Ten New Year’s Resolutions For Your Eco-Garden

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Conjuring up some New Year’s resolutions? Don’t forget about your yard and the ecosystem of which we are a part. Promise to do something positive in your yard this coming year to help dwindling wild species whose habitats have been—and continue to be—ravaged.

You certainly don’t need to replace every plant in your yard or eliminate all of your lawn to give back to nature. And you don’t need to do everything all at once—baby steps are fine! In fact, incremental change is usually best, since wild species using existing plants and other elements might be harmed by a drastic, rapid change. If you don’t have a yard, think about volunteering with an organization that’s working on a restoration project—it can be satisfying and enjoyable.

Here are ten resolutions I recommend to help make your yard more humane and functional in the coming year. Some are very easy, some not quite so much. Choose one, two, or all! They are not listed in any particular order because each one is important.

Add some water. Birds, insects, mammals, amphibians—all creatures—need water year round to survive. Even just a shallow bird bath can help, but some maintenance is a good thing: Change the water every few Bird bath robin babydays, give it a good scrubbing every week or two, and keep it out of reach of marauding cats and dogs. Plates or shallow bowls filled with pebbles or clean gravel and water will provide for insects; butterflies will also appreciate mud puddles which they use to obtain moisture and nutrients essential for breeding. Artificial ponds should be shallow on one side and have gradually sloping sides so tiny animals can get out easily. More tips here.

Let natural systems flourish and harmonize by minimizing “clean-ups” and maintenance. Yes, this one lets you work less! Allow fallen leaves to stay on the soil to create cover for overwintering insects like bumblebees and butterflies as well as food for birds, raking or sweeping them only off areas that need to be clear (like sidewalks, driveways, or lawn). Leave dead wood such as snags (dead or dying trees that won’t crash on someone’s head) and “downed wood” —fallen branches, twigs, and bark—which is absolutely essential wildlife habitat that will protect and nurture soil, too. Create brush piles or rock piles to help provide cover and nest sites for birds pilesand other small creatures. Leave seed heads and flower stalks on perennials until spring is well under way to provide food, cover, and habitat. If/when you eventually cut them back, leave them on the ground for a month or longer in case they contain native bee larvae or other overwintering insects waiting for the chance to live out their lives.

Get rid of invasive plants that compete with natives. Depending on the plant species, this can be an easy job or one likely to give you headaches, backaches, and an urge to scream. It can take a few days or a few years. But once your task is accomplished, I guarantee that you will feel an extreme sense of satisfaction. And there will be more room to plant lovely, functional plants! If you have several invasive species in your yard, determine which may be the most invasive and start with that. Nonnatives that produce berries, like English holly trees, are particularly problematic because they spread into nearby natural areas by birds, but also via vegetative reproduction. English ivy also produces berry-like fruit and spreads by rooting on the soil surface and on tree trucks—at the very least, periodically cut it back at the base of trunks to prevent it from harming trees. There are myriad plants that push out native species, so check with city, county, and/or state agencies to find lists and descriptions of invasive plants in your area; the USDA also offers information. My book offers some tips for removing invasive plants, as does Green Seattle Partnership and this post.

Remove lawn. Lawn for the sake of lawn is not beneficial and is simply wasteful. When deciding which part(s) of your lawn will receive walking papers, start by choosing areas that you never or rarely use. Often this is the front yard. If you’re not ready to go all the way and remove a large area of turf, consider at least removing lawn under trees and in areas that are difficult to mow, such as slopes. Lawn can also be minimized by enlarging existing beds and adding ecologically beneficial native plants. The gentlest way to remove lawn is to simply cover it with about 6 sheets of overlapping newspaper (or sheets of cardboard) on a non-IMG_0403 sRGBwindy day. Dampen it, then top it with 4 or 5 inches of weed-free compost (leaf compost is good) and fallen leaves over that. Leave it to decompose for at least several months (until grass roots have died) before planting.

Grow native plants that are indigenous to your area. For this I suggest you consult a regional native gardening book like my book (if you live in the Pacific Northwest, west of the Cascades; another fine resource is the Encyclopedia of Northwest Native Plants, which offers more plant options but little design advice). Choose species (preferably “straight species,” not cultivars) that are native to your area and that will flourish in your site’s soil, light, and moisture conditions. Grow them with other native species of the same community to provide the most benefit.

Provide for all life stages of pollinators. Many pollinating insects, including native bees and butterflies, will have gone through several stages by the time they reach adulthood and their needs differ greatly. So in addition to providing water and growing groups of sequentially-flowering plants (preferably native to your area) that supply pollen and nectar from early spring through fall, provide the “host plants” needed for egg laying and for the feeding of larvae (in the case of butterflies and moths, caterpillars). For insects that undergo a complete metamorphosis, protect habitat for pupa (chrysalis). The latter mainly involves simply leaving leaf “litter” and other organic matter on the soil, delaying any pruning of host plants until late spring, and not using leaf blowers, which eliminate the habitat of creatures needing a place to wait out the winter, such as a chrysalis held in place on a twig only by a silken thread.

Don’t use pesticides or poisons. Synthetic pesticides should be avoided at all costs, but even so-called organic controls can be deadly and indiscriminate, especially if used improperly. If a pest if causing enough damage in your Aphid eaterkitchen garden to warrant a control, consider hand removal, barriers and screens, companion plants, or simply sprays of water from the hose. Allow a natural balance to be achieved by welcoming natural pest control such as birds and predatory insects.

Protect birds from reflective glass. Up to a billion birds are killed or injured by colliding with buildings in North America each year. Though skyscrapers kill countless birds, large structures four stories or less in rural locales are responsible for the most bird deaths, according to a 2017 study. Many of those strikes can be prevented and here are some ways to help.

Keep kitty indoors. Domesticated cats kill millions of birds each year, but it’s not their fault they’re outside. Whenever possible, keep your little predators indoors for their safety as well to protect little wild creatures. To prevent boredom and health issues: Add levels, especially around windows, widen windowsills with tables of appropriate height, or add window boxes. If you’re more ambitious, build a catio! They come in all sizes and shapes and provide kitty with a safe outdoor experience.      

Turn on the dark. Look out your windows at night and chances are—if you live in an urban area—you won’t see the twinkle-twinkle of little stars because light pollution (any adverse effect of artificial light) is making the night sky glow brighter each year. Its most obvious effects are on migratory songbirds lured into cities where they collide with unnecessarily illuminated buildings, killing more than 100 million of them each year in North America. But lit up low-rise structures in rural locales also distract and have been found to pose greater danger than similarly-sized urban buildings, with what researchers call “the large scale beacon effect.” And for nocturnal animals, artificial light may be the most extreme change forced upon them. You can help by minimizing artificial lighting migration seasons, and anytime to prevent moths from exhausting themselves to death, to keep bats in the dark, and diurnal animals asleep. Choose fixtures that shine light downwards, not to the side or upwards, and use motion-sensors so that lights go on only when necessary. If you worry about crime, studies show that outdoor lighting does not decrease crime and may even exacerbate it; most residential crime occurs during daylight hours. In addition, cover windows with shades or draperies at night to cut down on light escaping your house.


© 2017 Eileen M. Stark

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Take Care During Fall (and Spring) Garden “Clean-ups”

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The last of the warm, dry fall days are upon us
and it seems like a great time to be puttering around the garden. But this time of year is actually not a good time to be “cleaning up”—that is, removing fallen leaves and woody debris from bare soil, pruning standing plants, and making your yard look somewhat like a victim of a gardening magazine makeover. Leaves and other plant material that fall to earth are part of nature’s systems that nurture wildlife and enrich and protect the soil.

Bedtime for bugs
Leaving fallen leaves on soil is one of the best (and easiest!) things you can do to support wild ones such as birds, amphibians, and small mammals in your garden, as well as myriad invertebrates, including bees, butterflies, spiders, beetles, and worms. Leaves provide food for unfathomable numbers of microbes, as well as the macroscopic consumers and recyclers that feed on decaying plant matter. Further up the food chain, many creatures—ground-feeding birds, for example—rely on nature’s soil cover to provide for those they need to eat, which they find under leaves and downed wood (fallen twigs, branches, logs, and the like).

Fox sparrow

A fox sparrow finds dinner under leafy cover.

If we zoom in a bit, we might see small organisms, such as syrphid fly larvae depending on plant debris for a sort of blanket to help them through the cold, wet winter. As things warm up in the springtime, some kinds of syrphid fly larvae will consume enormous quantities of aphids and leafhoppers that can harm our edible plants. Adult syrphid files (also called “hover flies” or “flower flies”) are important pollinators; spring through late summer there are quite a variety of them in my garden because I prescribe a healthy dose of fallen leaves on the ground in autumn.

Leaf “litter” also encourages other pollinators to get through the winter. For example, as pollination season shuts down and bumble bee workers (females) and males perish, newly crowned bumble bee queens (technically “gyne,” an impregnated queen who has not yet founded a nest but will establish a whole new generation of bumble bees next year) live on. Queens find refuge by digging a shallow tunnel in loose soil—known as a hibernaculum—that’s often tucked under leaf litter. And, many species of lepidoptera (butterflies and moths) overwinter under fallen leaves as eggs, larvae, pupae, or adults. If we disturb their slumber or blow them away, they and the ecosystem will suffer. Essentially, they and their habitat need to simply be left alone if we want them to grace our gardens next year!

Pupa Western Tiger Swallowtail

Western tiger swallowtail pupa waits out the winter.

Don’t cut back
Fall pruning isn’t a good idea because it may stimulate a plant to put on new growth, which could be sensitive to low winter temperatures soon to come. Another important reason is that branches and bark—particularly of native plant species—may support butterfly pupae, or chrysalis. Swallowtail butterfly pupae pass the winter attached by thin threads to woody material—disguised as dried up leaves or old bits of wood to fool predators—until the warmer temperatures of spring stimulate their metamorphosis into adults. While some non-native fruit trees need winter pruning and it’s good to remove diseased and dying annual vegetable garden plants to prevent the spread of disease to next year’s kitchen garden, in all other parts of the yard, if you must clean up, approach it the following spring, and as late as possible.

Erigeron speciosus (showy fleabane) seed head. When viewed closely, seed heads can be fascinating in their complexity.

Moreover, although they may look dead, the seed heads of noninvasive or native perennials like coneflower, fleabane, fescue, and lupine provide food for seed-eating birds, while their stems or stalks—pithy or hollow—provide shelter and/or cavity nests for beneficial insects. And, allowing fading plants to stand during winter provides structure and form. On cold, frosty mornings they can be magically transformed into silvery jewels.

Protect and nourish the soil
Down at soil level, besides providing a haven for overwintering organisms, fallen leaves and woody debris protect the soil, which can degrade and erode fairly quickly from excessive rain, sunlight, and wind. In nature, soil is protected and mimicking the way it does that will help your soil stay healthy. And, over many years, leaves decompose into layers of organic matter that feed plants naturally and gently, improve the condition of soil, and store carbon with the help of mycorrhizal fungi. The other day I relocated a plant to a spot in my front yard that’s been collectively accumulating dozens of inches of leaves for the past 15 years. To my delight I found the result of their decomposition: A couple of inches of soft, dark, rich organic matter that wasn’t there a decade ago. 

Even when we’re being careful, though, it’s easy to cause disturbance. A few autumns ago I moved a small amount of leaf litter to another area, inadvertently uncovering an overwintering queen bumble bee. I felt terrible as I watched her stumble around, obviously weak and awoken from a sound sleep. Luckily it was a warm, dry day and eventually she flew off into the sunshine. But clearly the awakening had been a rude one, because just a little while later she returned and burrowed into some loose soil covered by leaves, just a few feet from where she had been. After she was safely underground, I gingerly placed a couple of particularly interesting rocks several inches from her tunnel’s entrance, as well as some oak leaves on top of the soil to remind myself of where she slept.

Basically, the more we clean up and work towards a neat and tidy garden, the worse off beneficial birds, bugs, and countless other life forms will be. If you tend to be a neatnik (like I am), try to catch yourself every time you start moving into manicure-mode and getting overly tidy—especially in the wilder parts of the yard where wildlife may visit or set up house. It just doesn’t make sense to risk losing them for the sake of neatness. If you have piles of leaves that have been rakes off hardscape or lawn, here are additional ways to use them in your garden.


© 2017 Eileen M. Stark

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A Little Bird Tells Us About the Necessity of Native Plants

Chickadee with larva
It’s often noted that native plants and animals depend on each other
because the two evolved specialized relationships together over thousands of years, but that’s a basic explanation that doesn’t offer any details. I’ve often wondered about individual animal species and to what extent native plants are essential to them. I watch ladybugs devouring aphids on native perennials, warblers foraging for insects in various shrubs and trees, and black-capped chickadees bringing squirmy larvae to their hungry nestlings, but how much do they really benefit when we choose to grow natives?

To my delight, a new study that focuses on one insectivorous bird species—the Carolina chickadee (Poecile carolinensis)—was recently released in Biological Conservation. Chickadees—whether they’re Carolina, Black-capped, or Chestnut-backed—are fairly common backyard species that, like most birds, don’t reproduce on seeds and fruit but instead eat and feed insects to their young. The study’s authors evaluated regional native plants, but also those that originated outside North America to see if they were a limiting factor for this particular species’ ability to effectively raise young. Their results prove that non-native plants reduce the quality of habitat for Carolina chickadees by not providing food for breeding.

Insects are crucial
It is the living environment—including insects—that sustains us and every other species. Herbivorous insects make up more than a third of the world’s animals, and their role is indispensable: By converting plant material to protein, they are nature’s only way of getting plants’ energy into animals who don’t eat plants directly, and into animals who eat the ones who feed on insects.

Most herbivorous insect species are called specialists, meaning they can’t choose what they eat. Their menu is short; they must rely on only certain types of plants (that they evolved with) which have certain chemical compositions that support them, and can’t exist where those plants don’t exist. A well-known example is the monarch butterfly—an insect whose larvae can only feed on native milkweed plants—but there are countless others. If you already recognize the charms of regional native plants and have witnessed how growing them attracts more wildlife to your yard, all of this comes as no surprise. Native plants host and support more native herbivorous insects and, consequently, more birds and other wild ones.

Egg cluster for Baby

In addition to insect larvae, occasionally parents feed adult insects or clusters of insects eggs (shown here) that are most likely found in native plants.

The study
During the study’s two-year survey in the Washington, D.C. area, the research team correlated the birds’ diets to the plants they forage in. Using 97 suburban yards, they determined the species and origin of each tree and shrub, then checked the leaves of 16 plants at each site for caterpillars while tracking which plants received the most foraging visits from chickadees. Nest building in and near each yard was also examined through- out the chickadees’ breeding period, roughly April to early June on the east coast. Data revealed that these birds were more likely to nest in yards with native trees and shrubs than in yards with ornamentals that evolved outside North America. The native trees used the most included oaks, elms, cherries, and maples due to their ability to support the larvae of lepidoptera (butterflies and moths) and sawflies, which are essential for rearing young chickadees. Baby chickadees (and other birds) need a lot of food to survive: Previous research has shown that these busy parents need to collect 5,000 to 9,000 bits of food (depending on the clutch size of the brood) per nestful of chickadees, plus feed themselves!  According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, “during a lodgepole needle miner [an insect that can kill trees] outbreak in Arizona, one chickadee was found with 275 of the tiny caterpillars in its stomach at one time.”

The native connection
Chickadees are generalist foragers, meaning they’ll look for food nearly everywhere, not just on certain plants. They will forage in non-native plant species but won’t find much, since few host the food they need. In my experience, black-capped chickadees also feed their babies a few adult insects and the occasional spider (which may be found almost anywhere), but in native trees such as oaks, a diversity of larvae can be found, and large numbers of them can often be found quickly. Douglas Tallamy’s “Lepidoptera index,” which ranks different types of plants by the diversity of caterpillars they promote, corroborates this. That same research found that woody plants apparently support many more Lepidoptera species than herbaceous plants do. Whether that is because “woody plants in general are both longer lived and larger than most herbaceous plants and thus may be easier targets for insect herbivores to exploit,” or because “herbaceous plants are underreported as lepidopteran hosts because they are more difficult to identify and less conveniently searched by collectors,” we ought to grow more woody plant to maximize biodiversity, if only to give the benefit of the doubt (and provide birds more cover!). And, as I reported two years ago, another study confirmed

Chickadee young are fed by their parents for several weeks post-fledging.

Young chickadees need to be fed by their parents for several weeks after fledging.

that relatives of native trees (i.e., scarlet oak, a distant cousin of the west coast’s Oregon white oak) host and support fewer species of insects than the native counterpart, and that non-native trees that have no native relative in a region provide next to nothing. Yard after yard of ornamental, introduced species effectively destroys insect diversity.

 

 

So, now we have more compelling evidence that growing natives can improve the human-dominated landscape by supplying numerous ecological advantages, beauty, and the ability to support the entire life cycle of insectivorous birds. Whatever benefits the chickadees will also benefit other species, and increase biodiversity overall. The Douglas-firs in the back of my yard and the towering elms in the parking strip on my street nearly always have birds in them. Besides chickadees, I see woodpeckers, nuthatches, warblers, kinglets, bushtits, and more. The chickadees simply tell us what they all need.


© 2017 Eileen M. Stark

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How to Support Pollinators in All Their Life Stages

Many pollinators are in steep decline and in dire need of protection. A black-tailed bumble bee (Bombus melanopygus) feasts on hairy honeysuckle blossom (Lonicera hispidula).

Many pollinators are in steep decline and in dire need of protection. Here, a black-tailed bumble bee (Bombus melanopygus) feasts on hairy honeysuckle blossom (Lonicera hispidula).

 

It’s that time again—National Pollinator Week—when we pay a little more attention to the hard-working animals who give so much. They help pollinate about 75% of flowering plants and nearly the same amount of our food crops. Without them, life would be very different. So let’s honor these fascinating creatures who face seemingly insurmountable threats, including habitat loss, climate change, and pesticide use. It’s tragic and overwhelming, but there is much that each of us can do as individuals, and together we can have a tremendous influence over potential habitat in everything from tiny urban lots to community gardens to large rural expanses.

Even a small garden can make a difference. For example, in my Pacific Northwest yard I offer a variety of native flowering trees, shrubs and perennials throughout, as well as a mini-meadow where locally native perennials—such as columbine, fleabane, checker mallow, blue-eyed grass and iris—grow and buzz with life. Equally important is leaving leaf “litter” and dead wood around, and not doing any “clean up” until well into spring, so as to not disturb overwintering adults, eggs, larvae, or pupa, camouflaged so well. For example, the strikingly beautiful western tiger swallowtail butterfly may overwinter as chrysalis (pupa), which looks like a little piece of wood during that time. Other things we can do for pollinators include participating in “citizen science” projects that seek input from gardeners, and advocating for an end to pesticide use in our parks and communities.

At home, here are ten things we can do to attract and support a variety of pollinators, from bees and butterflies to beetles and flies

Syrphid fly (Scavea pyrastri) on western bleeding heart (Dicentra formosa).

A syrphid fly (Scavea pyrastri) on western bleeding heart (Dicentra formosa).

Grow a variety of plants that are native to your area, and you won’t need to think too much about whether you will provide food for pollinators. Research suggests that native plants are four times more alluring to native bees, for example, than exotic flowers.

Got lawn? Whether you have a large or small lot, consider replacing or minimizing turf with native grasses and wildflowers, or perennials and mosses in shady areas. Add shrubs and trees to provide cover and protection, especially for bees who create nests in the ground.

