Category Archives: January

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.


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 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.


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.

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.

Mistaken Mosquito

Dateline: January 11, 2013*

I remember when I first moved to Florida I saw what I thought was a HUGE mosquito, thinking that there were mutant bugs down here, big enough to drain a body of blood in one gulp.  They certainly look like mosquitoes, but the poor critters are swatted and squished all due to a case of mistaken identity.  The flying mimics are actually crane flies and they don’t bite.

Some are reflective. You can see how they may be mistaken for a giant mosquito

Crane flies are beneficial in our gardens.   Some species’ larvae are aquatic while others spend their youth in the soil.  Both break down organic matter, returning nutrients to their respective habitats.  As with most of nature, occasionally too much of a good thing can pose a problem.  Some crane fly species can be a pest to agriculture.  That’s why it is so important to have a balanced garden.  Avoid pesticide use as chemicals kill the good bugs as well as the bad, and often kill those bugs that will control others to avoid them becoming pests.

They have extremely long legs as shown by the Colorful Tiger Crane Fly (Nephrotoma spp.)

Both larval and adult crane flies provide an important food source for birds, reptiles, spiders, fish and other insects such as dragonflies, mantids, centipedes and beetles.  Fishermen have been known to use the larval stage of members of the family Tipulidae (Large Crane Flies) as bait. As you can see, there are plenty of predators to keep the population in order.

Some seem acrobatic such as Brachypremna dispellens

Tipulidae is the largest family in the Order Diptera. Given this, identification can be mind-boggling. You can find out everything you ever wanted to know about the anatomy of a crane fly at that identification key link.  Suffice to say I was unable (or unwilling) to crawl around counting wing lines or antenna segments…that and I really don’t wear my reading glasses when I am walking around the property calling on critters for a photo shoot.  Old eyes can’t see tiny nuances.

Brachypremna dispellens have white legs

Crane flies undergo complete metamorphosis.  Some species have an elongated rostrum (think Pinocchio), a straw-like appendage used to draw nectar from flowers.  Thus, we can conclude that they also perform pollination duties.

wake up and smell the Bidens alba

I noticed that most of the time when I see the adults fly it is when it is slightly damp or overcast, so if it is daytime and you see a mutant mosquito, take a good look before you swat.  You may be saving the life of an insect that will help your wildlife garden grow more beautiful.

Limonia subgenus Geranomyia are drawn to flowers

*This tale was originally published by Loret T. Setters on January 11, 2013 at the defunct national blog beautifulwildlifegarden[dot]com. Click the date to view reader comments.

We Don’t All Eat Leaves, You Know

Dateline: January 24, 2014*

Bella Moth Caterpillar

This week I was thrilled to find the caterpillar of a Bella Moth (Utetheisa ornatrix). While this larvae does eat some plant material in early stages, the diet as it grows, changes over to the seeds, so they bore their way into the seed pods. That’s why these caterpillars may be hard to find. Usually they are inside and not readily visible.  The seeds contain chemical alkaloids, which they consume to become poisonous or at least repellant to predators. Much like Milkweed provides this ability to the Monarch and Queen Butterflies.

Rabbitbells seed pod

I first saw a ripening pod and looked closely to reveal the telltale hole. I removed the pod and split it open to find the tiniest of tiny caterpillars.  If you look closely, you can see the seeds that it began munching away on.

Caterpillar is as tiny as the seeds, but you can see where it was munching on them

I shared a photo via social media and a fellow entomology enthusiast posted a photo of a much larger caterpillar and in his picture the larvae was creating the hole. Armed with this vision in my mind, I headed out to the Rabbitbells a.k.a., Rattlebox (Crotalaria rotundifolia), one of the larval hosts for Bella Moth. Eventually I was rewarded.  There, posed on the pod, was a near mirror image of what was posted.

Now, Theres one thats substantial heading in for additional food

This caterpillar was MUCH larger…as much as 5 times the size of my hidden friend from days before.

This brings up the point that not every caterpillar can be found on, or exclusively eating, green leaves.

Red-banded Hairstreak Butterfly (Calycopis cecrops). Youll find the larval in leaf debris

Some time back, I can remember searching and searching the sumacs and wax myrtles for the larvae of Red-banded Hairstreak Butterfly (Calycopis cecrops).  I never had any success as I turned over leaf after leaf hoping to add to my photo collection of Lepidoptera larvae.  C. cecrops readily flies in droves at my place.

