees is not caterpillars. Not being a gifted entomologist, I of course turned to Google for some identification tips. The lovely thing about Google is that you really can type in something like "caterpillar devouring pine tree" and get real answers. With pictures. The references I found set me straight very quickly as to the nature of my pest, though the descriptions on most of the sites were not particularly accurate, even with the photos right there! Fortunately, I was able to make the ID from the images, as opposed to the faulty descriptions of my non-caterpillars.

Candles of my Mugo, stripped to nublets.
Red Headed Pine Sawflies are native to North America (at least it's native!) and prefer to munch down on the two- and three-needle pines, such as Virginia Pine, Loblolly, Slash, Longleaf, Jack, Red, Mugo and Shortleaf pine. It will occasionally use white pine. Mugo is not a native (brought from Europe in the late 1700's), but I include it in this list because it is a frequent landscape choice for those seeking small-scale evergreens. These pictures show the sawfly larvae in a Mugo pine.

The Red Headed Sawfly (Neodiprion licontei), as an adult, has an obviously red head and thorax (excellent, if small, picture on the PA site). It has a black abdomen, and lays eggs in the needles of its chosen host plant. We never saw the newly-hatched larvae. But once the naked candles appeared on our little pine (sawflies usually prefer 15' or smaller trees), we found the clusters of more mature ones. More pictures here at BugGuide.

AIIEEE! I spit at thee! Don't come near me!
When the smaller larvae hatch out, they eat the outer portion of the needles, leaving a straw-like brown twisty hair-like thing that looks like it either just got out of bed or needs a new conditioner. The larger larvae just chow down on the whole thing. When you get close to them, these guys will stand up and wave at you in their "come any closer and I will spit on you!" posture... it's pretty funny when they start doing it all over the whole plant. It's either a threat or they've decided you are their new god. 

As you can see in the image, these guys are pale whitish-yellow, but as with most things, variation does occur. They can make it all the way to nearly green from the basic yellow. Their spot patterns may also vary. The heads are red-orange, as you see here, and they have a larger black spot on their tail end that masquerades as a head. Many of the early sites I checked referred to three rows of black spots, but what they must have MEANT to say was three rows on each side of the back. The bottom row is directly above the prolegs. 

Rows of black spots--
And this was my new thing of the day--CATERPILLARS have up to only five sets of prolegs. If you don't believe me, google "monarch caterpillar" and count the little stubbs in those pictures. Sawfly larvae, on the other hand, have more. From the picture at left, I am certain of 7 pairs--it might be eight. The better to hold their needles with, I reckon. 

Sawfly larvae will eventually drop to the duff or soil beneath the host tree to spin a cocoon, and will overwinter in a prepupae state, finally pupating and hatching out after the weather warms. The cocoon stage is where a damaged plant may get its revenge--chemical signals sent by the plant can draw predator or parasite insects, such as wasps, that will lay their eggs into the cocoon, thwarting the second wave of the pest before it can emerge to defoliate another swath of pine. For more on the ways plant protect themselves, go here.

@!!%^&*$!!& paparazzi!
So our story might have ended there had we no access to predators in this yard. But we do. We have scores of songbirds who are insect specialists. In fact, we have a nesting pair of bluebirds making use of a house in the front yard, and they have a bunch of hungry babies. Knowing this, I decided to take a chance. I picked off a large quantity of the sawfly larvae and laid them in a heap on the flagstone path running beside the birdhouse and then went inside.

The first thing I had to do was get the sticky off my hands--these guys exude pine pitch! Soap was no good by itself, so I resorted to Goo Gone, which destroyed the sticky with no problem. Then I made a dash for the bedroom window which looks out on this particular birdhouse. Imagine my delight to see not one, but BOTH parents scooping up the non-caterpillars!

I have no way of knowing whether they had already been working over the mature larvae on the Mugo pine. They were obviously no strangers to these guys, taking them up and off--beating them on the pavement, it looked like--and returning to the nest box to present dinner to their noisy offspring.

Later, when I was trying to get these photos, mom showed up (at left) with a mouthful that definitely had not come from the Mugo (as I had been sitting in position for quiet awhile). When you increase the size of the photo, it's not clear exactly what she has, but it is certainly in the realm of possibility that she has another larvae of the same ilk in her beak. There are several white pines in adjoining properties in the neighborhood, so plenty of habitat for sawflies is available.

