Dec 1, 2014

Fruitmania Garden School 1/17/15

The Hidden Virtuoso in the Garden



Many years ago I was walking past a tall tree in my garden; a mocking bird was in the top of the tree singing. As I passed the tree, it occurred to me the mockingbird was singing rather odd. I do most of my birding by ear while I am working in the garden.  This bird was repeating phrases only twice and moving on to the next song.  Mockingbirds will repeat a phrase 3 or more times.  I decided to stop and look back at the bird in the top of the tree.  It was no Mockingbird, but a Brown Thrasher, a close relative.  I wondered how many times I had made this mistake. 
In the spring, male Brown Thrashers will find a high perch to sing. This is always an odd sight to me, for Brown Thrashers spend most of their time foraging on the ground under bushes.  Ornithologists agree that the Brown Thrasher has one of the largest repertoires of any bird in North America.  A single bird knows over 1000 songs which are clear and loud. They often mimic other birds, but are not as good a mimic as the Mockingbird.  Both male and females are identical and both will sing.  I assume that it is the male who sings in the spring from a tall perch to find a mate.  Just the other day, I heard 2 Brown Thrashers singing under a large azalea bush.  They were not singing in harmony or even copying each other. Was it a mated pair singing together or was it 2 dueling males?  Without warning, the 2 birds flew up into a large camellia tree and chased each other around and around.  Was this courtship display or a territorial fight? 
Brown Thrashers are not often seen in suburban yards, but if you manage  your yard as a wildlife habitat you may have a pair. They like to forage under thick bushes and hedgerows with plenty of leaf litter.  In the summer, they eat insects and worms. In the winter, they will dine on berries like dogwood, pyracantha, rosehips and Virginia creeper.  They nest in thick bushes rather close to the ground.  Both parents incubate the eggs and take care of the young.  Young birds leave the nest less than 2 weeks from hatching.  

I have traveled around the country to observe wildlife; especially looking for birds. I think one of the most remarkable observations I have ever witnessed was in my own front yard.  One spring day a few years ago, I was sitting on my front porch. With binoculars in hand, I was hoping to see a few warblers passing through during spring migration.  The only bird in view was a Brown Thrasher under the loquat tree.  There is no grass under the tree and we leave the leaf litter as mulch.  I put my binoculars on the bird to see what it was eating.  It was picking up sticks and tossing them down.  I first thought it was looking for nesting material.  Then it found a stick about 4 inches long with a fork at the end.  Next, the bird put the stick down and picked it up again this time holding the stick near the end opposite the fork. To my amazement, the Brown Thrasher began sweeping the leaves with the forked stick.  Brown leaves flew off the ground as the bird swept the ground. Suddenly it dropped the stick and grabbed a bug and flew off. In 1835, Charles Darwin observed the Woodpecker Finches of the Galapagos Islands using tools. This was an important scientific discovery.  I have seen YouTube videos of crows using tools, but I had never personally seen a bird use a tool until that day.  Since that day, I always take the time to watch Brown Thrashers, but have never seen one use a tool again. 

Nov 6, 2014

The 3 Mimic in the Tree

Hush, little baby, don't say a word,
Mama's gonna buy you a mockingbird.


