Sunday, October 31, 2010

Mourning Warbler Meets Madison Avenue

Mourning Warbler, female (above), male (below)
by Louis Agassiz Fuertes Wikipedia

Although it was warm, it wasn’t the heat that made me so exhausted. I just couldn’t keep up with my 19-year-old boss. I earned $5 and hour that June surveying birds in scraps of habitat that remain in industrial Saint Louis, Missouri. He trotted through a mile of remnant prairie along the edge of Calvary Cemetery, never drawing a short breath, reaching our lunch spot well ahead of me. When I finally arrived at the thicket of walnut trees and sumacs, I had a horrible allergy attack—in fact, the only one I’ve ever had. In spite of my sneezes, I could hear the most amazing bird. Thankfully, he kept on singing while I wiped my eyes and wracked my brain trying to match the song to my bird tape. Peering through a spiny clump of Hercules Club (Aralia spinosa), I caught just a glimpse of a Mourning Warbler!

According to Birds of the St. Louis Area: Where and When to Find Them, the Mourning Warbler is a migrant only, “sparingly recorded” in most of May and September. The best shot at seeing one is mid-May, when the “seasonal occurrence bar graph” shows it as “easily missed”—a step up from rare. It isn't expected at all in June, and certainly not a singing male! It’s a beautiful and distinctive song—still, it’s hard to put a name to a song, especially if you haven’t watched the bird sing. Of course, it shouldn’t have been that hard to recognize the song of the Mourning Warbler.

Rare though the bird is in my area, the song is all too common. Every TV commercial or film director that aspires to add a little outdoor atmosphere throws the Mourning Warbler’s song into the sound track. As you read my list of TV ads and shows where I've heard it, keep in mind that Mourning Warbler prefers tangled, second-growth forests. Read more about this shy bird in Seabrooke Leckie's blog, The Marvelous in Nature.
Mourning Warbler in its favorite habitat
photo by Seabrooke Leckie

  • In a SUV commercial as the car drives along a lakeshore.
  • As detectives investigate a crime scene in a high elevation spruce and fir forest in Montana (about 300 miles west of its expected migration route).
  • In the “allergy eyes” commercial, when the allergy sufferer applies the product. (This one might not be too far fetched.)
  • In a manicured backyard, as Michael Jordan advertises hot dogs.
  • In an ad for the St. Louis Zoo, as 2 llamas sing, “Waltzing Matilda.”
  • Among the monuments and government buildings of Washington, D. C., in an antacid commercial.
  • In a baseball stadium, in an ad for a sports show.
  • In Manhattan, as a morning-news show host talks about pigeon control.
  • And my favorite: in a carpet commercial, along with the songs of Hermit Thrush and open-field loving Savannah Sparrow.
  • Listen for it, in a theatre near you!

Monday, October 25, 2010

Whooo's awake? Me tooo!

Red-tailed Hawk launches from the antenna on the water tower. AMcC

Occasionally people ask me, “What is that thing?” or, “Looks like a spaceship—hope it doesn’t land!” Living under the city water tower has its ups and downs. It’s easy for people to find my house. It’s provided many would-be comedians with a topic. And though the tower and surrounding fence could best be described as—well—unattractive, it’s not like living under a roller coaster.

Last week, construction equipment rattled on to my block, preparing to build a new water tower and tear down the old one. That’s prompted me to review some stories about my quiet, green neighbor over the last 25 year. When I first moved in an American Kestrel claimed the structure. As long as he was around, pigeons stayed away. A persistent Mockingbird owned it for awhile. For many summers, joints of the steel girders were home to a colony of Common Grackles. With 30 or so noisy grackles, pretty much everything stayed away. One spring morning I stepped outside to hear the crows screaming as they dived onto the top of the tower. Finally I saw what they were screaming about. A Turkey Vulture had landed on the dome to warm its six-foot wingspan in the morning sun.

