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 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 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 from raking them off hardscape and evergreen plants, here are additional ways to use them in your garden.


© 2017 Eileen M. Stark

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Catios Keep Cats and Birds Safe

Swirly, aka Cosmo, graduated from quiet, docile kitten to Crazy Cat (diagnosis: "Intermittent explosive disorder" ??). Born to a feral mom, he and his siblings came to us at 11 or 12 weeks of age to be socialized so that they could find indoor homes rather than living miserable lives outdoors. We adopted Swirly, and as his personality emerged, a "catio" proved to be indispensable.

Born to a feral mom, Swirly and his siblings came to me at 11 or 12 weeks of age to be socialized so that they could be placed in homes, rather than live difficult lives outdoors. We adopted Swirly, and as his personality emerged—from quiet, shy kitten to adorable Psycho Kitty—a “catio” proved to be indispensable.


What’s a “catio” and why would you want one?
A catio is an outdoor enclosed patio for cats (and sometimes their caregivers), where they can enjoy the sights, sounds, and smells of the outdoors without getting into trouble. While catios can’t provide total freedom, they prevent kitty from getting hit by a car, being badly injured or killed by wildlife such as coyotes, getting fleas and all the diseases that can result from them, fighting with other cats, and upsetting neighbors who loathe cats. They also lessen cats’ chance of getting feline hyperthyroidism (an increasingly common feline disease caused by exposure to chemicals in homes), relieve boredom, and assist in multiple-cat households when a cat needs his/her space or just a place to snooze. Last—but definitely not least—catios help keep birds and other little wild creatures safe. Especially if you use bird feeders and/or have a “real” garden designed to attract and nurture wildlife, allowing your cat to roam freely is inviting disaster, particularly if they are young or seem born to kill. Domesticated cats are predators and obligate carnivores and, despiteyellow warbler migrant their domestication, most yearn to stalk and kill prey—we can’t blame them; it’s in their DNA. Since we are ultimately responsible for our cats and their actions, it behooves us to keep them indoors but also to think about their needs by offering a place to lie in the sun, breathe some fresh air, and watch a little slice of the world.

Of course, expecting a cat who has been always been allowed to roam freely to suddenly agree to stay indoors may be asking too much (no matter how exciting the catio may be!). We have a 15-year-old Katrina Kitty who still yearns to go outside. (I cave in to his demands, but only for short periods during mid-day when birds are least likely to be foraging, not during baby bird season, and never at night. Most of the time he just relaxes in the sun.) But cats who are new to your household and kittens who have never experienced the outdoors are ideal candidates for the catio life. We have several rescued cats who came to us as half-feral older kittens and our catio is indispensable for meeting their outdoor needs—they love it!

Many choices
There are many different types of catios, from fairly inexpensive window boxes that cost less than $100, to more expensive and elaborate designs that may include catwalks, tunnels, roofs, furniture and multi-levels (the latter is essential!). Some people design and build their custom catio themselves, as my husband, Rick, and I did, while others hire a contractor or handyman. Kits to build your own are available online. For more detailed guidance and tips, as well as links to companies that sell kits, check out this article from The Humane Society of the U.S.

Before renovation.

When we initially thought about making a catio, we considered turning half of our elevated backyard deck into one, but it would have been very difficult and there was no way for the cats to come and go on their own—that is, no place to install a little cat door. Our cats really love our deck, but three of the four cannot be trusted not to leap eight feet to ground level. One day, it hit me: Why not turn a mostly unusable space on the east side of our house into a space for the cats? When we bought our house I thought it could be made into a little sunroom, but a catio wouldn’t require heating, insulation, etc.

A little history: When our house was built in 1929, there had been an exterior wooden porch, about 13 feet long by 7 feet wide, with two doors to the inside at either end. Twenty to thirty years later (in the 1950s, judging by the type of brick) someone put a concrete floor over the wooden floor and created narrow planters made with brick and mortar, and installed a huge floor-to-ceiling window and sliding glass doors. Sometime later, the space was enclosed to make it into a greenhouse of sorts, with translucent fiberglass panels for walls and roof’ the planters were covered with formica. But functionality was poor: Summer temperatures climbed into the triple-digits (ventilation was poor when the exterior door was closed) and it was cold in the winter. Plus, the old fiberglass had yellowed, the carpet was filthy, and the sliding glass doors and window that covered the interior wall were single paned and energy inefficient. Renovating the space would help increase energy efficiency and provide us with a much more useable space.

The Casbah Catio
Since we did everything ourselves, it took about 5 months to complete, not counting the time it took to replace a window and door and the winter months when we put things on hold. Rick did the majority of the planning and work; I helped with tiling and did most of the painting (and gave moral support!). We were able to reuse some of the wood from the old structure, and some came from our local Rebuilding Center, which sells reclaimed materials, but we did have to buy a fair amount of new materials. Very large rocks that were found in the planters found homes in the garden.

I’ve always loved Moroccan design and finally I was able to sneak some elements into our home. The tile came from the outlet room of Pratt and Larson in Portland; selection varies and I think we made at least six trips there to find what would look good together. At $1 a pound, it was a great deal.

Initially, the most important task is planning. Some suggestions: Try to site it where the cats will be able to see things of interest; think about how the cats will be able to get in and out (it’s nice to connect it to the main house because if you have to carry your cat to and fro, it may get little use after the novelty has worn off); consider how you will keep it dry; and give cats variety, including some elevated places to perch and snooze. Make some sketches and draw up a basic plan. If you are going to do any demolition, be sure to figure out where you can take items (like old carpet or glass) to be recycled, rather than just throwing it in a landfill.

Here’s a basic synopsis of how we turned an unusable space into our catio: First, we removed the existing glass doors and window (and smashed them up to transport to a recycler). The wall was then framed in and a new, large window (that closely resembles an original window in our living room) and a door that enters our dining room were installed. Next, the demolition began.

Demolition

Demolition Days (boyz just love to wreck things, don’t they?). Actually, we both hated this part (it was definitely the most difficult and dirtiest part—a huge mess, as you can see). Rick’s definition: “Grunt work.” We left the existing concrete foundation (beneath the brick) even though it wasn’t done well to begin with.

 

The original porch floor hadn’t been connected to house, so that had to be fixed. Rick also dealt with some rot in a sill plate where a door once stood. Following that, 4x4s were added and walls were framed in. Painting was done as things progressed. Because we wanted natural light to enter the catio and window and door, we chose a roof of clear, corrugated polycarbonate outdoor patio cover (lightweight, easy to install, inexpensive)._MG_8965

An outer door that leads to the backyard was then installed and we chose DIY screens to keep the cats in. Most people use a large metal mesh, but we chose recyclable aluminum screen (over nonrecyclable plastic), for several reasons: First, a few years earlier, two young birds had entered our house through a very small opening one morning and were immediately caught and killed by our cats and we feared this could happen with the large mesh. There is smaller mesh available, but it’s difficult to see through. Once installed, screen almost disappears from view. Second, since we like to open the door that connects the catio to our dining room during nice weather, we wanted to keep insects out. Of course, screen is shreddable by claws and it gets dirty, but for the most part we’re happy with it. If it does get completely shredded, it’s not very difficult to replace (and recycle). Don’t use plastic mesh—cats can get their claws stuck in it.

