Saturday, July 16, 2016

Sanity

Tiger Swallowtail on Lantana
I spent the entire day inside yesterday, painting our kitchen. (It looks great, by the way.) I had the radio on all day and by the afternoon I reached a point where I just had to turn it off. My brain and heart are exhausted after the events of the last few weeks. The Orlando night club massacre, the car bombs in Baghdad, police shootings, the 5 murdered police officers in Dallas, and the constant heated rhetoric of our upcoming presidential elections. The attack in Nice this week was the last straw for me. I just can't take it any more. I think this is hitting me hard because my husband and I were just in Nice a month ago and I still have the vacation images from that beautiful, happy place fresh in my mind. But the pain and hate and negativity are just starting to overshadow everything and I can feel myself losing spirit. So I took action today and got my butt outside to take photos. I know it always helps me feel better, which is something I always forget until I'm doing it.

Silver Spotted Skipper on Lantana

I decided to go to the State Botanical Gardens to look for butterflies. They have a lot of Lantana and Zinnias, butterfly favorites, so my chances were good.  Stepping out of the car I caught a low flying Mississippi Kite out of the corner of my eye as it whizzed over the parking lot. I followed it out into the gardens and forgot everything but the pursuit of nature.

Widow Skimmer Dragonfly

The first thing I found was a tiny, juvenile Black Racer on some stepping stones in the grass. I was afraid it was dead because it didn't move away when I came in close. But when I touched it with my shoe it reared up, shook its tail like a rattlesnake, and struck at my toe. Not dead! I took a bunch of photos and pointed it out to several other visitors, including a little boy who wanted to keep it and bridal party having a photo shoot. The snake was probably happy to get away from all the attention.

Juvenile Black Racer, Maybe 8 Inches Long

Next up was a pair of armadillos, digging without care right next to the wedding photos. The wedding photographer called me over this time. The armadillos were not at all afraid of people and I was able to get pretty close for some good shell shots. I pointed them out to some visitors who had never seen an armadillo before. They are the weirdest animals, and they cause so much damage. I feel bad for the landscape crew, but I love watching them. 

Armadillos Ignoring me

I followed the call of a bird that turned out to be an Indigo Bunting, way up in an oak tree. The call led me down a path lined with tall red Swamp Hibiscus flowers. I got in the way of some bumble bees on a mission for nectar and was buzzed several times. Movement in the leaves turned out to be a baby Carolina Wren, whose parent zoomed in and scolded it away from me. Ahead a little further, a Blue-gray Gnatcatcher picked bugs off of the Magnolia leaves. 

Scarlet Rose Mallow (Hibiscus coccineus)
Blue-gray Gnatcatcher in the Magnolia

A flash of yellow drew my attention to a Zinnia patch where I saw a pair of Goldfinches picking seeds from the spent flowers. Swallowtail butterflies wafted around, trying to elbow their way in to sip nectar. A little skink on the sidewalk watched for grasshoppers.

Goldfinch in the Zinnias

Giant Swallowtail on a Zinnia

Five-line Skink Looking for Bugs

It was hot and humid with storm clouds building in the west. Sweat poured down my face and into my eyes, temporarily blinding me with sunscreen. As I looked for a place to sit and wipe my eyes, I noticed a huge bed of Hyssop flowers, almost moving with the buzzing of bees, flies, wasps, butterflies and moths. My eyes stopped stinging and I shot photo after photo. If you want a good plant to attract pollinators, try Hyssop. Wow!

American Lady and Ailanthus Webworm Moth on Hyssop

Buckeye on Hyssop

Gray Hairstreak on Hyssop

Juniper Hairstreak on Hyssop

More conversations with other visitors about what I was doing with my head in the Hyssop patch. Then the thunder moved closer and louder and I packed up and went home. The familiar call of a Mississippi Kite made me look up and I saw a pair soaring overhead, too far away for photos.

Silvery Checkerspot

Driving home I felt like I'd been to a retreat. I hadn't thought about anything but what was in front of me for the whole morning. I felt refreshed and rested and reminded of the beautiful world around me. And of the basic kindness and friendliness of the people around me. I just needed a realignment. And to turn off the news and get outside. Always a good idea.

Fiery Skipper on Periwinkle







Monday, June 20, 2016

Join the Butterfly Trail!

