Sunday, September 14, 2014

An Afternoon Walk Along the North Branch of the Chicago River

Oaks, grasses and forbs at Middlefork Savanna (Alex Wild)
So there I was, alone, trudging along a path beside a small, slow river through the middle of a huge field of goldenrod, Silphiums, prairie sunflowers and asters all in full bloom, with big bluestem and Indian grasses waving their distinctive seed heads. I was hot, thirsty, a little tired, and, woodland savanna girl that I am, looking froward to walking in the shade of the huge oaks I saw in the distance. After weeks of nothing but the rectilinear constraints of city streets and institutional buildings, I was finally on a walkabout.

That morning I'd attended a Chicago Wilderness meeting held at Lake Forest Open Lands Association, quartered in what was the gatehouse of the old Armour estate. We met in a small adjacent building once used for washing carriages, now  fitted up as a classroom full of nature-related accessories useful for teaching children. Beyond the gatehouse is a swath of beautifully restored prairie owned by Open Lands; beyond that, the Middlefork Savanna, a large acreage of forest preserve land that includes some of the finest oak savanna on the planet (literally). After the meeting, I indulged myself with pretty thoroughly exploring the place, on the the theory that I might not be back, though I hope I will.

The landscape could have been a mirage, except I was walking through it. Not only were there acres and acres of all the golden and purple flowers of late summer surrounding the North Branch but the place was full of life: bees, butterflies, green darner dragonflies (very numerous since they are on migration), woodpeckers, goldfinches and blue jays--the birds all getting very alert and hopping up on willows or other scattered trees to warn others that I was coming. It's funny how blue jays used to be just another common urban bird, and now, post West Nile virus they've been somewhat elevated.

There were also numerous ponds and wet areas, much more conspicuous than the river, especially since they are ringed with snags, many boasting a white egret sitting near the top. There's nothing like the sight of an egret stepping up into the air, floating delicately down across the path, grumbling the while, until it poises upright on a rock by the river to inspect a person walking by. Willows grow all along the river and ponds, narrow leaves making that little shuffling sound they do, softer than the watery clacking of their neighbors, the cottonwoods.

In such a landscape, so beautifully preserved and expanded through restoration, one could wander for hours. I suppose we are lucky that Armour, having made so much money on the backs of the immigrant workers in the meatpacking industry, chose to spend some of it on a large, choice piece of property. Thanks in part to the company he ran there, Chicago in the summer was to be escaped if at all possible. Lake Forest was a world away, then, a world of privilege. It still is: modern McMansions hem in the preserve. They loom, discordant piles of brick sitting in swards of incongruously smooth, green grass. Everything that Frank Lloyd Wright considered wrong with Midwestern architecture, especially in relation to the prairie, these houses embody, olde world faux chateaux mash-ups that they are. If you pay millions to have an overly large house with a view of a landscape like that, the least you could do would be to create a design in harmony with its surroundings. But then, I don't understand the perceived need for grand, or even extremely large, houses in general. Smallish, olde world faux cottages might have looked a little better, if only because not so dominantly ostentatious--more easily ignored, I suppose.

Still, this is a wonderful, almost hidden place, easy to get to, and open to the public. Anyone can simply walk in, look around, and stay for hours. Many very devoted people have spent time and effort to make and maintain this preserve. It is truly a jewel. The children who take nature classes there and the volunteers who help keep it going are privileged in the more genuine sense of being able to experience first hand a working ecosystem, and in understanding and appreciating its beauties. That afternoon, I felt privileged to be able to take a walk, in peace, flowers blooming and birds singing all around.

Note to my readers: This blog is written in my spare time (as they used to call it). Posts have always been infrequent and irregular, but generally I've been able to find, make or steal a few hours to spend outside, do research and write. However, owing to an illness in the family this summer, the spare time has deflated. For the next few months posts will be even more irregular than usual.




Sunday, August 3, 2014

Summer Notes: Birds, Pollinators, and Prairie Flowers Over Six Feet Tall

 See more at Illinois State Climatologist
We are at the midpoint between the summer solstice and the fall equinox, a time of warm weather but slowly declining light as the earth wheels toward the dark hinge of the year in late December. Climate weirdness continues. The summer has continued cooler than average. In fact, this July is tied for coolest on record with 2009.
Just two years ago we were enduring the second warmest on record, and in a drought besides. With the abundant rain this year, in my yard, at least, there is full-on abundant, riotous growth.

