Tunnel roads under the snow

by Sandy Garland

I’m always intrigued by the tunnels we find at the FWG in winter. They are undoubtedly created by red squirrels (Tamiasciurus hudsonicus) that remain active during the winter and must scurry around visiting their food caches.

Entrances to two tunnels at the base of a spruce tree - one just to the left and behind the trunk, the other directly to the right of the trunk

Entrances to two tunnels at the base of a spruce tree – one just to the left and behind the trunk, the other directly to the right of the trunk

The tunnels must lead to these caches, now buried under a foot or more of snow. Rather than run along the top of the snow, then dig down to the food, the squirrels minimize the time they spend on the surface – who wouldn’t – by digging from the base of their favourite tree through the snow to a food cache. This technique also allows them to keep the stored food a secret from other species.

In the Backyard Garden, squirrels create a maze of tunnels, often with vertical entrances that they pop their head out of to check who’s around before emerging. If the snow is deep, we can see tunnels on either side of a footpath that the squirrel has chosen to cross rather than dig through the packed snow.

More about red squirrels at the FWG
Photo gallery of red squirrels - cute alert! but also many photos showing nests, food caches, and the habits of these busy little creatures
Video showing a red squirrel’s tunnel-making technique

Eager to grow – Marsh Marigold and Wood Poppy

by Sandy Garland

2-week-old wood poppy seedlings

2-week-old wood poppy seedlings

Some seeds just can’t wait to get growing.

Every year we collect seeds from our wildflowers at the FWG and some from the wild to grow for our annual plant sale (first Saturday in June). In the fall, we carefully mix them with damp vermiculite – or leave them in paper envelops if that’s what they require – and store them in the refrigerator to simulate winter. This allows us to get them out and germinating early so that they will be a good size by June.

For the last few years, I’ve found a few species sprouting in January while they are still in the refrigerator – wood poppy, marsh marigold, and Virginia bluebells. I have found wood poppy and marsh marigold difficult to grow; we tried both many times in the past with no success.

Finally, I tried initiating the cold treatment as soon as the seeds are mature – late spring. This produced excellent results, but there is still a problem. Although the seeds happily sprout in January, and grow well for a couple of months, many plants then slowly wilt and die.

Last year, my entire “crop” of Virginia bluebells disappeared in April and May. I speculated that having been roused from dormancy in January, they had already gone through a normal life cycle by April and died back as normal plants in the wild would have done. They didn’t bloom, but many wildflowers don’t flower the first year. I kept all the tiny tubers and I’m hoping they’ll show signs of life at the normal time this year.

I’m afraid there’s no happy ending to this story – yet. At the moment, I have 18 marsh marigold and about a dozen wood poppy seedlings that I will try to coax to maturity. And 4 flats of Virginia bluebell tubers that I hope will grow when their snow cover melts.

If anyone has experience growing these or similar wild species, I would love to hear from you.

See also: Growing native plants from seed: cold stratification
Growing common milkweed from seed: easy steps for beginners

Food for birds and other wildlife at the Fletcher Wildlife Garden

by Christine Hanrahan

I thought it might be interesting to compile a list of all the natural food sources around the Fletcher Wildlife Garden, used by wildlife. I include only plants on which I have actually seen birds or other wildlife feed.

Many are obvious, of course, the crabapples, mountain ash, wild grape, sumac, and cones of various conifers. What I find interesting, and hope you do too, is the number of weedy plants that are used by wildlife, mostly birds, and mostly sparrows, finches and chickadees. Plants such as lamb’s quarters, cow vetch, brome grass, and so on, many with tiny seeds. Unfortunately, while I have many photos of birds and squirrels feeding on the big stuff… the cones and tree fruits, for example, it has been difficult to photograph birds on the weedy plants. They fly away the moment I come withing photographic distance.

The list given below can surely be added to, and surely I have forgotten some plants too! Please let me know if you have seen wildlife feeding on a species not listed below. By leaving the weedy plants standing over the winter, we are providing a wide and varied food source for our local wildlife.

