Early morning night-herons

Three blocks away from our house is a scrappy little pond, the Tanyard Brook Reservoir, completely enclosed by a barbed-wire topped chainlink fence and a mishmash of native and invasive shrubs and vines. There are keyhole views through the fence that reveal muddy banks dotted with litter, and a surprising array of wildlife. I’ve seen muskrats and a mink, mallards, mergansers, egrets, and the odd cormorant. In spring there’s a nesting pair of Canada geese, box turtles that somehow make it up concrete embankments and through the chainlink to cross the street, as well as a frog chorus, and a siege of black-crowned night-herons. Somewhere around a dozen of those guys (and gals) stick around all summer (I’m sure the frogs and turtles do too) and entertain me on my dawn dog walks by sitting hunchbacked and completely still. — Doesn’t take much to halt my forward progress before I’ve had coffee. Yesterday I counted nine. Today I could only spot four. Apologies for the terrible iphone photos but they do resemble my own dim and bleary-eyed view.

Here’s what I’ve learned about black-crowned night-herons: Adults are mostly gull-gray except for their black back and crown, and pretty white plumes like streamers trailing from the back of their head; females are a little smaller than males, and juveniles, up to 3 years old, are spotted brown. They hang out in communal groups and do most of their feeding at night — probably elsewhere because there’s no way this sorry spot can support so many herons. We’re within their year-round range here but the herons will disappear in the fall, as they always do, to spend winter on saltier water, maybe further south.

Any cool wildlife in your neighborhood?

For more information on black-crowned night-herons, check out allaboutbirds.org, and the Audubon field guide. Also, this list is pretty great.

Beeware the Ides of March

March messPart of me doesn’t mind that there isn’t much in bloom in my garden right now. As ready as I am for spring, I have to admire March for hosting winter’s last hurrah. (Don’t I?) March is supposed to give us plenty to complain bitterly about and make us ache more than ever for spring’s colors and warmth. That’s its job. The garden is supposed to look beat. But tucked between winter’s worst (snow, bitter winds, raw and icy rain, what-have-you) are those divinely warm spring-like days that entice the bees out of their hives. And it’s a damn shame that there’s hardly anything in bloom for them to eat. In fact, more colonies starve in March than any other month of the year. Tragic. 

There’s precious little for them in my garden. Right now, only a witch hazel that’s been in bloom since January. Just based on looks I would say that the Salix chaenemeloides ‘Mt. Aso’ is in bloom because it’s in its kitten-fur stage, but it’s not far enough out for the bees. Even my hellebores aren’t quite there yet. Neither is the winter honeysuckle (Lonicera fragrantissima). I have no early crocus. No snowdrops or winter aconite. No skunk cabbage. So to make this long sob story short, I’m making a mental note — you are my witness — to remedy that this coming year. (That is, any or all but the skunk cabbage since I haven’t got a bog.)

Salix chaenemeloides 'Mt. Aso'Helleborus foetidus

Have the bees been out in your garden yet? What on? Will you have more for them next year? (For a March bigger variety of blooms, check out GBBD at May Dreams Gardens.)

Jelena love

Hamamelis x intermedia 'Jelena'I can’t take my eyes off her. Or my camera away from her. I also can’t help wondering if I would be as enraptured if Hamamelis x intermedia ‘Jelena’ bloomed at a normal time with other normal spring, summer and fall blooming plants instead of the middle of a white-out winter. — But the flowers are weird enough and its fragrance sweet enough that I’m pretty sure it would be my favorite thing in the whole world whenever it bloomed. 

I also can’t help wondering why the fershlug this witch hazel blooms now instead when pollinating insects are out and about. I’m sure attracted to her but who else would be? Syrphid flies are early but I haven’t seen any yet… (Hamamelis virginiana, which blooms in the fall, is similarly handicapped. I read that winter moth might provide pollination service for it in return for nectar.) My guess is that Jelena and her kin (‘Diane’, ‘Arnold’s Promise’, etc) are all for show at least in this neck of the woods — H. x intermedia being a cross of a couple of Asian species, not anything native. I’d be pretty sad about that if I didn’t enjoy the show quite so much. It must go on. Brava, Jelena. Applause, applause! 

Do you know of any wildlife that might love this plant as much as you and I do?

Down to earth – Where are the butterflies?

(Originally published September 19, 2013 in East Bay/South Coast Life)

From where I’m sitting, if I turn my head 90° to the right I have a view of a butterfly bush (Buddleia davidii ‘Ellen’s Blue’) planted under my window. I can clearly see, even through the screen, the tiny orange anthers inside hundreds of deep purple-blue flowers clustering every twig end, and my nose is filled with its honey scent whether I’m looking at it or not. But what I cannot see are all the butterflies that give it its common name.

