Category Archives: Winter bird gardens

When Life Gives You Storm Damage, Make Habitat!

Dear readers, if I have not been writing much lately, here is just one of the reasons why:

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The freak Halloween nor’easter that hit New England on October 29th dumped 18″ of wet snow on our farm, wiped out our power for nearly a week, and caused extensive damage across the region. We will be cleaning up from this for many months…

We lost several trees that we were very fond of, including the beautiful red maple above that was a focal point of our small farm. Here’s the tree in happier times:

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Interestingly, this particular red maple was some kind of Acer rubrum cultivar, selected by plant breeders more for its beautiful glowing fall color than its ability to withstand freakish New England weather. We have a number of wild-seeded red maple trees on the farm that survived the storm intact. Those trees are really well adapted to early or late snow, and most of them just lost a few branches here and there.

One of the native red maples, just next to our driveway,  was completely topped completely:

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But look at the habitat that was created from the storm. A brand new snag! Check out the pre-drilled woodpecker holes near the top. This red maple snag may be newly created but clearly it’s already been used by wildlife for years:

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Conveniently situated with a clear view from the house, this is our new wildlife viewing zone for the winter of 2012. The snag may have to come down completely in future years — if it starts to lean over the driveway — but for now we’ll be able to watch the comings and goings of birds, squirrels and other wildlife making use of its many resources.

So the storm wasn’t all bad! Wildlife are grateful! Old trees and branches are part of natural ecosystems and support a huge variety of wildlife, from hawks, owls and bats, to lower life forms such as invertebrate insects, amphibians and even reptiles. In the spring, sapsuckers will drill the remaining living portion of the trunk for sap, attracting insects with a ‘sweet tooth’, many of whom will get stuck in the sticky sap and become food for birds.

But what to do with all those tree branches and brush that have fallen? If you have the room, use them to build a brush pile! We built what we consider the mother of ALL brush piles at the side of our pasture:

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This (ahem) carefully constructed brush pile (aka Winter Wildlife Resort at Turkey Hill Brook Farm) features snug bedrooms with fragrant pine bough ceilings, a lovely screened-in sunroom with a southerly view to safely bask in the sun on a bright winter’s day, as well as several large, fully-stocked pantries. If you’re a chickadee, you’ll find plenty of hemlock and pine cones to pick at all winter long. A chipmunk looking for a safe spot for your stash of acorns? Plenty of safe cover plus acorns free for the taking. If you’re a ground-feeding  junco, hopefully you can forage for seeds around the edge of this brush pile and dive into it when the neighborhood cats come prowling. Any woolly bear caterpillars still looking for a place to hibernate can burrow into the dead leaves under the pile.

OK, I know that most built-up areas can’t support a brush pile of this size in everybody’s back yard, but even if you have a small area to work with, a more modest brush pile still works:

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So if you’re faced with tree damage from the crazy weather we’ve experienced in the past year, remember that if life hands you tree debris, instead of burning it or sending it away with the trash, you can always just leave it alone. And call it a habitat!

(This is a reprint of my article posted on Wildlife Garden: Redefining Beautiful on Nov 21, 2011)

Virginia Rose

Have you always loved roses, but hate the spraying, fertilizing, watering and pruning they require to keep them from looking a mess? Please meet the lovely Virginia rose (Rosa virginiana). Unlike its highly-bred, cultivated cousins (hybrid tea roses and modern cultivars of climbing roses) this native eastern rose is hardy to the coldest parts of New England, grows happily in almost any soil, needs little to to no irrigation except for rainwater, and blooms its head off through June with pink flowers with the most heavenly fragrance. Not to mention, their beautiful red fruits (hips) persist right through the winter, feeding birds and providing winter interest when the landscape is otherwise white and brown. What’s not to love?

