Seattle Life in the Yard

Sustain biodiversity: garden with native plants.

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Welcome Home

A couple days ago my recently retired husband called me to the kitchen window to see a Pileated Woodpecker spiral up the big Western Red-cedar tree that stands sentinel in front of our house just a few feet west of our driveway. We watched while it did ascending surveys on three cedars and picked for bugs along the edges of vertical bark strips. It hunted bugs for a couple minutes then flew off with the distinctive “rowing wingbeat” pattern described in “Sibley” (“The Sibley Field Guide to Birds of Western North America” by David Allen Sibley). I saw one some years ago (2009) on the same tree as I worked in the yard and was so surprised that I froze in place hoping that it would stay and let me watch it for a while. These are such big striking colored birds and their witnessed visits so rare and brief that any sighting is big drama for “Life in the Yard”. No matter how long any bird might stay in my field of vision, it is never long enough and it makes the value of its visit all the more appreciated.

The welcoming early mark of spring for me is always the delicate lacey blooming of the Indian Plum as it appears in the understory at the same time as sightings of hummingbirds so that these little flowers provide the hummers with water and fast food in the flower nectar. This shrub is also called Osoberry (Oemleria cerasiformis) and it has male and female flowers on separate plants so to get the little plum fruit the male and female plants have to be visited by a pollinator that moves the pollen from the male plant flowers to the female plant flowers. The little hummingbirds and early bumble bees provide this pollinating service while they forage for food and the successful fruit is evidence of how early our native pollinators start work every year, well before the imported agricultural pollinators. Now, when the Osoberry leaves are just starting to emerge, the three leaves remind me of a fleur-de-lis and that it is time to plan some Zydeco/Cajun dancing to shake off winter chill.

It was a welcoming sight last week when we were surveying our yard for planning spring tasks and we saw the fast moving silhouette of a hummingbird. The tiny body was just a dark oval spot and the wings were fuzzy suggestions with the afternoon sun reflecting off of and back lighting the blurring movement of the hummer’s rapid wingbeats. Early spring last year, in the same area of our yard, there was a little female hummer eating aphids off of a Honeysuckle and I saw a lot of her for most of the spring and summer eating tiny bugs & flies and visiting blooms of various native shrubs. A little male, Calliope, I think, spent some time last year aggressively defending space around our west neighbor’s sugar water feeder. It made me think about artificial wildlife conflict we humans can create and cock fighting at the scale of hummingbirds that is so entertaining for some to watch. Today I saw, for the first time, a humming bird collecting Cody down from the underside of the Cody down basket. The little Chickadees have been regular visitors for the years it has been up, but this is the first I have seen a hummer collect from it.

I surprised a bumble bee this morning when I turned over a clump of kinnikinnick flowers to look at the tiny opening of the little pink edged blooms. I was pondering the question of what creature could be pollinating these early tough-to-access flowers on these so-low-to-the-ground plants and was answered by the annoyed buzzing of an escaping bumble. Every year the pollinating efforts are wildly successful as is evidenced by the masses of little red berries all over the kinnikinnick that slowly get eaten by wildlife in the fall and winter. So, my question has been partly answered and I still need to watch for which of our native bumblebees is/are doing the hard work with such successful results.

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I was taking a break from patio sweeping and sat on the edge of a rockery enjoying the sun on my face when I heard splashing sounds just three feet away. I turned to look at the bird bath and saw a little junco fluttering its wings to splash water over its head and back. It is always charming to hear the  delicate sounds of little birds when they come to drink and freshen up; I consider hearing their presence a gift to me for providing them with trees and shrubs that harbor insects for them to eat.

Normally I would never be able to be so close to this shy little guy, but this one bird bath is sheltered by branches of a large Pacific Ninebark that arch over and around the bath creating a protected tunnel with sight lines through the leaves. I prune this large shrub just enough to get to the bird bath for brushing it clean and refilling. The leaves and branches surrounding the bath must give the little birds some feeling of security because they frequently use it even though we people are eating, reading or talking at our outside table centered about eight feet away. The growth of the Pacific Ninebark creates a thicket around and above the bath so that only small birds can maneuver through the crisscrossing branches to get down to the shallow bowl. The little birds will splash in the water, flit up onto a close branch to flutter and preen, then do it all over again; splash, dip, flutter, preen – repeat.