Speaking of doors, we wanted a cat door so the cats could come and go on their own, but were concerned about drafts during the winter. Rick installed a Freedom Pet Pass door, an energy efficient flap door. The only thing that’s problematic is that because our two female cats are tiny (barely 7 pounds) and scare easily, they have trouble pushing the door outwards due to a fairly strong magnet; they usually manage by pulling it inward with their claws. Coming inside requires less force so isn’t a problem for them. The door is visible at the lower left corner of the final photo, below.

Levels are essential for felines, who often make their living by observing prey below. We placed them so they could easily hop from one to another. My cats highly recommend them for bird and squirrel watching!

Violet loves relaxing on her levels!

Violet loves levels!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Luna, too!

Luna, too!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

We also added a bench at the far end (with vents to the outside) that offers some storage space and seating for us.

tile backer board

Backer board was installed before tiling began.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

tile B4 grout

Placing tile. It was finished with a brown grout (that won’t show stains).

 

 

 

Tiling was actually fun—we were on the home stretch and it brought such warmth and a personal touch. The cats couldn’t care less, but we love it .

 

 

Finishing touches: A large log (found near a river bank) was also added, as well as final bits of woodwork and paint. Scatching post, litter box, water bowl, lantern, grass for grazing, and cushions for comfort (with washable covers) were the final touches to our Casbah Catio.

The Casbah Catio

Swirly & Luna enjoying their Casbah Catio.

 

© 2017 Eileen M. Stark

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Robins of Summer: Their Hidden Lives and Loves, and Letting Go

Camille, an American robin
American robins (Turdus migratorius) are familiar birds, found nearly everywhere—in urban and suburban parks and gardens, on farmland, and in wilder forests and even subalpine meadows. We enjoy hearing their cheery songs and watching them search for squirmy bits of food, but let’s face it: They’re taken for granted. To truly appreciate and respect a bird or anyone else, we need to discover how they live and love, and how little we know about them. Here’s a glimpse into a portion of the life of a charming bird and several of her babies, whom she raised almost directly under my gaze. They taught me how little I knew.


As I puttered around my garden on the afternoon of July 4th
I savored the quiet time and hoped for a mildly noisy evening for the sake of wild birds and other animals who intensely fear our fireworks and live for peace and quiet. As I approached my front door, the sound of wings fluttering in a nearby Camellia shrub stole my attention and I glimpsed someone quickly wing their way into a small nearby tree. Whom had I disturbed? A quick scan revealed none other than a shy American robin, perched on a branch, patiently waiting for me to leave. But curiosity got the best of me, so I back tracked a few steps and hid behind a native currant shrub to learn what this beautiful bird was up to. A few minutes later she returned to the Camellia and this time I could see that her bill was full of grass. Grass? That’s right: Nesting material! As my eyes focused, I realized that she was perched on the edge of a nest, to which she was adding the finishing touches.

Like a statue I stood for a few moments longer as she arranged the bits of grass. As soon as she flew off I ran inside inside to tell my husband, Rick, the exciting news: “A robin’s building her nest right under our bedroom window!” We raced upstairs to the bay window that overlooks our front yard, and there—only 5 or 6 feet from the window—it was: A perfectly round little nursery, created with mud and grasses and such. We were astonished, elated, and honored that this nest had fallen into our proverbial laps, providing us with a rare opportunity to peek into the life of an enchanting bird. She had obviously been working on her nest for quite a few days, but we hadn’t even noticed. And that’s the way she wanted it.

Nest construction
Though I’ve discovered quite a bit about the black-capped chickadees and Anna’s hummingbirds who raise their young in our yard nearly every year, I knew little about robin family planning. To learn about their breeding habits I turned to books and websites and found that American robins are very busy birds. Typically, they have 2 or 3 broods during their breeding period, and I suspect that this female was on Number Three since it was already July. I’d seen a robin collecting nesting material in our back yard in April, so two previous nests were certainly possible.

According to several accounts I read, female robins may begin a new nest soon after the previous brood has fledged. When this happens, the male takes on their care while she efficiently finds a new nest site and constructs it by herself (robins don’t reuse nests but may reuse materials or build a new nest atop an old one). After reading about Dad’s duties I went to our back yard, camera in hand. Sure enough, there was Big Daddy in our bird bath, teaching Junior how to take a proper bath. Afterwards, they both left, but Junior returned ten minutes later, eager to practice this new (and no doubt thrilling) activity on his own. (Learn how to tell male, female and juvenile robins apart here.)

Big Daddy & Junior

Reportedly, robins build their nests from the inside out, pressing dead grasses, mosses, feathers, and twigs into a bowl shape using their wing’s wrist. The nest is then strengthened with soft mud (which explains the mud I’d noticed in the bird bath!), and finally lined with fine, dry grass. For two days we observed her from the closed window as she brought more grass and pressed her breast onto the inner sides of the nest to smooth and contour it. Upon completion it measured about 6.5 inches wide by 4 inches high, with a 4.5-inch inner diameter. During the days of July 6 and 7 she sat in her nest for short periods and the suspense (as to when she’d lay her first egg) was killing us. Finally, mid-morning on July 8 I noticed the first egg, and it was a most brilliant greenish-blue—the quintessential “robin’s egg blue.”

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Why blue?
There have been many theories. According to Tim Birkhead, author of The Most Perfect Thing: Inside (and Outside) a Bird’s Egg (Bloomsbury, 2016), Erasmus Darwin (grandfather of Charles) surmised that blue eggs offer protection from predators due to cryptic coloring: When seen from below, through their “wicker nests,” the blue eggs blend into the blue sky. “This is wrong at several levels, including the fact that … [their] nests are lined with mud and impossible to see through; and that he assumed that the main predators would see the nest from below,” writes Birkhead. Three later explanations—camouflage and conspicuousness, avoiding brood parasites, and individual recognition—have been tossed around, but a more recent one, thanks to technological advances in measuring color, makes the most sense to me: According to a study published in 2016 in The American Naturalist, birds like robins who typically nest in somewhat open nests within forests or other leafy places (where light levels are moderate) evolved towards having darker eggshells because the pigment protects the egg’s interior from dangerous UV radiation, but also allows the eggs to absorb more light, causing them to heat up more quickly, leading to faster embryonic development. Shorter incubation periods mean less risk of egg predation, but will likely be disastrous if climate change, which leads to more hot days during birds’ breeding periods, is allowed to continue. The blue-green color itself comes from biliverdin, a pigment that’s applied in the shell gland (aka uterus) just before delivery.

My biologist mind was spinning with more questions that weren’t answered in Ornithology 101, such as: How is eggshell formed? What is the real purpose of turning the eggs? Do the chicks breathe the same way as mammals do inside the womb? I’ll get to those, but also about this time I decided Mama robin should have a name. “Robbie” was just too banal for such a beautifully plumed bird whose dark eyes suggest a wonderful gentleness. I settled on “Camille” (French pronunciation: kah-MEE), after the Camellia shrub, but also because the name means pure and perfect.

