“Cardinal Vulture”

I’m sure most of us have seen a turkey vulture, that dark soaring bird with a featherless head. Well, I have a new vulture to add!

I was startled earlier this summer by a red bird right outside the family room window that I had not seen before. I saw a spectacular new red bird this year, a Summer Tanager, so I thought I had another to add to my life list. All I caught before it flew off was that it was an all red bird with a black head. Out came the bird book, only to find there is no such bird to be found. Hmm.

Then it came back again, and it was with the female cardinal.

I had to figure this out, so I filled up the squirrel-proof sunflower seed feeder, hung it right in front of the kitchen window and hoped it would entice this odd bird in so I could identify it.

Lo and behold, he arrived and it was a male cardinal with no feathers on his head.

After some research on the internet, it seems bald cardinals are not all that unusual and there seems to be a few reasons it may occur:

  • Something can go wrong in the post-breeding molting process. Although these molting birds usually replace feathers in waves so that bare spots rarely appear, some species like cardinals, blue jays and grackles seem to be particularly susceptible to losing all their head feathers at once during molting.
  • Feather mites. The birds aren’t able to pick them off their heads during preening and the mites destroy the feather shafts. The birds will eventually grow new feathers.

Some less likely reasons are:

  • Feather-pecking by other birds.  Some birds like crows, will attack other birds and peck off feathers. But they usually only attack their own species. Interestingly, my mom has this issue with her chickens.
  • Disease. But, the birds generally don’t show any other symptoms of being sick
  • Other factors might include nutritional deficiencies, unusually high temperature, or other environmental stress.
  • It’s also possible that total feather loss may be a normal occurrence for individual birds.

No matter what the reason is, it seems not be a cause for worry. The feathers will grow back, and in this bird’s case, it hasn’t interfered with attracting a mate. I hope he grows his feather’s back before the weather turns cold.

For more details on how this interesting phenomena, check out these other articles:

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Where Are the Hummingbirds?

I started wondering this earlier this summer around the same time a friend asked me how long it takes to get Ruby-throated hummingbirds to come to a new feeder.

While it does usually take a while to get them to find a new feeder, her question made me realize that it seemed like I was having far fewer hummingbirds to my own feeder this year.

Normally here in Chicago, I have a pretty steady stream of hummingbirds to my garden and feeders by mid-spring, but this year it has been a trickle. I started asking around and some of my friends in the area reported the same thing.

I asked my mom in Michigan, the same thing. Almost none in her yard this year. Although it was interesting that a friend of hers nearby seemed to be having normal numbers to his yard.

I tried looking online to see if others were noticing the same thing and did find a few anecdotal comments that hummingbirds seemed to be missing in the Midwest this year.

Out of curiosity, I called my local Wild Birds Unlimited store to see if they’d heard anything. They are not only a great source for birding accessories, but also for information on all things bird related. They had also heard reports that there seemed to be fewer hummingbirds locally, and that it was possibly due to a shift in migration more to the East Coast this year or maybe they’re just arriving later than normal because of our spring weather.

Of course, that meant I had to ask around some more and got reports back that on the East Coast their numbers seemed down as well.

Interestingly, I seem to have had normal activity at my WI cabin feeder and just recently I’ve been seeing an increase in activity at my feeder at home.

I did a little more research on eBird using their mountains of citizen science bird checklist data. Looking at the frequency of checklists containing Ruby-throated hummingbird sightings in my county in IL, the actual numbers seem to be pretty low early on but have rebounded a bit above normal in late June and July (2017 is purple). So it looks like instead of not being here, they have just come later than normal.  You can check out your local area by starting on this eBird page.

Hummingbirds sightings should increase even more the rest of the summer as each of the 2 or 3 broods hatch and the yearlings start looking for food in our yards alongside the adults.

So how has it been in your neck of the woods this year? Have the Ruby-throated hummingbirds been seen in your yard like normal? If you checked out eBird, be sure to add to their data by reporting your bird sightings.  Every little bit helps!

BTW, if you don’t have a lot of hummingbirds draining the feeder regularly, be sure to change the food frequently so when they do arrive they have fresh food. You can get an easy nectar recipe here.

 

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July Vegetables

My spring vegetables really took a beating from the rabbits and the weather. Even though I had shored up the rabbit fence around the yard, all it took was a couple of holes and I had a nice happy family of rabbits devouring almost everything I planted. Radishes, swiss chard, spinach, lettuce, kale, beets and carrots were all gone. The last straw was when my bean plants were each bitten cleanly off at the base.

