Backyard Habitat

Prepping for Winter

by cathym on November 26, 2018

by Liz Magnanti

Vincetoxicum rossicum, pale swallowwort (dogstrangling vine) at the Skaneateles Conservation Area, Onondaga County, New York. Photo by R. A. Nonenmacher

Fall cleanup is an inevitable part of preparing for the winter months ahead. Raking, cleaning out the gutters, and cleaning up plant debris can be tedious. The good news is, sometimes the messier the garden the better it is for wildlife!

Many plants will offer seeds to birds like goldfinches, juncos, and pine siskins in the winter. Black-eyed Susan and purple coneflower are great examples that can be left all winter for birds to feed from. There is no need to deadhead or remove stalks of these plants now—it can wait until the spring. If you are cleaning out dead plant stalks in your garden, be on the lookout for the chrysalis of butterflies and the cocoons of moths. Swallowtails are one example of a butterfly that will spend all winter in their chrysalis. Other species like the Mourning Cloak butterfly will spend the winter as an adult and will hibernate in tree crevices or brush piles. On an unseasonably warm winter day you may even see some of these butterflies flying over your snowcovered garden.

Weeding out perennial invasives that are popping up in the garden is a good idea in the fall so their root system doesn’t expand more than it already has. Black swallowwort is a plant that is creeping into gardens at an alarming rate. It can easily take over gardens in a small amount of time due to its excellent seed dispersal and subterranean rhizome system. It looks like a vine, can wrap itself around other plants, and has slender seed pods similar to other milkweed species. Digging out this and other unwanted plants will make spring gardening easier. Also known as “dog strangling vine,’ this beast is harmful to our Monarch population.

Now is a good time to collect seeds from plants you want to propagate. Read up on the plant species because some, like milkweeds and cardinal flower, sprout better with cold stratification—this means they need to be left out in the cold in order to sprout. This can also be accomplished by keeping the seeds in the refrigerator for two to three months.

Sticks and branches cleaned up from the yard can be saved and arranged to make a brush pile. Brush piles are places for small mammals, birds and amphibians to take refuge. Hawks commonly come into yards in the winter to search for an easy meal and having a brush pile will give their potential prey a place to escape. You can add leaves and grasses to your brush pile to provide even more protection and places to hide.

Putting up a roosting house, or roosting pockets, is another way to give birds protection in the winter. A roosting house looks like a bird house but it has perches along the inside of it. These perches allow for several birds to occupy the space at once. Multiple species, even birds that don’t nest in houses, will use these roosting houses to stay out of the snow, rain, and wind. They are usually made of woven plant fibers or coconut shells. Birdhouses can also be left out in the winter. Birds or even mice will use them for protection as the weather turns.

Once the temperature drops you may see more activity at your bird feeders. This time of year it is important to make sure your feeders are clean and the seed you are feeding them is fresh. Birds are warm blooded and need to consume many calories in order to keep their body temperature up. Peanuts, sunflower, nyjer, and safflower seeds are high in fat and are a great source of food for birds in the winter. Peanuts tend to attract chickadees, titmice, nuthatches, woodpeckers and blue jays. Sunflower and safflower seeds will attract cardinals, finches, sparrows, and more. Nyjer seed is a favorite of finches, especially goldfinches. Goldfinches are in the area all winter long, but they molt their feathers and will be a drab olive color. In the winter it is common to see pine siskins and sometimes redpolls at nyjer feeders. These birds migrate here from Northern Canada for the winter. Suet cakes, which are blocks of fat, are especially attractive to woodpeckers.

Water can be hard to come by for wildlife in winter. Many species of birds and small mammals depend on a shallow, unfrozen sources of water to drink and bathe in. You can provide this in your yard by using a heated birdbath or by putting a heater in an existing birdbath. These heaters operate on a thermostat and don’t make the water warm, but they keep it unfrozen.

