Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Tree of Life

Note: This post is featured in Festival of Trees #62, hosted by Kate Natick of Beyond the Brambles. 

I wish words could express, or a photo convey, the charm of fireflies glowing in the rain. The magic of watching fireflies dissipates as soon as I pick up the camera and try to track them through the viewfinder.  But perhaps it's best that many of nature's mysteries elude capture. It reminds us that we are not the center of everything, that wild things dance to music we do not hear.

Sometimes, if my heart is open, I hear the whispers of trees. The trees that speak to me are usually old, twisted, scarred or growing in unfavorable places. One young sycamore tree captured my heart last winter, and every few weeks I pay it a visit. It grows, appropriately, on New Hope Creek. I loved it before I ever saw it clothed in leaves, because it grows in solid rock in the middle of the stream.

The young sycamore tree speaks to me of resilience, of the will to live that thrusts its roots through rock to reach the water. It speaks of grace, of life that overflows in the most surprising places. It speaks of creativity, of abundance, of the love of a creator who wants life to flourish everywhere.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Of Bees and Men

“People need insects to survive, but insects do not need us.”  ~ E.O. Wilson

After many hours spent on a computer this week, it was a relief to have an assignment to watch bees.  I learned about the Great Sunflower Project from Donna at Gardens Eye View and immediately decided to participate. As a gardener, you probably already know about Colony Collapse Disorder, the devastating syndrome in which large numbers of bees disappear from their hives and never return. 

Many beekeepers believe bees are being poisoned by neonicatinoids, widely used insecticides broadcast over crops. Government scientists see the culprit as varroa mites. Others have proposed that electromagnetic radiation from cell phones could be the cause, or that honeybees have been weakened by being pressed into commercial service and trucked around the country to pollinate crops. But no one disagrees that bees are dying in large numbers.

Even before I learned of the dying bees, I worked to make my garden attractive to pollinators, with native plants in bloom from spring to fall. To fulfill my assignment as Citizen Scientist, all I had to do was choose a flower, watch it for 15 minutes, count the number of bees, and submit the data online.  I chose monarda because a large patch is peaking now in a dazzling display of raspberry red flowers.

The project's leaders are hoping to learn more about urban populations of bees. I expected to see swarms of bees - monarda is knows as bee balm for a reason. But for 10 minutes, all I saw was one bumblebee, singlemindedly working the patch. The bee clambered in, on and under each of the many tubular flowers that make a flower head. 

Below, you can see the bee pulling down the lips of one of the tubular flowers to get to the nectar.

I enjoyed my observations of the bee, but I began to worry - why had only one bumblebee appeared? I'm an organic gardener, but many of my neighbors are not. Were bees being poisoned in my neighborhood, too? 

I looked around and spotted a second bumblebee on the flat pink blooms of a nearby Japanese spirea. I made an executive decision to count it, though I'm pretty sure a real scientist would have considered it outside the scope of the study. But it was a bee and it was there, so it counts. At the 14-minute mark, two honeybees appeared, one on the adjacent purple coneflower and one on the beebalm. Just under the wire, the honeybees catapulted my garden into the "great" category for bee visitations. 

One day later, I took the photograph below. The flower has been well loved. The tubular flowers that once stood erect have been pulled down, exposing the center of the flower head. 

Even if my garden is great for bees, the problem of the vanishing bees is a problem of the commons. No matter how many swathes of native plants we organic gardeners plant, bees won't survive if our neighbors have sterile yards drenched in insecticides. The biologist E.O. Wilson in "The Creation: An Appeal to Save Life on Earth" imagines the "cataclysm" of a world without insects. 

-"A majority of the flowering plants, upon being deprived of their pollinators, cease to reproduce.

-"Most herbaceous plant species among them spiral down to extinction. Insect-pollinated shrubs and tress hang on for a few more years, in rare cases up to centuries.

-"The great majority of birds and other land vertebrates, now denied the specialized foliage, fruits, and insect prey on which they feed, follow the plants into oblivion.

-"The soil remains largely unturned, accelerating plant decline, because insects, not earthworms as generally supposed, are the principal turners and renewers of the soil.

-"Populations of fungi and bacteria explode and remain at a peak over a few years while metabolizing the dead plant and animal material that piles up.

-"Wind-pollinated grasses and a handful of fern and conifer species spread over much of the deforested terrain, then decline to some extent as the soil deteriorates. 

-"The human species survives, able to fall back on wind-pollinated grains and marine fishing. But amid widespread starvation during the first several decades, human populations plunge to a small fraction of their former level. The wars for control of the dwindling resources, the suffering, and the tumultuous decline to dark-age barbarism would be unprecedented in human history.

-"Clinging to survival in a devastated world, and trapped in an ecological dark age, the survivors would offer prayers for the return of weeds and bugs."

Wilson concludes, "The bottom line of my scenario is this: be careful with pesticides. Do not give thought to diminishing the insect world.” 