Leave parts of your garden a little “wild.” Undisturbed nesting locations are absolutely essential, and gardens that aren’t too neat and provide log piles, mounds of rounded stones, exfoliating tree bark, and patches of bare, well-drained, undisturbed soil will help. From fall till spring, allow leaves to remain undisturbed on the ground so that overwintering butterfly and moth eggs/caterpillars and bees can slumber peacefully under a leafy ceiling. For the numerous species of ground-nesting bees (70% of bees nest in the ground, like ants do), avoid extensive tilling or anything that prevents access to soil, like plastic mulch or thick layers of organic mulch. Nest sites for bees that nest aboveground can be supplemented by horizontally placing hollow or pithy stems, or blocks of wood or downed wood with dead-ended, narrow holes drilled into them. Some species also utilize the vegetative parts of plants for food as well as cover or resources for nesting.

Steer clear of pesticides. Even those approved for organic gardening, such as rotenone, are harmful. Systemic insecticides like neonicotinoids (a class of insecticides such as imidacloprid, acetamiprid, clothianidin, dinotefuran, nithiazine, thiacloprid and thiamethoxam that affect insects’ central nervous systems), are absorbed by plants and produce toxic nectar and pollen. Studies show that residues may persist in woody plants for up to six years following application and may persist in soil for several years. Herbicides and fungicides can also be harmful. In a healthy, balanced system there should be no need to resort to poisons.

Turn roadsides native. Studies show that native pollinators are much more prevalent in native stretches of roadside habitat—often the only connection between patches of remnant habitat—than weedy, nonnative stretches. If you own rural land, plant natives near your roadside and mow it infrequently to prolong bloom and prevent harm to creatures who may be taking cover within it.

Small female mining bee (Andrea sp.) gathers pollen for her young on showy fleabane (Erigeron specious).

Small female mining bee (Andrena sp.) gathers pollen for her young on showy fleabane (Erigeron speciosus).

Provide nectar and pollen in variety of flower color, shape, and size for pollinators with different needs. Flower nectar, produced in glandular organs called nectaries, is high in carbs and serves to attract pollinators to distribute plants’ pollen (and in some cases, attracts protectors like parasitoids and ants—which also pollinate to a small extent—against herbivores that may be problematic). Pollen is a highly nutritious blend of proteins, lipids and carbohydrates. We’ve been taught that bees tend to prefer yellow, purple, and blue flowers—anything but red, which they can’t see—while hummingbirds can see and do use reds (although one study suggests that their preference may not be innate, but rather they choose them since bees don’t). While this is true, a 2016 research study shows that bumblebees (and probably other pollinators) choose a plant for the nutritional quality of its pollen, not only its color; they were found to need pollen with a high protein to lipid ratio (which makes sense, since the pollen is mainly used to feed their growing larvae). And new research out of UC-Davis suggests that pollinators choose among flowers based on the microbes within those flowers, such as yeasts that are”commonly found in flower nectar and … thought to hitch a ride on pollinators to travel from one flower to the next. Its scent production may help it attract pollinators, which then help the yeast disperse among flowers.” But flower shape and size also matter: butterflies need clusters of short, tubular flowers with a wide landing pad, such as yarrow (Achellia millefolium occidentalis), various native bees need different types of flowers (generally shallow), while hummingbirds like relatively large, tubular, or urn-shaped flowers.

Anna’s hummingbirds pollinate while they forage for nectar.

Keep it blooming. From spring through fall, something should always be in bloom, preferably several species at a time. In the Pacific Northwest, early spring flowers, like those of Indian plum (Oemleria cerasiformis), willows (Salix), and red-flowering currant (Ribes sanguineum), are particularly important to bees emerging from hibernation, while late-season nectar sources such as asters (Symphyotrichum spp. or Aster spp.) help bees that overwinter as adults get through the winter. Both early and late forage may aid in bees’ reproduction. Of course, mid-summer flowers are important, too! Many native species bloom for extended periods, such as charming foamflower (Tiarella trifoliata), which may produce flowers from spring to late summer. Learn when plants bloom to be sure you’ve got it covered, and aim for some overlap in bloom times. Remember that trees and shrubs, as well as perennials and annuals, can provide nectar and pollen. Arrange plants in clusters or drifts or swaths of at least three different plant species so that each plant is next to or within a few feet of another of its kind, to supply enough forage and to make them easy for pollinators to find.

Moisten sand or loose soil to help adult butterflies. Butterflies and moths ingest liquids like flower nectar from which they obtain sugars, minerals, and other nutrients. But they also need to “sip” from muddy or sandy puddles, sap, decaying fruit, sweaty humans, even manure piles to hydrate themselves and obtain dissolved minerals, including salt. Such minerals are vital for many physiological functions, including reproduction: Males often transfer “nuptial gifts” of sodium and amino acids to the female during mating (along with other donations). Before you say, “He shouldn’t have,” consider how evolution toward generosity might generate rewards: more gifts mean more nutrition and better egg survival. To assist, add a dash of salt to containers of moist sand or soil, to be sure they get what they need.

Butterflies and moths often obtain nutrients and moisture in mud puddles, but they’re also attracted to perspiration on skin, like this green comma butterfly.

Butterflies and moths often obtain nutrients and moisture in mud puddles, but they’re also attracted to perspiration on skin, like this green comma butterfly.

Grow butterfly host plants. To become adults, butterflies in earlier life stages—egg, larva, chrysalis—require host plants that provide habitat and food. Find out which butterflies frequent your area, and grow the plants that provide for all their stages. In the Northwest check out these handy guides: Create a Butterfly Garden (OSU) and Butterflies and How to Attract Them (WDFW).

Forgo hybridized and “double” flowers. When choosing nonnative plants, keep in mind that hybridized varieties may lack sufficient pollen nutrition—pollens vary in protein content, and bees and other pollen consuming insects need a wide variety to fulfill their protein requirement. Research also suggests that some commonly used garden plants, especially those hybridized for features valued by gardeners, like disease-resistance or flower size or color, may not provide sufficient or appropriate nutrients in nectar, needed for carbohydrates. Frilly double-flowered varieties (those with extra petals that make a flower look inflated and flouncy) are usually inaccessible to pollinators simply because they can’t get through the mass of petals to the nectaries. It’s a bit sad to watch a bumblebee, trying but unable to get inside an overly dressed flower, fly away without food.

Trichodes ornatus

This beetle (Trichomes ornatus), on wild buckwheat (Eriogonum sp.), is a member of a very diverse group of pollinators that are especially important in areas where bees aren’t common.

 

© 2017 Eileen M. Stark

Adapted from content originally published in my book, Real Gardens Grow Natives: Design, Plant, & Enjoy a Healthy Northwest Garden.

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Remove Invasive Plants: It’s Good for Wildlife and Gardens

English ivy (Hedera helix)

A little neglect goes a long way (English ivy takes over).


I’m embarrassed to admit
that when I first moved to the Pacific Northwest in 1990, before I knew much about regional native plants, I thought that foxgloves were native plants. Why? Because I encountered them in natural areas. Luckily I know much better now, and—with the exception of some infrequently traveled trails in remote corners of the world—I cannot remember a hike where I haven’t encountered invasive plants (and sometimes a terribly large number of them). Areas close to urban areas are hardest hit, but even ecosystems far from the madding crowd can suffer from their effects.Digitalis purpurea

Invasive plants are nonnatives that were—and continue to be—brought here either intentionally by the nursery trade (or agriculture), or accidentally (as packing material and such). Thousands of species have been brought to North America, and many of ours have been sent abroad. All this rearranging of the earth’s flora started innocently enough centuries ago, but experts fear that it’s reached a point where biological diversity is severely threatened and essential interactions, like pollination, are damaged. Foxglove (Digitalis purpurea), as lovely as a biennial can be, may not be one of the worst offenders, but it doesn’t stay put with its billions of tiny seeds, and shows up in places it doesn’t belong, basically making life miserable for the plants that do. More problematic species often reproduce in several ways: For example, Himalayan blackberry and English ivy (shown above) and its cultivars, both spread via rooting stems and by fruits eaten and dispersed by wildlife. Both suppress and exclude native vegetation to form dense monocultures, entirely unsuitable as wildlife habitat. English ivy is capable of one other feat, if left alone long enough: Taking down entire trees.

Of course, not all nonnative plants pose horrendous problems, but those that do run amok do it because whatever checks kept them in balance in their native land—soils, predators, pathogens—are lacking here. Consequently, they do so well that they’re able to spread fairly easily from yards or agricultural areas into natural areas that support native species that can’t compete; the natives have no defense, become overwhelmed by the newcomers, and die out. This is particularly devastating for uncommon or endangered plants close to extinction. In addition, the spread of invasives (plant, animals, and pathogens) has economic ramifications.

Deadly for wildlife
While habitat loss due to deforestation, urban sprawl, livestock grazing, and agriculture is the greatest threat to the variety of life on Earth, invasive plants contribute greatly to the tragic loss of biodiversity. Since native plants are essential for native fauna (especially insect herbivores, most of which are specialists that can only use a certain plant or plants due to their chemical makeup), when the plants are gone so too are the herbivores and the higher life forms that feed on them. And, needless to say, fauna use native plants for other essentials, like nesting habitat and shelter.

Some nonnatives are actually poisonous. It’s not unusual for cedar waxwings to be poisoned by the fruit of heavenly bamboo (Nandina domestica). And this past winter, many wild elk and pronghorn died horrible deaths in Idaho after foraging on Japanese yew (Taxus japonica), which is considered invasive in some states. Hungry bears also have been poisoned in Pennsylvania by English yew (Taxus baccata), and other animals—including livestock and people—can also be poisoned. Instead of nonnative yews, we can plant regional/local yews that wildlife coevolved with. The Pacific Northwest’s yew, Taxus brevifolia, which provides food and cover for many wild species, is the best choice from British Columbia to northern California and east to Montana, at mid to high elevations. Sadly, this attractive understory shrub that grows beneath conifers is in trouble due to over-harvesting for medicine, as well as the logging industry.

Hard work pays off
Recent research from the Seychelles, an archipelago in the Indian Ocean, shows that sweat and funds invested in eradication can pay off for all sorts of pollinators (bees, butterflies, beetles, birds, reptiles), for the native plants themselves, and for the whole ecosystem. Following the removal of nearly 40,000 invasive shrubs on four mountaintops on one island, researchers monitored the remaining native plants for visits from pollinators. Eight months of observation later, “Ecosystem restoration resulted in a marked increase in pollinator species, visits to flowers and interaction diversity.” Essentially, even during the rather short test period , it was found that both the number of pollinators and their interactions with plants and each other were over 20% higher in the test areas than in control plots (where the invasive shrubs had been left alone). And, the test area native plants also produced more flowers and fruit than those in control areas. Restoration works!


WHAT YOU CAN DO

Eradicate them (go on, git!). Early detection and removal  is crucial to stopping an invasive plant in its tracks, especially if you live near a natural area. To make it feasible, and If you have a variety of invasives, pace yourself—perhaps get rid of one species a week (or one a month or season, depending on the infestation). I strongly recommend forgoing pesticides and manually digging them out whenever possible. Digging when the soil isn’t saturated is best, to prevent destroying the soil structure that results when working wet soil. And if your arch-enemies grow on a slope, be sure to replace them with native erosion controllers (Oregon white oak, madrone, oceanspray, red-twig dogwood, Nootka rose, salal, sword fern, etc.) as soon as you can.

At the very least, cut stems off at the soil level well before plants go to seed (it can happen quickly!). Some species can then be covered with a dark sheet (not plastic, which will prevent moisture from reaching the soil and kill soil life), to block out light. Left for 6 months to a year, it will prevent photosynthesis; afterwards, check to see if you need to dig out any more live roots. Persistence usually pays off. In hard to reach places, repeatedly cut down or yank out leafy stems—eventually the plant will die from the lack of energy that sunlight provides. The morning glory vines that come from under a dense shrub in my yard get weaker every year because we continually pull out what we see. I seriously think this year may be their last.

One exception to the get-it-out-as-fast-as-you-can rule: If the invasive plants are providing some habitat for wildlife (nesting sites or food or cover),
do a soft eviction and take them out incrementally, rather than all at once. This will avoid completely eliminating the habitat and causing undue stress to wildlife.

Herb robert (Geranium robertianum) an invasive plant

Stinky Bob: Pretty, but very assertive in natural areas & gardens.

Remember that some seeds can survive for many years. When I first started gardening in my yard, there were a lot of Robert’s geranium (Geranium robertianum) a.k.a. “Stinky Bob”. Dutifully I pulled all the plants before seeds had set, but the next year they were back due to the previous year’s seeds. I pulled them again and again, always before they flowered. Fifteen years later, I’m still pulling, but this year there were only two plants! Moral of the story: some seeds can stay viable a very long time, so don’t you dare let up on your weeding. But of course neglected neighboring yards can supply seeds as well, so it’s a continual process. Before planting natives, wait at least a season after the initial removal. Weed again, and then plant. It may not eliminate the seeds, but it should cut down on future seedlings and give the natives the best chance at taking control again.

Know what you’re planting. Don’t buy newly introduced plants that lack a track record, or seed mixes that may contain invasive seeds, especially ones labeled just “wildflowers.” If you want a wildflower meadow or prairie-style garden, buy only seeds that you know are native to your location and you won’t have to worry. Even though many native “pioneer species” (especially annuals) can be quite assertive, if they spread enthusiastically they won’t wreak havoc on the environment. Species from different regions of the country can be problematic, not just those from Europe or Asia, so go with only local native plants whenever possible.

Speak up if you notice plants for sale that are problematic.  I’ve seen Arum italicum and Vinca minor and many others for sale at local retail nurseries, even though they’re on my city’s “Nuisance List.” (And I’ve seen Stinky Bob, too!)  The thing is, just because plants are deemed invasive or a “nuisance” species, doesn’t mean they can’t be sold—the only plants that are illegal to sell in a particular state are those that have been officially listed as a state noxious weed. But if enough of us educate retailers, hopefully they will pull the plants from their catalog/stores.

Besides eliminating invasives in our yards, we need to be very careful about what we’re dragging into natural areas on our hiking boots or sneakers. Plant material like seeds can get stuck in the tread of shoes, and some stick like velcro to laces, like the seeds of the aptly named forget-me-not. And backpacks and pant cuffs can harbor and release seeds, as well as dogs’ paws and fur. When I encountered Stinky Bob in a beautiful natural area last year in the Columbia Gorge; it had already spread over a slope as big as my back yard. No doubt someone unknowingly carried the seed there and the plant that resulted liked it there—a lot.

Tell others about the harm that invasives pose.

Join a local invasive plant eradication effort.

♦ If you see infestations in natural areas report them to the local soil and water conservation district or to an invasives hotline like Oregon’s www.oregoninvasiveshotline.org.

Better choices
Depending on your location and conditions, what are some possible native substitutes for the overzealous travelers, once they’re removed? For English ivy (and cultivars), consider salal (Gaultheria shallon), kinnikinnick (Arctostaphylos uva-ursi), sword fern (Polystichum munitum), star-flowered false solomon’s seal (Maianthemum stellatum), inside-out flower (Vancouveria hexandra), or Cascade Oregon grape (Mahonia nervosa). Himalayan blackberry might be replaced with thimbleberry (Rubus parviflorus), salmonberry (Rubus spectabilis), or black-cap raspberry (Rubus leucodermis var. leucodermis). Arum could be succeeded by false solomon’s seal (Maiantheum racemosum) or vanilla leaf (Achyls triphylla). Vinca could be ousted by piggyback plant (Tolmiea menziesii), broadpetal strawberry (Frageria virginiana), or oxalis (Oxalis oregana or O. suksdorfii). And Stinky Bob might sublet his space to Western bleeding heart (Dicentra formosa), Oregon geranium (Geranium oreganum), or licorice fern (Polypodium glycyrrhiza).

Herb robert

This huge clump of Geranium robertianum (Stinky Bob)—that’s pushed out native species—probably started with just one seed.

 

© 2017 Eileen M. Stark

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After a Storm: Dead Wood Gives Life

snaggy-stump

Following a particularly nasty ice and wind storm that damaged or took the life of many mature trees in Northwest Oregon, it’s time to clean up nature’s ragged pruning job and literally pick up the pieces. Or is it?

Clean up sparingly
If there are damaged limbs on a street tree or yard tree close to your house, hire a certified arborist to remove any dangling branches and clean-cut any ragged wounds and stubs left by breakage, particularly if you have a tree that is prone to disease, such elm-damage-ice-stormas an elm. Sharp cuts that don’t leave stubs (partially amputated branches not cut back to the branch collar that look like you could hang a hat on it) will allow for faster healing and may prolong the life of the tree. But if safety is not an issue, consider that natural, important habitat is created when damaged limbs are simply left on the tree. As I wrote in my book, “interactions between wildlife and decaying wood are fundamental to ecosystem functions and processes in forests, aquatic habitats,” and your garden, whether they be wooded or more open.

We’re usually far too eager to clean up and remove anything and everything that’s fallen to the ground to keep our yards neat and orderly. But this sort of maintenance can be harmful not
dead woodonly to our backs, but to dwindling wild species that need natural, woody “litter” and some disarray, not homogenous expanses of bare soil, bark mulch, or clipped lawn. Like fallen leaves, “dead wood” or “downed wood” is so essential that many creatures (and plants) cannot survive without it. So, instead of hauling away branches, logs, bark debris, stumps, twigs and such, be compassionate and leave it (or move it to an appropriate, out-of-the-way part of your yard) so that it can decompose naturally and begin to provide food, shelter, nesting material, or places to raise young. Decomposing dead wood has many other unnoticeable yet complex eco-functions, like supporting fungi that live in symbiotic relationships with plant roots. Eventually, the stuff that may look messy to us turns into fertile soil which supports plants which support insects which support birds, and so on.

Snags are a good thing snag at Smith & Bybee lakes

What about dead or dying trees? Known as snags, with their hollow cavities, broken branches, and loose bark, they actually may provide more varied habitat for all sorts of creatures than living trees do! In addition to providing essential housing for many types of insects (including pollinators), cavity-nesting birds, amphibians, reptiles, and small mammals (including bats), they provide food, open perches and double as storage lockers. Woodpeckers also use them to communicate during breeding season.

Snags are in very short supply as forests are increasingly decimated, and they’re extremely rare in urban areas. Removing them not only steals crucial habitat; it’s expensive. Leave snags in low activity areas that won’t pose a problem if they fall apart; when they do fall they’ll continue to give back in the understory. If safety is a concern but you want to retain a dead tree’s benefits, consult with an arborist to shorten its trunk to snag with female flicker feeding youngroughly 15 feet tall and cut back branches. If that’s not possible and you must cut it down, leave the trunk on the ground where it won’t get in your way and leave the stump. If you already have a snag, retain or add native shrubs near its base. They will help keep it protected from weather extremes and provide connectivity, leafy cover, and additional forage for wildlife.

The Washington Department of Wildlife has more detailed info on these “wildlife trees” and the Cavity Conservation Initiative has an enchanting video that documents, up close, the lives that they support.

 


Designing with dead wood
Although some people view snags and other dead wood as unattractive, more and more of us see them as aesthetically pleasing natural sculptures, issued gratis to the landscape and priceless for wildlife. Keep them, work around them, and incorporatesnag "sculpture" them into your landscape, and the wild ones will thank you.

Consider grouping logs and branches in layered piles, with the largest at the base, in quiet places under trees where they can provide shelter from predators and roosting sites for little ones. Fallen trunks or massive logs can recline individually on the ground, where they might act as lovely focal points that will change over time, displaying dead wood (stump)the quiet beauty that unfolds during all stages of natural decomposition and regeneration. Imagine a “nurse log” in your own yard that will increase biodiversity by providing decades of nutrients and moisture to other plants and soil organisms. While natural, moss-furred nurse logs (fallen forest trunks and limbs) provide complex substrates for regeneration of trees in intact forests, there’s no reason you can’t foster similar function in your yard (but never remove nurse logs from a forest). Surround a fallen giant with native ferns and other shade lovers to blend and complement, and the mystery and magic begins. It rots slowly at first, then begins to crumble away, providing more sustenance

for other species. After a few decades, the log will be reduced to nothing but fragments, but the soil—nurtured, enriched, and full of life—will pass on its riches.

