Welcome to austinagrodolce … My family and I garden with more intention and enthusiasm than allocated budget or overall design plan. It shows. Wildlife populations don't seem to notice our lack of cohesive design, they just like the native plants here. It seems by growing local we've thrown out a welcome mat. Occasionally, we're surprised at who (and what) shows up.

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

November Wildlife Wednesday - October's Bag of Treats

We talk a lot about the weather here in Texas.  A LOT.  On the face of it, the weather is at least a topic less contentious or divisive than politics or religion. Additionally, as subject matter it is a bottomless well of content, for as the old saying goes "If you don't like the weather in Texas, wait five minutes and it will change.".

And at no time is that more apparent in Texas than in October.  One day will be hot and dry, the next day cool and cloudy, periods of drought are often followed by torrential rains and all within the span of one brief month.

Thought of as the beginning of a "second Spring" in gardening circles, October is a turning point, a pivot between endless heat and the cooling to come. October provides easier growing conditions and last minute growth spurts along with pleasant working conditions for gardening chores.  For wildlife, October is a time to eat, to reproduce, a time to migrate, or just to hunker down.

The visitors here in the hills just west and south of Austin last month were mostly of the winged variety, though a few walked in.  Daily in October, unless it is pouring rain, wrens fuss-fuss-fuss, cardinals tick, jays shriek, and mockingbirds guard "their" berry sources.  Everything seems to enjoy the final loosing of Summertime's hot dry grasp.

Berry eating locals were well represented by Northern Mockingbirds. Here one is shown making an afternoon feast off of Rivina humilis, or Pidgeonberry plant.
This bird was hopping up off the ground repeatedly in a neat maneuver designed to snatch a single berry at a time off the top branches of this low growing plant.  Try as I might I was not able to catch the bird in mid-hop.  (I may or may not have taken and discarded upwards of 40 shots, ahem!).

Other winged creatures were appreciated as they flittered, fluttered and fed. A rare sight here, this black and yellow lichen moth (Lycomorpha pholus), was nectaring on mint. And yes, black and yellow does seem to be a misnomer, but in the face of such an attractive creature, why waste time quibbling?
That protective coloration had me thinking this was some other more pestilent variety of visitor at the start.  After a careful capture and subsequent identification effort, I was relieved I didn't try to eliminate this slow growing and thematically appropriate October drop in.

More common visitors appeared to keep us company while outdoor October chores were tackled.  Skipper butterflies were most numerous, as has become usual for our spaces.  In October we saw (and as with all Skipper identifications - these are only best guesses!) various Duskywing Skippers...
and a host of Fiery Skippers as well.
We were at long last graced by royalty, with one documented visit by a Queen Butterfly, (Danaus gilippus) and even one single Monarch, though I was not able to get a reasonable photo of that migratory wonder.
No less lovely for their small size or protective coloration, the presence of many adult lacewings is the logical result of various aphid infestations.  Aphids having provided a steady food source for their larvae earlier this year, it was rare to prune or move aside a branch in October without dislodging one or more of these lacey beauties.
Not quite so tiny but just as beneficial, paper wasps, Polistes exclamans, continued their ongoing hunt for caterpillars of all sorts to feed their young at the nest.
Shhhh - naptime in the nursery....

Gangly and apparently caught between coloration decisions, this Walking Stick (Phasmatodea) displayed the typical head bobbing designed to help it visually scan its surroundings for threats or snacks.
Finding neither on our deck door screen, this insect entertained our two indoor cats for the span of a half hour or so then abruptly disappeared.

The most fascinating saga for October had to be the appearance of two Manduca Sexta or tobacco hornworm caterpillars, feeding on a large Datura plant right off the front porch.
Tobacco hornworms are differentiated from the visually similar tomato hornworm by their seven white stripes, linear (like cigarettes).  The tomato hornworms have eight V shaped markings (think "V" for vine-ripened).  These caterpillars are able to successfully consume various toxins that they mostly excrete in droppings.

That said, it was hard to imagine they could consume such a toxic plant without experiencing any of the hallucinogenic effects.   Especially this one that took on the task of chowing down on a seed pod.
These caterpillars are able to sequester and release certain amounts of the toxins they consume via respiration, a form of "toxic halitosis" that is thought to deter spider attack.  They reportedly also click their mouthparts when attacked.