The hedge row I planted a few years ago along our yard’s east side gets summer sun and the plant growth continues to fill-in the gaps becoming more wildlife productive each year. Every day I see robins, crows and/or juncos forage in the duff, plus, just yesterday we saw a flock of ruby crowned kinglets peep and bounce around the branches gleaning insects and keeping tabs on each other. This hedge row area used to be a hedge of an alien conifer that had the usual hedge/fence function. It had fast chaotic growth from everywhere on the trunk, needed regular hedge trimming at least couple times a year (which it never got) and its growth pattern lent itself to the English Garden fashion/hobby of trimmed plant shaping. I prefer plants that are productive for wild life and beautiful in the context of our local ecosystem. I had the alien conifers cut down and the trunks ground-up to kill the roots, then I mulched the area with Western Red-cedar fall-out and after my next trip to the Snohomish Conservation District Native Plant Bare Root Sale, I stuck some of my acquisitions directly into the ground. I drip watered every 3-4 days at the base of each plant through their first dry season, continued mulching to help hold ground moisture and I am glad to say that all have survived to provide multi-purpose function and especially natural insect food for healthy baby birds.

Yesterday, a new chickadee baby with its little black cap and stripy chest made a brief appearance as an inexpert flyer and we saw a humming bird that was the smallest I have ever seen drink nectar from an Orange Honeysuckle, sit on the vine and eat aphids from it too, then it flew a dog fight with another tiny hummer around a neighbor’s huge catalpa tree and they both disappeared in a UFO instant. It is very rewarding to see and hear the variety of little birds and native pollinators that visit these native plants on any given day and with just a step outside, the amazing show gets better and better every year.

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Garbage Day

This was a garbage day which requires the mundane task of collecting all the garbage, recycling and composting to get everything out in the bins at street side before the noisy trucks come to pick up our household refuse. I stepped out the back door with my hands full, trying not to get my clothes dirty, when I heard the full chaotic sounds of dozens of birds. I stopped and craned my neck to see if I could tell who was here on this sunny winter morning. They are mostly oblivious to my presence as they inhabit a larger more complex plane of existence, being able to fly through the air, they exploit the vertical without machines. I am so jealous.
Several Juncos were flitting around. I think a pair of them has a habitual nest spot in the front yard, because when I do yard work there, during nesting season, they scold and follow me till I leave the space they have claimed and use so much more productively than I. A flock of chickadees with their little fat light colored bellies are flying from tree to tree in a noisy mass. I heard Flickers make their single tone call, then saw a flash of under wing orange as one landed high up on the side of a weathered utility pole. That pole is so worn and craggy that it is not safe to climb any more, but it is plain wood and has no creosote treatment so it substitutes as a tree snag and might support a few bugs for Flickers to eat. I have seen Flickers on this pole many times in the past and there is a hole toward the top that I like to think might serve as a nest hole. The Flicker this morning “walked” a few feet up the pole, each time pulling its head and body close to the pole as it repositioned its feet up, then pulled its body up and away as it moved up a few inches at a time, keeping an eye out for bugs while it climbed.
My favorites, the Stellar Jays, are definitely back. They make such a unique sound that cannot be mistaken for any other bird. When I hear them, I always think of my childhood experiences of camping at Ohanapacosh on Mt. Rainier, where the “Camp Robbers” would tear apart any food related item that was left unguarded. The huge Mt. Rainier Ravens would stand aloof in a close tree, talk to each other and bob their heads up and down, but the Stellar Jays were very brash about landing right on the tables, turning their heads to look at us with one eye expecting us to share and showing off the exquisite blue of their feathers up close.
This garbage day was the type of cold but sunny winter day that is a hopeful pleasure this time of year because our short & gray Northwest winter days can get so dreary. Dawn is earlier, spring feels soon and this was a noisy glorious morning of birds and brilliant sun to make my heart swell and break with gratitude. As I stood taking in these sights and sounds that so clearly express the beauty of life, I was abruptly overwhelmed with the heartbreaking sadness for the impending death of a friend and the devastating impending loss to be felt by family and friends. My two opposite emotional sensations felt so acutely connected; the amazing fullness of life and the tragic loss of it.