Monday, June 20, 2011

Help Me Decide: Show the Motion Contest

I never set out to photograph motion, but because the world is full of motion, it sneaks into my photos. Cathy and Steve suggested I enter one of the photographs of the robin in the birdbath photos in Gardening Gone Wild's competition this month, which is on motion.

Once I started looking at old photographs, I got a little carried away. These are some of my favorite photographs from Chebeague Island, Maine. To me, they convey the motion of wind and tides and waves and birds. I am not sure that they convey motion to others who weren't there to feel the chill of the northeasterly wind as it raced over the waters, or the power of the tide flowing in. So I'd love to hear your feedback.

Here is a photo that is similar to the one at the header of my blog. I like how the water swirls around the fern that magically grows on a rock in the rushing creek. The fern appears to be in motion, too. 

Next, some photos of butterflies in motion. I think the top one of the zebra swallowtail is the best.

This photo may be more about the water than the butterfly.

Birds are almost always in motion. Because my camera has a limited range of shutter speeds, I end up with lots of blurred photographs. But sometimes I like the effects. You can see the drops raining down on the towhee in the photo below.

This photo never fails to make me smile, though I'm not sure if it can stand alone.

I like how the robin's wings are blurred as it beats the water.

This photo amuses me, too, and I can see the robin in it looking at me while he bathes. But is it too much of a blur? The idea of a contest makes me second-guess my own photos. I'm an amateur with a basic camera and little technical knowledge, though I do bring love of nature and patience to photography.

This photo captures the typical turning of the bluebird as it flies from the box. 

I know from reading others' posts that I am now supposed to reveal my decision. But I don't have one yet. So please help. I'd appreciate your comments and votes for your favorite photo that shows the motion. 

Update: After reviewing Gardening Gone Wild's contest description and reading the comments, I have decided to enter the photograph of the robin beating the water with its wings. I agreed with commenters that the beach scene with the gulls is probably the best photo, but I am not sure it shows enough motion to fit the contest requirements. Thanks to all of you who took the time to offer feedback!

Saturday, June 18, 2011

June: What's in Bloom

The garden surprised me this morning with this beautiful bloom, the first of the season on Rose of Sharon 'Helene.'

Often I am disappointed that I can't get the camera to record the beauty of what I see. But sometimes the camera makes beauty out of something ordinary. I almost missed the hidden bloom on the Rose of Sharon. 

I've been watching the beebalm flowers emerge.  Before I picked up the camera and began documenting my garden, I rarely paid attention to the beauty of emerging blooms. 

Beebalm (Monarda didyma 'Raspberry Wine') has commandeered a sizable patch in my too-small sunny perennials bed. Actually, it's only a part-sun bed, but sunny is a relative term in the woodland garden. The bees and butterflies love it, so I don't have the heart to groom the monarda patch the way I probably should. 

It grows with coneflower in my garden. Hmm ... these were sold to me as dwarf coneflowers a few years ago. Maybe one of the plants is still a dwarf.

I've also been watching the coneflowers (Echinacea purpurea) emerge. They have a different personality in each stage. Coneflowers, too, attract butterflies. 

Blue flowers look cool in the heat. Salvia guaranitica grows in part sun and is visited regularly by the ruby-throated hummingbird. 

Dwarf plumbago (Ceratostigma plumbaginoides)
is attractive on the edge of the bed. I think it would flower better in full sun, but I'm happy with anything that flowers. 

A frilled pale yellow lily (name tag long lost) has been blooming prolifically under Salvia guaranitica. It has a wonderful fragrance, too. 

Speaking of fragrance, Gardenia jasminoides 'Radicans' is now in full bloom. It's a low-growing variety that blooms after Kleim's Hardy has finished flowering. It has wonderful, intricate blossoms. 

Abelia is also in full bloom. Its blooms are dainty and waft a sweet scent over the stone walkway. I like its arching branches. It nicely screens the neighbor's house, too. 

This aster is blooming now. I lost its name tag, too. I didn't suspect I would become a garden blogger.

I adore the cheery yellow blooms of rudbeckias (Rudbeckia hirta) and the way they self-seed. They don't bloom much in part sun and tend to flop over. Darn. The goldfinches don't help when they try to land on the stems. (Imagine being light enough to cling to a flower stem.)

Virginia mountain mint (Pycnanthemum virginianium) is a native plant with miniature blooms that attract pollinators, including butterflies. 

Last is one disappointment, Coreopsis verticillata. I planted three plants five or six years ago. They bloomed well the first few years and spread to form a mass. As soon as they took over a good portion of the "sunny" perennial bed, they decided to be stingy with blossoms. I threatened them last week after reading Jean's post, Bloom or Get Out.  I see what look like tiny yellow buds on them, but they've been there for weeks. I'm tempted to pull them out now, but it's really stupid to put in new plants in midsummer in North Carolina. I should know - I do it almost every year. 

When I look, I always find more in bloom than I think in the woodland garden.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Bluebirds Fledge

At breakfast this morning, my husband said, "I miss the bluebirds." I knew they were getting ready to fledge, but it still was hard to see them go. This weekend, we noticed that they had grown big enough to peek out of the hole in the box.

