Sunday, February 23, 2014

Great Backyard Bird Count 2014

The Great Backyard Bird Count happens once a year in February. It’s a great opportunity for average folks to be a Citizen Scientist and contribute to our collective greater understanding of the state of birds in our own area. Bird checklists from all over the state, country and world provide much needed “in the trenches” details. What birds are doing well and which ones are struggling?

Red-shouldered hawk after it's frog lunch

From a personal standpoint, I have found that participating in the count helps me be more focused on identifying the birds around me. Birds that I assumed were the same species are revealed to be something else when I pull out the binoculars, identification books and even listen to what my own ears are telling me.

This yellow-rumped warbler is a nice find
This year's bird count was the weekend of Feb 14-17. I counted twice on Sunday the 16th, once in my wooded backyard and then a second time on a long walk. I wanted to count in different places because I knew I would see different birds. For example, there were no robins in my woods (nor did I expect them to be there), but I immediately saw 3 robins on my walk because I walked past a lot of turf grass (a favorite place for robins). I only counted multiple birds if I could see them all at once.

Snags attract the most birds!

A source of water, dead wood, and a diversity of trees = more bird species

The backyard is wooded and it has a small creek that flows into a private lake on adjacent property. There are hardwoods and pines in the woods plus a couple of loose brush piles. Here is what I saw on my way to the woods, in the woods and on the way back (spending approximately 75 minutes total) so this includes birds flying to and from the bird feeders on the deck:

Titmouse - 2
Yellow-rumped warbler - 2
Carolina chickadee - 2
Cardinal - 1 (male)
Mourning dove - 4
Downy woodpecker - 2
Pine warbler - 2
Golden-crowned kinglet -2
Carolina wren - 2
Red-shouldered hawk - 2
Eastern phoebe - 1
Brown-headed nuthatch -1
Blue jay - 1
Red-bellied woodpecker - 1
Eastern bluebird - 1

An Eastern bluebird sat alone near the deck

The walk that I took was through my neighborhood and then onto a road that has pastures and larger properties. This was a fairly disappointing 90 minutes; I don't think I've ever seen so few birds on this particular stretch of road! Normally I see about a dozen bluebirds near the largest pasture.

American robin - 3
American crow - 2
Carolina chickadee - 2
Cardinal - 2 
Eastern bluebird - 3
White-breasted nuthatch - 1
Titmouse - 2
Chipping sparrow - 1
Eastern towhee - 1
Mockingbird - 1

I like to use this exercise to also evaluate the ability of my own yard to attract diverse birds. Even though I didn't see every kind that I usually do, I know they are there. Probably the two most exciting finds was the pair of golden-crowned kinglets and the pair of red-shouldered hawks (one of which was eating a frog when I spotted it).

I can't stress enough how important it is to have a diverse mix of native plants and habitats (if possible, you have to work with what you have in that regard) if you want to support a diverse mix of birds. Bird feeders only attract a limited number of birds; plants and habitats are what attract the insects that all birds need. If you can leave a dead tree or two (a snag), you will really be popular!

Take some time and watch what comes through your yard. You just might be surprised at what you find.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Pollinators of Native Plants (the book)

Carpenter bee on Penstemon smallii in May
Several insects have gotten a lot of national attention lately due to problems with their survival in the U.S. Although honey bees (Apis mellifera) are not native to the U.S., colony collapse disorder has the potential to affect the production of our food crops because honey bees are so heavily used in commercial food crop pollination.

The monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus) has suffered lately due to habitat loss in Mexico as well as the loss of host plants due to farming practices in the Midwest. 

Add in the recent news about neonicotinoid pesticide use affecting bees in general and you have a lot of current human interest in how insects, especially pollinators, are affected by our actions.

This book, Pollinators of Native Plants by Heather Holm, could not have come at a better time. The book provides much needed information on understanding the key concepts of pollination and a thorough overview of native insect pollinators. One reason that I really like this book is that it addresses all types of native insect pollinators: bees, butterflies, moths, wasps, flies and beetles. 

Truly supporting pollination issues requires that we understand not just one or two pollinators. Yes, the issues around honey bees and monarch butterflies are important, but I think they are like canaries in a coal mine, alerting us to the much bigger issue of the effect of our actions on their ability to survive.

Longhorn beetle (Typocerus zebra) on Spiraea in June

Chapter One provides an excellent overview of the science of pollination. The inquisitive mind will love the details presented here about how different flowers attract pollinators, how they reward them and how the pollinators help plants maintain genetic diversity. Understanding the relationships between the plant and the pollinator improves our ability to make good choices for the world around us. Excellent pictures and explanations start here and continue throughout the book.

Chapter Two focuses on the details of the many different types of pollinators. Bees, wasps, beetles, butterflies, moths and flies are all covered here. Understanding how and where they live and how they go about pollination are important to the concerned gardener. Bees are covered in the most detail and the author includes details about how to support their nesting needs. Bees don’t travel very far to forage so if you’re offering nectar and pollen, you need to offer nesting habitat too.

I learned about syrphid flies this past year and their importance as pollinators.

Chapter Three addresses pollinator conservation issues. I love the section on Agricultural Landscapes; it covers how planting native plants around the crops can attract native pollinators for free pollination services. The farmer might also benefit from crop pest management by attracting beneficial insects. An overview of threats to pollinators is also included. It’s important that we know the issues.

