Friday, July 31, 2009

Weeding can be rewarding

Every garden has a few weeds sprouting their ugly heads through the blooms that have been carefully planted and cared for. It seems as though they appear over night sometimes. One day the beds look well tended, and the next day there's another colony of weeds to take their place.

Many of the plants we detest in our garden beds, including crabgrass, ground ivy, plantain, chickweed, and wood sorel, amoung others, are incredible survivalists. Incomplete removal of the root system gives life to another clone to fill in the space. Their seeds are capable of surviving years of dormancy in the upper soil layers until just the right conditions of moisture, light, and nutrients become available. Every weed we pull exposes another seed in the soil waiting to emerge from dormancy. It seems that we perpetuate the need to weed with each weed we pull.

Thankfully there are simple rewards that accomodate the vicious cycle of weeding. My 90 minutes in the garden on Thursday afternoon brought a number of these small benefits to my attention:

The rapid, spilling notes of a House Wren keeping a watchful eye on my activities from the edge of the fence. Many of the garden's insects have filled its belly over the course of the summer.

The Monarch caterpillar who's presence was discovered while thinning a patch of unruly wood sorel from around it's milkweed host plant. These plants will sustain both larvae and adult.

A Eastern Tiger Swallowtail Butterfly sipping nectar from the blooms standing tall over the Purple Coneflower. Pollination will create seeds for feathered visitors as summer changes to autumn.

A Honey Bee with full pollen sacks refueling on nectar from the blooms of the Butterfly Bush before returning to the hive. The resulting honey will hopefully sustain the colony through the coming year's winter.

A female Widow Skimmer dragonfly resting between flights around the yard and garden in pursuit of insect prey. She must keep her strength in order the lay the eggs necessary for next summer's dragonflies.

And the reward of ripening Wine Berries on the way to the compost heap. A refreshing reward for an hour and a half of bending, pulling, and stuffing unwanted weeds from the garden soil into my buckets. Their unwanted bodies will decompose to enrich the soil of garden some time in the future.

Take time to enjoy nature's simple rewards this weekend.

-Adam Zorn, Naturalist

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Summertime is Hummertime

The gardens around the the cottage and museum were planted for a strong summer bloom. We didn't specifically intend to do it that way, but that's how it seems to have worked out. One of our greatest pleasures is watching the bees and butterflies bouncing from flower to flower in the early morning and afternoon sun. It's interesting for us to watch how each of the bees, butterflies, and other insects clamber over the blooms to consume nectar and/or collect pollen. And one of the greatest thrills in the summer garden are the hummingbirds.

Hummingbirds are some of the smallest birds in the world. The Ruby-throated Hummingbird, our only species common in the eastern-half of the U.S., weighs in at a mere 0.1-0.2 ounces. It would take 2-3 hummingbirds to weigh the same as a Black-capped Chickadee! Though small in size, they appear to be a bundle of energy as the zip through the flower garden sipping nectar from various species of flowers.

Nectar is a supplement to their diet of insects. Many people falsely believe hummers rely solely on their flowers or nectar feeders for food. The nectar is used as a quick energy boost to keep the metabolism cranking along at near-light speed. A number of small insects and spiders are comsumed by the adults each day throughout the summer and these protein-rich insects are also fed to nestlings to help them develop fast and strong.

A pesticide-free garden is the best means of attracting hummingbirds to your home. Plenty of nectar-producing flowers and a nectar feeder will provide plenty of the sugar needed to boost their energy throughout the day. Avoiding pesticide use will also ensure plenty of insect food for the hummers around your garden as well. Like all birds, hummingbirds set up territories based on available food supplies. If you garden provide much of what they need, they're sure to stick around.

It is crucial that hummingbirds have a consistent supply of food due the high energy demands of their flight. With wings beating anywhere from 50 to 80 times per SECOND, they must consistently refuel throughout the day. The amazing number of wingbeats per second allow hummingbirds to fly in nearly any direction, in addition to hovering in place. Looking at the picture below, you can see the camera captured a portion of the hummingbird's amazing wingbeats. Looking carefully at the bird's left wing, the blur shows a tinge of the figure-8 motion that allows them to hover in place. This is similar to how a swimmer would tread water without the use of their legs. Both of the hummers photographed are females. Males have a bright, ruby red throat patch as their name implies.
Providing nectar and nectar-rich plants is a surefire way of attracting these feathered jewels to your yard. A simple hummingbird feeder costs less than twenty dollars and is even cheaper to fill. A homemade nectar solution can be made combining 1 part sugar to 4 parts water (ex. 1/4 cup of sugar mixed into 1 cup of water). Avoid buying commercial sugar solutions that contain red dye. This dye is unneccessary to attract hummingbirds and is potentially harmful in the great quantities that a single hummingbird may consume (think about how your body might react to drinking equivalent amounts of juice with red dye in it). Wash and refill your nectar feeders every couple of days in hot weather to avoid mold growth inside the feeder.

