Tuesday, June 29, 2010

The Doldrums of July and Witchy Fingered Plants

Every year about this same time, I become completely annoyed by my garden.

All of the flowers of early summer, which looked so lovely a couple of weeks back, have now lost color and are starting to set seed. The late summer bloomers aren’t started quite yet. Meanwhile, the heat starts cooking here in DC and the cool season lawns all go dormant and turn brown.

This is the doldrums of native plant summer for me. Things that are tall and not blooming just looking like gigantic weeds. Things that are short look a bit forlorn with out blooms.

These frustrations were heavy on my mind when my friend M. from Peru came by to chat this afternoon. Tall, she said. Very, very tall. We stared at the particular plant in question, my Night Blooming primroses. They are tall -- but not by any stretch stately. And now, as we are about to embark upon July, they really do look like weeds.

Each night at dusk they become beautiful, as their fruit scented flowers unfurl like fairy umbrellas being popped open. In the early morning, the flowers linger a while and the bumble bees are insane and drunk out there, drinking up the yellow nectar.

In the first week of June those plants are still short and blend in with the rest of the plants during the day. But here in the midday heat of July they look like used tissues, limp and shriveled and awful. The tall, branching plants are covered in seed heads which remind me of witch fingers.

Within a week, I’ll cut them down and reclaim the garden. One or two I’ll leave; because the plant is biennial it will need to seed itself in for next year. But for now, we suffer through the witchy-fingered stage and wait for a refreshing rain storm.

What is this, M. asks delicately, going around the corner to the spot where the blueberries are still producing lovely purple orbs. She is delighted to see our vegetable garden, too, below the primroses, where squash and tomatoes are taking off in glorious, gluttonous abundance and our herbs are happier than ever. I cut basil, oregano, thyme for her.

She asks me how to say the name for chamomile in English, and wonders if it is the plant that helps you nap. We talk about making tea. The heat simmers with cicada sound all around us.

Iced tea is good too, I insist with a laugh. Let’s put in some mint.

Suddenly, above us, there’s a twittering of birds in the witchy fingers. A male and female goldfinch have arrived, pretty as could be. They land and eat seeds from the primroses before flying quickly off to another part of the garden. And I am left with M. to think of all the different meanings of the word “bewitched.”

Friday, June 25, 2010

Was that a Coyote I Saw in Wheaton?

I was waiting for some friends to meet me at the head of a trail in Wheaton early this spring when I spotted what looked like a stray, light-colored german shepherd. Its long nose and downward pointing tale made me stop short. Was that a coyote? Before I could get a closer look to see if there was a collar around its neck or any other signs of domestication, the animal headed off into the deep woods and my friends arrived. We began our hike in the other direction and I was left to wonder what I had just witnessed.

A short time later I put out a journalist’s all call on several listservs around town: had anyone else seen a coyote lately? Where and when, and would they be willing to talk about it with me?

The reactions were interesting. I had expected a bit of fear, and actually wondered if I was going to cause anxiety by even asking the question. What I got instead was a buoyant enthusiasm more akin to Elvis sightings. Several people told me they thought they had seen one out their kitchen window, or while taking out the trash early one morning. Even more people sent messages back saying no, they hadn’t seen coyotes but they hoped those darned predators were out there feasting on the deer.

“Now I think people know they’re here,” Rob Gibbs told me later when I called him on the phone to talk about the topic in detail. “They aren’t shocked anymore.”

Gibbs, who serves as the Natural Resources Manager for Maryland National Capital Parks and Planning Commission (M-NCPPC) here in Montgomery County, has given several presentations on the topic for organizations such as the Neighbors of the Northwest Branch and the Friends of Sligo Creek.

As a regular part of his talks, he explains that the 35 pound coyotes which we are likely to see here in the Eastern US differ slightly from those that live out west. “As coyotes expanded their range east through Canada and the Southern US they occasionally interbred with wolves” says a M-NCPPC brochure on the topic.