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IMG_4918 virginia rose hip closeup snow reduced

Most Virginia roses bloom in light or medium pink, although there are white-flowering cultivars available too (I’ve not had good experience with the white-flowering form, however). Their flowers might not have the fluffy allure of the larger double-formed hybrids, but their single-flowering form makes them much more attractive to butterflies and other pollinators, who don’t have to fight their way through many layers of petals to access the sweet nectar and pollen at the center of the flower. And did I mention its fragrance?

When it’s happy, which is in any decent soil with good drainage and plenty of sunshine, Virginia rose will spread fairly rapidly within just a few years, so if you have a large area you’d like to fill in quickly with a wildlife-friendly native plant, Virginia makes a great choice.

In bloom, a pink tapestry of Virginia rose mingles beautifully with foxglove, cranesbill and other late spring bloomers and will form a low, thorny hedge that offers excellent year-round predator protection for the birds visiting your gardens. This sunny hillside of our farm was planted with a single container of Virginia rose in 2006, and by June 2009 it had happily spread to form a sizeable thicket:

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As you might imagine, its spreading habit (through underground roots that snake in every direction) makes Virginia rose unsuitable for small gardens, where its roots will eventually take over surrounding plants and form dense canes that shade them out. A better-behaved but just as pretty wild rose is Virginia’s closest cousin, Carolina or pasture rose (R. carolina) which spreads by slowly enlarging clumps rather than spreading roots.

In the thicket above, an annual mowing stops Virginia rose runners from spreading into the adjacent lawn, but you can also contain its advancing roots with a hard root pruning every few years with a sharp shovel. A driveway also makes a good boundary, as long as you don’t use large amounts of salt to de-ice your driveway.

Note: Please let it be known that I would dearly love for the above Virginia rose thicket to spread and cover the entire hill, but hubby has drawn a literal line in the sand (with rocks!) where his lawn cannot be further encroached! I am hoping he won’t notice the line has moved a few times

So planting Virginia rose in beds with other perennials is not a good idea, but in a new planting of a large area, you can interplant with self-seeding annuals, biennials or short-lived perennials to fill the bed for the first few years while the rose spreads….I initially planted the above bed with common sage, purple coneflower, cranesbill, foxglove, cosmos and cleome, and after 4 years, mostly only the foxglove remains in the area, probably because its seedlings are more shade-tolerant than the others. The others I have simply moved to other areas of the garden or given away to friends.

If you’ve grown roses before, you’ll appreciate that Virginia’s foliage is very resistant to most of the common diseases that disfigure roses. Like all roses (wild or cultivated), Japanese beetles love to eat its foliage, but if your plant is healthy and vigorous, it should shrug off any damage. These roses bloom in June in central Massachusetts, and Japanese beetles don’t tend to arrive in large numbers in our area til early July, so by the time the beetles start chewing, you should have other beautiful blooming plants to distract you from a few holes in their leaves.

 Virginia rose canes top out at about 4′, so you should never need to prune them for height, especially because you’d be cutting off one of the plant’s best features, its plump red hips that you barely notice until the first winter snows suddenly bring them to life:

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The hips must be pretty sour to taste, because the birds don’t seem to touch them at all during the winter. They disappear around the beginning of spring here, so winter’s deep freezes must sweeten them up a bit, or else late winter birds are too hungry to be picky. I often see their thorny stems used as a temporary hideout by foraging winter birds, who get spooked by hungry hawks hovering around my bird gardens and feeders. The white background makes tiny birds much more visible to larger predators (my dogs will confirm this because they constantly mistake them for chipmunks!) but even a cat is unlike to risk those nasty thorns and go in after them…

If your garden conditions are boggy or wet, the best native roses for garden use are swamp rose (R. palustris) and New England rose (R. nitida), although these bloom a little later than the field roses in summer.