The asterisk * indicates a non-native species.

*Amaranthus (Amaranthus sp.)
*Amur corktree (Phellodendron amurense)
*Amur maple (Acer ginnala)
Ash seeds (Fraxinus)
Birch catkins (Betula)
*Brome grass (Bromus inermis)
*Buckthorn, both species (Rhamnus cathartica, R. frangula)
*Bull thistle (Cirsium vulgare)
Canada elderberry (Sambucus canadensis)
Canada goldenrod (Solidago canadensis)
*Canada thistle (Cirsium arvense)
*Chicory (Cichorium intybus)
*Common burdock (Arctium minus)
Common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca)
*Common plantain (Plantago major)
*Cow vetch (Vicia cracca)
*Crabapples (Malus spp.)
Cup Plant (Silphium perfoliatum)
*Curly dock (Rumex crispus)
*Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale)
Eastern white cedar (Thuja occidentalis)
Evening primrose (Oenothera biennis)
Juniper (Juniperus)
*Lamb’s quarters (Chenopodium album)
*Mallow (Malva moschata)
*Manitoba maple (Acer negundo)
*Mullein (Verbascum thapsis)
New england aster (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae)
*Peppergrass (Lepidium densiflorum)
Ragweed (Ambrosia artemisiifolia)
*Red clover (Trifolium pretense)
Red elderberry (Sambucus racemosa)
Red osier dogwood (Cornus sericea)
*Sow thistle (Sonchus)
Speckled alder (Alnus incana)
*Spotted lady-thumb (Persicaria maculosa)
Spruce spp. (Picea)
Staghorn sumac (Rhus hirta)
Tall goldenrod (Solidago altissima)
*Tartarian honeysuckle (Lonicera tatarica)
*Timothy (Phleum pratense)
Virginia creeper (Parthenocissus vitacea)
*White clover (Trifolium repens)
*White sweet clover (Melilotus alba)
Wild grape (Vitis riparia)
Wild lettuce, Canada and prickly (Lactuca canadensis, L. scariola)
Wild raspberry (Rubus strigosus)

 

Early December at the Fletcher Wildlife Garden

hairy woodpecker work on ash trees

hairy woodpecker work on ash trees

by Christine Hanrahan

December 4, a mild day, with the merest hints of snow. A day to visit the FWG and look for blog subjects. Apart from the many squirrels, it was pretty quiet. A small flock of house finches in the Backyard Garden (BYG), several cardinals, a couple of crows flying over, several juncos also in the BYG, and of course, black-capped chickadees all over the place.

Although I saw no hairy woodpeckers, their presence at the garden is very discernible. Just take a look at the poor old ash trees, which once again show the very distinct signs of hairy woodpecker feeding (photo at right). The woodpeckers, of course, are looking for the emerald ash borer larvae. The birds are not killing the trees, as is sometimes thought; the trees are on their way out, killed by the very pretty emerald green Buprestid beetle (a.k.a. Emerald Ash Borer).

Grey squirrels were especially busy refurbishing their treetop nests, ferrying big clusters of leaves, by mouth, up to their various nests. A few small piles of rabbit scat here and there, and fresh fox tracks across the pond, were the only other signs of mammals.

Wandering around, you’ll notice that under many manitoba maples, the snow is littered with remnants of keys, evidence of much feeding by squirrels. All of the most favoured wild food is vanishing fast now, and what is left is either the inedible or the stuff that is used as a last resort. Many crabapples still have luscious looking clusters of fruit. Some will eventually be eaten, but others never will be. Some of these cultivars are purposely “designed” to make the fruit unappealing (inedible) for wildlife, thus allowing the trees to retain their colourful fruit throughout the winter.

More info and photos on the blog here:
http://www.pbase.com/fwg/fwg_blog_dec_2013

Early November, 2013, at the garden

by Christine Hanrahan

The FWG’s November blog is up and running now (http://www.pbase.com/fwg/fwg_blog_november_2013). It was kick-started by some excellent photos from Robert Berry. I’ve added a few more, and there’ll be more to come as the month progresses.