Discovery Day at the Carter Center

This past weekend my husband and I had the pleasure of attending the Rosalynn Carter Butterfly Trail Discovery Day at the Carter Presidential Center in Atlanta. The Butterfly Trail was established when former First Lady, Mrs. Carter became concerned after learning about the plight of the Monarch Butterfly and wanted to do something about it. She contacted Annette Wise, Program Director at the Jimmy Carter Education Program, who helped her start a butterfly garden at her home in Plains, Georgia to increase public awareness of the problem, especially for children, and to teach about the importance of planting milkweed. By creating her garden in Plains, Mrs. Carter inspired the creation of other butterfly gardens across the state and the Rosalynn Carter Butterfly Trail began. Now the trail includes over 300 public, private and school gardens across the state of Georgia and the U.S. The pollinator garden at the Carter Presidential Center in Atlanta is one of the gardens on the Butterfly Trail. Up until a few weeks ago, I had never even heard of the Rosalynn Carter Butterfly Trail, but now I know a lot more and have already added our garden to the trail map!

The Pollinator Garden at the Carter Center

Proclaiming Pollinator Week and Recognizing the Rosalynn Carter Butterfly Trail


We spent a fun and informative morning learning about butterflies and their habitat. We listened to speakers, including Mrs. Carter (!) who talked about the project and the importance of butterfly conservation. We watched a fun children's play about monarchs and visited the discovery stations. The activities were geared to children and it was very exciting to see the enthusiasm of the next generation of conservationists! At the end of the morning we purchased some native butterfly host and nectar plants to bring home to our own garden. It was a wonderful and uplifting day.

Mrs. Carter Speaking About Monarchs

Discussion After the Children's Play

Educational Stations

Creating Seed Balls

Monarch Caterpillar on Milkweed

Male and Female Monarchs

Monarch Body Prints to Test for Presence of a Protozoan Parasite
To Learn More About Citizen Science Projects Like This, Click HERE

The Local North American Butterfly Association (NABA) Chapter Had an Activity Table
Find Your Local Chapter and Join HERE

Butterfly Host Plants Native to the Georgia Piedmont Region

The migration of millions of Monarch butterflies from Canada to Mexico and back again every year is one of the world's natural wonders. But loss of habitat, development, the disappearance of milkweed (the Monarch caterpillar's host plant), pesticide use and other factors have all contributed to drastic declines in the population of the amazing Monarch Butterfly and threaten their existence. Monarchs are important pollinators and are wonderful and beautiful to look at. Their decline can be seen as an indicator of greater troubles in the world's ecosystems, and protecting them and their habitat will help other pollinators, as well as the creatures (like us) who depend on the pollinators. Learning about and protecting Monarchs and other butterflies and pollinators is an excellent way to teach people, young and old alike, about the interdependent web of life. Conservation efforts are already paying off and the numbers of Monarchs are on the rise again. You can be part of the solution! To learn more about the Rosalynn Carter Butterfly Trail, click HERE. It is easy to add your garden to the list of stops along the trail. Celebrate National Pollinator week by joining in!

A Pollinator Visits the Garden

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

If You Build it, They Will Come. And Then What?

Once an Urban Habitat 
I recently learned that the yard at our old house in Florida is being re-landscaped, a year after we sold it. As is their right, the new owners are making the house their own, including the garden. We are doing the same with our new home. They may have plans for new flower patches, but for now the colorful array of native wildflowers and butterfly host plants that I put in over the span of 10 years has been removed and is being replaced with sod. I feel heartbroken about it, but I can also see that the yard as I left it took a certain amount of specific care (that I was willing to give) or it would quickly get out of hand. It was probably a lot crazier than many people are comfortable with. I was always on the lookout for sprouts from aggressive plants so I could pick them while they were small and easy to control. Because the yard was my baby, I knew what the weeds looked like and when to start yanking out spiderwort, pipevine, blue curls and goldenrod before they took over. The new owners may have initially intended to keep the garden but perhaps it just got to be too much work for them to keep up with. Or maybe they didn't like that kind of yard. I get that. A wildlife habitat yard is not for everyone. And it is their house, to do with what they choose. I wish that they weren't replacing the garden with sod, which is a terrible waste of water and has no wildlife value, but that is another story.