Since this spring was a loss, I put up a rabbit fence around these two beds to protect what was left.

By now the weather has turned too warm to replant any cool weather seeds, so I’ll have to put my focus into what’s remaining and plan for some fall planting.

The Gourmet Gold Hybrid Summer Squash (Burpee) is truly a beautiful bright yellow summer squash and seems to be an early and heavy producer. A great addition when trying to eat a “rainbow of colors”. The Emerald Delight Zucchini has just started producing and so far I’m liking what I’m harvesting. Both are wonderful on a fresh veggie platter!

The garlic was ready to harvest last week and it’s now curing on the porch! I’m so spoiled by the amazing taste of homegrown garlic, that come late spring I dread having to buy garlic.

I planted the hardneck varieties Music and Purple Glazer, and the softneck Early California from Botanical Interests this year. My WI garlic is a little bit behind and probably won’t be ready for a couple more weeks. Want to know more about growing and harvesting garlic? Check out my previous garlic posts or search for the tag “growing garlic” on the right sidebar.

The Early Girl tomatoes have lived up to their name and already been producing tasty tomatoes perfect for salads and sandwiches, and the Better Boys aren’t too far behind. The Super Sweet 100’s cherry tomatoes are just starting to ripen as well. Tomato season is here!

Last but not least are my potatoes. I planted a lot of Yukon Gold and Dark Red Norland potatoes. Even had to buy more potato bags to plant them all. They look really healthy this year since they’ve had plenty of rain. Want to grow your own next year? It’s really easy to do and fun to find all those potatoes in the fall. Check out my how-to’s on planting, growing and harvesting potatoes.

How are your vegetables doing? Have weather or creatures been a problem for you?

Maybe since it’s been cooler in WI, and the garden fenced in better, I’ll have better luck with the mid-summer harvests of my spring planted seeds that I planted there. I’ll be checking on that soon.

 

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I Planted Milkweed…

And the monarchs came!

Last fall at our WI cabin, I scattered milkweed seeds from native milkweed that had sparsely grown in what I call the “loop” in the center of the circular driveway.  It’s a native area anchored by three Hop Hornbeam (Ostrya virginiana) trees.

There’s lots of advice on how to collect milkweed seeds from the pods on the internet, but I took the simple route of waiting until late in the fall when the pods were starting to open up on their own, and then pulled out the seeds. While still attached to the sticky silk, I just floated the seeds around the loop garden and around the edges of the woods. It was a fun afternoon project even without young kids to help!

By spreading the seeds in the fall, I didn’t need to worry about artificial seed stratification, the process of simulating the cold winter and warm, wet spring, that you need to go through to get milkweed seeds to germinate efficiently. Then I waited to see what would come up, and where, since the downside of my method was the wind blowing things in unexpected directions.

I was happy to see this spring that the number of milkweed had really multiplied all over the loop and the edges of the driveway and forest. Then this past weekend I found them! Two big, fat healthy monarch caterpillars munching away.

I can’t remember the last time I saw big monarch caterpillars like these. I’m hoping when we’re there next time, I’ll find monarch chrysalis. But they can be tricky to find since they will attach to almost any hard surface in the area, not necessarily near the milkweed.

What else is enjoying my milkweed?  The bees of course.

Hummingbirds will also enjoy milkweed occasionally, but mine tend to prefer my feeder by far.

As a hummingbird bonus, I recently added a little window feeder and they love it! This day a female came to visit. The male is a little more camera shy.

Need help making hummingbird nectar? See my previous post on an easy how-to.

 

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Who’s In the Nest Boxes This Year (2017)?

Last year at our cabin in Door County, WI, I put up two nestboxes and had chickadees nest in both of them (Who’s In My Nestboxes). I was hoping for bluebirds, but chickadees certainly are a welcome second choice.

I was excited to find out who might use the nests this year, especially since I added another box and moved one to a new spot. First the chickadees came back and posed for some awesome photos! The babies weren’t quite as photogenic as last year, but still so cute.

Then came the house wrens in the new stone birdhouse from my mom.

House wrens make messy nests of twigs and other large items that seem almost impossible for those tiny birds to move. The nest cup itself is a small depression in the twigs and is lined with soft material like feathers, grasses and plant materials.

