Category Archives: Nature

Nature Walk on Earth Day

It was a beautiful day for a walk, so I headed out to the Morton Arboretum to walk and celebrate Earth Day.  Spring flowers were in abundance!

Here’s what I saw:

White Trout Lily (Erythronium albidum)
Immature plants produce a single leaf and no flower, while mature plants produce a pair of leaves and a single flower. Colonies often have far more leaves than flowers.

Prairie Trillium (Trillium recurvatum)

This poisonous plant never really “opens” like other trilliums. The drooping sepals and stalked leaves are clues that you have this trillium and not the very similar Toad Shade.

Virginia Springbeauty (Claytonia virginica)

This small flower is a sure sign that spring has arrived! You’ll find them open on warm sunny days and closed during cloudy weather and at night. These are stunning as a sweeping sea of pink in the forest.

Wild Geranium (Geranium maculatum)

Wild geraniums are easily identified by their large palmately lobed leaves and their beak-like seed capsules that point upwards.

Cutleaf Toothwort (Cardamine concatenata)

This fragrant flower is easy to spot and identify by its toothed leaf pattern. By the end of spring, both the flowers and foliage will disappear until next year.

Common Blue Violet (Viola sororia)

While I often find these as weeds in my yard, their deep purple flowers are a cheerful find amidst all the decaying fall leaves.

Lily of the Valley (Convallaria majalis)

This escaped ornamental plant, which can be mistaken for Wild Leeks (Spring Leeks (aka Ramps), will soon show it’s distinct white flowers.  Unlike leeks, all parts of this plant are highly toxic.  If it doesn’t smell like onions or garlic, don’t eat it!

After my hike in the spring woods, I stopped by my local Wild Birds Unlimited store to stock up on sunflower seeds and suet for the birds and to buy a bat house to encourage bats to our place in Wisconsin. The staff at WBU is a great source of info for what’s going on in your local bird world, and I find the best birding supplies there. Today, I heard the hummingbirds are back already so time to get the feeders out (Hummingbird Nectar)!

Then as a last fun nature day stop, I went by a local nursery to buy some Summer Beauty Allium (Allium tanguticum).  I have a hot, dry sunny spot where oddly nothing seems too happy to grow.  I’ve been seeing these in similar locations in public gardens so I’ll give them a try. They produce a pretty pom-pom flower display mid-summer, are sterile so aren’t invasive, are pollinator favorites, and rabbits stay away from them.  All around sounds pretty good to me.

Did you get out and enjoy this spring day!

 

 

Who Won The Squirrels vs Feeder Contest?

I’ve had an ongoing issue with squirrels ravaging my bird feeders. I bought a great Squirrel Stopper pole, but because I wanted to see the birds from my kitchen window, and despite clear instructions not too, I placed it too close to a nearby tree and arborvitaes. So, those very acrobatic squirrels have had fun feasting at my feeders!

In a post earlier this winter, I wrote about finally investing in some well reviewed squirrel proof feeders to try and attract more birds than squirrels to my yard (Happy New Year’s To My Backyard Birds!).  So did they work?

I am so excited to say YES! Continue reading

Up Close With A Pileated Woodpecker

We were out winter hiking in Peninsula State Park, when we thought it’d be fun to take a short cut through the interior on the little used Trail Trampers Delight trail.  Someone had fun naming that trail!  Just beautiful and so quiet after a fresh overnight snowfall. Yes, there’s a trail there 🙂

Lots of animal trails snaking through the fresh snow…like this coyote catching up to friends.

and this Canadian Goose apparently taking a trip to the outhouse 🙂

But the most exciting part of the trip was the Pileated Woodpecker that didn’t show any fear of us and just went about his business. We had seen one earlier on the walk, but he was a little too far and high to really get a good look.

But this one flew in front of us and landed about about 30 feet away at eye level.  He went hungrily to work. You can see all the large chunks of wood that he’s been pecking out suggesting a lot of very recent activity.

Steve headed in for a closer look. Wish he had bought his good camera but in this case the handy iphone will have to do.

Getting ready. There’s a lot of power behind that hit.

They also carve out the distinctive rectangular hole quite purposefully. We watched him at times pecking from the side to wedge out a loose shaving.

