What Does Weed Mean To You?

I saw my first Southern White Butterfly of the season this week…apt because the Virginia Pepperweed, a larval host is in full bloom. I also saw that the Plantain is sprouting, as is the Cudweed. That brings about the onslaught of pesky weed and feed commercials popping up on television. According to them I should be eliminating those lovely native larval hosts from my garden in favor of some biological desert of a lawn.

It brought to mind an article I wrote a few years ago that is worth repeating. Food for thought (and future pollinators).

Dateline:  January 31, 2014*

Monarch butterfly on Spanish Needles (Bidens alba)

I’m one who cringes when anyone calls a native plant a weed.  Given the top definition in the dictionary, it has such a derogatory sound to it:

Weed:  (wēd)
1. A plant considered undesirable, unattractive, or troublesome, especially one that grows where it is not wanted and often grows or spreads fast or takes the place of desired plants.
2. An aquatic plant or alga, especially seaweed.
3. Something considered useless, detrimental, or worthless.
4. Slang
a. Tobacco.
b. A cigarette.
c. Marijuana.

I understand the “troublesome” part and perhaps even the “unattractive” part, but the “undesirable” moniker is what really rubs me the wrong way when it comes to targeting native plants.

Ok, you don’t want a lot of stragglers growing in your formal garden, I get that, but to kill off a whole species of plants, just to get the look of a carpet in the front yard seems ridiculous to me.

Lately, the term “weed” has a happier connotation (see definition #4c above), at least in my mind. Super Bowl XLVIII (Seattle v. Denver) is “The Weed Bowl”. It brings back memories of the ‘70s although it might not have much to do with gardening, unless you are running a grow house for recreational marijuana in the two states that the Football Conference winners hail from.  😉

Now, more importantly, since so many so-called “weeds” are larval hosts for butterflies and native insects, this is what “weed” means to me:

This might be what is there

but I see this Buckeye Butterfly

Cudweed might be what is growing

but I envision this American Lady

It might look like pepperweed to you but it looks like a southern white butterfly to me
A ground cover of Frogfruit might be offensive to some But I only see White Peacocks fluttering around

Whenever doubting that some wild growth in the garden bed is a good thing, think about this quote by Eeyore:

“Weeds are flowers too, once you get to know them.” –A. A. Milne (1882-1956)

and, for more than just nectar….food for growth.

So before you head out with the weed and feed, think about where have all the butterflies gone?…Food for thought.

*This tale was originally published by Loret T. Setters on January 31, 2014 at the defunct national blog beautifulwildlifegarden[dot]com. Click the date to view reader comments.


The Hills are Alive at my House…the Beneficial Mole!

Dateline:  October 22, 2010*

If you are bothered by the mounds left by moles, consider planting a native ground cover such as Frogfruit (Phyla Nodiflora) which will disguise them and is a larval host for many butterflies and nectar for all pollinators

I was getting ready to give my Irish setter a piece of my mind because there was digging at the fence….a no-no. It didn’t seem to be her usual “let’s bury the human” size hole, merely scratching along the surface. As I continued to walk along, I felt the earth move under my feet which is always a sign that my friends the moles are doing their thing. To me, moles are a good thing since I found out they eat ants…I really dislike ants (except for the ones that go marching two by two…hurrah, hurrah!)

I continued walking, looking under the bayberry for signs of the box turtle, another possible digging friend. I refreshed my memory of a year ago by looking at some pictures recently and realized that the turtle was around at this time of year. And sometime closer to our winter I found turtle eggs…alas they never hatched. Perhaps victims of the hard freeze.

I noticed a creature in the brush, obviously not moving. At first I thought it was a bird and looked suspiciously at my English setter. He’s caught a bird or two in his time….hey, he’s a bird dog, but it was always in the dog area, not back in the bird area. I got closer, plastic bag in hand, shoo’d away the Irish (who was looking for trouble) and got a closer look at a newly deceased mole (Scalopus aquaticus). A sad event, but nature taking its course. Now it may just be that the English setter got it, although he usually runs around with his “prizes”, but this one looked relatively unscathed, so my thought is that perhaps a hawk dropped it from the heavens. Plenty of those around my area.

My friend from Minnesota managed to capture this guy visiting her planter….how timely…Thanks Lynn!

I didn’t know a heck of a lot about moles, except they are a little on the ugly side, so I read a bit about them this past spring when they were quite evident at my place. I learned they are not rodents, but mammals, mostly insectivores, although may eat an occasional small animal. They live underground and based on most of what I found online, people are on a mission to try and kill them. Why? because they cause aesthetic damage to precious lawns. Give me a break!