Making eggs
I’ve always been fascinated by the self-contained life support systems called eggs and got to wondering about the shells. I knew that creating eggs is immensely draining on a female’s energy reserves and that extra nutrients are essential. I also knew that eggshells were made of calcium carbonate, but didn’t know that calcium is the most difficult mineral for many birds to obtain and that most female birds (other than birds such as raptors who eat bone by consuming whole prey) need to actively seek extra calcium.

No one knows exactly how birds know which foods are high in calcium, but they must ingest it during the evening hours prior to laying an egg so that a chalky solution of calcium carbonate can be applied to the membrane that envelops the embryo soon after it reaches the uterus. Birkhead notes that “most small birds seem to rely on calcium-rich snail shells that they find on the ground.” Robins may also eat arthropods like millipedes (often found in decaying leaves and other dead plant matter) that have a calcium-rich exoskeleton. Whether they use shells or skeletons, this is yet another reason to leave natural materials on the soil and to not use poisons. Without adequate calcium, birds may produce fragile, thin, or otherwise defective shells—with disastrous results—or fail to produce eggs at all. In case you’re wondering, avian eggshells are hard when they are laid, not soft.

Incubation
American robins typically lay three to five eggs; most common is four. Incubation, which is done by moms only (male robins don’t have a brood patch), lasts for 12-14 days. The day after Camille’s first egg was laid, another followed, but incubation was sporadic those first two days. Full incubation usually doesn’t begin until the last or second-to-last egg is laid so that all will hatch on the same day or thereabouts. With the addition of the third egg, laid on July 10, she began devoting nearly all of her time to incubation, quietly and secretively leaving only to grab something to eat and stretch her wings. She was rarely off the nest for more than 30 minutes, much less during slightly chilly mornings. We wondered whether she’d produce a fourth egg, but July 11 brought no more, so three it would be. On that day I heard a robin’s call outside the window around 7:20 AM and saw Camille return to the nest around 8:00. About an hour later I noticed what I believe was a male robin on our neighbor’s rooftop while she was off foraging. I imagine her call had something to do with this, but I don’t know whether it occurred on a regular basis.

Whenever she returned after foraging I noticed that she would do a little dance in the nest. Contrary to sources that state that robins turn their eggs with their bills, Camille always used her feet when we watched her. Turning eggs is essential for successful hatching, but is reportedly critical only during the first few days of incubation. Turning encourages the flow of nutrients and such within the egg, promotes the development of an embryo’s external blood vessels, and ensures that the embryo is positioned correctly with respect to the yolk and albumen (so that it can make full use of the albumen). Moms also position eggs so that no obstruction will prevent hatching.

Escaping the shell
According to Birkhead, hatching is complicated: Since they can no longer depend on the oxygen that comes through tiny eggshell pores and into blood vessels that line the inner shell, embryos need to do several things before the main event: Start shutting off that blood supply at their umbilicus and take it into their body; draw what’s left of the yolk into their abdomen (to use as food for the first few hours after hatching); and puncture the membrane of the “air cell” that’s inside the egg at the blunt end. As soon as they puncture it, they can use their lungs—for the first time—to obtain the oxygen and energy needed to come into the world.

These tiny creatures imprisoned in shells are impossibly weak and equipped with only a little egg-tooth on the tip of their bill—powered by a feeble neck muscle—to crack the shell. To learn how they actually break out, I consulted my dust-covered college ornithology textbook by ornithologist Sewall Pettingill, who described how an embryo “scrapes and presses the egg-tooth against the inside of the already weakened shell until a crack results,” a process known as pipping. Zooming in on some photographs we took revealed that there were tiny cracks in the eggs many hours before hatching, so it isn’t a quick, simple operation. “From a star-shaped crack, a fissure develops, usually around the larger end [of the egg]. Muscular action of the embryo, chiefly in the legs and neck, forces the shell apart at the circular fissure,” Pettingill explained.

Day 0 First hatchling

On the 12th day of incubation (July 22), all three chicks broke free of their shells. The first one hatched very early (perhaps well before dawn; we first noticed him/her at 7 AM, already gaping for food). The second hatched sometime between 10:30 and 11:30 AM, and the third at twilight, probably between 8:40 and 8:50 PM (the eggshell was still in the nest at 8:55, and because the parents remove (or eat) broken shells quickly because they’re sharp, it must have happened just minutes earlier).

As you can see in the photos, the chicks began life utterly helpless: Blind, nearly naked, and so weak they could barely hold their heads up. Needless to say, we were completely in awe, fascinated at their wondrous and fragile beginnings. In this photo you can see the egg-tooth at the end of one’s bill on Day 1.

Day 1

Growing up
Camille, like most bird moms, was completely devoted and attentive to her young. When she wasn’t foraging for food or feeding them she would brood them—that is, cover them with her body—and this went on until toward the end of the the nesting period when their bodies filled up the nest and daytime temperatures were high. During their first few days in particular, she showed great concern. Her comings and goings were secretive (as they had been during incubation), flying or hopping incrementally for short distances rather than flying quickly to and from the nest.

Several sources state that both parents feed the young, but we never saw anyone but Camille feeding her babies. Perhaps Big Daddy had his wings full with the previous fledglings or they had an agreement, or it’s possible he helped out at dawn while we were still asleep (although I have doubts about the latter). Rick did notice him perched atop our roof one afternoon, so he may have been assisting her by keeping an eye on the nestlings at times. But we never saw him after that, so I hope it was just their way of doing things and not that something terrible happened to him.

Nest activity was a whirlwind of frequent feeding, pooping, and incredibly fast growth. Aging the nestlings is done simply by day number, with hatching day designated as Day 0, the first full day as Day 1, and so forth. On Day 1 we filmed Camille bringing a huge earthworm to the nest, big enough to strangle a chick. When she couldn’t get it in their gaping mouths, everyone gave up and fell asleep with the mangled worm draped over and around them. And then she got on top. Adult robins may eat beetles, caterpillars, spiders and snails (as well as fruit such as serviceberries when insects and other arthropods are scarce), but Camille fed her babies mostly worms early on, although she did actually shove a huge moth down a tiny throat on the first day as well. That’s when I started watering the garden more often than usual to try to make worms more available, especially since the weather was warm and dry, which causes worms to go deeper into the soil. I also bought a cup of meal worms and placed some near the nest in the mornings. Later in the nesting period I saw her feeding them the fruit of English laurel (an invasive species), the product of an untrimmed neighboring hedge, as well as blueberries from our yard. Robins are important seed dispersers and large seeds are regurgitated.


We can’t talk about feedings without mentioning what comes afterwards. Nestlings of passerines (and some other kinds of birds) bag up their poop into a neat little receptacle called a fecal sac, which is essentially a white mucous membrane filled with poop. Parents either carry them away or eat them to keep the nest clean and tidy. Some accounts say that robins will eat the sacs when the nestling are young, as they contain much undigested food, and then carry them away toward the end of the nesting period when the birds (and sacs) are much bigger. Not so with Camille—she ate them until the very end, even when the globs became quite large.

On Day 3 I could clearly hear tiny vocalizations from the babies when Mom approached or perched on the nest. Also, dark pterylae (feather tracks from which their contour feathers arise) were now visible.