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Run the Dog

We have always had squirrels in our yard. Until recently, they have been the big all gray Eastern Gray Squirrels (Sciurus carolinensis) that love to tease the dog by running along the top of the fence and scolding while sitting safely high on the top of a fence post. I think they get food from the neighbor’s bird feeders to bury and occasionally now I pull up a non-native vine to find a peanut with shell partly intact as part of the roots. I admit it is a bit alarming to see another viable alien plant happily surviving through the winter here. Since I battle ivy, bittersweet and morning glory for many of my Forest Steward volunteer hours, a concern about another potentially invasive vine easily leaps into my mind. 

Earlier this last summer, around early July, I had a jaw dropping moment when I saw a trio of young squirrels that looked very different than the usual baby squirrels that show up around that time of year. This trio made their debut by tumbling and scrambling around with each other for several minutes at the base of three large Western Red-cedars. They were smaller, browner and had a highly contrasting white underside. They were more agile and appeared quite different from the usual big grays. I thought they were the native squirrel, Douglas Squirrel….(Tamiasciurus douglasii) , which is smaller, with a rust or rust & gray underside (venter), white eye rings and, just when I thought they couldn’t get cuter, tufted ears. Wikipedia has a couple good pictures.   

I ruled out the Douglas then thought maybe these are the American Red Squirrel (Tamiasciurus hudsonicus) or the Mearn’s Squirrel (Tamiasciurus mearnsi), but no, the details don’t match. Whoever they are, they are lovely and fun to watch when they are scrambling around the tips of the beaked hazel nut shrubs (Corylus cornuta – WA native) collecting green nuts, when they scold Cody (the dog), when they play “run the dog” along the top of the fence and when they execute their agile sideways jumps. 

A brief discussion on a group email indicated that the native Douglas Squirrel appears to be making a comeback in the past 2 -3 years so what I thought was impossible …(nerdy excitement building here) … native squirrels in an urban setting, might just be real. Alas, not these particular little acrobats. These three little squirrels are definitely not the native ones and I thought they had too much brown to be the Eastern Gray Squirrel. However, I now think I got all excited over a natural color variation in this year’s Eastern Gray Squirrel babies and all that brown was deceiving me. I would like to say that identification was pending; but, dang, probably an Eastern Gray Squirrel with a lot more brown than usual. I got all excited for naught, like Cody’s dash along the fence chasing after the squirrels; I got pulled into a game of “run the dog”, woof.

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Yard Report 7.2013

The Towhees, in the front yard, have been successful so far in raising a chick this summer. I have been hearing a buzzy trilling sound in the morning and evenings. Birds make such amazing sounds it is impossible to translate to human language and almost silly to try to sound it out linguistically. That being stated, it sounds a bit like: Twzreeee. It is very regular, evenly spaced and coming from the southwest area of the yard, so while I was puttering, enjoying the cool evening air and the buzzy trilling against the background of ambient suburban noise, I heard a rustling on the ground in an area that has a protective covering of native trailing black berry. I looked closer and saw the silhouette of a chubby sparrow scurry out of sight and seconds later a Towhee landed and scurried after the little shadow. I thought it must be a Towhee chick and its mother and was able to clearly see them both the following evening; the chick’s coloring is more like a streaky brown sparrow and it does not look like a strong flier yet. The mother has the typical dusky marking of the adult female Towhee. 

