For the past five or six years, a pair of eastern phoebes have built their nest on a small ledge under the roof of our front porch. Eight feet off the ground and close to humans, this would seem an excellent place to avoid predators. Most years, they successfully raise a brood of chicks who, by the time they are ready to fly away, look far too large for the little moss-lined nest.
This year, they were not so lucky. Opening the blind on our glass front door one morning last week, my wife was startled to see that a young black rat snake had located the nest. It had wedged itself into the small crevice between a support post and gutter downspout and was slowly inching towards the chicks while the parent birds fluttered frantically from perch to perch. Rat snakes, despite their name, do not specialize in preying on rodents. They are climbers par excellence and enthusiastically raid nests for eggs and chicks.
I removed the intrepid hunter and carried it to an old wood pile at the back of our house. I thought that there would be plenty of rodents or lizards there to distract the snake. It seems that the snake was determined, though. The next morning, the nest was empty. The parent birds hung around the garden for a few hours and then disappeared. I wonder if they will be back next year.
Youngest offspring and I found a nest of newly hatched Carolina wrens (Thryothorus ludovicianus) in one of my hanging baskets. When we made clicking noises, they opened wide for dinner.
Carolina wrens are notorious for building nests in inappropriate places. I have found nests under the lid of our barbecue grill and, repeatedly, in open bags of potting soil. In comparison, a hanging basket is a surprisingly good choice, even if the chicks run the risk of being flooded whenever I water the plants.
This week we traveled to see family in Houston. While there, we visited two places that may be of interest to readers of this blog: Brazos Bend State Park and Mercer Botanic Garden.
Brazos Bend State Park is a 4897-acre park on the banks of the Brazos River in rural Fort Bend County, about 45 miles from downtown Houston. It contains prairie, bottomland forest, and various wetlands, and it is one of my favorite places to visit in the Houston area because of its varied wildlife.
The primary appeal of Brazos Bend–at least for our family–is the large population of American alligators (Alligator mississippiensis). On a warm summer day, they are everywhere.
In the winter, we sometimes don’t see any, but this week was hot (95 F) and very, very humid–perfect weather for gator viewing. The kids stopped counting at thirty.
The rangers recommend that visitors stay 30 feet away from alligators. That can be difficult when they park themselves beside the trail.
Discretion is the better part of valor, and it is usually best to turn down another trail. Nevertheless, some people get a bit too close:
I prefer to trust in a good zoom lens.
In addition to the alligators, there is a lot of other wildlife in Brazos Bend. On past visits, we have seen armadillos and feral pigs, but this year all of our sightings were in and around the water. We saw three red-eared sliders (Trachemys scripta elegans) laying eggs and a fourth lumbering across the path, probably on its way to build a nest or returning to the water after finishing. We didn’t bother to count the turtles in the water.
There were also a wide variety of water birds, including:
Just about the only animals we saw that weren’t aquatic or semi-aquatic were the golden silk spiders (Nephila clavipes) that had spun their webs along (or across) the trail in wooded areas.
We also saw some of the same animals a little closer to home. One morning, I strolled down to the spillway near my parents’ house, where the neighborhood lake drains into Oyster Creek. A handsome family of black-bellied whistling ducks was sheltering on top of the spillway.
Mama duck was keeping all of the ducklings tucked under her wings, probably because several herons were skulking nearby, ostensibly fishing but probably keeping an eye open for stray ducklings.
The herons flew away, complaining loudly, when eldest offspring and I walked down to see what we could see in the creek, and as soon as they were gone, mama duck let the babies out.
That’s probably enough photographs for one post. I’ll save Mercer Botanic Garden for another day.
A sign that we are definitely in late summer, inching inexorably towards autumn: yellow garden spiders (Argiope aurantia) have started to spin their webs among the flower beds. Every year, they seem to appear suddenly out of nowhere, but I suppose they have been present all spring and summer and have finally become large enough for me to notice. They are still not full size and will grow noticeably bigger and fatter in the next month.
They seem to love to spin their webs in the lantana bushes, where they capture many butterflies.
Sometimes they catch bigger prey.