Mind you, I’d be searching until the cows come home since this Hairstreak species is the only Florida butterfly to utilize detritus as larval food. I really need to scout around the leaf debris if I’m intent on finding a photo opportunity. Another excellent reason to not be so quick to do gardening cleanup…there is life in gardening debris!

Litter Moth (Idia americalis) shown here on wood debris, the larvae feed on lichens

Many moth species use leaf litter and other similar larval hosts. Lichen is another popular food. As a matter of fact, there is a whole tribe of lichen moths (Lithosiini).  Lichen is a fungus that grows together with a photosynthetic partner in a symbiotic relationship. That partner is often alga.

Some bagworms feed on lichen

Bagworms, those odd case creators, also have members of their species who eat lichens.

So, when it comes to gardening, you may not be missing a butterfly or moth caterpillar sighting because you don’t see them conspicuously munching on the host plant leaves or flowers. Some are nocturnal diners who only come out in the dead of night. Or, they may just be at the base of the plant eating castoff portions that they need to survive.  Then again, they may be seeking refuge inside the “Rattlebox” cafe.

Many of these caterpillars are thought of as “pest” species… leaf-rollers and leaf miners likely make you cringe. Heck, they are yummy bird food (no personal experience here) or turn into pollinators so consider alternate scenarios before passing judgment.

Grape Leafroller (Desmia spp.) doesnt seem so offensive when it is in moth stage.

What have you found caterpillars eating?

*This tale was originally published by Loret T. Setters on January 24, 2014 at the defunct national blog beautifulwildlifegarden[dot]com. Click the date to view reader comments.

Where Do You Get Your Trees?

National Arbor Day is April 28, 2017 and many will mark the event by planting a tree.  How many of those trees will actually live to see maturity?  The information in the following (initially written for Florida Arbor Day which is in January) may help YOUR selection have better odds for success.

Dateline:   January 13, 2012*

Sycamore from a local plant sale

Happy Arbor Day (well almost). Ok…are you scratching your head and wondering if I’ve lost my sense of time? In seven days, on the third Friday of January, it will be Arbor Day for both Florida and Louisiana…two states who appear to want to be first in the nation. We are all familiar with National Arbor Day that is the last Friday in April and celebrated by 28 states as their State holiday. Did you know that in addition to the national holiday many states have another date? They choose them according to their best tree-planting times. When does your state hoist the shovels to celebrate?

So, you’ve found out WHEN, then there is the question of WHAT…finding a tree to plant for Arbor Day. Despite the Arbor Day Foundation (ADF) trying to “inspire people to plant” by offering 10 free trees with membership, I always try to discourage this. Wait…don’t get your pansies in a bunch, I think supporting a non-profit is a commendable thing to do, but please forego the free trees delivered to your house. Choose “No trees” or the “10 Trees Planted in our Nation’s Forests in Your Honor”** option instead.

Let me explain why. How many of us have been excited to get our free trees only to struggle to get them established while we watch them fail to flourish or die a slow death. I sometimes think that homeowners who get these free trees become discouraged to plant due to failure of the specimens to thrive. At my own place, a friend who got their free trees gave me two crepe myrtles (not native to Florida, I KNOW, but considered “Florida-Friendly“). Well, those things have been planted since 2006 and are still barely 1-1/2 feet tall and one has yet to flower.  UPDATE 2017: Now about 6 foot tall with sparse branches and minimal flowering they are on the list to be removed since naturally occurring natives have filled in close by.

All ten trees that I received with my membership that same year are dead, despite nursing them according to instructions. If I hadn’t learned about native plants since their “burial” and local provenance, I’d be cursing Florida’s ability to provide a proper garden, blaming the sand that pretends to be soil. Apparently it is that the poor trees just aren’t adapted to the soil conditions or our climate. Heck, it even took me a while to get used to Florida where you can run the a/c and the heat on the same day.

Pinus spp. planted by a bird or the wind. Local provenance assured

Provenance can be a crucial factor in a tree’s ability to live a good long life and using a nursery within a 100-mile radius of the intended planting site will go a long way toward achieving better success. In addition, the question of the importance of genetic diversity and also the possible affect that outside specimens could have on our native populations through pollination or seed dispersal is often brought into discussion.

While purchasing with provenance in mind might give you a head start toward success, that’s not to say that you don’t have to baby a native tree during its young life. While we tout that native plants use fewer resources such as water and are generally carefree, even native trees need regular watering and care in order to get established.

