Sunday, February 18, 2024

February 2024 Moment in Nature

I always appreciate birds in the winter and feel good about putting seed out for them (note: I'm not as generous in the summer). While there are plenty of the same species of birds, it's exciting to spot new ones. Therefore, I was thrilled to see what appears to be a pair of purple finches visiting the feeder, and the discovery was special enough to be my #momentinnature for this month.

This weekend is the Great Backyard Bird Count, which is a fun community science project to do. If you haven't been counting, you have today and tomorrow to do so. If you've got kids or grandkids with you then get them involved; you might just spark a lifelong interest in birds and nature.

Sunday, February 11, 2024

Landscape Spotlight: American Holly

Evergreen plants have great appeal in landscaping. They are heavily favored for screening, especially around the front of homes where they used to serve a useful purpose to cover the bare foundations of houses. This article from 1980 downplayed the need for foundation plants over 40 years ago yet still the practice continues. The article provides some useful context for the practice.

In the late 1800’s: large homes were built: custom-built houses with high foundations were in fashion about the same time houses were placed further back from the street and set in an open lawn. In those years, a foundation planting was deemed necessary to hide the foundation and otherwise soften the break between the house and lawn.  

Early front porches, popular for watching passersby and socializing, also reinforced the need for foundation plantings to hide the supporting posts for the porch: “The plants which once were used to hide the open porch railings and lattice work between the supporting posts of houses of that architectural style still exist. This type of ‘left-over’ foundation planting across the front of most residential houses today serves no real purpose.”

Today we find that buildings have beautiful fronts and there is no need to hide support structures. Yet the concept of evergreen trees and shrubs to beautify the area in front of a building persists and so in this post I want to highlight a pleasing arrangement of American holly (Ilex opaca) that I found in a relatively recent group of landscaping.

American holly with Virginia sweetspire (Itea virginica)

This group of 5 American hollies is in front of Milton City Hall, and in the dead of winter they provide a pleasing display of green foliage with red fruit highlights. On the side of the building, there is a grouping of what appear to be Foster hollies (Ilex x attenuata ‘Fosteri’) – a hybrid between two native species: Ilex opaca and Ilex cassine.

The suite of native evergreen trees in the Piedmont area is not as robust as most would like and exotic plants are often used instead. If we can increase the demand for good native choices, perhaps growers will produce more. Ask for native plants when you shop, ask for them to be ordered if necessary, and be willing to wait for the next shipment to come in. They’re worth it.

American holly in front of Milton City Hall

Sunday, February 4, 2024

Fickle February


Snow in 2016

I find that February is the least predictable month in metro Atlanta. We could have snow as we did in 2020, 2016, and 2014; it might be rainy; or it could be quite nice – as I write this on Feb 2, the groundhog in Georgia has predicted an early spring and the temperature is a pleasant 66 degrees. I walked around outside, looking for signs of spring but there were few in my yard (only one trout lily leaf). Mostly I just saw what the deer have wrought over the last month or so: Christmas ferns munched to nubs, several saplings with broken branches and deer rub, and telltale piles of scat.

My friends (even in metro Atlanta) are reporting early trillium foliage so I’m sure mine will be up soon. If you’re looking for ideas to add early native spring perennials to your landscape, I have some suggestions here.

If you’d like to venture out to see early native perennials, consider a trip to The Pocket in NW Georgia (where plants can be surprisingly early) or to the spectacular Wolf Creek in SW Georgia (according to their page on Facebook, they will open on Feb 8th this year).

Bring your raincoat, your snowshoes, and some sunscreen. The weather could be anything!

Sunday, January 28, 2024

They Won’t Change Their Behavior


This is the time of year when the fruits of the exotic Nandina domestica shrub are particularly noticeable and reminders go out from conservation groups to remove the fruits (and even the shrubs) to protect birds. Shrubs like these were recommended in the past to support fruit-loving birds – called frugivores – during the winter. So why now the change to remove them to protect birds?

Cedar Waxwing

The advisement is primarily to protect Cedar Waxwing birds, a Georgia winter resident that sometimes gorges on abundant fruits. The fruits of nandina contain cyanide and other alkaloids. In small quantities, it appears that most birds are not harmed but there have been several incidents in Georgia (Decatur and Thomas County) specifically where Cedar Waxwings have died. It is generally understood that poisoning occurs when the fruit is ingested in large quantities, such as when gorging.

Some people think this harm is overhyped – that the number of reported cases is too low. However, it takes a lot of effort to determine what killed a bird, assuming someone reported the deaths to begin with. So it is very likely that the deaths are underreported. Some people have even suggested it's the birds fault. 

Bottom line: these birds aren’t going to change the way they feed (i.e., gorging occasionally) in our lifetime so using nandina and hoping for a different outcome isn’t a viable approach. We have the big brain. It’s up to us to do the right thing.

Nandina domestica

I should also mention this plant is tracked as an invasive species in Georgia, capable of creating new populations thanks to spread by wildlife. I pull out 2-3 new seedlings per year in my yard; if all 47 homes in my neighborhood also got two new seedlings per year that would be 98 new plants per year in just my neighborhood.

