Sunday, January 27, 2013

Suet Suits Them

We are really in the coldest, leanest days of winter this week in Georgia and the birds are hungry. Most of the berries are gone, and insects are hiding too. Birds use a lot of energy just looking for food. Many of you know that I don’t advocate feeding the birds a lot, but even I feel compelled to help during this time. Plus they are fun to watch.

Pine warbler and downy woodpecker enjoy suet
Suet provides essential nutrients and calories that birds need, especially when insect protein is not as available. Birds that visit suet feeders include some of the same birds that would visit a summer seed feeder: titmice, woodpeckers, chickadees, wrens and nuthatches. But you also attract some different birds: warblers and bluebirds both enjoy suet in the winter. 

You can buy suet cakes and suet cake holders at bird food stores, pet stores and even grocery stores. It is probably the most inexpensive way to feed the birds. The holders are usually wire cages which keep the cakes safely away from critters like squirrels. Of course some crumbs will fall to the ground and ground feeding birds like cardinals scoop them up.

This cardinal cleans up the crumbs
You can make your own suet and that is what I decided to do this week. My friend Parrie was telling me that birds love peanut butter so much, so I found a recipe that called for equal parts lard and peanut butter to form the base. I also added corn meal (I heard it makes it more crumbly to suit small birds), raisins, a bird seed mix with sunflower seeds and peanuts, and oatmeal.

You can customize your suet based on what birds you like to attract. Some birds like fruit (raisins, blueberries, dried apple bits), others like peanuts, and still others like seeds (sunflower seeds, millet, cracked corn). I’m going to see how this batch works and then decide how to change it. I put raisins in this batch to encourage more bluebirds. Caution: lard melts very quickly and then starts to smell; be sure to stay with it and add the peanut butter right away to smooth out the smell in the kitchen.
The finished product - one for me and one for Parrie!

Store extra suet cakes in the freezer to keep them fresh. Spoiled bird seed or suet is dangerous to birds.

Bluebird eats crumbs too

Whatever you do for the birds, remember to keep a source of fresh (unfrozen) water for them.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Barking Up The Right Tree

Tree identification can be done using a variety of characteristics. In the warm months, we use leaves, blooms, and fruits to identify them fairly quickly. In winter, we use dried leaves and fruit (often nuts) if they are available, but sometimes we have only twigs and bark. I have written about using twigs, but I generally shy away from encouraging someone to use bark. I always recommend that one use more than one characteristic when possible.

American beech (Fagus grandifolia), bark and trunk flare
are distinctive
On any given species, the appearance of the bark can change over time. Young saplings often have smooth bark while pictures of bark in books show bark as it appears on mature trees. 

A couple of the notable exceptions that come to mind are trees that have smooth bark even as an adult: American beech (Fagus grandifolia) and musclewood (Carpinus caroliniana); they stay smooth as they age.

However, recognition by bark can still be a very effective tool if you come across a mature tree or you are good with memorization. Memorization helps me a lot. This week I visited a preserved natural area known for its big trees (Big Trees Preserve in Sandy Springs, GA) so I had a chance to see and photograph some really good examples of bark. Some of them I knew ... some of them were conveniently tagged with labels. And I learned a few new ones with the help of some friends.

White oak (Quercus alba) has shaggy bark even when young

I looked up at this very mature Sweetgum (Liquidambar styraciflua)
and was able to see the leftover fruit using binoculars; I did not
recognize the bark at all

The bark of this loblolly pine (Pinus taeda) looks like plates

This white ash (Fraxinus americana) was new to me; a friend identified it
and also used the fallen seeds on the ground to confirm his identification
This dogwood's bark (Cornus florida) has a similar blocky look
but of course it is a much smaller tree in stature

This sourwood (Oxydendrum arboreum) looks similar to the ash also,
but the color of the bark is darker and the furrows seem more linear
than blocky; also it is more common in my area

The bark of musclewood (Carpinus caroliniana) stays smooth
even when mature

The bark of red maple (Acer rubrum) is smooth when young
but gets flaky with age
The mature bark usually starts at the base of the tree. If you look upwards to younger growth, sometimes you can see the more familiar bark. I've found that technique to help me identify larger specimens of red maple and black cherry (Prunus serotina).

A young sycamore (Platanus occidentalis) is flaky
already, but the bark underneath is greenish,
not the bright white of mature ones
Here are 3 trees that look way too similar to me. I certainly prefer having a second way of identifying them other than the bark on these big guys.

This mockernut hickory (Carya alba) fortunately has a rather distinct
diamond pattern on older bark but woe is me if I find a young one

This black gum's bark (Nyssa sylvatica) is rather plain,
give me a twig, please!
Yep, this tuliptree (Liriodendron tulipifera) looks pretty bland
too; but again I can use my binoculars to look way up and
see the leftover seed capsules that remain

A good southeastern tree identification book that has pictures of mature bark as well as other characteristics (twigs, fruits, leaves) is Native Trees of the Southeast: An Identification Guide by Kirkman, Brown and Leopold.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Hepatica - First Bloom of the New Year

The first bloom in January is always a special one. It usually comes about two months after seeing the last flower of the previous year ... so the gardening soul is anxious for it. In my area of Georgia, the first native plant to bloom is always round lobed Hepatica, previously known as Hepatica americana, but now classified as Hepatica nobilis var. obtusa. Common names are round lobed hepatica or liverwort. There is also a sharp lobed form.