A few of our hummingbird's favorite flowers are pictured below. You'll notice the color trend, though hummers are attracted to all nectar-producing flowers regardless of color. Flowers with a tube shape are particularly appealing as well. Many great options are available at local nurseries in both annual and perenial varieties.

Bee Balm (Monarda didyma)

Trumpet Creeper Vine (Campsis radicans)

Cardinal Flower (Lobelia cardinalis)

Butterfly Weed (Asclepias tuberosa)

-Adam Zorn, Naturalist

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Great Blue Heron

I recently spotted a Great Blue Heron (Ardea herodias) along the shore of Bechtel Lake. These very large members of the Heron Family, which includes herons, egrets and bitterns, are the most widespread species of heron in North America. They typically stalk the shallow waters of oceans, bays, rivers, marshes, lakes, and ponds in search of fish, amphibians, and reptiles, but will also consume invertebrates, birds, and small mammals.

Seeing one at Bechtel Lake is a rare treat. These typically shy birds spook easily from the shores of the lake at the first sight or sound of human presence. It's also a bit difficult for these large fliers to readily escape the confines of the lake due to all of the large trees that surround the shore.

I was able to capture the photo below as the most recently sighted bird attempted to make it's escape over the treetops. It took 2-1/2 laps above the surface of the water for the bird to gain enough altitude to fly over the trees and across the property. One day I'd like to see one of these magnificent birds come in for a landing at the lake.
The above photo shows the typical body posture of a Great Blue Heron (GBH) in flight. The large wings, spanning 6 feet from tip to tip, beat very slowly but with an even pace. The neck is coiled close to the body and the long legs trail straight behind the bird's body. At a distance, they almost appear to be flying backwards due to their strange silhouette.

Along the shores of our lakes and reservoirs, GBHs are seen in this typical pose. The body is held nearly horizontal with the neck slightly bent. They slowly move along the edge of the water searching for all manner of prey. The long neck uncoils with lightening speed as the heron reaches out to grab or stab is prey with the long sharp beak.
The GBH can be easily identified from other species of herons and egrets by it's large size (standing nearly 4-ft tall) and blue-gray plummage. The next largest wading bird in our area is the Great Egret (Ardea alba) which is nearly as large but has completely white plummage.

-Adam Zorn, Naturalist

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Butterfly Quiz: Answers

And the answers are...
Great Spangled Fritillary (Speyeria cybele)

Monarch (Danaus plexippus)

Eastern Tiger Swallowtail (Papilio glaucus)

Silver-spotted Skipper (Epargyreus clarus)
As evidenced by the photos, each of these species relies on nectar as a primary food source. This is why they are attracted to flowers, especially those that provide a consistent supply of nectar. Many of the plants chosen for our wildlife gardens at the sanctuary were chosen for their nectar-producing qualities.
A few of our favorite butterfly plants include:
  • Butterfly Bush (Butterfly spp.)
  • Butterfly Weed (Asclepias tuberosa)
  • Purple Coneflower (Echinacea purpurea)
  • Black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia spp.)
  • Joe-Pye Weed (Eupatorium spp.)
  • Asters (Aster spp.)
  • Goldenrod (Solidago spp.)

Try introducing one or two of the above plant species to your lawn or garden and see if the number of butterflies you observe increases.

-Adam Zorn, Naturalist

Monday, July 13, 2009

Butterfly Quiz

Days and days of rain have finally given way to sunshine. Summer's flowers have begun to bloom thanks to a week's worth of decent weather. With an abundance of flowering plants comes a long parade of insect pollinators eager to consume nectar and gather pollen. Aside from bees, butterflies are some of the most easily recognized visitors to the sanctuary's gardens.

Can you identify these four common species of butterflies that are frequently visiting the sanctuary's gardens, fields, and meadows?

Each of these beautiful insects were photographed on one of the Butterfly Bushes (Buddleia sp.) located near the Museum and Naturalist Cottage. Even a modestly sized garden such as ours can attract numerous species of butterflies, bees, and other pollinators.

Feel free to leave your answer to the butterfly quiz in the comments section of this post and I'll post the answers on Wednesday.

-Adam Zorn, Naturalist