Creating a wildlife haven one plant at a time

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Join the Birds for a Snow Day

Our first snow fall of this winter season arrived on the heals of our recent ice storm. When snow falls and temperatures hover around freezing the birds know it is time to get busy at the feeders to keep their energy levels up. And boy are they busy. Filling the feeders up twice a day.

Carolina chickadee
Carolina Chickadee

The birds are always cautious. It's in their nature after all. Cardinals, Titmice and Finches perch in the neighboring trees. Hopping from branch to branch, making their way closer and closer to the feeder. Birds like the Carolina Chickadee and Nuthatch shimmy down the trunk of the trees gaining more courage the closer they get to the feeder.

White-breasted Nuthatch
White-breasted Nuthatch

When the coast is clear they make lift off and in one fell swoop land safely on the feeder. Hastily grab their one seed and off they go to the shelter of the tree branches to devour their take.

We rarely see pine warblers visiting the feeders. Days like today bring them down from the pines searching for additional seeds. They are a burst of color on a dreary snow day.

Pine Warbler
Pine Warbler

One of our most popular feeders frequented by the tufted titmouse is the one with raw peanuts. They are also big fans of sunflower seeds and suet cakes.

Tufted Titmouse
Tufted Titmouse

This morning I happen to spill some peanuts on the edge of one of the raised beds in the kitchen garden and it wasn't long before the seeds were discovered.

These smallish birds are full of personality. They communicate frequently with their friends, bringing in more and more titmice. The adjacent tree was filled with 5 to 10 birds at a time eagerly waiting their turn to swoosh down and grab a nut. It was a little like Atlanta's airport with take off and landings happening every 30 seconds.

The ground feeding birds like the mourning dove walked about the snow pecking at the seeds that were accidentally dropped on the ground. They marked their path as they wobbled along leaving interesting patterns in the snow.

Mourning dove footprints in snow

Snow days are fun days and have to be embraced because tomorrow all that white will be gone and it'll be back to the tired brown landscape until spring arrives. 

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Beauty in the Storm

It began as a typical winter rain day, but then the temperatures began to spiral downward and the rain began to freeze on the trees. As day turned to darkness and I lay in bed trying to sleep I could hear the snap, crackle, pop of branches breaking and tumbling down to the ground. Then bigger booms as trees came crashing down. Weak hardwoods and tall, skinny pine trees just couldn't handle the weight of the ice. Lights flickered on and off several times and eventually the power went out for good. We were without power all night and woke to a chill in the air. No heat, no internet, no cell service. We felt very disconnected from the world.

ice laden trees at early morning sunrise
ice laden trees as sunrise peaks over the horizon

As morning graced the garden we could see all the damage from the ice storm. The linemen had been out working tirelessly all night trying to restore power. More than 200,000 people were impacted. The crews risk their lives in such treacherous conditions. They are such brave souls replacing poles, fixing lines and removing trees to restore power as quickly as possible.

The ice storm caused a lot of disaster but there is also beauty to be found in it. The trees heavy under a coat of ice shimmered and shone as the sunlight hit the icicles and sparkled liked diamonds.

Our cherry trees and plum trees were just about to burst into bloom when the storm hit and encased them in a bubble of ice.

cherry trees about to bloom under ice
cherry trees ready to burst into bloom under coat of ice

The buds were frozen in time and gave a pink hue to the ice capades.

Walking through the garden I found more blooms being brave little souls under the spell of the ice.

Some that couldn't hang on and tumbled to the ground with their glass house in tact.

And others that are holding out for warmer days (may we be blessed with those soon!)

The naturally made ice sculptures added some fabulous winter interest to the garden.

I watched the birds trying to sit on icy limbs or eat at the feeders that were frozen in ice. Even these skilled species had a difficult time maneuvering the elements. My heated birdbath wasn't even working for them since it is electrically powered. The downfalls of modern technology.

The freezing rain hanging in the form of icicles from branches, bird houses, fences and blooms became a science lesson for my children.

And, also made for some interesting shapes in the grasses, leaves and branches

We were all waiting for the sun to warm us up with the exception of our Shepherd who reveled in the arctic conditions. It was mid-day when the sun appeared and began to melt some of the frozen water creating an ere atmosphere with fog kicking up.

As you can see in these photos the roads were clear of ice, the ground too warm for it to hold. But there was enough damage done. Our power came back on 15 hours later. We were fortunate compared to some who were out of power for several days. The wind that swept in the following day felt like Boreas chilling the air with his icy breath. Thirty-five m.p.h. wind gusts hurled ice around the garden making it hazardous to walk and drive around. Shattered ice looked like broken glass carpeting the forest floor.

Overnight our temperatures plummeted to a winter low of 15 degrees (feeling like 0 with the windchill). My thoughts were with those still without heat as the wind had caused more outages despite all the efforts of the Jackson EMC crews.

These forces are out of our control but finding beauty in these worst of times makes for some good times. As Charles Dickens wrote in his Tale of Two Cities,

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,...
it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, 
it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, 
we had everything before us, we had nothing before us...
~Charles Dickens (Tale of Two Cities) we're not experiencing anything as dramatic as the French Revolution but some of the words felt applicable (artistic interpretation).

Friday, February 6, 2015

A Little Bit of Henbit

It's edible, supports wildlife, and is good for erosion control. So, why is henbit considered by most Americans a nasty weed? I'll admit that I thought of it as a nuisance winter weed for a long time because that is what I was taught. Sometimes it takes a little time to be educated in the right way. Let's just say my eyes have been opened.

Most American homeowners don't want "weeds" in their lawn because they are going for the perfectly manicured, weed-free, golf course look, but the truth of the matter is that henbit is a plant that you want in your garden, especially if you are trying to support wildlife. (and if you don't want weeds in your lawn the best way to avoid them is to grow thick, healthy grass au naturel.)

henbit (Lamium amplexicaule)

Although henbit is native to Eurasia and North Africa it has naturalized in most of the United States. It is a member of the mint family and like many members it too likes to spread, especially in disturbed areas. I find it around our garden in sunny spots where there is lack of ground cover.

To homesteaders and wildcrafters henbit is a good weed. It gets its name from the fact that chickens like to eat the seeds. Beyond that, the stems, leaves and flowers are all edible. It can be eaten raw or cooked. Add it to salads, soups, wraps, spring rolls, green smoothies or make a tea. Have you ever eaten it? Be brave and try it. You might just like it. It doesn't have a minty flavor as one would assume being in the mint family. It actually tastes a bit like kale. Best of all it is extremely nutritious. It is high in iron, full of vitamins and lots of fiber. (But, be smart when foraging and only harvest henbit from locations you know are not sprayed with chemicals!)

Now if you are a wildlife gardener, like me, henbit is important because it is a winter bloomer and supports early pollinators that come out on our warm winter days. Bees are foraging for pollen and nectar to stay alive and henbit supplies them with much needed substance. It continues to bloom into spring and will support bumble bees, honey bees, long-tongued bees, butterflies as well as those early hummingbirds that show up in our garden mid-March. The foliage is also eaten by voles and box turtles. Now, that's quite a variety of wildlife supported by this purple "weed"!

So, next time you see this humble, little purple plant in your lawn and garden remember its benefits. The early pollinators will thank you!