Another pair of house wrens quickly nested in the new bluebird house we put up. In this nest, I was especially fascinated by the q-tip as nest material.

But most unexpectedly, in the nestbox we moved to the edge of the woods a bluebird moved in! Bluebirds make deep, delicate nests of grass or pine needles. The eggs are pretty powder blue color.

To help out the nesting pair, I put out a mealworm feeder nearby.  Two thirds of a bluebird’s diet is made up of insects and the rest being fruit. Bluebirds don’t tend to eat birdseed and they may occasionally eat suet, but they love mealworms.

There is some debate as to whether they’ll eat the dried ones like I bought, or prefer live ones. I find all of them a little gross, so I thought I’d start with the dried ones. I’m not there all the time to feed them, so it’s been hard to tell who’s eating it. I did have to get a rain cover for the feeder to keep it from being a mushy mess, but I had plenty laying around so not a problem.

Who else is around? I have a robin condominium 🙂

Here at home I had a house wren start a nest in a backyard nestbox.  Not sure why it was abandoned, but may have been that my sprinkler was accidentally blasting it. Fixed that problem, but it may have been too late. Or, it was just a “dummy nest” that house wrens often build to claim their territory.

Have you had any birds nesting at your place this year? I hear a lot of young fledglings calling for their moms these days!

 

 

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Woodlink Wooden Bluebird House – Model BB1


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A Hidden Sanctuary in Central Park: Hassett Nature Sanctuary

We had some time to pass in NYC a few weeks ago and decided to go to Central Park.

Rather than wandering aimlessly, which is easy to do, we checked out a guide for interesting things to do.  Up popped the 4 acre Hasset Nature Sanctuary in the southeast corner of Central Park. Perfect!

We didn’t even know this place existed and for good reason. It was just this past April that it opened to the public for the first time since 1934. Back in 1934, it was closed to the public and designated a protected bird sanctuary. The sanctuary was left untouched until 2001, when the Central Park Conservancy took up its restoration and maintenance. Invasive species were removed and native plants reintroduced making this little forested haven once again a healthy and diverse ecosystem.

You enter the sanctuary through this beautiful wooden gate just south of Wollman Rink (Sixth Avenue and Central Park South is the closest Park entrance). From there you enter onto meandering woodchip covered trails and you’d never know you were in the city if it weren’t for the skyscrapers peaking out.

It was early spring when we visited, so the Sanctuary was full of colorful spring flowers and shrubs. As a bonus, most specimens are labeled making identification easy. Here’s just some of what we saw.

Swamp Azalea (Rhododendron viscosum)

Mayapple (Podophyllum peltatum)

Purple Trillium (Trillium erectum) and Yellow Trillium (Trillium luteum)

Yellow/Orange Azalea

In addition to wonderful plant life there’s plenty of birds to see.  Some common, like these kissing cardinals.

Others like this White Egret and Catbird, are less common in an urban setting.

I also saw an Eastern Towhee (the drink-your-teeeaa bird) and White-Throated Sparrow. Not bad for no binoculars.

If you want more information, you can take a guided tour of the Hallett Sanctuary and lots of other parts of Central Park.  Hallett Nature Sanctuary is closest to Central Park South and Sixth Avenue (find directions here) and is open daily from 10:00 am until 30 minutes before sunset. It’s informally restricted as to how many visitors can enter at one time and no dogs, bicycles, or strollers are allowed. While we were visiting, park naturalists were observing the flora and fauna and recording their observations. Hopefully the addition of people don’t spoil the environment.

What else did we do on this trip to NYC?

We visited the Freedom Tower and went up to the One World Trade Center Observation Deck.

No lines that day!

Truly amazing 360° view!

We also went to the quirky New York Transit Museum in Brooklyn. Fun and interesting for all ages!

And we went to the Brooklyn Museum to see The Dinner Party by Judy Chicago which celebrates 39 important woman from history at the table, and 999 more women who have their names inscribed in gold on the white tile floor below table.

Of course I had to find the names of the Grimke sisters, who’s fascinating story was told in the novel, The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd. Really enjoyed the book and made for a great book club discussion.

What’s your favorite place to visit in Central Park?

PS Need to share photo credits on this post with my husband Steve!

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Hoping for Bats: Installing a Bat House

I have a love/hate relationship with bats. I find them a bit creepy because they carry rabies and who isn’t scared by these nocturnal flying mammals, but I also know they are vital in keeping night flying insects like mosquitoes in check.