A few plant species do best when growing on or next to downed wood. In the Pacific Northwest, Vaccinium parviflorum (red huckleberry), that deliciously berried shrub that hikers know and love, is almost always found growing on a stump, nurse log or other decomposing wood in forests. When I planted red huckleberry shrubs in my yard a few years ago, I buried some rotting wood in the planting hole and added dead branches and conifer cones on top of the soil. So far they seem to like it.

 

 

Nest boxes and more trees to the rescue
If you’re like most people and don’t have a snag or a mature tree with decay on your property, consider adding a species-appropriate nest box for cavity nesters like chickadees, chickadee nest boxnuthatches, woodpeckers, swallows, or owls that is sited correctly and is accessible for annual cleaning. Though not as good as natural nest sites, boxes are much better than nothing.

Lastly, if you’ve lost a tree or have the space for one more, consider planting a regional native replacement (or two or three) that will thrive in the site’s conditions. We need to keep planting and protecting, so the cycle can continue.


© 2016 Eileen M. Stark

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Reimagining the Ecological Value of Cities for Dwindling Pollinators

Bombus vosnesenskii

A recent literature review on the ecology of urban areas published in Conservation Biology offers irrefutable evidence that cities can and ought to be havens for wildlife, specifically pollinators. In “The City as a Refuge for Insect Pollinators,” the authors, a group of multidisciplinary scientists from around the world, recommend that urban areas—particularly fast growing ones—be managed to support biodiversity.

Habitat loss, degradation and fragmentation, industrial farming, wildlife diseases, and widespread use of toxic pesticides have wiped out and continue to wipe out many insect pollinator species. Along with other invertebrates, we really don’t know how many are disappearing from the earth forever, although new studies show horrifying losses. Since urban sprawl is a major reason for the shocking loss of biodiversity, it’s surprising that historically, the consensus—even among conservationists—has been that cities can’t or don’t need to support wildlife. But many years of research on wild bees in urban areas proves that cities can or still do supply habitat for both pollinator abundance and diversity, and “in several cases, more diverse and abundant populations of native bees live in cities than in nearby rural landscapes.”

While we certainly need to also restore and protect rural and suburban lands, there’s a growing realization that “pollinators put high-priority and high-impact urban conservation within reach,” writes the team. “The relatively small spatial and temporal scales of insect pollinators in terms of functional ecology (habitat range, lifecycle, nesting behavior compared with larger mammals for example) offer opportunities for small actions to yield large benefits for pollinator health.” Small actions: they’re talking about you and me, as well as city planners. As the authors note, many residents understand the urgency and necessity, and are willing to help. Turning our yards into “real” Cedar waxwing in red-flowering currantgardens, complete with native plantings and other elements that support entire life cycles of local biodiversity, ought to be paramount. Priceless benefits to us (crop pollination and a chance to admire nature’s beauty), to countless other species that rely on plants or insects for food, and to plants (pollination), come with the package.

Urban conservation often aims to connect people to nature. This is, of course, a good thing, since nature education is extremely important—it’s been said many times that the more we learn about wildlife and natural processes, the more we will want to protect it. But if more effort was spent on wildlife itself and providing what it needs (large, undisturbed, interconnected areas of native flora), no doubt many species would be much better off. I always feel a need to apologize to startled birds and little mammals I encounter on walks in natural areas around the city. There’s a reason wildlife refuges often close off sections to pedestrians: many species are hypersensitive to human presence; they see us as predators and the stress harms them. It would be immensely beneficial if parts of urban areas were also simply left to the wild ones.

I can’t agree more with the authors. If we want to recover and protect pollinators and other wildlife globally, we need to tend to their needs locally. It will take policy makers, planners, and environmental managers, but also each of us, whether we work individually or engage with community organizers.

 

© 2016 Eileen M. Stark

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Cultivating Compassion in the Garden (and Beyond)

painted turtles

Whether they’re hidden within fur farms or factory farms or other atrocious places—mistreated and maligned for profit—or in plain sight and struggling within unraveling ecosystems that disappear a little more each day, the suffering of non-human animals due to our expansion and behavior is everywhere. On an ecological level, the most devastating consequence of our ubiquitous presence is the disappearance of wild species that just need to be left alone. They want to live on, and in peace, just as we do. They have just as much right to exist without harm and suffering as we do.

Habitat destruction (including that caused by climate change) is not painless and is the main threat to most wild flora and faunas: Less than four percent of original U.S. forests remain; oceans are dying; waterways are heavily polluted with toxics; a new study shows that in the past 20 years we’ve managed to destroy a tenth of the earth’s wild areas. Half of North American bird species are predicted to go extinct by the end of this century and some especially sensitive amphibians are already there. We’re the most invasive, destructive, and over-consuming species ever to walk the earth, and it’s costing us the earth, as well as our health and happiness.hermit thrush

Our big brains are burdensome as we thoughtlessly invent things that damage and destroy, but they’re also an asset when we realize our obligation to protect and sustain. Habits of exploitation can be broken. We can stop pretending that everything is fine or beyond our control, and realize that we are very much a part of nature. We don’t have to, for example, conform to having manicured, high maintenance, lawn-dominated landscapes that require massive chemical and fossil fuel applications just because other people have them. We can make choices based on caring what happens to those downstream, just as we wish those upstream would to do to us.

When our species was young, we weren’t separated from nature. Even now, within our bubbles that disconnect, we enter this world not with a fear of natural processes and wild creatures, but with an intense curiosity. But as kids we learn to be fearful—we’re taught to fear the proverbial “big bad wolf,” and trepidation of wildlife and natural processes continue throughout many people’s lives. Education can help change that, and even awaken us to the awe-inspiring, interconnected layers that nature has fashioned over eons of evolution.

Courtesy Predator Defense

Photo courtesy Predator Defense

Just as essential is empathy for other species (that is, looking at their world from their point of view, with compassion). It may be our most important capability and what is sorely needed to bring some balance to the earth’s members. When we allow empathy to guide our choices and practices, we act selflessly and gain empowerment along the way. Changing our ways isn’t always difficult and some changes can be very simple; it just takes some thought and a little motivation. With compassion we can defiantly say “no” to synthetic toxic chemicals crafted by mega corporations that discriminate against other species and seek to control the natural world, “no” to wasteful monoculture lawns, and “no” to merely decorative plants with zero wildlife appeal. We can say “yes” to planning gardens that not only look pretty but also benefit and sustain other species,  “yes” to keeping Fluffy and Fido away from birds, “yes” to keeping outdoor lights off and making windows visible to birds, and “yes” to initiatives and politicians that seek to preserve and protect natural areas. There are, of course, countless other ways to express compassion for the planet outside the garden.

It’s easy to think that the war against wildlife—from the microorganisms within degraded soil to persecuted predators trying to survive on a human-dominated planet—is happening somewhere “out there.” While a huge percentage of wild lands are dominated by livestock ranching that has “caused more damage than the chainsaw and bulldozer combined,” urban and suburban spaces—including the roughly 40 million acres of land that’s currently lawn—offer an important conservation opportunity and a way for us to personally provide for others right at home.

It’s equally easy to be pulled down by the ticking extinction clock, but once we turn our backs on conventional gardening, we become part of a conversion—or revolution, if you will—that is proactive. Learn how healthy, balanced ecosystems function; watch native plants (especially when grown with others that co-occur in the Native bumblebee on Vancouveria hexandraarea) attract and support a diversity of native insects and other creatures; recognize the  bees and the flower flies and the birds that depend directly or indirectly on those plant communities; discover their life cycle and how to keep them healthy and protected. Plant trees, let the leaves do their thing, allow the dead wood to stay, and forget about pesticides and synthetic fertilizers. If we do all that we’ll find ourselves more connected and caring even more about what happens within the dwindling, wilder ecosystems on this beautiful planet, and wondering how even more beautiful it will be if more of us empathize with others’ lives.

 

© 2016 Eileen M. Stark

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An Underappreciated Insect: The Syrphid Fly

Toxomerus occidentalis, female slurping nectar on Erigeron specious (showy fleabane)

Toxomerus occidentals (female), soaking up nectar on showy fleabane (Erigeron specious)


Beneficial in many ways, syrphid flies, also called flower flies,
are true flies in the order Diptera, family Syrphidae. Some can be recognized by their ability to dart around and hover in the air in one place, wings nearly invisible, as they search for flowers on which to feed—somewhat like a tiny helicopter, but with much more grace (this flair led to their other common name, hover fly). They come in various shapes and sizes (typically 1/4 to 3/4 inch); the tiny ones require a hand lens or macro lens to get a good look. And when you do, you’ll be amazed at the beautiful patterns and bright colors that often serve to mimic dangerous looking bees or wasps and fool predators like birds into leaving them alone (but don’t worry, they couldn’t sting you if they wanted to!).

Syrphids in the genus Spilomyia often mimic wasps, with vivid yellow and black patterns and modified antennae.

Syrphids in the genus Spilomyia often mimic wasps, with vivid yellow and black patterns and modified antennae.


Multi-functional

Not needing to carry and store pollen for their young (like most bees do) doesn’t prevent them from being extremely important pollinators. Researchers have found that although syrphid flies pollinate less effectively per flower visit, they visit flowers more often, resulting in essentially the same pollination services as bees. And, it’s thought that they may be more tolerant of the landscape changes that we humans insist on, than bees are.

But syrphid flies are not only important as pollinators in gardens, organic farms, and wild areas. During their immature stage, most species that are found in gardens and nearly half of the 6,000 syrphid fly species worldwide are voracious consumers of aphids, scale insects, and other soft-bodied pests. In coastal Central California, researchers compared romaine lettuce sprayed with an insecticide and lettuce without insecticide. They found that syrphid larvae were primarily responsible for suppressing aphids in organic romaine lettuce, and called the sprayed lettuce “unmarketable.” Other types of syrphid fly larvae are either (1) scavengers that tidy up ant, bee, and wasp nests, (2) feeders of plant material, tree sap, and fungi, or (3) decomposers that feed on decaying organic matter. To add to their achievements, larvae are reportedly more effective in cool weather than most other such predators.

Myathropa florea, male. Larvae feed on bacteria at the base of trees or in decaying leaves.

Myathropa florea, male. Larvae of this species feed on bacteria at the base of trees or in decaying leaves.


Life Cycle

Females lay their tiny, elongated eggs singly on leaves—typically near aphid colonies, so food is within reach—and they hatch in a few days. The tapered, grub-like larvae are blind and legless, but the mouths of these aphid-eaters are equipped with triple-pointed darts that enable them to pierce and suck their prey dry. At maturation, the larvae are promoted to the soil to become pupa and, eventually, adult flies. Their life cycle takes several weeks; reportedly three generations per year are typical in the Northwest. Most syrphid flies overwinter as larvae in leaf litter—yet another reason to not remove fallen leaves from soil!

Close encounters
The best way to spot these helpful, colorful little insects in your garden is to move slowly and quietly, and observe carefully. Sometimes all I have to do is pause next to a group of flat-topped flowers (white or yellow ones seem to be their favorites), and within a few minutes one or two will show up to eat (and to dazzle me—in morning sunlight these exceptional little pollinators shimmer!). I’ve photographed eight different species in my small yard, and I’ve just started. Hopefully I’ll encounter many more of these fascinating little flyers in the years to come.

To avoid confusion with bees and wasps, just remember that syrphid flies have huge compound eyes (which help to determine their gender—female eyes are spaced slightly apart while males’ come together at the top of their head); their bodies are sometimes flatter than bees and wasps; their antennae are usually very short; they don’t carry pollen around like most bees do; they have one pair of wings (unlike bees and wasps that have two pairs). The second pair of wings of flies has been reduced to two little knobs called halteres, which can be seen in the photo below. Halteres function like tiny gyroscopes that allow them to stay balanced by detecting and correcting changes in rotation while flying, and enable their zippy acrobatic flights.

Although the mouth parts of syrphids vary between species, allowing different species to access nectar in differently shaped flowers, their typical mouth is basically a retractable extension with a spongelike tip that can soak up either nectar or pollen. The species that have this can only feed on open flowers that have easily accessible nectar. Some species have a modified mouth that allows them to feed at elongated, tubular flowers.

The halteres can be seen at the base of the wings.

The halteres can be seen at the base of the wings.

 

Conservation
Syrphid flies have been studied very little in the U.S., but European research has shown that species diversity has fallen in areas of intensive human activity. According to the Xerces Society, in Britain, seven of the 22 flies for which Biodiversity Action Plans have been prepared are syrphid flies. Given the substantial loss of pollinators induced by habitat loss, pesticides, nonnative species and climate change, and the profusion of others in danger of extinction, there is a definite need to conserve all types of wild pollinator communities.

Providing for these flies is similar to most other pollinators: A variety of flowers from spring till fall for adults, and appropriate habitat for egg laying, larval development, and overwintering. Attract and nurture syrphid flies with a diversity of native plants that provide a lot of nectar and pollen (females need pollen to produce eggs). In the Pacific Northwest, try yarrow (Achillea millefolium var. occidentalis), stonecrop (Sedum spp.), goldenrod (Solidago canadensis), blue-eyed grass (Sisyrinchium spp.), fleabane (Erigeron spp.), white spiraea (Spiraea betulifolia var. lucida), mock orange (Philadelphus lewisii), and aster (Symphiotrichum spp.). The flowers of chamomile, dill, parsley, and other garden herbs with flat-topped flowers are also very attractive to them, as is the pollen of grasses and sedges that’s often available early in the season. Be sure to allow leaf litter and downed wood to remain on soil to help them get through the winter and to provide food for the decomposer types.

Aphid remedy|
If you have an aphid problem on some plants, remember that predatory insects that keep pests at acceptable levels need prey like aphids. Always inspect aphid colonies for syrphid fly larvae before even thinking about control, even “organic” remedies. Use only plain water to spray off aphids (that can’t climb back on), but only if necessary. Never use insecticides, to which syrphid flies and other creatures are very sensitive. Sometimes just turning your back is the best thing: One summer a large patch of native bleeding heart (Dicentra formosa) in my backyard was absolutely infested with aphids. I decided to let nature take her course—cheering on the ladybird beetles and birds who I thought might like the situation. As the leaves died back (as they do naturally when the heat of summer arrives) I forgot about the aphids. The following year there were scarcely any on the bleeding heart.

 

Syrphus opinator (female) on Spiraea betulifolia var. lucida

Syrphus opinator (female) on white spiraea (Spiraea betulifolia var. lucida)

 

Eristatis male on yarrow (Achillea millefolium var. occidentalis

Eristalis sp. on yarrow (Achillea millefolium var. occidentalis)

 

© Eileen M. Stark 2016

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Beyond Bees: The Underappreciated Pollinators

Common ringlet (Coenonympha tulle)
The majority of flowering plants evolved to take advantage of insects, and depend on them (and less commonly, other animals or wind) to fertilize their flowers, facilitate gene flow, and prevent inbreeding. Bees might be the most obvious pollinators, and on a warm summer day it seems flowers and bees were made for each other. Native bees are considered to be the most important pollinators (move over, honeybees!) and are invaluable members of natural systems. But other capable pollinators—like butterflies and moths, hummingbirds, wasps, ants, and herbivorous fruit bats—share the pollen distribution workload, and offer ecological benefits as well. Less well known are the thrips, beetles, mosquitoes (yes, you read that right), and flies that actually are quite accomplished pollinators. Distributing pollen may be a sideline for them, but they often excel because they don’t take pollen back to their nests, as most bees do.

Thrips go way back—to the Permian period, over 250 million years ago—but get a bad rap because of a few species that threaten crops. Studies show that they are strong pollinators of some plants, particularly early in the season when most other pollinators aren’t around.

The adult ornate checkered beetle (Trichodes ornatus) feeds on flowers such as wild buckwheat (Eriogonum spp.), transferring pollen from anther to stigma.

The adult ornate checkered beetle (Trichomes oranatus) feeds on flowers such as wild buckwheat (Eriogonum sp.) and helps transfer pollen from anther to stigma.

Beetles are particularly important in semi-arid parts of the world and have a highly developed sense of smell. They are expert and essential pollinators, according to the Forest Service, and also were around millions of years before bees appeared. Like many species of birds, bees, and butterflies, beetles are in danger of extinction. The International Union for Conservation of Nature lists over 70 beetle species as endangered. The main threats include habitat destruction, chemical pollutants (e.g., pesticides), displacement by introduced species, and hybridization with other species.

Although many flies (order Diptera) are recorded as flower visitors, relatively little is known about pollination by flies, compared to others like bees, birds, and bats. Many flies are strong pollinators, including syrphid flies (which deserve their very own special post) and some of the tachinid flies, which are the most diverse family of the order Diptera (true flies). As adults, they are flower visitors, feeding on nectar and/or pollen. In their larval stages, many species help to control insects that we consider pests.

Suillia spp. attracted to bear grass (Xerophyllum tenax) receives a pollen reward.

Pollination by insects is usually mutually beneficial. Here, a fly (Suillia variegata) attracted to bear grass (Xerophyllum tenax) receives a pollen reward and the flower gets fertilized.

While I’m not advocating the nurture of mosquitoes in your garden (the females do suck blood and can carry disease, after all!), it’s noteworthy that mosquitoes, like all insects, do have a role in natural systems. Their primary source of food is flower nectar (with males eating nothing but nectar) and they buzzily and incidentally carry pollen from flower to flower. Plants like goldenrod (Solidago spp.) use mosquitoes as pollinators, as do orchids of northern latitudes, grasses, and many other types of plants. And they are a source of food for birds, fish, amphibians, spiders, bats, dragonfly larvae, and other animals.

How you can help a variety of pollinators

Within our increasingly fragmented landscapes, gardens that provide pollen and nectar-rich plants, as well as nesting and overwintering sites, can create critical habitat and connections for pollinators and other creatures. No space is too small, and when in close proximity to other larger gardens, natural areas, or greenways that sustain native plant populations appropriate to the region, their value deepens.

◊ Choose natives that occur naturally in your area, or at least heirloom ornamentals (rather than newer hybrids that may not provide sufficient or appropriate nutrients that native species do). Some garden herbs like cilantro, parsley, and dill attract some pollinators.

◊ Avoid nonnative invasive species like “butterfly bush” (Buddleia davidii) that sound good, but aren’t.

◊ Provide structure and layering in the form of native trees and shrubs that provide food, cover and nesting sites for various pollinators.

Syrphid _ Eumerus sp.

Syrphid fly (Eumerus sp.) on Sedum spathulifolium, a west coast native.

◊ Plan for continuous flowering, spring through fall. Early spring nectar is particularly important for early-emerging queen bumble bees and other solitary bees, as well as flies and beetles.

◊ Choose a variety of plants that differ in the size, shape, and color of blossoms to attract a variety of pollinators. Arrange perennials in drifts or swaths of at least three of a kind, rather than singly here and there. Don’t forget that trees and shrubs produce flowers!

◊ Stay away from pesticides and other chemicals. Insecticides, herbicides, fungicides, and synthetic fertilizers are particularly harmful to sensitive pollinators. Don’t purchase plants pre-treated with neonicotinoids; if you’re unsure, ask.

◊ Don’t be too neat. Leaf litter, dead wood (tree snags or piles of branches), and other natural detritus provide essential habitat, nesting materials, and overwintering sites for pollinators or their eggs or larvae. Leave some open areas of non-compacted, bare soil for ground nesters.

◊ Grow butterfly host plants that provide food and habitat for their young. Find out which species frequent your area and grow the native plants they need

◊ Provide shallow water and some moist soil. A shallow pie plate or flowerpot saucer, filled with gravel or small rocks allows insects to drink without drowning. Butterflies and moths (Lepidoptera) need muddy or sandy puddles to obtain water and nutrients. Add a dash of salt to be sure male Lepidoptera get enough sodium prior to mating.