Over the course of the summer I haven’t seen many Black Swallowtails, though I have spotted their caterpillars munching my bronze fennel and dill. Last year every anise hyssop (Agastache foeniculum and cvs.) was visited by dozens of Painted Ladies. This year, not a one. I haven’t seen any Red Admirals either. And the most iconic of all, the butterfly whose inconceivable migration to and from a pin on the map of central Mexico has captivated us all since childhood, is conspicuously absent.

I can count on one, maybe two fingers how many Monarch butterflies I have seen so far this year, and they weren’t even in my garden. I’m not alone. My in-laws, who spend their August vacation way up in the nosebleed section of Ontario, Canada enjoy watching whole flocks bask on Lake Huron’s rocky outcrops. The butterflies were a no-show this year and other friends, closer to home, are reporting similar news. It’s not OK. The Monarch’s absence has been especially distressing to me because I allowed the milkweed in my front yard garden to proliferate madly.

Swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata) seedpods along my fenceI’ll admit that wasn’t entirely intentional. Every fall I scatter seeds stolen from butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa), a sturdy two-footer with clusters of bright orange lunar lander flowers. This past spring, when I saw the telltale pointed leaves rise on milk-sapped stalks, I thought this is it! They’ve taken. Alas, when the plants rose another foot or two and opened clusters of Pepto-pink and creamy-white flowers instead, I had to concede defeat. But all was not lost because swamp milkweed (Asclepias elegans) and its white cultivar ‘Ice Ballet’ are just as garden worthy and evidently perfectly happy to spread in my stony soil. Plus, they too are an essential food source for Monarch butterfly caterpillars. So I let broad swaths crowd less important plants out.

If only the Monarchs were here right now to appreciate my generosity. But according to counts conducted annually in the Oyamel fir forests of Mexico, their population declined 59% from just last year. Since 1996-97 their winter range has dwindled from nearly 45 acres of forest to just under 3 acres. That is shocking. Deforestation within their refuge in Mexico is partly to blame as is the unseasonable weather during migration caused by climate change. But habitat loss on this side of the border has been particularly detrimental.

It is perfectly appropriate to heap blame on Midwestern farmers who spray weedkiller over their fields of genetically modified Roundup Ready® crops. But even though the corn belt is an important egg laying point for butterfly generations en route north, we are also to blame. In many yards and gardens milkweed is still considered a weed—as are many of the host plants for other species of Lepidoptera.

Insect populations typically cycle through highs and lows and so far biologists are not sounding the Monarch’s extinction alarm. But I hear a wake-up call. Everything on this earth is connected and the ripples from a drop fan out. The very least we can do is to remember that our gardens are a vital part of a struggling ecosystem.

It is so easy to attract butterflies to the garden. Winged adults feed on nectar and only require a smorgasbord of flowers. Most of us, we gardeners anyway, are more than happy to oblige. But to keep butterflies in our gardens, and to ensure generations of survivors, we absolutely must provide their eggs and caterpillars with the proper host species and—this should go without saying—a safe, pesticide-free habitat too. If you plant it, they will make a comeback.

Have you seen (m)any Monarchs this season?


One morning a couple of weeks ago, while Nino waited patiently, I spent about 10 predawn minutes herding and urging a salamander along a sidewalk crack to a pile of leaves on the other side. This afternoon I tried – and failed – to relocate a downed dragonfly that clung desperately to the footfall middle of another sidewalk. A few days ago I brought a chilly praying mantis into the relative warmth of the plantry, and I started to feed the birds again. I can’t stop wondering if my interference is a help or a hindrance.

As a gardener I’m a meddler by nature – meddling with nature. Can’t be helped. But the more I ponder the why of gardening, the more I hope my help is a help. When I first started to garden – more than 20 years ago now, I honestly don’t remember considering the wildlife – or nature for that matter. (Nature was what I hiked through with boots on and a backpack full of m&ms.) In the garden I was heebied by bugs and slugs, terrified of spiders and wasps, and only vaguely amused by birds and critters. I wanted plants galore and a yard that looked and smelled good – to me. Lately I’ve started to interfere more on nature’s behalf – in fact, I want wildlife almost more than plants. (Lucky for me, plants are the key.) I’m hesitant to call my interference “stewardship” and in any case I’m not a very good caretaker of the earth because goodness knows I’ve done my share to wreck it. But I hope to be less of a hindrance at the very least.

The last warm day, I left the plantry door open for her and haven’t seen Ms. Mantis since.