Tiger beetles, that is. (Yes, I used “click bait” to get you excited, and I’m not sorry.)
I know you’re all waiting with bated breath for news of my Big Bug Year, but I’m having some difficulties downloading the data I need from iNaturalist. That will come soon enough, but for today I want to introduce you to one special kind of beetle that’s starting to attract a wider fanbase of human admirers lately.
Tiger beetles (Cicindelidae) are a subfamily of the ground beetle family of insects (Carabidae). They’re fast-running beetles with massive, scary jaws. They can run so fast that their vision gets distorted, and they have to stop periodically to reorient themselves as they chase down their prey. This behavior results in their movements being compared to those of shorebirds who run/stop/run/stop. Imagine being an ant and seeing those jaws coming toward you.
Part of the reason there’s more attention on them lately is that my friend Judy Semroc is working on a new book about the tiger beetles of Ohio. I invited Judy to be the speaker at our annual meeting of the Toledo Naturalists’ Association this past week, and our members were enthralled by her talk. She’s one of three co-authors compiling data from around our state for the book, to be published by the Cleveland Museum of Natural History. You’ll remember that Ohio recently finished a three-year survey of our dragonflies, right? (If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you definitely read about it multiple times, as I participated quite enthusiastically.)
The Ohio dragonfly survey was lead by a fantastic team of coordinators in each region of the state, and it’s starting to sound like many of those dragon hunters are going to be on the tiger hunting team next summer too. Bug geeks unite! It’s so nice to have something to look forward to these days; this has really lifted my spirits quite a bit.
Anyway, let’s talk tiger beetles now. Like dragonflies, these insects are quite charismatic, and easily observed with very little training once you know where to look. Ohio has 21 recorded species of tiger beetles, with 18 species recorded on iNaturalist. (I’m not sure about the missing three species, but I’m guessing they’re just too rare to be on iNat yet. I know I’ll get the answer to that question and many more when the new book is published.) By the way, there’s a project set up on iNat where you can contribute your own photographs of tiger beetles to help Judy and her fellow researchers make the new book as complete as possible.
As you can see from the photos, they’re quite distinctive insects, with their big eyes, long legs, and often metallic backs. The shell-like coverings on their backs are called elytra, and they protect the membranous wings. Tiger beetles hunt primarily on the ground, but when they fly, those elytra lift up so the flight wings can extend. Many of their elytra are brown or black with cream-colored markings that have their own sort of beauty, but the ones that seem to be crowd-pleasers are those that are bright metallic green or blue or purple. This six-spotted tiger beetle is the most common one in Ohio as well as nationwide.
Tiger beetles live in a variety of habitats including power line cuts, clay banks, and sunny forest patches. Here in the globally-rare Oak Openings region of northwest Ohio, we’re lucky to have an abundance of sandy places, one of the best places to find these pretty beetles. I’ve found them on the beaches of Lake Erie and on sandy paths in many of our metroparks. But even with all the sand in this area, I’ve only photographed six species of tiger beetles so far. That might be because my attention has been laser focused on dragonflies though. Next summer, while I’ll continue my dragonfly chasing and monitoring activities, I’ll also be making a point of trying to find some more species so I can help fill in our statewide distribution map.
I hope you’ll follow me next summer on my quest to find more of these fascinating beetles and learn more about their lives.
As the days have ticked away on the countdown to Election Day, I’ve found my mood alternating between an almost breathless panic and an odd calm. I don’t sleep much, and when I do, I have nightmares. It’s unsettling, to say the least. This afternoon, unable to focus on the project I should be working on, I decided to go for a walk to clear my head.
I bundled up against the cold wind and headed for the prairie. With my earbuds tucked under my hat, listening to a soothing musical playlist, I quickly got lost in my thoughts. Before I knew it, I’d made several loops around one of my favorite trails. Not ready to come home yet, I stopped for a moment to sit on a bench and contemplate what might happen tomorrow, and how I might cope with each outcome.
I looked up, lifting my hand to shield my eyes from the bright sun, and was struck by the beauty of the clouds. I think this might be what’s called a mackerel sky, and if so, it’s supposed to be followed by changing weather. One can only hope so, at least when it comes to the political climate in this country. I know I’m not alone in being exhausted by the never-ending vitriol and chaos. I long for the days when we could go about our lives without having to worry every day about the next affront to decency and humanity coming from our own government.