It's that time of summer when, if you are a tidy gardener, everything is weeded, ship-shape, well groomed, and so on. You could go on vacation right now, and things wouldn't be too out of order when you got back. Or you might be harvesting tomatoes, zucchini, and basil from your well-tended beds. Then again, it might be that after careful beginnings, all you can do right now is  throw up your hands before the boisterous, blooming, buzzing confusion, say "ok, ok, I give up," pick some vegetables, resolve to weed when you can, but mostly find yourself doing a lot of standing and staring full of gratitude and amazement. Particularly if you're aiming for native-plant-based, permaculture-influenced biodiversity. This year a family health issue has led to my spending a great deal of time visiting the hospital. When I am home, it continues to astound me just what plants, birds, pollinators and assorted small mammals can get up to.

Birds and Pollinators
Pagoda dogwood berries all gone
Right now in my yard the pagoda dogwood's fat deep purplish navy blue berries are ripe, hoisted delicately on their upright little red stems. Though not for humans, they are a feast for the birds. On a recent Saturday morning five robins, several sparrows and a squirrel were already brunching when a mourning dove showed up to investigate and a male cardinal reconnoitered from the garage roof before joining in. Every summer I enjoy this scene, a sign of food so abundant that the robins don't even bother contesting the territory. House finches sat on the electrical wires in the alley, gossiping, while chimney swifts circled, chittering high in the blue sky. Are their favorite aerial insects more abundant over non-pesticide-treated, abundantly planted areas?

Trying not to disturb anyone, I first observed a bumblebee buzz-pollinating a tomato flower and then walked carefully and respectfully past the dogwood to the narrow back bed where the prairie plants, assorted herbs (mint and oregano) and a couple of pollinator favorite non-natives (nepeta and Russian sage)--in all shades of bright yellow, purple, and white--are on full display. As are the pollinators. I leaned against the fence that separates this area from the walk to the alley and just watched.

Bumble bee on cup plant
Literally hundreds of pollinators were circling, landing, creeping, resting, sticking their heads inside blooms, getting nectar and pollen. I saw: sweat bees, bumble bees, carpenter bees, honey bees, miner bees,  a leaf-cutter bee, small carpenter bees; a few bees that I couldn't tell what they were but was pretty sure they were bees; two kinds of butterflies; at least three species of predatory wasps; not to mention flower flies, syrphid flies; and numerous small creatures flying so fast that though they glittered in the sun, it was difficult to tell what family they were from. It's enough to take your breath away, even if you've seen it before--yesterday or the day before, for example. It's not called high summer for nothing.

This is normal, I told myself. this is what everyone would see, would be used to seeing if we stopped using pesticides and planted gardens full of mostly native flowers.

I live in the middle of the block. To my north lives the gardening friend with whom I set out to attract hummingbirds some years ago. She raises butterflies, and grows native plants, too, and we've been trading plants-on purpose and not--for so long that it's sometimes hard to say which plants started where. Tons of pollinators and birds over there, of course.

To the south, very nice people (with cute little daughters) maintain what might be considered an average yard. They have grass with a little clover mixed in, three serviceberry shrubs next to the patio and a row of hostas in front of the garage. To their credit, they don't use pesticides (hence the clover). To look from my yard to theirs is to feel as if one is in one of those old "visible difference" ads on TV.  Or in an experiment in which their yard is the control, and mine the experimental conditions--or vice versa, now that I think of it. On a day like today you could see and compare. In my yard, birds and pollinators galore. Directly over the fence? Nothing. The demarcation is as sharp and dramatic as the fence that separates the two yards, a Berlin wall of sorts.

Prairie Flowers
Vernonia fasciculata
If you want to attract pollinators it helps to have at least eight species of native plants, preferably
selected so that they bloom from spring through fall. As I discovered this summer, I have over fifty species of natives alone and even the non-natives, including vegetables, herbs and weeds, are pollinator friendly. In spring the flowers tend to be short, attractive and well scaled for a small back yard. By late June, when the coneflowers and false quinine start, three to four feet tall is a good average, and still manageable.