© Eileen M. Stark 2016

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Attract Ladybird Beetles (“Ladybugs”) to Your Northwest Garden Humanely

_MG_2279

The Western blood-red ladybird beetle (Cycloneda polita)—one of about 90 species throughout the Pacific Northwest and about 6,000 species worldwide—is tiny (4 – 5 mm), but like most others in the Coccinellidae family, is a voracious consumer of aphids, scale insects, and mites (a few species eat fungi). Revered for centuries due to their role as a pest controller, ladybird beetles at one time were even thought to have supernatural powers. The “lady” for whom they were named was the “Virgin Mary.” Once you have these native predators in your garden you’ll want to keep them, and there’s an easy way to do that.

But first, a little about these endearing little insects, the vast majority of which are beneficial: The most obvious ladybird beetles (often called “ladybugs” in North America, although they are not true bugs) evolved a brightly colored shell to exhibit what biologists call aposematic (warning) coloration, which functions to repel and warn predators that they taste awful (they produce toxic and unpalatable alkaloids). The “eyespots” on their pronotum (that covers the thorax) are a form of mimicry, possibly to further fool a predator by appearing dangerous, or by adding to the inedibility factor. Their actual face is the tiny black and white portion with brown antennae that you can see in the photo above. The Western blood-red ladybird beetle is plain and without spots, but some species have remarkable color patterns that vary greatly and make identification difficult. Other species lack dramatic coloration.

Life Cycle
Adults are commonly seen on plants in spring and summer, foraging for small invertebrate prey (often aphids), although they will eat nectar, water, or honeydew (the sugary secretion from insects like aphids and white flies) when food is scarce. They overwinter by hibernating in large clusters, often spending the winter under leaf litter, rocks, downed wood, or other debris. If they get into your house in autumn as temperatures plummet, please don’t kill them. Since they need cool temperatures and moisture during the winter (which our homes lack), gently place them back outside. In hard to reach places (like ceilings) I suggest fastening a piece of lightweight fabric (perhaps a lightweight sock or piece of nylon stocking) onto the end of a vacuum cleaner hose with a rubber band, so that an inch or two of fabric protrudes into the hose. Then, with the power turned down low (if possible), quickly suck them into the fabric, gently remove the fabric and beetles, and release them under a pile of leaves outdoors. To help prevent future interlopers, caulk cracks and crevices around doors and windows and repair any damaged siding that’s allowing them to get in.

Ladybird beetle larvae are long and flat and are usually covered with little spines, spots and stripes, and resemble tiny alligators. They are sometimes mistaken for pests, but they are completely harmless to humans. Usually found in or near aphid colonies, they feed voraciously on insects for several weeks, then pupate on leaves. Some species produce several generations per year, while others have only one. During the summer, all stages may be seen.

How to Acquire
The best way to get these hungry predators into your garden is not to purchase them, but to provide native habitat and not use insecticides. The food that they need comes from native plants that naturally attract insect herbivores. In my yard I notice Cycloneda polita (pictured) feeding on lupine (Lupinus spp.), western bleeding heart (Dicentra formosa), fleabane (Erigeron spp.), and this year for the first time, aspen trees (which are also attracting birds like bushtits and kinglets who love aphids).Western blood-red ladybird beetle

In the early 1900’s, literally tons of Asian beetles were collected and shipped to agricultural fields. Tragically, over half died during shipments and most of the rest quickly dispersed before the wretched experiment finally ended. Today, ladybird beetles are again popular, but beware the ramifications. According to Judy and Peter Haggard, authors of “Insects of the Pacific Northwest” (Timber Press, 2006), the commercial exploitation of ladybird beetles involves collecting them while they are hibernating, which can be devastating to their populations. “Those innocent-looking mesh bags … in the local garden shop actually represent a cruel and unconscionable practice: Ladybird beetles sold in retail stores are usually exposed to high temperatures, low humidity, and no food for weeks. Even if they survive until bought and released, they are often so weakened, they die soon after being released.” And the ones who do survive usually quickly disperse to areas other than your yard. Bottom line: Don’t purchase them.

To add to the destruction, beetles sold commercially are usually not native species and, as such, are a serious threat to native insect species including native lady beetles. According to the Oregon Department of Agriculture, “Even species native to North America but collected outside of Oregon should not be released because they may carry diseases and parasites not found in Oregon.”

 

© Eileen M. Stark 2016

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Fragrance in a Northwest Garden

Philadelphus lewisii

Had Carl Sandburg penned a poem about the way a captivating scent wafts through the air—prior to his famous “Fog”—he might have written that it approaches us “on little cat feet.” Like fog, scent is silent, but invisible, and adds a fresh, sensual dimension to a garden (or a walk in the woods for that matter). One of the most fragrant flowering shrubs is mock orange, and the Pacific Northwest’s native offering, Philadelphus lewisii (Western or Lewis’ mock orange), doesn’t disappoint. Plan ahead and place this medium-sized deciduous shrub where its fragrance can be noticed.

P. lewisii is named after scientist and explorer Meriwether Lewis, who collected it in 1806 during the Lewis and Clark expedition. Native Americans had numerous uses for it, including making tools, snowshoes, furniture, and even soap.

How it grows
Although there is quite a bit of individual variation within this species, the structure and growth pattern of this particular shrub goes something like this: Maturing at 5 to 10 feet tall and nearly as wide, this fairly fast grower may send out arching basal shoots as it ages. In late spring, flowering shoots appear, followed by vegetative growth. Rich green, egg-shaped leaves (roughly three inches long) grow in pairs along its stems. At the tips of branches, multiple clusters of white, four-petalled blossoms adorned with soft yellow stamens emerge in late spring or early summer, sparkling against the leafy green backdrop. Flowers measure one to two inches in diameter, and offer a lovely, fruity fragrance.

Wildlife value
Mock orange’s fragrance doesn’t just appeal to us, though—it attracts nocturnal moths and butterflies like the western tiger swallowtail. As they feed on its nectar and incidentally brush against theSyrphid fly on Philadelphus lewisii flower’s anthers, thousands of male pollen particles are released, pollinating its flowers. Other pollinators attracted to scent include bees, but also syrphid flies (aka flower flies), which particularly like white and yellow flowers. In late summer and fall, mock orange’s wildlife appeal continues as the plant’s tiny seeds are consumed by many species of birds, as well as squirrels. It also provides twiggy cover year round.

Try it at home
Mock orange is easy to grow. It tolerates both drought (after it’s established, of course) and moisture, and will do well in full to part sun or in a fair amount of shade (but not deep, dark shade). It’s also a good shrub for stabilizing soil on slopes. While it’s not fussy about soil, if your soil’s in bad shape consider incorporating and/or mulching with some organic matter (like compost) to get it off to a good start.

Philadelphus lewisii

 

Grab a partner
Though not common, western mock orange is widespread. It occurs naturally from southern B.C. to northern California and the Sierras, and east to Alberta and western Montana, at low to mid-elevations. Growing along creeks and seeps and forest edges, on hillsides, and within chaparral and pine and fir communities, it associates with species such as Douglas-fir, oceanspray, ninebark, Indian plum, baldhip rose, tall Oregon grape, and others. Try it as a member of a multi-species (unclipped) hedgerow. If pruning is necessary, do it soon after flowering, so that the next year’s blossoms aren’t affected. To stimulate flowering on older shrubs, cut back flowered growth to strong young shoots, cutting out up to 20 percent of aging stems near their base.

Other fragrant PNW plants include wallflower (Erysimum capitatum), Nootka rose (Rosa nutkana) and other native roses, Oregon grape (Mahonia spp.), serviceberry (Amelanchier alnifolia), checker mallow (Sidalcea spp.), oceanspray (Holodiscus discolor), madrone (Arbutus menziesii), and black hawthorn (Crataegus douglasii). Enjoy!

 

© 2016 Eileen M. Stark

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Gifts of the Oregon White Oak (Quercus garryana)

Quercus garryana at Ridgefield NWR


Spring still seems out of reach
, so while we’re awaiting balmier days, let’s take a moment to appreciate some of nature’s subtle, yet generous gifts. We owe everything to the natural world and even modest contact with it refreshes and offers solace. While contemplating the obvious things that nature provides—food, water, air—it’s easy to overlook the little (and not so little) things.

Plants, the primary producers on this planet, belong to irreplaceable, intricate ancient ecosystems, within which they support and depend on other species—both flora and fauna— to survive. I like to think of it as everlasting give and take. This post honors one of my favorite Pacific Northwest natives whose gifts are mammoth. Quercus garryana, commonly called Oregon white oak (or “Garry oak” by those in British Columbia and Washington), is a slow-growing, very long-lived, majestic, deciduous tree that, with time, grows beautifully gnarly.

Wildlife hotspot
Late last fall, while strolling along a trail at Jackson Bottom Wetlands Preserve (just west of Portland), I was awestruck by the amount of life attracted to the broad canopy of just a single mature Oregon white oak: Visible and audible were multiple white-breasted nuthatches, black-capped chickadees, downy woodpeckers, and red-breasted sapsuckers, all busily going about their foraging business with such enthusiasm that all I could do was look upwards, my mouth agape. The birds weren’t seeking the tree’s acorns, which sustain many other birds, as well as mammals—they were consuming a tasty assortment of insect herbivores, which oak trees are particularly adept at generating. Studies show that the genus Quercus hosts more caterpillars and other insect life than any other genus in the northern hemisphere. This proficiency is especially important during breeding season, when the vast majority of landbirds consume and feed their young highly nutritious insects or their larvae, and spiders—not seeds or fruit. Other studies show a higher diversity of bird species in oak forests than in nearby conifer forests.

Like other native foundation tree species, Oregon white oak peacefully regulates ecosystem processes like nutrient cycling and energy flow, creating benefits to wildlife (and the rest of us) that seem endless. Besides the obvious shade, beauty, and exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide that these trees offer, inconspicuous flowers—which typically bloom in late spring—provide for pollinators like native bees, while the buds of forthcoming rounded, deeply lobed leaves play host to the larvae of gray hairstreak, California sister, and propertius duskywing butterflies.

In addition, cover, perches, and nesting habitat go to birds such as woodpeckers and vireos, as well as native squirrels. Oaks’ acorns sustain squirrels and other mammals, as well as many bird species. Fallen leaves, which might provide habitat for amphibians and reptiles, slowly break down into a rich leaf mold that supports soil-dwelling invertebrates and numerous fungi that allow neighboring plants to thrive. Sugars and carbon are provided for mycorrhizae, which reciprocate with nutrients for the trees. Intact bark creates microhabitat for mosses, as well as lichens that supply food, shelter, and nesting material, while loose bark and twigs contribute to nest building as well as browse for deer, which in turn feed carnivores like cougars.

And as oaks deteriorate with advanced age (which can be 500 years), they continue to deliver. Dead trees can last many years as snags, which provide food, nesting material, and housing to cavity nesters like owls, kestrels, and chickadees, as well as bats that may roost in old holes or under loose bark.

How it grows
Elevation, climate, soil, and water persuade Oregon white oak to vary immensely in habit and size. While it thrives in cool, coastal areas and near the edges of streams and wetlands where it tolerates seasonal flooding, it also flourishes in droughty inland sites where it may grow both individually and in groves on low hills surrounded by grasslands. When it occurs on gravelly sites or rocky slopes with thin soils, it often has a shrub-like or scrubby habit. Along the blustery Columbia River Gorge, where it grows with little rainfall and atop hundreds of feet of layered basalt, harshly battered trees grow gnarled and hang on thanks to an extensive and strong root system. But within the richer, deeper, riparian soils amongst tapestries of dazzling wildflowers and grasses in the Georgia Basin-Puget Trough-Willamette Valley ecoregion of British Columbia, Washington, and Oregon, it may act as a keystone structure, typically growing a very broad canopy, and reaching heights up to 100 feet over hundreds of years. The ecoregion includes savannas (grassland with trees scattered at least 100 feet apart), upland prairies (another type of grassland), wet prairies, and shady oak woodlands with a continuous or semi-open canopy. I’ll call them, collectively, prairie-oak ecosystems.

Endangered ecosystems
To really appreciate an oak, it’s helpful to know something about its unique ecosystems that once provided some of the richest habitat in the world. The historic range of Q. garryana stretches from low elevations of southwestern British Columbia (including Vancouver Island and nearby smaller islands) into California. In Washington, it occurs mainly west of the Cascades on Puget Sound islands and in the Puget Trough, and east along the Columbia River. In Oregon, it’s indigenous to the Willamette, Rogue River, and Umpqua Valleys, and within the Klamath Mountains.  

When pioneers and naturalists encountered prairie-oak ecosystems, they found a breathtakingly beautiful and rich mosaic of plant and animal life. Journals of early Oregonians described massive prairies with five-mile-wide dense forests of ash, alder, willow, and cottonwood that skirted meandering rivers within floodplains. Marshes and sloughs developed during high water periods but often dried out by late summer. At higher elevations within these forest corridors were oak and associated trees. Above the floodplains were upland prairies, filled with herbaceous plants and grasses that could tolerate the parched soil of summer, as well as winter wet. Oak woodlands stood on low hills above the valley floors, surrounded by grasslands.

But the landscape was not untouched or pristine. Aboriginal peoples managed parts of the ecosystems following the last glacial period, frequently using prescribed burning to boost edible plant productivity, aid the hunting of wildlife, limit the growth of conifers, and facilitate travel, particularly in the northern parts of the oak’s range. Harvesting of plants such as camas (Camassia spp.) and chocolate lily (Fritillaria affinis) also caused soil disturbance, but their eco-cultural manipulations pale greatly compared to what came later.

Since Euro-American settlement, as much as 99 percent of the original prairie-oak communities that were present in parts of the Pacific Northwest have been lost and many rare species dependent on them are at risk of extinction. Extensive destruction and fragmentation began with settlement in the 1850s, with clearing, plowing, livestock grazing, wildfire suppression, and cutting of trees for firewood and manufacturing. Prairie wetlands bejeweled with wildflowers were drained and ditched. Later, subsidies to ranchers encouraged more destructive grazing, while urban sprawl and agricultural use—fueled by human population increase—intensified. Invasion of nonnative species, and the encroachment of shade tolerant and faster growing species—that proliferate with fire suppression—outcompeted oaks and decimated additional native flora and fauna. Prairie-oak ecosystems and associated systems still continue to disappear at human hands, and isolation of the tiny remaining fragments prevents the migration of wildlife and healthy genetic material from one area to another. Other detrimental factors include diseases and parasites, climate change, and the loss of wildlife that cache acorns and perform other functions.  

Conservation
Despite continual destruction, there is a renewed and growing appreciation for the diversity and beauty of these habitats, motivated by recognition that we are responsible for what’s been destroyed, an admiration for the interconnected wild species the habitat supports, and a reverence for an iconic, magnificent tree. Intervention has become intensive, and collaborations and partnerships—along with private landowners, who are key partners—are working to reverse the downward trend with preservation, restoration, and management tools, although “a major restoration challenge is restoring wet prairie habitat to a level at which it can maintain resistance to invasive species,” according to the Institute for Applied Ecology.Oregon oak restored grassland

Regeneration of oak seedlings is essential, but is often difficult. Acorns look tough, but they are viable for only about a year and may be subject to parasitism, weather extremes, and genetic isolation. Consequently, just a small percentage become trees. Two independent studies determined that oak seedlings do best when caged, but protection from other deterrents—drought, competing plants, and rodents—is important, depending on location. Regional groups include the Garry Oak Ecosystems Recovery Team, South Puget Sound Prairie Landscape Working Group, and the Cascadia Prairie-Oak Partnership.

Try it at home
While the maintenance of only fragments of a past ecosystem is a poor alternative to former richness, if you live in the ecoregion (or other impoverished oak-dominated ecosystem) and want to help, choose this native tree. Even a single isolated tree can be a critical habitat structure on the landscape. It’s the only oak native to Washington and western Canada, and the dominant one in Oregon (black oak—Quercus kelloggii—is another beautiful and valuable large tree that occurs from Lane County, Oregon, south to Baja, at low to high elevations).

An Oregon white oak tree needs a mostly sunny, well-drained site that can accommodate its eventual size (20-50 feet wide, depending on spacing). Those grown on poor, dry, rocky sites will grow quite a bit smaller and have a shrubby habit. When planting more than one, space trees 20 to 60 feet apart, using the closest spacing only in dry, rocky terrain. It may be most helpful to visit a nearby natural area and then try to mimic nature’s arrangement.

To maintain genetic integrity, always choose trees or seeds that originated from trees close to your location and from similar terrain. For best results, plant dormant saplings in late fall after rains begin. After watering, apply about three inches of an organic mulch to reduce evaporation and keep weeds (that can steal water and nutrients) down. I prefer leaf compost, spread out to the tree’s drip line and kept at least a foot from the trunk to prevent rot.

Though this species is drought tolerant, provide ample summer water, deeply and infrequently, until established. During the first summer I like to water roughly every five days with about 10 gallons of water that’s applied so that it sinks in slowly. During the second and third summers, water once a week, 10-15 gallons, being sure to water out to the root zone and beyond—root spread can be up to twice that of the crown. If severe heat and prolonged droughts appear to be stressing a young tree, provide more water. After the first few years it may do fine on its own, but do water it (deeply) if it appears to be drought stressed. Keep the area well weeded and don’t stake trees unless they are in very windy areas—they’ll grow much stronger if left unsupported. Keep in mind that soil compaction, lawns and irrigation systems around water-sensitive oaks are a major cause of their decline in residential areas. Here is more info on how to plant Oregon white oak.

Grab a partner
As with other native species, oaks will function best when grown within a habitat and community type that consists of plants that evolved together and need the same conditions. Figuring out which community occurs in your area requires a walk in a nearby natural area where species, as well as nature’s organization, can be learned. Some associate trees that might thrive with your oak include Oregon ash (Fraxinus latifolia) on moist sites, and madrone (Arbutus menziesii) and ponderosa pine (Pinus ponderosa) on drier sites. For shrubs, consider california hazelnut (Corylus cornuta var. californica), Indian plum (Oemleria Aquilegia formosacerasiformis), serviceberry (Amelanchier alnifolia), snowberry (Symphoricarpos albus), oceanspray (Holodiscus discolor), red-twig dogwood (Cornus sericea), and tall Oregon grape (Mahonia aquifolium), depending on your location. Sword ferns (Polystichum munitum), orange or pink honeysuckle (Lonicera ciliosa or L. hispidula), fescues (Festuca spp.), and many wildflowers, including allium (Allium cernuum), camas (Camassia spp.), meadow checker mallow (Sidalcea campestris), western columbine (Aquilegia formosa, pictured right), and shooting star (Dodecathon hendersonii) associate in different parts of its range.

To find out which habitat type and plant communities would likely have grown in your area, check out this Ecoregional Assessment, or query your county soil and water conservation district or native plant society chapter. The following publications may also be helpful:
~ Georgia Basin: Garry Oak Ecosystems Recovery Team
~ Willamette Valley: A Landowner’s Guide for Restoring and Managing Oregon White Oak Habitats
~ Puget Trough: Landowner guidebooks for South Puget Sound Prairies

 

© 2017 Eileen M. Stark

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Killer Windows: How to Help Stop Bird Collisions

Varied thrush


When I read a recent post
from my local wildlife rehab center announcing that they’ve been caring for four varied thrushes in their facility—all injured by window collisions—it got me thinking. This winter I’ve seen just one of these gorgeous birds in our yard. Might others have been victims of window collisions? I certainly hope not, but the rehab center reportedly takes in several hundred window victims each year, and it’s not hard to imagine that countless others die out of sight. Certain species—such as thrushes, cedar waxwings, warblers, and woodpeckers—are more likely to fly into reflective glass, and migratory species are also at high risk. Studies conclude that the more glass on a structure, the greater the chance of mortality, and windows that reflect vegetation create more risk.