We may not know the outcome of the election for days or even weeks, but whatever it is, I hope there will be some way for us to begin healing. I hope our leaders will begin to lift us all up together. I hope we can mend the torn relationships with friends and family.
I hope…because without hope, all is lost.
I leave you with a short video that I’ve titled, hopefully, “The Winds of Change.”
You know how often we hear the warnings that we have to do (or not do) [xyz] to “save the earth”? Every time I hear that, I think we need to fundamentally shift our perspective about environmental issues. Because the truth is that the earth will go on just fine, with or without humans. The real issue of importance to us is to save humanity, right? When Earth Day rolls around on April 22, I think we should begin calling it Humanity Day instead, to emphasize this perspective.
I don’t mean to trivialize the value of the earth–the earth is everything. But if humans disappear from the planet this very day…or even if we slowly die off over a period of years from some catastrophic event (let’s say, a pandemic), the earth will survive. In fact, the earth will be healthier without us. I just watched David Attenborough’s new film, A Life on Our Planet, in which he walks through the town near Chernobyl* to show us how quickly plants and animals have retaken the city since people left it in 1986 when the nuclear power plant melted down. (Watch the movie trailer here.)
But as long as we’re here, I believe it would be immoral of our species if we didn’t at least try to change the behaviors that contribute to the degradation of the planet that sustains our lives. Many of these behaviors are deeply-ingrained in various cultures around the world though, and there are significant institutional and political forces that make change difficult. I get that. But for the species that likes to call itself the smartest of all, with dominion over all…well, we ought to be able to do this stuff. It’s frustrating to watch humanity sometimes!
These days, as we continue living under pandemic restrictions and worrying about the latest turmoil surrounding our upcoming election, I’m finding it hard to write much. I alternate between too much media consumption or total avoidance. And either way, I can’t focus. I was planning to experiment with writing shorter & more frequent posts, but I can already see that I’m having trouble with that. I just can’t seem to stop once I get going, LOL.
But today I happened upon a new documentary on Netflix, and I was surprised to find that I felt hopeful when I watched it. Hope has been in short supply for me lately, and I got emotional as I experienced this strange feeling today. The film is called Kiss the Ground, and it’s about the importance of healthy soil and how farming practices can be altered to make radical improvements in our soil. They argue that “regenerative farming” could perhaps be key to saving our species. And it makes a lot of sense. We’re so used to hearing talk of improving the air and water, but how often do we hear about the soil? (Watch the film trailer here.)
So that’s all I wanted to share today. I bet some of you would find these films interesting and maybe even uplifting, as I did. Be well and safe, my friends.
*You can actually use Google Street View to “walk” around the deserted city of Pripyat to see what it looks like now, 34 years later after the Chernobyl explosion. When you get to that page on Google maps, click on the little man in the bottom corner and drag him onto any street that shows up in blue, and you’ll instantly be standing on that street. It’s way cool. Who says we can’t travel during the pandemic? 😉
It’s been far too long since I updated you about the progress in my native garden project, so let’s fix that today. In re-reading my earlier posts in this series, I discovered that I hadn’t shared very many photos either. I guess I was more focused on writing about the ecological basis for this project, and hoping to get everybody up to speed about the critical importance of native plants. So you can go back and read those earlier posts if you’re interested in the background stuff. Today you’ll see photos and get a few more details about what’s been working and what’s not. (Depending on what kind of device you use to read this, you’ll see a link to “My Native Plant Project” at the top or bottom of the blog, so you can find those posts all together.)
When I started this project, I was so enthusiastic that I started ripping out everything that wasn’t a native plant. That was a mistake, and I’m glad I stopped myself from continuing that. I’ve come to accept that this will be a years-long learning project, and I may end up keeping some of the non-natives that I have a particular fondness for. There are some allium cultivars here that are structurally interesting and attract lots of pollinators, so they can stay. And the 15-foot tall Rose of Sharon shrub is a hummingbird magnet, so it stays too.