Providing wildlife with food, water, and shelter from the elements and predators is important all year if you want to have a wildlife-friendly yard. You may find, however, when you provide these elements in the winter the amount of animals you see goes up significantly. When we have long periods of cold and snow cover, it can be hard for wildlife to find a meal, a drink, or safety. Now is the perfect time to prep your yard for the cold months ahead. The animals will appreciate the additional help, and you will appreciate their wonderful presence in your yard all winter long.

 

Liz Magnanti is the manager of the Bird House in Pittsford.

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Birds and Summer Perennials

by cathym on September 9, 2018

by Liz Magnanti; photos by Jane Milliman

The approaching fall brings with it that magical time when garden centers put their perennials on sale! Now is a great time to get a head start on your garden for next year. Planting in the fall gives the plants a chance to get their root systems growing and can make for more successful growth the next year. Here are some of my favorite flowering plants that are both beautiful and will attract birds and butterflies.

Cardinal flower

Cardinal flower (Lobelia cardinalis)
This plant attracts hummingbirds to it like no other plant or feeder I have in the garden. It has one- to three-foot-tall spikes of beautiful scarlet flowers that are a fantastic source of nectar. It thrives in wet conditions but will also do well in an average garden setting. The plant doesn’t live long, but because it self-sows it will reseed itself each year.

Joe Pye weed

Joe Pye weed (Eupatorium spp.)
I have always had success with Joe Pye weed no matter where I plant it. It thrives in sunny locations but will bloom even in shade. The plant can grow tall after several years—sometimes up to eight feet! Joe Pye is a wonderful source of nectar for bees and butterflies, and juncos and finches will eat its seeds over the winter. I suggest planting this in a place in the garden that has been unsuccessful in growing other plants. Just make sure to prepare for how tall it can get.

Coneflower

Coneflower (Echinacea spp.)
Coneflower is great because you can find it everywhere. There are many varieties in pink, purple, white, yellow, and orange—some tall, some short. There is a type of coneflower for any empty sunny spot you are looking to fill. The flower provides nectar for butterflies, especially monarchs, silver-spotted skippers, and swallowtails. When it goes to seed it’s a treat for goldfinches all winter long.

Milkweed

Milkweed (Asclepias spp.)
The milkweed plant is essential to the development of the monarch butterfly. The female monarch lays her eggs on the plant and, once those eggs hatch, the caterpillars are leaf-eating machines. The flowers milkweed produces contain nectar that feeds butterflies as well as bees and other pollinators. My favorite milkweed is the orange variety called butterfly weed. (Asclepias tuberosa.) Swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata) is the other variety you will most often find in garden centers. This species can be pink, purple, or white in color. The common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) that is usually found in fields is great in large gardens, but can easily overtake other plants in a small one. Milkweed is easy to grow from seed. It has large, showy seed pods that can be collected once the pods  become dry and begin to split.

New England aster

New England aster (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae)
When gardening for pollinators it is important to plant a variety of flowers that will bloom throughout the season. Asters are small, fall-blooming flowers that tend to flower during the time many birds are migrating. Hummingbirds will sip from its flowers as they make their way down south for the winter. Butterflies such as the clouded sulphur, painted lady, and red admiral will also drink its nectar. Chickadees and finches will eat aster seeds throughout the winter.

Sedum

Sedum (Sedum spp.)
Sedums like ‘Autumn Joy’ are another type of plant that blooms late in the season, giving honeybees and other insects a source of pollen and nectar at the end of the summer and fall. Wild stonecrop (Sedum ternatum) is a shade-tolerant species that makes a great ground cover in the garden. This variety blooms in April to May. It makes a wonderful garden edge and will grow in rock gardens.

Bee balm

Bee balm (Monarda spp.)
Bee balm is one of my favorites for a few reasons. It is an herb that has a great smell and can be used in cooking! Even better, its blooms attract hummingbirds and seem to be a favorite flower of the hummingbird clearwing moth. This day-flying moth gets its name from looking strikingly similar to the hummingbird and having very similar flying and feeding behaviors!