This morning, a pair of Oregon Juncos are collecting Cody hair on the back patio; one hair at a time. The little female is intent and focused at jumping around and grabbing the next little hair she sees, but the male is just bouncing around close by; it appears the little male is keeping a look-out while the female is so busy. She looks as though she has a very large white mustache. I read at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology that they will raise 1-3 broods a season so although it might seem late in the year for nest building I guess it is still nesting time for these two. I think I read somewhere that humming birds will raise more than one brood a year, in different nests and even have over lapping times for their broods. What a tremendous amount of work. 

Little Mother is definitely gone, but her baby from last year, Junior, is still here bringing people food to the bird baths and I think she left two of this year’s babies behind too. I saw one following Junior around begging to be fed for a couple days and then I saw two very awkward young crows that seemed to be begging to be fed from no one in particular and they were not very good at walking or flying. They are staying very close together, foraging here in the yard and staying high in the cedar trees. I am assuming that Junior has taken on the job of feeding and teaching these siblings. I hope they make it; it is not a good start for these birds that would normally have a year or more of hanging out with mommy and learning what to do. Perhaps Junior will be a good substitute mommy. 

A pair of flickers took turns at the bird baths yesterday, first a very striking colored male and then the more subtlety marked female. The male has the red malars (bird cheeks) and also small red patches on either side of the nape of its neck, but not a full red crescent as shown in “The Sibley Field Guide To Birds of Western North America” by David Allen Sibley. These are very shy birds that I hear frequently and don’t see much, but lately I’ve seen them picking out the bugs in the rotting logs I have strewn about the yard. 

The Stellar Jays are here daily now searching the hazelnut tree for nuts that the squirrels missed. The jays pick a nut, take it to a rock or a stump and stab at it with their beak until they break it open. I read that Stellar Jays are one of the two birds that eat tent caterpillars. The tent caterpillar has very bristly hairs that are unpleasant to most birds and most birds cannot eat them, except one being the Stellar Jay that will find the chrysalis, break them open and eat the little pupating moth, in the same way they break open hazelnuts to eat the nut-meat inside. 

I am still working away at invasive alien plant removal at Meadowbrook Playfield forested area. It seems overwhelmingly daunting at times, especially when I see so many invasive alien plants in seed production in surrounding yards and unmaintained areas, but that is the horticultural Pandora’s Box we have now until we can change to a “first do no harm” approach to horticulture and gardening. 

Here is a little science entertainment I can recommend: A 4 Part Radio program called “The Age We Made” by Gaia Vince, broadcast on the BBC Nov. 2012, is available to listen to on her home page at her website – . They are very information dense 18 minute programs so you can’t really multitask while listening. I thought they were well worth the down time.

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Little Mother

I am worried about a yard resident I have not seen for a few weeks. I think of this resident as Little Mother and, until recently, I have seen her every day when I look out my big kitchen window. We have a little family of crows consisting of an adult female and her one, or some years two, offspring, that has been using this yard as home. An observer can always tell by behavior which of the three crows is mother, which is baby and which is in-between because the baby is beseeching mother to feed it, mother is feeding baby and in-between is feeding self. Little Mother is also distinctive in that she has feather ruffles at the top of her legs and her offspring are very sleek.

I don’t remember when it became obvious to me that this little mother had made our yard home base, but it has been many years. She is very messy in our bird baths as she brings all the human food she finds to the bath to wash/soak it and eat. Little mother brings bread, crackers, chicken bones, food wrappers, plus bits and pieces of mystery things. When she is especially successful with her foraging, I must scrub and rinse the bird baths daily to keep the water healthy for the other visitors and the garbage away from our dog. The native plants in our yard will support a good variety of the natural bird food of insects, fruit and nectar, so a clean water source is kind of like that nice big pitcher of cold water that our local restaurant is so kind to leave at our table when we dine; so very refreshing and satisfying.

Little Mother has always been a hard working single mother with a youngster in tow that she is either feeding or teaching how to “toss the duff”. The family will walk through an area, a foot or two apart, stop, toss some leaves or cedar duff to expose something tasty, sometimes catching a nibble, then walking a few more steps and doing this over and over covering one area then another, everyday.