But starting in late July, look out! These flowers are big, bright, sprawling and assertive. They have to be to stand up to the grasses such as big bluestem with which they share the tall grass prairies. Some designers suggest that late summer stars such as vernonia, cup plant, compass plant, rigid goldenrod and sweet black-eyed Susan might be too tall, too overwhelming for the small garden. But I love the feeling of excess, the sheer grandeur of exuberant life and well-being they impart. It's fun to see flowers at eye height or above, a pleasure to be surrounded by color, to walk under an arch of cup plant flowers leaning over the fence toward the garage. These plants demand respect. They are not charming, but  have an exuberant charisma your tame, overbred hybrids lack. To avoid feeling crowded, it does help to arrange them with shorter plants in the foreground just for balance and proportion's sake. Right now viceroys and yellow swallowtales are sunning themselves on the coneflowers. Very soon, if not already, the male bumble bees will be camping out nights on the cup plants. Later, when the plants set seed, the goldfinches and other small birds will perch and gorge themselves. And during the winter, solitary bees will be tucked in their nests in various hollow stems or in the ground, waiting for spring. A garden is so much more than flowers alone.


Related Posts:
Spring Notes: Plants, Birds and Bumblebees
A Short Journey by Bicycle
Diary of a Dry Summer
Hummingbird Sightings


Thursday, July 17, 2014

"Pollinators of Native Plants" is a Great Resource for Creating Pollinator Habitat

Heather Holm’s blog Restoring the Landscape with Native Plants is a valuable resource for any gardener.  A landscaper herself, with extensive experience using natives on her own property, Heather combines this knowledge with excellent photography skills to showcase native plants and their associated insects. When considering what plants to put in my own yard, I have often consulted her blog. Equally, when wondering what type of bees are likely to visit various plants, I’ll check to see what information she offers. She has graciously let me use her photos to illustrate some of my own posts.

Now Holm has compiled a great deal of essential information in her new book, Pollinators of Native Plants: Attract, Observe and Identify Pollinators and Beneficial Insects with Native Plants (Pollination Press, 2014). This easy to use reference will prove useful to anyone interested in native plants and who wants to have the kind of garden that attracts bees, butterflies and other helpful insects. The opening sections explain the role and life cycles of pollinators and how pollination works. The bulk of the book treats over sixty flowering plants, with sections devoted to prairie, woodland edge, and wetland edge plants. 

Native plants have particular needs regarding soil, moisture and sun, but if the right plant is planted in the right place, they will do well with little extra care. The book reflects this, and is organized so that each entry includes a description of the plant, its growing requirements and natural range (mostly the eastern half of North America); you can see at a glance if a plant you are considering is right for your yard. Each entry also includes a useful discussion of the pollinating insects that are associated with the plant. The detailed photographs have caught pollinators in action, which makes it easier to identify them when outside.  Also included are handy charts, a glossary, and sample planting plans for a variety of situations.

Pollinators of Native Plants fills a niche, whether used for planning a native plant garden or for guidance regarding what you are likely to see when in natural areas. There are plenty of excellent wildflower and insect guides, but few combine the two so conveniently as this does. A whole range of people will find Holm's book useful, from gardeners, organic farmers, and permaculturalists, to garden and landscape designers, as well as those restoring and managing natural areas. I could even see a role for it in the classroom. Beginners will find the book valuable because it is an entree to the kind of broad knowledge that takes years to develop, while experienced practitioners will find worthwhile information as well.  Pollinators is a great companion to Attracting Native Pollinators (reviewed here), the Xerces Society’s compendium on the subject that was an inspiration for Holm.

The best way anyone can help native and honey bees is to provide good, pesticide free habitat with loads of native flowers. This book is a helpful resource in that endeavor.

Cross-posted at Resilience.org

Related Posts: 
Attracting Native Pollinators
Urban Neighborhoods Can Be Good for Native Bees 

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Butterweed, Butterwhat?

