Sunday, April 20, 2014

Common Critters - Backyard Mammals - Leaving Trails Behind

There are two common types of backyard critters who leave some pretty obvious tracks behind even if we never actually saw our visitors. Both moles and voles leave telltale signs behind as they forage in our lawns.

Voles: There are a few different kinds of voles one may encounter including the: Prairie Vole, Pine Vole, and Meadow Vole. Voles make runaways along the ground which you are likely to encounter if you do any shoveling of snow in your yard or immediately after a thaw. We often find vole runaways which lead directly to the areas below our bird feeders. You may also notice damage to bark around your shrubs after the snow melts; this could be from hungry voles looking for a winter snack. Plantings thick with native plants, especially native grasses may attract these rodents to your yard. Voles play an important role in the food chain, as they are a staple in the diets of many raptors like hawks and owls.

Moles: These little miners are in fact quite different from voles. Moles of the Midwest include the Star Nosed Mole and the Eastern Mole. Lawns are generally ideal mole habitat as they burrow their way looking for worms and other soil dwellers to eat. This burrowing leaves a trail of pushed-up dirt and sod, mole hills, behind which helps with soil aeration. These can be easily pushed back in place by walking along the trail. Moles are one of the few native animals which will eat Japanese Beetles. While they may be annoying as they incidentally uproot some vegetation in their quest for insects, their endeavors are generally beneficial.

Your lawn has probably attracted both species at some point or another, so the next time you run across an odd path of grass in your lawn know that either the voles or moles have come to visit.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Plant by Habitat: Tall Grass Prairie

If you're interested in finding plants which grow naturally together, you've come to the right place. So far, we've touched on Oak Savannas and Pine Barrens; this post will cover plants you can find commercially available if you're interested in planting a prairie.

You too can grow a prairie. Here's a sample of ours including Purple Coneflower, Black Eyed Susan, and Blue Lupine

Many retailers carry prairie mixes of native seed. These mixes are often tailored to some specific growing conditions. So make sure you've thought about where you intend lay the seed down. Here are some questions to consider: Is it dry or wet? Is it clay? How much sun or shade does the site receive? The mixes often also have themes like "best for butterflies" or "good for birds." This will impact the content of the mix. Most retailers provide details about the content of each mix detailing an expected percentage of seed per plant.

One quick aside, if the site isn't getting a good amount of sun, prairie plants probably aren't the best choice, many depend on a lot of sun, after all it is the prairie.

As such, I won't be focusing on trees this time, instead this post will focus in on some good varieties of plants you may wish to purchase for your prairie.

Tall Plants: The prairie was home to many plants as tall or taller than an adult. If you are interested in these kinds of plants, that's great, but they certainly aren't for everyone. They can make a really nice background for other prairie plants.

Big Blue Stem is an attractive, tall prairie grass which can readily grow to 7 feet. We have found that birds really enjoy it in the winter including: Dark Eyed Juncos, American Tree Sparrows, and Pine Siskins. During the summer, it's not unusual for us to find American Toads on the ground at the base of the plant which can be remarkably dense. Compass Plant is another attractive native which can grow to be remarkably tall. This isn't one we've attempted to grow ourselves, but we've seen the showy yellow flowers grown locally.

Purple Coneflower is also very easy to grow and it attracts both birds and butterflies.

Less Tall Plants: Other prairie plants may grow more lowly, but be aware that how tall they grow in year one may not represent how tall they will grow in year two. Our Purple Coneflowers, Cardinal Flowers, and Little Blue Stem have gotten remarkably tall, all easily exceeding 3 feet.

Little Blue Stem is an easy to find plant which will grow as a bunch grass. It's remarkably easy to grow and the Dark Eyed Juncos seem to particularly enjoy it in the winter and early spring. Cardinal Flower has little red flag-like flowers which attract Ruby Throated Hummingbirds. It flowers a little later than some of the other wildflowers in our garden, adding some flavor to the garden a little later in the summer. This plant has actually done a little better when it's able to get some shade, our row that is in full sun seems to struggle a little more than a nearby row which gets a few more hours of shade each day.

Legumes are handy plants to include in your planting. Legumes help put nitrogen back into the soil which is beneficial for other plants.

False Indigo is a native legume which can grow into a big bush-like plant. It can be found with white or purple flowers which open earlier than some other plants you may include in your prairie such as Conefloewr or Black Eyed Susan. Blue Lupine is another native legume. Its blue flowers should appear in May ahead of the other native wildflowers. This plant is host to the Blue Karner Butterfly which is endangered. I've found that rabbits find both of these plants delicious so you may want to include some fencing to protect them as they grow.

And one more important but miscellaneous plant...