Incipient winter is felt in the decreasing numbers of birds and the almost entire lack of insects at the garden now. However, one hardy clouded sulphur was still fluttering around on the edge of the Old Field, and several flies were clustered high up on the sunny walls of the interpretive centre. A small brown moth flew up from the grass near the butterfly meadow and vanished before I could get a good look. Diane says it could be either bruce’s spanworm (Operophtera bruceata) or the autumn moth (Epirrita autumnata). There will still be a few insects and spiders, but hard to find.

As for birds, a big flock each of robins and starlings made for a cacophonous din. Smaller numbers of house finches, chickadees, cardinals, cedar waxwings, downy woodpeckers, blue jays, and white-breasted nuthatches were also found. Overhead, ring-billed gulls and flocks of canada geese. We should start to see tree sparrows and other late autumn visitors soon. I’ve found the tree sparrows elsewhere around Ottawa, and I’ve heard reports of snow buntings in the area. They sometimes appear on the farm, and in the big (recently cut) crop field by the red barn.

Black-capped chickadee nest cavity in birch tree

Black-capped chickadee nest cavity in birch tree

While walking past the Ash Woods, I saw that one of the birch snags (standing dead tree), containing an old cavity nest site, had fallen and smashed into several pieces. A few years ago in winter, a downy woodpecker began to work on this birch snag looking for food. In the spring of the following year, a pair of black-capped chickadees spent a considerable time excavating the cavity as a nest site. They worked endlessly on it, ferrying mouthful after mouthful of excavated material away from the site. But after much work, they abandoned the site. When I picked up the bit with the hole (cavity) in it, it fell apart in my hands, revealing the interior where the chickadees had worked. Pretty impressive work for two small birds!

Red squirrels are very noticeable now, and chipmunks are particularly busy stocking their underground larders before hibernating for the winter (well, they are not true hibernators, but that’s another story).

***I’ve created a new gallery to show the work of participants in Barry Cottam’s photography workshop held in early autumn at the FWG. The photos are gorgeous! I really encourage you to take a look. The three best shots of each photographer’s work, selected by themselves, is posted here: http://www.pbase.com/fwg/photo_workshop_2013

Mid-September at the Fletcher Wildlife Garden

by Christine Hanrahan

Where DOES the time go? Here it is, past the mid-way point in September, on the downslide to October. That autumn feeling is really seeping in with the colour changes in the leaves, the business of birds fuelling up for journeys south, and bees nectaring like mad on the dwindling supply of flowers.

Having been away for a week, I stopped in at the garden to see what was what this week. Many of the goldenrods are fluffy with seeds now, but the various asters are in bloom still. Those goldenrods still in flower were very busy with locust borers (long-horned beetles), bumble bees, honey bees, sweat bees, etc. However, it is apparent that insect numbers are dwindling and for those of us who are addicted to looking for them, we will soon be in the midst of withdrawal, waiting until spring for the first few to appear again. Except for those few critters that can sometimes be seen in winter, such as winter fireflies, winter craneflies, and a few more hardy insects.

Twenty-spotted lady beetle

Twenty-spotted lady beetle

A new insect for our list is the twenty-spotted lady beetle, very tiny at around 1.5 to 3 mm. It is unusual in being a fungus and mildew feeder. In my own garden, I have found a large number of these lady beetles in all stages, larva, pupa, and adult, on mildewed leaves of sunflowers. At first glance they look like very tiny versions of the fourteen-spotted lady beetle. They are common, but so tiny and with a habit of hiding under leaves, that they can be tough to find. I bet they’ve been at the FWG for years but we’ve just not noticed them before.

Dogwood calligraphic beetles are still present, as they have been all summer. These belong to the Chrysomelid family, a group that contains some of the most beautifully coloured and intricately patterned beetles. As their name suggests, they are closely affiliated with dogwoods, in particular red-osier dogwoods. There are many species within the Ottawa region, but at the FWG we’ve found only two.