As I write this, I have not been able to locate a single new sawfly larvae on our little Mugo pine. The bedraggled-looking parents continue to find things to shove down the throats of their young, however.

From the PA site: 
"Control: Natural enemies, such as rodents, birds, and predaceous and parasitic insects, play an important role in reducing sawfly populations."
This is how the system is supposed to work. "Pests" feed other insects, or other critters like birds. No pests, no baby bluebirds.

Don't need no stinkin' pesticides. I've got bluebirds.

Sources: Auburn University, Pennsylvania State Dept of Natural Resources, Insects.About

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Everybody Loves Sunflowers

Just a little fun in the sun for today!

From under the bird feeder

Giant Sunflower on its way past my neighbor's roofline

Do you see the honeybee?

"Chocolate" sunflower with pollinator!

Sunday, June 29, 2014

In the Belly of the Clouds

Sometimes I get so wrapped up in all that I'm supposed to do, I forget why I do it. Today we headed up the mountain...I was shocked to realize that I had forgotten the rhododendrons would be in bloom. As we reached the Blue Ridge Parkway, the clouds had begun to embrace the mountains as they do when they wish to make things wet--the temperature had dropped a good 15 degrees from when we left town.

There is nothing quite like watching a eye level.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Defense by Vocal Chord Makes a Happy-Sounding Yard

Don't mess with my nest, Bro'. 
This guy gives me the eye everyday.

Most evenings we take a stroll around the property and get viewed with a great deal of suspicion. Sometimes we are viewed with a great deal of incrimination by our birds--its possible the bird feeders are empty--but that's another story. In THIS story, we are talking about one of my absolute favorite birds, and the reason why is all in the name.

Melospiza melodia is the Latin name for the Song Sparrow. Just let the latin roll off your tongue a couple of times. It almost sings itself! We have a nesting pair that stays with us all year long and has successfully raised quite a number of chicks. They typically nest in the hedge border on the east side of our property, which puts them one house lot off a very busy (by Brevard, NC standards) street. This border is a combination of whacked-back leyland cypress planted by our neighbors, Diervilla sessilifolia (Southern bush honeysuckle), an American Holly tree and Physocarpus opulifolius (Ninebark Diablo). The leyland cypress (there are three in a row) is the current dominant evergreen, so that is where they have nested for the last few years. The holly, however, is finally taking hold and may become a "preferred" site. It will be interesting to observe what they choose.

A nice little clutch of eggs at the nursery.
Song Sparrow eggs can vary a bit in hue. In this image, taken at our favorite local nursery, you can see what looks like a pale blue-green egg with brown splotches, which is typical. Eggs can also have splotches that are more lavender in color, and the base color can be a more clear blue on through to a gray-green. The nest itself also demonstrates a typical song sparrow feature--the looser, stick-built outer structure lined with a softer bed of pine needles or grasses.

Like our sparrows, the sparrows who visit Hope at the nursery nest in her plants every year. Sometimes they make use of the trees that are part of the landscaping, but sometimes mom sets up housekeeping right in the middle of the perennials. At these times, you'll see the caution tape cordoning off an area to both warn and inform the nursery's customers that Oo! There are babies! and Sorry, no, you can't buy this particular perennial, right now!

Song sparrows apparently have very specific ideas about great nesting sites, and scientists have observed particularly spots being recreated time after time--even when a new pair of adults moves into an area.

See those mutton chops? Click to enlarge the photo.
The features my increasingly-feeble eyes use to distinguish song sparrows from other sparrows (after all, lots of them tend to have chunky, splotchy little bodies) are the brown cap (but not as rusty as the smaller chipping sparrow) the centrally-located dominant splotchy spot on the breast (see the first photo for a clear example), and the dark "mutton chops" descending from the beak towards the shoulders. The mutton chops are referred to as a "thick, dark malar" (moustache) by the pros. Song sparrows are, however, regionally quite variable, with 24 recognized subspecies. So sometimes, you may have to use a little process of elimination to clearly identify Who You've Got. In the Pacific Northwest, that big blotch on the chest may not even be there, for instance. Some grey can also be mixed in with the browner streaks on the back and wings, but you will find no yellow on a song sparrow and its brown is not a really rusty-red brown as you would find on a Fox sparrow. Song sparrows where YOU live may be quite a bit different from mine--be sure to check the link under sources for lots more description about regional variations. While "my" birds have fairly dark streaks and blotches, but yours could be a good bit more pale!