The male Pileated has an entirely red crest, and the female a dark forehead. The male also has a red stripe on his face that is missing on the female. So this one is we’ve been watching is a male. There was another nearby, probably his mate. Pileated Woodpeckers stay together as a pair all year round, and rarely tolerate others in its territory.

I decided I wanted a closer look and the Pileated and I began a little game of hide and seek. I wasn’t quite as stealthy so he moved around back and kept poking his head out to see if I was there.

Movie time!

Watching this makes my head hurt and would certainly give me a concussion, or kill me, if I tried to strike a tree with that kind of force. Scientists estimate that a woodpecker may strike the tree with forces greater than 1000 G’s, far more than a human can withstand. We can certainly learn some things from a woodpecker.

To begin with, their strong neck muscles diffuse the blow and a third eyelid protect their eyes.  A woodpeckers brain and skull and also specially designed to withstand the G forces. The brain is surrounded by trabeculae, tiny beamlike projections of bone that form a spongy bone mesh that protects the brain, and the brain fills the skull so there is no “sloshing around” on impact. There’s also a hyoid bone, which in humans it is found in the middle of the neck. In a woodpecker, this bone wraps around the skull to act as a seatbelt to keep it in place and further minimize the impact on the bird’s brain.  Even the beak itself helps in minimizing brain injury. While the outer beak appears longer than the lower, the actual bone structure of the lower is longer and stronger, sending much of the impact to the lower parts of the skull, away from the brain.  Scientists are continuing to study these amazing birds and hopefully learn from them to protect human brains who sustain repeated impacts, like football players.

Of course, I have to show one of my mom Peggy’s backyard photos.  This female (note the gray on the cap and no red cheek bar) was visiting her suet feeder. How lucky she is to have these spectacular visitors to her backyard.

Photos by Peggy

Photo credits:  most photos by Steve; last picture is a Photo by Peggy

A Hawk at My Feeders

As I was reading comfortably on the couch one afternoon, out of the corner of my eye something BIG went by the window. Now there’s always a gaggle of birds out there because of the feeder I have hung in that area, but they don’t usually make me think, “What was that!” Of course I have to investigate, hoping whatever it was remained nearby. It did!

A beautiful Cooper’s Hawk (Accipiter cooperii) had landed on the top of my feeder pole and sat there surveying the area. Presumably looking for food, but smartly everyone had scattered. He posed for a while so I could see his beautiful blue gray back and get a good look at his tail. The rounded tail is a pretty strong marker that it’s a Cooper’s Hawk and not the very similar Sharp-shinned Hawk (Accipiter striatus) which has a straight, squared off tail.

Then it turned around so I could see it’s breast which was mottled rust and white.

It’s actually can be pretty difficult to tell the difference between the Cooper’s Hawk and Sharp-shinned Hawk.  Cooper’s Hawks tend to be larger, more the size of a crow, Sharp-shinned, more the size of a Blue Jay.  Cooper’s Hawks have a much bigger, distinct head in proportion to their body and look as though they are wearing a dark cap because of the light coloring of their nape. They are typically woodland birds, but are increasingly likely to be found in suburban areas.  Sharp-shinned Hawks nest almost exclusively in conifers and heavily wooded forests and are less frequent visitors to the suburbs.

A Cooper’s Hawks main diet is primarily small to medium birds and occasionally mammals like chipmunks, rabbits, mice, squirrels, and bats. They can be an unwelcome visitor to in a yard if they seem to have taken up residence because of the abundance of birds attracted to feeders. Removing the feeders for a few days should be enough to have them move on. But, honestly if having a hawk around  helped reduced the squirrel population, I may not mind having it visit occasionally.

Fortunately this one didn’t stick around long, although I know it lives somewhere in the area since it’s been to my yard a few times this winter.  Luckily, I saw it in the neighborhood over the weekend and could report it as part of the Great Backyard Bird Count.

After flying off the pole, it rested on a patio table, then moved on.

It was fun to see, but I hope I’m not providing dinner by attracting songbirds to my yard with feeders.

Wondering what I’m reading? See the latest list of books I’ve read (and liked) on the right.

Any Hawks in your yard?  Or a favorite book you’ve read lately?

 

This Was The Summer of Wasps!

This was our first summer in Door County, WI, so when the hornets and wasps appeared we thought it was normal.  Then more came, and everyone in line at the hardware store was buying wasp spray.  We had the normal small nests that appeared in the eaves and under the deck rail, and we seemed to be able to keep them in check.