By Mid Summer, it Could Get Crazy

The thing that is nagging at me the most is the loss of habitat. We had created a wildlife sanctuary in an urban neighborhood, and now it is gone. There were a lot of beautiful and interesting native plants in our yard, some rare or endangered that I rescued and propagated. We rarely had to water and never used fertilizers or pesticides. We composted the fallen leaves in place as mulch. What is going to happen to the native bees and butterflies that used the nectar and host plants in the yard? Where will the tiny pinewoods snakes, glass lizards and southern toads hunt and hide? I planted foxtail grasses and berry bushes, and left the seed heads on flowers in the winter for the birds. Will they be expecting to find seeds in that space when they migrate next year? Where will the families of brown thrashers who tossed through the leaf mulch go for their bugs? What happens to wildlife when we create safe spaces for them, but then take it away? This must happen all the time. Homes switch owners. People move. Neighborhoods change. Yards are redone. Empty lots get developed. But what happens to the wildlife? I guess the creatures move on and adapt, if they can. If there are other suitable habitats nearby, which is not always the case, especially in the city. I know of only a handful of wild, native yards in our former neighborhood, so I worry. I tend to anthropomorphize, and I keep imagining bewildered pipevine swallowtails, bees and baltimore orioles trying to find their way back to a home that is no longer there. But short of some sort of homeowner's covenant that requires nature friendly landscapes, you can't force future owners of property to carry on the plans of the past inhabitants. So what can you do? Is creating a backyard nature habitat ultimately futile? I would like to think not. In the end, I would venture that, to mangle Tennyson, "'tis better to have created a garden and lost it than to never have created one at all". We made a difference, if only for a few years. One thing that could help would be to make sure that the wildlife garden you create is not the only one in your vicinity. If you are going to create a backyard nature habitat, encourage your neighbors to plant at least a little patch of sanctuary in their yard, too, so that the loss of one habitat won't be catastrophic.

Brown Thrasher Feeding Chick

Woodland Poppymallow (Callirhoe papaver), Endangered and Rescued

Glass Lizard on the Front Porch

Pipevine Swallowtail Eggs in the Front Yard

But the question remains--what happens to the wild places after they have been preserved? What happens when the next generation does not share the conservation ethic of its predecessors? Can any place be preserved forever? This is playing out all over the country. Our national program of wilderness preservation in National and State Parks and public land, "the best idea America ever had", is being viewed with new sets of eyes. These eyes do not see wild majesty that should be left alone to protect it for the future, as President Theodore Roosevelt did when he dedicated the Grand Canyon as a National Monument, saying "Leave it as it is. You cannot improve on it; not a bit. The ages have been at work on it, and man can only mar it. What you can do is to keep it for your children, your children's children and for all who come after you, as one of the great sights which every American, if he can travel at all, should see. Keep the Grand Canyon as it is." These new eyes don't see the point. They see instead vast tracts of wasted opportunity. Empty land for off-road recreation or new sub-divisions, untapped resources to be exploited, money to be made. Anti-government activists in the West occupied the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon for weeks in a violent takeover, claiming that the land belonged "to the people", not to the government. My beloved Paynes Prairie State Park Preserve, as well as other state parks in Florida, is being seriously examined by the Governor and the aptly named Department of Natural Resources as a potential source of grazing, logging and hunting fees. Oil derricks pump and chug across the beautiful and remote high desert of Utah. It is so discouraging. Personally, I think we should be preserving more, not less of our land, and am intrigued by the idea proposed by biologist E. O. Wilson who believes that we should set aside half of the earth, free from people, to protect our planet's biodiversity. Our fragile interdependent web of life is at risk from human activity and we are all going to suffer if we don't act to protect as many of the earth's biological systems as we can. We humans are not alone on this planet.

Somewhere in Desolation Canyon, Utah

On a happier note, we have a new wildlife garden in the early stages at our new home in Georgia. It is still very new and young, and we had a native plant landscaper start the planting for us this time so it wouldn't take 10 years. Soon it will be humming and buzzing and alive with wildlife. And at least 3 other houses on our street have similar gardens, so we have strength in numbers. But someday someone else will move into our house or our neighbors' houses and they may want a new garden. And then what will happen to the wild places when we are gone?

Starting Again




Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Spring Robins, Part 2

I vowed to leave the robins alone and was true to my word until today. But this morning, after being out of town for a few days, I had to peek out the window to see if all was well with the nestlings. The nest was empty but one of the chicks was sitting on a branch next to it, sporting very very mature looking feathers! What a difference a week and a half makes! I really hoped nothing had happened to the other, but that is the reality of baby birds.