So refreshing on a hot summer day!
Song sparrows are primarily insectivores and ground foragers. Ours spend large chunks of time hopping about the grasses and perennials eating things we can barely see. They particularly like hanging out in our "meadow," which is not a super airy, sunny spot, but is lushly planted with switchgrass, milkweed, coneflower, monarda, blazing star and joe pye weed--all typical meadow plants. They weave in and out of the plants--I have yet to get a decent photograph of them at this, but it's fun to watch.

Since song sparrows eat bugs, you have to make sure your yard HAS some, if you want this species to spend time in your space. A light covering of mulch between your plants will keep weeds down and provide hiding places and lunch for insects. Adding a branch or log here and there will also give those bugs a place to hang out--at least until they get devoured. During nesting or winter, our sparrows have occasionally made use of a good suet. A source of water will be welcome, as well--they use our bird baths regularly. You can see a female making use of one here in the picture on the right.

This particular song sparrow is sitting in a Winter King Hawthorne, which we first observed at the North Carolina Arboretum. It is a suburban appropriate tree in that it is not too large, blooms profusely, sets fruit for fall and winter consumption (hence the "winter king") and does not sucker as prolifically as the rootstock does. The tree is Green Hawthorne grafted to Washington Hawthorne rootstock, and is deserving of space if you have it. Our sparrows use this one as a lookout spot and also for the evening serenade, which you can see he is giving at the moment of the photo.

As I'm sure you are aware, most songbird songs are either about defending the home territory by letting other males know that This Spot Is Taken, or they are singing to attract a mate with which to share that home territory. Females don't like dumb males--and they gauge this in part by the male's ability to learn new tunes! Our fellow is quite accomplished in this regard, much to my daily delight. Sometimes...I don't even know it is him!

Sources: All About Birds

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Life Hacks for Pollinators

Pollinators are in so much trouble they need their own Life Hacks! The key here is that you'll have to help them out with these, but I'm sure you can handle it. Many of the great sources online that help you select plants for pollinators (I'm talking about the Pollinator Partnership, the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center and the Xerces Society, for starters) will provide you lists of specific species suitable to your region. These lists are really, really good and can help you plan your planting so that you have a progression of blooms all year.

But let's be real. How many of us shop for plants that way? Every time?

Me neither.

So let's concentrate on a few key concepts and species and make this whole thing easier.

Malus (crabapple) with honeybee
Number One: Plant at least one flowering tree.

One flowering tree has the impact, for pollinators, of dozens of perennials. Avoid hybrids with specialized, double blooms. PLEASE try to avoid anything with Japan/japonica or Korea or China in the name of the tree. There are lots of other choices, and you will feel guilt free year after year watching your native or nativar tree bloom like a mad thing and bring in the bees. If you've got the space, plant more than one.

Asclepias (milkweed--butterfly weed) with native bees
Number Two: Go to your favorite native nursery every bloomin' month.

Go from March until August and buy something blooming each month. Voila'! You have a progression of blooms! Don't forget to buy at least three of any perennial. Making this additional financial commitment will pay off in bigger blobs of flowers, which will make it easier for pollinators like butterflies to find your garden. If you are purchasing shrubs, try not to be scared of something that says "suckering" or "spreads by rhizomes." If you do, just leave extra space. It's like getting time-release free plants!

Agastache (Sunset Hyssop) Available in many colors!
Number Three: Genus is Genius.

I can hear it now. WHAT? In the genus Agastache, there are lots of nice varieties out there to choose from. Most of them are the species foeniculum, but that's not the point. ANYTHING in the genus Agastache is going to make pollinators happy. So if the A word is on the tag, buy it. You will also have success with  Asclepias, Baptisia, Rudbeckia, Echinacea, Eupatorium, Liatris, Lupinus, Monarda, Solidago, or Penstemon. There is no wrong choice! Just learn a few of these and you are all set for success with pollinators. Once you've got a few mastered, you can start diversifying. If you DO pull up lists of plants from the sources listed at the beginning of the article, I guarantee you are going to see some of these on each list.

Echinacea (purple coneflower)
Number Four: Don't Use Insecticides/Pesticides.

