Creating a wildlife haven one plant at a time

Monday, February 8, 2016

Winter is the Best Time for Backyard Birding

Watching birds is one of my favorite ways to spend time outdoors during the winter months. When the trees stand stark and the temperatures drop, studying birds is much easier. I no longer have to search out the birds to view their behavior, they come to me. Winter is certainly the hottest time for birding action in our garden.

Tufted Titmouse

Once the insects have withdrawn for the winter. After the fruits and berries have been devoured from the trees and shrubs. When the seeds from native perennials, grasses and forbs are scarce, birds flock to the feeders.

Winter, especially February, can be a harsh time for birds. Supplementing wild food sources with backyard bird feeders will bring these special visitors closer to your home and may help them survive the harshest season.

Ruby-crowned kinglet
Offering several styles of feeders, each with a different type of seed, berry or fruit will attract a larger variety of birds. Project Feeder Watch has assembled a helpful list of common feeder birds by region and what they like to eat. 

Northern Cardinal (female) and White-throated Sparrow

Early morning conversations at the feeders provide, not only great photo opportunities, but loads of entertainment. Song birds are especially busy in the early hours, filling up with high energy seeds after an arctic night. Birds store energy as fat and can only stock 16 to 24 hours of energy at a time. This is why early mornings and just before dark are the busiest feeding times. Often, birds have to wait patiently in line for a turn at the bustling buffet.

Eastern Bluebird and White-throated Sparrow

And then there are some birds, like the red-bellied woodpecker, who just fly in and take command.

Red-bellied Woodpecker

Winter is an excellent time to observe birds that don't normally frequent backyard feeders. I've noticed that bluebirds become braver and find the gusto to dash in and mingle with other song birds when temperatures are frigid.

Eastern Bluebird

You can learn more about the special feeding needs of bluebirds in winter here.

Eastern Bluebird (male)

Robins are a common sight on lawns tugging at earthworms, but have you ever seen one visiting your feeder? Surprisingly, they are attracted to several different feeders including suet and hulled sunflower seeds. Try putting up a fruit or meal worm station and see if they come.

American Robin

Some birds will collect seeds during summer and fall hiding them for times when food is more limited. I often observe woodpeckers caching sunflower seeds in tree cavities. They can only hope that other birds or animals don't find their stash.

Red-bellied Woodpecker

Birds have extremely high metabolisms, and cold weather increases their caloric needs. The body temperature of birds, which ranges from 104 to 113 degrees Fahrenheit, determines how high their metabolism is. In winter, birds need to produce more heat to stay warm.

Eastern Bluebird (female)

Some birds, such as the Carolina Chickadee, will go into nocturnal torpor, which lowers their body temperature, heart rate and breathing to conserve energy. This practice can save as much as 20% of their energy.

Carolina Chickadee

Some song birds wear a much different coat in winter, than during breeding season, making them much less flashy. Take the American Goldfinch, who dresses down for winter in a drab olive cloak. A stark contrast to his bright canary yellow in summer.

American Goldfinch

Like mammals, some birds will grow more feathers for winter to keep warm. The American Goldfinch has 1,000 more feathers in winter than summer. Smart bird!

Birds use their feathers to stay warm. You may observe birds perched on tree limbs, fences or in shrubs looking plump and pudgy. By puffing up their feathers, they trap in air allowing their body heat to warm up the air between their feathers and body, providing an additional layer of insulation against the cold.


Birds will also sleep with their bill under their wing feathers to breathe in the warm air.

Hairy Woodpecker

Constant shivering increases their body temperature (thermogenosis). This produces heat at 5 times their normal rate.

Hermit Thrush

Now, you may be wondering about their exposed feet. Birds' feet are bones covered in a rough skin, which unlike humans' feet, contains very little water. The blood vessels in their legs are also designed to keep their feet warm. Arteries keep warm blood flowing from the heart down to their legs.

Pine Warbler

Dehydration is actually a bigger threat to birds than starvation in winter. Providing a heated bird bath will attract lots of birds to your garden when fewer non-frozen water sources exist. In addition to drinking, water is needed for preening feathers. Without proper preening, feathers won't stay in position and aligned, causing gaps where heat can escape, thus lowering the birds body temperature.

