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: Spring

Although the temperatures here are still in the 30’s and 40’s (0-5C), signs of spring are here. Although the trees are still bare and many of the plants are behind, others are starting to green up. And the first baby bunnies and chipmunks started showing up as of last week. The baby bunny (bunnies?) seems to be hunkered down under our rain barrel and is making 20+ appearances a day on our compost cam. This doesn’t bode well for the vegetable garden, which is just in line of the camera, but may help justify the money I spent on a spring/summer CSA share this year. I’ll grow for the bunnies, and Westridge Organic Farm will grow for me.

Clip #1:

“Hey kid, get back here!”

Clip #2:

“Oops! Maybe not!”

Since this is a blog not just about cute critters, but also about supporting the natural world in our own yards and spaces, I want to mention some of the plants you see in the videos.

To the left of frame, you can see daffodils. They provide not just a welcome flash of color in the spring when Wisconsin is still pretty brown, with its life hidden deep inside where we cannot easily see it, but also some much needed pollen for the bees. I add 50-200 bulbs to our yard each fall, a mix of daffodils, crocuses, mini irises, scillia, hyacinth, snow drops, puschkinias, guinea hens, windflowers, tulips and others. Some naturalize, some grow a few years and disappear, some get eaten by the critters before they ever get a chance to bloom. But each one is a symbol of hope and life.

Just above the daffodils you can see the branches of a black currant shrub. It also blooms very early in the spring and is almost done blooming right now despite the cold temperatures. In a couple months it will be covered in small black berries that taste and smell foxy when fresh but make a delightful summer cordial when cooked with some water, sugar and lemon juice.

To the right of the frame you can see the corner of my compost bin. I’ve bucked convention by putting it right up against my house, just under the kitchen window. That means kitchen scraps can be tossed out the window and straight into the bin as easily as they could be tossed into the trash. There is no excuse not to compost here! Is it advisable to have a compost bin right up against your house? Certainly, most people would say no, and for good reason. They can cause unpleasant odors and attract pests close to your home.

About 10 years ago we decided to try it anyway, and we have not had any major issues. Part of my reason for adding the compost cam was to see if there were critters I was not aware of. I know there are occasionally voles in the bin, but since they never try to invade the house, I don’t mind them terribly and their numbers have never gotten out of hand (perhaps thank you to our resident fox?). The odors do occasionally get bad in the late summer, but adding a good layer of straw or hay solves that issue rather quickly. This might be one of those cases where our climate is in our favor – cold winters and short summers do tend to keep the pests and odors down. Have you thought of putting a compost bin close to your kitchen? It might be worth a look!

Garden Visitor of the Day: A Scary Night for the Rabbits

What must it be like to be a rabbit? To be an integral part of the food web because you can do the magic trick of converting the energy trapped in grass into food for meat-eating animals? To fear cats, dogs, fox, coyotes, wolves, humans- and to be surrounded by all of them day and night? The stress level must be enormous.

Last night a rabbit visited our yard and showed up on the compost cam. I’ve shared video of rabbits in the yard before, but the body language here is visibly different.

In previous videos, the rabbits zip in and out of the frame, frollicking as they look for food. This rabbit is hunched to the ground for most of the video. In fact, I have 10 separate clips that the cam recorded in a row of this rabbit which span about 11 minutes. They show the rabbit moving very slowly into the frame and laying nearly motionless as it eats the fallen corn and sunflower seeds. At one point, the rabbit stands upright for a minute, its ears telescoping around to hear the night around it, and then it lays back down almost flat on the ground to finish eating. Finally, it almost crawls out of the frame of the camera.

I might have assumed this rabbit was sick, its behavior was so unlike the rabbits on the cam before. But I don’t think that is it. At 10 PM the night this video was taken, I took my dog for one last, long walk before bed. As we neared a marshy area nearby, he was on guard, peering through the darkness into the open area to our side. He stopped checking out every tree and ever new smell, instead pricking up his ears to listen carefully to the silence around us.