A green wood by a river

A surprising flower in Thatcher Woods

At this time of year, the woodland savannah is green, green, green. The spring ephemerals have quit blooming and the summer players—woodland sunflower, Joe pie weed, the grasses and goldenrods—are still mustering their strength. So as you walk through the green shade, there’s not much color—oh, some delicate white sweet Cicely, perhaps, but little more than that. It’s enough to make one wonder how the butterflies and bees are getting their nectar and pollen. You get your "plant eyes" on, in the sense that you are identifying by leaf shape, habit of growth and shade of green: you focus on fundamentals, on what really characterizes each plant, rather than the gaudy flower.

So there a fellow forest preserve volunteer and I were last week, walking through the bottomland along the Des Plaines River, comparing specimens of Asian and native honeysuckle, avoiding poison ivy, noticing the raspberries coming along, listening to the bull frogs croaking and the woodpeckers and robins commenting on perceived conditions, and generally enjoying the green gloom, when a vast flare of sunlit yellow caught our eyes. Across a flooded river inlet was at least an acre of three-foot tall plants topped by bright yellow flowers where such things shouldn’t be, as if a crew of flashy strangers had crashed a Quaker meeting. We were compelled to investigate, which involved some navigation around the water and dealing with a muddy sloping bank.

What we found was a plant neither of us recognized. Now, without boasting I can say I am familiar with most of the plants in Thatcher Woods: even if I don’t yet know their names, I recognize them, like neighbors from the next block over. And my friend is pretty good, too. There are also various plants I’ve read about and then recognize when I encounter them, as when I first saw hoary puccoon in a dry prairie I was visiting. But this? Deeply lobed leaves, a daisy-like composite flower, seed puffs like a dandelion, and a ridged hollow stem—nope, never saw it before. Never expected to see it or knew to look for it. Could it be a Senecio, a ragwort, of some kind? Well, it didn’t match anything in the Peterson’s Field Guide to Wildflowers I had with me. Those leaves. That somewhat brittle, easily snapped, hollow stem. We figured it might be a non-native invasive, introduced since the book was published.

Later I described the plant to my colleague, an environmental biology instructor, also a plant geek and a superior sleuth. The next day a name, Senecio glabellus—alternatively Packera glabella, common name butterweed—and links to Missouri and Ohio websites showed up in my in-box. The plant is also called cressleaf groundsel (“groundsel” is from an old Anglo-Saxon word “groundeswelge” meaning ground swallower) and it is toxic to grazing animals—though deer have enough sense to avoid it. Now that I had the name, I could easily check Swink and Wilhelm’s Plants of the Chicago Region: they say the plant is native to southern Illinois, but has been introduced in Du Page County. Illinois Wildflowers says the same and gives it the epithet “weedy,” adding that its native range has expanded north from southern to central Illinois. Yet here it is, ensconced and happy in Cook County.

A couple of days later I went back to take pictures. There had been rain, and the whole area was flooded. A doe and two fawns appeared nearby, sensed me upwind and moved off, not too fast. A bullfrog croaked. A great blue heron grunted in a slightly higher key. The butterweeds stood blooming bravely, up to their waists in water.

Related Posts:
A Date with Some Turtles
Gardening in Thatcher Woods, with Help
Behold the Inglorious Garlic Mustard

Monday, June 9, 2014

Three Weeds You Can Eat

Foraging while gardening

Lady's Thumb in bloom

The other day, while engaging in my hobby of pulling weeds, I started thinking about categories: weeds, weeds, and weeds. There are the bullies, the thugs, the thieves, the ones that, unable to fit comfortably into a given plant community, will enter your garden or a natural area and through various mechanisms—high reproduction rate, extreme adaptability, quick genetic adaptation, allellopathic chemicals released in the soil, resistance to insects and pathogens, or simply shading out other plants—can and will rapidly disrupt a functioning ecosystem or garden. They are the reason I go on bindweed patrol nearly every day during the growing season and forest preserve volunteers spend too much of their free time getting after buckthorn, Asian honeysuckle and teasel.

Plants in the wrong place
There are other weeds that are plants simply in the wrong place, as determined by the gardener who, for example, gets to decide that grass shouldn’t grow among the flowering perennials, or that non-natives shouldn’t grow among the natives. Some people, such as a permaculturalist or two, might tell you there are no weeds, merely plants taking advantage of situations, filling in a niche or a vacuum, since nature doesn’t like vacancies. Ecologists might speak of “invasives” or “weedy species,” but “weed” is not exactly part of the scientific lexicon either. It is a term defined most fully by the human-designed context of yard, garden, and farm and as a result can also be a legal term. I’ve heard landscapers recommend plants that have achieved the legal standing of noxious weeds. How should one feel about this?