Day 3

And then there were two
Day 4 was uneventful, and except for some hot afternoon sun on the nest causing heat stress, everything seemed fine. One of them was a little bigger and stronger looking than the other two; no doubt the first to hatch. At the end of Day 4, Rick saw all three gaping as usual when Camille landed on the nest. The next morning, after watching the nest for some time, I realized that I could only see two babies. After Camille left to forage I opened the window and took photos to see if I could detect the third chick in an enlargement. After downloading, I was devastated: One of the babies must have died during the night and apparently was carried off by Camille (no one was found beneath the nest on the ground).

Day 5

Nestling mortality is usually either due to predation or starvation, but I have doubts about a predator attack, for several reasons: More than one nestling would likely be missing; being a light sleeper I would have heard something outside the window; no predators were ever seen near the nest, and there would probably be some damage to the nest (in the case of a large predator like a raccoon). It’s impossible to know for sure, but most likely the cause was starvation of the youngest who may have been nearly a day younger than the first to hatch. Although they all looked close in size, with a smaller body mass compared to siblings, he might not have been able to compete for food, and the afternoon heat may have weakened him further. One study showed that most starvation occurred late in the season due to reduced availability of earthworms. If only I had known it was that dire, I would have put out more meal worms! Reportedly, only about 25 percent of nests are “successful,” defined as producing just one baby robin, so they’ve got it rough. No wonder they have more than one brood.

Brother and sister?
Their rate of growth was incredibly rapid and daily changes were obvious, especially when comparing photographs. After the fifth day we could see their individuality. One was larger and appeared about a day ahead of the other. His eyes opened a day sooner (on Day 5), his feathers grew in sooner, and he basically just looked stronger. The other was a bit scrawny-looking and we wondered about gender differences, even at this young age.

Day 6_

Day 6

 

Day 9

Day 9

 

As they matured, I began to think the larger one might be male, especially when feathers on his head appeared darker. I named him “Big Boy” and the smaller one “Lilla” (Swedish for little). Cornell Lab of Ornithology mentions that male juveniles “may have fewer pale shafts on the crown, larger and blacker spots on the breast, and upperparts may average darker than in females.” Later it appeared that perhaps my guess was correct.

The only worry now was the heat: During their first week, temperatures were in the mid-80s and on Day 2 they were showing heat stress by doing an avian version of panting called gular fluttering, in which birds rapidly flap membranes in their throats to increase evaporation. The second week, temperatures soared into the low 100s and I read that young birds are more likely to die from excessive heat that cold. Rick and I to put our heads together and created a shade barrier that we hoped would help during the hottest part of the afternoon. Up went part of an old bedsheet that we managed to hook on nearby branches as high as we could. While it didn’t create a lot of shade, it did supply some after 5 PM. I hate to think what would have happened had the heat come during incubation (eggs rarely hatch at air temperatures over 104ºF).

Gular fluttering on Day 11.

Gular fluttering on Day 11.

 

Day 12

A hot Day 12.


The empty nest
Young robins typically leave the nest (fledge) 14 to 16 days after hatching. On August 4 (Day 13), Big Boy ventured to the edge of the nest and sat there, no doubt knowing the this would be one of the most dangerous times of his life. I saw him perch twice and go back to his sister, who wasn’t too keen on taking on the world just yet. The next day, in the middle of the afternoon following a fruity snack provided by Mom, Big Boy again sat on the nest’s edge. Then, all of a sudden, he bravely took to his wings for the first time. It was a short, shaky downward flight that took him into our neighbor’s yard where I could no longer see him.

Big Boy, an hour before he left the nest.

I knew Camille would go after him to ensure his safety and to reassure him during this terrifying time, and I assumed she’d return to Lilla in a fairly short time. I was curious how long she would spend with Big Boy out on his own, so we took turns watching the nest. When three hours rolled by and Lilla was calling out for her mother, I began to worry. Fledglings need their parents to teach them all about dangers and how to stay out of harm’s way, and to feed them for the first few days and then teach them how to forage for themselves.

Finally, after a long three and a half hours, Lilla returned to the nest to feed Lilla. What a relief to me, but also to Lilla who had never been separated from Camille for so long! We wondered how long she would stay in the nest by herself.

Lilla, alone in the nest

A heat-stressed Lilla, alone in the nest.

Early the next morning, Day 15, I was lying in bed pinned down by a sleepy cat. I heard robin voices outside the window and wondered what all the commotion was about, but didn’t want to mess with the sleeping beauty. Then, silence. When I finally managed to get to the window, she was gone. Little Lilla was now a fledgling, and the nest was silent and empty.

Though Camille was probably relieved to have her offspring finally fledge, I was a mess. Watching these selfless little birds had filled me with a sense of calm and made me temporarily forget the troubles of the world. The bond I built with them, though totally one-sided, was real and deep (and we didn’t even get to say goodbye!). Viewing the nest now was just an excuse to tear up, and it didn’t help that they were now out of sight, in the neighbor”s “pesticide marinaded yard,” as Rick describes it. But two mornings later, when I saw Big Boy perched inside our leafy fig tree, wisely trying to remain unseen, pragmatism reminded me that fledglings must turn into successful adult birds—they need to hone their foraging techniques, learn their species’ song, form social relationships, and recognize good breeding habitat when they see it—so that they too can reproduce. To help out, plates of wormy compost went into the back yard in the hopes of luring them away from pesticides.

Big Boy, Day 16

Big Boy, Day 16

 

Lilla on Day 19

Lilla, Day 19

 

Camille collects blueberry treats (Day 20).

Camille collects berry treats (Day 20).

 

The fledging period is complex and fascinating and I wish I could have witnessed more of it, but I caught glimpses of both Lilla and Big Boy a few more times as Camille fed them berries or worms. The last time I saw them with Camille was exactly three weeks after leaving the nest and they appeared to be well on their way to adulthood.

It’s now been 4.5 weeks and there are no signs of the juveniles, who are likely nearby but no longer dependent on their parents. They will wear their freckled juvenile plumage until autumn. Small groups of adults frequent our leaf litter now and then to forage together, so evidently breeding territories are now obsolete. This morning I photographed a robin who had the exact same eye ring as Camille, looking for blueberries.

Researchers say that only a quarter of young robins make it through their first year. I hope Big Boy and Lilla beat the odds.

So now you know.

______________________________

Want to help American robins?

♦ Avoid using pesticides.
♦ Provide open ground-foraging habitat that can accumulate leaf litter beneath trees.
♦ Grow fruit-bearing native trees and shrubs, such as madrone, serviceberry, and thimbleberry (in the Northwest), which are especially important for inexperienced juveniles.
♦ Allow muddy areas to remain for mud collecting and snails for females needing calcium.
♦ Install a bird bath in a quiet spot where it can easily be maintained and observed.
♦ Avoid pruning trees and shrubs in the spring and early summer when robins are building nests.
♦ Keep kitty indoors and discourage others from visiting your property.
♦ Prevent robins from being injured or killed by window collisions.

______________________________

© 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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The Best Way to Feed Hummingbirds in Warm Weather

Anna on columbine

Scorchingly hot weather is upon us in the Pacific Northwest, and it’s understandable to want to feed hummingbirds, but here’s the thing: Hummingbirds have no sense of smell and cannot tell if the sugar water in a feeder has gone bad. Deadly toxins can contaminate a sugar solution rather quickly in very warm weather—as fast as 24 hours—especially if the feeder receives some sunlight. Hummingbirds may become ill (and consequently more subject to predation) and even die from feeding at unattended feeders. And I don’t even want to think about a mother hummingbird’s nestlings who might starve to death after she’s been sickened by fermented sugar water that’s rich in mold and bacteria.

