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.

Saturday, December 12, 2015

December Wrap Up

I've been neglectful of this space.  Who cares why, and I'm certainly not here to promise it will never happen again.  (I'm pretty sure this post will be standing here, lonely, for weeks yet to come.)

That said, I did want to share a bit of admittedly belated wildlife love for the month, as well as pointing out an unexpected but welcome pop of seasonal native color.

My wildlife appreciation this month does not consist of photographs of creatures, but rather I'm featuring two trees that draw those creatures in, month in and month out. The first is not a native, but it is most certainly a boon to natives.

The Loquat, or Eriobotrya japonica, is originally native to China where cultivars have been developed for over a thousand years.  Varieties were developed for home cultivation featuring flowers that open a few at a time, resulting in prolonged blooming with more gradual fruit development.  I don't know what cultivar we have, but it is certainly not that.

Ours goes all out, with no holds barred.  Bees visit in numbers great enough that on a quiet day you can hear them buzzing two stories up, in the tree's floriferous canopy.  Red Admiral and Question Mark butterflies love these trees.  They visit the flowers now and especially enjoy nectaring off the bounty of fallen fruit to come later.  Actually, the fruit seems to delight every critter around, feathered, furred or winged.  The flowers, though small, give off a lovely scent that reminds me of almonds.

Loquat trees have broad evergreen leaves that provide wonderful shade and protection all year.  The various spiders living in the ground covers below these trees must number in the hundreds. There's a little something for everybody, in Loquat Land.

Another tree, a native this time, one that gives as good as it gets?  The Cherry Laurel, or Prunus caroliniana.  This tree is also evergreen, providing a year round canopy that sports tiny white flowers and then shiny dark fruit that many birds enjoy once dried.

Cherry Laurels are mentioned as being especially beneficial to native bees, and that always makes me happy, too.

Last up?  I wanted to point out a bit of native seasonal color that often escapes notice. Oenothera speciosa, or Pink Evening Primrose is a lovely native wildflower that tends to disappear from view with summertime heat.

Given a little encouragement, the primrose stems pop back up after autumn rains and the resulting foliage responds beautifully to chilly nights. Shown above in a planter in mid November, you can see the tips of the Primrose's elongated leaves turning deep red as they get started on this year's comeback trail.

I've rarely seen it used as a container plant, but I find the color it provides definitely warrants its inclusion.  I find it especially lovely used in combination with succulents.

I'll admit this photo could be confusing - the flower shown is not the primrose itself in bloom but is rather a dianthus in the same planter responding similarly to the more favorable conditions of December.  Evening Primrose won't be flowering until Spring, but those rosy leaves seen behind the Dianthus flower are just as lovely to my eye.

Pink primroses are another native specified as beneficial to native bees, and I'm always relieved and happy to see them coming back into their own once summer's worst is behind us.  Red leaves now, pink blossoms later.  Win/win.

For other wonderful glimpses into the joys and benefits of wildlife gardening, please visit Tina of My Gardener Says for her monthly Wildlife Wednesday roundups.  In the comments section of each post you'll find links to thoughtful and accomplished wildlife gardeners from all around the globe.  There's simply no better way to spend time indoors.  

Thank you all for visiting and reading.  I'd like to extend my heartfelt wishes for a meaningful holiday season, warmly shared with family and friends.  Happy December  - may your days be merry and bright!

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!


Thursday, October 15, 2015

Second Spring has Sprung

Texas gardeners especially appreciate October's tradition for easing the remnants of summer's heat. Afternoon highs may resist, but the temperatures at night will steadily move down, shifting the average temperature for each day towards a cooler set point.  Rain may be part of the transition, but more reliably it is moderated temperatures bringing relief.  Referred to as a Second Spring, markers for the seasonal change abound, natural and not-so.

Central Texas lacks autumn's semaphore of tree leaves turning, but the hazy smoke from seasonal slash and burn agricultural fires set far to our south regularly drifts our way in October, setting morning clouds ablaze.
Dramatic color is also on offer from other more natural sources. 
Argentinian native Oxblood lilies (Rhodophiala bifida) popped out flower stalks several times in succession this year, extending the pleasure of their deepest reds to span several weeks.  

Native plant Goldeneye (Viguiera dentata - a member of the Aster family) demonstrates mastery of this season, attracting pollinators of every sort to banks of blossoms with petals that face the sun's light. 
Warm color is transformed into sustaining matter.