But the mother ship was in the kindling box.

wasp nest

Early in the summer we saw a few wasps coming in and out of the box, but by midsummer it became apparent that we really shouldn’t open it any more until it got cold.  Fall came and it seemed like it was finally time to inspect what was going on.  What a treasure we found!

wasp nest

Because of how it had been built inside the box, we were able to pull the whole nest out intact and see some of the interior architecture.

This was the front.  Such beautiful scalloping and shades of color.  To the touch it was soft, papery and deceivingly strong.

wasp nest

wasp nest

The wasps entered from the canal at the top that spiraled down into the interior layers.

wasp nest

When the nest was pulled away from the box, it exposed some of the interior scaffolding where the young are hatched and food is stored.

wasp nest

wasp nest

Since this seemed so interesting, we dropped it off at a local nature center so all can enjoy.

wasp nest

I’m not entirely sure if this was a yellow jacket or bald-faced hornet nest, both of the wasp family Vespidae.  They are closely related social wasps and build similar nests.  There were just so many flying stinging insects around, I didn’t pay close enough attention to what was actually going in and out of the wood box.  We also had plenty of paper wasps, but they build very different types of nests.

After finishing our little nature exploration, we’ve had enough of raising wasps so the box was partially dismantled and used as frame to corral my expanding composting pile.

Want to learn more?  Here’s some useful links from local midwestern university extensions:

 

Happy New Year’s To My Backyard Birds!

Happy New Year! I hope this day finds you all well and looking forward to this new year. I’ve been away a bit from blogging, but one of my goals for this year is to keep up much better. So much has happened this summer and fall with great gardening and travel, so I’ll spend the winter catching up!

On to the birds

Like most people, I have a heck of a time finding balance between feeding the birds and feeding the pesky squirrels. I really love my squirrel-proof pole, but it’s only as good as your placement.

Stephi Gardens

In my case, for me to have it in a perfect viewing spot from the kitchen window, it is just too close to the tree. Since squirrels are quite the acrobats, the pole really needs to be at least 10 feet from any object than can jump from. BTW, I have never seen a squirrel successfully climb up the pole! Since I’m not willing to move it, I either need to put up with feeding the squirrels or try some other feeders or shields.

I tried the clear dome feeder covers and decided those were really only good to keep the finch socks dry. I tried tying shiny ribbons around the tree to distract the squirrels and that only made it look like trash had become trapped on the tree somehow. I also tried the Squirrelaway Baffle, which also got great reviews.  But, alas, my squirrels finally outwitted it 🙁  It did work pretty well with the suet feeder tucked up there, but regular feeders it was able to s-t-r-e-t-c-h and reach around to grab it.

My last attempt was to try some of the squirrel proof feeders. Since it was recently Christmas, I added a couple to my Christmas wish list. I also had a couple around that I dusted off.

Here’s what I’m trying:

Peanut Feeder– I’ve had this one a couple of years and the nuthatches and downy’s just love it. I’m not sure the brand, but I got it at a Tractor Supply Store.  No squirrels can get into it. But, the other day I must not have screwed on the top as tight as I should have since it was missing one morning. I found it quite a ways away from the pole, so someone had quite a feast!

squirrel proof peanut feeder

Sunflower Seed Feeder–I just put out this Perky-Pet Squirrel-Be-Gone®Wild Bird Feeder and hope it lives up to it’s name. If a squirrel gets onto it, the outer wire cage lowers and closes the feeder slots.

Perky-Pet® Squirrel-Be-Gone® Wild Bird Feeder

My only concern is the plastic tube. Hope my squirrels aren’t chewers.

Perky-Pet® Squirrel-Be-Gone® Wild Bird Feeder

The top seems really good and tight to keep them out.

Perky-Pet® Squirrel-Be-Gone® Wild Bird Feeder

My new suet feeder– I’ve really tried to used shields with my suet feeders and they worked for a while. Then this happened. Maybe I just didn’t figure out how to get the feeder hidden in their well enough, or I just have super smart squirrels. Either way a new approach was needed.

squirellbuster baffel

I’m now going to try the Stokes Select Squirrel Proof Double Suet Feeder. Seems to be well reviewed, so we’ll see. Looks pretty solid.