But at this point, I have about 60 species of natives in my garden. After three growing seasons, I’ve started to become more familiar with the habits of some of the plants and am able to make better decisions about when and where to add new plants or more of the same species.
For example, I know that New England aster can take over the entire garden while you’re at the grocery store. In late June I cut it down to three feet tall and it’s back up to about six feet again and leans over onto the less-sturdy plants around it. Its purple and yellow flowers are beautiful, and are important for migrating monarch butterflies and other late fall pollinators, but it’s definitely a tough one to control. I’d like to try putting in some goldenrods and other asters for fall blooms, and maybe then I can eliminate some of the N.E. aster.
Here are some photos of the first native bed I started along my east fenceline.
You can see a gap in the middle where some plants had to be removed, but the rest of it is doing great. Scanning from right to left, you’ll see common boneset (white flowers in back), pink coneflower, monarda (bee balm), and Sullivant’s milkweed, and then across the gap there’s rattlesnake master, cardinal flower, blue lobelia, black-eyed Susan, New England aster, and shrubby St. John’s wort. It’s funny, last year the black-eyed Susans were on the right side, in front of the coneflowers, but this year they showed up on the left side. Apparently they’ll move around from year to year, so you have to be prepared to go with the flow. There are some other plants mixed in this bed too, but I want to show you closer shots of a couple of these amazing native plants.
First up is rattlesnake master, a plant that grabs your attention simply by saying its own name. And if that’s not enough, just look at these wonderful globe-shaped flower heads! In this wider shot, it’s on the right side.
I’ve got some cool photos of insects on those globes, but I’ll save that for my update about Kim’s Big Bug Year.
The shrubby St. John’s wort is also a beautiful plant, and I’ve regretted putting it back there in the corner where it’s mostly hidden. The flowers and leaves are so pretty. But thanks to my friend Kate, I’ve got two more young plants of that species that I’ve just put down as specimen plants in another new bed. First a wide shot, then a close up:
If you look back at that wide shot above, you’ll see my swing, and behind it two huge boxwood shrubs. I want to take those out and put some natives in there eventually. Have you ever smelled a boxwood shrub? It’s not something you want to sit beside for any length of time. The only reason I’ve hesitated removing them so far is that there’s only a 3-foot tall fence behind them, so when they’re removed there won’t be anything blocking the view into my garden from the road in front of the house. It’s not that I don’t want anyone to see the garden, but the reason I tucked the swing back in that corner is because it’s the most private part of the yard, and I like that. If I could buy mature native shrubs that were already five feet tall, I would do that in a heartbeat. But whatever goes in there will take years to grow big enough to give that privacy back. Decisions, decisions. Oh wait! I just realized I could plant something on the other side of that fence and let it grow up, and then remove the boxwoods. Aha, a plan materializes!
I’ve had some manual labor help lately too, and I’m glad I did, even though it was shockingly expensive. There was this area back by my shed that had shrubs that were declining and just kind of ugly — there was hibiscus, purple smoke, and a huge arborvitae, along with a few raggedy hostas that didn’t like all the sun they got there. Here’s what it looked like before the contractor arrived a few weeks ago:
And a few hours later, I’d already started filling it with native plants…button bush, ninebark, shrubby St. John’s wort, white snakeroot, purple coneflower, and Riddell’s goldenrod. I’ll be adding some more in this bed after I go to the last native plant sale of this year in a couple weeks. It should look great next year.
That’s one of the shrubby St. John’s worts front and center, ready to be the star that it should be!
This year also brought the first blooms on the gray-headed coneflower that I grew from seed and planted in 2018. I had been impatiently waiting for them, and when I saw them finally bloom last month I could have jumped for joy. I raised them from teeny tiny seeds and they are spectacular! I did that! (Well, the Earth did that…but I helped.)
That tri-color beech tree was here when I bought this property, and I thought it was probably going to remain a small tree, but I’ve seen some in the neighborhood that are forty or fifty feet tall, so I guess I’ll find out…in twenty years.
So that’s a good update for now, I think. Maybe next time I’ll show you some of the other native beds. I’m having so much fun growing native plants, and–especially this year–have enjoyed spending much more time than usual just being among the plants and insects. My fellow Wild Ones members have continued to be generous in their support of my new-ish garden; they give me plants and advice whenever I need it. And when I visit their mature native gardens, I feel better about what I’m doing. I see that, even for the most experienced among us, this is a process of trial and error. It’s messy and it’s hard work, and it’s never done. But it’s definitely worth it.
I’m going to finish up here with a sort of warning — a “buyer beware” message. Three years after moving here, I’m still waging an epic battle against the yuccas (Yucca filamentosa). There are probably 15 of them scattered around the property, front and back. They look like they would be native to the desert southwest, but it turns out they’re native to the southeastern part of this country. I’m still a bit confused because the USDA Plants Database shows them as native to Ohio as well as much of the eastern US. But regardless of whether they’re natives or not, I have a strong dislike for them. And yet many people plant them around their houses, probably because they’re evergreen, and they don’t require any watering or other maintenance other than cutting down the enormous flower stalk that towers above the leaves each year. But they multiply prolifically, and turn into these monstrous multi-plant clumps that are so tough to eradicate that a web search on “how to get rid of yuccas” turns up hundreds of results. (Some of the videos are quite entertaining, like this one, and the one where Mike doesn’t think I’m trying hard enough.)
Despite what Mike-on-YouTube thinks, I am trying hard! I’ve tried digging them up. Nope, life’s too short. I paid landscapers try to eradicate some of them two years ago, but they used a stump grinder which only served to chop up the massive root system and sprout hundreds more of these horrible plants. Last year I chopped one off at the ground and painted herbicide on the stump. It came back anyway. Earlier this summer I paid the teenager next door to try to dig one of them out. He spent more than four hours digging up ONE plant, and it re-sprouted a month later. (That poor kid will probably never come over here again after being defeated by a yucca.) Here’s a pile of the roots from that one plant — and this is only about a third of them!
So I’m experimenting with another technique now — I’ve covered the yucca hole with two layers of thick cardboard and a heavy layer of mulch. I’ll check on it next summer and see if I’ve finally managed to kill one of them. Stay tuned for my next yucca update, in which I fully expect to report that they’ve tried to kill me in my sleep.
This isn’t what I’d intended to write today, but something awesome has happened.
Last week I was expecting a long-awaited book, but it was lost in the mail and didn’t arrive on Wednesday as it should have. Aargh! A couple days later, Amazon re-ordered it for me and told me it would arrive on Sunday. Sunday came and went and no package. Double aargh! Why was I so frustrated, you ask?
Well, the book is Chasing Dragonflies, the newest work by my dragonfly kindred spirit, Cindy Crosby. She has authored or collaborated on about 20 books, and her book The Tallgrass Prairie: An Introduction, was a big help to me in learning more about native plants. So I was thrilled last year when I had the opportunity to contribute some information for her new dragonfly book, and was anxious to find out if any of my stories had made it to print.
But let’s go back to last week for a moment. As I was doing my regular dragonfly survey last Thursday afternoon, I was approached by a smiling man who looked familiar but I couldn’t place him. He reminded me that we’d met briefly once last year and that he’d subscribed to my blog. (Oops, sorry Ron!) He then told me that he’d read Cindy Crosby’s new book and that she had mentioned me several times and even quoted me. This little tidbit of information served to stoke my excitement further, and I conducted the rest of my dragonfly survey with a huge smile on my face.
Cut back to today, when I had impatiently resigned myself to just waiting for the book to show up…eventually…. And then, suddenly, it was here!!
I’ve ignored phone calls, chores, and emails today so I could dive into it, and I’m loving it. Cindy writes about the lives of Odonata, as well as the community of people who study them. I think it would even be engaging to someone who doesn’t particularly have an interest in dragonflies, but just likes to read about the natural world. And who knows, it might motivate more people to join us in monitoring these under-studied insects and their habitats.
Over the past year as Cindy and I have commented on each other’s blogs, I’ve grown to think of her as my dragonfly-sister-from-another-mother. (Ha, this will be the first time she’s heard that one.) I feel a kinship with her through our shared concern for both native plants and Odonata. It’s so nice to know there are women being recognized for their expertise in the male-dominated world of dragonflies. She’s an inspiration to me in many ways.
If you haven’t seen her blog yet, I highly recommend that you check it out. You can subscribe so you’ll get an email each Tuesday with a link to her weekly posts. It’s called Tuesdays in the Tallgrass. She walks her Chicago-area prairies regularly and photographs plants and insects, writing about them in ways that I can only dream of doing.
I’ve already found the places in the book where she used my material (pages 67, 108, and 117), and I have to sheepishly admit that I’m delighted to see myself quoted in print. That’s only happened a couple other times in my entire life. Maybe I’m silly, but it’s something that has lifted my spirits a great deal today. In this time of isolation and social distancing, it makes me feel that I’m a valued member of a special community, and that my opinions matter. (Hmmm, I should write sometime about the strength of the human desire to be acknowledged and feel valued….)
What the heck, I’ll confess that when I saw that package in my mailbox today, I felt a little bit like Navin Johnson in this clip from the 1979 movie, The Jerk:
So thank you, Cindy, for a wonderfully captivating book and for allowing me to be a tiny part of it. And congratulations on such a successful book project!
It’s been more than two months since I’ve written here. My absence hasn’t been because I don’t have anything to say, or anything to show you, but rather because I have too much to say and can’t figure out how to channel it into something good and uplifting. The turmoil in our society has become something that weighs heavily on me, and it’s getting harder to stay optimistic when there’s no end in sight.
My usual solution of going to nature for solace doesn’t always help anymore. But I cling to it, still, out of sheer determination to not succumb to despair. I admire my blogging friends who have been able to write regularly and optimistically. I know some of them will be reading this, and I am so grateful for their writing about nature. They are my inspiration to sit here now and try to put some positive energy out into the world.
I want to show you some bits of my native plant garden and the critters who live in it. After the early-blooming spring ephemerals are done, most of the other native plants in my garden don’t bloom until at least late June. I’ve had to be patient, but that makes it so much more exciting when everything finally bursts into bloom. I took this video of my biggest monarda patch yesterday, trying to show you the dozens of pollinators buzzing over it. This section is about 10’x3′ and there were easily a couple dozen bees working through the flowers.
You’ll notice how that bee in the close-up portion goes completely around the flower, making sure to get every possible bit of energy it can from it before moving to the next one. That patch of monarda is about four feet tall and I can stand right up against it with my face only inches away from the buzzing bees, and they don’t pay the slightest attention to me. It’s such a calming, meditational thing to do.
One of my favorite plants is this Shrubby St. John’s Wort (Hypericum prolificum), with its cheerful lemon-yellow flowers and glossy leaves. This one is about four feet tall in its second year and looks fabulous. A friend gave me another small one and I can’t wait to see how big it will be next year.
Last year I put in two Tall Thimbleweed (Anemone virginiana) that another friend gave me. They’re blooming this year and I’m in love with their dainty little flowers and the “thimbles” that remain after the flowers are spent. This plant has large lobed leaves below bare, thin stems that tower a couple feet higher and support the flowers. When I’ve found thimbleweed on my walks in local parks, I’m always struck by how easy it would be to overlook it. So many native plants seem to be overly enthusiastic (“we’re gonna take over everything!”) that it’s nice to have a few that behave themselves better. I’ve got these at the front of a bed where they’re easy to see and enjoy, and they won’t get bullied by anybody else.
I found this little grasshopper eating a leaf on boneset. I watched him. He watched me.
One of the first times I noticed Blue Vervain (Verbena hastata) was when I photographed a Snowberry Clearwing moth feeding on it a couple years ago as I hiked in a state wildlife area. I took a series of photos that remain some of my favorites. Here’s one of them from that day.
I also found a dragonfly on this plant along the shore of Lake Erie last fall. Dragonflies aren’t pollinators and so it’s not common to find them perched on flowering plants like this Common Green Darner was during fall migration last September.
And here’s a pic from my garden this week, where my own Blue Vervain is just beginning to bloom. The tiny purple flowers bloom from the bottom to the top of each spike, with just a few blooming at a time. I just adore this plant!