Let’s be realistic, and come to terms with the fact that they can be quite beneficial to a beautiful wildlife garden. They aerate the soil for free, provide housing for some critters, entertainment for others (my friend’s dog can wag for hours at the end of a mole tunnel) and eat insects that probably are damaging the roots of your plants. According to University of Florida IFAS Extension ”moles eat mole crickets; beetle larvae (white grubs, wire worms, etc.); ants and ant brood; moth larvae and pupae (cutworms and armyworms); and slugs.” Sounds like the perfect houseguest to me. Further, they write: “The damage caused by moles is almost entirely cosmetic. Although moles are often falsely accused of eating the roots of grass and other plants, they actually feed on the insects causing the damage. The tunneling of moles may cause some physical damage to the root systems of ornamental or garden plants and may kill grass by drying out the roots, but this damage is usually minor.”

My question is, just when did it become acceptable to kill God’s creatures purely for aesthetic reasons?

Mole hills can be the perfect place to plant wildflower seeds into nicely aerated soil.

In my crawl across the web I found one humane wildlife control and prevention company “The Skunk Whisper” (update for 2018: now called “The Wildlife Whisperer Wildlife Control”) who seems to have realistic prevention ideas (IMHO) including: “When landscaping your property you might consider choosing a native grass that is heat and drought tolerant, a grass that will not require so much moisture near the surface. The same principle applies to which plants and flowers you choose for your property. Landscaping that moves moisture deeper into the soil will not prevent moles but the damage done by the moles will be deeper down thus helping preserve the beauty of your lawn and flower beds.”

Moles don’t eat plants. Consider planting a meadow as a disguise if the hills bother you

I have a few ideas of my own. Plant a few different wildflowers, sedges or ground covers instead of a monoculture of one alien grass that needs to be chopped at an unrealistic even height of 3.5 inches. The hills are less evident in a meadow of glorious life producing natives. Mole hills make the perfect area to drop native wildflower or ground cover seed. Just sprinkle the seed and tamp down a bit in the lovely aerated soil. The hill is gone and the seed has been easily sown. Your future reward will be a meadow of color, from flowers and butterflies and other pollinators which will hide that “ghastly” unkempt looking “mountain”.

Loret is a member of the Florida Native Plant Society who maintains a natural, beautiful wildlife garden in Central Florida.

*This is an update of a tale was originally published by Loret T. Setters on October 22, 2010 at the defunct national blog beautifulwildlifegarden[dot]com. Click the date to view reader comments.

It’s a Girl! Why Sex Matters in a Wildlife Garden

Dateline:  October 15, 2010*

Female Myrica cerifera rich with fruit

Have you ever been walking through a nursery and noticed a plant which has a pink ribbon attached? It probably is a dioecious species. Yes, believe it or not, plants have sexuality. Some plants are monoecious meaning they have separate male and female flowers on the same plant. Examples of monoecious trees would be oak or cypress. Now dioecious flowered means that the male and female are on separate plants. That’s why some nurseries put the ribbon on to distinguish them.

I discovered this fall that my newest sapling, a dahoon holly (Ilex cassine) expertly planted by an unknown birdy is a female! Oh JOY!

What’s the big deal, you might ask. Well, trees have different roles in the garden. Pollinated female-only trees often set a lot of seed and fruits—perfect for feeding wildlife. Some gardeners, certainly not this one, consider this “messy”. If you hire a landscaper to install and maintain your plants, you might just find out he chooses all males because cleanup will be minimal. However, wildlife will suffer because the males don’t produce the abundant fruits and you might suffer because many all-male flowered plants produce tons of pollen which will send an allergy-prone human reeling.

Of course, as a beautiful wildlife garden-owner your smart choice would be the female plants and you would never consider cleaning up dropped fruit…that’s what birds and mammals are for. Whatever they don’t pick up will work towards fertilizing the plant by breaking down into the soil and providing nutrients for the next crop.

An older, female Ilex cassine has beautiful red fruits, a favorite with birds

Now let’s talk about the fact that some of the all-male plants produce copious amounts of pollen. Thomas L. Ogren has written a book called Allergy-Free Gardening: The Revolutionary Guide to Healthy Landscaping (2000, Ten Speed Press). It outlines the Ogren Plant-Allergy Scale (OPALS™) created to rate the allergy potential of certain plants. Plants are assigned a rating of 1 to 10 to measure their allergenicity, or potential to cause problems for allergic people. Most allergenic effects of plants were taken into consideration in the OPALS™ rating: reaction to contact with leaves and sap, reactions to odor, and effects of inhaled pollen. Plants assigned a 1 on the scale are least likely to cause allergenic reactions in most people, whereas trees assigned a 10 should be regarded as highly allergenic. For instance, a male Wax Myrtle (Myrica cerifera) is rated 9 whereas a female plant is rated 2. A male holly (Ilex spp.) is rated 7 whereas a female is rated 1.  In these two cases, females have less allergy potential than their male counterparts.