And then it started. The yipping and barking of coyotes in the marsh. Their sound filled the air around us. Although the mix of barking and yipping rose from the marsh, it soon sounded as though it surrounded us, an eerie cloak of sound. Oliver, who previously walked next to me on a slack leash and is about twice the size of a coyote, trotted out in front of me, urging me to head home a little bit faster.

As we walked, their voices died down, but then we heard others – a group up near the GDS school and another on the opposite side of the highway that runs through our town. Each group sounded like a pack of coyotes, even though I know coyotes have a talent for sounding like they have more friends around them than they actually do. Likely each of the groups we heard were only a pair claiming their own territory to raise their pups.

This is the night that the little rabbit on our cam came out in. A night that scared my 80 pound dog, who is generally scared of nothing. He came out into the open of our yard because he had no choice. He needed to eat. But he was determined to draw as little attention to himself as he did it.

Garden Visitor of the Day: It’s All About Sparrows

After we spotted the fox on the compost cam, it took quite a while before the rabbits came back but we could see their footprints in the snow, so we knew at least one was still around. Clever little critters, those rabbits!

But our most common visitors to the compost pile now are house sparrows. A non-native bird with rather aggressive habits, they aren’t the favorite of many bird watchers or native species enthusiasts, but do tend to make friends with little children (and some adults) who enjoy how bold they are in moving in to take popcorn and bread crumbs when these treats are offered.

I try not to think too hard about their habit of kicking bluebirds’ egges out of their nests before moving in to take over, and instead just enjoy their boysterous visits to the bird feeder. When no one else is around in the yard, the sparrows usually are.

Pretty soon they will be making nests, probably with grass and twigs taken from the compost pile that this little one is sitting on. We regularly have half a dozen poking through the treasures there at a time in the spring. They will supplement the grass and twigs with trash they find on the ground to make a rather untidy nest. Whatever works, little sparrow! You’ve got to do what you’ve go to do.

Garden Visitor of the Day: Cottontail Rabbit

Among our most frequent visitors this winter have been cottontail rabbits. Evidence of their visits is everywhere in the yard, with tracks (and droppings) running all through our foundation plantings and completely ringing the house. One of the reasons I added a trail cam to the house was to better see when, where, and how long they were visiting the yard.

Here is what I’d read about rabbits in the garden:

  • Their primary winter foods are woody stems and left over grasses/plant materials
  • They don’t survive long – most rabbits will not live longer than two years in the wild
  • They hunker down in culverts or thickets when cold weather hits, and sometimes take over burrows that other animals have dug and abandoned
  • In the winter, you’re most likely to see them out and about at dawn and dusk on days when the weather is milder

Here’s what I’ve found after a month of watching them on the trail cam:

  • While they are definitely gnawing on some of the left over plants in the garden (mostly kale plants and herbs – all severely damaged by frost), their primary food in our yard this winter is birdseed that has dropped to the ground. The mix I use contains both sunflower seeds and cracked corn, which I assume is what they are going for. In past years, they have eaten woody stems in the yard, especially burning bush and fruit tree suckers which I leave on purpose for them so they do not damage the actual fruit trees. This year, though, they’ve left the woody plants alone. Perhaps a mild winter means better food is available?
  • They start showing up on the trail cam an hour or so after sunset, and visit the yard frequently throughout the night until a half hour or so before sunrise. It really isn’t just the sunset and sunrise hours that they are active. I frequently see them on the camera at midnight, one a.m., two a.m – all through the night.
  • They are also not most active on the mild days in winter. They visit frequently during the week (but not every night) regardless of weather. One of the most active nights for visits so far this winter was -15F and terribly windy!

While it was not anywhere near that cold today (high of 39F, low of 9F), the first rabbit showed up tonight at 8:24 and mulled about around the garden for about an hour. He (she?) or another rabbit altogether was back at 11:00PM searching for more food and was active in the yard for at least half an hour. Here’s a quick clip: