Garden Visitors: The Signs are There

I’ve been having fun this week going back and forth between videos on the trail cam and physical signs left behind by our garden visitors. It’s amazing how much we can see when we are really looking and piecing the signs together. For example, here is what the space in front of the raised beds looks like this morning. A mess, right?

But what does it tell us about who visited?

There is the seed all over the ground, a sign of the house sparrows, who throw seed from the feeder as they eat.

There are scratch marks from the ground-feeding birda, mourning doves, juncos and more sparrows – who clean up after the feeder sparros.

There are rabbit prints and rabbit droppings, from the cottontails who visit at night to grab the high-protein food left by the birda.

Is there more if we look deeper?

What about the kale? It’s certainly seen better days, but was it wind or something else that left it ragged and torn, with little bits of its leaves like confetti on the snow?

Without the cam, I might not have known for sure, but here is the culprit:

And what about the holes in the snow? Were they caused by snow? Are they deer footprints, expanded by wind or meltage?

No, they were made by someone a bit smaller. This little mole has been popping in and out of them periodically today.

I’m inspired to keep looking a little deeper for the signs that are there.

Garden Visitor of the Day: That’s a Big Bird!

One visitor to the birdfeeder last night was a little larger than usual.

Deer are not rare here. At all. But I’ve never seen any sign of them being in our yard before, which I’ve always found surprising. No footprints, no plant damage that couldn’t be explained by rabbits, no sightings on the trail cam. Our neighborhood borders on farm fields, which are favorite spots for deer. (Although the farms are getting further and further form us as more gets built on our end of the village.) I see deer in those fields and in the marsh on the east end of our neighborhood. And there is plenty of food for them here in our yard. I have completely unprotected veggie garden beds, for heaven’s sake.

Well, they are here now. It will be interesting to see how often they visit this winter and how much they eat this spring.

Garden Visitor of the Day: Opossum

Last night’s garden visitor was about as welcome as can be. After a year of running what I dubbed the “Possum Cam”, a possum has finally shown up in the yard. I’m certain he (she?) has been here before, but this is the first time I’ve caught him (her?) on the cam.

What a cutie! Possums are one of my favorite wildlife visitors. Growing up, we had a backyard possum who visited almost nightly for a period of time and was obsessed with the case of beer bottles my dad stored on the back patio in the fall and early winter to keep it cool. Try as he might, the possum could never open the hinged cardboard lid but that didn’t stop him from trying!

This next clip is of our little visitor having a bit of a snack on our deck. Whether he is eating one of the fallen grapes or an insect who was wandering among them, I am not sure. Possums are omnivorous. You may have heard that they love ticks, an especially annoying and dangerous pest in our area, and can eat as many as 5,000 ticks in a single season. This number has been questioned by a study that was done in laboratory conditions and found that opossums did not actually eat many, if any, ticks. Hopefully the truth is closer to conventional wisdom, because anyone who gets rid of ticks, even if it isn’t 5.000 a season, is a friend of mine.

One final video, so you can see our little opossum friend’s footsies. These unique creatures are the only marsupials in North America, have more teeth than any other mammal in North America, is our only native animal with a prehensile tail, and our only native animal with opposible thumbs (on its hind feet). You can see the unique feet and tail in this video.

Delightful, aren’t they?

Garden Visitors of the Day: Busy as Bees

The bright greens, pinks, whites, and yellows of summer have given way to the muted purples, golds and olives of fall. Why have I posted a video of nothing happening you ask?

Look a little closer. Zoom in on the purple New England Asters on the left side of the video. They are absolutely humming with bumblebees and honey bees. I know it is a little grainy posted here – but can you see the way the bees work their way around the central disc of the flower, visiting each of the disc flowers around the edge in turn? They spend a lot of time on each because what looks like one flower to us is really a collection of many tiny little flowers. Lovely, isn’t it?

If you are looking for a plant that sustains the bees through the fall, consider the New England Aster. This and Goldenrod, plus perhaps some hardy geraniums, will keep them fed.

Making Space: Monarchs and Milkweed

By now, you’ve probably read about the dire situation for Monarchs. Maybe you’ve wondered what you could do to help ensure that 20, 30, 40 years from now we will continue to marvel at the annual migration these beautiful butterflies make?

5 years ago I made a commitment to allow milkweed to grow in my garden wherever it happened to pop up as one small way I could help. As you probably already know if you have a garden, milkweed doesn’t always choose the most convenient spots to take hold. Common Milkweed is a big plant. It often reaches 3 feet tall and seems to like the margins – the front of flower borders and gardens that are really much too small for them. It can take a shift in thinking to be comfortable with the aesthetics.

Tall milkweed near the front of a flower bed
This well-established clump chose a better spot near the back of the bed, but still flops over into the walkway from time to time

I think you’ll agree that if we weigh helping an endangered species against having a perfect garden, the endangered species should win.