Chapters Four through Six address specific plants and their pollinator relationships in 3 different ecosystems: Prairie, Woodland Edge, and Wetland Edge. These chapters represent the bulk of the book because they include such thorough information. A single plant profile can be up to six pages although most are two. Profiles include the following information:

Flowering period
Physical details for flower, leaf, fruit and root structure
Plant notes
Complementary plants
Insect notes
Plant/Insect Interactions
Larval host information and some details on those insects (sometimes)
Pollinator profile (sometimes)
Pollen details (sometimes)

Hypericum densiflorum blooming in late June/early July
Now the question for Georgia gardeners is how applicable is this resource for us. The book description indicates that it covers native plants of the Midwest, Northeast, and southern Canada. 

The table of contents includes a list of all the plants covered in each of the 3 chapters. With a quick scan of the list, I can recognize that most of the plants are applicable to the Southeastern U.S. or are close relatives of Southeastern plants. 

In the Prairie chapter, Liatris ligulistylis is described but Georgia has over a dozen native species of Liatris. The same is true for Coreopsis, Helianthus, Heuchera, Solidago and many others. 

In the Woodland Edge chapter, the plants listed are an even closer match. In the Wetland Edge chapter, many are similar and Georgia relatives can be found for many others (Hypericum, Lobelia, Pycnanthemum, Silphium, Symphyotrichum and Vernonia). One thing to consider when evaluating similar species: some of our species are not just wetland edge plants. As always, research your selections carefully as to site and plant needs.

The book doesn’t stop there either. Almost 100 additional pages provide references, websites, drawings, charts, sample pollinator garden designs, beautiful insect pictures for identification, and of course a thorough index. This may be the most detailed book I have read in years. If you have the slightest interest in understanding insect/plant interactions and in supporting such a key part of your local ecosystem … you should get this book.

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Favorite Native Spring Perennials for the Garden

I love to go to natural areas to see blooming native plants in the spring. The variety of plants can be amazing. When it comes to my own garden, I have to be realistic. Not all of those plants will grow in my garden - some of them require special conditions and some are not readily available for purchase.

Columbine in the wild, easily grown in the garden too

There are some amazing plants that I can use, however, some of which might also be suitable for you. I’ll make a note of which ones are generally available so you can add some ideas to your spring “wish” list. That way when you hit the native plant sales, you’ll be ready with some good ideas.

Toothwort, Cardamine angustata
Toothwort  (Dentaria spp. now known as Cardamine spp.) blooms in mid to late March in northern Georgia. However, it is the earliest of perennials to put up new foliage. In my yard the foliage is already peeking through the leaves, unaffected by last week’s snow. I believe the one I have is slender toothwort, Cardamine angustata. It shares areas of Georgia with the more common slender toothwort, Cardamine concatenata, which is native throughout much of the Eastern U.S. I don't see this one a lot at sales, but mail order is possible.

Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis)

Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis) also has a very large native range, including parts of Georgia’s Coastal Plain. The plant is named for the red colored liquid that oozes from cuts on the rhizome.  Tiny furled leaves emerge in late February. These leaves gently wrap around a single flower stem, as if to protect it from winter’s harsh conditions. After the white flower opens, the leaves continue to expand and grow to form an attractive groundcover. In cool, moist conditions in part-shade, the leaves can persist for many months alongside the developing seed pod. Available occasionally at sales; also a good one to convince your friend to share with you.

Spring beauty (Claytonia virginica)

Spring beauty (Claytonia virginica) is relatively new to me. I had heard many people talk about it but I have only recently introduced it into my garden. It is native in scattered areas of Georgia and much of the Eastern U.S. The grass-like leaves distinguish it from Carolina spring beauty (Claytonia caroliniana) which is native only to the northernmost parts of Georgia and a slightly smaller Eastern U.S. range. It blooms in early March although the leaves come up earlier. A single medium-sized bulb produces quite a few flowers. The flower color ranges from almost white to intense pink. I don't see this one a lot at sales, but mail order is possible.

Trillium cuneatum

Trilliums (Trillium spp.) are many and varied and you can read more about them at my earlier post here. I naturally have toadshade trillium (Trillium cuneatum) on my property and occasionally find new ones popping up; seedlings come up with a single leaf for several years. Other than having to provide them with some deer protection, they are easy and carefree plants. When the foliage comes up in the spring, I spray them with a bit of Liquid Fence and that seems to protect them. If it rains a lot, you might want to spray them again. Generally available at native plant sales although the species available varies.
Mayapple (Podophyllum peltatum) is one of the trickiest flowers to photograph. The white bloom is positioned under the leaves and faces downward.  It is a very easy plant to propagate, being willing to grow from root cuttings. In the wild, it creates large colonies that grow from rhizomatous roots. In the garden, the large leaves will persist in moist areas. The small green fruit is the source of the name and can be rather pleasant tasting when ripe. Generally available at sales.
A blooming mayapple (Podophyllum peltatum) in a large group
Mertensia virginica

With the exception of the deep South (Texas, Florida), there are some species of bluebells native throughout the U.S. The species native to north Georgia is Mertensia virginica, known as Virginia bluebell.  I find this to be a very tricky plant to grow and I think it is due to its moisture requirements. Where it is happy, however, it can spread quite a bit. I have seen great quantities in a mesic forest (very rich and moist) in Walker County. I will keep trying; it is worth it. Available occasionally at sales in small quantities. Ask friends to share.

Columbine (Aquilegia canadensis) is different than the previous plants; unlike those, it is not ephemeral. In fact, the leaves stay year round, even in the winter in a small way. It is a beautiful, cheerful red flower that dangles gently on slender stems. It is easy to grow and easy to share with friends. Spring plant sales usually have it in abundance due to its ability to self-propagate. I love its ability to pop up in new places. I suppose that would drive a tidy gardener nuts.

Columbine (Aquilegia canadensis)

I love visiting native spring plant sales. There are often nice surprises - plants that I didn't think anyone would grow or which I've never heard of. Seek out local ones near you and see what you can find.