Stokes squirrel proof suet feeder

Stokes squirrel proof suet feeder

Black Oil Sunflower Feeder– And lastly, my new favorite! A Brome 1057 Squirrel Buster Standard Wild Bird Feeder. This seems to be everyone’s favorite brand, and I was pleasantly surprised at how well it seems to be made. Comes with really good instructions in case you want to adjust the closure weight.

Brome 1057 Squirrel Buster Standard Wild Bird Feeder

Brome 1057 Squirrel Buster Standard Wild Bird Feeder

Brome 1057 Squirrel Buster Standard Wild Bird Feeder

I chose this one because it has perches that Cardinals seems to like. They were the trickiest to find a squirrel proof feeder for since they like to perch instead of cling. Worst case scenario, they seem to be happy with the spills.

So here we have it. All ready for the birds and hopefully will have outsmarted the squirrels.

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I’ll keep you posted!  How do you outsmart the squirrels?

P.S. To help keep the sparrows and house finches away from my more expensive seeds, I usually place a couple of other feeders farther away in the yard filled with a cheaper wild bird seed mixtures. That seems to keep them happy!

Chickens of Kauai: Good or Bad???

Chickens and Kauai. Not really two things I would have ever thought go together.

Kauai chickens

Hibiscus, beautiful ferns and gorgeous views, but not chickens. But they were everywhere.  I should have known something was amiss when there were chickens and roosters in the rental car parking lot at the airport.  We thought it cute and other than thinking it was odd, didn’t give it much thought.  Then they were in the garden outside our hotel room, and again thought they were a novelty.  That is until the rooster started crowing at the full moon around 3 am.  We were already a bit delirious from the jet lag and that just added to the fog we were feeling.

But off we went to explore the island.  We found this guy at the Iliau Nature Loop hike.

Kauai chickens

We were greeted when we left the car and actually escorted us down the trail a good ways.

Kauai chickens

We had another trail mascot hiking on the Cliff trail in the Waimea Canyon.

Kauai chickens

There were whole families on Poipu Beach.

Kauai chickens

The strong winds at Lydgate Beach didn’t blow them away.

Kauai chickens

At the Wailua River State Park overlook, the parking turnout was overrun and we were actually in danger of running them over…

Kauai chickens

…or having them try to jump in the car.

Kauai chickens

At Pu’u Poa Beach in Princeville, I think we were in this guys territory.  He seemed ok with us there, but when another rooster wandered too close he was none too happy.

Kauai chickens

Hey, this isn’t a chicken!  Finally got to see some Nene, the Hawaiian state bird.

Nene

So why so many chickens?  The story goes that “mua” or red junglefowl were originally brought to Kauai by the Polynesians when they arrived in Hawaii.  All seemed pretty much ok and in some kind of natural balance.  That was, until hurricanes Iwa in 1982 and Iniki in 1992 wiped out pretty much everything and released domesticated chickens into the jungles to mate with the junglefowl.  This resulted in the feral chickens we see everywhere today.  The problem is certainly compounded by the lack of any natural predators like the mongoose found on all other Hawaiian Islands.

They can be quite a nuisance.  Crowing at all hours of the night and day, scratching and damaging gardens and trees, leaving droppings everywhere and these feral birds are no good for eating unlike their ancestors. But on the flip side, they eat a lot of bugs, are important in keeping the nasty Hawaiian centipede in check and do provide entertainment, great photos and business opportunities for the locals and tourists.  Plus researchers at Michigan State are studying them to find ways to develop hardier breeds of domesticated chickens.

For more information Nature.com has a great visual and article.

Interesting Plants of Kauai

While we were visiting Kauai, in addition to all the gorgeous Hibiscus there were lots of other interesting plants to see and learn about.  I wish I had more time to go plant exploring, but there was so much to do in so little time.  Here’s a little of what we saw.

Uluhe fern (Dicranopteris linearis)

This old world fern is widespread across Kauai and other islands.  It is a quick growing, thick and woody fern found on the sloping mountainsides.  It serves an important function to prevent erosion and keep weaker rooted weeds and invasive species to a minimum.  It is also one of the most dangerous plants a hiker can encounter.  It’s not at all poisonous, but aside from the the woody stems that will scratch the heck out of anyone trying to bushwhack through it, it’s growth habits can give a hiker a false sense of where a cliff side may be.  One step onto what looks like a soft mat of plant growth, can turn out to be a nasty fall down a cliff side.  It’s new growth continues to grow on top of any plant, including itself.

