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.

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