If you look, you may still find native roses growing wild in natural areas. More often than not, though, roses that you see in the wild are the invasive multiflora rose (R. multiflora), which is often assumed to be native but is an introduced rose from Asia that has been steadily overtaking old fields in New England for decades:

19-x Multiflora rose closeup cropped reduced Although birds do eat their berries, multiflora rose has a highly negative impact on its surroundings, forming enormous thickets that crowd out the native plants that underpin balanced and healthy ecosystems. Chances are, if you see a large, fragrant sprawling wild rose with white flowers and arching stems, it’s multiflora rose. Removing these from your property can be a great contribution to protecting local biodiversity…you can either replant with one of our native New England roses, or use the “wait, weed and watch” approach, which means simply rooting out any remaining multiflora canes that pop up over time, and allowing any native plants that are still hanging on to make a comeback.

If you try the wait, weed and watch approach, be prepared for a funny thing to happen. You’ll begin to notice an increasing variety of birds, butterflies and other interesting wildlife that visit your naturalized area, many more so than your more cultivated garden areas, and eventually you will realize that your wildlife garden, with all the life it attracts, is your most beautiful and favorite garden of them all…

** BY THE WAY ** Apologies to my email blog subscribers who received a half-written article on Wednesday by email – I hit the “Publish” button instead of the “Save” button and the article went out as is  {deep embarrassment}. The complete article is available here: Gimme Shelter…for the Birds

Gimme Shelter…for the Birds

Happy New Year to my blog followers! With apologies to the Rolling Stones for this blog title, I’ll start the year talking about  some ways to help overwintering wild birds stay safe from bad weather and predators in your backyard. With many of our native bird species declining at an alarming rate, our feathered friends need all the help they can get from those of us who care about their future….

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With the exception of hummingbird feeders, winter is the only time of year I hang bird feeders here on our farm. To be honest, feeding wild birds is more about making us feel good than about really helping birds. Birds rely on a variety of natural food sources (seeds, berries, buds, and the various insect life forms that overwinter in leaf litter, plant stems or tree bark) to get themselves through winter, and the best way to help them is to plant as many bird-friendly plants and trees in your surroundings to provide food and habitat throughout the year.

But hanging a feeder is a great way to supplement natural food sources for birds especially after heavy snowfall has buried many seed plants and ground-level food sources, and a bird feeding station near the house is an low-impact way to enjoy nature from indoors. Especially in the worst of the horrid weather when even I (who LIVES to be outdoors) prefer to stay inside…

If you do hang feeders, locate them somewhere that birds can quickly dive for cover if necessary. Birds visiting a crowded feeder in an exposed location are sitting ducks for predators such as hawks looking for a quick meal. Evergreen shrubs and trees (including rhododendron, mountain laurel, yew, hemlock, pine, spruce, fir and cedar) are the best, because they also provide shelter from wind and harsh weather. But any shrub or tree with a twiggy or dense branching structure will give birds a safe place to rest in between feeding. Shrubs such as holly, crabapple and native viburnums are all great “shelter” trees for birds, plus they retain their fruits well into winter to feed hungry birds.

Any plant with thorns, including wild rose or hawthorn, also provide a safe haven for birds to hide from danger. Not many predators (especially cats!) are willing to fight with thorny stems for a meal.

If your family puts up a live Christmas tree at the holidays, consider re-using your discarded Christmas tree as temporary evergreen cover near your winter feeders. The very first year we tried this, within hours, we saw finches, sparrows and chickadees begin to use the tree as a hideout in between visits to our nearby feeding station. And within days, we witnessed real drama when a sharp-shinned hawk held some of them hostage inside the tree:

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Can you imagine his beady little eyes watching you inside that tree? This photo still makes me shiver…

The truth is, this hawk was just too slow for our speedy songbirds. At one point (after a good 20 minutes of waiting), a group of brave birds mad e a dash for the shrub border at the edge of our property. The hawk watched and waited a while longer, but after a few minutes, he gave up and flew away in search of easier pickings elsewhere.

So remember, feeding the birds is a nice idea, but make sure you’re not luring them to certain death at your feeders. Resolve to add some “bird shelter” to your gardens this year. I’ll be posting over the next few days with some more ideas…

Should I Pull This Plant?