American Robin

Backyard birders and feeder watchers like me can help document the diversity of birds in your area this weekend (February 12-15, 2016) by participating in the Great Backyard Bird Count. This citizen-science project helps document birds in rural, urban and natural areas. For more information on this engaging and educational event click here.

Downy Woodpecker
With a little effort you can attract a diverse group of birds to your garden when little else is happening. Simply meeting birds' food, water and shelter needs can make winter your top birding season too.

Thursday, February 4, 2016

Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers and their Feeding Holes

The only completely migratory woodpecker in the Eastern U.S., the yellow-bellied sapsucker (Sphyrapicus varius), is one of my favorite winter visitors to our woods. I've written about them before, which you can read here. But, today I'm focusing on their feeding holes.

Male yellow-bellied sapsucker taking a quick peek at what I'm doing

This fairly shy bird is more often heard than seen, but a walk through our forest reveals all the signs of its presence. Rings of closely spaced holes band trees, especially the maples and hickories. These holes are often mistaken for insect damage; however, insect damage will have fewer, smaller holes that are more randomly placed. This tree has been a repeat customer for these industrious woodpeckers.

Sapsuckers bore two types of holes into trees. Round holes extend deep into the xylem, where the sapsuckers lick up sap that is moving up into the branches.

yellow-bellied sapsucker sapwells

After the trees leaf out, shallow, square holes, that penetrate the phloem, ooze sap that they lap up with their short brushy tongues. These shallow holes must continually be maintained for sap to flow.

a close look at the holes created by sapsuckers

Phloem tree sap has a similar content to flower nectar. Other animals, who like this free-flowing sap are also attracted to these holes such as chipmunks, bats, hummingbirds, orioles, warblers, nuthatches and butterflies. Conversely, in early spring you may see yellow-bellied sapsuckers visiting your hummingbird or oriole nectar feeders.

New holes are made in the same, horizontal line as older holes or a new line directly above the old one. This makes for an unmistakable pattern.

This tree has been a favorite of this male sapsucker this winter. See how well he blends in with the bark. His mottled feathers against the tree trunk look like shadows and dappled sunlight. It is only when he lifts his head revealing a flashy bright red head or when he clings to the side of the trunk that he is more noticeable. Of course the drilling will give him away every time.

Sapsuckers will use many species of trees and woody plants, but they prefer trees with higher sugar content such as paper/yellow birch, hickory and sugar/red maple. They are often seen in the Southeast in hickory/pine/oak forests.

The main source of food for yellow-bellied sapsuckers, however, isn't sap, but insects such as beetles, ants, moths and dragonflies. However, when they visit our garden during the winter months, insects are not always readily available. They will eat  fruit and berries if they can find them and when those are scarce they go for the sap.

Not everyone appreciates these active birds, but I enjoy having them around. It is relatively rare for a tree to die from numerous rows of wells. I have yet to see it happen in our woods and we have many that are decorated with their artistic drilling. Besides, the death of a tree is part of the dynamic nature of woodland habitats.

These vibrant woodpeckers will be leaving us in spring to make their journey to their breeding ground in the northern U.S. and Canada. Hummingbirds often follow their migration using sapsucker holes as a source of nectar and protein when blooms are sparse.

Thursday, January 28, 2016

A Stumpery Garden, Going Back to the Roots

A stumpery is an intentional arrangement of woody material like tree trunks and root wads that serve as structural elements for plants in a shade garden.

The first known stumpery was created by marine artist, botanical illustrator and gardener, Edward William Cooke in 1856 at Biddulph Grange, a very forward thinking garden in the day; in fact, the earliest example of a garden being divided into a series of smaller rooms. Land clearing had left debris and chaotic piles of wood, which visionary Cooke created into 10' walls on either side of a path and planted them out with ferns. These stumperies where the vehicle that launched the obsession with ferns in Victorian England. That, and people realized how ferns reproduced themselves and it was considered more appropriate for ladies to collect and grow ferns because of the lack of obvious reproductive parts. The fern-crazed Victorians repeated the concept of a stumpery across Britain in the 19th century.

Last summer, several gardening friends came together for the illustrious Festival of Flowers in Greenwood, South Carolina. We made a detour to visit the garden of Billie and John Elsley, who have a show stopping woodland garden. In this post, I'm sharing images of their amazing stumpery garden. We've left stumps in our woodland garden for years, but I was not familiar with the term 'stumpery' until I met the Elsleys. I love the term and feel very connected with its English roots.