I transplanted this red maple while a single leaf in my driveway to a pot and then into it’s current location

I say when your state celebrates Arbor Day, find a nice native plant nursery in your locale to purchase your tree and support local business at the same time. I have a couple of Red Maple (Acer rubrum) seedlings purchased at our Master Gardener sale that are on tap for planting. And I also noticed a Live Oak (Quercus virginiana) volunteer under the momma tree that I will relocate (at least to a pot).
One of these acorns produced a “vounteer” seedling for me to transplant

Oh…and you gotta love South Carolina. They must be a hearty bunch as they get out there on the first Friday in December to celebrate their Arbor Day.

*This tale was originally published by Loret T. Setters on January 13, 2012 at the defunct national blog nativeplantwildlifegarden[dot]com. Click the date to view reader comments.

**This option doesn’t seem to be available any longer.

Listening in on Wildlife

Dateline: January 14, 2011*

Kingfisher sits in a native Pine branch over the pond.

Did you know that a Belted Kingfisher makes a loud rattling sound just prior to diving into the water for a bite to eat? I hear it all the time as they dive for fish in my pond from their overhead perch in the Pine trees.

Learning to listen in on nature has been rewarding for me. The other afternoon I was outside when I heard a whistling sound coming from the pond area. The pond is extremely low during dry season so I can’t see the water from up at the house. I saw some quick motion and grabbed the binoculars, but wasn’t having much luck identifying what was moving around down there. I reached into the house to grab my camera that I keep nearby for these types of occasions. In my mind I was thinking “something that whistles…a whistling duck?” I got close enough for a photo and realized that the skinny-legged bird was not a duck. Besides, I’m not sure that a whistling duck even whistles! 😉

Legs are too skinny for a duck

I’d never seen this species before, so I snapped a few additional shots until the bird wisely flew off as my English setter jumped the temporary fence and headed over to join me. The setter was thrilled and chased the shadow of the bird…his favorite pastime…shadow chasing, and I got a look at the bird in flight.

Off to the computer to find out what I had witness. I plugged in the information into Body shape, bill type, primary color, secondary color…voila…up pops Killdeer. A click of the sound button brought forth the whistle that initially caught my ear. Another checkmark for my Florida life-birds pamphlet and another smile to my face that I spotted something new just by listening.

Why it’s a Killdeer, a type of Plover

Killdeer (Charadrius vociferus) are usually considered shorebirds and I live about 30 miles from the beach. So why did this fellow come to visit me? Well, my quick research reveals that killdeer often live and nest away from water in open areas like the “meadow” area I adapted to attract bluebirds. Killdeer eat aquatic and terrestrial invertebrates consisting mostly of insects much like what is found in my pond area. They will also eat berries, and I have plenty of those on the wax myrtle, dahoon holly and gallberry shrubs. I have provided the type of habitat they enjoy. They forage and build their nests on the ground so I’m hoping this one was scouting the area as a nest site.

I’ve identified a lot of critters around my yard by sound. The brown-headed nuthatches still greet me each day sounding so similar to my dog’s old squeaky toy that the birds went unnoticed for weeks until I found the toy dismantled but still heard the squeaks in the yard.

I added American Kestrel to my bird list because I heard its sound as it flew by and landed on a utility pole on the next block. My binoculars, always at the ready on the patio, helped me see what type of bird and again, came to the rescue confirming the sound I heard.

I listen to the squawk of the red-shouldered hawks as they fly overhead; the buzzing of the obscure bird grasshoppers as they take flight across the yard, and the loud buzz of a Sculptured Pine Borer (Chalcophora virginiensis) (photo featured in this article’s masthead) that flew into my hair one time, helped me locate this new creature after I shook him out of my head. It was quickly identified by Debbie Hadley aka @aboutinsects on twitter.

I’ve seen snakes in the grass because of a slight rustle of the surrounding brush or leaves. I’ve learned that you can see and learn a lot just by listening.

As they fly overhead looking for food, the hawks squawk!

One of my more exciting sound experience came in August 2009 when I heard what I though was a baby bird in the ligustrum. I knew the mockingbirds had built a decoy nest there, but it was never occupied. I went to check the nest anyway, and as I inched closer I was amazed, yet horrified to see what was producing the sound. There, hanging from a branch…

A little unsettling, but part of nature

…a snake with a toad in its mouth.