Although it has no fruits, this male Myrica cerifera is perfect cover for wildlife and a pretty backdrop for taller plants like the goldenrod and bluestem grass shown here

For a plant to truly be beneficial to your beautiful wildlife garden, you need a combo of both males and females. Keep in mind that one male can go a long way in pollinating females, so you could conceivably plant one male far away from the house or outdoor living space to avoid the pollen blanket and then plant several females close by to enjoy the wildlife viewing experience. Then again, maybe your neighbor has a landscaper who planted males to avoid cleanup and you could just plant females and get free “stud” services. Your neighbors will be scratching their heads wondering why all the birds and other critters are running around your place while their yard sits relatively unoccupied. Buy a box of tissues as a thank you…just don’t explain why!

Additional select references:
University of Florida IFAS Exension Publication #FOR 206

Related Posts with Thumbnails*This tale was originally published by Loret T. Setters on October 15, 2010 at the defunct national blog beautifulwildlifegarden[dot]com. Click the date to view reader comments.

When Choosing Plants, Think Food Chain

Some years ago when I began writing for a national wildlife gardening blog, I wrote from the standpoint of my personal observations and over the years I have learned and evolved in my way of gardening based on those observations. Below is the very first article I wrote and one of which I am most proud.

It still holds true today as evidenced in the “featured photo” above taken in 2016 which shows the larva of a ladybug eating the pupa of a leaf eating beetle that had dined on the Florida native Goldenrod plant shown. Years ago I may have tossed the beetles in their active leaf-eating stage into soapy water, thinking they were ruining my plants. As I observe the food chain in action, I have learned the importance of leaving them to feed others higher up since if you break the chain at any point someone further up suffers.

Dateline:  October 8, 2010*

Caterpillars of Automeris io moth

I do outreach events for the local chapter of The Florida Native Plant Society. This is our busiest time of year as the weather turns cooler and delightfully breezy.

This past weekend we were at the local Home Depot, sharing our space with Audubon as we often do. I always bring a few live bugs or small garden critters to serve as a conversation starter in how to go about creating a beautiful wildlife garden. It gets kids interested in plants and keeps their attention while I talk to the parents about biodiversity.

I only had about five minutes to locate my “friends” in the early morning hours when things are wet and critters aren’t as plentiful, but I managed to gather a treefrog, a lynx spider and a white peacock butterfly, who was just emerging. Into their display cases they went with proper moisture and plant materials.

When things slowed down at the event, Larry, the president of the Kissimmee Audubon who is also a Native Plant Society member and I got to talking. He said that he was amazed at what I find in my yard to get the conversation flowing. He remarked that not many people could do as I did the week before and bring seven different species to an event without struggling to find them.

That hunt on a single area of Bidens Alba and some native mallow species took me about 15 minutes resulting in finding a praying mantis, two different butterflies, soldier beetles, a spider, and a treefrog. I added a grasshopper which I found on a citrus tree and I only stopped because I ran out of display containers.

Afternoon events are always easier to supply because the bugs are enjoying the sun and are plentiful. Our discussion continued in how planting for butterflies is good but having a lot of different plants in a garden to support all types of native insects is critical in being sustainable and providing for a more diverse array of wildlife.

Birds like all caterpillars, not just those of the butterflies. Consider planting some native plants that support moth caterpillars. You’ll feel less upset about the caterpillars being devoured. I don’t want to give the moths a complex by pointing out that some are not as pretty as a butterfly, but if I see a bird near my Cowbane (Tiedemannia filiformis), I get a little uneasy feeling that perhaps he is eating a potential Black Swallowtail Butterfly. Alternately, if I see a bird on a Wax Myrtle (Myrica cerifera) I enjoy the encounter without much concern that a possible looper moth is being digested. Ok, so I’m a little shallow.  😉

I guess the point is that not every critter is going to be something that you want to hug or photograph but they may be the food for something that you want to hug, photograph or observe in your own beautiful wildlife garden.

Clearly an onslaught of stinging caterpillars (Automeris io (shown above)) on an Eastern Redbud (Cercis canadensis) can be a frightening encounter. But if you wait a day or two to see a fattened anole playfully running up and down the branches of the tree you’ll have expanded your wildlife viewing experience. And you’ll be relieved to observe that the majority of the leaves may still be intact. In the world of native plants, nature tends to keep a balance.