Anna on Penstemon ovatusReal flowers are best
To avoid all these potential dangers, I always recommend growing plants (preferably native to your area so that other species benefit as well) that provide natural nectar which contains micronutrients, unlike refined sugar. Besides the nutrition and safety of real nectar, you won’t have to deal with unwelcome insects at feeders. Hummingbirds may also consume a sugary liquid from trees and often forage where woodpeckers called sapsuckers create sapwells from which hummers feed. Keep in mind, too, that these amazing little birds do not live on nectar alone—their diet includes a surprisingly large amount of tiny insects (and spiders) for protein, and the best way to provide that is, again, with native plants (and no pesticides, of course!). And, needless to say, fresh water is essential for all birds.

Feeder recommendations
If you do feel a need to feed hummers via artificial feeders, here’s a handy chart for how often to clean and refill your feeder, courtesy the Wild Bird Shop:

Daily high temp / Frequency of cleaning/refilling
61-70º                   4-5 days
71-80º                   3 days
81-85º                   2 days
86º+                       daily

♦ Refill with just the amount of sugar solution that will be consumed in the time period according to the temperature range.
♦ Keep feeders in the shade.
♦ Choose feeders that don’t have tubes or removable parts, which are very difficult to keep clean. I like the HummZinger feeders, which are VERY easy to clean. Rinse well after cleaning with hot soapy water (no bleach).
♦ Stay away from the colored, pre-mixed commercially available solutions—natural nectar is colorless, and adding red dye is adding an unnecessary, unnatural, and possibly harmful chemical to the birds’ food. If your feeder doesn’t have red on it, simply hang a red ribbon next to the feeder.
♦ Only use white cane sugar in a ratio of 4 parts water (preferably filtered, w/o chlorine) to one part sugar. No honey, molasses, or syrups.

HummZinger

 

© 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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A Winter Treat for Wild Birds: Plant-Based Suet

Black-capped chickadees love peanut butter-coconut oil suet!

Black-capped chickadee, salivating over peanut butter-coconut oil suet.

 

Back by popular demand, here is my vegan “suet” recipe for wild birds trying to make it through cold weather. While the insects, fruit, or seeds provided by native plants are the best way to feed birds because those who eat at feeders are much more likely to get sick and spread disease, there are times when they could use some help getting through frigid days and nights. Small birds especially, with their remarkably rapid metabolism, need to find enough calories for the day but also build up fat reserves to get through their lengthy nighttime fasts—all in the course of the minimal daylight hours of winter. Young birds have it the toughest since they have to compete with mature birds who have better access to food and roosting sites. Despite their amazing abilities to get through cold stormy winters, some do die during especially stressful times.

Yellow-rumped warbler with a mouthful

This “suet” contains a lot of fat and protein and seems to be more appealing to birds than the traditional, animal-derived suet. It also lacks the probability of antibiotic and who-knows-what-else contamination, and the gross factor (Wikipedia describes “suet” as “the raw, hard fat of beef or mutton found around the loins and kidneys.” Yumm … ). And, the fats in this recipe used in place of the dead animal lipo—especially the coconut oil—pack in the health benefits. I strongly recommend using organic ingredients whenever possible considering the deplorable loss of birds to pesticides.

Bushtits awaiting their turn at the suet feeder

Bushtits anxiously awaiting their turn at the feeder.

This recipe also helps you avoid participating in the sheer misery and environmental destruction associated with animal agriculture. Of course, other solid fats have their pitfalls. I passionately avoid palm oil—the cheap fat linked to tropical deforestation, habitat degradation, climate change, animal cruelty, and indigenous rights abuses in the countries where it is produced—which seems to be found in almost every product under the sun these days. And while coconut oil, which I combine in this entree with peanut butter, is far from a perfect ingredient, it is slightly less problematic, especially if you buy organic and fair trade.

Which birds might flock to this suet? In my yard, a lone, very bossy male yellow-rumped warbler (“Rumpy,” pictured above) makes a point to come back every winter for “his” suet, but northern flickers, downy woodpeckers, bushtits, chickadees, juncos, and song sparrows are common patrons as well (with Rumpy’s permission, of course). Bewick’s wrens also occasionally drop in for lunch, as do a pair of golden-crowned sparrows.

 

vegan suet ingredients
Here is the recipe for one “cake.”
Bonus points if you use organic ingredients!

¼ cup coconut oil, preferably unrefined
¼ cup unsalted peanut butter, preferably chunky
⅛ cup + 1 tablespoon raw, unsalted sunflower seeds
⅛ cup + 1 tablespoon raw coarse corn meal (aka polenta)
⅛ cup + 1 tablespoon raw millet, hulled or not
2 tablespoons chopped raisins or other dried fruit, optional
Additional chopped unsalted peanuts or nuts, optional

Directions: Gently warm coconut oil over very low heat just until it starts melting. Remove from heat and stir in peanut butter, then other ingredients. If it’s still warm, allow it to cool, then spoon into a mold (small plastic storage containers work well) that will fit your feeder. Cover and freeze for at least an hour before popping it out of the container and placing outside.

TIPS:
♦ This suet is intended only for cold weather and will begin to soften at temperatures above 55º F or so. It will become a drippy mess if subjected to sunlight in such weather.
♦ To prevent disease transmission, be sure to scrub suet feeders with hot soapy water and rinse well before each refill.
♦ Place all bird feeders either within 2 feet of your house or at least 25 feet away, to reduce the chance of window strikes.
♦ Rotate bird feeder positions to reduce the likelihood of birds eating poop-contaminated food on the ground, and if you have more than one feeder, space them apart to keep birds from getting unnaturally close.
♦ To keep squirrels and other rodents at bay, hang feeder on a pole with a squirrel baffle.
♦ Suet feeders with tail props are nice for flickers who have long tails.
♦ Extra cakes may be stored in your freezer for several months.

downy female

Downy woodpeckers love this suet recipe!

 


© 2017 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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Be a Voice for Portland’s Trees!

Ponderosa pine

Portland is losing a great many valuable trees due to rampant development. After much public outrage and several committee and commission meetings/hearings later, Portland City Council will at last address the issue (temporarily) on Thursday, March 3, 2016. For more background info, please see this post.

Over the past couple of months, staff from the Bureau of Parks and Recreation and from the Bureau of Development Services developed proposals intended as tree preservation “stop-gap” measures until Portland’s entire tree code (Title 11) can be fully examined and reformed. Their proposals were then considered by the Planning and Sustainability Commission (PSC) and the Urban Forestry Commission (UFC). Subsequently, the PSC and the UFC each made separate recommendations to City Council. The initial staff proposals, the recommendations by the PSC and the UFC, and a table comparing those proposals and recommendations are available here. The UFC proposal appears to be the most reasonable and fair.