Perhaps you have tree stumps that you don't know what to do with, or branches and logs from a felled tree. Here is some inspiration to get your creative juices flowing.

In this woodland setting, stumps are intentionally arranged to create a habitat for ferns and other shade loving plants. The proper placement of logs and stumps can create a unique topography providing a variety of different conditions, not usually found together. Deep shade, a little sun, wet soil, fast draining soil or areas for epiphytic plants can be made suitable with various pockets within the stumpery.

Limbs are placed deliberately throughout the Elsley's garden providing an additional dimension to the natural setting that is packed with an exciting mix of woodland plants. It really turns the shade garden into something magical.

Not only do these carefully excavated stumps provide an exciting artistic element, reminiscent of driftwood,  they also become a haven for wildlife. Tree stumps are usually dense and take a long time to rot. As they decompose they provide habitat for a succession of creatures such as beneficial insects, wood-boring beetles, decomposers, and invertebrates and amphibians to live on and around the wood. Lichen and moss and fungi may begin to grow on stumps and you could even plant a climber or rambling plant to intertwine throughout the structure.

Stumperies may be a throwback to a bygone age, but these inverted tree stumps and roots create a cornucopia of planting opportunities while providing a beneficial environment for wildlife. I think it's time for this concept to be reintroduced into the American landscape.

Huge thanks to Billie and John Elsley for opening their garden to us for an impromptu, private tour. And it's always fun to tour gardens with friends Julie from Garden Delights, Julie at Southern Wild Design , Daricia with A Charlotte Garden and our gracious host Janet, Queen of Seaford.

For more inspiration and examples of stumpery gardens see my Pinterest Board

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Poison Ivy: A Winter Study

Mention poison ivy and most people cringe in disgust. Believe me I understand. Two summers ago I unknowingly touched poison ivy and got my first ever case of intense itchiness, which lasted a good month. An agonizing experience I don't care to repeat.

Most people fear this itch master, but this plant offers a lot of value to wildlife. Berry loving birds thrive on it. Bees are attracted to the blooms. Several mammals browse the foliage and 15 species of moths either host or use it to protect their larvae while they pupate.

This productive plant produced dense clusters of fruit in summer months that are eaten by over 60 species of birds, including bluebirds, woodpeckers, warblers, robins, chickadees, tufted titmouse, cedar waxwings, flickers and eastern phoebe. Not only does poison ivy service birds but deer, squirrels, rabbits, turkeys, and if you live in an agricultural area, goats, browse the foliage, twigs and berries.

While hand clearing invasive species from our woods, I came across some very well-establish poison ivy climbing up a towering tree. Just look at the breadth of those vines.

The vines cling so securely they almost seem to be part of the tree. Climbing poison ivy uses trees (or any upright structure) as a means to reach the sun. And these vines are champion climbers, growing until they run out of vertical surface to hold on to. Limbs can extend out as far as 8 feet, often appearing to be part of the tree.

Examine the photo above and below and take a close look at all those limbs. None belong to the tree. They are all lateral limbs from the vine!

Poison ivy is probably most recognized by its leaf pattern but can be easily identified in winter when all the aerial roots are exposed (not covered with foliage). The adventitious roots give the appearance of a fuzzy rope twining up the tree trunk when in fact they are holding the vine steadily in place.

While I admit this is a tough plant to love, its value to wildlife is unquestionable, the diversity of birds it attracts is huge, and the stunning fall color is supreme. This is reason enough for me to keep this mammoth vine. Now, I just need to remember to enjoy all it has to offer from a safe distance.

For an introduction to Poison Ivy and tips on identifying this plant be sure to visit The Infinite Spider.

Friday, January 22, 2016

Beech: A Winter Standout

As I glance into the woods most of the trees are bare and stand stark against the crisp blue sky, save one. The golden bronze leaves of the American Beech tree are sprinkled throughout the understory layer of our property. These elegant trees are the glory of the midwinter wood, as flowering dogwoods and redbuds are to its spring.

The gracefully spreading form of the branches show off the movement of their handsome foliage, which at times appears a pale beige and others a rich taupe.