By Marvin Moriarty/USFWS – This image originates from the National Digital Library of the United States Fish and Wildlife Service. https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=8126465

 

For now, I’ll take my chances with the rabies and opt for helping our local WI bats survive by putting up a bat house. Bats are under attack from loss of habitat and the fungus causing white-nosed syndrome. In nesting areas that white-nosed syndrome has spread, 30-100% of bats have been wiped out. This has been, and still is, catastrophic to the species.

 

 

 

 

One way to help the species is to conserve existing bat habitats and provide new ones.

Bat House in Peninsula State Park, WI

When I was out at my local Wild Bird Unlimited store I happened upon bat houses for sale. How could I pass it up for our cabin in Door County, WI?

Since we are in a northern climate, it helps to paint the house black to retain heat. Using black spray paint, Steve made quick work of painting the house black.

It was so beautifully made (in the USA btw), we had to leave some if it unpainted.

Now came time to install.  Ideally the house is placed in a southern facing direction on a tall pole with no obstructions underneath or directly in front of it and at least 15 feet up. Originally I thought the best location for the house was on a utility pole along the driveway, but I realized that really wasn’t a great idea. If we ever needed a service call during nesting season, I don’t think I’ll find a repairman who’ll go up that pole! Installing a freestanding pole, tall and strong enough, is also not in our DIY repertoire.

So, while not ideal, we settled on a tree that was in a pretty open area and faced south. This became a family event with my husband and boys all pitching in to get this installed.

The house comes with a screw eye for easy hanging.  We bought a large hook, screwed it into the tree and hung the house.  To keep it from swinging, we also added a couple of screws at the bottom to secure it to the tree.

Now we’ll wait for the bats to find it. Generally takes a little longer for them to find it in a tree, but I’ve seen them in the area at dusk so I’m hopeful.

Do you have a bat habitat near you, or have a bat house? If you do, have you noticed a decline?

Any good bat stories? I’ll always remember the bat in my college attic apartment!

Since we didn’t hang the bat house on the utility pole, it became the perfect place for hanging a beautiful bluebird house handmade by my mom, Peggy.

Bat Resources:

 

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Audubon Bat Shelter Model NABAT


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Purple Sensation Allium

Last year, a fellow blogger (Jason at gardeninacity) wrote a post about his beautiful spring alliums. I have to admit, I was jealous of those amazing flowers in his garden. I’ve grown edible chives (Allium schoenoprasum) for years, but they are nothing compared to these other garden alliums.

Alliums like Purple Sensation, with its the 4-5″ diameter purple globes rising on sturdy 24″ to 30″ high stems, would certainly add drama to any garden! For some reason I thought they’d be hard to grow, but it couldn’t have been easier.

With prefect timing, Groupon had a special last fall on Purple Sensation Alliums that seemed like a really good deal. Groupon is not normally my go to place for gardening plants, but I thought buying bulbs from them was pretty safe.

I planted them around the yard last fall using my lightly used, but handy bulb planter.  I am not a fan of bulb planting, but this step planter really made it easy. Allium bulbs can only be planted in the fall and at a depth of about 6″.  As a bonus, they are rabbit and deer resistant.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This spring some new, very large plants started sprouting around my yard. I had forgotten exactly where they were planted, so it was such a surprise when they began coming up.

Then these beautiful huge purple puffballs started to emerge.

All around the yard these purple globes emerged.

I hope they spread because they are just too fun to have in my yard. And because they are deer resistant, I’m going to add them to my cabin garden as well!

Allium bulbs aren’t always easy to find in your local garden center.  If you can’t find them, they can be found online in the fall at places like Brent and Becky’s Bulbs, White Flower Farm, Bluestone Perennials, and apparently Groupon.

 

 

Who Knew? Porcupines Climb Trees!

Porcupines are truly odd creatures, and one definitely best watched from afar.  Recently at dusk at our place in Wisconsin, one came to visit that provided an evening of entertainment!

When he realized we were watching, he headed off towards the woods.

They are not the speediest of animals, but in his own lumbering way he was hurrying.

First he tried to become invisible behind a tree. When we got a little closer he began to climb the tree.

I never really thought about where they lived, but I guess I assumed they lived on the ground.  Maybe a burrowing animal?