The baby bluebirds kept their parents busy. Every few minutes, one of the parents landed on the box with a new insect to feed the young. Since the box is attached to a pine tree a few feet from the dining room window, this was our morning's entertainment. 

The babies fledged yesterday, sometime between 10:30 a.m. when I last checked on them and 12:15 p.m., when I saw a juvenile bluebird on the roof outside the upstairs office window. I hurried downstairs, grabbed the camera and tripod and was setting it up on the porch in the hope of photographing the new fledglings, when I heard an angry squawking. The male and then the female parent flew directly at my head, veering upward at the last second. It was surprising how fast they came at me - I never thought I would be intimidated by a 6-inch bird.

Clearly something major was going on. The bluebirds never had attacked me before, though I'd been observing and photographing them daily for a month. I retreated into the house and then sneaked back onto the porch and sat in a chair, hoping that would seem less threatening than standing.

My husband saw the fledgling first. It was clinging onto a pine tree about 40 feet from the box, and was so well camouflaged that it took me a couple of minutes to see it, even when he pointed it out to me. The baby bluebird didn't seem to know how to use its wings. It would stay still for a minute or two, then make an awkward fluttering motion that moved it a foot or two up on the trunk.

The father bluebird flew over to check on the baby and perhaps to give it food. It is sweet to see how protective the father appears in the photo below.

The baby moved around to the other side of the trunk. I didn't want to risk another dive-bombing, so I let the bluebirds have some privacy. This was the last sighting I had of a fledgling. 

I worried about how helpless the baby seemed, but on occasion I saw the parents flying around the garden and heard peeping that I hoped was coming from the fledglings. As I worked in the office, I also saw both bluebirds dive at a squirrel, driving him from a maple tree. And later, the male bluebird boldly chased a red-shouldered hawk out of the yard.

Sweet fledglings, I wish you well. You've got great parents!

P.S. Since I've been accumulating bluebird photos, I might as well share them. Here's a few more bluebird photos from the last month.

A refreshing midday dip.
Female bluebird, wet from the bath.
Male bluebird sits on a favorite perch.
"A man's interest in a single bluebird is worth more than a complete but dry list of the flora and fauna of a town." ~ Henry David Thoreau

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Wildlife Habitat

Renewing the Earth begins at home. Political leaders may not listen to my convictions on global warming and conservation of creation, but I am the steward of my garden. I love the creatures that live here and the ones that pass through on their mysterious daily rounds. The birds and the butterflies are showy and easy to appreciate. But I also like the invisible raccoon that picks the sunflower seeds out of the bird feeder, the skinks that skitter on the dry stone wall, and the fireflies that glow at nightfall.

I haven't been buying many things lately, but I did succumb recently to an impulse purchase. It isn't a beautiful peony, though I've been tempted. One day I was reading a blog, and a click or two later, I was on the web site of the National Wildlife Federation filling out a questionnaire to certify my garden as a wildlife habitat. A week later this sign arrived.

On one level, I know the whole thing is a bit silly. Wildlife can't read. They already know that my garden is a good place. But I was childishly pleased with the sign. I want others to care about wildlife, too, and what better way to start than a sign that might make someone think, even for a few seconds, that we share this land, this life on earth?

We don't have a lawn. Loblolly pines, sweetgums and tulip poplars cluster thickly in the front yard, and I let the pine needles and leaves accumulate as natural mulch. Bluebirds and robins and wrens and towhees and catbirds easily find insects in the leaf mulch, and I suspect that is part of the reason we have so many birds nesting in our yard.

Yesterday, I hung the sign on a sweetgum tree in the front yard near the street. I got the camera and stepped into the fallen leaves in front of the tree. Immediately I felt something sting me, looked at my leg and saw a yellow jacket attached. Wasps were swarming around me. I went flying up the driveway into the house, pulling wasps out of my leg, arm and the back of my head. Clearly I had stepped on a ground nest.

Now that the pain has subsided, it is easy to appreciate the irony in this. Wasps may not be able to read, but they sure do know how to defend their natural habitat. I mean, their certified wildlife habitat.

Adult yellow jacket, James Castner March 2003  http://edis.ifas.ufl.edu
I read later that yellow jackets build nests underground or at ground level, often in meadows on the edges of forests. Adult yellow jackets feed mainly on nectar from flowers. They also are important predators of other insects that can become garden pests.

Yellow jackets are aggressive when people threaten their nest. Females do the stinging, and unlike bees that die after one sting, they can sting repeatedly.

Still, I'd rather have a few yellow jacket stings and some healthy pollinators breeding in my yard than a property with a chemical-soaked lawn and few insects or birds or butterflies. All creatures have their place in nature, and who am I to interfere? We'll talk about the deer fence another time.

If you're interested in learning more about gardening for wildlife, I recommend Douglas Tallamy's book Bringing Nature Home and Sara Stein's Noah's Garden: Restoring the Ecology of Our Own Backyards.