Weeds with benefits
There is another category of weed, however: those plants that, native or not, might take over if you let them, but if managed properly, add to a yard’s biodiversity, don’t look bad, and offer nutritious supplements to your diet and that of various pollinators and other wildlife. This is a category useful to gardeners relaxed about what fussier gardeners might consider “appearances,” who don’t like to kill plants unnecessarily, and understand that mostly, weeds are in the eye of the beholder. Thus, to me, a few dandelions in the grass are tolerable, and almost everyone knows you can add their young leaves to a salad for extra tang.

When I’m out weeding, I’m foraging as well. There are thinnings, natural microgreens such as parsley and radishes (both leaves and tiny red roots) that must be pulled so the others can grow strong and healthy, the cilantro that pops up everywhere, and the oregano that always needs cutting back. My iced tea gets brewed with handfuls of the mint that appears in unlikely places. These are plants that have been let in to the garden on purpose, however. What about the others, the ones who just show up one day? Lately I’ve been adding the leaves of young violets, Asiatic dayflowers and lady’s thumbs to the evening salad.

Violets
Bumblebees like the nectar
Our native common violets (Viola sororia sororia) grace the yard in early spring. Bumblebees appreciate them, since they bloom when little else does, but lawn fetishists loath them. In turf grass they don’t really take over, but give them some bare soil in a semi-shady, moist environment, and watch out. Not only do they have their lovely spurred flowers, but later, in late May and early June, they have a second greenish, unnoticeable bloom, at which time you’ll notice hundreds of babies around each mother plant. This is because the second, cleistogamous, bloom produces seeds which are ejected from the capsules in fall.

Unless you want to use violets as a groundcover (effective in the right
Young violets
spots under bushes and trees) you’ll want to thin them out before they develop their tubers. Young violet leaves are good in salads, though, as pointed out in Edible Wild Plants, they are “somewhat bland and best mixed with other greens.” I haven’t tried other suggested uses yet, such as candying the flowers, adding the leaves to soup as a thickener, or drying the leaves for tea. They are a source of nectar for bumble bees. Halictid and mason bees and Syrphid flies also visit the flowers and birds occasionally eat the seeds, while caterpillars of Fritillary butterflies and small mammals nibble the leaves.

Asiatic Dayflowers
Asiatic dayflower
The young stems and lance-shaped leaves of Asiatic dayflowers (Commelina communis) are also good in salads. Their flavor is also bland, but but because they are somewhat thick and fleshy they can add some body and variety of shape to your lettuce. These creeping annuals have a pretty blue and white flower, at which I have seen bees, but in my experience are best picked before they bloom. More mature, blooming plants can be steamed like spinach. You could also add them with other chopped greens to a saute. They are prolific, and will appear seemingly at random, but, in my yard, at least cause no harm and are not pernicious, though they can be pesky in the wrong place. Their roots don’t run deep and if you miss a few one day you can get them the next. The dayflower is also an alley weed par excellence, one of that wild tribe that clusters around telephone poles, along fences and next to garages. Besides their usefulness to bees, songbirds, such as mourning doves, eat the seeds.

Lady’s Thumb
Lady's Thumb in an alley
Another player in the alley mix is lady’s thumb (Polygonum persicaria), though you’ll also find this low plant sprawling in the woods, vacant lots, and neglected corners of your yard. The narrow leaves have a dark triangular “thumbprint.” The tiny pink flowers are clumped tightly together on erect stems. They have a mild flavor and again are best in salads when young. You can also steam or boil them like spinach if you collect enough. Caterpillars also like them; those of coppers eat the foliage while gray hairstreaks eat the flowers and fruit. Birds like the seeds. Though the plant hails originally from Europe, as Dr. John Hilty at Illinois Wildflowers says, “the ecological value of this little plant is
rather high, notwithstanding its weedy nature.”