I hear it all the time. “Should I pull this plant? I’m not sure if I like it…”  The answer usually is….it depends. I have some clients who are passionate about restoring their landscape with native plants in order to help rebuild lost or damaged local ecosystems. For them, the answer is easy. If it’s not native, yes, pull it up and replace with a native plant. But what if your property already has many nice (and expensive) landscape plants and you’re not sure whether they’re worth keeping? As a habitat gardener, you can decide whether to keep or remove a plant by answering a few key questions:

is it listed as an invasive plant in Massachusetts? If yes, definitely remove it to make room for native plants, who may be capable of recolonizing the area. Or, replace it with a native plant suitable for your garden conditions. Invasive non-native plants are a major threat to biodiversity and environmental health. Even if you don’t see a plant behaving aggressively in your own yard, many invasive plants are spread by birds eating their berries or seeds and pooping them into nearby natural areas, where they quickly form colonies that crowd out the native plants essential to local wildlife. See IPANE (Invasive Plants of New England) for the plants that are invasive in New England.chickadee magnolia

is it healthy without needing fertilization or regular watering? If so, it’s well suited to the spot it’s in and won’t need your constant fussing to keep it looking good.

Does it attract birds, butterflies or any other forms of wildlife? Do its flowers provide nectar and pollen for butterflies, bees, hummingbirds and other pollinators to use as a food source? Does it form nutritious berries, seeds, nuts or cones that are an important food source for many birds? Does the plant’s foliage feed caterpillars and other insects that most birds rely upon to feed their young? Does its structure and foliage provide shelter, protection and nesting sites for many birds and other wildlife?

If the plant supplies at least 2 or 3 of these last few attributes, it is wildlife-friendly and you should probably keep it. Its presence supports declining populations of birds and pollinators who help keep our environment in balance.

oie_IMG_5417On our property, we have several areas planted with Cotoneaster, (right) which is a low shrub often used as a groundcover planting in New England lanscapes. It’s not native here, and it’s not what I would call a spectacular plant, but I have never considered removing it because it has its benefits…it thrives along a brick walkway in dry, hot blazing sun without any care or attention from us except for a bit of occasional weeding. Its dense twiggy branching structure, especially when it’s pruned, is a safe place for overwintering songbirds to dive into when they visit our winter bird feeders. Its tiny pink flowers are a magnet to spring pollinators, who are in turn an abundant food source for migrating birds newly arrived from the south. In the fall, pollinated cotoneaster flowers form large red berries, which although I have never seen birds eating them, the berries persist right through winter and disappear in about March, so some hungry creature is eating them when food is scarce!

For a foundation or walkway planting, you can prune cotoneaster into an attractive low hedge that satisfies even the most formal-style gardeners. My own hubby, who loves a crisp, clean Zen-garden style of landscaping, that often – um – clashes with my own more natural style of gardening, loves our cotoneaster hedge because it gives him that controlled look he craves while satisfying my requirement that a plant in such a visible location should not just look good, but also support the wildlife we invite into our backyard habitat.

Hunger Moon

Good news for gardeners! Yesterday’s full moon, on the last day of February, means that spring is in sight! New England’s native Americans, who had a name for each full moon as a way of tracking the calendar, called February’s full moon the Snow, or Hunger Moon. This time of year, food must have been tough to come by when you depend upon your natural surroundings to survive.

It’s also the toughest time of year for the birds that spend winters in New England. Many seed plants are buried under snow, and the tastiest berries were eaten months ago from the winterberry hollies, dogwoods and wild cherries. Insect populations are at their lowest, making it tough for woodpeckers and other insectivores to keep themselves going til the bugs of spring start to arrive.