I ran to get my camera as I couldn’t believe what I was witnessing and got back to catch a quick shot of the very end. The toad was silenced. This encounter was actually the beginning of my venture into photographing critters. It piqued my interest in our biodiverse world but it only happened because I spent some time listening to what was going on around me which raised awareness of what was happening in my surroundings.

This past week I saw a tiny nuthatch bully a red-bellied woodpecker away from a snag because I heard them both on opposite ends of the tree. By watching them, I learned that despite their small size, brown-headed nuthatches are gutsy creatures and will take on birds four times their size to defend a potential nest site.

What sounds attract your attention in your beautiful wildlife garden?

*This tale was originally published by Loret T. Setters on January 14, 2011 at the defunct beautifulwildlifegarden[dot]com. Click the date to view reader comments.


Pine Trees are for the Birds

Dateline:   January 28, 2011*

Pine Tree (Pinus sp.) which overlooks my pond
Pine Tree (Pinus sp.) which overlooks my pond

I’ll admit that I was not a big fan of Longleaf (Pinus palustris) and Slash Pine (P. elliottii) trees when I first moved out to my rural lot in January 2006. They were the only species in my yard at the time, and to me didn’t seem all that beautiful…very tall and somewhat gangly. Given that at that time I subscribed to gardening magazines whose photos espoused neat lawns and clipped exotic bushes…unsustainable visions…it’s no wonder.

Closer look at the Great Blue Heron in the picture above
Closer look at the Great Blue Heron in the picture above

Fast forward to present. I no longer subscribe to said magazines, preferring enlightening books such as Bringing Nature Home by Douglas Tallamy and The Landscaping Revolution: Garden With Mother Nature, Not Against Her by Andy Wasowski. I have joined the Florida Native Plant Society and I now base my choice of plants on their value in a biodiverse landscape and appropriateness to my ecosystem rather than some cookie cutter look that we are brainwashed to adapt to.

cypresspinenightI’m now a big advocate of the native Pines since I found their beauty in the glimpse of sunset through their tall branches and in the magnitude of their purpose in a beautiful wildlife garden.

Red Shouldered Hawk waiting on voles (I HOPE!)
Red Shouldered Hawk waiting on voles (I HOPE!)

The title of this article says it all and might not be what you think. I see it every day. I see hawks, kingfishers and great blue herons on alert in the branches looking down at the pond waiting for their bounty to swim near the top. I see black vultures and swallows resting comfortably, taking a break from flight in the shade of high branches. I see brown-headed nuthatches and red-bellied woodpeckers picking under bark for food. I see pine warblers flitting from cone to cone grabbing at the pine nuts held within. I hope to see their fledglings sometime for they use the high branches of these pines as their nesting grounds. Bluejays, red winged blackbirds, mockingbirds, bluebirds all spend time foraging in the pines and the list goes on and on. The Red Cockaded Woodpecker (Picoides borealis) is the only woodpecker in North America that excavates its cavity in a living pine tree. With the loss of old growth pine forests, this bird has become endangered and since it needs a forest, won’t be gracing my acre, but I’ll look for them in the conservation areas nearby. Yes, Pine Trees are for the Birds.

A male great crested flycatcher stands guard on a pine snag branch while mate tends the nest
A male great crested flycatcher stands guard on a pine snag branch while mate tends the nest

According to the US Forest Service, because of its timber value and because longleaf pine communities house many endangered plant and animal species, forest managers are attempting to regenerate more longleaf pine communities. Sixty-eight species of birds utilize longleaf pine forests. Mice, squirrels, and other small mammals eat the large seeds. Eagles utilize large slash pines as nesting sites.

Kingfisher waits on a Pine branch
Kingfisher waits on a Pine branch

It takes a long time to grow a mature longleaf pine and I have a few babies growing where I’m letting my property restore itself. There are various stages of growth in a pine, one being the grass stage, which can last one to seven years, depending upon competition with other plants. This is when the root system is established. At this stage, more grows beneath the soil than above and the pine is virtually immune to fire, which is a common occurrence in pine ecosystems…those lanky trees are just begging lightening bolts to hit. Next up is the bottlebrush stage when a white tip, known as a candle, begins to emerge. The bottlebrush stage is when it works on gaining height, bark begins to form, but no branches are apparent. This stage can last a couple of years. I have a couple of trees in the beginning of this stage.

transitioning from grass stage to bottlebrush stage
transitioning from grass stage to bottlebrush stage

Once the young pine reaches 6-10 feet, it starts to form the lateral branching and thus begins the sapling stage, lasting several years. I’m pleased to report that my neighbor has many in this stage. The remaining stages are: mature, where they grow from 60-110 feet; old growth (nearly nonexistent with clear cutting in the early 1900s), death and the last stage, “after death”.