Loret is a retired, transplanted New Yorker. She resides on an acre of land in a rural central Florida community called Holopaw with her three sporting dogs. She is a member of The Pine Lily Chapter of the Florida Native Plant Society which encourages others to plant native plants in order to reap the benefits of a beautiful wildlife garden and avoid spreading invasive exotics into our natural areas. 

*This is tale was originally published by Loret T. Setters on October 8, 2010 at the defunct national blog beautifulwildlifegarden[dot]com. Click the date to view reader comments.

Timmmmmmmberrrrrrrrrr! Yet, Not the End of the Road

Dateline:  January 7, 2011*

Pine Warbler doesn’t seem concerned that tree is on the ground

I’ve struggled with a decision to remove one of my Pine snags. It was uncomfortably close to the house yet provided such a wealth of entertainment with the wildlife that partakes in its demise from a lightening bolt in 2008. I remember that day vividly because I felt my hair stand on end and I was sure the house had been struck, but that tall pine gave its life to protect my home. The dead tree swayed in recent 50 mph winds and the weight at the top seemed to lean it toward the house rather than away, so I knew it had to go.
When I bought the property another snag was standing and I opted to leave it up since it was housing Pileated Woodpeckers at the time. They had a family of two fledglings and I was hooked on keeping snags in my wildlife garden. That tree fell down in tropical storm Fay yet pieces of the debris still provide habitat for my many critters. I cut it up and stacked it and it is slowly returning to soil, dwindling slowly, beetles breaking down the wood structures, birds eating the beetles for protein, snakes finding a safe haven, lizards playfully dancing between the cracks.

Pileated Woodpecker (Dryocopus pileatus)

Back to my current dilemma. The tree was clearly rotting and ants had taken up residence in the lower section. When oak firewood was delivered from a local guy, I inquired if he could fell the snag and lamented how I would miss it. He said he could top it. A deal was made and he came back a week later chain saw in hand!

Half a tree is better than no tree

He cut it about 15 feet from the ground and had it land in the wrong direction (scaring the bajesus out of me…so dangerously close to his truck). Judging from the look on his face, perhaps the delivery guy wasn’t a smart choice to cut it, but it is a good height and no one got hurt, so the results are good. It still stands proud and the balance will be put to some use as soon as I think up all that it can be used for. I know the outer layers will be raked up and used to help form the basis for natural pathways through my growing restoration areas or mulch where needed.

That which crumbles will be used to make pathways

The birds seem unconcerned that part of it is on its side and still visit. Bringing it down to my level is intriguing….I’ve got a close-up view of where the redbellied woodpeckers were making a hole under the protection of a large branch. The hole is perfectly round. I can see the core is solid…perhaps it will be the base for a new water dish or will help by being the base for the cedar bench that recently had it’s legs give out.

The woodpeckers made a hole under the protection of a branch..smart birds

I only know that the nuthatches are still thrilled and have already begun digging feverishly into its side making a deep hole. Perhaps a nest area? They’ve teased me before and I hold out hope that one of these times they will actually complete the nest. They are cagey sorts….but I have faith. Faith in those little birds and faith in my lovely half-tree as it continues to give pleasure.

*This tale was originally published by Loret T. Setters on January 7, 2011 at the defunct national blog beautifulwildlifegarden[dot]com. Click the date to view reader comments.


Solving Garden Mysteries

Dateline:  May 30, 2014*

In recent days I heard the hammering of a bird outside the computer room window which faces the front of the property.  I really didn’t think much of it. Red-bellied Woodpeckers bang incessantly around here, with the males often using the gutters of my house to sound bigger and more virile to the local ladies. Nesting season is well underway and I even hear the Pileated Woodpeckers hammering in the distance. They’ve used snags on my property in the past to raise their young.

While out and about on a morning walk around the lot, I heard an odd sound…the call of a bird, unknown to me,  hidden somewhere in the landscape.  I peered under branches of the wax myrtle where the sound seemed to be coming from, but the shrubbery is lush with leaves these days, providing great hiding spots for nests and new fledglings.  I came up empty.

My thought was to try to figure out what bird it was, but I wasn’t really sure where to start.  I’m helpless at trying to translate the “chirps” and “pee-whees” written in my bird field guide and my bird language skills in imitation  is non-existent.  I thought of going to The Cornell Lab of Ornithology Website to listen to bird after bird after bird, but didn’t seem a very efficient method.  My birder friends who all can bird by sound would know in an instant but aren’t close enough to give a quick emergency “I hear it NOW” type of phone call…all are at least 30 minutes or more away.  I wouldn’t count on the bird hanging out to wait for them.