While on the topic of dogwoods, they are a good shrub for attracting many insects, not necessarily in the destructive sense. Many creatures seem to like hiding amongst the flowers, and now the fruit, or on or under the leaves. If you look carefully, you can sometimes find tiny clusters of stinkbug eggs, probably those of the Banasa stinkbug which is so commonly found amidst the fruit. Nannyberries too are good shrubs to explore for insects, and alders are even better!

I watched a large mixed group of chipping sparrows and american goldfinches having a grand time eating the seeds of coneflowers in the butterfly meadow. Elsewhere they were picking off thistle seeds and the seeds of lamb’s-quarters. Speaking of food… does it seem to you that there are fewer walnuts on the black walnut trees this year? Which can mean a tougher time for the squirrels who depend on them.

A red-tailed hawk is once again at the garden. Every autumn for years we’ve seen this species appear and hang around the general vicinity of the garden all winter long. The farm fields provide good hunting, and the trees, shelter. White-breasted nuthatches, chickadees, robins, catbirds, an eastern phoebe, mallards, and crows were some of the other birds encountered in my short visit.

The September blog is here: http://www.pbase.com/fwg/fwg_blog_sept_2013, and contains four pages of photos thus far, including some lovely shots by Diane and Sandy. Please check it out.

The Jungle Never Sleeps

By Ted Farnworth

One of the activities that we carry out at the FWG is to introduce or re-introduce bushes and trees into the property that will maintain and enhance the various habitats we are trying to highlight. A lot of thought, discussion, and planning goes into deciding which plants should go where. This is followed by a bit of grunt work, when volunteers clear chosen areas in preparation for planting.

The actual planting of a bush or a shrub is perhaps one of the more rewarding activities I have done during my short term as a FWG volunteer. Knowing that I have put in place something that will be seen, admired by visitors, and used by bugs, critters, and birds gives me a real sense of accomplishment. So now all I have to do is sit back and enjoy my “job well done.”

Well not really. A recent work session showed me that once we get something into the ground, the work is not finished. In the past, much effort was spent planting a variety of shrubs and trees on the south side of the ravine. Luckily, some marking poles indicate where the plants were placed, because I soon found out that the plants introduced by FWG volunteers have been battling the resident ravine vegetation, and in many cases the battle has not been very successful. Where the marking poles have disappeared, overgrowth soon hides our work.

The two photos below illustrate how quickly our “little darlings” get overtaken and buried. Thankfully, I have not found a planted shrub or tree that has died due to overgrowth and strangulation, but I’m not sure whether I have found all of them. Any that go undiscovered may not survive another year.

It is a good lesson to remember that just getting a shrub or a tree into the ground is not the end of our job. After we have had a good work session at the FWG, and are home warm and comfy, the “jungle” starts silently creeping back. The jungle never sleeps.

Can you see the tree we planted?

Can you see the tree we planted?

Can you see it now?

Can you see it now?

Early September at the Garden

by Christine Hanrahan

How time flies. Here it is, early September, with all the signs of approaching autumn now firmly in place. The old field is full of asters and goldenrods, the latter already losing their bloom. Fruit is heavy on the vine and tree, some of the sumacs are turning vivid red, and of course, birds are migrating through the area, as they have been and will be, for some time.

I made it my mission to look for the very neat little green tortoise beetle. This pretty creature feeds on thistles and so I checked dozens of thistles for the characteristic signs of feeding tortoise beetles. I saw only a few such signs, but they could have been made by other insects too, and sadly, no beetles. I did, however, find a striped garden caterpillar, a member of the huge Noctuidae family.