None of these three plants will go away without a lot of effort and the use of toxic chemicals. They are so generally pervasive that if banished from the yard they’ll surely reappear later, or most likely sooner. Yet they aren’t thuggish, look pretty nice, and offer benefits to humans and non-humans alike. These are weeds I can live with, and do.

Note: It goes without saying that no one should eat any foraged plants unless sure of their identification. References include Edible Wild Plants: Eastern/Central North America, by Lee Allen Peterson, and Illinois Wildflowers.

Related Posts:
Flowering Plants that Native Bees Love
Creeping Charlie Love

Monday, May 12, 2014

A Backyard Plant Species Count


Permaculture biodiversity
How many plant species live in your backyard? How many are native? How many provide food for you or for birds, pollinators, and other non-human persons—or for everyone? I am not a trained scientist, but I sometimes hang out with biologists, and one thing they like to do is count things, especially living things. One reason is to assess the health of a place, on the principle that the more biodiversity, the better. I’m no permaculturalist, either—no official certificate—though I have polyculture beds and am deeply influenced by the design philosophy and methods. The basic idea is to work with natural systems and imitate their function when establishing a food garden. Again, the more biodiversity, the better.

However, it had never occurred to me to do a backyard species count until I read Eric Toensmeier’s Paradise Lot, an ebullient book about urban permaculture so full of enthusiasm that if you are fortunate enough to have a backyard, you will immediately want to try out some of what he’s doing. He writes about biodiversity and the benefits of a garden full of diverse species and mentions at one point that when people have asked how many species he and his gardening partner Jonathan Bates have, he doesn’t know. Then when he does a count, he comes up with something like 185 different species. More or less, in a small backyard roughly analogous to mine in size.

Inspired by this, I went on a field trip out back to do my own species survey. I knew I had “lots of species” (a term of art), and an actual count came up with between 100 and 120. More or less. More if one counts the seeds I’ve just planted, and the prairie plants I know are there, but haven’t quite emerged from their torpor, less if the seeds don’t take, or the prairie plants have indeed been winter killed. Of the total, half are native. The half that aren’t include weeds that I keep at more or less manageable levels but have never quite eliminated. Every plant provides food and/or shelter for someone. Perhaps a quarter provide food for the human residents. When one counts also affects the totals. Spring ephemerals go dormant. There are, at the moment, hundreds of cotyledons that haven’t declared their allegiance in the form of a second set of leaves (though one can make an educated guess in most cases). You always miss something. Besides time, this exercise depends on memory, and like all things botanical, the result is more approximate than definite.

More than 100 separate species, then. Not too bad, considering, for example, the fact that most of the backyards in my neighborhood might have only ten or twenty species, and all non-native, at that. These are, in my opinion, what might be called ecological deserts, analogous to those urban neighborhoods termed food deserts. Many of the species in these yards may be “ornamental,” and the yards themselves neat and green, but they are not biologically beautiful or elegant, since by definition these terms require good ecological functioning and an ability to help support other living species.

The numbers tell other stories, too. In general, I prefer native species. That half the species are non-native is because when I started to add natives, I did so gradually, as I had funds, and will not pull out (that is, kill) a non-native that is good looking, useful, and non-invasive. That half the species are still non-native also reflects that many things I like to eat, such as parsley, basil, chard, radishes, lettuce, and tomatoes came from elsewhere. The numbers change over time: new species volunteer, I add new plants and regretfully (mostly) remove others. I can’t say I was sorry when I finally vanquished the bishop’s goutweed I inherited from the previous owner. This year I removed a sweet autumn clematis that was more than adequately demonstrating its invasive tendencies. Also this year I’m putting in some American currants and more raspberries. Next spring, after I’ve learned more about the subject, I plan to put a dwarf espalier fruit tree on the fence where the clematis was.

What should the balance be among plant species? It’s hard to know. There are six species of berries. Pollinators love the flowers. Two kinds of berries are only for birds and squirrels. We more or less share the other four. I will put in more prairie plants and may put in more native berries or try out some different non-native vegetables and herbs. I cannot imagine ever reducing the number voluntarily. Perhaps there should be some sort of species count competition among backyard gardeners, with an emphasis on native plants and ecological health, and including local and regional championships. Perhaps that would help people take advantage of the wonderful opportunities inherent in their backyards. What I know is, I feel sure I’ll catch up with Eric Toensmeier soon. Maybe. More or less.