The Slash Pine, on the other hand, grows more quickly, can be used as a landscape tree in zones 7-10, prefers full sun to part sun and is tolerant of moist sites. Grow from seed or purchase seedlings.

Black vulture takes a breather in a pine during the hottest part of the day
Black vulture takes a breather in a pine during the hottest part of the day

I’m grateful that “an angel on my shoulder” had me make the house setup guys leave a dead pine standing. I spotted some Pileated woodpeckers busy at work and I was interested to see what they were up to. Two fledglings were the result; an extremely rewarding wildlife encounter and a defining moment is my appreciation of pines. I used this dead pine as a post for my first bluebird nesting box. When it came down in a tropical storm, I got out my chain saw, cut it up and stacked the wood so the butterflies, snakes and lizards would have habitat. The birds visit the decaying stacks to peck and find beetles and other insects for protein. As the layers break down I move the broken-up wood to form pathways through the native grasses.

Eastern Bluebird fledgling waits in a pine for mama to bring food
Eastern Bluebird fledgling waits in a pine for mama to bring food

If you are lucky enough to have pines, protect them, if you have a supporting ecosystem, grow them. The pine is a mighty important tree and having learned what it takes to make a pine, I have a newfound love for them in their journey to become mature.

Red bellied Woodpeckers enjoy the fruits contained within pine cones.
Red bellied Woodpeckers enjoy the fruits contained within pine cones.
Mockingbird uses a ballmoss covered pine limb as a perch
Mockingbird uses a ballmoss covered pine limb as a perch
Boat-tailed Grackle sits at the top of a Pine
Boat-tailed Grackle sits at the top of a Pine
Pileated Woodpeckers come to discover insects under the bark and nest in the dead snags.
Pileated Woodpeckers come to discover insects under the bark and nest in the dead snags.
Cedar Waxings group together on branches
Cedar Waxings group together on branches
Brownheaded nuthatches escavate dead pines to nest.
Brownheaded nuthatches escavate dead pines to nest.

I’m happy to live in a Pine Flatwoods ecosystem where I can monitor their stages and enjoy all the wildlife that they provide for.

Select resources:

The Longleaf Alliance 

US Forest Service

*This tale was originally published by Loret T. Setters on January 28, 2011 at the defunct national blog beautifulwildlifegarden[dot]com. Click the date to view reader comments.

Big Winter Birds

This tale was originally published by Loret T. Setters on January 6, 2012 at the defunct national blog beautifulwildlifegarden[dot]com. Click the date to view reader comments.

Early morning frost is the closest thing we get to snow
Early morning frost is the closest thing we get to snow

We had our first freeze of the season this week although it only lasted an hour or two. I love winter in Florida as the types of visitors to the garden vary at this time of year. I glanced out back the other day and was surprise to see a couple of Great Egrets (Ardea alba) wading in the pond. I was mostly surprised because Tanner the English setter was out in the yard and hadn’t seemed to notice the white beauties out back. Some bird dog…HA!

Glancing out back, I saw a couple of egrets in the pond
Glancing out back, I saw a couple of egrets in the pond

I quietly called Tanner into the house and as he entered, I, camera in hand, headed out. While I was taking a few shots, suddenly another head popped up out of nowhere. THREE herons at once…quite a treat for me.

seems the whole family showed up
seems the whole family showed up

According to The Cornell Lab of Ornithology, The Great Egret is “the largest egret in the Old World, and thus has garnered the name Great White Egret. In the New World, however, the white form of the Great Blue Heron is larger.” This particular trio wasn’t the largest herons I’ve encountered in my pond but it is the first time I can recall more than one of this species at one time.

They certainly are majestic birds
They certainly are majestic birds

I was trying to be stealth-like myself and not scare them off as I moved to get closer with hopes of a better shot. Alas, I was unsuccessful. Those birds may look like they aren’t paying attention, but they certainly are completely aware of what goes on around them at all times. I barely moved 20 feet ahead before they flapped their massive wings and took to the sky.

I need a more powerful zoom camera so I don't scare them off
I need a more powerful zoom camera so I don’t scare them off