The furling leaves are inviting, like a tenderly wrapped shawl. The light plays off the trembling leaves as the arctic wind rustles these palomino colored leaves on a blustery day.

These trees hold fast to their dried leaves almost all winter long. Marcescent leaves are more common on smaller trees and sometimes on the lower branches of mature trees. Some speculate that retained leaves conceal buds and make it difficult for browsing animals, like deer, to nip twigs. Perhaps the leaves provide a bit of shelter for birds who perch puffed up, enduring the winter elements in a hardwood forest that stands undressed.

This winter I'm enjoy these brown leaves waving to me from the forest. They add much texture, color and movement to an otherwise sleepy wood.

Sunday, January 17, 2016

Wildlife Trees

Snags. They may just be the most alive tree in the forest.

Have you ever noticed how dead and decaying trees are actually teaming with life? There are several dead trees standing on our property. The forestry term for this is snag but a more deserving term is wildlife tree. This dead wood brings a lot of life to our garden, attracting wildlife that use them as nesting places, storage areas, for foraging, roosting and perching.

It usually starts with cavities excavated by woodpeckers, as they rarely use nesting boxes. Woodpeckers are made to dig. They have thick-walled skulls, powerful neck muscles, chisel like beaks and sharp feet with curved nails, which they use to skillfully construct holes for nesting.

Red headed woodpecker on a snag

Downy woodpecker investigating an empty cavity

They typically create several holes each season and rarely nest in the same one twice. We have 7 different species of woodpeckers in our garden, some are year-round residence and others seasonal.

As woodpeckers create new homes, the empty cavities become available for secondary cavity nesters such as bluebirds, chickadees, nuthatches, house wrens, squirrels, bats, raccoons, opossums, flying squirrels and owls, who can not excavate their own cavities.  

fallen snag showing two nesting cavities
Have you ever notice leaf nests high up in trees or bird houses stuffed with nesting materials in winter? Those are squirrel homes when cavities are not available. The survival of young squirrels in leaf nests is less than half that of cavity housed squirrels.  Even snakes that shed their skin would rather slither into a safe cavity than be out in the open where they are vulnerable during the molting process.

dead bark nurtures insects which attract insect-loving birds
The dead bark on decaying trees nurtures insects, which attracts insect-loving birds. Nuthatches, and woodpeckers eat bark beetles, spiders and ants that are found on the surface of the bark. Woodpeckers also find larvae and pupae of insects in the inner bark of snags and pileated woodpeckers dig down to the heartwood to prey on carpenter ants and termites. Snags are an open buffet for these birds.

The space between partially detached bark is where butterflies find shelter, often overwintering there. It also provides roosting slits for some songbirds and bats. The birds of prey that frequent our property (hawks and owls) are particularly fond of perching on top of one of the tall snag in our woods, allowing a clear view for hunting the land below.

The top of one of our snags came tumbling down in the wind the other day. The moss and fungi blanketing the trunk was already a clear sign that this snag was severely weakened and ripe for its next purpose. Think about it, these decaying trees and fallen logs may just actually be creating and influencing more organisms than the living trees.

soft snag covered in fungi and lacks limbs

Skinks, fence lizards and tree frogs will take up residence in the soft wood, enjoying the cool wet temperatures found in these logs.  Carpenter ants, wood-boring beetles and termites assist in breaking down the wood.

Squirrels and mice will hide nuts in the loose fibers. As the log continues to decay by fungus, microbes and insects it will eventually become humus providing a nutrient rich environment for seedlings to grow. 

The fallen limbs that lay scattered on the forest floor can also provide a safe haven for quail, turkeys and other ground birds while cavities and nooks in standing trees provide places to animals and birds to sleep and escape from the elements. Snag loving mammals in our woods include bats, flying squirrels, fox, raccoon, opossum and gray squirrels.

tree cavities providing shelter for animals in our woods

Snags are a natural feature that provide a unique environment for wildlife. To some gardeners dead and decaying trees may not be the most attractive of trees, but that all depends on your perspective. A snag can become a striking feature in your landscape with its interesting structure and texture.  If you don't like the look of a dead tree or your HOA won't tolerate one, you can pretty it up by training a native vine to grow around it. For us, they ensure that our garden will remain filled with wildlife.