On the black maple north of the ash woods, a cicada exuviae was about seven feet up on a twig. These shed nymphal skins look almost alive at first. Watching a cicada emerge from them is quite amazing. They come out backwards and hang suspended in a horizontal position for some little while before finally climbing out and clinging either to the skin or the tree. Their wings are little nubs at first, and their bodies look terribly soft and vulnerable. But quicker than seems possible, their wings elongate and soon they are full size, but pale green. Before much longer, the wings dry, turn translucent, the body hardens, and voila, the cicada is ready to fly. Its sole purpose now is to mate. Diane photographed a beautiful adult perched on an obedient plant and this can be seen in the September Blog.

Two hummingbirds were nectaring on the monarda fistulosa in the butterfly meadow and when not doing that, were zipping around all over the place. They have to be THE most enchanting little birds to watch, and feisty for their size! Small flocks of robins, big flocks of american goldfinches (now that nesting is over, they are congregating, adults and young) feeding on thistle and other seeds, and smaller numbers of cardinals, chickadees, song and chipping sparrows were also seen.

One of the impressively large giant swallowtail butterflies floated out of the open area north of the ash woods and into the ravine. Other butterflies included an eastern tailed blue, a couple of ringlets, and about 4 each of cabbage whites and clouded sulphurs.

Bumble bees are out in force now, gathering great quantities of pollen from goldenrods. The plants are alive with their wonderful buzzing, redolent of summer days, even as fall approaches. With the first frost, all these worker bumble bees will be killed, only the mated queens surviving to hibernate over the winter, ready to begin a fresh colony in spring.

It is intriguing how the landscape of the garden changes from year to year. Not usually in dramatic ways, unless trees have been removed either by nature or by us, but in small ways, probably not perceptible to those who don’t focus on the place the way we volunteers do. I mentioned changes in other notes, and yesterday I was struck by the huge patch of jewelweed or impatiens, growing up through the flowering raspberry on the edge of the old field. First time that has happened there.

Speaking of plants, those later summer-early autumn reliables, the goldenrods and asters, and the white snakeroot (Ageratina altissima), as well as obedient plant (Physostegia) and sneezeweed (Helenium) are absolutely gorgeous right now. In the ash woods, white snakeroot and zigzag goldenrod (Solidago flexicaulis) are lighting up the dark places, and it always surprises me that these plants, both of which do well in garden settings, are not more widely planted for late summer colour in shady spots.

More photos on the September Blog, including a beautiful set by Diane, as well as the impressive ‘bee condo’ created by Sandy south side of the ash woods.

http://www.pbase.com/fwg/fwg_blog_sept_2013

Mid-August at the Fletcher Wildlife Garden

by Christine Hanrahan

Mid-afternoon at the Fletcher Wildlife Garden, August 14th. A sunny and pleasant afternoon to be looking for things to photograph for the PBase Blog. My first sighting was of the Sphex ichneumoneus, the great golden digger as it is sometimes called, nectaring on swamp milkweed. Its counterpart, the great black digger, S. pensylvanicus, is often more numerous, but both are large and impressive.

Other insects found include numerous Acutalis treehoppers, one of our smallest treehoppers, tiny little green and black insects, usually found on the stems of plants such as goldenrod. The large (for a planthopper), Acanalonia bivittata, with its distinctive shape, is easily recognized. It is bright green, with reddish eyes and a dark stripe down its back. It also comes in a vivid pink form, something I’m still hoping to see. The large swathe of Monarda fistulosa, our beautiful lilac-coloured native species, in the butterfly meadow, is alive with bees and other nectaring insects, including a hummingbird moth and a very tattered silver-spotted skipper. The big Bicyrtes sand wasp, smaller mud daubing wasps, sweat bees, leaf-cutter bees, ragweed beetles, goldenrod leaf beetles, the predatory larvae of green lacewings sometimes called aphid lions because of their propensity for feasting on aphids, pennsylvania leatherwings (soldier beetles), tiny ragweed fruit flies, and a host of other insects can be found on the abundant flowering plants around the site.

In addition to the skipper, lots of cabbage whites, a few white admirals, and several newly emerged ringlets, the second generation in our area, were also seen.