More recently, Commissioners Amanda Fritz and Dan Saltzman put together their own proposal (Fritz/Saltzman Proposal). Unfortunately, it’s possible that the council members will consider passing the Fritz/Saltzman proposal as is, even though it contains a number of weaknesses, such as exemptions for lots less than 5,000 sq. ft., exemptions for trees growing on city, commercial, and industrial properties, and a requirement that neighborhood notice be given only for trees greater than 36 inches (which are few). Their proposal essentially requires no real preservation.

Please offer testimony at the March 3 City Council meeting at 2 PM (Council Chambers at City Hall, 1221 SW 4th Ave). If that’s not possible, please email your comments (before March 3) to CCTestimony@portlandoregon.gov (or mail to 1221 SW 4th Ave., Room 130, Portland 97204).  It’s best to put the following suggested talking points into your own words.

♦ Portland’s urban forest is dwindling, with large, valuable trees being replaced by species (mostly nonnative) that are small in form and benefits. There are very few huge trees in the city, and it’s important to note that many species (even highly beneficial native ones) do not grow to a large diameter (or they are extremely slow-growing, as in the case of Oregon white oak). Removing young trees will eventually result in a lack of mature trees that are so aesthetically and ecologically appealing. The Urban Forestry Commission’s recommendations state that “… roughly no more than 2% of trees currently standing in Portland would benefit from [the Parks or BDS proposals]. The PSC proposal would affect ~4% of all trees currently being permitted for removal as tallied by BDS in August 2015.”

♦ The threshold for very large trees should be no more than 30 inches DBH (diameter at breast height).

♦ Mitigation is not preservation—it merely puts a price on trees and does not protect them. For those with enough money, it’s a weak and ineffectual disincentive. True preservation prohibits tree destruction and requires developers to protect and build around existing trees. To be most effective, mitigation should be based on size, but also species (especially native species), via inch-for-inch replacement for trees 20 inches or greater (with no cap on total fee). For smaller trees, the old fee-in-lieu of preservation should be updated with Urban Forestry’s current and actual costs of labor and materials for planting a tree and providing it with 2 years of care.

♦ Amendments should not include an exemption for lots less than 5,000 sq. ft. since valuable, healthy trees certainly do exist on small lots. The UFC considers it “a significant loophole that is likely to allow significant unregulated and unmitigated removal of significant trees during development … [and] recommends that these provisions apply to lots 3,000 sq. ft. and larger.”

♦ Amendments should apply to trees on private property, but also street trees and trees on city, commercial, and industrial land. Wildlife in need of trees to survive doesn’t care what type of land trees live on!

♦ At least 30 days notice should be given to neighbors and neighborhood associations for all trees greater than 20 inches DBH. Furthermore, Type II reviews should be implemented whenever there are plans to destroy significant trees.

♦ Amendments should only be temporary and be in effect for no more than 3 years.

♦ A complete and comprehensive overhaul of Title 11 is essential following implementation of a temporary stop-gap measure. It should be funded and undertaken ASAP.

© 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 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, hunt 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), 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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Improve Portland’s Tree Code to Save Important Trees


Western red cedar (Thuja plicata)

PLEASE NOTE: This post includes updates …

Portland is generally a pretty progressive city, and it’s one of the reasons that many of us choose to live here. Another reason is its natural beauty, much of which is supplied by trees. But today, no tree—even if it’s huge, healthy, native, and majestic—is safe anywhere in the city due to currently out-of-control development rules that favor developers and their bottom line. In times like these, with human-induced climate change poised to wreak havoc on the earth as we know it, tree preservation ought to be paramount.

Portland’s relatively new tree code (Title 11) has proved to be inadequate in that it currently does not require that any tree in a development situation be preserved. The code currently allows for the removal of 2/3 of a property’s trees, with just 1/3 retained. However, for a measly $1200 (maximum) “fee in lieu of preservation” per tree, a developer can destroy the third if they’re in his way, no questions asked. Moreover, properties less than 5,000 square feet and commercial/industrial zones are completely exempt from the code.

According to city records, tree removal permits for demolition and new construction during one month—August 2015—revealed that only 13 of 53 trees that were greater than 24 inches DBH (trunk diameter at breast height) were spared the chainsaw. Several of the trees destroyed during that month were greater than 42 inches DBH. Granted, one month is a small sample and not an average, but the point is that we cannot afford to lose any more quality trees. Portland’s tree canopy is shrinking: More trees are being removed than added, and the ones that are being planted are mainly those that grow to a small stature and are nonnative (read: poor ecological function).


 

(UPDATED Feb. 21, 2016) Speak up for voiceless trees and wildlife!

Two proposals—one from Urban Forestry’s office and one from the Bureau of Development Services­—were reviewed by the Planning and Sustainability Commission (January 12) and by the Urban Forestry Commission (January 21). Both proposals sought protections only for trees greater than 48 or 50 inches DBH and are lax in other ways. The two commissions made their own recommendations to City Council.

The PSC rejected both proposals and crafted their own motion. Their recommendation includes a reduction of the proposed 48 or 50-inch threshold to 36 inches, and a 30-day notice to neighbors and neighborhood associations (both steps in the right direction). Note: PSC member Mike Houck advocated for 20 inches. More details on PSC’s motion can be found here.

The Urban Forestry Commission also created their own recommendations, which stand out as the most reasonable and fair.

Commissioners Fritz and Salzman have come up with their own proposal and will present it to to City Council on March 3, 2016, at 2:00 PM (City Hall, 1221 SW 4th Ave.). Their proposal is weak in a number of ways.

Portland City Council will take public testimony on stop-gap tree preservation in development situations at the meeting noted above. If you can’t make it, please send in your comments to the council and Mayor Hales.


Trees over 48 inches DBH are extremely rare in Portland. In Wilshire Park, which is home
tree swallow nestto 346 trees (most of them mature Douglas-firs), we found that only two measured 48 inches DBH or just slightly greater. Under either proposal and if these trees were in development situations, only two of those 346 trees would be safe!

Large, mature trees are extremely important to wildlife for food and shelter, and they provide myriad other environmental benefits and, as such, ought to be protected. But we also need to recognize that we will have much fewer large trees in the future if developers are allowed to remove smaller trees that are in their way now.

Follow the Plan

The 2035 Portland Comprehensive Plan clearly states, “potential adverse impacts of development must be well understood and avoided where practicable. These policies also call for an evaluation of design alternatives to minimize negative impacts, and the use of mitigation approaches that fully mitigate unavoidable impacts.” It also recommends preserving Pacific Northwest native trees.

Title 11 does not provide incentive to keep trees, nor does it require consideration of design alternatives. A paltry “fee in lieu” cannot possibly fully mitigate the loss of ecologically and aesthetically significant trees that are part of our neighborhoods and region, and whose loss permanently impacts people and devastates wildlife. We must first seek to avoid, then minimize, and then—and only as a last resort—mitigate.

Mitigation as a last resort

When healthy, mature, life-giving trees are eliminated, it’s impossible to replicate their benefits. How can we possibly compensate for the sudden loss of something irreplaceable? What happens to dwindling, exhausted birds during their death-defying migrations who counted on certain trees as stopover habitat (places to take cover, rest, and feed)? Or those who need the trees to breed?