Hepatica nobilis var. obtusa
 The first one this year is in a pot, hurried along a bit by the slighter warmer temperatures inside the garage. But not much earlier - photographs from last year are dated in mid-January as well. This is a treasured plant - given to me by a friend that is no longer with us. I look forward to planting it in a special spot soon. It will join many other plants given to me by my friend. Plants from friends evoke wonderful memories that we can enjoy every day.

Hepatica nobilis var. obtusa

Hepatica blooms can vary considerably in color - from almost white to deep purple. The identification books also mention the color pink, but I have never seen a pink bloom.  While blooms start in January, they often continue into February and even March. Here is a picture from the end of February 2011. The evergreen foliage is still present; new leaves emerge a little later in spring and the old ones will fade away.

I have fairly heavy leaf litter so I find this grows best at the base of a large tree. In that situation the leaves don't form such a heavy cover, allowing this little flower to quietly flaunt it's bit of green all winter.

If you live in this plant's natural range, I encourage you to seek it out for your garden or look for it on nature hikes so that you can admire it's delicate beauty.

Sunday, January 6, 2013

Using More Native Plants in the Landscape

I’m hoping that some of you reading this made a New Year’s resolution such as:

  • Support the birds more in your landscape
  • Support pollinators and attract butterflies
  • Use less fertilizers and pesticides in the garden
  • Enjoy natural areas like state and national parks

A cedar waxwing stopped by last year for berries and insects
All these things (and more!) can be yours when you incorporate more regionally appropriate native plants into your landscape. Here’s why:

As I discussed here several months ago, native birds are heavily reliant on insects which feed on native plants. They are also more attracted to and get more nutrition from native seeds and berries. Try as we might, bird feeders alone don’t come close to supporting a diverse bird population in your area. You might get more birds in number, but they will be the same species of birds over and over.

Include more native plants with an emphasis on being as regionally diverse as possible (having more plant species increases the insect population), and you will not only have more birds, you will actually be supporting different birds than if you didn't. 
Buttonbush (Cephalanthus occidentalis)

Supporting pollinators is an important task that is gaining more attention these days – especially after the collapse of honey bee hives. Fortunately most native bees don’t live in hives, but they can still be affected by our behavior and they certainly need our help in providing more habitat space and nectar rich native flowers to which they are most adapted. Previous blog posts of mine have covered an overview of native pollinators and some ideas on supporting them more.

How about using less fertilizer and pesticide in the garden? That is certainly a goal of mine – I frequently describe myself as both a cheap and lazy gardener! But there’s a more important point: overuse of fertilizers can lead to groundwater and stream contamination at the very least, and use of pesticides often kills beneficial bugs and can throw the predator/prey insect relationship out of balance resulting in overpopulation of some insects. The best thing you can do is to educate yourself about how chemicals affect the soil and then learn more about gardening organically.

Sourwood loves acidic conditions
Next you can realize that regional native plants are supremely adapted to native soils – including that “horrible” clay soil in the piedmont area or the frightfully well drained sandy soils in the coastal plain. I jest, of course, clay soil is not horrible and there are hundreds of plants that evolved to live with it. Amendments are not as recommended as they used to be, but using organic mulches (leaves, pine straw, pine bark, hardwood mulch, no dyed mulches, please!) will help the plants initially and over time by attracting soil organisms to the area. Even above ground insects and fungi play a role in helping your soil be the best it can be.

Also learn more about the pH content of your native soil and what native plants thrive in that pH; there is no sense in fighting against the natural processes. Acid-loving native plants are adapted to and thrive in soils with a pH level below 7. These same plants will struggle in alkaline soils with a pH level above 7. When in doubt, have your soil tested before launching into costly and potentially futile efforts to apply fertilizer as a fix.

Replicate concepts like Sedum ternatum in rock
Ok, how about that last resolution? Natural areas like state and national parks are beautiful and serene. Part of what makes them so is the natural look of the woodlands: tall trees form a canopy over smaller trees, shrubs, ferns, rocks, moss and leaf-lined paths. If you’d like to enjoy areas like that, plan to implement them on a smaller scale in your own landscape.

Take pictures of your favorite parks and pick out the elements that you can recreate, even if it is just a single vista. Here is an interesting post on doing just that (if you will kindly ignore the gardener’s use of invasive plants like mahonia and nandina!); her pictures are very inspirational. You can also look to books for inspiration and tips.

Good luck with your resolutions whatever they may be! And please do visit more local, state, and national parks ... they are our parks after all. Your visit will show that you value their existence, and money that you spend there will help support them.