Photo courtesy Cornell Lab of Ornithology

Photo courtesy Cornell Lab of Ornithology

A billion deaths a year
Contrary to popular belief, it’s not unusual for birds to collide with windows. In fact, ornithologists say that bird fatality by collision with manmade structures is second only to habitat loss that’s brought on by agriculture, industrial forestry, urban development, invasive species, and climate change. The number of deaths due to window strikes is appalling: An estimated one billion birds die each year from encounters with reflective surfaces in North America! Birds who don’t die quickly from injury may suffer slow deaths or become easy prey for predators. Many bird species, such as the elusive varied thrush, are already in steep decline, and deaths by collision only exacerbate the problem. And it’s getting worse—as urban areas grow, the quantity and size of obstacles increase and natural habitats degrade. Stopover habitat for migratory birds is getting smaller and smaller and more fragmented as humans encroach on what used to be grassland, wetland, shoreline, and the like.

Large urban buildings may be the most notorious killers, but any unobstructed, reflective window can kill and large rural structures are the most problematic: A study in Biological Conservation confirmed that rural buildings are worse than urban skyscrapers because they happen to be right where birds forage. The authors surveyed 40 college campuses across the continent and discovered that sites with abundant shrubs and trees in a 160-foot radius were the deadliest. Furthermore, since many birds travel along undeveloped migration routes, well lit towns and office parks they come across have a greater chance of distracting them. There is also speculation that there may be an innate behavioral difference among rural and city bird populations, with urban birds possibly having learned to avoid windows and other structures following a few non-fatal crashes. Rural birds would lack that training, which could make them more vulnerable. This would explain why thrushes and woodpeckers would be some of the most vulnerable species, since they adapted to forest environments.

What they see
Birds don’t see window glass and shiny or mirrored office buildings like we do. They see a reflection of trees, shrubs, and sky that appears to be a clear path, and consequently fly into it. tree reflection in windowMoreover, some fruit-eating species may get intoxicated by eating fermented berries and are more likely to hit windows while flying drunk.

Or, birds may see through clear glass (such as two corner windows perpendicular to each other, a solarium, or a bus shelter) and are deceived into flying right through as they try to get to vegetative cover that they see beyond the glass. Reportedly, this can also happen if indoor plants are situated right next to windows.

Some species (such as robins and bushtits) see their reflection during breeding season, view it as an intruder to their territory, and actually attack the glass—I’ve seen it happen. This territorial behavior can be intense, but they usually aren’t seriously injured (unlike the other situations). These territorial strikes can also happen at car windows.

How you can help
Because windows are everywhere, it’s easy to think that the problem is too overwhelming to do anything about. But any bird-friendly change you make to your property’s windows can help. Especially if your good intentions attract birds to your yard—with feeders and/or native plants—or you’ve noticed birds hitting your windows, it ought to be compulsory.

Bird strikes often follow a pattern, with the same windows repeatedly struck. If you have a lot of windows, take some time to identify which windows are problematic, paying attention to bird attractants like food, water, and cover. Look at your windows from a bird’s point of view. 

Most of the following remedies work either by blocking glass or making it visible to birds by giving them visual cues. Sheer curtains and blinds closed part way may help cut down on reflection, but they don’t fully eliminate it. Silhouettes placed on the inside of windows do not work because birds still see the reflection.

DIY suggestions:
♦  Locate all bird feeders and bird baths at least 30 feet from windows, a distance that allows birds to see that windows are part of a house. Or, keep them very close—within 2 feet—to reduce the chance of high impact collisions. If that doesn’t help, either add additional protections or remove the feeders or baths altogether.
♦  If any of your windows have a clear view through your house to another window, create an obstruction (such as curtains) that blocks what may appear to them to be a flight path.
♦  Keep taut window screens on year round if you have them, or consider adding them. Screens block reflections considerably and soften any impact. Keeping your windows dirty may also help!
♦ Make your own “zen wind curtains,” which are practical and effective and don’t look the least bit odd.
♦ Apply patterns (a few inches apart) with soap on the outside of windows—use stencils found at craft stores, or make your own. The patterns can be wiped off and redone when necessary. They are very inexpensive but may may be impractical for windows that receive rain or are hard to reach.
♦ For birds who fight with their reflection, simply hang a cloth or apply some masking tape to the area for a few days to break the bird of the habit.

Products for purchase:
♦ Decals that reflect ultra-violet wavelengths of light—which birds can see but we can’t—are applied to the outside of windows. Follow manufacturers instructions for adequate coverage (aim for 80%), generally a few inches apart. Some examples include Window Alert (pictured) and BirdTape,  which provide a stoplight for birds. In direct sunlight, decals will need to be replaced more often than in shade, so be sure to keep track of when you put them up. If you have a lot of windows to cover, BirdTape is more economical and may last longer. UV decals placed on outside of window
♦ Films like CollidEscape, that appear opaque to birds but transparent to you, are applied to the outside of windows.
♦ Feather Friendly adhesive dots are applied on the exterior of windows in a “frit” pattern.
♦ External awnings or sun shades help minimize both reflection and transparency.

Architectural solutions:
Planning on remodeling or building a new home? Are you an architect or developer? The Resource Guide for Bird-Friendly Building Design is a comprehensive publication that offers excellent info and workable solutions for reducing collisions in commercial areas as well as residential. Also check out the American Bird Conservancy’s Bird-Friendly Building Design and the City of Toronto’s Bird-Friendly Best Practices: Glass. All are well worth a read.

Other important recommendations:
At night, turn off lights in office buildings (all levels), especially during spring and fall migrations. At home, pull your shades or draw draperies, and install motion censors on outdoor lighting, rather than leaving lights on at night. All of this prevents disorientation of migratory birds traveling at night and cuts down on other negative effects of artificial light pollution.


If you find a bird on the ground near a window: Slowly and gently cover and catch the bird with a lightweight, soft cloth and carefully place it in a small box (such as a shoebox) that has air holes and is lined with a soft cloth or paper towels rolled into a doughnut shape to keep the bird upright. Handle the bird as little as possible and keep the box securely closed. Do not give food or water. Place the box in a quiet, dark, and pleasantly warm place, away from other animals and children. If the bird has an obvious injury like a cracked bill or dangling wing, transport it immediately (in the darkened box ) to a licensed wildlife rehabilitator—broken bones need attention quickly. If there are no obvious injuries, quietly check on the bird several times over one to two hours—outside and away from human activity and buildings in case the bird can fly—but don’t touch it. If the bird develops swollen eyes or becomes unresponsive during the hour, quickly transport it to a wildlife rehabilitator. If the bird seems alert and can stand on its own, place the box in a quiet spot and open it. Move away, remain still and out of sight, and wait. If s/he doesn’t fly away within 5 or 10 minutes, carefully and quietly take the bird to a wildlife rehabilitator. Remember that, other than transporting a bird to a rehabilitator, it is illegal to handle migratory birds without a license.


 

© 2015 Eileen M. Stark

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Manage Stormwater at Home for Clean Rivers and Habitat

rainwater mitigation with trees

It’s another one of those exceptionally rainy days (with more to follow) and I don’t want to do laundry or even take a bath. Why? A few days ago the city’s sewers overflowed into the river, and I’d rather not add more water to an already overtaxed system that results in raw sewage killing and polluting the habitat of wild species downstream. It’s not just the abundance of rain that’s the problem: It’s our infrastructure.

Generally, the unaltered earth is perfectly capable of soaking up or directing the moisture that nature doles out to natural waterways or floodplains (seasonal flooding is normal and natural). But our urban and suburban environments, with their ubiquitous and impermeable roads, walkways, roofs, and parking lots—as well as shortage of erosion-controlling plants—cause runoff that carries toxic pollutants like oil, fertilizers, and pesticides during heavy rains. In older parts of cities, pipes and tunnels that take away domestic and industrial waste combine with water collected from surface runoff. Under normal (not too wet) circumstances, the sewage and runoff is diverted to sewage treatment plants. But when too much storm water or snowmelt can’t soak in, it overwhelms the system, creating combined sewage overflows (CSOs) that cause raw sewage and other pollutants to spill into rivers, lakes, or coastal waters. People may be told not to have contact with the water, but wildlife suffers silently. Essentially, polluted sediments build up in waterways, increasing water temperature and turbidity and lowering oxygen levels, resulting in deaths.

In Portland, where I live, the city is investing in stormwater management projects that (sort of) mimic nature, in an attempt to mitigate stormwater at its sources. There is a plethora of work going on and CSOs are reportedly decreasing in frequency, but even one is too many.

How to help keep water clean

We can help manage and reduce stormwater pollution and overflows, starting at home. Here are some tips; some will have immediate effect, while others will take some time and effort:

Protect existing conifer trees and plant new ones (preferably those that historically grew in your area). A mature evergreen tree can intercept more than 4,000 gallons of rainwater each permeable hardscapeyear, about 80 percent more than deciduous trees. They also provide habitat, beauty, shade and cooling and help stabilize soil.

Renovate or construct new walkways, driveways, and patios with interlocking stones or other permeable paving, rather than concrete.

Disconnect your home’s downspouts when feasible and install rain gardens or swales in landscaped areas. They help prevent flooding by allowing water that falls on your roof to slowly infiltrate into the ground, lessening the burden on sewer systems when it is most important. Simply disconnecting spouts and allowing water to run down a driveway or walkway and into the street defeats the purpose. Additional rain garden guides: here and here.

swale from disconnected downspout Use only organic fertilizers when necessary (excess can be washed into waterways), and don’t use pesticides.

Grow native plants that help control erosion. Some examples (that naturally occur in many parts of the Pacific Northwest) include vine maple (Acer circinatum), madrone (Arbutus menzeisii), Oregon white oak (Quercus garryana), oceanspray (Holodiscus discolor), serviceberry (Amelanchier alnifolia), salal (Gaultheria shallon), nootka rose (Rosa nutkana), sword fern (Polystichum  munitum), kinnikinnick (Arctostaphylos uva-ursi), and inside-out flower (Vancouveria hexandra).

 Employ rain barrels to collect rainwater runoff from building roofs for irrigation during dry weather (if you can’t disconnect a downspout).

Conserve water simply by taking very short showers, never letting the faucet run unnecessarily, and fixing any leaks (just as you would during droughts!).

Collect “graywater” and use it onsite to reduce sewage discharges year round. Beware: this takes some ingenuity and planning!

 Never dispose of chemicals (like anti-freeze) by pouring it on the ground or into storm drains. Even drops of oil that seem relatively contained in your driveway can easily be swept into local waterways by rain. If you get an automotive oil leak, catch the oil in a pan and get it fixed ASAP.

© 2015 Eileen M. Stark

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What Makes Leaves Change Color?

Populus tremuloides (quaking aspen)

I’ve written quite a bit about the importance of leaf “litter” on the ground, so here’s a little info on how it gets there and what conditions make for the most vibrant leaves. While it’s understandable to think that it is the cooler temperatures of the fall season that bring about color change, there are several other factors. Besides temperature, sunlight and soil moisture influence the quality of autumn leaf color. But the process that instigates the show is actually more of a chemical process brought on by less daylight.

Darkness rules

Most plants are quite sensitive to each day’s length of darkness. In early fall, when nights begin to lengthen, the cells near the joint of the leaf and stem in deciduous trees and shrubs are triggered to divide quickly. This corky layer of cells (the abscission zone) begin to block transport of essentials such as carbohydrates from the leaf to the branch, as well as the flow of minerals from roots upward to leaves.

When plants are actively growing, green chlorophyll is constantly produced in the leaves. But in autumn, when the connection between the leaf and the rest of the plant gets more and more obstructed, chlorophyll replacement slows and then stops completely. This is when autumn colors are revealed: Normally masked by chlorophyll, yellow pigments called xanthophylls and orange pigments known as carotenoids become visible when chlorophyll shuts down. Red and purple pigments come from anthocyanins which are created (in some species) from sugars within the leaf and it’s speculated that they are a defense mechanism that helps some plants fight herbivores like aphids.

Spiraea betulifolia var. lucidaAs fall moves forward, the cells in the abscission layer become drier and weaker and leaves eventually part company with the plant. Many trees and shrubs lose their leaves when they are still colorful (making for some gorgeous mulch), while some retain the majority of their foliage through much of winter, though their leaves lose color fairly quickly. Like chlorophyll, the other pigments eventually break down in light or when frozen. The final pigments are tannins, which look brown.

Recipe for color

Low temps (but above freezing) and ample sunlight following formation of the abscission layer cause quick destruction of chlorophyll and promote the formation of bright colors in some species. Stress from drought during the growing season can sometimes trigger early formation of the abscission layer, resulting in leaf drop before they have a chance to develop fall coloration, so a growing season with ample moisture that is followed by somewhat dry, warm, sunny, calm fall days with cool, frost-free nights provides the best recipe for bright fall colors.

Plant natives!

Besides offering the most ecological benefits, some native species grown in their native ground offer wonderful fall color that rivals that of nonnative plants. Here in the Pacific Northwest, some of the most vibrantly colored leaves occur on natives such as paper birch, black hawthorn, Oregon ash, quaking aspen, golden currant, vine maple, serviceberry, and red-twig dogwood. Enjoy!

 

© 2015 Eileen M. Stark

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Best Early Spring-Flowering Shrubs for Pacific Northwest Pollinators

Ribes sanguineum

Plan ahead for hungry native pollinators who need early-flowering plants like red-flowering currant to survive.

 

April showers may bring May flowers, but what about providing forage for hungry pollinators that need food earlier in the year? To provide large amounts of nectar and pollen in late winter and early spring for emerging bees as well as hummingbirds and other pollinators, to help you endure the gray winter skies, and to get the most bang from your buck, add early-flowering native shrubs to your garden. Get new shrubs in the ground soon—so the plants benefit from winter rains, and to ensure that you have the early part of a continuous succession of flowers covered.

Here are five early-flowering shrubs, listed in order of size from largest to smallest, that naturally occur in large areas of the Pacific Northwest region west of the Cascades. They grow in sun to partial shade, are fairly easy to find at native plant nurseries (as well as nurseries that don’t focus on natives), and are quite easy to grow, provided they are kept adequately moist until they are established (2 to 5 years). All would do well planted in unpruned hedgerows. When choosing any shrub, note its eventual width to be sure you have enough space for it to stretch its limbs and attain its natural form at maturity—and to eliminate future hack jobs by a pruner.

Salix scoulerianaScouler willow (Salix scouleriana): A fast-growing deciduous shrub or small tree. Flowers are soft catkins, larger than horticultural “pussy willows,” and appear in early to mid-spring. Male and female flowers are on different plants, so grow both for seeds. Scouler willow is a larval host plant for several butterfly species. Does not tolerate full shade. Prefers moist soil. 20-30 feet tall by 10-15 feet wide at maturity. 

 

Oemleria cerasiformis

 

Indian plum (Oemleria cerasiformis): A large, arching deciduous shrub or small tree that blooms prolifically in late winter as leaves emerge. Tolerates clay soil well, but does best with some shade (nature places it in the dappled shade of tall trees). Plants are either male or female, so plant several to produce the fruit that birds need. 12-18 feet by 10-14 feet at maturity.

Amelanchier alnifolia

 

 

Serviceberry (Amelanchier alnifolia): A versatile, multibranched shrub with lovely white, fragrant flowers in mid to late spring. Bluish-green leaves turn gold to reddish in autumn. Larval host plant for several butterfly species. Needs well-drained soil with adequate organic matter. Tolerates full sun in cool areas. Doesn’t like competition, so plant other shrubs and perennials at least several feet away. 8-18 feet tall by 6-10 feet wide at maturity.


Red-flowering currant (Ribes sanguineum)
: An upright, deciduous shrub with nearly year-round appeal. Gorgeous, pendulous flower clusters (pictured, top) that bloom in early spring are followed by powder-blue berries. Leaves turn golden in late autumn. Larval host plant for butterfly larvae. Controls erosion. Can’t handle excessively wet soils, so be sure soil drains well and plant it away from rain gardens and other drainage areas.  7-10 feet tall by 6-8 feet wide at maturity.


Mahonia aquifolium
Tall Oregon grape (Mahonia aquifolium)
: A handsome, multitalented evergreen shrub with an upright growth habit. Bursts into flower brilliantly in early to mid-spring, for a long period. Tolerates acidic soils. Has somewhat prickly evergreen leaves, so site it where it won’t be brushed against frequently. 5-9 feet tall by 3-6 feet wide.

 

The earliest winter bloomer is the handsome beaked hazelnut (Corylus cornuta var. californica), a beautifully textured, large multistemmed woodland shrub or small tree that grows to 10-20 feet tall by 10-20 feet wide. It is pollinated by wind, not animals.

After planting
Add a few inches of organic matter as mulch around the shrub (but keep away from trunk) to insulate, keep weeds down, and add nutrients. Fallen leaves work well, as does weed-free compost. If you use wood chips, make sure they aren’t finely ground and/or fresh—undercomposted chips and bark can deplete soil of nitrogen during breakdown. Later on, simply allow fallen leaves to remain on soil to provide habitat and nutrients.

All of these shrubs are drought tolerant when established (although Scouler willow does best with supplemental summer water), but all will appreciate some irrigation in very hot situations. They should need little to no pruning if they’ve been sited to allow room for their growth.

If you already grow any of these shrubs, I’d love to hear what wild species you’ve seen attracted to them. Or how much they brighten your garden on drab winter days?


© 2015 Eileen M. Stark

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Five Ways Autumn Leaves Benefit Your Garden

 

leaves

 

Leaves offer great benefits to wildlife and your garden’s soil. Don’t throw them away!

In another post I extol the virtues of letting leaves do their thing. By that I mean allowing them to do what nature intended: Protect and enrich the soil, offer food for ground-feeding birds, provide a nursery for butterfly larvae/pupae and cover for overwintering queen bumblebees and other beneficial insects and microbes, afford animals like frogs and salamanders places to hunt and Varied thrush foraginghide, and myriad other ingenious things. Leaf litter breaks down with the help of mycorrhizal fungi that move carbon into soil, extract nutrients for plants and protect them from disease, lessen soil erosion, and play a very important role in storing the gigantic pool of carbon within soil.

I’m not sure how leaves got such a bad reputation—I constantly see and hear people blowing them and raking them not only from hardscape and lawn (which is understandable), but also from bare soil. I’m not sure what the aversion is, unless it’s another kind of “biophobia,” in this case a fear of organic materials. Another no-no is putting leaves in the trash, which ends up in landfills. The US EPA says that nationwide, 13 percent, or 33 million tons of municipal solid waste is from leaves and grass and tree/shrub trimmings. Here in Portland, as well as some other cities, there is curbside pickup for green waste for those who don’t compost, and the city picks up leaves from the streets of leafy neighborhoods every autumn to make leaf compost that residents can purchase for a modest fee. But using them in your yard is even better!

How to do it: For areas like driveways, walks, sewer grates and drainage pathways, rake them up (but please don’t use noisy, polluting leaf blowers), and use them as follows:

Mulch your beds.Take raked leaves from hardscape and lawn and place them in your planted beds, a couple of inches thick to protect the soil and provide insulation from the cold (if you live in a very cold climate, add more). Keep them off of tree and shrub trunks and perennial crowns to prevent rot. Try to do your raking on a non-windy day and consider moistening them after you apply them if it’s a dry day. Don’t shred leaves before applying—it won’t help the wildlife described above.

If you must have lawn, leave small amounts of leaves on it and mulch them in situ. Use your mower to shred leaves on grass to improve lawn health by naturally fertilizing the soil. Freshly fallen leaves are high in minerals, and don’t kill soil organisms like synthetic fertilizers do.