Red-tail overlooks construction AMcC
In the summer of 2009, a pair of Red-tailed Hawks nested nearby in the remnants of woods. Every day one or both of the parents would guard the territory, perched on the plastic cover over cell phone antennas mounted on the catwalk. It occurred to me that for them, the tower is a cliff; the antenna, a tall pine balanced on the edge. An artificial cliff is less scenic to humans, but for birds, it functions like the real thing.

A few years back, I dragged my neighbor out of bed to see two Great Horned Owls perched on the railing of the water tower. As we watched, sharing a pair of binoculars—yes, you can see some things through binoculars at night—one of the owls turned his back to us, pitched up his tail, and yelled into the side of the tank, “WHOOO’s awake? Me TOOOO!” The hoots boomed and echoed—the structure amplified his call as if it were a canyon! Hopping from girder to strut and back, he launched into an extended concert that certainly impressed us. I hope his lady friend felt the same.

Since that night, many Great Horned Owls have made their presence known, usually in fall or January. This year though, I’ve seen a Great Horned perched on the antenna almost every night since early May. Usually she is silent—the female’s voice is a bit higher and I suspect my horned neighbor is a female. Every night the dogs and I step out with the binoculars and check the antennas. If the moon isn’t too bright, she’ll be there. Sometimes she’ll flash her bright white under throat at us.

The removal of the tower will be good for my garden, allowing more southern light. The new tower will be just far enough west to cast its disk-shaped shadow on someone else’s yard. I don’t know what effect the construction/destruction of water towers will have on local wildlife. I’m hoping against hope they won’t remove the only trees on the property—3 mature white pines, beloved by grackles, goldfinches, and owls alike. 

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Creatures of the Night

Fragrant moonflowers open at night, but stay open till the next morning. Photo by Karen Dorsett

A few weeks ago, my sister Kim called to tell me about a startling experience with a bat or bird fluttering around their moonvine. I haven’t grown moonvine or moonflower (Ipomoea alba) since the shade shelter over my patio collapsed, so I was delighted to hear about one of my favorite plants.

I saw moonflowers for the first time in the pages of Peter Loewer’s Bringing the Outdoors In: How to Do Wonders with Vines, Wildflowers, Ferns, Mosses, Bulbs, Cacti, and Dozens of Other Plants Most People Overlook (Contemporary Books, 1974). Loewer did the illustrations too and they are wonderful. Inspired, I planted moonflowers (or moonvines) in my garden. The vines climbed the shade shelter, growing larger and larger leaves. They seemed to enjoy the hot summer, but alas, they produced no blooms. Concluding that I had planted too late in spring, I tried again the next season. Again, huge healthy vines shot up, providing shade but no blooms. 

Daytime camouflage of
Pink-spotted Hawkmoth. Photo by cwphobia
Then one fall night I happened to walk out in the backyard and behold! A huge white bloom, every bit of 6 inches in diameter (15.24 cm)! I noted the fragrance too, and realized that it was familiar. My vines must have bloomed the previous season, but at the top of the shade shelter where I couldn’t see the flowers. About then something fluttered past my ear—then another! I was about to beat a rapid retreat into the house, but there was just enough light for me to see that the winged monsters were moths. Almost as big as the flower, the moths (possibly Pink-spotted Hawkmoth) appeared to blunder into the delicate white bloom and then bounce away. 

Kim got this shot with her phone on Oct. 14
Kim told me that when she transplanted the vine into her garden last spring, she thought, “Well, I’ll never see you again.” But the tiny vine plunged through the lush growth and found itself in moonvine heaven. It leaped over the roses and laughed at the trellis, but it refused to set buds till September. Reassured that bats were not invading the patio, the spectacle of opening buds began to attract the attention of human neighbors too. Kim told me that when the weather is warm, “The buds pop open like a firecracker.” It it’s cooler, they unfurl more slowly. In very cool weather, the buds wither away without opening. Kim and Steve have hosted friends for moonflower-gazing parties almost nightly. Sounds very Zen, doesn’t it? Except I think they served wine, not tea. On October 10, following daytime temperatures in the mid-80s, 23 blooms opened! That night, the thermometer dipped to 42°F, and the next night, in spite of another unseasonably warm day, only 7 opened. This just in: 3 are open tonight.