But, they are actually quite adept at climbing trees. They have long claws and hairless palms and soles to help them climb. Their strong gripping ability also allows porcupines to stay in trees looking a bit like a koala or sloth, using their forelimbs to reach for tender shoots.

He just kept going…

I don’t know how he didn’t fall!

Interesting porcupine facts:

  • The North American porcupine is a New World Porcupine (Erethizon dorsatum).
  • Porcupines are the second largest rodent in North America.  The largest is the beaver.
  • Porcupines don’t shoot their barbed quills, but the 30,000 quills are very loosely attached making them come off easily into the skin of an attacker.
  • Porcupine habitat varies geographically The live in open tundra, deciduous forest, and desert chaparral. Depending on their specific environment, they can vary from spending most of their time on the ground, to areas where they are found mostly in trees.
  • Porcupines are general herbivores. Their diet varies throughout the year depending on their needs and what is considered edible. They’ve also been known to kill a tree by feeding too heavily on a single tree in winter.
  • Porcupines have an antibiotic in its skin protecting itself from infection when it falls out of a tree and gets stuck with its own quills.  Apparently this is a frequent occurrence, since they often go too far out on a limb trying to get those tender spring buds.
  • A baby porcupine is called a porcupette.

This was actually our second porcupine interaction at our place in Wisconsin. I had gotten up early one morning with Daisy, only to have her run off out of sight. I quickly found her face to face with a porcupine, with a second one a couple of feet away. They did a little dance, nose to nose, nose to tail, but by some miracle no one was quilled. Always an adventure in WI

PS Thanks to my son Alex for some of the pictures!

 

Checking on the Seedlings

Why didn’t I buy grow lights before?? My seedlings have always been “fine”, but after seeing my mom’s lush healthy seedlings under her grow lights, and with a little nudge from my husband I decided to take the plunge. I am so glad I did!

I bought two 2 ft Hydrofarm T5 Grow Light Systems.

I decided against the single 4 ft light so I would have more flexibility. They came safely packed and were easy to assemble. I did have a little trouble with placement since my table is a 4 ft one and each lamp is actually 26 inches. Got it figured out with the help of a tray table.

I started the peppers back in March and then planted the rest of the seeds at the right time based on my last frost date.

I usually add a couple of weeks to the last frost date to be on the safe side, so I’m aiming to plant the week after Mother’s Day. I keep track of what I’m doing on these handy Botanical Interests Month-to Month planner sheets.

I’m growing Cosmos and Marigolds in my APS system trays, and this year all my vegetables in Botanical Interests small 1 1/2 in Recycled Paper pots and larger 3 inch Recycled Paper Pots.

I’ve always ended up with root bound squash and cucumbers in the smaller APS trays and they are really tenuous when transplanting, so I decided to grow them in the 3 inch pots this year. As a bonus, using these Botanical Interests Paper Pots they can go right into the ground when ready–just tear off the bottom strip and all set to go. The paper will just decompose and the roots aren’t disturbed when transplanting.

So far I’m really happy with the BI paper pots.  Plants have grown great and watering has been easy, even when I’ve been gone on vacations. I was a little worried about that, since I had always used self watering plant trays.

What I ended up doing while I was away was to place the paper pots in a baking pan and fill the tray up with water. The plants just soaked up what they needed. I did figure out I needed to fill the tray the day before, and again right before leaving since the soil soaked up so much water right away. That has seemed to work well for 4-5 day trips. I don’t keep them this damp too long so I don’t encourage mold/fungus to grow that could damage the seedlings. (What’s my favorite indoor watering can? The Oxo 3 liter Indoor Pour and Store)

The squash is healthier than I’ve ever grown!

Marigolds!

Cosmos!

Sunflowers are about 8 inches tall!

The kohlrabi, basil and coleus is getting there and maybe should have been started earlier.  This was a couple of weeks ago and they’ve since been thinned to one plant per pot. Best to thin by cutting the unwanted plants rather than pulling them out. Pulling one can pull them all out.

Can you tell the difference between the purple and white kohlrabi?

Can’t wait for the weather to get warm enough to think about planting. We keep having frost warnings so this year things are going to be a little delayed. In the meantime, this weekend I’ll put up the mini greenhouse and begin transitioning them to the outdoors (also known as hardening off). Seedlings have to be gently introduced to the outdoors or it’ll be too much of a shock for them.

How’s your seed growing going?  Has it been a tough year for you?