In addition to those two reasons for avoiding this plant, know that if you instead use a regionally native plant, you’ll be contributing to the ecosystem and likely providing more support for birds even if that plant doesn’t have fruit. If you’re planting shrubs specifically for fruit, choose something else.  

There you have it: 3 reasons to get rid of nandina in your garden (or avoid adding it). When we know better, we can do better.

Sunday, January 21, 2024

January 2024 Moment in Nature

It's been a cold week here and I've not spent much time outside. Yet even the walk to the mailbox can bring a moment of joy in the nature around us. During this relatively dull period, the sounds of winter birds are more noticeable when there are fewer visual distractions.

One of my favorites is the brown-headed nuthatch. While they are considered year-round residents, I seem to notice them more in the winter and early spring. Their squeaky calls are very unique. They are out and about this week and their busy sounds are my #momentinnature for this month.

If you'd like to hear them, this video on YouTube captures the sound perfectly.

Sunday, January 14, 2024

A Backyard Year (the book)


The Comfort of Crows: A Backyard Year is a new book by Margaret Renkl. While I usually read her essays in The New York Times where she is a guest columnist, I was interested in reading this because it is a seasonal compilation of many of those essays as well as new ones. Many of you may have noticed that my own blog is a seasonal effort, and I have considered publishing some of my favorites in a similar compilation.

With that perspective in mind, this is a thoroughly enjoyable read, and I like the way she groups the essays into the seasons as well as mixing in new bits called ‘Praise Song’ (some of these inserts are only a paragraph, so ‘bits’ seems like a good description). The NY Times describes her as a “writer who covers flora, fauna, politics and culture in the American South,” and her flora/fauna essays often mix in some of that Southern culture because, well, life is so very intertwined. As a result, I find the stories to be a pleasure to read on several levels, including with humor (in particular, see page 39).

One of the review comments on the jacket is worth repeating: “Margaret Renkl has the mind of a naturalist and the soul of a poet. Let this magnificent devotional be your eye-opening, heart-expanding daily companion, and it will change how you see the world.” We need more of that “change how you see the world” inspiration in our life. The monthly #momentinnature posts that I started in January 2021 have been an attempt to inspire readers to see the everyday world around us. [I was in turn inspired by a friend who has been doing it for much longer (we should all pass along inspiration!).]

Margaret Renkl's stories illustrate that nature can be such a part our daily lives. If we let it be. If we cultivate it. If we notice it. And that is the way it should be. In our yards.

Here is a nice interview with the author about the book.

Sunday, January 7, 2024

Hike Local: Stone Mountain Park


Winter hikes can be useful for kids during the winter break so we took our 5-year old grandson to hike the walk-up trail at Stone Mountain this week during his school break. He was interested in all the rocks (examining small bits of it for minerals), but I was interested to see what plants I could recognize so this blog is about what I found on what is called the walk-up trail that goes to the top of the mountain.

Winter can be a challenge for identifying plants that have gone dormant. However, many of them leave clues behind (dried leaves, distinctive twigs, even a few tardy leaves, plus fruit and seeds) and I found enough clues to keep me busy (and lagging behind while the youngster raced ahead with my husband).

Quercus georgiana
Quercus georgiana

The first plant that caught my attention was Georgia oak (Quercus georgiana). This lower-growing species of oak is endemic to granite outcrops. Most of the plants were still holding onto dried leaves but I found a couple that still had good green-red leaves. Next I spotted the first of what would be many populations of sparkleberry (Vaccinium arboreum). Many of them still had a few reddish leaves and had fruit on the branches. Apologies for the blur; those little berries make it tough for the camera to focus.

Sparkleberry (Vaccinium arboreum)

Winged elm (Ulmus alata)

Winged elm (Ulmus alata) is common there but this particular individual really caught my attention; these wings are huge! At first I thought it might be a sweet gum, which also has winged twigs, but the very slender twigs encased in these wings were a clue it was the elm. Many plants are off to the edges of the trail where plants have created small woodland communities in the cracks of the rocks in soil created over time by plant debris. I spotted this small fern several times there; I think it is a marginal fern (Dryopteris marginalis) which is reported to be in the park and can be somewhat evergreen.

Fern with native goldenrod (left) and grass (below)

Pines are all around the trail (there’s even a huge one in the middle, sharing a large crack with an oak tree). Four species are reported in the park: loblolly pine (Pinus taeda), shortleaf pine (Pinus echinata), Virginia pine (Pinus virginiana), and pitch pine (Pinus rigida). This tree at the top of the mountain was quite stunted; it is probably Virginia pine or shortleaf.

Here are a couple of photos to show perspective: the youngster running up the trail and the view from the top with protected lichens (behind the fence) with a view of Atlanta in the background.

Note: For a good reference book for plants found in association with granite outcrops, see the book “Guide to the Plants of Granite Outcrops” by William Murdy and Eloise Carter.

Hike Local posts are an occasional feature in this blog (find the previous ones here) about hikes that are fairly local to the metro Atlanta area. My focus is on the plants that I found along the way.

Graffiti dating to at least 1899 is visible on the walk-up trail. I wonder if this one was meant to illustrate the Georgia oak. Do those look like acorns on the tips of branches to you?