The bird identification was placed on the back burner, while other interesting critters and flowers jumped higher on the research list.  It is May, after all, one of the busiest times in my garden.

Ut oh, what is THIS??

I was again in the front yard and decided to check the Live Oak tree (Quercus virginiana) to see if anyone had set up a new nest there.  The mockingbirds are nesting just about everywhere and this tree is a favorite for them.  I was a little taken aback when I looked.  At eye level was a whole section of holes in the bark.

Is it YOU?

I imagined all sorts of damaging insects envisioning an attack akin to the Emerald Ash Borer up north.   That night I was taking the dogs out for the final trip before bed and I spotted an unusual insect on the door jam.  I got the dogs in, grabbed my camera and took some photos of what turns out to be a Long-horned Beetle (Eburia distincta).  Now the preferred host for this boring beetle is cypress, but there are also notations that it may use some hardwoods.  Could this be the holey oak culprit?

As I mumbled “holy moley”, I took my photos of the oak and beetle friend and emailed them to Eleanor Foerste who is Emeritus Faculty, UF IFAS Extension. I was a little concerned by her immediate response that started off with “OMG!” and ended with “I will also send to our forester, … for her ideas”.

Cooperative Extension Services is a gold mine of information through a partnership of United States Department of Agriculture with a state land-grant university to “provide useful, practical, and research-based information to agricultural producers, small business owners, youth, consumers, and others in rural areas and communities of all sizes.”  In Florida they have a network of local offices at the county-level that teach Master Gardener Courses as well as numerous other educational programs.  Our county even has a daily walk-in plant clinic where you can bring in soil to have pH tested or a leaf or root showing some damage and they will analyze it to try to figure out the problem.

Back to my garden mystery…

Eleanor’s emailed response posed a couple of questions: (1) “How high up on the trunk is this happening?” and (2) “Can you hold a cup to your ear and the tree like a stethoscope (like the old telephone game with cup and string?) and hear any chewing inside?”

Eleanor, who prior to retirement taught the Florida Master Naturalist program, noted that “Yes, longhorn beetles will chew but typically on weak trees.”

It looks like swiss cheese

I quickly replied that it was about eye level (5 ft.) limited to about a foot vertically and only about 1/2 way around. “It looks like a wide hole-y ribbon got tied around.” I mentioned that I didn’t see any damage anywhere else on the tree.  I also said that I would find a cup and give a listen  (with thoughts of what the neighbors would be mumbling about me for THIS activity).

close up

A gloom and doom attitude began to take over, but that was quickly alleviated when Eleanor sent another email just minutes later “Not sapsucker damage???”

Sapsucker?  Our area has sapsuckers?  How the heck have I missed them all these years????  I opened my browser to the Cornell site for the Yellow-bellied Sapsucker (Sphyrapicus varius) and immediately clicked on the “typical voice” button.

Yes! Sapsuckers make this type of pattern in their quest for food

THAT’S IT!  Well, I’ll be…two mysteries solved at the same time.  The birdie I heard days before matched perfectly with the sound!  Since Florida is listed as winter (non-breeding) on the range map, I suppose my friend was tanking up on sap for the summer trip up north.  Jumping for joy, now I will wait the long months and hope that I get to see it on the return.

Just listening in the garden can help you learn more about what is using your habitat than by sight alone.  I’ll add the sapsucker to my Florida bird life list, with an annotation “heard, but not seen”.

So, leave the phone and the radio inside and take in the sounds of Mother Nature…and tell me what you hear in your own beautiful wildlife garden.

Update 2017: I’m pleased to report that I finally got to see the sapsuckers in the flesh and much to my delight, they spend a lot of time visiting my trees so I now see them often.

*This tale was originally published by Loret T. Setters on May 30, 2014 at the defunct national blog beautifulwildlifegarden[dot]com. Click the date to view reader comments.

Warblers: If One is a Butterbutt, Should the Other be a Butterhead?

The warblers have been prolific these days so I’m republishing my 2013 lost article on what keeps them coming back to my place.

Dateline:  January 25, 2013*

Both Pine and Yellow-rumped Warblers will visit birdfeeding stations

This is the time of year when the warblers are a sea of yellow and gray around here. The two most prolific of these birds at my place are the Yellow-rumped Warbler (Setophaga coronata) and the Pine Warbler (Setophaga pinus).

The Butterbutt

A common name for the Yellow-rumped Warbler is butterbutt and it is easy to see why.

The diet of the Yellow-rumped Warbler consists of mostly insects including caterpillars and other insect larvae, beetles, weevils, ants, scale, aphids, grasshoppers, caddisflies, craneflies, and gnats, as well as spiders. Quite a menu variety. They also eat spruce budworm, a serious forest pest concern.