Where I may have to make an exception to my rule of never pulling milkweed is in the veggie garden. What started as one small plant has become a huge colony in one of my raised beds. This is the bed I’ve been using for salad greens and snap peas, so when the greens are growing in early summer the milkweed does not get in the way. By late summer, when the weather is too hot for growing salad greens or peas easily, the bed is taken over by milkweeds and sunflowers (planted by the birds, since my birdfeeder is close to the bed). This system has worked out well so far, giving me something from the garden in early summer and the wildlife in our yard something in late summer. The balance is starting to tip, though, and the day is coming when I will not have enough space to grow my early season veggies here. I think I will need to thin the milkweed next summer.

This raised bed has a mix of milkweed, sunflowers, and gourds this time of year. In early summer, it holds lettuce and snap peas. Can you see the monarchs?

I’m under no delusion that my milkweed is enough to save the monarchs, but it is one small thing I can do to make things a little easier for them. My house is in between Glacial Drumlin School, which has larger patches of milkweed, and McCarthy Park, with its acres and acres of prairie. I like to think of it as a stepping stone that helps monarchs and other wildlife move between the areas that hold food and shelter for them. If enough of my neighbors recognize that their yards can be a critical piece in helping the other species that call our community home, imagine what we can do! And how about you? Can you make your own space a stepping stone for monarchs? Could you commit to leaving milkweed grow where it will?

Morning Mystery

The trail cam was a little wonky when I checked it today. Who or what was the culprit? I had to scroll back a few hours to find it, but find it I did…

I later caught this little chippy – I assume it was the same one – up in my peach tree trying to work out how to steal an almost-ripe peach. I fully expect it to succeed. I did pick a few underripe fruits just to make sure he doesn’t get them all.

Garden Residents of the Day: Baby Robins

Well, it has happened. The baby Robins have hatched. I noticed in the early morning videos of the nest today that the parent robins were spending more time away from the nest as soon as the sun rose this morning. When they returned to the nest, they appeared to be carrying small insects and spent more time poking their heads into the nest than before, but I could not see any babies. By this afternoon the babies were indeed peeking above the sides of the nest looking for food. Here they are:

Garden Residents of the Day: Robins and Mourning Doves

We’ve had a lot of birds nesting in the yard this year. It really is a testament to how much life a small suburban yard can support if you make space for wildlife. So far, we’ve had:

  • 2 Robin’s nests (1 under the deck, 1 over it)
  • 1 Mourning Dove nest (in the crabapple tree next to the house)
  • 3 Carolina Wren nests (all in the birdhouse gourds I hung this spring)
  • 2 House Sparrow nests (1 in a wren house, 1 in a bluebird house)

And those are only the ones I’ve found – I suspect there is a Cardinal nest somewhere that I never found, since the cardinals were very agressive in the yard this spring, and there may be others in the tall trees that I haven’t spied.

I’ve moved the compost cam to the top of our deck’s arbor so I can spy on the latest Robin nest, which is in a prime sheltered location just under the eave of our house. Most of the cam clips are of the Robins taking turns incubating the eggs, but this one is a great shot of one of the parents rolling the eggs. Birds do this to help the eggs incubate. Ideas of why birds roll their eggs during incubation include making sure that the embryo inside has adequate access to the nutritional white in the egg, making sure the membrane around the embryo does not adhere to the wall of the egg, and making sure that the eggs are evenly warmed.

I’ve also been watching a pair of Mourning Doves nest in the crabapple tree on the south side of the house, just 15 or so feet beyond the Robin’s nest in the photo above. At first the doves would startle when I walked along the side of the house, which is how I noticed the nest. Now they are content to sit on the nest even when I come within a few feet of it (which happens frequently, since my veggie garden is very close). Here’s what I’ve learned:

  • The nest looks fragile and cobbled together, but is quite well built. It has withstood a derecho and a storm that spawned multiple tornados in the area. After each storm I went outside expecting to find the nest on the ground, but it was still standing.
  • Mourning Doves (and other birds, I’m sure) are fearless. When I peeked out at them during the storm, one parent was always sitting on the nest, even as the tree looked like it would be blown flat to the ground.
  • Mourning doves lay 2 non-descript looking white eggs at a time. When their chicks hatch, the first you will see of them is when they are little grey balls of fluff.
  • According to sources on the internet, the father will sit on the nest during the day and the mother will sit on it at night. I sincerely apologize to Papa Mourning Dove for calling him Mama for several days before I learned this.
  • Once the chicks hatch, it will seem the parent caring for the nest never leaves it. I know they must leave at some point, but I have not been able to catch the nest unattended. Since they feed the chicks crop milk, is it possible that they don’t leave at all for 12 hours? That they eat as much as possible during their off shift and then use their reserves to feed hungry chicks while on shift? That is my best guess for what happens. I may need to move the compost cam to confirm.
Can you see the little chicks just in front of the parent?