Later in the morning I went out to get the mail and happened to look out at a tree about 20 feet from the nest. A robin chick was perched in the crook of a branch, holding perfectly still. After only a few seconds of my gazing, one of the parents flew to the ground and began an alarm chirp and hopped toward me, I think in an attempt to redirect my attention away from the baby. I brought out the camera and fired off a few quick shots, then went inside to look because the tree is right next to a set of windows and I could get a clear view. From inside I saw a healthy juvenile robin with 2 concerned parents perched in separate trees about 10 feet from their baby. And then another lump caught my eye--the second chick sitting on a higher branch in the same tree! They have both made it so far and appear to be very close to being able to fly. Lots of potential dangers on the horizon still, but things are looking good for this robin family.

First Baby Robin, Holding Still

Protective Parent

Robin Chick #2, Safe and Sound!

Monday, April 18, 2016

Happy Earth Day, It's Robin Season!

Robin Distracting Me

I've been watching a pair of robins in our front yard for the past few weeks. I first noticed them because they were spending a lot of time together, hopping around in the branches outside of our sunroom and making our (inside) cat hyperventilate. Then one day I went out to water some plants and came face to face with one of them sitting on a beautiful nest, carefully hidden in the shadows of a camellia bush. I got a photo of what I presume to be the mama sitting on the nest and the papa nervously watching from a magnolia tree 10 or so feet away. As I expressed more interest in the nest, the father became very agitated and flew down to the grass and ran the other direction toward some bushes. I think he was trying to distract me and guide me away from his family. I got the message and tried to steer clear, though it is a little difficult as they built their nest by our front door and mailbox. I changed my strategy and made most of my observations from the living room window, though the very safe location of their nest made it very hard to see well. And the parents can still see me through the window, which makes them nervous.

Sitting on the Nest, Tucked in the Dark Camellia

A week or so later, the sitting parent was off of the nest and I saw at least 2 pretty blue eggs! Unable to control my urges, I decided to try to get a photo of the eggs. But as I came in closer to the bush, I saw that the robin parent was sitting again and was very scared, so I gave up on the egg shot.

Over the weekend I saw a chance to peek in the nest and saw a couple of tiny fluff balls. They had hatched! But I felt terrible after getting this shot because I scared the parent away from the nest and into another tree where he/she remained for 5-10 minutes. I went inside to give them some space and security and watched cautiously from the window, hoping that nothing happened to the unattended chicks.

Fluff Balls

The next day I heard a bluejay scolding some crows that were marauding nests in another part of the yard and I was very worried about our little robins. Later that afternoon I found blue eggshells on the sidewalk, probably the result of the crow raid earlier. We have quite a few robins in the yard this year. I resolved to stay away from the camellia bush so that I would not to give away the location to the crows. They are very smart and observant.

Robin's Eggs

Today I went out to get the mail and saw (from a distance) the open beaks and fuzzy heads of two hungry chicks, mom or pop standing alert at the edge of the nest. The other parent was busy gathering bugs from the leaf litter. I hurried inside and got my camera and long lens and caught some shots of both parents feeding the youngsters. I hid myself against a wall and stayed as far away from the nest as I could to still see the action. It was so sweet to see the hungry mouths open and be filled with yummy bugs, and then see the tiny creatures settle down in satisfaction and exhaustion. It is hard work to hold your head up when you are so tiny! And those poor, dedicated robin parents--they will be running most of the time for the next few weeks until their chicks fledge and move on.


Delicious Lunch from One Parent

More Food from Other Parent

Open Wide!

Finally--We Were Starving!

Exhaustion

Even though I tried to be respectful and careful, the robins always knew I was there and held back from returning to the nest with food. They didn't want to lead me or any other predator to their nest. So this will probably be the beginning and end of my robin nest photos. Even though I would love to get photos of them eating and maturing, I also want them to survive. It seems that all my attempts to observe them cause a change in their behavior, and they have a hard enough time without my help. So I'll just leave them alone. This is one of the messages I try to convey to children on our nature center trail walks--to love AND respect nature. I'll show my love for these robins by respecting them. Happy Earth Day Everyone!

Sunday, April 10, 2016

New Neighbors!

Get Ready! 
I'm so excited! I have been waiting for the new neighbors to show up since we arrived in Athens this past summer and saw a sign about them on a wooded lot just down the street. For weeks afterward, then months I kept checking for them, then found their Facebook page and read articles online to learn more about the project that was bringing them here. And at long last, on April 1 (no joke!) the Chew Crew arrived! The Chew Crew is a UGA project that is enlisting the services of a group of goats to eat invasive bushes, weeds and vines in 2 natural areas on campus, Tanyard Creek and Driftmier Woods.