Butterfly Milkweed is a must have prairie plant for those who love the Monarch Butterfly. Its orange flowers may appear a little later than some of the other wildflowers, but it's a pollinators' delight. It doesn't seem to grow as tall as our Coneflower, but it can pretty dense, almost bush-like. Monarch Butterflies are attracted to this plant both for the flowers as adults, but it is also host to Monarch caterpillars.

Butterfly Milkweed's orange flowers up close.

There are many other plants you want to consider. The ones above only represent a small sample of the plants you want to consider. A number of other plants like: Prairie Dropseed, Blazing Star, Joe Pye Weed, Ox Eye Sunflower, and Prairie Coneflower are pretty easy to find commercially. The combination of height and color is up to you, and the choices are almost limitless. Good luck and enjoy.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Winged Wednesday - The Thrush Rush

The spring brings a wave of migrants to our yards, gardens, and parks. The time period from mid-April through June can make or break a bird count. One group of these migratory visitors who can really help boost a bird count are the Thrushes.

The Thrushes have traveled from the south in search of food and mates in the north. Some of these birds will stop and nest in the Upper Midwest, while others will continue their journeys northwards.

The most common of these visitors is the state bird of Wisconsin and Michigan, the American Robin. This Thrush thrives in backyards looking for grubs and worms. They are considered the heralds of spring, and they are the Thrush we can all pretty much count on seeing.

This Gray Catbird dug around in our compost before paying the neighbors' bushes a visit.

Eastern Bluebirds are becoming an increasingly common Thrush after their numbers had dropped off. Efforts to install birdhouses and monitor them over time have helped bring back the Bluebird. Like most Thrushes, they'll need the right situation to come bounding into your yard. In their case, shelter is the right incentive. Bluebirds will look for houses where they have the appropriate surroundings to forage for food, where there aren't too many other Bluebirds around, and they may require protection from House Sparrows and Starlings. (See an earlier post about birdhouses)

This Swainson's Thrush spent a couple of rainy evenings foraging in the bushes.

Other Thrushes may visit your lawn looking for food especially during or immediately after transit. In the early part of spring, berries may be their best dietary option. Parts of Wisconsin are still seeing snow, which means insect foraging isn't exactly an option. Plants like Staghorn Sumac, Dogwood, Hawthorn, and American Holly have fruit which may persist over the winter and provide food for these birds. We have seen Hermit Thrushes, Gray Catbirds, and Swainson's Thrushes scoping out our compost as well.

A Hermit Thrush at the edge of the compost.(Note - He may be hard to see, he's right in the center.)

As the weather improves, expect that you may see these birds in your yard if an understory of relatively dense shrubs is available, and if there are other sources of fruit such as Serviceberry, Chokeberry, or Nannyberry. Come fall, they will make their exit, and the following spring the cycle and count will start again.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Common Critters - Backyard Mammals - The Flying Kind

Just a few days ago, the Wisconsin State Journal reported about how Wisconsin's bats are struggling White Nose Syndrome, and given that we expect to start seeing bats more often as the weather warms, now seemed like an ideal time to do a post about bats.

The Upper Midwest is home to a number of bat species including:

  • Little Brown Bat
  • Big Brown Bat
  • Northern Myotis
  • Silver Haired Bat
  • Hoary Bat
  • Red Bat
  • Eastern Pipistrelle
  • Indiana Bat

Of these species, the Little Brown, Big Brown, Northern Myotis, and Indiana Bats are known to be affected by White Nose Syndrome. White Nose Syndrome is caused by fungus which can be passed by bat to bat contact and affects hibernating bats. It ultimately results in death; the mortality rate is above 90%. Solitary bats and migratory bats seem to be less affected.

Most bat species can be found hanging out in tree hollows, caves, or abandoned mines or buildings. The Little Brown Bat is the most abundant bat in much of the Midwest and is the species most likely to end up in your house.

Bats come out as the sun sets and feed on insects throughout the night. They begin their feeding as birds like Tree Swallows, Barn Swallows, and Common Nighthawks finish their own. Some bat species are generalists, eating a variety of insects, while others like the Red Bat seem to be moth specialists.

Bats like birds need shelter and food. Bird houses are an everyday occurrence in people's yards, but bat houses can be as well. Bat houses simulate the roosting space found in dead trees, they operate very similarly to the bird houses which are occupied by cavity nesters like Chickadees and Bluebirds. Your yard itself can provide food as well if you aren't using chemicals to eradicate insects and if you leave your grass a little longer. Increasing the biodiversity of your plant life will also increase the diversity of the insect buffet served to these aerial mammals.

If you aren't sure if there are bats are in your neighborhood, wait for the warmer weather then wait for sunset. Watch the sky just above your lawn before it gets truly dark. You should be able to see the bats if they are present. You can also find a nearby street light which attracts insects and watch to see bats participate in this served-up meal.

Bats are interesting backyard mammals which are somewhat accustomed to living alongside humans, and if we think of them as the Swallows of the night, they don't seem quite as troubling.