Make leaf compost. Collect leaves to compost separately to make leaf compost (also known as leaf mold), a great soil conditioner. If you have a lot of space, simply round them up into piles and let nature break them down with fungus and microscopic creatures. Shredding large leaves will speed up the process. If space is lacking or you want more control, create round chicken wire enclosures and fill them with leaves. You can also dig large depressions and fill them with Homemade compostleaves. Keep piles moist (but not completely saturated) and add more leaves as they sink down. During excessively rainy periods, consider covering the pile. In a year or more (depending on the type of leaves used), after the leaves have broken down, you will have some very dark, crumbly humus to add to your veggie beds and other places that need high quality soil.

Add leaves to your mixed compost bins, heaps, or cages. In your mixed compost bin, add collected leaves—which are mostly carbon—to help balance the “greens” (compost should be roughly half “greens” and half “browns”). Consider storing extra leaves and adding them to your compost bin throughout future months.

Save some for spring. If you have a large amount of leaves, put some aside—or just take some from your leaf compost heap—to use as mulch next year. Mulch applied in spring, after the soil warms, helps maintain soil moisture and protects the soil from oxidation. Be sure to leave some soil bare though, because the majority of native bees nest in the ground and cannot get through thick layers of mulch.

One word of caution: Leaf compost generally makes the soil slightly more acidic. This won’t be a problem for most Pacific Northwest native species, which evolved in slightly acidic soil. But when using leaf compost in vegetable beds, test your soil’s pH—it may need a bit of lime to keep the soil neutral or slightly alkaline, which many cultivated vegetable plants need.

© 2015 Eileen M. Stark

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New Study: Non-native Plants Reduce Insect Diversity

Acer circinatum (vine maple)

Natives like vine maple (Acer circinatum), trump nonnatives for restoring biodiversity


As if we need further proof
, a new study published recently in Ecology Letters demonstrates that native plants are much better at supporting local insects than nonnative species, and that nonnative plants are exacerbating biodiversity loss with their inability to support many insect herbivores.

The authors, Douglas Tallamy (Bringing Nature Home) and Karin Burghhardt, planted test gardens with both native and nonnative tree species and collected data over a three-year period. They measured the insect herbivore species and communities that were using the plants, and compared native trees to nonnative trees of two types: Those with close native relatives in the region and those that had no close native relatives.

They found that nonnative trees with a native relative (in the PNW, think nonnative scarlet oak, which is related to the native Garry oak) host and support fewer species of insects than the native counterpart, and that few of them were unique to that species of tree. The result was even more striking with nonnative trees that had no native relative in the region (such as golden chain tree, a European species).

The study also found that young insects, which are most supportive of an ecosystem, were found on the native trees. Adult insects, on the other hand, may be found on plants, but for various reasons—to rest, to warm themselves, breed, etc.

Essentially, when the diversity of insect herbivores—which are the basis of the food web—plummet, so too do all the species that rely on them for food. If you’re not particularly fond of insects, think of them as baby food: In spring and early summer, when insect eggs are hatching and larvae are feeding, most birds are wholly dependent on insects to feed to their young, as well as to keep their own strength up. And most other wild species rely on insect herbivores in one way or another.

So, this is more evidence that natives are the answer for restoring biodiversity, while most nonnatives are problematic. When selecting plant material—even in an urban area—choose plants that help the environment and its community members. Go for the native oaks, pines, maples, willows, etc., with their plethora of insects. There’s almost always a native option!

 

© 2015 Eileen M. Stark

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Northwest Native Pollinator Plants for Late Summer to Fall

Late season pollinator plants

Scientists know that bees are dying for a variety of reasons—pesticides, habitat destruction, drought, climate change, nutrition deficit, air pollution, and so on, which makes us the obvious perpetrator. We can help give back to them (and other pollinators) by growing flowering native plants in our gardens (as well as noninvasive exotics that step in when a native plant isn’t available or feasible), with consecutive blooms from early spring till fall. To provide for many different types of pollinators—from long and short-tongued bumblebees to syrphid flies, hummingbirds, and beetles—offer a variety of flower shapes, colors, and sizes, with smaller plants in groups of at least three of the same species (like a big, obvious “Eat Here” sign). Fragrance is also important for attracting insects to flowers and guiding them to food within the flower, and aiding an insect’s ability to efficiently learn particular food sources.

Below are some native perennials and one shrub that offer food for pollinators from mid or late summer to fall in the Pacific Northwest, west of the Cascades. There are more candidates, but I chose these species because they naturally occur in fairly large parts of the region, are generally easy to grow, and are not too hard to find at nurseries (although you will likely have to call around for availability). I’ve listed them alphabetically with some very basic care guidelines. It’s best to plant them in the fall, just before or as the rain returns.

As always, plan ahead and choose species that fit your light, moisture, and soil conditions, but also choose those that are appropriate to the natural landscape—that is, look to nearby natural areas, and add flora that would likely have grown in your area historically, if possible. You can also check a species’ natural range (to county level) here, or check with your local native plant society chapter or county soil and water conservation district. No fertilizer is necessary and please don’t use any pesticides. Keep them adequately hydrated—by watering deeply and infrequently to promote deep roots—until they’re established (2 to 5 years). Enjoy!

Achillea millefolium var. occidentalis (Yarrow): Perennial. 1-3 feet tall x 1-3 feet wide. Sun to part sun. Not fussy about soil; moist or dry. Spreads by rhizomes or seed. Flat-topped clusters of white, fragrant flowers (pictured below) bloom through late summer. (Not to be confused with the Eurasian Achillea millefolium var. millefolium). Achillea millefolium var. occidentalis

Anaphalis margaritacea (Pearly everlasting): Perennial. 1-3 feet tall x 1-2 feet wide. Sun to part shade. Likes moist soil with good drainage, but can tolerate drought once established. Pure white flowers are often used in dried flower arrangements. Besides providing nectar, it is a host plant for painted lady and skipper butterflies.

Baccharis pilularis (Coyotebush): Evergreen or semi-evergreen shrub. 5-8 feet tall x 6-8 feet wide. Sun to part shade. Tolerates poor soils (but needs good drainage) and is drought tolerant. Flowers aren’t showy and are borne on separate male and female plants (male flowers creamy white; female pale green). Excellent wildlife habitat plant but is deer resistant.

048_Campanula rotundiflora sRGBCampanula rotundifolia (common harebell): Perennial. 1-2 feet tall x 1-2 feet wide. Sun to part shade. Moist to dry, well-drained soil, preferably with a good amount of organic matter. Spreads slowly by rhizomes or seed. Bell-shaped, bluish violet flowers typically bloom through late summer. (pictured left)

Gaillardia aristata (blanketflower): Perennial (short-lived). 1-3 feet tall x 1-3 feet wide. Sun to light shade. Tolerates a variety of well-drained soils; drought tolerant when established. Spreads by seed. Colorful yellow and reddish orange flowers bloom well into fall, especially when dead-headed. Deer resistant.

Solidago canadensis (Goldenrod): Perennial. 2-4 feet tall x 2-3 feet wide. Sun to part shade. Solidago canadensisTolerates wide range of soils; prefers moisture but tolerates drought when established. Spreads by rhizomes or seed. Bright gold, fragrant inflorescences typically bloom well into fall. (pictured right)

Symphyotrichum subspicatum (Douglas aster): Perennial. 2-3 feet tall x 2-3 feet wide. Sun to part shade. Does best in moist soil that is rich in organic matter. Spreads slowly by rhizomes. Lavender-blue daisylike flowers bloom until mid fall. (pictured below)

 

 

Douglas aster

 

© 2015 Eileen M. Stark

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Damselflies: Live Fast and Die Young

northern bluet

This bright and handsome damselfly, resting on a stem of a columbine plant in my garden, is a male Northern bluet (Enallagma annexum), one of 462 species of damselflies and dragonflies found in North America. They make up the two main subdivisions of a very distinctive group of insects known as Odonata (Greek for tooth), which refers to their powerful and sharply toothed jaws, adapted for biting and chewing their prey.

Damselflies can be distinguished from dragonflies by their smaller size and their position when at rest: Damselflies typically hold their bodies horizontally, with their tear drop-shaped wings neatly and elegantly folded together over their abdomen, while dragonflies generally hold their wings flatly, outstretched and perpendicular to their body.

I’ve wondered about the common names. Since “damsel” conjures up an image of a fair maiden—most likely in distress—I imagine that the damselfly was so named because it is more delicate looking than a dragonfly and isn’t as tough and strong a flyer. Plus, proverbial dragons kept damsels in their caves, didn’t they? But now we need to ask, why are dragonflies called what they are? According to a 1958 book by Eden Emanuel entitled Folklore of the Dragonfly, it’s theorized that the common name emerged due to an ancient Romanian folktale, in which the devil turned a beautiful horse ridden by a saint into a giant flying insect. The Romanians supposedly called this giant insect (when translated into English) “St. George’s Horse” or “Devil’s Horse.” Peasants probably considered the Devil’s Horse a giant fly, and it’s surmised that they started referring to it as “Devil’s Fly.” Emanuel concluded that the Romanian name for Devil’s Fly was erroneously translated into English as Dragon Fly and this then evolved into the present-day “dragonfly.”

Gradual Metamorphosis

The female Northern bluet is generally greenish-yellow or tan, with a black abdomen. She lays her eggs in submerged vegetation; upon hatching—typically late spring to early fall—the young nymphs (or naiads) are small and wingless, but fully functional, so they don’t go through larval or pupal stages like most other insects do. Nymphs spend their time (often years) underwater in bogs, lakes, ponds, or rivers, where they molt (shed their skin) about a dozen times while growing. Fierce predators of aquatic organisms, they hide in submerged vegetation and attack the larvae of smaller insects such as mosquitoes and mayflies. When they are about an inch long, they crawl out of the water onto rocks or grasses and such. After a brief sunbath, their skin splits down the back and they struggle to pull themselves out of their shabby old skin one last time. Voila! Metamorphosis complete, they are now all grown up and it’s time to inflate their new wings and abdomen and harden fresh legs, all of which likely takes a lot of energy. Adults generally live less than two weeks, breeding and feeding—just enough time to live fast and die young.

Like dragonflies, damselflies’ large, bulging eyes have thousands of honeycomb-shaped lenses that give them an ability to see in all directions and make them formidable predators of other insects. Adults are swift aerial hunters, typically preying on mosquitoes, small moths, and various flies. Fascinating research shows that Odonata don’t dive and turn in reaction to their prey’s movements—instead, they are able to predict those movements before they happen. But what goes around comes around: Both damselfly nymphs and adults are consumed by birds, frogs, fish, and, yes, dragonflies.  Northern bluet

Conservation

Dragonflies and damselflies go way back, predating dinosaurs by at least 75 million years. Fossils of ancient ancestors dating roughly 300 million years ago were gigantic—the largest insects ever to live—with wingspans of about 30 inches! Northern bluets are somewhat common damselflies, often found near freshwater—streams, rivers, and other watery places (even human-made ponds)—but their dependence on it makes them very vulnerable.

All damselflies and dragonflies are good indicators of the diversity and health of aquatic ecosystems, their presence suggesting that a body of water is fairly unpolluted. Destruction or alteration of wetland habitats, pollution, and pesticides are the greatest threats to Odonata species worldwide. Without clean water they cannot breed, and without insect life they cannot eat. Needless to say, alteration of their habitat through climate change will likely pose a severe threat to future populations.

On pleasant, sunny days I often notice dragonflies and damselflies patrolling my organic, “real” garden. Should these brainy little hunters find their way into yours, consider yourself very fortunate!

 

© 2015 Eileen M. Stark

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Drought’s No Fun for Wildlife, Either

Bushtits at gradually sloping birdbath

Here in the Pacific Northwest (as well as the interior Northwest, northern Rockies and northern California) we’re experiencing a hot and early summer. Nearly everything’s been premature—most trees leafed out several weeks before they typically do and herbaceous plants popped up ahead of time; those that flower were more than punctual. My raspberries and thimbleberries were three weeks early, and I’m picking apples now that usually ripen several weeks from now. Portland set a record for a dry June and will likely break another this week for the highest number of consecutive days over 90˚.

The winter was pleasantly mild and precipitation was paltry: Snowpack in Oregon was 11% of normal and Washington’s was 16%. If the current drought and dry heat makes us thirsty, we’re not alone. Nearly all of life’s processes require water in one form or another—it’s essential for everything from small insects to birds to bobcats. Of course, areas further south are much more drought stricken, with wildlife emaciated and dehydrated. Some say it will only worsen, due to climate change.IMG_6764

Drought causes many deadly, far-reaching effects for wildlife, including less food and cover, increased vulnerability to predators and diseases, competition with others of their kind, and more conflicts with people as they desperately search for food and water outside their normal range. Although some animals obtain moisture from their prey, they still depend on water in the environment to provide for those they need to eat. Tiny creatures may find enough in dew droplets, but many species require additional water to survive. Birds, for example, need water to drink of course, but also to bathe in to help keep their feathers clean and waterproof—essential for insulation and flight.

Dehydration is dangerous for everyone. If you want to help wild visitors in your yard, below are some quick, easy options. Artificial ponds can be a wonderful addition to larger gardens, but they aren’t quick and easy, so they’re not included here.

Scrub jay takes a drinkBirdbaths: Birdbaths that slope gradually are best because all sizes of visitors can wade in to a safe and comfortable depth. If you already have one that has steep sides, place some flat rocks on one side to create a shallow area. Site birdbaths in open areas, at least 10 feet from any hiding places were domesticated predators could lurk. Use hanging birdbaths whenever possible if predation is a problem in your yard. And keep them as clean as possible: Replace the water every day or two (this will also keep mosquitoes from breeding) and give them a good scrubbing every few weeks, but don’t use bleach.

Mud puddles: Most butterflies and moths (Lepidoptera), as well as some types of insects and birds, require moist soil or sand to obtain essential nutrients. Lepidoptera, for example, “sip” earthy cocktails that contain minerals such as salts which are essential for reproduction. Just the other day I saw a Western tiger swallowtail pressing his proboscis into the recently irrigated soil in a community garden plot. Male Lepidoptera give their significant others an extra little gift of minerals while mating which ensures that the largest number of eggs develop. In nature, this “mud puddling,” as it is called, is done at the edges of streams and other moist places. You can mimic this habitat by filling a large ceramic bowl with sand and burying it part way in your garden. Mix in some salt for males and place some round rocks (for landing and basking) around the edges. And don’t be too quick to pick up moist fallen fruit (like figs, should you have them)—some Lepidoptera species can’t resist such fermenting treats. More on feeding butterflies in a future post!

Moist gravel for bugsPlates of moist gravel: Beneficial insects and other small arthropods will sometimes come to shallow birdbaths, but ground dwellers—like beetles—will appreciate a plate or pie pan filled with clean pebbles or gravel and water, and placed on the ground. Just be sure the water doesn’t rise above the gravel so that no one drowns.

It looks like we may be in for a very hot summer throughout most of the Northwest. Providing water in your garden will attract wild visitors and maybe even save lives.

 

© 2015 Eileen M. Stark

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10 Great Northwest Native Pollinator Plants for Summer

Bombus vosnesenskii

In honor of National Pollinator Week, let’s zoom in on the bees and other hard-working pollinators whose lives are dictated by weather, season, and the availability of food, nesting habitat, and overwintering sites.

Nature has provided pollinators with unique ways of gathering nutritious pollen and nectar for their young, and they’re enthralling to watch. But bees and other pollinators are in terrible trouble worldwide due to our presence and actions. We can give back to them by growing flowering native plants in our gardens (as well as noninvasive exotics that are especially attractive to bees, like lavender and sunflower) with consecutive blooms from early spring till fall. But don’t forget to provide for them during all their life stages—leave the leaves, dead wood, and spent flowers to make sure they can get through the winter and have habitat to raise their young!

If you’ve already included some native plants in your yard, you’re well on your way to providing for a wide variety of wildlife. Offering a variety of flower shapes, colors, and sizes, with smaller plants in groups of at least three of the same species (like a big, obvious “Eat” sign) will help provide for many different types of pollinators—from long and short-tongued bumblebees to syrphid flies to hummingbirds to beetles to thrips. Below are some Pacific Northwest native perennials and shrubs that offer food for pollinators from early to mid or late summer in the Pacific Northwest, west of the Cascades.

The list is just a sampling, and the species were chosen because they naturally occur in large parts of the region, are generally easy to grow, aren’t too hard to find at native plant nurseries (although you may need to call around for availability), and attract their fair share of native pollinators. I’ve listed them alphabetically with some basic care guidelines. Fall planting is best, as winter rains begin. (If you’re reading this in springtime, don’t worry—you can plant now, but you’ll definitely need to keep an eye on their water needs during the first summer, at the very least.)

As always, plan ahead and choose plants that fit your light, moisture, and soil conditions, but also choose those that are appropriate to the natural landscape—that is, look to nearby natural areas and add flora that likely would have grown in your area historically. You can also search for a species’ natural range (to county level) here, or check with your local native plant society chapter or county soil & water conservation district. Growing them with associated species that evolved alongside them in nature will help them thrive. No fertilizer is necessary and please don’t use pesticides, but do keep them adequately hydrated until they’re established (2 to 5 years). Enjoy!

◊ Achillea millefollium var.  occidentals (yarrow): Perennial. 1-3 feet tall x 1-3 feet wide. Sun to part sun. Not fussy about soil; moist or dry. Spreads by rhizomes or seed. Flat-topped clusters of white, fragrant flowers bloom all summer. (not to be confused with the Eurasian Achillea millefolium var. millefolium).

Asclepias speciosa or A. fascicularis (milkweed): Perennial. 2-3 feet tall x 2-3 feet wide. Sun to part shade. Moist, well-drained soil, but can handle some drought when established. Rounded clusters of soft pink, fragrant flowers. (pictured, right)Asclepias fascicularis

Campanula rotundifolia (common harebell): Perennial. 1-2 feet tall x 1-2 feet wide. Sun to part sun. Well-drained, moist to dryish soil. Spreads slowly by rhizomes or seed. Bell shaped blue-violet flowers.

Ceanothus velutinus (snowbrush): Fast growing evergreen shrub. 6-12 feet tall x 6-12 feet wide. Sun to part shade (intolerant of full shade). Rich or poor soil; very drought tolerant. Dense pyramidal clusters of tiny, fragrant white flowers.

Erigeron speciosus (showy fleabane): Perennial.    2 feet tall x 2 feet wide. Sun to part shade. Well-drained, moist to dry soil. Abundant daisy-like, bluish lavender blossoms go all summer. (pictured below)

Erigeron speciosus

Holodiscus discolor (oceanspray): Fast growing deciduous shrub. 8-16 feet tall x 8-12 feet wide. Sun to part shade (intolerant of full shade). Not fussy about soil; moist or dry. Drought tolerant when established. Lavish, feathery plumes of creamy-white flowers. Nice for hedgerows.  Controls erosion.

Lupinus polyphyllus (large-leaved lupine): Perennial. 2-4 feet tall x 2-4 feet wide. Sun to part shade (intolerant of full shade). Moist soil preferred but will tolerate short dry periods. Tall spikes of bluish-purple, pea-like flowers. (pictured, right) Lupinus polyphyllus

Sedum spathulifolium or S. oreganum (stonecrop): Perennial. 1-4 inches tall; spreads slowly. Sun to part sun (afternoon shade is welcome). Well-draining, gritty, lean soil. Bright yellow star-shaped flowers. Nice for rock gardens. Not a ground cover for foot traffic. (pictured below)

Symphoricarpos albus (snowberry): Deciduous shrub. 4-6 feet tall x 4-6 feet wide. Sun to mostly shade. Moist or dry soils; tolerates heavy soils. Drought tolerant when established. Tiny, paired, pink, bell-shaped flowers. Eventually forms a thicket. Controls erosion.

