The June flora and fauna report

Continuing a long series of postings about things I happen to come across in my immediate neighborhood. Particularly plants, sometimes with notes about their taxonomy and their names. And particularly plants I can see out my window, and the various creatures that afflict them. My most recent posting in this series seems to have been from 1/21/20: “A squirrel in the hand” (excerpted below).

Now the 2020 report.

After my somewhat puzzled January report came February, still in our rainy season, except that we had not a drop of rain that month, setting off a chain of unpleasant consequences for the flora and fauna around me (which I’ll explain below). Especially the fauna: I haven’t seen a single bird or creature, or evidence of them, since February.

And then came March, and I’ve been in lockdown since 3/8, with only what can see out of my window as evidence of life, and that’s my own plants and the upper portions of trees (above the wall that encloses my patio garden). Well, plus a number of species of small moths and a number of species of flies, whose flittering about sometimes sets off a hopeful alarm out of the corner of my eye: bird! oh no, just one of those damn little moths. I’ve set up a bird feeder (details below), and spread bird seed on the ground to lure them in, but nothing. Some tubular succulents are blooming, but no hummingbird has come to them. No crows have flown in to scavenge noisily in my garden. My little landscape is silent and virtually motionless.

Now the summer heat (two blasts so far, with highs in the 90s (F)) has come, and the gorgeous cymbidium orchids  that fill my patio with their exotic flowers from late November through early June are almost finished; the one plant that is always the last in the series is still hanging on, but not for long. Geraniums will fill the summer days, and I have hopes for purple calla lilies and red-pink hydrangeas (photos below).

A squirrel in the hand. From my 1/21 posting:

The squirrel watch and the creatures of the night. Over the years, I’ve posted fairly often about the vexations of keeping, or trying to keep, a small patio garden in an area densely inhabited by wily urban squirrels. They’ve caused quite a lot of damage.

In recent times, the squirrels have disappeared almost completely. I suspect someone of having poisoned them, but the fact is that I don’t see squirrels in my garden any more (or roof rats, either, though I had been periodically plagued by them).

Instead, my little garden has suffered from the activities of some evil creatures of the night. Where the squirrels, acting boldly in broad daylight, used to dig messy holes in the border and bury nuts in the plant containers (often uprooting and discarding young plants that got in the way), now some nocturnal creature scoops out small neat cup-like depressions in the mulch of the border. And this creature, or some other dark agent, chews off leaves of plants, chews into their margins the way insects do, eats buds wholly or in part, and chomps on the buds and flowers of my cymbidium orchids, leaving partially eaten remnants. Not sciurid behavior at all, and entirely nocturnal.

The leaf and bud chewing suggests garden snails or slugs, but I see no slime trails and find no visible gastropods when I go out in the middle of the night. And of course gastropods aren’t known for scooping out depressions in the soil.

So for the moment, all is mysterious. But it looks like the Night Demon has pretty well killed off my sizable hydrangea plant (Hydrangea macrophylla), by eating off its buds and leaves for two years in a row. Gardening can be a cruel sport.

A complex of things here. Eventually, I decided, from looking up web pages on the depredations, that that Night Demon killing off my red-pink hydrangea plant was indeed snails. However, while I was contemplating turning the plant into compost, the February drought set in, and snail damage disappeared completely, presumably from lack of moisture. The hydrangea perked up and started leafing out properly. When the rain came back, the snails did not; the plant once again had leaves dropping from mildew (a moisture-driven disease), but on a fairly small scale, so what I have now, as of 6/8, is this:

(#1)

Looking forward to its blossoms.

The other Night Demon manifestation (the neat cuplike depressions), I eventually realized, was something completely different, and neither nocturnal nor demonic. Two contributions to my realization. One: my noticing that there were a fair number of little brown birds exploring for insects and seeds in my garden strip: they had just been part of the visual background, when I realized the little brown jobs might have something to do with the depressions. Wikipedia note:

Little brown bird (LBB) or little brown job (LBJ) is an informal name used by birdwatchers for any of the large number of species of small brown passerine birds, many of which are notoriously difficult to distinguish.

(I’m pretty much incompetent at identifying birds of any kind — they annoyingly refuse to sit still, the way plants do — but LBJs are completely beyond me.)

Two: I dimly recalled having seen such depressions long ago, when I was a child, on visits to local farms with chicken yards. Dust baths, as here (from the BackYardChickens.com site):

(#2)

From Wikipedia:

Dust bathing (also called sand bathing) is an animal behavior characterized by rolling or moving around in dust, dry earth or sand, with the likely purpose of removing parasites from fur, feathers or skin. Dust bathing is a maintenance behavior performed by a wide range of mammalian and avian species. For some animals, dust baths are necessary to maintain healthy feathers, skin, or fur, similar to bathing in water or wallowing in mud. In some mammals, dust bathing may be a way of transmitting chemical signals (or pheromones) to the ground which marks an individual’s territory.

The roof rats come down to the ground. From my 6/5/20 posting “Death trap”:

In the February animal crisis, when the winter drought — we had not one drop of rain in February, normally the height of rainy season — set in, the roof rats came down from their aerial nests in foliage, and tried to follow the scent of food into my house (they turned up begging at my window, quite literally), so we set out traps. The advice was to use, not the folkloric chunk of cheese, but peanut butter, especially very cheap commercial peanut butter (which has a lot of attractive sugars in it). That was spectacularly successful.