I mean, Hello? Why would you bring them in and then kill them? This one may be trickier than you think--many plants purchased at big box stores have been pre-treated with neonicotinoids that cause long-term impacts to our pollinator friends. Check with your local nursery about where they get their plant stock... usually the smaller growers are more sensitive to protecting pollinators, and don't use these products.

Oenothera (common evening primrose)
Number Five: Brag!

If you're having success in bringing in the bees and butterflies, let your friends and neighbors know. As your garden matures, you will have plenty to share, so spread the joy--which will increase the habitat for more happy pollinators. Happy planting!

Thursday, June 5, 2014

Distinctive, Native Orchid

Goodyera pubescens, Downy Rattlesnake Plantain
Goodyera pubescens grows in my yard. But that's not why I like it. I like it, I confess, primarily because it is so easy to identify that I can always get it right. Human frailties rear their ugly head again!

More commonly referred to as Downy Rattlesnake Plantain, Goodyera pubescens is ... not a plantain. It is an orchid. It is a native orchid, and it is the most common native orchid species in New England, according to the Connecticut Botanical Society. You will find it most commonly in coniferous woods and, frequently, growing in moss, as you see here. In my yard, it grows under a mature white pine. I'm not sure that qualifies as "coniferous woods," but far be it for me to complain about a native plant in my yard! This first image was not taken in my yard--those baby plants have just shown their heads and are not yet ready for the spotlight. This image was taken at the Southern Highlands Reserve, where I had the privilege of speaking last weekend. (Link may be slow to open...please be patient!)

In Pisgah National Forest
Downy Rattlesnake Plantain blooms in June, July and August in North Carolina, depending on elevation. It sends up spikes on which the white blooms form that can reach 18 inches in height. The fuzzy leaves themselves always hug the ground--each leaf lasts about 4 years before giving up the ghost--and the distinctive stripe down the center makes them, as plant nuts everywhere will tell you, easy to identify. It prefers a light shade and grows from zones 4a to 10b, but does prefer moist soils. If you've got these conditions, you can grow orchids!

At right, you can see the relationship of the inflorescence to the base of the plant. Otherwise, not a great picture. Shot this one when walking at the Cradle of Forestry in Transylvania County, NC. The Cradle has a couple of easy loop trails, and the one on which this photo was taken is especially great for older individuals and kids--a paved surface and lots of interesting features related to the history of the area, including an old logging engine--complete with a bell that simply must be rung, if you are young or young at heart. If you find yourself up this way, you will enjoy this trail. Lots of great plant specimens... not just Downy Rattlesnake Plantain!

Blooms of Goodyera pubescens are found sitting on top of the woolly stalk that rises from the center of the rosette of leaves. They form a cylindrical cluster of spherical flowers--tiny ones--that are less than a quarter of an inch in length. According to the Orchids of Wisconsin site, a small bee has been observed visiting this flower--Augochlorella striata--but it is not known for certain if that is its primary pollinator. Another instance where we just don't know enough, yet. Here is the only image I've been able to locate of the bee in question--admittedly not a "live" image.

Apparently, Downy Rattlesnake Plantain is a common addition to terrariums, partly due to the striking foliage. Ease of transplant and success in moist environments are probably factors in its use in these small habitats, as well. It should be noted that Goodyera pubescens can make itself happy in clay, sand or loamy conditions, as long as it gets a little light and some acidity to the soil. While the coniferous forests around here are certainly moist, the Wisconsin site notes that the orchid can also be found in drier, sandier sites--so evidently, this is a true "survivor" species and can be counted on to succeed in most any shady spot. It naturally occurs from Maine to Florida and west to Missouri and Minnesota.

Roots of this plant are characterized as fleshy and fibrous. The dense rosette, not the bloom, is what usually causes plant lovers to acquire this orchid, if it isn't already taking up residence on their property. The rich gray/blue-green, the vivid stripe of white--both of which can be seen anytime there isn't snow on the ground (since the plant is evergreen)-- these are why a gardener would find this plant a delicious addition to their home habitat. It is not a big, showy thing. It's one of those small delights that sneaks up on you in the darker, moister parts of your landscape and encourages you to sit down and stay awhile.

Sources: North Carolina Native Plant Society, Connecticut Botanical Society, Orchids of Wisconsin, LadyBird Johnson Wildflower Center

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