The last few weeks I have not seen her, just her last year’s sleek offspring that visits the baths and tosses the duff alone. The drinking water is cleaner, but not a trade-off I would choose.

Juncos have usually nested in our front yard; I have no idea where. I just know I have, in past springs, gotten scolded as only a 5 inch bird can, whenever I worked in the front yard. This year is different in that I think a pair of Towhees is nesting in the front yard and the Juncos have moved to the backyard! Now, no matter where I am working I am being scolded.

Speaking of nesting, an alert citizen, mentioned last week she had seen a bunch of twigs on top of one of the Nathan Hale light stands and asked if we had seen it and if we knew what might be nesting there. The answer was no and no, but on Tuesday I saw two large birds circle and descend, one after the other to the nest, tussle a bit, then settle in for a quiet sit. The bright sun and distance did not allow me to identify the pair, but maybe another alert citizen has had a good look at the nest’s occupants and can identify them for us. Osprey?

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Why Do This?

I have been doing battle with Scot’s/Scotch Broom in my Forest Steward assignment park the past few weeks, with this plant, as with almost all noxious weeds, it is a long, and possibly endless, war with strategies and plans of attack. This first effort is simply to stop the blooming shrubs from providing additional mature seeds to the already existing seed bank in the soil, the seed of this plant can stay viable in the soil for 5-60 years (one source said 80 years!). I have been able to devote a few hours a couple times a week and I think I made progress in my first engagement with the enemy. I read through the King County document on-line for Scotch-Broom-Control and modified my plan so that rather than cutting it close to the ground, I left enough to use a Weed Wrench in the future on the remaining trunk to remove the roots if possible. Some of the Scot’s/Scotch Broom shrubs are old with trunks 3 and 4 inches in diameter so I am not sure how these will respond to being cut down and they are too big for wrenching the roots out, but there are lots of trunks that are the right size for the Weed Wrench so I will have plenty on which to practice my technique. The next plants scheduled for my first attempt at removal are European Bittersweet, Holly, non-native thistles, Ivy, Laurel, Spurge Laurel, Yellow Flag Iris and so many others. The Knot Weed is too wide spread in the Meadowbrook area for volunteers to do the work and will need professionals with special equipment to do the work required to control it; very costly, I guess that is why the “NOX WEED” charge is on our Real Estate Tax bill.

The bird song that I hear during my hours in the park is very pleasant sound to hear while working and I have seen small muted colored female hummingbirds darting about after being alerted to their presence by the buzz-y snapping of their tail. I couldn’t tell what they were doing while I was busy with weed cutting, but I also saw the same type of hummer in the SPU retention pond area. Since our little Meadowbrook Pond was scheduled to be fenced off this week (and now is) I made a point to take a few extra walks through the paths around the pond to identify which native plants were blooming, getting ready to bloom and setting seed. I was excited to see the native Orange Honeysuckle Vine (Lonicera ciliosa) was threading its way through several plants in different areas and had healthy sturdy orange blooms pushed up above the support plant to wave in light breezes for the hummingbirds to find them. I was also excited to see another native honeysuckle plant blooming and setting seed in its little fruit and this was the Twinberry (Lonicera involucrata). This shrub has lovely small yellow bell shaped flowers in pairs along the underside of its branches. These turn into pairs of black round berries and then the bracts behind the berries turn dark red and are a very striking contrast to the surrounding greenery. The hummingbirds I saw were getting nectar from the flowers of both plants which provides both water and quick calories for these hot little birds; body temperature about 107 degrees F. They will eat the little soft bodied insects that are also attracted to the vegetation of these native plants and feed the insect slurry to their tiny chicks that need lots and lots of this insect soup to grow so fast that they fledge in about 19/20 days after hatching. The plants continue to pull up water and refill the flowers so the female hummingbird can return again and again for a drink of stock to make insect soup for their babies. That’s why.

Cool Site – The Cornell Lab of Ornithology.


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