Planting a few sapling trees cannot supply the lost cover and food for wildlife any more than they can supply the shade, oxygen, and carbon sequestration provided by a mature tree. The graph at the end of the OAC’s recommendations shows how terribly long it takes for young replacement trees to begin to supply benefits (and some never will). Plus, the replacements are often smaller species and/or planted off site, possibly miles away, so the benefit to local wildlife is nonexistent.

All trees are not created equal

Preserving the towering, big-canopy trees that supply the most environmental and public health benefits (like cleaner air and water) makes perfect sense, but we also need to look at species as well as diameter. While large trees—especially conifers—are immensely important for wildlife, shade, and storm water mitigation, studies have concluded that certain tree types are enormously supportive of native insect herbivores, which provide essential food for wild species like birds.

But many valuable native trees do not grow large. In fact, some only grow to 20 inches DBH at maturity, at most. And others are so slow growing that even at age 50 they would not have the girth that would be considered “large.” Native oaks support the most insect herbivores (over 540 species of butterfly and moth, alone), but oaks—especially our beloved Oregon white oak (Quercus garryana)—mature at a slow rate and to reach even 30 inches DBH could take well over 100 years (depending on conditions)! Other highly productive and beautiful Willamette Valley native species, such as madrone (Arbutus menziesii), wild cherry (genus Prunus), and willow (genus Salix), do not grow to a large diameter.

We also need to consider the repercussions of removing trees that are, for example, preventing erosion on hillsides, providing a windbreak, or protecting nearby vegetation.

What do other progressive cities do?

Some cities have adopted regulations that could serve as a model for Portland. Vancouver, B.C. requires that all new houses be built on existing footprints; they do not allow a modest house to be destroyed and replaced with a 3,000 or 4,000 square foot home that no one needs and does not contribute to urban density. Lake Oswego requires  “Removal of the tree will not have a significant negative impact on erosion, soil stability, flow of surface waters, protection of adjacent trees, or existing windbreaks” and “Removal of the tree will not have a significant negative impact on the character, aesthetics, or property values of the neighborhood. The City may grant an exception to this criterion when alternatives to the tree removal have been considered and no reasonable alternative exists to allow the property to be used as permitted in the zone. In making this determination, the City may consider alternative site plans or placement of structures or alternate landscaping designs that would lessen the impact on trees, so long as the alternatives continue to comply with other provisions of the Lake Oswego Code.”

How you can help

If you believe that Title 11’s lack of protection for trees and its wholly inadequate mitigation provisions need to be changed, I encourage you to offer comments or simply show your support at either of the above mentioned meetings. I attended and testified at several of the OAC meetings this past fall and I can tell you that they do listen and consider sensible comments. My suggestion that the value of small and/or slow-growing native trees be considered in their recommendations did make it into their memorandum.

If you can’t make the meetings you may send written comments (with your name and address) via email to: trees@PortlandOregon.gov

Some suggested comments:

♦ Remove the Title 11 exemptions for small lots and commercial and industrial land

♦ Avoid destruction by requiring design alternatives to cutting

♦ Require a site review process with public involvement for trees greater than 20 inches DBH

♦ Require a mandatory posting/public notice and notification to neighborhood associations of least 30 days before any tree greater than 20 inches DBH is destroyed

♦ Consider tree species, giving special consideration to the superior ecological value of Willamette Valley native trees, no matter their eventual size

♦ Use mitigation as a last resort, adding an inch-for-inch protocol, at least $300 per inch for healthy trees greater than 20 inches DBH, and $500 per inch for native species, and changing the 1/3 preservation rule to apply to preservation of caliper inches of trees on site, not just number of trees on site.

♦ Apply these improvements to both private and public trees

♦ Instigate a thorough examination and repair of Title 11 following this emergency measure

© 2016 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.

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! 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. While large, commercial buildings may pose the most danger, any unobstructed, reflective window can kill. Birds that 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.

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 couple of 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.
♦ 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.

Other 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.

UPDATE: The City of Toronto has released a well-illustrated publication, Bird-Friendly Best Practices: Glass. It’s well worth a read.


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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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 flowers 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 prevent 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 (it naturally occurs 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 early 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.


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.


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. 5-8 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 (undercomposed chips and bark can deplete soil of nitrogen during breakdown).

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 do much better at supporting local insects than nonnative species, and shows 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 scarlet oak, which is related to 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 it this way: 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, 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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Attract Butterflies with Northwest Native Plants and More

Red admiral butterfly

It’s so delightful when a lovely butterfly (is there any other kind?) floats into our yard. Each year, as soon as June rolls around, I catch glimpses of gorgeous Western tiger swallowtails and orangey Painted ladies flitting here and there, as well as the occasional Mourning Cloak in the vicinity of our octogenarian American elm tree, one of its host plants. This summer I’ve noticed, for the first time, a Red Admiral butterfly (Vanessa atalanta) gliding in now and then. This species is reportedly rather territorial and will stay in one area for days or even weeks, so I hope to see her again. She’s apparently attracted to the heat radiating from the rocks on the west-facing side of our veggie garden, as well as the white trellis that supports our cucumber plants, and this morning she surprised me by landing on the white shirt I was wearing. She was near some native wallflower (Erysimum capitatum) plants growing nearby, but I’m not certain she used them.

Red admirals aren’t very fussy about habitat, but for food they prefer sap from trees, fermented fruit, and bird droppings—yes, you read that right—from which they obtain nutrients, such as amino acids and salts that are necessary physiologically, behaviorally, and ecologically. Many butterfly species and some other insects consume droppings as well, and don’t get me started on the fascinating spider that masquerades as bird poop to hide from predators. Flower nectar is actually a second choice for red admirals, who only forage at flowers—such as aster, milkweed, penstemon, fireweed and wallflower—when sap, fruit, and droppings aren’t available.

But as you may know, butterflies need much more than food to survive and reproduce; they also need plants on which they can lay their eggs. These can’t be just any old plants; they need to be the kind that their larvae can feed on (as their ancestors have done for millennia) as they grow into pupa (chrysalis), that awkward metamorphic stage before adulthood. Some butterflies aren’t terribly picky and may be able to lay their eggs on four or five different plant species, but others, like monarchs and red admirals, can use only one species.

My butterfly reference tells me that red admirals lay their eggs only on plants of the nettle family (Urtica spp.), something I’ve never grown. Uh-oh. As I began pondering where the heck in my yard I could grow it, I suddenly remembered a wonderful nettle soup that I had at an equally wonderful villa on the west coast of Sweden some years back. It’s not only edible; it’s one of those “super foods” that are extremely rich in nutrients and purportedly very cleansing.

So now I’m on a mission to grow some native stinging nettle (Urtica dioica)—a bit for us to eat, but mostly for the butterflies. It turns out that the Satyr comma butterfly also uses only nettle as a host plant, although they are reportedly rather rare in parts of their range and it’s highly unlikely I’ll ever see one in my urban yard. I prefer to grow it myself, so that the wild stuff in wilder places can be left to the butterflies. But first I’ll have to carefully figure out where to plant it … and buy some stinger-proof gloves. Or maybe I should just stick with providing for species that don’t need such outrageously prickly plants.

© 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.

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 tiny espresso cup-sized nest 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 egg incubation had begun.

About 18 days later (on March 8), 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 were able to wriggle their little bottoms toward the edge of the nest and squirt a little poop outside of it, keeping the nest clean.