Such exuberance is hard to resist.
Few try.  Days are shortening and whatever comes next, this is the season to forage and store. This Funereal Duskywing butterfly (Erynnis funeralis) shared the wealth with several types of bees.
Old favorites mix with new.  Native Chile Pequin aka Bird pepper plants (Capsicum annuum) develop tiny white flowers that faintly echo fellow native A. Duelberg salvia (Salvia farinacea) flowers growing behind.  The pepper plants offer a banquet for every visitor with blooms and berries appearing all at once. 
The addition of Crag Lilies (Echeandia flavescens) reinforces the wisdom of planting native perennials.  Their combination of strength and delicacy is exquisite.
The form of the flowers reminds me a bit of Columbine offering a similar swept-back display evoking fireworks. I'm quite smitten!
Also new here this season are Gregg's mist flower (Conoclinium greggii, another Aster family member), bringing a poignant shade of light purply blue to Fall's otherwise mostly golden palette.
Not to be outdone, Prairie verbena (Glandularia bipinnatifida var. bipinnatifida) are cautiously re-emerging now summer's worst is behind us, adding more complementary purple to play against the yellows and oranges. Appreciation is widespread. This skipper, I believe another Duskywing, was thoroughly working what few blooms were around.
Having survived aphids, tropical milkweed (Asclepias curassavica) rises above a background of truer blue H. Duelberg salvia (Salvia farinacea).  The milkweed are blissfully unaware of the roiling controversy as to whether or not their presence when planted out of their native region, offers any true lifeline to migrating butterflies.
It is difficult for me to appreciate the beauty of milkweed and simultaneously view them as a disease vector. As I get very few (Zero so far and counting) migrating monarchs, I've left mine standing for now.  Anoles (Anolis carolinensis) seem unimpressed by the controversy or my dithering.
Garden center pepper plants begin renewed production efforts in recognition of and appreciation for our cooler nights.  The anoles and I keep a close eye.  I watch for peppers to pickle while they are on the lookout for visitors who might provide more immediately pleasurable mouthfuls.  
Thai basil (Ocimum basilicum var. thyrsiflora) bloom spikes appear, bearing purple pagodas.  Earlier in the season I routinely pinch off blooms but these October spires will remain, filled as they are with the makings for seeds to yield future plants. Once developed, the seeds are also a favorite snack for finches.
No use of the term "favorite" could be reasonably made without the inclusion of this October stalwart, the bright pink flowers of Coral Vine (Antigonon leptopus).  Though designated "invasive" in Texas, this fall blooming vine has remained growing in restraint against a trellis here for over a decade with no sign of spread or reseeding.  
An equal draw for bees to any plant currently blooming, I decided to let this iteration of the vine stay in place.  My ongoing removal efforts will continue to focus on other problematic plants displaying more reproductive oooomph.  
October in Texas.  Filled with fests and fĂȘtes, it is a favorite time of year for locals and visitors alike. We are not known for arboreal color this season, but there is certainly no lack of beauty on display for the discerning eye.

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

October Wildlife Wednesday - Autumn's abundance

In Texas it is commonly held wisdom September is the survival point signifying the turning of the seasons, the pivot between the last heat of summertime and the first cool mornings of autumn. While the arrival of our transition to "cooler" felt delayed this year, September yet offered a sure progression towards that goal.

Maybe I only imagine the wild populations or numbers of visitors increase in response, but definitely we are outdoors more, enjoying what is often the nicest weather of the year.  Perhaps all the wild visitors for this ninth month on our calendar are reporting back in to their own, "the people are often spotted exiting their hive".  While advising each other to watch for "clear signs of agitation", "these people are harmless if not threatened".

Our cats are certainly paying attention.  They enjoy observing their favorite and near constant companions from behind closed or screened windows and doors.  Carolina wrens begin these shared sessions by fuss-fuss-fussing at the cats, breaking off eventually to hunt. They spend several minutes searching for bugs, spiders, and bits of web, looking intently into every nook and cranny all around our back deck.
Carolina chickadees are often seen at the feeder.  Both bird sightings trigger much cat crouching, skulking from window to window, and excited vocalizations.  Occasionally the tension builds to some agreed upon level at which point the cats unceremoniously smack each other in the face a couple of times and then call it quits, moving off for a nap.  The birds remain unimpressed.
Moving from feather to fin, this fine specimen of a Texas spiny lizard seemed to be posing, assuring I could capture his best angle and absorb the full impact of his blue patched glory.

I involuntarily spoke aloud when I first noticed this guy.  (I'm assuming maleness based upon his blue patches.)  I could not contain my pleasure at seeing him here, which was only surpassed by my appreciation for his staying still while I quietly approached.  Now I'm the number one member of his fan club.  I think he is magnificent.

We've got aphids aplenty this September, which eventually draws in ladybugs. The one in my photo is an import, Harmonia axyridis, and as such is no longer heralded. I struggle with that. I appreciate any help in keeping aphid numbers in check without my having to look very closely at or touch them personally.  