Remember this time of year when you plan your gardens. Some shrubs have berries that taste awful until they have been through a few freeze and thaw cycles, meaning that birds won’t eat them unless they are starving. My Virginia Rose still has most of its berries (hips), but in the past few snowy weeks, I have finally seen birds picking at them. In some years, birds don’t touch our flowering crabapples until late winter, when the cardinals or early arriving cedar waxwings pick them clean. Strangely, in some years these berries disappear well before Christmas…

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And try to keep as many of your seed plants standing into winter as you can, instead of hacking your perennial beds to the ground in the fall. Especially if you live in an urban area with few natural food sources, your garden’s seed heads poking out of the snow might mean the difference between life or death for some of our hungry feathered friends.

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A Northern Junco picks at the seed heads of Lavender Giant Hyssop (Agastache foeniculum) during a snowstorm.

Juncos (aka Snowbirds) breed in northern New England and Canada during the summer, but they migrate south to New England to spend the winter! They are cute but tough little birds that rely on the seeds of goldenrodasters and other native plants to keep them fed all winter.

So look around your yard and ask yourself. Do your local birds have natural food sources to keep them going during the Hunger Moon? Feeders are great for supplementing natural food sources, but they often attract the “wrong kind of birds” and squirrels, and keeping them stocked can get expensive. Invest in some bird-friendly plants and shrubs, and you’ll feed birds, for free, for years to come.

Goat’s Beard (Aruncus dioicus)

If you’re a New England gardener looking for a large-impact shade perennial that blooms in early summer, you can’t go wrong with Goat’s Beard (Aruncus dioicus). Perfect for a partly-shaded woodland edge, its creamy white flowers are especially striking contrasted with a darker background:

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Native to the rich woods of Pennsylvania southward, Goat’s Beard grows quickly in spring from a woody crown, with flowering stems that can reach 6′ in moist soil. Flowering in late June in my zone 5b central Massachusetts garden, Goat’s Beard seems to do best with about half a day of morning sunshine. It usually takes a few years to get established, but once mature, it fills a good size area, so give it plenty of room.

Don’t confuse the native Goat’s Beard to the commonly planted Astilbe, which is also sometimes called Goatsbeard. Astilbe is much shorter than the native Aruncus, growing only about 2′.

aruncus-seeds-feb-2010Goat’s Beard is a good plant for New England habitat gardens…its flowers attract hordes of beneficial pollinating insects, and its long seed tassels persist well into winter. Don’t these winter seed stems look like a nice meal for birds?

Aruncus dioicus is dioecious, which means that there are male and female plants.  Only the female plants produce the seed heads, and their flowers are slightly showier than the males, so plant several Goat’s Beard at a time to ensure that you have at least one female plant. Even if you are lucky enough to find this plant for sale in a nursery, you’ll probably get some blank stares if you ask what sex they are! In central MA, this plant is sometimes available at Bigelow Nurseries in Northborough as well as Garden in the Woods in Framingham. I also have them for sale during the season at Turkey Hill Brook Farm (Spencer, MA).

Great Backyard Bird Count

BGGCWhat are you doing this weekend? Can you spare a few minutes of bird watching to help scientists understand our wild birds better? Be a citizen scientist and contribute data about the winter bird populations in your region of the United States. Scientists use the information to learn how birds are adapting to environmental changes, and to answer puzzling questions about why bird populations fluctuate in areas from year to year.

Here’s all you need to do. Simply make a note (and number) of the birds you see this weekend between February 12th and 15th. Enter your results online on the form at the Great Backyard Bird Count  website. You have until March 1st to enter your results.

For a list of birds you are most likely to see in your region, click here for a checklist. If you need help identifying the birds you see in your yard, use visit the Online Bird Guide.

Here’s a shot of one of our winter bird gardens from last January. Look carefully and you can spot at least 3 birds in this photo:

cardinal-chickadeeSo, look out your windows this weekend at the trees, and write down which birds you see. Even better, take a hike in the woods with a digital camera and a field guide to birds. Log your tallies online, and submit your best photos to the Photo Gallery. And, don’t forget to check the GBBC results page later to see which birds your neighbors also saw!