Tiaralla trifoliata (foam flower): Perennial. 8-14 inches tall x 1-14 inches wide. Shade to part shade. Spreads very slowly by rhizomes or seed. Moist, well-draining soil rich in organic matter. Panicles of white to pale pink flowers bloom from late spring to late summer. More details here.

Sedum spathulifolium with syrphid fly

 

Copyright 2015 Eileen M. Stark

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Anna’s Hummingbird Babies: From Eggs to Empty Nest

Anna's hummingbird babies, around Day 19

As I wrote last month, we were extremely fortunate to have a little Anna’s hummingbird build her nest—barely the size of a tiny espresso cup—in a rhododendron shrub in our front yard, just steps from a window. In February, binoculars and camera in hand, we watched and photographed as she finished the intricately woven and structurally sound nest, carefully and lovingly camouflaged with lichen. On February 20 it appeared that her beautiful nest was complete and incubation of her tic-tac sized eggs—which reportedly lasts 14 to 19 days—had begun.

About 18 days later, I saw her perched on the edge of her nest, apparently regurgitating a mixture of nectar from nearby native currant flowers and partially digested insects or spiders (high in protein) into her babies. I couldn’t actually see them at that point since the nest was about eight feet off the ground and they were so small. At this early stage she would feed both nestlings (hummingbirds almost always have two), fly off, and come back with more food within 60 seconds. After she and the nestlings had been fed adequately, she’d return and stay on the nest awhile since they were nearly naked and in dire need of warmth.

Later that week we saw her offspring for the first time, with their dinosauric heads and just the start of future feathers. Even at this age, still completely helpless and blind, their instincts are strong—they are able to keep the nest clean by wriggling their little bottoms toward the edge of the nest and squirting their poop outside of it.

Anna's hummingbird babies, around Day 7

Anna's hummingbird and one of her babies, around Day 7

 

Later, about ten days after hatching and when the nestlings’ barbs began to look like feathers, Mom no longer stayed on the nest—during the day, anyway—most likely because her babies were rapidly filling up the tiny nest and she was not too keen on having her underside poked by pointy bills!

Ann's hummingbird and her babies, around Day 12

Anna's hummingbird babies, around Day 13

 

We continued to watch her feed them, first pumping food up into her throat, then aiming her long bill into their gaping orange mouths and straight down their throats. She resembled a sewing machine needle as she repetitively pushed food into them, never spilling a drop. Ouch!

Anna's hummingbird feeding her babies, around Day 18

 

References state that Anna’s hummingbirds fledge within 18 to 23 days after hatching. On the morning of what I believe was Day 23, I watched as one of them sat on the edge of the nest and flapped his/her wings with such gusto that I thought the time had come. A rainstorm came and went, but they remained in the nest, sitting with their bills pointed directly upwards, nearly vertical; occasionally they’d shake off raindrops but maintained their pose. Brave and undaunted, they also endured fairly heavy wind and a short but pounding hail storm.

Anna's hummingbird babies, around Day 22

 

On what was probably Day 24 I saw one of them, for the first time, venture out of the nest and onto the branch right next to the nest. Surely they are leaving now, I thought!

Anna's hummingbirds babies, around Day 23

 

They left the nest on Day 25. I could be wrong about the day they hatched, or perhaps they loved Mom’s meals and enjoyed watching the world go by from their safe little nest so much that they stayed an extra day. Or the experts are wrong. When they left I was, disappointingly, in the shower at the time. Just before they left I noticed them preening their breast feathers meticulously, perhaps to make themselves more aerodynamic—notice the fluffy white down feathers in this photo, the last I took of them.

Anna's hummingbird babies, around Day 23

 

Experts say that Mom feeds them for several days post fledging, so they are on their own by now. I still look for them in the garden and high in the trees, but it’s hard to say who’s who—fledglings are smaller than adults and have no red on their throats, but they may almost resemble adults by now. Reportedly, the siblings often stay together until autumn, and then they separate for good (they are not social birds). Have a good life, sweet babies!

Anna's hummingbird babies, around Day 20

UPDATE: March 29, 2017
It’s been two years since I wrote the above post. This year a mama Anna has again built a nest in the same shrub, although the nest is harder to see as it’s a little higher up and has more leaves partially blocking our view. I’ve watched the nest as best I can, and judging by what looked like pumping (feeding) movements, I believe at least one of her babies hatched on March 6. Photographing them has been very difficult due to the nest position, and the plague of unusually cold, wet weather. In the early part of March I watched her as she searched for insects everywhere in the yard and she spent more time away from her nestlings than the mom two years ago did. This made me wonder if she might be having trouble finding protein (in the form of little insects and spiders), which are essential for the babies’ development, as well as her health. Sugar water or flower nectar alone is completely inadequate.

After about 10 days had passed, I could just barely make out a beak in the nest reaching skyward toward Mama, who was ready with food. I never saw more than one mouth at a time, which I thought to be a little odd, and wondered if both eggs had hatched. At Day 12 my husband, Rick, managed to get some photos of Anna feeding them, and there is evidence of two mouths, although one is in poor focus and looks like it may not be fully open, even though Mama looked ready to deliver. I was relieved to know that there were two hatchlings, but I continued to see her feeding only one at a time; this worried me because two years ago both of her young were highly visible during each feeding (as the photos above show).

A week later, on March 25, Rick was again photographing the nest and grew concerned when he repeatedly saw her feeding only one baby. He put his cell phone on a stick and held it horizontally above the nest while Mom was away and managed to get a short video of the nest. I’m very sad to report that there was only one baby present; the other must have died from lack of protein due to the shortage of insects during the non-stop cold weather. I do not know if the mother, sensing that one was weak and knowing she couldn’t feed them both adequately, chose to stop feeding the weak one so that one would survive, or if the baby was too weak to gape and receive food and eventually died. It’s also slightly possible that the baby was stunted from the beginning (possibly due to too small a yolk). It’s impossible to say for sure, but regardless, it was heartbreaking for this animal lover to realize that someone starved to death right outside her house. I do accept that nature can be harsh—especially during the winter—and I’m glad that the baby didn’t die due to direct human disturbance, but this is just another reason to grow native plants that supply drastically more insects than non-native species.

As I write this, the brave little baby that’s endured the cold still sits alone in the tiny nest that should be filled with a brother or sister. Mom no longer stays on the nest, but she still feeds him/her about every 20-30 minutes. Waiting is the hardest part … waiting for the day that s/he feels strong enough to take to the air and discover the world. I hope I get to see that flight, and I hope it’s on a warm, sunny day.

The baby fledged the very next day, which was a fairly warm, dry one. The following day, curiosity got the best of Rick and I. Using a ladder, we inspected the abandoned nest since our nosing around wouldn’t distress anyone. Sure enough, there—at the bottom of the little nursery—was the baby who had died, a dried up little body barely an inch long. Since then I’ve noticed a smallish single hummer in my yard on occasion, and once, while I was walking around the back yard with my little cat in my arms, we stopped to watch this particular bird feeding at blueberry blossoms. S/he grew very interested and circled around us, just 18 inches away from our faces! 

Anna’s hummingbirds typically have 2 or 3 broods per year, and there is another Anna’s hummingbird nest now in a neighbor’s small tree close to a stairway that leads to our back yard. I can’t be sure, but I think it is the mama who nested in our yard, doing her best to raise another couple of healthy chicks.   —ES


© 2017 Eileen M. Stark

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Hummingbirds Nest in Native Gardens

Photo © Richard P. Weber 2015

As I looked through our living room window about two weeks ago, I caught sight of a female Anna’s hummingbird as she zipped by and landed on a tall rhododendron shrub ten feet away. As my eyes focused, I realized this was no ordinary perch: It was a nest, barely the size of a demitasse cup, that was apparently in the final stages of construction.

This exciting revelation reminds me of why I garden: For life! I had known, of course, judging by the number of hummingbirds feeding in our area and their relatively small territories (males defend about a quarter of an acre) that they must raise their families close by, but I had never actually seen a nest in our yard and I never went searching for one, for fear of causing disturbance.

Without delay, my husband began to document her nest building, keeping out of her flight path and with a powerful lens. The first photos show a nest perhaps an inch tall; less than a week later she had clearly added on more material to its height. Through binoculars and for several more days I Anna's hummingbirdoccasionally watched as she pressed on the exterior and stomped on the interior building materials—plant fibers like moss, bits of leaves and lichen, silk from spider webs or insect cocoons, feathers, and fur—with her impossibly tiny feet. The silk is strong, sticky and stretchy, and helps make a nest that is flexible and able to accommodate rapidly growing babies. The latest photos show that extra lichens were added as a finishing touch for camouflage (although I like to think that she added them as a charming decoration as well!).

One day I realized she was spending almost all of her time on the nest, leaving only for 20 to 60 seconds to grab a bite to eat. Incubation had begun! For the past 14 days she’s been patiently incubating her two eggs, which should hatch in as little as a day or two (incubation periods range from 14 to 19 days for these hummingbirds). MAJOR UPDATE: Baby pictures are here!

Hungry mouths
Anna’s hummingbirds eat nectar from many flowering plants, including native cascara and black hawthorn trees, currant, gooseberry, and manzanita shrubs, and many introduced species as well. Our little Anna’s timing was impeccable: Ribes sanguiniumShe chose to place her nest within 20 feet of two native red-flowering currant shrubs that had just begun to bloom. Besides currants, other native early bloomers important to hummingbirds include Indian plum and Oregon grape. Later on they’ll be attracted to the flowers of native huckleberries, ceanothus, twinberry, serviceberry, elderberry and salal shrubs, honeysuckle vines, and perennials like camas, goatsbeard, delphinium,  penstemon, tiger lily, columbine, and milkweed. But these solitary birds reportedly eat more protein-rich animal matter than other hummingbirds, consuming a wide array of small insects and spiders, plucked mid-air or from spider webs, shrubs, trees, and crevices. Occasionally they’ll lap up tree sap leaking out from holes made by woodpeckers, and I’ve seen them sip the sweet juices leaking from overly ripe figs.

A Little History
Anna’s Hummingbird (Calypte anna) was named after a 19th century Italian duchess, Anna De Belle Massena, by René Primevère Lesson, a French surgeon, naturalist, ornithologist, and herpetologist. Such an appropriately aristocratic name for a sparkling little bird.

Historically a Pacific slope species from San Francisco to Baja California, Anna’s are now fairly common year round in urban and suburban settings as far north as British Columbia, as well as wilder places such as open woodlands, chaparral, coastal scrub, and oak savannas. Since the change in range was relatively recent—only since the 1970s—and not a result of evolution,  it’s believed to have resulted from folks in the northern areas leaving sugar water feeders up year round.

Conservation
While Anna’s hummingbirds are not considered endangered or threatened and can survive fairly comfortably in marginally developed areas, they are susceptible to many threats, including habitat loss, pesticides, predation, window collisions, harsh winter weather, and sugar feeders that have gone bad (it only takes a couple of days in the right conditions!). Natural flower nectar is greatly superior to white sugar/water mixtures because it supplies micronutrients and spoilage is never a concern.

Because these birds (and other species) eat a large quantity of insects, always avoid using insect traps and pesticides that lessen the amount of forage available for them. Spider webs, which hummingbirds collect food from and use as nesting material, should be left intact whenever possible.

© 2015 Eileen M. Stark

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Love in the Trees, Chickadee Style

Black-capped chickadee

It’s nearly Valentine’s Day, so here’s a bit about the love life of a little bird—the black-capped chickadee—who is such a joy to have around. Let’s start in winter, when black-capped chickadees spend their time in flocks.

Birds of a Feather
Flock formation typically starts in autumn, although it may begin earlier at higher elevations or more northerly latitudes. Anywhere from two to eighteen birds may make up a flock, with six to ten members most likely. Flocks contain adult birds who bred the previous season, “floaters” (those who didn’t get lucky or belong to more than one flock), and young chickadees born that year who’ve immigrated from other areas (to keep the gene pool diverse). Members feed together by day and roost together at night (but individually–chickadees don’t like to snuggle), but all is not calm and congenial.

Exceptionally complex social behavior occurs in winter chickadee flocks. Each member falls into a linear pecking order, with higher-ranking individuals surviving better than those ranked lower. Birds at the top of the hierarchy get the best of everything—the most nutritious food, the safest cover, the finest breeding sites. The order has a purpose: To ensure that the strongest birds can breed in ample territory that provides enough food for their young to survive and thrive.

Rank is determined by several factors:
◊ Gender: Males tend to rank higher than females, although this changes during breeding season.
◊ Age: Veterans usually overrule very young birds.
◊ Timing: Birds who join a flock late tend to tumble to the bottom of the hierarchy.

Matchmaker, Matchmaker
Studies have found that male-female pairs within flocks are matched in their rank status—that is, a high-ranking male is paired with a high-ranking female, a not-quite-so-popular male is paired with a not-quite-so-popular female, etc. Remind you a little of high school?

But wait—pairs within flocks? Doesn’t the pairing-off begin just before breeding season (in the spring)? You’d think so, but black-capped chickadees are way ahead of us. Researchers (yes, some people actually get paid to study cute little chickadees) have found that most flocks are initially made up of equal numbers of males and females, each of which spend more time associating with a certain member of the opposite sex than all the other members of the flock (in other words, they’re engaged!). Even the youngest flock members reportedly pair off, and it’s the female who decides which male will win her affection, as is the case in most of the animal kingdom. If a bird’s mate dies during the winter, however, mate selection is put off until springtime.

The Newlywed Game
Chickadee couples begin casually house hunting before the winter flock breaks up, even as early as mid-winter (depending on the weather). As spring approaches, their search becomes earnest and they compete—often fiercely—with others of their species for a territory. Around this time the male begins to catch food and present it to his companion.

Photo © Richard P. Weber

Chickadees are cavity nesters: They nest in cavities like holes in dead or dying trees (snags), rotted knotholes in living trees, or previously used woodpecker holes. When natural sites are scarce they may use a hole in the ground or an artificial nest box, as they do in my backyard. Artificial nest boxes are not as good as nests in real trees because they are poorly insulated, but it they’re kept clean and are sited appropriately they may be better than nothing.

Chickadees prefer to create their own nests by digging out pieces of wood and then discarding the debris elsewhere to discourage predators who may view a pile of telltale wood chips as potential dinner. Both Mr. and Mrs. Chickadee explore their territory for nest sites and usually several are partially excavated before a decision is made. A power struggle often follows, culminating in presentations with much fanfare and bickering.

After the site is decided on (usually by the female), both members of the pair excavate the hole and bring in nest material, but, according to my reference, it is the female who builds the actual nest and my observations corroborate this. Using strips of bark, moss, and other coarse material, she quietly creates a cup-shaped nest. It is then lined it with soft material such as mammal fur (she uses my “fur dispenser”—a clean suet container filled with fur donated by an especially soft cat—that I put out for them when I see signs of nest-building). At this point the dedicated male is still sweetly feeding her, but it will be during Gathering mossthe next phase of their relationship—the egg-laying period—when she will need him the most. Laying eggs is immensely draining on a female’s energy reserves and her partner’s support is essential for her health, as well as that of their young. During this time I often hear her teeny-tiny voice calling to him in the trees, in what must be a request for assistance.

For the past six years we’ve put up our chickadee-appropropriate (clean) nest box every March and it’s been utilized every year but one (and that was due to an overzealous downey woodpecker who enlarged the entrance hole but then decided not to use it; by then the chickadee pair had found another spot). To mimic a natural nest we put about an inch of coarse wood shavings in the bottom of the box and watch the expectant mother “excavate” the box for a couple of days. Then she brings in loads of moss and finally the cat fur to make a soft, cozy nest for her babies. The entire project takes a few days to a week.

Black-capped chickadee feeding his mate

On average, chickadees lay seven eggs and incubation usually begins the day before the last egg is laid, so that all but one hatch on the same day. During incubation the mother is fed often by Dad, either directly at the nest entrance or outside on a perch, following his soft call to her.

After the young hatch, they are completely helpless and entirely dependent on their mother for warmth. Bringing home the food (mostly caterpillars) is Dad’s job for the first few days, and it’s intense, since each baby needs to eat several times an hour during the day. Later on, the female also forages for her babies. According to my reference, the mother begins providing food around day twelve, but I’ve seen both the male and female bringing food to the nestlings at day five or six; possibly this is due to the warmer temperatures in our region (as opposed to the eastern US, where spring comes later). Both parents efficiently remove poop sacs from the nest to keep it clean.

Want to help these endearing couples?
Black-capped chickadees are usually found at forest edges, and they need mature trees (preferably native)—both deciduous species in which to forage for insects and build nests, and coniferous types for cover and winter food. If you don’t have mature trees in your area, there’s no better time to plant than now! And while natural cavities are best for nesting, consider supplying a nest box for them if you don’t have snags around. Site it in a partly sunny situation (morning sunlight is optimal) and put about an inch of coarse wood shavings in the bottom. The entrance hole diameter should be 1 ⅛ inches (to keep out house sparrows), and face away from prevailing winds. One box per acre or two is plenty, since they need a large territory in which to find adequate food, although high quality habitats will support more breeding pairs. Be sure to clean the box after breeding season is over (I like to take it apart, scrub inside surfaces with hot soapy water, rinse well, and then set those surfaces in the sun for a day or two. We take ours indoors during the fall and winter and put it up again in early March to prolong its life and prevent mold growth.

Besides trees, provide clean water and, if your native plants are young, food during winter—chickadees are fond of unsalted peanuts, black-oiled sunflower seed, and suet, which is high in fat (they love my vegan peanut butter-coconut oil-sunflower seed concoction), but they also consume berries, insects, and spiders found on shrubs and trees. Spring through fall, though, nearly all of their diet and their babies’ diet is animal—such as insects, their larva, and spiders. It can take as much as 9,000 bits of food to successfully rear their nestlings, and native plants are best at providing it.

♥♥♥

Reference: Smith, Susan M. 1997. Black-capped Chickadee. Stackpole Books, Mechanicsburg, PA.

© 2015 Eileen M. Stark

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Anatomy of a Functional Garden

Garry oak (Oregon white oak)

Get out your pencils and notebooks, class. It’s time for Anatomy Lesson One: Structure of a Functional Garden.

Just as our bodies’ structure relies on interconnected units like bone and muscle, so do ecosystems and the little parts of them we call gardens. The main framework of a garden (above the soil line) is made up of the obvious counterpart to bone—woody plants, like trees and shrubs, as well as manmade elements like buildings, fencing, and pergolas. A site’s location and topographical features, such as steep slopes or rocky outcrops, can also have a substantial effect on its structure.

There’s quite a bit of similarity between bone and wood; both have the ability to provide function as well as beauty (as revealed in this quip by the saucy Miss Trixie Delight, played by Madeline Kahn in Paper Moon: “When I was your age, I didn’t have no bone structure. Took me years to get bone structure. And don’t think bone structure’s not important!”). It’s beyond important, Trixie—a strong skeletal system is crucial. And, yes, it does take years to arrive; so the sooner you get a start on structure, the better.

When ecologists speak of structure they’re concerned with the entire community of species existing in a particular area, as well as nonliving components like rock and water. This post focuses mainly on living structure that provides a garden’s framework, as well as habitat for wild ones.

Seasonal interest
A garden should be a place we want to go to no matter the time of year, and structure provides the invitation. It’s helpful for creating gradual transitions, for dictating chickadee on aspen treehow our eyes travel through a space, and for providing unity and balance. And structure can rev up “curb appeal”: A house looks best when it softly blends into a landscape and one way to do that is by nestling it within or framing it with medium to large trees (size being dependent on the dimension of your house and yard), but not completely hiding it. Trees should be planted a minimum of ten feet from buildings, preferably more. They offer myriad other benefits, like shade on sultry summer days (particularly when placed to the southwest of a house), protection of the soil, mitigation against climate change, and improved drainage for other plants tucked underneath. Their structure and foliage also provide essential food and shelter for both flora and fauna, even in winter, especially if native species are chosen.