Uluhe fern

Uluhe fern

In areas where it’s been sheared, it’s easy to see all the dead growth underneath.

Uluhe fern

Strawberry Guava (Psidium cattleyanum)

Strawberry Guava

Strawberry guava is native to Brazil and considered a very dangerous invasive species in Hawaii.  Like many invasive species, it interferes with the native ecosystem and is exceedingly hard to eradicate.  On the positive side, the deep, red ripe fruits are edible and can be used for juice, jams, or just a tasty treat on a hike.  I did try a few, but maybe mine weren’t quite ripe since I thought they were little tart.

Iliau (Wilkesia gymnoxiphium)

Iliau is an ancient plant only found on Kauai.  We came across it on the Iliau Nature Loop trail, a pretty hiking trail on the scenic drive through the Waimea Canyon.  Even if you only have a few minutes on your drive, this 0.3 mi scenic loop is well worth doing.  Placards along the path describe many of the native plants you’ll find in this unique ecosystem.  On the plaque at the beginning of the trail, the trails namesake plant the Iliau, is described as an ancient member of the sunflower family.  It is a monocarpic plant, meaning it will only flower and bear fruit once, then it dies.  It lives an average of 2-10 years, and the spectacular flowers can be seen from May to July.

Since we were there in August, we didn’t see any flowers, but the leaf stalks were nonetheless interesting.

Iliau (Wilkesia gymnoxiphium)

There were also plenty of seed stalks rising up across the horizon.

iIlau (Wilkesia gymnoxiphium)

In addition to the plants along the way, the views of the canyon were just breathtaking.  We were lucky to have a relatively clear day.

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At least depending on the direction you are facing 🙂

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There were also plenty of “tree orchids” to add color just about everywhere.

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At dinner one night we had enjoyed this window box growing pineapples and crotons.

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When in Hawaii is there anything better than a real flower lei?   We got to make our own and learn about some of the customs associated with the tradition one afternoon while hanging out at the pool.  Mine was made from the very fragrant plumeria, but unfortunately it didn’t stay fresh very long.   Still smelled wonderful anyway.

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There was plenty more to see and enjoy, but these were some of my favorites and most interesting!

 

Hummingbird Nectar

Perky Pet hummingbird feeder

 

Once you’ve filled your yard with pollinator friendly plants and a hummingbird feeder, you need to make some nectar to put in the feeder.  It couldn’t be easier!

 

 

 

 

Recipe:
hummingbird nectar
1 part granulated sugar
4 parts water

Bring to a boil and boil for 2 min (longer can make it too concentrated).
Cool before filling feeder.

 

I've had this spoon forever, seems appropriate when making hummingbird nectar :)

I’ve had this spoon forever, seems appropriate when making hummingbird nectar 🙂

So for example, you want to make just enough to fill the feeder, use 1/4 cup sugar and 1 cup water.

To make enough to store for a week or so, use 1 cup sugar and 4 cups of water. Store leftover in the refrigerator.

 

 

 

Things to remember:

Change the food every 2-3 days, sooner if it appears cloudy.

Boiled and cooled nectar can be stored 1-2 weeks in the refrigerator.  If it begins to appear cloudy, or develops brown spots on the container, toss it.  It’s either fermenting or growing mold and will be harmful to the hummingbirds.

No need to add red dye.  Red on the feeder is enough to attract them and the dye may be harmful.

Never use honey, brown sugar or artificial sweeteners. Honey and brown sugar are not able to be digested properly and honey can be toxic. Hummingbirds are never on a diet, so they need the energy provided by real sugar.

Keep the feeder clean. Buy a bottle bush and scrub it out each time you refill the feeder.

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It may take a little while for these fun little friends to find your feeder, but when they do, they will be back as long as you provide them fresh food.  Seeing that they feed every 10-15 minutes to keep up with their calorie needs, they’ll be back a lot!

Hummingbirds and Monarchs

While I’ve planted a lot of flowers and plants that attract pollinators like hummingbirds and butterflies at home, my WI garden is much more natural, but equally full of attractive plants.

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This wild columbine at the woods’ edge is a natural attractant, while other native and cultivated flowering plants can be found in the garden.

Ruby-throated hummingbird

Continue reading