Gibbs remarked that his agency wasn’t getting as many calls about coyote sightings as they used to, and also mentioned that there don’t seem to be more up county or down.

“We aren’t seeing other animals getting attacked or anything like that,” he said. “They’re sort of living in the shadows for the most part.”

Although many hope their frustrations with backyard suburban deer might be resolved by the presence of a large predator, it doesn’t seem to Gibbs or other area biologists that this will likely be the case.

“Looking at the data,” said George Timko, Assistant Deer Project Leader with Maryland’s Department of Natural Resources, “we don’t see any impact of coyote on deer populations.”

The reason, Timko explains, is that the animals are opportunistic, eating everything from grasshoppers to cantaloupes, and even trash. For a short time each spring, they will prey upon fawns, but not in large enough numbers to change populations.

Maryland’s Annual Deer Report for 2008-2009 notes that decreases in deer numbers in the Western part of the state are more likely due to changes in hunting rules. “The vast majority of white-tailed deer give birth to fawns within a two to four week period in May and June, which overwhelms predators like coyotes and bears. During that time there are far more fawns on the ground than can be consumed by predators.”

Carol Bannerman, the Public Affairs Officer for the Wildlife Services office of the US Department of Agriculture in Riverdale, Maryland, works for an office that keeps careful track of predator nuisance calls. Calls about coyotes increased during the 2007-2008 time period. But Bannerman noted that the following year the calls decreased significantly in the state. She cautioned against using such numbers as a way to measure coyote populations.

It could be, she hypothesized during a recent phone call, that one of those reported sightings might be from someone who saw many coyotes at one time, for example. Or it could be that people are getting more and more used to the predators and just simply aren’t calling to report their sightings as often.

There has been, she said, a rise in concern about predators on farm animals such as lambs. “The question is,” she pointed out recently, “what is the animal?” It is not always clear whether the animal which has preyed upon the farm animal is a coyote.

Gibbs and Bannerman both expressed concern for the future relationship which might develop between Eastern coyotes and humans. The danger, it seems, is what might happen if the animals begin to associate people and their houses with food. This could have a very negative impact on coyotes and people both.

For this reason, the M-NCPPC is asking everyone to avoid feeding coyotes, either intentionally or unintentionally. They urge home owners to not leave pet food bowls outside, and keep garbage in tight lidded containers. They also say that dogs should always be walked on a leash for their own safety and that cats should be kept indoors. M-NCPPC also asks residents to always supervise children when on trails.

Frankly, there are many good reasons beyond coyote management to follow those guidelines. Rats love pet food, raccoons love our trash cans, and cats prey far too often on songbirds to live outdoors. And, as Bannerman points out, the chance of mixing saliva with one of those animals increases for your pet when you don’t follow those guidelines. So putting aside coyotes, this means that the risk of accidentally transmitting diseases to your cat or dog could increase dramatically.

As far as not letting children run ahead on the trail, this is always a good idea. Toddlers can quickly pick up poisonous mushrooms, run into patches of poison ivy or encounter dangers on the trail.

I look at the toddler years as a time when kids should be having fun *learning* how to be safe in the woods at the side of their parents, not miles ahead on the trail, out of sight. That is always true, whether coyotes are out there or not. I wouldn’t let my kids under five run miles ahead in the city, either. I use the same kinds of parental common sense in both places. I doubt that anyone who loves the outdoors would say that the dangers at this point outweigh the benefits of getting outside.

And what about the coyote I might have seen in Wheaton this spring? Rob Gibbs was dubious.

“We’ve had calls about a stray dog hanging around in that area frequently,” he said.

Why do I feel kind of bummed about that?

I’d love to hear about your coyote sightings, even if they are somewhat iffy. If you think you saw a coyote out there in our area, let me know where and when the sighting occurred. (On the other hand if you’ve seen Elvis, you are on your own.)

