Ice storm survival 101: Fill your birdfeeder

Two weeks ago, we received an inch of ice at the MHM garden. Because it’s the South, and we have no snow-and-ice infrastructure, life shut down until we thawed. I think the only thing that kept me sane (a housebound beagle and two kids out of school were decidedly unhelpful in that mission) was the birdfeeder in the back yard.

White-breasted Nuthatch (Sitta carolinensis ) and House Finch (Haemorhous mexicanus)

White-breasted Nuthatch (Sitta carolinensis ) and House Finch (Haemorhous mexicanus)

House finch (Haemorhous mexicanus)

House finch (Haemorhous mexicanus)

I’m dependent on Merlin Bird ID to tell me who my visitors are. This app, created by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, offers a brilliant beginners’ guide to identifying local birds.

American Goldfinch (Spinus tristis), showing his winter coat. His spring-and-summer one is much livelier.

American Goldfinch (Spinus tristis), showing his winter coat. His spring-and-summer one is much livelier.

I keep my feeder filled with black oil sunflower seeds, which is what they want to seem to eat. These seeds pack protein and fat into a very small, easy-to-shell package. When the temperature plummets, birds need these extra calories to maintain energy and stay warm. And when berries and fallen seed may be encapsulated in ice, a full feeder can make a big difference in birds’ ability to survive.

As the weather warms and more plants come into bloom, I will taper back on the feed to encourage them to scavenge insects from the garden. I hope that they’ll be enough in the habit of visiting my garden that they’ll stick around and enjoy the buffet.

American Goldfinch, showing his distinctive wing markings.

American Goldfinch, showing his distinctive wing markings.

Dear winter, please get lost.

Winter, I’m crying uncle. You win. I know I’m a winter wimp, that I can’t take the prolonged cold and gray. That’s why I moved from Chicago.

It’s time for you to get packing, and please kindly take the rain with you. I haven’t been able to do a thing in the garden for weeks because it’s simply too wet to walk. Even taking the compost to the bin requires lacing up the winter boots. I sink to my ankles in the mud, which stinks, by the way.

Carolina wren (Thryothorus ludovicianus) in my neighbor's dead tree

Carolina wren (Thryothorus ludovicianus) in my neighbor’s dead tree

You sent two nice days yesterday and Saturday. Can we please, please have a bit more of the sunshine and warmth?

Yellow crocus enjoying a rare bit of sunshine.

Yellow crocus enjoying a rare bit of sunshine.

I suppose if that’s too much to ask, I had better start boning up on my bog plant knowledge. Perhaps I can turn my home into a preserve for the endangered Venus flytraps and pitcher plants that are native to my home state. I suppose there are worse fates; these plants are fascinating.

 

Introducing my not-so-itsy-bitsy garden spider: Argiope aurantia

The other morning, I noticed a large spider in a yucca plant near the road in my blue slope garden. Yesterday afternoon, I nipped out to see if it was still there.

The black and yellow argiope (Argiope aurantia)

The black and yellow argiope (Argiope aurantia)

The black-and-yellow argiope (Argiope aurantia) is fairly common throughout the US and Canada. It lives in shrubs and tall plants in meadows and gardens, and eats the small flying insects it catches in its web, which may be up to 2 feet in diameter.

This is a female spider. Like most of her species, she spends her time hanging head-down in the middle of her web. I haven’t yet found an egg sac, but I shall keep looking. It will be a half-inch to an inch in size, coated in a brown papery covering, looking a bit like a fat acorn. The eggs hatch in autumn, but the young overwinter in the sac and disperse in the spring.

argiope close 2

The zigzag pattern in the web is known as a stabilimentum, but its purpose is of some debate. These spiders eat and rebuild their webs every day, except during periods of molting and egg-laying.

I watched her for perhaps five minutes, during which time she seemed to feel peckish. She turned around and began climbing towards the bundle she’d wound up earlier.

argiope climbing 3

 

argiope climbing 5

The short, light-brown leggy structures with which she seems to be holding the prey are called pedipalps. Although they look like legs, they function more as antennae. She uses her pedipalps just as it appears, to hold the prey steady and guide it to her mouth.

She wrapped herself around it, perhaps taking a sip in the process, and then moved her dish to another spot on her web.

argiope climbing 7

argiope climbing 8

argiope climbing 9

argiope dinner time

argiope my dinner argiope moving food argiope taking food

Dragonfly season

The dragonflies have started making appearances around my garden.

blue dragonfly

A Great Blue Skimmer? (Libellula vibrans) perching on a dead flower stem.

I love watching these graceful insects buzz around my garden. A small pond in my front yard, perhaps three feet long and two feet wide, seems to be enough to attract them by the dozens. I like how this one seemed to cock his head and consider me as I photographed him.

dragonfly in pond

One of my goals for the summer is to learn more about the dragonflies and other insects that visit my garden. I think this one is the Great Blue Skimmer (Libellula vibrans). Lots of these come to visit, and they’re enormous.

I hope they’re eating lots of mosquitoes.

dragonfly profile

 

First dates: Plants I’m trying this year

This week, I will share some of the plants I’m trying out in my garden for the first time.

Mina lobata

Mina lobata uses numerous aliases, including firecracker vine, Spanish flag, and exotic love vine. This sun-loving annual grows quickly to 10 feet long and produces lush, trilobed leaves similar to those of Ipomoea batatas, the sweet potato vine, to which it is related. In late summer to early fall, Mina lobata produces red flowers that fade to orange, yellow, and white. Those tubular (as in tube-shaped, not as in surfer-speak) flowers attract swarms of hungry hummingbirds, so plant it where you can enjoy the show. The vine will reseed to come back year after year, but do be mindful that the seeds are poisonous so keep them away from children and pets.

Mina lobata

By Magnus Manske (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Synonymous with Ipomoea lobata, this plant is related to morning glories and I expect similar habits. I’ve not had much trouble with reseeding morning glories, but I keep an eye out so nothing gets out of hand.  Mina lobata is said to cope well with heat and humidity, which I can guarantee in my neighborhood.

I thought I first saw this plant growing at Montrose last fall, combined with Helianthus, cosmos, and other fiery flora. But upon closer inspection, I’ve discovered that what I thought I was admiring was not Mina lobata, but Cuphea micropetalum.

Border at Montrose with Helianthus, Cuphea micropetalum, and orange cosmos.

Border at Montrose with Helianthus, Cuphea micropetalum, and orange cosmos.

This is what I thought was Mina lobata. It's not. It's Cuphea micropetalum.

This is what I thought was Mina lobata. It’s not. It’s Cuphea micropetalum.

To grow from seed:

Scarify the seed (scratch with sandpaper or nick the seed coat slightly) and soak in water overnight or up to 24 hours to improve germination. Sow seed outdoors after the last frost, or sow indoors and transplant after the frost risk has passed. Give its twining stems a trellis or tuteur to climb upon, or train it against a fence or wall you’d rather not see. Like clematis, its roots prefer some shade, and it likes rich soil, neutral to slightly acid pH, and moderate water. Do not overfeed Mina lobata with high-nitrogen fertilizer, or you will have lush vines and few flowers.

If left to dry on the vine, the seed heads may be harvested, cleaned, and stored in a cool, dry place.