Not too long ago, I saw a small flock of Starlings land in the top of a tree. They were not foraging, but just seemed to be enjoying the morning sun. The Starlings had entered the territory of a Mockingbird who was none too pleased to see these illegal aliens. The Mockingbird began to scold them and drew the attention of a Brown Thrasher who decided to join in. The Starlings paid no attention to their chatter.  To my surprise, a Catbird flew up into the tree and joined in the verbal assault on the Starlings.  In all my years of bird watching, I do not think I have seen these three members of the Mimidae Family all together in the same tree. Starlings are originally from Europe, so I was surprised to learn that recent genetic testing reveal that they are related to our local Mimidae Family members. Starlings seem so different from Mockingbirds, Thrashers and Catbirds and I wonder if this had caused the family feud I witnessed.
Mockingbirds have thrived in the suburban habitat. They are as common as mailboxes in any neighborhood and not just here in the South. I am often asked “Why is it called the Northern Mockingbird when they live in the South?” The Northern Mockingbird ranges from the southern Canadian border to the southern tip of Mexico. They also can be found throughout the Caribbean. They do not migrate. There are other mockingbirds that live in Central and South America and that’s why ours is the Northern Mockingbird.  
Our gardens are well suited for Mockingbirds. They like to perch in a tree and fly down to the lawn to catch a bug. Their hunting behavior is similar to Bluebirds but Bluebirds like more open spaces. They will often flash their white shoulder patches to scare up insects in the grass. When I dig in the soil and find a grub, I like to toss it to the Mockingbirds. I have had Mockingbirds follow me when I pick up a shovel.  They are famous for their singing and infamous for singing at night.  Males who do not find a mate will sing all night. It is illegal to kill a Mockingbird but temporary insanity from sleep deprivation would be a good defense and the jury will be sympathetic.  They not only mimic other birds, but will repeat a phrase over and over and that can really drive you nuts.  Mockingbirds are very territorial and singing is also a way of declaring a territory. During nesting season don’t even think of going near a nest, especially if you are a cat. These feisty birds know to attack you from behind.  My Mockingbirds like to nest in my overgrown antique rose bushes.  Perhaps they know the thorns will deter predators. 
Mockingbirds often cause trouble around bird feeders by keeping other birds away. They normally are not seedeaters but they will eat mealworms, suet and peanut butter.  I think they do not like a bunch of other birds eating a free buffet in their territory.  If Mockingbirds become a problem at your feeders, move the peanut butter and suet to the other side of the house.
What I really love about Mockingbirds is their scientific name - Mimus polyglottos.  Mimus is Latin for mimic and from the Greek we have Polu or poly meaning many and glotta which is Greek for tongue.  So the Mockingbird name translates to mimic many tongues.  I like it when a scientific name is so well suited.

Aug 28, 2014

Still Summer


Getting ready for cooler days in the garden
I always tell my friends from off, we have 4 seasons in the Lowcountry, Almost Summer, Summer, Still Summer and Christmas. Summer will end soon along with the daily thunder storms followed by the outdoor sauna we all enjoy. The temperatures of Still Summer are hot in the day but will drop a little at night. September and October can be some of our driest months. The only rain will be from hurricanes and tropical storms. The skies will be blue again and the humidity back down to a tolerable range. It’s a good time to start a fall vegetable garden. Go ahead and pull out the old tomato and squash plants. The peppers might last a little longer.  It’s a good time to amend your soil with Charleston County Compost from the Bees Ferry Landfill. At $10 a ton it is a bargain. They also have it in bags if you do not have a truck. Or you can add other types of organics to the soil: worm castings, mushroom compost and cow manure are just a few things you can add. I like to add some calcium to the vegetable garden too. Calcium will prevent blossom end rot and make vegetables crispier and help them last longer in storage.  Pelletized gypsum comes in a 40 pound bag.  It is the mineral calcium sulfate. Gypsum will not change your PH like lime. How much gypsum do you need?  I put about a 1/4 cup per vegetable plant and mix it in the surrounding soil.  Young plants take up calcium better than old plants, so it is important to get it in the ground before you plant.
Still Summer (Fall) is a good time to plant greens, root crops and cole crops.  These vegetables, planted in the fall, will be sweeter than when they are planted in the spring. Plants in the fall will store sugar for the winter making them tastier. Collards are the most popular cole crop in the South, but broccoli, kale and cabbage can also be grown. Carrots and radishes are popular root crops, but turnips are an old favorite. Root crops should be grown from seed but be careful not to plant too deep. Barely cover the seeds with soil and firm the soil down then water gently. There are many types of healthy greens that can be grown during the fall and winter.  Just the different cultivars of kale are mind blowing. Blue scotch kale, redbor, Tuscan and Siberian are just a few. Some cultivars take the cold better and some can stand the heat better. Since our winters are unpredictable, plant some of each.  I think kale is beautiful. I like to plant it in the flower beds in the winter along with pansies and violas. Other great greens you can plant are southern giant mustard, seven top turnips and upland cress.
Buy your seeds now while they are still in the stores.  I sometimes buy seed in the spring when the selection is good and keep them cool and dry until fall planting time.  Don’t plant them all at once save some seeds for early spring. If you are interested in heirloom or gourmet vegetables there are plenty of seeds available on the internet. Do shop around, I have found there is a wide range of prices out there. 
Try Southern Giant Curled Mustard this fall in the garden. Easy to grow from seed this green has a tangy mustard flavor very different from collards. It can be harvested in about 50 days from seed.