Welcome Party at Driftmier Woods

Eating Oak Leaves With Gusto!

Chewing...

Goat at Work
The goats were everything I had hoped for in new neighbors--friendly, helpful and fairly quiet. There was a big party when they arrived and UGA students and staff and people in the neighborhood turned out to greet them. The crew at our neighborhood site (Driftmier Woods) consists of a big white Billy Goat and 7 smaller (female?) goats. I know they all have names, but I haven't learned them yet. (I think there may even be a mama and baby, but I'm not sure--I have some detective work to do!) They will stay at Driftmier for 3 weeks, then move back to Tanyard Creek for some touch up work. When they're not eating at UGA, they clear residential property. They are very busy goats! Their first day here the goats were already working hard on improving their wooded lot. Driftmier Woods is a small old growth Piedmont Forest on the UGA campus that over the years has become overgrown with invasive plants. Underneath and behind all the invasives there are huge white oaks (probably 150 years old), beeches, sweet gums and other hardwoods and pines. It is a wonderful hilly spot with hiking trails and picnic tables and a small creek that runs along a low area. It is tucked between the engineering building and graduate housing apartments and people use it to hike, cut through to campus and even ride mountain bikes. I've seen hawks, songbirds, insects, ferns and pretty wildflowers. I've heard that owls, deer and foxes have been spotted in the evenings.

Tall White Oaks

Forest Path

Cranefly Orchid Leaves
Right now the woods remind me of those jungle movie scenes where someone with a machete chops away a clump of vines and uncovers the lost kingdom. There is a lot of work to do here to remove the tons of Chinese Wisteria, Japanese honeysuckle, English Ivy, privet, nandina, lyriope, ligustrum, and a host of other invasive species that are literally covering the forest. The proximity to campus buildings and homes makes the area a poor candidate for prescribed fire, but it is perfect for prescribed grazing. The goats can get into rough terrain and eat and clear vegetation where it might be tough to bring in machinery (though something will need to be brought in to take care of larger bushes and trees). So the goats chew the forest back to health. And volunteers pull, chop, dig and saw. After the site is rehabilitated, it has the potential to be a fabulous small nature area, providing important green space and urban habitat. The project is a collaboration between several UGA departments and involves faculty, students and interested citizens (like me!) Project organizers secured a $25,000 grant to fund the operation and many people are volunteering time to make it a success. They have done such great work with the other site, Tanyard Creek, that I'm sure this will be successful, too.

Overgrown with Invasives

Hidden Jungle Ruins

The Chinese Wisteria that Ate the Woods

The project coordinators are carefully measuring and documenting the effect that the goats are having on the natural areas. At Tanyard Creek, where the goats have been clearing since 2012, the Chew Crew has done a great job and there are not many invasive woody shrubs left. I spent a lovely morning there last month helping to identify and measure herbaceous plants within defined grids. At Driftmier Woods, in addition to clearing the invasives, the concern is that the goats will eat the oak seedlings and will have an adverse effect on the regeneration of the forest when the invasive cover is cleared, so I spent an afternoon tagging and measuring oak seedings. Now that the goats have arrived, it is pretty clear that they LOVE to eat oak seedings, so I imagine that lots of wire cages will be needed to protect them to ensure new forest growth. It is a huge project and only one section of the woods have been fenced for goat foraging so far. Much more work is yet to come. It makes me appreciate how much effort has gone into all the existing natural areas that I enjoy so much.

Tanyard Creek Plant ID

The Grid for Counting Plants

Cages to Protect Baby Oaks

As a new person to town, I have been looking for ways to get involved and find my niche. I think this is a good fit. I have only pitched in a little so far, but they will need a lot more help over the coming years, clearing, pulling, counting and measuring. Independent of the Chew a Crew project, I'm making a personal project of observing and photographing birds, plants and other wildlife in Driftmier Woods and have added it to eBird as a birding location. It would be nice if over the years I could document an increase in the diversity of species. I hope that I can become as intimately acquainted with these woods as I did with the Ditch and Morningside and La Chua Trail in Gainesville. I've already met some friendly and interesting people and it feels great to be part of a big community project. This one is perfect for me, given my interests in native wildflowers, invasive plants, wildlife and environmental education. It will be exciting to see the changes and I'm really happy to be part of it. Chew on, goats!

Chew On, Goats!