I'll take those reports on good faith.  Any caterpillar able to consume two long branches' worth of Datura leaves and the occasional seedpod is best left to conduct its own business undisturbed.

And that about wraps up this month's catalogue of visitors here at austinagrodolce.  Perhaps not an exhaustive list, but certainly representative of the majority of the usual suspects.

Our use of native plants in combination with attempts to avoid chemicals and allow a natural balance between predators and prey to evolve here have rewarded us with both an ever increasing variety and number of wild visitors to enjoy.  They are all quite pleasant company to keep as we work to ready the garden for whatever-comes-next.  We garden for them, they work in the garden with us, it is all pretty much sweetness and light in this most pleasant of times.

Thanks as always to Tina of My Gardener Says for hosting the Wildlife Wednesday meme each month.  Do take time to check out her always informative and entertaining chronicle of gardening with natives.   While there, be sure to link to your own Wildlife Wednesday post in the comments section of her November Wildlife Wednesday offering to share with wildlife lovers world wide.  We'll all be glad you did!



Tina said...

It may be a hurried post, but certainly didn't read or appear as one! Gorgeous shots--the Datura consuming horn worm shots--all of them, the Mockingbird feeding on Pigeon Berry (I don't think I've ever seen that!), and that fab photos of the walking stick! I used to see walking sticks on a regular basis, but realize that I haven't for a while. Hmmm. That's bothersome, since they're such good gardening pals. I agree with you about the lacewings, so beautiful; I've never tried to get a photo of one. Always a treat to have you join in, Ms. TexasDeb. Good luck with your big projects--hope they're fun ones and not "required" ones!

TexasDeb said...

Tina: Aw, thanks lady. The projects here are centered around the removal of gigantic agaves that were threatening to devour the front yard (and who knows - anybody missing any pets lately?)... Trying to decide how much needs to go in to fill the spaces vacated so far. Trying to transplant judiciously, avoid spending money on plants I can reproduce on my own while yet avoiding having "one of everything" polka dots. Trying to look ahead for when plants reach a more mature size, overlap, and provide seasonal interest. Ideas are big - we'll see if the results hold up.

I don't recall seeing walking sticks for a few years and this year there have been two. So, a doubling! I've never had aphids or lacewings like this year, either. As to that pidgeon berry situation - I'm holding out for a pigeon to eat any. So far, no takers in that category, but the mockingbirds hereabouts are big berry fans. They go after them all. Happy Wildlife Wednesday!

Anonymous said...

Lovely post Deb, I scanned over your first photo of the Tobacco Hornwash caterpillar and took a moment to spot him, I am not sure I have ever seen one before, except that he reminds me of the Alice in Wonderland caterpillar. I've just looked him up to see if they appear in the Uk and there have been random sightings of both species...whatever that means, sometimes internet searches produce confusing information. In the UK we really only talk about the weather we are obsessed and actually have nowhere near as much to talk about weather wise as you do in Texas. What beautiful photograph too of your Paper Wasps, I would of been hesitant to lean in so closely. I hope all of your projects run smoothly. Happy Wildlife Wednesday to you too!

TexasDeb said...

Jules: These fat caterpillar are reminiscent of the Alice in Wonderland cats, aren't they!? I can just see them curled up with a hookah pipe! The way gardeners are taking plants all around the globe in combination with our weird weather variations probably means we'll all start seeing new visitors to our spaces. At least these guys aren't threatening any crops at my place. The two caterpillars were interrupted by torrential rains but both seemed to fill up to their satisfaction without doing any permanent harm to the Datura plant. (But oh the frass they generated! So much! SO much!).

Paper wasps and I have some history. The Hub has been stung multiple times this year. So far I've managed to back away and avoided any aggression on their part. I've had the sad duty to destroy a nest or two as projects have required, but I really value the benefit these tiny creatures convey. I'm mostly happy to spot their nests, knowing they are working to keep the garden pest free.

Thank you for dropping in and commenting! Happy wildlife gardening!

Shirley said...

Another outstanding display of visitors to your garden! I loved the hornworm on Datura especially. Like you, I try to leave wasps to their business. They are not so aggressive as to be a problem though nesting on the back door frame is not allowed.

Kris Peterson said...

A wonderful post as usual, Deb. I can well imagine the challenge of catching the mockingbird mid-hop. I regularly attempt similar photographic feats but usually come up with nothing more than blurred shots or, more commonly yet, a shot that doesn't even include the subject, who's usually flown the coup. Other than the butterflies and the bees, the insects are mostly invisible to me. I'm enjoying a profusion of suphur butterflies this season, courtesy I believe of my Senna bicapsularis. I hope you manage to capture a photo of the elusive Monarch before the migration is over.

