Wednesday, March 4, 2015

The Ilex Buffet

The fauna show around these parts has been on winter hiatus, but a bountiful display of berries produced by yaupon trees along the fence line pulled in some regular visitors this February.
Table for two.  
Yaupon, or Ilex vomitoria, suffers a bit of a bad reputation as a result of confusion arising from its name.  According to various sources, indigenous people and early settlers used caffeine bearing young twigs and leaves off Ilex to brew a strong tea which would be consumed in mass quantities and then vomited back up, as part of ceremonial gatherings. Can't you just imagine the invitations?  "Come celebrate the harvest with our tribe!  We'll supply the tea and buckets, you just bring yourself (and a change of clothes)!".
Testing revealed it is not a chemical compound in the yaupon itself that causes vomiting.  Ritual ceremonies apparently included the ingestion of other substances or perhaps participants utilized a finger down the throat.  Either way, the "vomitoria" appellation stuck and has some folks still avoiding using these beautiful trees mistakenly thinking they are somehow protecting children and pets.

Which is a shame, because the berries are quite attractive, drawing in birds and mammals alike, especially after a series of freezes and thaws which theoretically alter their taste or texture in some fashion to make them even more desirable.  Each berry holds 4 nutlets, the protein source everybody is after, including these Eastern Fox squirrels, (Sciurus niger).  After some rather unscientific observation, it appears to me the squirrels mash the berries up in their paws and nibble the nutlets out.
Mature fox squirrels mate twice a year (young females only bear once annually) including a litter born in late January or February.   I'm not experienced enough to be able to determine the maturity or the sex of the two that have been feeding together for hours daily, but one of the two is significantly shyer than the other, retreating deep into the tree whenever I get too close.
That leads me to believe this is a female, while the handsome bolder squirrel who watches closely but rarely moves far from its selected seat at the table?  I am guessing this is her male consort.
Handsome, but he could use a napkin.
Whenever the squirrels take a break, a pair of Northern cardinals (Cardinalis cardinalis) visits, to get their fair share.
Cardinals do not molt into duller winter plumage, so this male may be an adolescent who has not quite reached full color.  He has been regularly accompanied by a female, who like Ms. Squirrel, is also a bit warier of having her portrait made.
She's in there...keep looking.
Things have been relatively quiet around our spaces the past couple of months. Aside from the ever present deer, and a handful of white tailed dove that took full advantage one afternoon of newly exposed soil underneath a bird feeder, these guests at the yaupon buffet represent the totality of our regular recent wildlife sightings.

I'm eagerly looking forward to an easing up of our spells of freezing and near-freezing weather, as warmer days and nights will trigger an explosion of growth benefitting flora and fauna alike.  The wildlife visitor bureau assures me traffic will pick up in March, and from here forward fauna watching should become a daily pleasure again.

Thanks as always to Tina at My Gardener Says, for hosting Wildlife Wednesdays, a salute to the wonderful creatures who not only share but decorate our spaces with their colorful beings and behaviors.  Be sure to check out the other wildlife posts from all around as linked to in the comments section of Tina's post for March.  Happy Wildlife Wednesday everybody!

Wildlife Wednedays