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 they 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 so much 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.  –ES

The baby fledged the very next day, which was a fairly warm, dry one. The following day, curiosity got the best of me and my husband. With a ladder we inspected the nest since no one would now get distressed at our nosing around. 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, I 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.


© 2017 Eileen M. Stark

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Ban Neonicotinoids in Portland

painted lady butterfly

The most widely used pesticides in the world, neonicotinoids (often called neonics) are a highly toxic, pervasive, relatively new class of insecticide. Following massive bee die-offs from neonic applications in the U.S. and Canada, last year Eugene became the first U.S. city to ban the use of neonics from city property. Similar bans in Seattle, Sacramento, and Spokane quickly trailed, and now Portland’s City Council is considering comparable—and crucial—affirmative policy at the local level, since higher government continually fails to offer protection from this growing environmental threat. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service decided last year to phase out neonics in its wildlife refuges, making it the first federal agency to restrict neonics, but the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has yet to act.

Hundreds of studies indicate that neonics are wreaking environmental havoc: They not only disastrously kill or debilitate native bees, honeybees, and other pollinators like butterflies and moths, but also other ecosystem members such as birds, aquatic species, and mammals. Neonics are systemic, taken up through a plant’s vascular system and exuded in the pollen and nectar. Even miniscule amounts adversely affect central nervous and immune systems, cumulatively and irreversibly. If a victim such as a bumblebee isn’t killed outright, its failed immune system will succumb to ostensibly “natural” parasites and pathogens like Bombus bifarius on Aster foliaceusfungal, viral or bacterial infections. Birds—the majority of which consume and feed their young insects—may be poisoned directly or go hungry due to a lack of insect biomass; scientists predict widespread reproductive dysfunction in birds due to neonic exposure.

Since neonics are water soluble, they are very prone to runoff and groundwater infiltration where they accumulate and persist for any years. Aquatic contamination has reached toxic levels in some areas and is expected to cause serious and far-reaching impacts on aquatic food chains.

The cumulative, persistent, and irreversible nature of neonics ought to raise some serious red flags. Human children may also be at risk to this neurotoxic class of pesticides due to their developing bodies and immune systems and tendency to be exposed to problematic substances while playing outdoors.

What we can do

We can voice our support for the proposed ordinance—which also recommends that local retailers label plants, seeds, and products containing neonics—by contacting Portland’s mayor and commissioners by March 31. Personally, I’d love to see this ban go further, as would Commissioner Amanda Fritz, but a ban on city property is a good first step.

We can also take action at home by eliminating pesticides and growing beautiful wildlife-friendly gardens. Besides chemicals, another major threat to wildlife is the lack of natural foraging areas. In our own yards we can attract and feed pollinators by including a variety of nonhybridized—preferably native—plants that will collectively flower from early spring through fall. Native plants that naturally occur in our region are best for all indigenous fauna because they supply the food and shelter that wild species require to survive and they need no synthetic pesticides or fertilizers.

 

© 2015 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 breed 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 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 is speculated that it 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 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. Both Mr. and Mrs. Chickadee explore their territory for nest sites and usually several are partially excavated before a decision is made (they 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). 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. 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 the “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 to 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 around 6,000 bits of food, on average, 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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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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City Birds, Country Birds: Who Lives Longest?

American robin (juvenile) © 2014 Richard P. Weber

A study published recently in the journal Ecology reveals that some birds actually might live longer in urban or suburban settings, which ought to persuade those of us living in such areas to continue or strengthen our welcome of wild species in our yards.

Researchers used data collected over a 12-year period by “citizen scientists” to determine whether some species fared better in rural areas vs. much more heavily populated ones in the vicinity of Washington D.C./Maryland. Some native birds, like American crows, and nonnative species such as rock doves and house sparrows have long been known to flourish in urban areas. But for most bird species, the extensive loss of natural habitat and the increase of human disturbance generally cause profoundly negative effects on their lives.

In this study, four species coped better than their more sensitive country cousins. Gray catbirds (rarely found west of the Cascades) and northern cardinals (found mainly in the eastern half of the US) were found to live longer in urban areas than rural, whereas American robins and song sparrows apparently live longer in suburban spaces than rural. Three other east coast species studied showed no difference in longevity in the various habitats.

The study’s authors acknowledge that further study is necessary. For one thing, longevity doesn’t necessarily mean that the birds are successfully breeding and are without stresses; the study didn’t investigate the fecundity of the birds (reproduction often declines due to constant city noise and the acoustics of human-made hard surfaces, both of which make it difficult for birds to communicate), and the birds they studied are those that have adapted, to some extent, to the presence of people and our machines, impermeable surfaces, and lights. Needless to say, the multitude of species that need quiet, undisturbed habitat, or have very specific needs can’t be studied in populated areas since they typically wouldn’t be found there.

Nonetheless, the results show that some species are more adaptive to our presence than others (such as the varied thrush that requires dark, peaceful, mature forests in which to breed). Although urban and suburban areas generally host more predators (dogs, cats, and raptors attracted to bird feeders), roads and vehicles, noise, reflective glass, and chemicals, the more adaptive birds may respond well to backyard bird feeders, artificial nest boxes, dead wood, and water sources, and the renewed interest in growing native plants in our yards. It’s highly likely that they are also able to live longer because most of their natural predators have been driven away or killed off.


© 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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Help Hummingbirds Survive the Cold

Anna's hummingbird
Baby, it’s cold out there!

I haven’t seen many birds around the past couple of cold, extremely windy days, except for a few brave crows and the Anna’s hummingbirds I feed with sugar nectar (not as nutritious as real flower nectar, but it gets them through these frigid days and nights). The songbirds are likely OK and are just conserving their energy to try to keep warm.

Although hummingbirds are able to go into a state of torpor when it gets really cold, lowering their body temperature and metabolic rate so that it takes less energy to keep warm, they are still vulnerable to the elements. Providing nectar could make the difference between life and death for these adorable flying jewels.

TIP: Remember to take your hummingbird feeders in after nightfall and then put them back outside in the morning at first light to make sure they wake up to a liquid breakfast, not a frozen mass of crystals. When daytime temperatures get below freezing the hummers will also appreciate it if you take their feeder in occasionally during the day, too, when possible, to thaw it out. If you have an extra feeder, rotate them so there’s always some nectar available.

TIP: Use a ratio of 1 part granulated sugar to 4 parts water (do not increase the sugar content—doing so could cause birds to dehydrate, possibly leading to death). Always keep feeders clean (but never use bleach) and change nectar every 4-5 days, more often when the weather warms or if the feeder is in direct sunlight.

TIP: Choose feeders that are easy to clean, without nooks and crannies that can harbor pathogens. My favorite: HummZinger feeders.

TIP: If there’s a porch light near your hummer feeder, turn it on temporarily as the light wanes in the afternoon—it could give the birds a little extra time to feed before they retire for the night. But then turn it off to cut down on light pollution.

TIP: After the weather warms, take away the feeder and supply nutritious flowering native plants instead. In the Pacific Northwest, consider cascara trees, red-flowering currant, Oregon grape, and huckleberry shrubs, native honeysuckle vines, and perennials like western columbine, penstemon, and goldenrod.

© 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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