For more information, including where to report a nuisance sighting visit: www.aphis.usda.gov/lpa/pubs/fsheet_faq_notice/fs_wscoyote.pdf.

This piece was originally published in the June 2010 issue of the Voice newspapers of Silver Spring, Takoma, and Kensington. Editorial note: the photo used in this story was NOT taken in Wheaton, Maryland by the author.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

CCLC Garden Contest Opens

Have a garden full of natives worth bragging about? The Chesapeake Conservation Landscaping Council has just opened this year's garden contest. Maybe you should enter.

The CCLC wants to see gardens that work towards sustainability, which of course involves way more than just planting natives. Water usage, composting, and capturing run-off all figure pretty big on their list of priorities. (See their full list of the "Eight Essential Elements of
of Conservation Landscaping"

Even if you don't enter, check out the link to the 2008 winners for some inspiration. Wow, do I love that one with the chickens.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Roadsides and Pollinators, a New Report

When a report from the Xerces Society entitled Pollinators and Roadsides landed in my inbox recently, my initial reaction was to wince. I recalled the times I've found dead butterflies in the grill of my car after long trips. Its one of those things you really hate to see. So the idea of encouraging pollinator plantings along roads just didn't intuitively strike me as a very good idea.
Upon further inspection, however, I was won over by the evidence presented in this thoughtful report. According to many who have researched the topic, the many miles of available roadside might indeed make for excellent habitat, especially in rural areas where agricultural expansion has put intense pressure on many invertebrate species.

Roadsides, when properly managed, can be havens where reduced pesticide use and abundant sunshine can provide rich food sources, particularly when plantings of native, nectar-rich flowers are used. Grasses can provide nesting spaces for ground-dwelling native bees. And the routes the roads themselves take can even provide protective corridors for some species.

The report goes into specific details on the changes needed to mowing schedules in order to make roadside plantings a reality, a detail that many municipal land managers might find the most challenging aspect of such roadside spaces. It also details the types of plantings that might best succeed.

So what about the impact of traffic? According to those who have spent time doing careful observations along many types of roadways, carefully planted and maintained areas will not necessarily increase collisions for bees and butterflies. In fact, one study in Iowa found that more butterflies were killed along roads with grass than along those with prairie plantings.

The entire report (which is short and easy to read) can be viewed on the Xerces Society's website:

Friday, June 4, 2010

Spicebush Caterpillars Arrive

Yesterday we discovered that we had a very good-sized spicebush caterpillar on our bushes.

Spicebush caterpillars depend on two sources of food as caterpillars. They like sassafras leaves, and they love (you guessed it--) spicebush leaves. They eat and eat and grow and grow. What is fascinating about them is their faux eye spots, which make the little wigglers look more like snakes than caterpillars. They also are very good at hiding inside the leaves of the plant, which tend to roll up over their bodies like a protective tent.

The butterflies which they eventually become are beautiful, with large dark wings the about the size of a tiger swallowtail.

Spicebush berries are very attactive to migrating songbirds, and the leaves are so wonderfully fragrant when crushed. Sometimes I pick a leaf while hiking in the woods and sniff it while I hike. It is like aromatherapy... the spicy scent fills my lungs and the sunshine fills my soul. The scent has thus become imprinted in my memory with happy, relaxed moments spent in the woods of the Mid-Atlantic.

As if there weren't enough other reasons to grow this plant, you can put one in your yard in full confidence that the deer won't touch it. That same fragrance in the leaves seem to make them pungent and distasteful to those ravenous creatures. And these shrubs are truly happinest in the shade, so they'll fill in the understory of your large oaks or maples easily.

The photo I managed to snap with my phone yesterday is not the best... I need to dig out my macro lenses and my dinosaur SLR from the closet now that the insect season has begun in full force. (One day I WILL save up enough cash to get the digital camera of my dreams... trouble is that everytime I have extra money I want to use it for plants instead!) In the meantime, if you want to see a really great photo of a spicebush caterpillar, visit this Birds & Blooms image.