I understand these are imported lady beetles and they are taking habitat away from native lady beetles. I know this on an intellectual level, yet whenever I see a ladybug (as I grew up calling them) they uniformly trigger a response of affectionate regard.  Stopping to count the spots and realizing any particular bug in question is imported, does not serve to interrupt the emotional connection I immediately establish with the very "idea" of ladybug.
I'm always shaking my head that I don't get "many" butterflies, but when I take stock of September I see that isn't precisely true.  While I don't get masses visiting, and I don't see many migratory butterflies, I do have a steady handful of locals showing up to visit whatever is in bloom.
Fiery Skipper on H. Duelberg salvia
In September that is mostly the salvias, though mint I keep on hand serves as a reliable draw each year.  I pull most of the mint out annually but there are always sprigs that survive and I hand water them in August to encourage these popular flowers.
Fiery Skipper on mint
Gray Hairstreak on mint
Southern Skipperling on mint
I planted blue mistflower to pull in queen and monarch butterflies, but it is attractive to smaller native orange specimens as well.  Skippers and skipperlings exhibit a preference for my blue flowers, allowing me to enjoy their company and not fret that my floral efforts are being overlooked.
Southern Skipperling on Mistflower
Southern Skipperling on Mistflower
This past month I spotted several bees, some of them up to what might be considered impolite behavior in human circles.  But they are bees after all, and as noted in the song, "birds do it, bees do it..".

You've been warned.
Xylocopa tabaniformis, tabaniformis-ing.
Ahem! Moving along, a common (and by comparison so petite and so polite) visitor, the European honeybee, visiting mint...

and a not so common sight in my gardens previously, the Xylocopa micans carpenter bee.  These guys are so heavy they usually bend whatever flower spike they are visiting waaaaay over.  I was able to get this photo because I have this H. Duelberg salvia growing up through a tomato cage.
Carpenter bee, specifically Xylocopa micans.  
The cage was originally placed to support blanketflower seed stalks for finches.  Left in place out of laziness, it is now making it easier to observe heavy pollinators all the time and all the pollinators on breezy days.  Lesson learned.  I'll put the cages out and leave them there on purpose, from now on.

Syrphid flies look like bees and serve much the same purpose as bees, so I wonder why it is we don't know more about them or admire them more widely? They need a better publicist.
Most of the darners and dragonflies I saw in September were on the wing but this one Blue-ringed Dancer damselfly cooperated and posed nicely.
There were a few other new (to us) visitors.  These Large Milkweed Bugs...Oncopeltus fasciatus...
attractively color coordinated with their Tropical Milkweed host, were busily shopping for mates.  Heeding the debate, I'm wondering about the need for cutting my milkweed back the moment I hear of monarch migrators in our area.  Either way it is reportedly not desirable for these milkweed bugs to successfully establish a nursery as their presence in numbers may deter butterflies.  Even if I leave the tropical milkweed growing at all, I'm still hoping to get native milkweed plants established, which the milkweed bugs would also readily colonize.  Rather than let them distribute eggs, I dispatched them.

This similarly fashionably coordinated fellow has two names, both of them longer than he is.  This is a yellow margined flower bup, or Acmaeodera flavomarginata (part of a family of wood boring beetles). 
This Scolia dubia, also called a blue-winged wasp, dropped in on the Kidneywood tree while it was in full bloom.  I was delighted to read they predate June Bug and Japanese beetle grubs.
I've had some rough history with wasps recently.  Impressive in size, I kept a respectful distance from this one until I determined it was not only unthreatened, but past that resolutely uninterested in my presence.

One of the weirdest visitors to our spaces in September was this Walking Stick, type unknown.
While it impressed me as being six to seven inches long, when I investigated information readily available on giant walking sticks, I came up with nothing and nobody who even vaguely resembled this guy.  I found multiple photos and reports of these insects being tame and easily handled, but when I went back out to get more photos and perhaps a measurement or two, my specimen-to-be had (wisely) vanished.  Identity crisis obligation for the month... met!

And of course there is always drama lurking in the wings.  I was snapping shots of a hoverfly demonstrating why it deserves the name, wondering if it was eying the aphids as deterrent, potential competition or perhaps even as a potential meal.

Maybe the aphids and the hoverfly were deep in conversation?  The hoverfly circled and stopped, circled and stopped. When I happened to glance further down the stem I noticed another set of what seemed to be hungry eyes.
An anole! Who was after whom?  The fly moved on, the aphids stayed put, the anole ate...something...or to the rest of its kind, somebody.  It all happened too quickly for me to see.  I'm guessing some aphid-tending ant met its end as the rest of the world kept wheeling relentlessly by.

Happy Fall to those of us who are currently enjoying a return to cooler times, and Happy Wildlife to all, no matter your weather or season.  
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Thanks as always to the inspirational Tina of My Gardener Says, creator of the Wildlife Wednesday meme and native plant/wildlife guru to us all.  Be sure to visit her post for this month and visit the comments section to find links to wildlife reports from around the globe.