But then I started discovering dead roof rats in the condo’s parking area, every few days for a while. And finding dead squirrels in the street outside my house. Clearly, someone had set out poison for the creatures. Since then, I haven’t seen a single rat or squirrel on my patio. And there was no longer any evidence at all of the young skunks, which venture out in springtime to explore the world and inevitably run up against some other creature, so that their mephitic smell normally wafts through the area almost every morning. (None of the other creatures that roam through the area come near to my house.)

Somehow the disappearance of the roof rats and squirrels cascaded into the disappearance of every kind of bird, as I noted above. I can hear birds singing in the morning out behind my condo, but I haven’t actually seen a bird in months, during the time I’ve been confined to my house. People report squirrels in the neighborhood, not very far from my house, and morning skunks as well. But not at my place.

The bird feeder. In an attempt to relieve my evident distress at birdlessness, Kim Darnell got me a really cool bird feeder, a window model from the Nature Anywhere company, which specializes in bird feeders:


(#3) The Birds-I-View feeder, which attaches to a window by suction cups

Some ad copy, as it comes, shouting enthusiastically, from the company:

THE PERFECT GIFT for bird lovers and cat lovers! See colorful wild birds from up close. SLIDING SEED TRAY MAKES IT EASY TO FILL, AND CLEAN. No need to remove the whole feeder for every re-fill. VIRTUALLY 100% SQUIRREL PROOF. Ever seen a squirrel climbing a glass window?

(I’ve experienced some damn wily squirrels in my life, so I’d emphasize the virtually; but of course I am squirrelless as well as birdless, so this is not currently an issue. Cat proof I would believe.)

After a period of continued birdlessness, I spread some birdseed on the patio, hoping to bring birds in that way, but no luck. Yesterday, Kim threw a handful on the entryway to my front door, hoping to get some there and then lure them onto the patio. We’ll see.

Flowers. Each cymbidium plant has a long blooming time, and each one sends up its flower stalks within roughly the same time period each year, so for five months of the year there are always several in bloom. This pale apricot-colored beauty (photographed yesterday) is always the last:

(#4)

Just beyond the orchid is a pot of wild strawberry plants (Fragaria vesca), currently producing lots of its tiny, intensely flavorful berries.

This particular cymbidium I named Cuppy in my 5/11/18 posting “The patio boys: Cuppy, Ti-Boi, and Cairo Cullen” (explanation for the name in that posting).

And so I move to the calla lily Cairo Cullen (again, the name is explained in my 5/11/18 posting). Calla bulbs are given to dividing on their own, so that where I once had one, Cairo Cullen, I now have six, which I separated and replanted last fall. Now they have shot up — they burst from the ground and grow measurably from day to day — and will soon bloom. (A single bulb often sends up two shoots, as below, in a photo from yesterday.) Probably in various shades of purple, but who knows what plants will do:

(#5)

Back when I had squirrels, they were given to digging up just-sprouting calla bubs and discarding them so they could use the holes to bury their nuts. These plants are now safely past that stage, so even if the squirrels  return, the plants should be fine. (Oh dear, I’ve just discovered that snails and slugs are common pests of callas. Well, the Cairo Callen clones are probably safe from them during the dry season.) I suppose I should be thankful that chipmunks have never discovered my patio. (And that there’s not enough soil to support pocket gophers or ground squirrels.)

Now scanning the sky outside my window for birds. I would really like to have some birds.

6 Responses to “The June flora and fauna report”

  1. Robert Coren Says:

    I’m pretty much incompetent at identifying birds of any kind — they annoyingly refuse to sit still, the way plants do

    Yes, that is one of their annoying tendencies. Sometimes they will sit still until just before one can get the binoculars trained on them, at which point they will suddenly fly to somewhere well out of sight.

    Might the lack of birds be related to the apparent poisoning of the squirrels and rats? Whatever’s getting the rodents, the birds might be getting it too.

  2. arnold zwicky Says:

    You write: “Might the lack of birds be related to the apparent poisoning of the squirrels and rats? Whatever’s getting the rodents, the birds might be getting it too.”

    I entertained that possibility, but even the (truly alarming) Wikipedia entry on Rodenticide doesn’t mention birds as non-target species that might be affected. More likely is that the sight or smell of dead rats and squirrels provided a warning to the birds, which then avoided the danger zone.

  3. arnold zwicky Says:

    Note from 6/10: an actual butterfly (just, I think, a cabbage butterfy, hugely common and not showy) fluttered by this morning. It was very cheering.

  4. arnold zwicky Says:

    Note from 6/12: a bird! A blue jay appeared at the top of the fencing, flew off, then swept back in, alighting on the ground to enjoy some of the seed there. Flew back onto the fence and then away. Not into the bird feeder, but it’s a start. Now wondering if the birds communicate with one another. (Weather now unusually cool, high of only 68.)

  5. arnold zwicky Says:

    And now from 6/13: the jay came back, and just now, a LBJ (I really miss the LBJ’s that used to flutter around my tiny garden all the time). Not yet at the feeder, but on the ground. I’m hoping the’ll tell their friends.

    • arnold zwicky Says:

      And from 6/16: the jay comes back daily to get seeds from the ground. And today, it discovered the bird feeder. Working at my computer, I saw from the corner of my eye a tremendous flurry of activity, which turned out to be the jay alighting in the feeder. When I swiveled my head to look at the scene, my motion spooked the jay, which then flew off to assess things from the safety of the arbor. I hope it will come back.

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