This Yellow-rumped Warbler was reaching up for some treat in a groundsel bush

It’s interesting to watch the Yellow-rumped Warbler feed. They flutter and catch insects on the wing and they also flutter next to tall grasses to snag seeds. It reminds me of how a hummingbird hovers.

Visiting Wax Myrtle aka Bayberry

Yellow-rumped Warblers enjoy fruits, particularly bayberry a.k.a. wax myrtle, which “their digestive systems are uniquely suited among warblers to digest”. This gives them a greater northern winter range. This shrub is the most prolific in my garden.

Add a female wax myrtle and the yellow-rumped warblers are sure to flock to your place

Other commonly eaten fruits and seed include:


In my garden

Juniper berries Red Cedar (Juniperus virginiana)
Poison ivy Toxicodendron radicans
Poison oak
Greenbrier Smilax spp.
Grapes Vitis spp.
Virginia creeper Parthenocissus quinquefolia
Seeds from grasses Bluestem (Andropogon spp.)
Goldenrod seeds Solidago spp.

This probably explains their vast numbers at my place. They will use feeders but nutrition from actual plants is a better choice since the food isn’t chemically treated to control insect pests during production.

I set up natural foods at the feeding station via a wreath created from the spent seedheads of native plants and the Pine Warblers come calling

When I added the red cedar I hoped that the Yellow-rumped warblers, who build nests in conifers, would be enticed. They build with twigs, rootlets and grass, lined with hair and feathers. Unfortunately I didn’t realize that in my area they are non-breeding winter residents. Still, the cedar will feed them and many other bird species make use of this pretty native tree.  I’ll just have to hope that someone in their breeding range will share their encounter details.

One thing I noticed is that the colors of “my butterbutts” aren’t as vivid as some shown on birding websites where they can have sharp black markings. Apparently during the winter they are a little more drab, but they will always have that bright yellow tail thing going which they flash often when standing still, spying for insects.

The Yellow-rumped Warbler’s colors can be a little drab in wintertime

The Butterhead

Pine Warbler

Ok, the Pine Warbler isn’t called a Butterhead; I’m just making that up. They are pudgy birds and they do have bright yellow HEADS, so if the yellow RUMPED warbler…well, you get my drift.

The Pine Warblers are a little pudgy

Aptly named since they spend much of their time in the pine trees, they also come down to find insects in the grasses and they do enjoy seed, and among warblers they are notorious seed eaters…especially pine.

This week the Pine Warblers are especially fond of the bidens alba seeds

Recently they have been spending a lot of time in the dead parts of the Spanish Needles (Bidens alba) munching away on the spent seeds. Still, they mostly eat caterpillars and other insects including beetles, grasshoppers, ants, bees, flies, cockroach eggs, and spiders. Again, they will readily come to feeders, but natural foods are a better source of nutrition than commercial birdseed.

They get along with other birds such as this blue jay in the oak

These birds nest high atop pine trees. I’ve yet to see an actual nest but I do take out the field glasses and scan the trees during nesting season since I am hopeful that they will nest, given the amount of time they spend around my garden which has those tall pines. I’m still not clear how any type of nest could stay up in a pine since they sway so much in the wind. These birds must have access to super glue.

Pine Warblers like to hunt for insects in wood and brush piles

The Pine warbler is quite melodious and I get so much enjoyment hearing them from high in the treetops. A bird that is fun to watch, beautiful and worth setting up habitat for.

*This tale was originally published by Loret T. Setters on January 25, 2013 at the defunct national blog beautifulwildlifegarden[dot]com. Click the date to view reader comments.

This Bird’s a Lone Wolf

An Eastern Phoebe has been visiting and perching in the Florida native Sycamore (Platanus occidentalis) lately so I am republishing my lost article from 2012 on this interesting bird.

Dateline:  November 30, 2012*

Likely you all know the adage “Birds of a Feather Flock Together” and when you see robins eating in a field, swallows roosting in a tree or geese in flight, there is no denying it. Enter the Eastern Phoebe (Sayornis phoebe), who seems to say, “Not me baby! I vant to be alone” using its best Greta Garbo voice.

Rarely do we see a pair of phoebes. Mostly it is a lone bird, perched on a fence or low tree branch with few leaves, studying the air or groundcover below on the hunt for something tasty and I don’t mean greens, berries or seeds. The phoebe’s diet consists primary of insects. Since they are flycatchers, they’re unlikely to come to feeders. They are a part of the Tryannidae family.

