Michigan Nature Fix

Red Oaks – photo by H. Valey

I’m in west Michigan on a business trip. I’ve never been here before. I must admit I imagined the whole state to look like Detroit. It does not. Where we are is quite beautiful. I thought I’d be stuck indoors with AC air the whole week but I managed to get out for awhile last night and this morning. The Red Oaks tower to the sky, Raccoons fished among the cattails and swallows glided across the small pond.

Bandit In the Cattails- H. Valey

Cicadas whirred and bees flitted from wildflower to wildflower. It was hard to return back to my group of co-workers.

Gardening For Wildlife

28225581807_431293b5c4_oI’ve been spending a good portion of my time this spring working on my wildlife garden in my backyard.  We started out 3 years ago with just a backyard full of St. Augustine grass, now I have over 25 types of native plants in the backyard and about half the grass.  Do I have more wildlife? Yes and no… When I wasn’t out fiddling in the yard all the time I did notice that we had more lizards. When I wasn’t taking such good care of the compost bin, we had raccoon visitors nightly.  Now, not as many lizards, although that might change now that there are more shrubs growing in the yard and rock piles that I won’t be mucking about with anymore.  The compost bin has been switched out from an open frame style to a closed drum, so no more raccoon salad bar, but perhaps that’s ok. I didn’t mind the raccoons, but I never got any compost because they ate all the green bits!

42843548601_7c85524141_oI have noticed more birds, as I have more native bugs in the yard with the native plants.  I’ve noticed more wrens gleaning bugs off of our dwarf Yaupon bushes, which  is quite entertaining to watch.  Plants with berries, such as the Beauty Berry bush and Pigeon Berry bring in Mocking Birds and Doves, not that I needed more Doves, but still 🙂 We also had a Painted Bunting in the yard this year, and a Red-Breasted Grossbeak last year which is a little unusual in a suburban neighborhood.

We have more hummingbird visitors now that  I have more Salvias & Batface Cuphea planted. My milkweed is doing really well this year so I’m hoping to get some more Monarch visitors at some point as well. We definitely have more spiders… jumping spiders and wolf spiders. They are quite fun to watch.  We have more ants too, which I’m not that excited about though.

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I’ve had a lot of fun picking out the plants and planning the garden, although its taking more iteration than I ever imagined.  I really enjoy just sitting and watching the animals in the yard.  I’ll be adding a butterfly garden addition soon.  We just pulled out more grass in a sunny spot, so this fall I’ll plant some pollinator annuals. I also have some plans for a new water feature for next year to replace the utilitarian bird bath.

We don’t have a big yard.  I envy the folks with an acre or more to work with, but I’ll do the best with what I have. Now that it’s summer and over 100 degrees everyday, I’ll just wait until the fall to do some more work in the yard.  Its worth it to me to have a place to escape to, to forget all of the craziness in the world.

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Plant Resources for Texas Wildlife Gardeners:

What kind of plants and critters do you have in your backyard?

This Snake Freaked Me Out…

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Texas Rat Snake – photo by H. Valey

…until I realized it was a Texas Rat Snake, also known in some parts as the Chicken Snake. The scientific name is aphe obsoleta lindheimeri.

The Texas Rat Snake looks a little scary at first sight, mainly because they can grow to be very long (3 to 6 feet) and their defense mechanism is to freeze when they see you.  They also are known to shake their tails similarly to a Rattle Snake. This can be misinterpreted as the confidence of a venomous snake, but these snakes are constrictors and non-venomous. They do have a reputation for biting when cornered, but the bites are reported to be on the mild side and as mentioned non-venomous.

They are found primarily in Texas, but their range extends to Louisiana, Arkansas & Oklahoma.  No matter in what state you find them, their preferred habitat is one with Oak trees present.  Although I have seen them in parking lots before, and I saw one slither in through a mail slot on a mailbox once, most likely giving the mailbox owner a bit of a shock!

Their diet consists of rodents, and undoubtedly bird eggs and nestlings.  They are fantastic climbers and can find their way into birds nests pretty easily. An adult can take rodents as large as a fox squirrel. They are also good swimmers.

They are not considered threatened, but they are often the target of humans who come across them and kill them because they don’t know what kind of snake they are.

The picture up top was taken at a nature preserve.  The snake was in a pile of limestone rocks near many full grown oak trees.  The snake below, I spotted in the parking lot of an office complex.  Again, many full grown oak trees around, as well as leaf litter and limestone.  You can get a feel for how long these snakes can get in the video below!

For more information on Rat Snakes, visit these sites.

 

Banding Golden-Cheeked Warblers – Photo Essay

I tagged along on a Golden-Cheeked Warbler bird banding session with biologist Julie Murray from the Travis County Balcones Canyonlands Conservation office in Austin, Texas. The endangered birds are banded and re-sighted every year during breeding season to help scientists understand how many birds are returning each year, how long they live and how big their territories are, among other things.

Below is a photo essay of the banding experience.

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For more information on the BCCP and the Golden-Cheeked Warbler, check out these resources below:

  1. The Balcones Canyonlands Conservation Plan
  2. The Golden- Cheeked Warbler

Raven Cam at UT Texas

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Raven – photo by H. Valey

In some parts of the US, Ravens are pretty ubiquitous.  Here in Austin their appearance is a bit more rare, but it seems I see more and more of them every year.  Austin is a bird friendly town and in that fashion the Austin UT campus has set up a couple of cool bird cams this spring.  The first one was the Peregrine Falcon cam on the University Texas Tower and now there is a Raven cam.  A nesting pair of Ravens has set up a nest outside of the Texas Advanced Computing Center on campus and you can watch them raise their chicks online while you’re at work. Pretty cool stuff!