One morning last September, I noticed that the cats were intent on something squeaking pathetically in a large Lantana ‘Miss Huff’. It was a hummingbird trapped in the web of a very large garden spider. In this somewhat blurry photo, the spider is at the top of the frame, slowly descending her web towards the trapped bird.
At first I thought that I was too late and the bird had already been bitten, because when I pulled it from the web, it just lay quivering in the palm of my hand.
I was trying to decide if I needed to administer the coup de grâce, when I realized that the bird was immobilized by a few strands of almost invisible spider silk. After I carefully removed the threads from its wings and tail, it sat up in my hand and then zoomed away into the trees.
If you have a strong stomach, a web search will turn up photos of less fortunate hummers, so if you have a hummingbird feeder or plants that attract them, it might be a good idea to relocate garden spiders that build their webs to close to the flight paths.
Last Monday was Memorial Day, the traditional start of the summer holiday season in the U.S. In my garden, summer begins when the fireflies appear, and the baby hummingbirds fledge. We spotted the first fireflies a couple of weeks ago, but this week the population increased dramatically. When the sun goes down, the garden is filled with slowly flashing yellow lights as the little beetles fly up from the grass and flowerbeds.
During the day, the action is a lot more frenetic. Since early April, a few adult hummingbirds have been visiting our two feeders, which I refilled once a week or so. But suddenly there are dozens of hummers jockeying for position, and we go through a liter of sugar solution a day. Their harsh chattering and the sound of buzzing wings fills the air as they dogfight over the lawn and chase each other away from the feeder or favorite flowers. Occasionally several will settle down to drink peacefully at the same feeder (four on the small, six on the large), but it never lasts long. Another soon shows up and starts a chain reaction fight in which the tiny birds orbit the feeder like fighter ships in a Star Wars movie. I have counted ten or more at a single feeder, and the other is just as busy.
On dry, sunny roadside banks and meadows, patches of bright orange show that the blooming season of native butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa) has started, and as Spigelia marilandicafinishes flowering, A. tuberosa takes over as my favorite flower in the garden.
This is one of the best insect plants that you can grow in North Carolina. Like all milkweeds, it is a food plant for the caterpillars of the monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus). Monarchs are becoming very scarce, sadly, and in ten years gardening at this location, we have only had caterpillars one year. But A. tuberosa flowers provide food for bees and other butterfly species, and those are not in short supply:
When the plants are finished flowering, they attract beautifully colored milkweed bugs (Oncopeltus fasciatus) that feed on the developing seeds. But no matter; enough seed survives to float away on tufts of fluff, so that more plants appear every year.
Once planted, A. tuberosa can be tricky to transplant, because its tuberous roots grow deep and break easily. If you plant a couple of potted seedlings, they’ll cross-pollinate and give you plenty of seed that you can spread around. It seems to take about two years for seedlings to reach blooming size, and a couple more to grow a really nice clump.
Much less colorful but still elegantly beautiful, Yucca filamentosa is also blooming now. I planted it on the dry mound around our wellhead, along with the prickly pears and a few other xerophytic plants.
It was supposed to be the variegated clone, ‘Color Guard,’ but it seems to be some sort of unstable mutant. New growths come out variegated, but over the course of the year, they darken until they are indistinguishable from a wild type plant.
On the other side of the house, Hydrangea quercifolia, oakleaf hydrangea is also blooming white.
This is a southern species, with a native range centered on Alabama. It is a much more reliable bloomer than the Japanese Hydrangea macrophylla, because the new growth is less susceptible to damage by late freezes.
Some cultivated clones have inflorescences made up entirely of large sterile flowers, equivalent to mophead forms of the more familiar H. macrophylla. However, I prefer the look of wild type plants, equivalent to a lacecap H. macrophylla, with a few sterile flowers surrounding clusters of tiny fertile flowers that attract many bees.
The H. quercifolia flowers are looking their best this week, and they’ll continue to look good until the Japanese beetles, the scourge of summer, arrive to devour them. That could happen any day. I saw a few beetles this week, munching on banana leaves, but most will emerge over the next couple of weeks. If I can keep the beetles from doing too much damage to the hydrangea, its inflorescences will slowly turn pink and will be attractive until well into autumn. Eventually they’ll dry out and turn brown, but they’ll remain on the plant and, together with the peeling bark, provide winter interest.