It really seems to like the new fence as a perch

I watched my most recent visitor as (s)he sat on the 4-1/2 foot wooden fence. ZOOM…down into the native grasses, which are mixed with pennywort and frogfruit. SNATCH…picked up some critter and return to its same perch. REPEAT.

It also is happy perching on the PVC pole that the Coral Honeysuckle vine crawls up

Prior to the installation of this new fence, the phoebe used to hang out in the front using the flagpole or the small shed as a perch. Last spring I was excited to see it entering and exiting the open eaves of this shed, thinking it was looking for a nesting place. Sad to say that Florida seems to be outside the breeding range, it is a winter holdover here. On the other hand, team member Ellen Sousa has spoken about how her lawn area provides the perfect hunting ground for meals which is likely why she has had breeding pairs nest at her place in the northeast on a regular basis. I’m a little jealous.

Some say the Phoebe has drab colors, but in the sunlight the yellow tone to its breast becomes very apparent

Flying insects make up the majority of the Eastern Phoebe’s diet. Common prey includes wasps, beetles, dragonflies, butterflies and moths, flies, midges, and cicadas; they also eat spiders, ticks, and millipedes, as well as occasional small fruits or seeds. At my place, the beetles and/or spider wasps in the grasses seem to be the main focus for this guy. Although last night he was hawking critters in flight.

It was happier on a branch in the oak when it was hawking, rather than gleaning

California has a similar species, the black phoebe that was spoken about here at Beautiful Wildlife Garden by former team member Chris McLaughlin.

I hope when it was staring at me it wasn’t thinking I would make a good meal

So, to birdscape for this bird, provide a nice medium height fenceline or similar perch, a low-growing meadow-type area and don’t use any pesticides which might kill their food. They want their dinner tartare. You’ll soon hear the familiar peep or fee-bee as it patiently waits to soar down and dine.

*This tale was originally published by Loret T. Setters on November 30, 2012 at the defunct national blog beautifulwildlifegarden[dot]com. Click the date to view reader comments.

Ooops! Anatomy of a Potter Wasp Nest

Dateline:  June 28, 2013*

Potter Wasp (Eumenes fraternus)

I feel horrible.  I guess I will be up for only 2nd degree bugslaughter since I didn’t realize what I was doing.  There was no intent, I swear, Judge.

Potter Wasp Nests

Yesterday I noticed three potter wasp nests on the brick skirting around the bottom of the house.  They look like pots similar to what you would see at a ceramics store before the painting and firing of the clay, only in miniature. Without any thought I used the screwdriver in my hand to scrape these brood cells off the bricks since they were awfully close to the door.  All three “popped” open and I was shocked to see scads of caterpillars and what I thought was beetle or fly larvae.

Holy Mackerel!

Well, as research would reveal the larvae likely were young potter wasps in the Eumenes genus, probably E. fraternus based on the way the nests were constructed.  Just minding their own business, working through complete metamorphosis.  Unfortunately, I didn’t know that until today.

Eumenes fraternus nest has a distinct pottery shape like a little jug

I’ll probably get a stay of execution because, as luck would have it, a hungry green anole showed up almost immediately upon the caterpillars being scattered.  He ate the evidence.  That potter nest must have rung like a dinner bell when I disturbed it.  At least my mistake made for a happy critter next up the food chain.  Hopefully it will be seen that way and I will avoid being fed to the mosquitoes.

Had I known the larva was a wasp, I would have moved it to a rearing box (or in my case, a screened Beanie Baby box) and tried to see it into adulthood.  Having now had this educational experience, in the future I’ll be a lot more careful about removing the little pots and will place them somewhere safe rather than attacking them with a screwdriver.

Put down the screwdriver lady! The larger green larva on the left is the wasp larva, others are various caterpillars

Although I doubt there would ever be a next time since it appears that momma potter wasps aren’t protective of the nest, so you don’t have to worry about some angry, aggressive insect with the stinger coming after you if you walk by.  They are capable of stinging; they just don’t really bother.  Now that I know that, I’d just leave the little pots alone.  One can never have too many wasps to help with pollination.  The adults are nectar feeders.

The wasp larvae was at the top of the pot until the crazy human came along and flipped open it’s housing

When I see how many caterpillars were provisioned in those three tiny pots, I’m amazed.  The potter wasp lays an egg suspended from the “ceiling” of the cell by a filament. She then gathers a bunch of caterpillars that she paralyzes and puts them into the brood cell so her larva will have something to feed off.  Then she seals up the entry with mud.

A different species shows how to capture and disable a caterpillar

This is an example of how nature stays in check.  Had all those caterpillars remained on a shrub or plant, there surely would have been noticeable chewing damage.  Had someone come along and treated the shrub with pesticides, there would be less pollinators, both butterflies and wasps, and fewer baby birds because there would be no caterpillars as food.   My mistake also destroyed a potential home for others, as older mud cavities are reused by Leafcutter Bees.