Birds are vocal and active, with broods of young following the adults, calling and begging for food. House wrens are especially vocal these days, as are catbirds and song sparrows. Robins, baltimore orioles, chipping sparrows, chickadees, cardinals, cedar waxwings, and many other birds are very noticeable right now. While our tree swallows have long gone, barn swallows can still be found swooping over the garden. Shrubs such as elderberry and tartarian honeysuckle are providing much food for birds. Diane and I watched a cedar waxwing guzzling down the fruit of the honeysuckle as if he couldn’t get enough!

It is fascinating to see how the vegetation changes from year to year. New plants appear in odd spots, others vanish. All the annuals found last year in the old field’s rototilled section, have gone, but in their place scores of the biennial evening primrose (native plant), some big scotch (or bull) thistles, much beloved by insects, especially bees, and a variety of other species. The native wild cucumber plant is sending its sprays of creamy white flowers up in various spots including in the old field area.

There are lots of photos on the August 2013 Blog here:
http://www.pbase.com/fwg/fwg_blog_aug_2013

Be sure to visit so you can also see the great photos submitted by Diane and France, who photographed a gorgeous giant swallowtail at the garden on August 15.

August 6 at the FWG

Ruby-throated hummingbird nectaring at cardinal flowers

Ruby-throated hummingbird nectaring at cardinal flowers

by Christine Hanrahan

You can certainly see that summer is pushing on. Goldenrod is blooming, New England asters are starting to flower, evening primroses are finishing up, Solanum is fruiting, many grasses are in seed – food for wildlife is abundant. Families of catbirds, red-eyed vireos, and song sparrows are vocal and noticeable.

A green heron was calling from somewhere near the pond, a lone red-winged blackbird male flew into the cattails there, a couple of tree swallows flew over, but probably not ones who nested at the FWG, for they left a month or so ago. Chipping sparrows were seed feeding along Green Heron Way, and American goldfinches were busy with nesting duties.

In the Backyard Garden, two ruby-throated hummingbirds were zipping around the garden, chasing each other, occasionally stopping to rest in the big willow above the pond, and taking turns to nip down to the cardinal flowers to feed. They were too quick for me and I managed only one not very good shot.

Ragweed beetles (Zygogramma suturalis)

Ragweed beetles (Zygogramma suturalis)

I spent some time looking for ragweed beetles, as this is the time to find them. I’ve learned that I have more luck finding them on Bidens, if there is any growing near ragweed, as there is at the garden. I found about 8 of the elegantly black and white leaf beetles. This species was exported to Russian as a biocontrol agent for our native ragweed, which is a big problem there. Or, I should say, a potential biocontrol agent, because at least so far, they have not been a great success. Perhaps in time… And perhaps we’d have far more ragweed than we have already, if these beetles were not exerting some control. And then there is the ragweed fly whose larvae eat the seeds of ragweed, and no doubt also help control ragweed to some extent.

A hummingbird moth was nectaring on phlox in the Backyard Garden, at the same time as the real hummingbirds were feeding on cardinal flowers. Other insects of late summer include the big Sphecids, in the genus Sphex, both of which can be seen anywhere there are flowers. I took another look for the Enchenopa treehoppers (which look like thorns on branches) and found one adult, but lots of egg masses, so next summer there should be lots more of these neat little guys. I generally find them in good numbers in early July, and if you want to see them, there are photos on the July Blog and in the Treehopper gallery.

Tortoise beetle (Charidotella)

Tortoise beetle (Charidotella)

I also spent a lot of time on my hands and knees looking for tortoise beetles and found one which I initially thought was a golden tortoise beetle. However, now I am not sure, and it may be another species in the same genus. Nearby was a little larva of the same species. These critters fascinate me as they are such an odd shape, and like many other beetles, they make full use of their poop to protect themselves. In their case, they create a shield that they carry over their body, rather like an umbrella. This larva was black, unlike all others I’ve seen which have been bright green.

Speaking of bright green, I found a gorgeous little treefrog sitting on a walnut tree leaf by the pond.

Lots more photos on the blog