Butterfly bush

Butterfly Bush (Buddleia spp.)
Although not native, the butterfly bush is like a magnet to butterflies. I have yet to find another nectar-producing plant that comes close to attracting butterflies to the garden. This plant is very hardy and can even beplanted in containers. Many different colors are available, including some that are tri-color or rainbow. The leaves of the plant won’t offer nutrition to caterpillars, but the flowers attract enough butterflies to make up for that.

All of the plants listed here, with the exception of the butterfly bush, are natives. Not only is this good for our local wildlife, but it also means they often require less maintenance. Once established, these plants will need very little extra attention, be it watering or fertilizing. The next few weeks are a perfect time to fill in any holes you have in your garden, and you should be able to get perennials at a great deal! Take advantage of it and you will thank yourself come spring!

Liz Magnanti is the manager of the Bird House in Brighton.

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Real Estate for Wildlife

by janem on May 6, 2018

by Liz Magnanti

Toad house—Photo courtesy Flickr: Noah Sussman

Spring is here! Flowers are blooming, birds are singing, and animals are out of hibernation. This is a very active time for wildlife. They are looking for food, mates, and a place to roost and raise their young. There are many different types of houses and habitats you can set up in your yard to attract a diversity of wildlife.

Bird houses are the most popular type of wildlife habitat you can set up in your yard. They provide birds with a place to build their nests, lay their eggs, and raise their young. The size of the house and the entrance hole will dictate what type of bird may use it. Bluebirds, sparrows, wrens, chickadees and woodpeckers actively and commonly use bird houses. If you get a large enough house you may even get a screech owl! One very important feature to look for when picking out a birdhouse is that it has a door or hatch that opens to clean out the nest once the young have fledged. If the bird has more than one brood a year it will build a new nest.

Brush piles are a fantastic way to attract a large diversity of wildlife. They are great hiding places for rabbits, chipmunks, woodchucks, and even reptiles and amphibians. Start by taking large sticks and logs and layering them on the ground. Build the pile up with smaller sticks and grasses. This little shelter can become a perching place for birds, butterflies, and moths, as well as smaller wildlife, to take shelter.

In New York we have a variety of bats that will roost in old structures, caves and bat houses. If you would like to attract these night-flying voracious insect eaters, put up a bat house. Bat houses should be painted black or dark brown to absorb heat. It should be at least 15 feet off the ground and free of obstructions below it. Bat houses require very little maintenance. Once they have been put up they just need to be checked periodically to make sure wasps haven’t moved in. Bat populations have been suffering lately, so having extra places for their populationsmto recover and grow is very important.

Mason bees (see our September-October 2017 issue for more) are small, native, non-stinging bees. They get their name from their habit of constructing nests out of mud or other “masonry”-type material. In the United States we have about 140 different species. Mason bees are not social insects, but are solitary in nature. They are smaller than honeybees in size and only live for about eight weeks in the spring. After mating, the male bees die and the females construct their nests in hollow tubular cavities and small spaces. Once a nest site has been selected the female will visit flowers collecting pollen and nectar. She lays her eggs in her nest site on top of a collected nectar and pollen “packet” and covers the cavity entrance up with mud to protect it. This process is done over and over until the hollow cavity is filled. When the eggs hatch, the larvae feed on the pollen and nectar. They form a pupa where they will hibernate until the spring. Once they are fully formed the young bees will chew their way out to begin the process over again.

Ever break a pot in the garden and feel terrible about it? Now those shards have a purpose! You can turn your old pottery into a toad house. Toad houses are traditionally clay pots that have a semi-circle shape cut out of their rim, but your chipped pots can be tipped upside down and placed in the garden as a little hideout for toads. They should be placed in an area lit by porch lights, if possible, so toads can feast on the insects they attract at night. Try to keep your toad house in a damp area, where the toads can absorb some water through their skin to get rehydrated.

Spring is a great time to prep your yard for the year ahead. Having habitats for wildlife is beneficial all year long. The more habitats you create, the more sights and sounds you will bring to the garden.

Liz Magnanti is manager of the Bird House in Brighton.

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