I’ve noticed that I often use the word “love” to describe how I feel about some native plants. Since I’m spending lots more time at home these days, I’m getting to know my plants more intimately, and I’m feeling very connected to them in a way that feels like love. I take care of their needs. I mourn when the rabbits chew a young plant down to the ground before it even gets a chance at life. I spend lots of time just wanting to be near the plants, to enjoy their beauty and the unceasingly fascinating world of the insects who come to eat them. The garden is my connection to something larger than myself, something intensely gratifying and life-affirming.
When the pandemic first arrived and we were just getting used to lockdown, I wrote about desperately missing my friends. As time went on, I wrote about starting to enjoy some time without a busy schedule. These days I see a few of my friends regularly (outdoors only, and always six feet apart). As my schedule has gotten busier again, I find myself wanting to hold on to as much of my “home time” as I can. Sure, there’s a lot to see “out there,” but this place is where my heart is, and where I find peace and a connection to the natural world. So I guess I’m a bit like Dorothy in discovering that you don’t always have to leave home to find what you need. #TheresNoPlaceLikeHome
For the past couple of years, I’ve been carrying around some wee folk in my camera bag. They love to pose with beautiful plants, so I thought I’d start sharing some of their photos here occasionally. I hope you find them as charming as I do!
There’s a patch of violets behind my shed, and it’s getting bigger and lusher each year. I know some people don’t like them for exactly that reason, but I love them and allow them to spread freely through the lawn. Tonight I transplanted some of them to another spot closer to the house so I can enjoy them more easily. The Violet Fairy approves. 🙂
Have you seen the articles about how the pandemic stay-at-home orders have had unexpected benefits for some people? I was just reading about families who have begun eating dinners together and spending more time playing games at home, enjoying each other’s company. Freed from the need to commute to work or school, many people have more time to slow their lives down.
I’m retired and not part of a household, but there are parallel changes happening in my own life. Over the past six months or so, I’d started to feel that I had too many obligations; I wanted to figure out how to slow my life down without missing out on fun events with friends. I was trying to get better at saying “no” to new obligations. Suddenly the Coronavirus poked its head up and fixed that problem for me. My life came to a screeching halt. Everything was cancelled. Every day was scary and confusing.
But now that I’ve adapted (somewhat) to this new pandemic-restricted life, I’m rediscovering the pleasures of staying at home. The other day someone asked me how I was doing, and I said, “You know…I’m still at home.” As the words came out of my mouth, I thought of another meaning of “still” — being quiet, peaceful, serene, not moving. And I realized that I’m really enjoying this time when my calendar has nothing on it. Most days there’s no place I have to be at any given time. Such freedom! That was disorienting at first, but I’m getting used to it now. So yes, I’m still at home, and I like it.
In no way am I suggesting that the pandemic is a good thing, but I wonder if this period of forced slowing down might have some long-term benefits to our lives. Will we take any positive life lessons from our experience, or will we go back to our normal busy-busy ways after this is over? Will I be better at saying “no”? Will we remember what it’s been like to have more time to just sit with a cup of coffee and gaze out the window, or sit on the garden swing and watch a wren plucking March flies from the grass?
Speaking of sitting with a cup of coffee…the other morning I was on the sofa with my morning java, when this young Cooper’s hawk dropped dramatically out of the sky to land on a mole in the front yard. He was less than 20 feet away from me, separated only by two panes of glass.
Realizing time was of the essence, I moved as quickly as I could toward my camera, trying not to spook him. I had an advantage because raptors seem less likely to spook easily when they’re young, and especially when they’re attempting to subdue their next meal. So while he stood there squeezing that mole to death, I managed to grab the camera and get a few shots off before my cat Sam ran at the window and caused the hawk to fly off, mole dangling below him. This was one of only a few times in my life when I’ve been able to take a bird photo from my sofa. It doesn’t get any easier than that.
Last summer was full of meetings, field trips, and conferences for dragonflies, moths, and native plants — I was constantly going somewhere. This summer isn’t likely to have any of those events, so I can easily imagine myself redirecting my attention to some intense nesting behaviors at home. My native garden project has been a wonderful anchor for me, leading me to spend lots of time watching the insects that come to live out their lives here. I foresee even more time spent in my own garden this year, documenting and learning about the wildlife I share this property with.