Debra said...

October is such a pleasant time of year. After the rain I see million and millions of seedlings growing all over the place. Second spring is a perfect descriptor. And what a great collection of critters! Mockingbirds are such fun to watch when they are eating. They are amazingly dexterous and playful. <3 the cutey skippers. And lacewings. They are one of my most favourite creatures. I saw many the other night rising up toward a street light and thought it was easy to believe in fairies. Ty for the lucky stripes description hahahahhaa Unforgettable.

TexasDeb said...

Shirley: Exactly my thoughts about paper wasps. They can have 98 percent of the outside spaces so long as they stay a respectful distance from our doors and windows. I will say, once disturbed, their aggression is quite awe inspiring (from a safe distance!).

I had fleeting concerns the two caterpillars in tandem would actually cause harm to the Datura by defoliation but they've evolved to co-exist without one killing off the other so I needn't have worried. I did trim back the denuded branches and the rest of the plant is working overtime putting out new leaves, so all seems peaceable again in that part of the kingdom at least!

TexasDeb said...

Kris: I'm doubtful I'll get a good shot of a monarch this year - they are reporting the first waves arrived on schedule at their roosting grounds in Mexico (veering to avoid the hurricane - that was a close call!). But there is always next year! With increased numbers reported, perhaps I'll see a few more visitors on their way back North when that time comes. I'll certainly be watching out for them...

I love that you are seeing sulphur and you're probably right about the reason. That is how it begins you know. You start to notice one particular interesting insect and that draws your attention to another (and another and another...). You'll see. Before you know it you'll be as fascinated with the visitors as with the draw for their visits! Happy November and happy rains to you!

TexasDeb said...

Debra: Lacewings are so beautiful. I bet seeing them in numbers, backlit by a streetlamp at night, was magical.

Now that I re-read what I just wrote, I am a bit frustrated. Lacewings aren't magical. They are in fact wonderfully natural! Why must I attribute something "other" to them? Why is it that I feel any need to amplify as though their very presence is somehow too commonplace or ordinary to signal my admiration without the addition of my imagination? Hmmmm......

Anonymous said...

Great pictures, all of them! And again quite a few new things for me: the black/blue and yellow moth and the caterpillar on Datura! I had no idea someone would try to eat it.Always a wonder!

Donna@LivingFromHappiness said...

Deb I love the interesting critters visiting you...those caterpillars always amaze me with their camouflage...and their voracious appetite. I am experiencing a bit of that second spring with temps in the 70s and warm sun in November although i wish it would last right up to winter...what a treat then to plant more in the veg garden. Since many flowers are gone, the dandelions are keeping the remaining pollinators happy.

Island Threads said...

lots of wildlife and wee creatures Deb, lovely photos and interesting about the hornworm caterpillars, what an interesting wasps nest I've never seen paper wasps, since living on this island I rarely see wasps at all now, they are good for the garden, just treat them with respect, enjoy your second spring, how nice, Frances

TexasDeb said...

Botanically inclined: Thank you! That lichen moth was new to me but I hope to see more. So lovely. I too was surprised to see anything nibbling on the Datura plant. I honestly kept thinking "these caterpillars have made a horrible mistake and will soon pay the price" but obviously they knew all along what they were doing - the only one who was mistaken was the gardener, not the garden occupants. Thanks for dropping by.

TexasDeb said...

Donna: Many here plant a winter crop but to do so I'd have to surrender ground I allow wildflowers to reseed into so I'm content to feed the critters and the "eyes" for the most part. At the moment most flowers are gone here as well, though mist flower, wood sorrel and dandelions are chugging right along. This is their time to shine!

TexasDeb said...

IslandThreads: The wasps and I are constantly learning how to peacefully co-exist. They must accept certain "no nest" zones and I accept certain jobs will be best left to times of year when the wasps aren't active.

Paper wasps are so prevalent here. I can only imagine what numbers the insect populations might reach if not for their constant vigilance and consistent feeding of caterpillars to their young. More butterflies perhaps, but a lot of other more pestilent winged survivors would be found as well. I'll take the wasps, overall!

Diana Studer said...

Second spring? For us that would start with March lilies blooming.