I’ve read discussions on when to plant, whether or not to fertilize, and lots of other tips to encourage moonflowers to bloom earlier. Here in St. Louis, Missouri, our average date of first frost is between Oct. 11-20, so a tender vine that doesn’t get going till mid-September may not merit space in the garden. Like another favorite of mine, Mexican sage, the blooms depend on day length, not on any factor that gardeners can control. In its native South and Central America, apparently it doesn’t pay to bloom when days are long. For gardeners though, what could be better than a plant that blooms when nights are long?

Sunday, October 10, 2010

"What are ya using for bait?"

A post from guest blogger, J Bowen
I have always been blessed with being able to see some incredible things while out hunting or fishing. I can’t tell you how many times I just sit in my stand or on the ground and do nothing but watch the animals approach me. I’ve seen fox, coyote, owls (a number of different species), eagles, mink, raccoons, possums, skunks, squirrels, turkey, deer, mountain lion, bear and many others! As I get older, I do more watching than actual hunting, but I enjoy the experience no matter what.

One of my most incredible experiences unfolded when my brother and I were fishing in West Virginia. We were fishing in a cove, when we spotted two deer swimming across the width of the lake. The first was a female and obviously older than the second little guy. We saw Mom make it to shore and look back at her baby. I watched helplessly as the baby started swimming in circles about 25 yards from shore. I knew this meant it was exhausted and confused. It would surely drown if something wasn’t done and quickly. I yelled to my brother to take me over to the youngster. He yelled back, “That deer will kick the heck out of you!” I insisted, “Take me over anyway,” and so he did.
As we cruised up to the little guy, my brother positioned the boat so that I could reach over with my left hand and grab the scruff of his neck--I didn’t know deer had a scruff, kinda like a cat’s. As I pulled him out, he just collapsed in my arms and appeared ever so thankful to be out of the water. He didn’t kick, fight, bite or anything except shake from nervousness and possibly the cold autumn water. He didn’t seem afraid of us, perhaps apprehensive, but more thankful to be dry again! His spots were magnificent and cute just doesn’t describe him. How truly beautiful it was to have this animal close to me!

I held him close while my brother took this picture and then we went over to where Mom was on the shore. She wasn’t so sure of us, so she had moved away up on a hillside. I took the little guy, set him out of the boat onto the shore, patted his behind and said “Go find Mom.” God’s markings on animals are amazing camouflage. There was a great deal of underbrush where I put him on shore and just after the pat, I lost sight of him that quick! We backed off to see if Mom would find and accept the little guy. We heard some squalls from baby and responses from Mom, and about 10 minutes later we spotted them up on the hillside beside each other. They both seemed happy and relaxed. It was just one of those very special moments that people who never know the out-of-doors can’t even imagine.

I'm not surprised J was able to persuade her brother to abandon caution and intervene. She once almost persuaded me to stand against the cabin wall at camp while she demonstrated her knife-throwing skill. Today her career is in law enforcement and investigations. By the way, J is not the only person to have such a startling experience with a deer. Thanks for the story and the amazing photo!