Luckily, if you create habitat as Mother Nature intended, the food chain works like it is suppose to work.  There are enough caterpillars to turn into moths or butterflies, but there are also enough to grow wasps, birds and whatever other critters find the squiggly things tasty, such as my anole buddy, who probably thought he died and went to heaven.

Another beneficial lesson about a beneficial in my beautiful wildlife garden.

*This tale was originally published by Loret T. Setters on June 28, 2013 at the defunct national blog beautifulwildlifegarden[dot]com. Click the date to view reader comments.

Hard to Swallow? Hardly!

National Bird Day was yesterday and as luck would have it the tree swallows returned to my neck of the woods even though the morning temperatures were below freezing. I will take this opportunity to republish one of my lost articles from a few years back.

Dateline:  January 5, 2013*

Hundreds of tree swallows leave the Bayberry

Carol Duke of Massachusetts,  fellow writer at the former Native Plants and Wildlife Gardens blog provides an awe-inspiring poetic and photographic tribute to the spring return and nesting habits of the Tree Swallow (Tachycineta bicolor). In Florida, we provide the winter, non-breeding area for this interesting bird thus seeing a different side of behavior.

A group of tree swallows are known collectively as a “stand” of swallows.  Our winter residents hardly sit, let alone stand.  Nearly constant in flight, they soar, snagging meals of insects “on the wing”. A few years back I did a short video while they flew round and round and round.

This week the tree swallows returned to my area and I wondered aloud why they didn’t tire of flying, as I stood, camera in hand, waiting for a photo opportunity.  It was not to happen.  I recall beautiful photos of swallows, but I’m thinking that the majority of those were taken when they are nesting, standing and protecting nest boxes or feeding their young.

This seems to be as clear a shot as I’m going to get of these birds

The very next day I sort of got an answer.  It was a dull day, cold by Florida standards as the daily high never got above 61F.  I had the fireplace going as I prepared to watch an afternoon of football.

The shrub was black with birds

Cleaning up the dishes from a late breakfast the sky seemed to darken through the kitchen skylight.  Now we weren’t expecting rain and as I glanced out the window…one that doesn’t overlook the pond…I was stunned by the arrival of HUNDREDS of tree swallows landing in the Southern Bayberry a.k.a. Wax Myrtle shrubs which are growing as a natural barrier along the fence.

Though it would seem an exaggeration, I kid you not regarding the numbers.  Now, two days later under 80F skies, I was greeted again by “the swarm” and here is a 15 second video of the event.

There were HUNDREDS of birds flying and landing. They would barely rest for a moment before taking flight again, en masse, only to return seconds later.  The birds bump into each other with their landing techniques and the chatter is deafening.  Perhaps not oddly, they returned around the same time of day, 11 a.m.  They must know about “elevenses”.

They came in a blur and left in a blur

The main diet of the tree swallow is insects, but they also can be enticed to some berries, with plant materials making up about 20% of their diet. Appropriately enough, they landed in the female shrubs that represent the majority of those along that particular side of the property and produce the fruit.  I guess they were hankering for the waxy blue-colored berries of the Southern Bayberry (Myrica cerifera).  It could also be that due to the time of year insects aren’t as plentiful and that’s when the need to eat plants comes in.

A few things that I have learned about swallows is that they are cavity nesters.  If you are in their breeding range, to entice them to take up residence consider providing a nest box if you don’t have available tree snags.  Some have encountered problems with them competing with bluebirds for the nest boxes as related by fellow blogger Donna Donabella.  In some ways by not being in their breeding range, I’m lucky.  My bluebirds have free reign of the nest box I provide and when I see the size of the gang these tree swallows come up with, my bluebirds wouldn’t stand a chance.

I’m stilled stunned by just how many tree swallows will try to squeeze on one branch

Obviously a nice clear photo of the lovely iridescent birds is not in my future, given their winter habits.  I’ll be happy with the memory of my encounter.  Experiencing a gang of birds in some ways is just as rewarding as watching newborn nestlings.  So, as many of you await the spring return of the tree swallow, consider how we all get different views of the habits of our amazing creatures depending on our location in their world.  Provide for them appropriately and remember that avoidance of pesticide use is key in attracting our insect eating birds.

A few of the 2018 gang watch their flock mates in the Wax Myrtle from the wire above

*This tale was originally published by Loret T. Setters on January 5, 2013 at the defunct national blog beautifulwildlifegarden[dot]com. Click the date to view reader comments.