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Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Spring Notes: Plants, Birds, and Bumblebees

Native ginger emerging
Plants
Spring is coming on by fits and starts, mostly fits so far, which is appropriate for our continental
Bloodroot, past bloom already
climate, but frustrating after a record cold and snowy winter. Yet I’ve noticed that my native plants are coming along just fine. The ginger, which is always expanding its area, has suddenly jumped after two years of slow movement. In the fall the patch was about two and a half feet in diameter. After months of snow, it is three feet wide, moving in among the native strawberries. The honeysuckle draped over the fence is bushier and healthier than in several years. A single bloodroot has become several. Various other prairie plants are emerging slowly, as they always do, waiting until sure the season has definitely turned, but clearly thriving.

Why is this? Did it take this long for full recovery from the effects of the drought in 2012? Do these plants really respond better to cold winters than the string of warm ones we’ve had for a few years straight?

Birds
Robin. After reading What the Robin Knows, I've become much more conscious of bird behavior in relation to my presence. A friend of mine told me that the same robin has come back to his yard for the third year in a row, a bird easily identifiable due to a genetic mutation that has caused  white streaks in its red breast. I have often noticed that the robin in my back yard seems to know me, though it doesn't have easy i.d. markers. It’s always about, standing stock still in the middle of the yard, or pecking at the ground to pull some hapless insect up for eating with relish. I’ve seen it chase another robin away. When I go outside, as long as I move respectfully, it watches me with its fairly large, white-rimmed black eye, and doesn’t fly away, or give any kind of alarm. It does keep a distance of several feet, moving backwards or sideways as I move towards it. It also seems very interested in my digging, delving, weeding and planting activities and seems to follow me around the garden as I work, often sitting on the fence nearby, watching me and everything else going on.

What are its birdy thoughts? How does it view me? Am I an interloper, keeping it from its own morning rounds? Is it hoping I’ll turn up a tasty worm for it? Does it see me as simply another denizen?

Cooper's Hawk from below
Cooper's Hawk. Another local bird that seems to have no fear of me—or much else, for that matter, is the Cooper’s hawk that’s taken up residence in the neighborhood. I assume there are actually two, and that there’s a nest somewhere nearby. One several occasions in the last month I’ve noticed it up in the maple in front of the house, watching intently as I move about. Viewed from below, its brown wings and streaked breast blend right in with the pattern of bark, branches and sky, so it’s hard to spot: but the noise it makes is unmistakable, an almost squirrel-like scolding. After I stop moving, it shuts up. All is still for a moment. Zoom! It takes off down the street flying at speed below the canopy, straight as a torpedo, not noticeably slowing as it disappears into a tree 150 feet away.

If I didn’t know that Cooper’s hawks hunt songbirds, would I still think of their affect as fierce? It’s definitely not so friendly as the robin in the back yard. Do I imagine the hawk’s glare is sharper and fiercer, or is it a trick of the shape of eye and bone structure? After all, the robin is also a predator.

Bumblebees
An enduring mystery is where the bumblebees that frequent my backyard have their nests. Every spring two or more young queens zoom around my yard with a zig-zaggy flight pattern peculiar to them, feeding and getting ready to nest. They are drawn to the patch of Vinca minor I tolerate purely for their pleasure, working the little blue flowers, but also apparently sleeping, or at least resting, in among the foliage. Later in the season, of course, males congregate on the blooming cup plants. And all summer numerous workers visit the yard, which is, after all, designed to attract them. Yet they don’t seem to nest in the yard. I wish they would, for then I would know they are relatively safe. I often imagine I’ll follow them down the alley or across the street and discover their homes; but they can fly where I cannot trespass, so I may never know. They nest under prairie grasses’ dry last-year’s leaf hummocks and in disused rodent holes in the ground, both of which the yard has, but no luck so far.

Why do the bumblebees find my yard a great pasture area, possibly even a good place to winter over, but not a good place to settle in and raise a family? What element is missing? Or what am I missing? Could there be a nesting area I’m simply overlooking? I must keep sharper watch this summer.

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