Monday, October 4, 2010

Mexican Sage is A Hummer Magnet

Adult male Allen's Hummingbird on Salvia leucantha. Photo by tdlucas5000

I lied. I had to. I told work I’d be late because of a doctor’s appointment. I wanted be there early, but at 7:45 AM I was already part of the crowd. No, I’m not talking about Black Friday at Wal-Mart, but the St. Louis Community College-Meramec Horticulture Club Spring Plant Sale! Wandering through the packed tables that bright spring day in ’99, I spotted a scrawny, Charlie-Brown-Christmas-tree sort of a plant. It was labeled “Salvia leucantha, Mexican Sage”—no other information given.
      I’d been thinking about devoting a section of my garden to hummingbirds, especially after the visit of a western wanderer, a Selasphorus hummingbird the previous November. (My stray hummer was probably a Rufous Hummingbird, but it could have been an Allen's—they're both in the genus Selasphorus.) Any Salvia is worth trying, especially if it claims to come from Mexico. I bought two of the puny things; $3 each.
      Guessing that the plants would not be hardy, I put them in containers. During the long, hot summer that followed the plants grew—and grew. By July they were almost 5 feet tall and 3 feet wide, narrow-leaved and wild looking. The stems were covered with white, powdery down, but nary a bloom had bloomed. By late August I considered pitching them into the compost. Six bucks down the drain.
      Then in September—buds! Hummers fought over the still-closed, deep blue buds. By the time the Broad-winged Hawks were migrating, each denim-colored calyx had a white tube projecting from it. The hummers showed their delight by beating up on each other constantly.
      In early October another Selasphorus hummingbird arrived and chased away the Ruby-throats. Around Halloween I had to cover the plants to protect them from frost, but the temperatures recovered and they bloomed till almost December. She dined on Mexican and Pineapple Sage for the next 7 weeks, to the delight of many birders. She didn't even mind being captured, identified as an adult female Rufous who already had a band!
Mexican bush sage blooms when days get short. AMcC
      Such a fabulous plant—why had I never heard of it before? And why was Meramec the only place in town that carried it? Since then I’ve spied it here and there. Salvia leucantha showed up twice on PBS’s The Victory Garden. When that best-of-garden-TV shows visited Cape Town, South Africa, Adrian Bloom commented on a bed of them. The gardener replied, “Oh, yes. That’s one of the old Salvias.” (An old-fashioned flower? An old planting in his garden? I don’t know.) In another episode, the camera lingered over a terrace filled with them in Provence, France. A photo of Mexican sage graced the cover of Fine Gardening, in October, 2002. I spotted it in the Canon color printer commercial, with the pair of Anna’s Hummingbirds. The plant even appeared on the Clairol Herbal Essences Conditioner bottle—the one for “Normal to Oily Hair.”
      It’s easier to find Salvia leucantha in local garden centers now, but I usually find it in the herb section with the kitchen sage. I don’t know of any culinary use. I suspect they just don’t know where else to put it.
      The culture is not difficult. Mexican sage—also known as Mexican bush sage—can tolerate drought and poor soil. It’s great in containers, but grows larger in the ground. Presumably it’s adapted to sharp drainage in its Mexican home. It’s built for scorching sun, judging by the narrow leaves and reflective coating on the stems. I have had plants do very well in part-sun however.
      It doesn’t bloom till the days are short. Does the plant do so to minimize exposure to the sun? Is it related late summer rains in the Sonoran desert? Or is it trying to match its blooming period with the southward migration of its preferred pollinator, hummingbirds?
      My plants in loose garden soil did better than the ones in compacted clay, but they all survived—till the temperatures dipped below 29°. Poor little plants. Never saw it coming. While native plants formed seeds and went dormant, they bloomed and put on fresh, tender growth till the frost hammered them to the ground. Mexican sage’s hardiness is rated at Zone 7. We’re two zones north of that in Zone 5. The stems are brittle and can be easily snapped when planting. The pieces root just as easily however, and that’s the best way to save some for next season.
      Some gardeners have told me they wouldn’t devote space to a plant that won’t bloom till gardening season is over. Few plants can give this punch of color for so many weeks though, attracting feisty little birds, sometimes rare ones. I’ve grown it every year since ’99. Mexican bush sage sure beats the heck out of fall mums. Give it a try!
Thanks to my Flickr friend tdlucas5000 for the terrific photo of the Allen's Hummingbird guarding his patch of Mexican bush sage.