Life does not occur in isolation
Other interconnected elements contribute to landscape structure, just as tendons, ligaments, and fascia contribute to ours. A single tree in a sea of lawn will not attract and support nearly the number of species that a grouping of trees, shrubs, and smaller plants will, nor will it create the same amount of interest for us. Beneath trees (but not too close to trunks) grow shrubs and perennials—in a layered effect—that will provide vertical connections. This creates a natural look and provides safe cover for feeding, resting, or wandering wildlife. Nature likes to get all tangled up so that order looks a bit chaotic, so don’t be afraid to grow plants fairly close together as you’d see in the natural world.

Non-living elements, like arbors, trellises, water features, snags, nest boxes and—dare I say—spider webs, can add to the skeletal framework of the garden and provide ecological function, such as by supporting vines. I’m currently training a lovely pink-flowered, fuzzy-leaved native honeysuckle (Lonicera hispidula) on a trellis that obscures the compost bins under our deck, and I have big plans for its orange cousin, Lonicera ciliosa, to adorn a yet-to-be-built trellis (aka Spouse Project) outside our new “catio.”  No doubt structure in the gardenthe bees and hummingbirds will be very pleased with these vines, as will my bird-watching cats. Keep manmade elements to a minimum and keep them simple to achieve a sense of flow and to complement—not overpower—the plants.

If there’s a garden (or natural area) that you are particularly fond of, chances are it’s because it has a pleasing framework to which other landscape elements are connected. Like the myriad connections in our bodies, structure helps bring cohesion to a landscape.

 

© Eileen M. Stark 2015

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Winter Light, Winter Life

Tualatin NWR

Do you long for spring? Fantasize about those warm summer evenings when the sun stays up past nine o’clock? Deny that winter has yet to officially start? Realize you’re eating dinner and curling under the bed covers earlier than just a month ago?

I’ve got it bad. Yesterday I found myself inspecting shrub and tree branches for next year’s growth and scanning the ground for the first spring bulbs. But here’s some good news: The days are beginning to lengthen again. Sure, we’re talking just minutes gained each day following the solstice, but it’s a start and I’ll gladly take every extra moment of daylight!

Winter is often thought of as a time of slumber—not just for us to catch a few extra winks, but also for the garden. While the cold, short days do tend to reduce some of the obvious vivacity of nature (especially in far northern, frozen latitudes), even in midwinter and beneath snow scientists have found that the soil thrives with living, breathing, developing microbes, some of which can freeze without harm. In the Pacific Northwest, our gardens are anything but sleepy. Amidst the amazing hubbub of microbial activity that helps provide a growth surge in springtime, plants’ roots are slowly developing in preparation for the demands of next year.

But since most people lack a keen interest in soil science, it’s the above ground doings that grab our attention. The “architectural” plants and other elements that remain standing all winter create the “bones” of the landscape, although texture, color, and movement enhance the view as well. I especially like to add such interest to areas that are frequently viewed, such as near an entryway or outside a cozy window seat. Wildlife appeal is also vital.

Native coniferous trees like cedar, fir, and pine are popular because they’re always green and provide framework and privacy, but what may be most captivating is the texture of their foliage—especially lovely holding onto snow, however fleeting that may be in our neck o’ the woods. Broadleaf evergreen trees like Pacific madrone (Arbutus menziesii) and shrubs, including the glossy-leaved Gaultheria shallon (salal)evergreen huckleberry (Vaccinium ovatum), Oregon grape (Mahonia spp.), and salal (Gautheria shallon), along with winter-blooming silk tassel bush (Garrya elliptica and G. fremontii), provide interest in all seasons. In sunny ground level situations, kinnikinnick (Arctostaphylos uva-ursi) carpets the soil and cascades over rock walls with its attractive evergreen leaves and red fruits that persist into fall and beyond. In shade, the heart-shaped and often evergreen leaves of ground-hugging wild ginger (Asarum caudatum) usually inspire smiles.

Blechnum spicant (deer fern)Intricately divided fronds of the lovely deer fern (Blechnum spicant) hang around all winter, while  licorice fern (Polypodium glycyrrhiza), a charming summer-deciduous type, is often found growing lushly amongst mosses and dead wood or rocks. Speaking of deciduous, some shrubs just can’t wait until spring to bloom—like the wind-pollinated California hazelnut (Corylus cornuta var. californica) that flowers in January. Others—Indian plum (Oemleria cerasiformis) and red-flowering currant (Ribes sanguineum) in particular—bloom at the cusp of spring.

Plants with colorful twigs or bark can steal attention, too, especially when planted en masse. Cornus sericea and other “red twig” dogwoods have an almost fiery bark that stands out, particularly against pale or very dark backgrounds, and the gorgeous burnt-orange bark of madrone trees (Arbutus menzeisii) peels to reveal smooth, olive-colored trunks and branches, and not just in winter. Snowberry (Symphoricarpos albus) gleams with its white, berrylike drupes, and wild roses, including Rosa pisocarpa and R. nutkana, produce strikingly red rosehips.Arbutus menziesii (madrone)

Elements of movement can be an enjoyable part of the winter landscape, too. Popular plants that provide a rustling motion as winter winds blow include grasses, such as Festuca idahoensis and Deschampsia cespitosa, which look best planted in swathes, and western sword ferns (Polystichum munitum) with their tall, tough fronds. While they are great accents any time of the year, grasses and evergreen ferns might be most impressive during the humdrum days of winter when they also provide structure and intriguing texture.

Needless to say, the best way to liven up the landscape is to encourage the presence of birds and other wildlife in the garden, and the best way to do that is with native plants that naturally occur in your region. To supply food and shelter from rain and cold, think evergreen trees such as western red cedar, western or mountain hemlock, Douglas-fir, or wax-myrtle. Allow seed heads to remain on perennials to provide food for birds (unless self-sowing poses a problem). Be sure to check plants’ needs before incorporating them into your yard or plan. And be sure to let fallen leaves stay on bare soil and downed wood stay put in order to protect the soil, supply cover for overwintering little creatures and food for ground-feeding birds.

_MG_2133 sRGBWhoever said that winter landscapes are drab and lifeless didn’t consider the possibilities. With a little ingenuity and planning, your garden can be a winter wonderland—in spite of short days.

Happy winter solstice!

© 2014 Eileen M. Stark

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Reflecting on What Makes a Garden “Real”

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American gardens are generally a mix of styles borrowed from other countries and cultures, many of which developed over centuries. Just a few that we’ve adapted: The romantic English cottage garden, the traditional Japanese garden, and the formal French parterre. This borrowing isn’t unlike our diets—I eat mostly ethnic or ethnically influenced foods for a variety of reasons, most of which revolve around flavor, nutrition, and ingredients that are plant-based. Ethnic cuisine can be wonderful, especially when locally grown ingredients bring it all home.

But landscaping with borrowed styles typically results in gardens that are decidedly unauthentic and typically do little to support life. What’s lacking is a relationship to local history, geology, ecology, and a sense of place (more on the latter in the book). When we use mainly local ingredients (that is, native plants and other elements), though, even exotic or “period” designs can be ecologically functional and feel like home.

Creating gardens that are enmeshed in their native surroundings, use indigenous materials, and reflect the natural world, then, are real. They are beautiful, but not just for the sake of mere decoration, and unlike Period gardens, they are designed to play a crucial role within the landscape. Their loveliness is functional, so that every species in the intricate, webby ecosystem has a good chance of being able to do what it’s supposed to do. Insects, for example, must be everywhere—to eat the foliage of plants that they share an evolutionary history with and subsequently provide for those higher on the food chain, to pollinate flowers, and to do countless other jobs.

The functional beauty that’s found in nature’s intimate connections can be in your yard, too. Even “average” backyards are host to amazing numbers of species, but when we add native plants, biodiversity skyrockets: Studies show that native species support 29 times the wildlife that exotic species do. Of course, some nonnative species do support some wildlife, so I don’t recommend removing noninvasive exotics that currently support wild species in some way (or provide food for you, or furnish an emotional connection).

Whether you’re ready to create new beds, replace dead or dying plants, or make over your entire yard, choose plants that belong in your area. Instead of a maple from Asia, consider our lovely native maples, vine maple (Acer circinatum) and big-leaf maple (Acer macrophyllum). Thinking about new shrubs? Look for natives that look similar to ones you admire but come from a faraway place (my book has some suggestions for native plants that resemble common, exotic garden plants). When adding ground cover, choose an assortment of native ground hugging plants that would grow together in nature. Essentially, choose plants that have evolved together and grow together in natural communities—known as “associated species.” If the conditions (light, soil, moisture) suit them, they are your best bet because they offer wildlife what they need, nurture each other, and increase the chance that they will thrive in your yard.

A garden’s propensity for diversity draws in both gardeners and visitors, generates appreciation and awe for natural processes, and furthers our collective ecological knowledge. In a hazelnut shell, “real” gardens stay true to the character, time, and culture of a place.

I need to stop now to get outside and enjoy what may be the last warm, dry fall weather, but I’ll keep sneaking you interesting tidbits now and then to make sure you don’t lose your appetite for more!

© 2014  Eileen M. Stark

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A Date with a Varied Thrush

Varied thrush

Male varied thrush perched in red-twig dogwood 


It’s unmistakably autumn
when the strikingly beautiful varied thrush begins appearing in Pacific Northwest yards, parks, and natural areas. That’s varied, as in Ixoreus naevius, though I’ve also seen various other thrushes—Swainson’s and hermit—feeding in residential areas from time to time. The scientific name given to this robin-sized bird comes from the Greek ixos, which means “mistletoe,” and oros for “mountain” and the Latin naevius, which translates to “spotted or varied.” If my math is correct, that adds up to “varied berry-loving mountain bird,” or some such.

Since reading the State of the Birds 2014 report I’ve felt a twinge of anxiety about whether or not I’d see them this year, as I have each fall and winter since I began creating our “real” garden. Sadly, the varied thrush is one of 33 species included on the list of “Common Birds in Steep Decline” that have lost more than half of their global populations within the past 40 years. But just a few days ago I spotted a female rummaging on the ground through the fallen leaves and compost in our vegetable beds, as if she had forgotten where she put her keys. She’d grab a dry leaf in her bill, toss it aside as she hopped backwards, and then search the ground. She was looking for dinner, of course, and apparently found some tasty morsels in the form of insects or slugs that were hoping to get through the winter under protective leaf “litter”. Varied thrushes also eat fruit and nuts (primarily acorns) during winter and I wondered when she’d return to find the rose hips, patiently dangling off my clustered wild rose (Rosa pisocarpa), as she (or her cousin) had done last year. Apples are also reportedly a favorite food in fall.

Male varied thrush rummages through fallen leaves.

Male varied thrush rummaging through fallen leaves.

Most thrushes wear earthy colors on purpose—so they can be difficult to spot—but this species can be especially tough to see since their gorgeous plumage is reminiscent of dappled sunlight or pumpkin-colored leaves on a forest floor. And they’re timid and wary of people, so you may be more likely to hear one than to see one. But hearing their call in a forest rarely helps locate one, since their ethereal, somewhat mournful voice seems to pervade the peaceful woods. Let’s honor their need to be left alone—sometimes it’s enough just to hear them to be struck by their beauty.

Birds of a feather
Fall through winter, varied thrushes gather together in flocks, collectively known as a hermitage—a fitting description considering their obligation to be concealed. I’ve never seen more than three at a time in my yard, so their flocks must be a loose assemblage. In the city they act slightly bolder, coming to within 20 feet of the house to feed, as well as perch and survey in leafless trees. Their range encompasses the boreal forests of Alaska and the Yukon,  southward along the west coast to California, as well as east to Alberta, Idaho, and western Montana. National Geographic records their winter range as “coastal Alaska to southern California and parts of northern Rockies,” but judging by this enthusiastic news account, sightings in southern California may be somewhat rare.

During the remainder of the year, varied thrushes retreat to mature, misty, hushed forests dominated by tall conifers and lush ferns, and dine on mostly insects and other arthropods. Many migrate north as the days lengthen. In spring, the female creates her nest in streamside shrubs or conifers, typically 5 to 15 feet above ground. According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, the nest resembles a robin’s nest: “The female gathers nest material and weaves an outer layer of fir, hemlock, spruce, or alder twigs. She adds a middle layer with rotten wood, moss, mud, or decomposing grass, which hardens into a dense cup about 4 inches across and 2 inches deep. Finally, she lines the cup with fine grasses, soft dead leaves, and fine moss, and drapes pieces of green moss over the rim and outside of the nest.” Two to six, blue, specked eggs are laid and incubated by mom but the hatchlings are tended by both (monogamous) parents; they fledge in about two weeks. They are fed arthropods, as are most land birds. Two broods are produced when possible.

Since these birds thrive in old growth forests, logging is having a profoundly negative impact on their numbers, as will climate change. Window strikes are also responsible for many deaths. Want to help them and see them in your yard?

◊ During fall and winter, don’t rake away the leaves, twigs, bark, and other dead wood that have fallen from trees onto the soil.

◊ If your yard was historically forest, grow the trees that likely once grew there to provide food and roosting or nesting sites. In coastal B.C., Washington and Oregon, choose Sitka spruce (near the coast), Douglas-fir, western hemlock or western red cedar; in northwestern California choose coastal redwood, Sitka spruce, and red alder.

◊ Thrushes are mainly insectivorous, so add additional native plants that would naturally occur with the trees to supply extra helpings of native insects and other arthropods.

◊ Include native plants that produce fruits, nuts, or seeds to provide additional forage. Depending on your location, madrone, cascara, garry oak, wild rose, huckleberry, elderberry, honeysuckle, salal, thimbleberry, and dogwood might be good choices.

◊ Be sure birds can see your window glass, not a reflection of the sky. Check out these tips to help birds avoid reflective glass.

© 2014 Eileen M. Stark

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Cedar Waxwing Flocks are Back!

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I had planned to write a different post today, but quickly changed my mind when I caught sight of 100 to 200 cedar waxwings in my Portland yard. Last fall a huge flock was attracted to our two fig trees that were laden with ripening fruit well out of our reach. This year only one fig tree is fruiting, but there’s still a mass of succulent food for their hungry mouths. These birds also love berries and I photographed them on a red-flowering currant shrub (Ribes sanguineum) and Cascade Oregon grape (Mahonia nervosa), two of many PNW native species that support these birds. Situated near our front door, the currant shrub stops people in their tracks while it’s flowering in March, and now it’s a waxwing magnet. I watched as they eagerly picked off the berries and swallowed them whole (pictured, above).

Cedar waxwings are exquisitely beautiful birds—sleek, with silky, shiny, colorful feathers that softly blend together like watercolors. Adults have a somewhat droopy, ragged crest and a debonair black mask, outlined in white, which makes them so alluring and exciting—as in, where have you been all my life? Males have black chins and throats, whereas females’ are slightly duller and juveniles’ are streaked. Tail tips are usually yellow, wider in males and narrower in females and juveniles. In my photo you can just barely make out little reddish, waxy tips on the wing feathers, hence the common name. The function of the secretion is not fully known, although it is likely important in courtship. So dashing!

The Bohemian waxwing is similar but slightly larger, and has grayish feathers on breast and belly, instead of a soft yellow. They also have white and yellow wing patches, which cedar waxwings lack. According to Seattle Audubon Society, Bohemians are a northern species that migrate down to Washington in winter. The cedar waxwings we see are likely year round residents who travel around in search of food. Both species are monogamous and breed in open, wet areas with dead or downed wood, or in woodlands with mature conifers.

Exceptionally gregarious, these birds are often seen in large flocks, especially in autumn. You may hear them before you see them, with their very high-pitched, whistle-like trills. They mainly eat sweet fruit and even feed it to their young after a few days of insectivorous cuisine (like the majority of land birds who feed their babies insects). During breeding season waxwings need more protein and show their expert insect-catching abilities in mid-air, often over water. Insects that live on plants, like scale, are also on their menu. For medium sized, fairly stocky birds (about seven inches in length), they are quite acrobatic and can even hover in place to grab a bit of fruit when a perch isn’t handy.

Waxwings aren’t suffering from habitat loss quite as much as most species, since they can eat increasingly common exotic fruits. However, they “are vulnerable to window collisions as well as being struck by cars as the birds feed on fruiting trees along roadsides,” says the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. But native plants are best for the vast majority of wild species, so to attract waxwings to your Pacific Northwest yard, grow indigenous trees and shrubs that produce small fruits, including serviceberry (Amelanchier alnifolia), madrone (Arbutus menziesii), dogwood (Cornus spp.), western juniper (Juniperus occidentalis), black hawthorn (Crataegus douglasii), honeysuckle (Lonicera ciliosa and L. involucrata), mountain ash (Sorbus sitchensis and S. scopulina), and strawberries (Frageria spp.). Keep your eyes and ears open and look for them in parks, forest edges, open woodlands, and gardens—these beautiful birds could visit your yard, too!

Reference

© 2014 Eileen M. Stark

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Leaving Room for Wild Ones

It’s about as beautiful a fall day in Portland as you can get. I’d love to be hiking, bird watching, or sowing seeds for future plants, but it won’t be long before the book will be released. What on earth inspired me to write a book? Limelight? Prestige? Rolls of royalties? Ha!    IMG_3164 sRGB copy

What motivated me was the earth, or more precisely, my love of it. Edward O. Wilson, the eminent evolutionary biologist and the authority on ants, coined the term “biophilia” for our innate affinity for the rest of living organisms. Besides having a bad case of it, I am unabashedly horrified at the extent to which the natural world has been plowed under by our unrelenting reorganization of nature to suit our tastes.

Urban/suburban sprawl, invasive plants, toxins, climate change, and Big Ag (by far the biggest waste of land is the 41 percent of the lower 48 states given to livestock ranchers) all contribute to our precarious environmental condition. Many remnant natural areas are isolated, degraded ecosystem fragments that struggle to support continually decreasing levels of biodiversity. We are the only species that has such an uncanny knack for completely destroying habitat that is essential for other species to live—we take and take, without giving back. But we humanimals are a flexible lot, compared to most species known as specialists that live in narrow habitatNative forest, Vancouver Islands and often have precise dietary needs. When environmental conditions change, generalists like us are usually able to adapt (at least so far), but specialists often become victims who silently go extinct: They can’t simply move on, quickly change their diet, or “reinvent” themselves.

Humans have the ability to conserve, restore, and give back to the earth some of what we’ve taken. I’m heartened by some thrilling restoration and preservation work going on that interlocks and connects broken landscapes—unbroken corridors are essential for wildlife caught in our anthropocentric time.

Aptly named, regional conservation partnerships — coalitions of small land trusts and the like — work to preserve and protect mosaics of public as well as private land (by buying up parcels or securing easements, basically paying landowners to protect the present and future) and connecting them by wild corridors. The Wildlands Network is one such organization that is working on four “wildways” in North America; the Pacific Wildway is closest to home, running from Alaska to Baja.

It is these gigantic projects that make the biggest splash ecologically. But small, conventionally landscaped areas are often stagnant ecosystems that add to our overall environmental debt. So my mission is to make it easier for people in the Pacific Northwest to turn their traditional yards into spaces that benefit dwindling biodiversity, to help people garden with nature in mind. Many books tell us why we need to move away from “typical” landscapes that are dominated by nonnative ornamental plants and lawn composed of exotic grasses—both of which offer few ecological benefits. But few tell how to do it, and in our region (from southern B.C. to southern Oregon, west of the Cascades).

Ecologically functional gardening is some of the best conservation work you can do. Supporting environmental groups and campaigns is wonderful, but with this you know exactly where your money goes. You can do a little or a lot. And with some patience and a bit of honest labor, the benefits will gradually be observable right outside your window. I invite you to join me on the front line (or in your back yard or side yard, or even parking strip!) to help sustain native fauna and flora, the backbone of ecosystems.

© 2014 Eileen M. Stark

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