Seattle Life in the Yard

Sustain biodiversity: garden with native plants.

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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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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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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?