Speaking about documenting insects, don’t forget to click the big beetle icon on the sidebar to check in on Kim’s Big Bug Year. I’ve found some interesting things so far, including this beautiful tiger beetle, a subspecies of the Festive Tiger Beetle called the LeConte’s Tiger Beetle.
Having said all that about enjoying my time at home and wanting to slow down, I do miss my friends quite a lot. I don’t want to turn inward so much that I don’t see my friends at all. But maybe I’ll start inviting them to visit me and sit in my garden, one person at a time (six feet away from each other, of course). I always get more satisfaction from interacting with people one-on-one than in groups anyway, so maybe this can work out for me after all.
Do you think you’ll make any permanent changes in your behavior as a result of the pandemic? I’d like to hear your thoughts.
Since I moved to this house three years ago, I haven’t spent much time watching birds in my backyard. There’s a large noisy flock of non-native House Sparrows (Passer domesticus) that dominate the neighborhood, and those aggressive bullies have discouraged me from keeping my feeders filled most of the time, and they dissuade many other birds from staying too long as well.
So instead of birding the yard, I’ve focused more on trying to establish my garden, and on documenting the insects that come to my native plants. Here’s my main native bed, just cleaned up and showing early signs of the explosive growth to come — it contains monarda, asters, goldenrods, various milkweeds, boneset, blue lobelia, and many more native lovelies.
But on this beautiful afternoon, knowing that my favorite walking trails would be too crowded for safety, I sat at my patio table (in the shade of my new umbrella!) and renewed my acquaintance with some fine feathered friends.
This Chipping Sparrow (Spizella passerina) has been in the yard for a few days now, and I hear his familiar trilling song often. Even when he’s not singing, his diminutive size compared to other sparrows allows me to identify him from inside the house without binoculars. Beginning birders often struggle with identifying the various sparrows, calling them LBJs — little brown jobs. I spent much more time learning the colorful “easy” warblers than the sparrows, but now I’ve got a good handle on most sparrows.
This morning I was thrilled to see a White-throated Sparrow (Zonotrichia albicollis) inspecting my empty feeders for a few moments. I quickly filled them and left for a walk in the park. When I came back home, I could hear his beautiful soft song from the redbud trees, and sure enough, there he was.
As I’m writing this, a Northern Flicker (Colaptes auratus) has just flown over my head, calling out his squeaky “wicka-wicka-wicka” before landing in the big cedar tree in the front yard. I tried for a photo but missed. The flicker is a beautiful woodpecker that often forages for ants on the ground — here’s a pic I took on another day.
American Robins (Turdus migratorius) are prowling the lawn areas, snatching insects and listening for the sounds of worms underground. They’re so much fun to watch as they cock their heads and listen. The one I’m watching now is having great success, hopping around and plucking one insect (or maybe spider) after another from the grass.
I was pleased to get a visit from this Common Grackle (Quiscalus quiscula), a blackbird that often gets overlooked by birders in search of “prettier” birds. But I challenge you to convince me that this bird isn’t gorgeous with his sleek black and iridescent blue feathers, and those yellow eyes!
Notice how nice he looks among the dandelions too. Those dandelions are symbolic of my yard’s chemical-free status. As I look down my street, I see mostly manicured lawns with very few dandelions. My neighbors probably think I’m a lazy homeowner, but it’s the exact opposite. I intentionally allow those dandelions (and clover and other early flowering weeds) to grow because they help the early pollinators survive until more flowers are available to them. And I also think a lawn covered in dandelions is just as lovely as a lawn full of cultivated flowers like daffodils.
I don’t see birds foraging for insects on the lawns of my neighbors either, because they keep their lawns even more sterile than their homes, killing everything except their non-native grass with pesticides and herbicides. I know it’s what our culture has come to accept as a sign of prosperity, but those attitudes really need to change if we want to preserve the biodiversity of this planet in a meaningful way. Sometimes I feel defensive about my dandelions because I know people are judging me harshly for their presence. But I’m also judging them for the absence of dandelions and insects on their own lawns. It’s funny in a sad way, I guess. We humans are quite complicated animals, aren’t we?
By the way, if you want to hear the songs of any of the birds in this post, go to the Cornell Lab and type the bird name into the search bar. I hope you get to hear some birds singing in your yard this spring!