Archive for the ‘Backyard Wildlife’ Category

For most of this year I have been AWOL from Eastern Shore Gardener. I have a good excuse, though. In March, I adopted a puppy from Mid-Atlantic Border Collie Rescue. Puppy raising and training pretty much engulfed my year after he came home with me. I also raised a litter of rescued puppies for MABCR, but that is another story!


This year’s focus on bringing up a well-rounded puppy has simply engulfed my ability to sit down and write about my garden. Having a puppy outside with me all the time also affected what I can do in the garden, since puppies want to put everything in their mouths and dig holes whenever they get a chance. So, this year supervision took precedence over actual gardening.

Gryff is just over a year old now, and well on his way to being a great family member. He is learning manners, has started in agility, and is a much better garden citizen. He also is currently learning to be a tracking dog and may one day be experienced enough to find lost dogs and cats through an organization called Dogs Finding Dogs.



I have made some progress out there this year, including planting a variety of ground covers and new perennials. I also installed a wall where we had piled stones until a couple of weeks ago and am looking forward to getting it filled to overflowing. I promise you will see pictures next season.



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Welcome: The news is full of information on supporting pollinators, and mason bees are sone of our most effective and efficient native pollinators. This great post on mason bees is by Paula Shrewsbury from the University of Maryland’s Department of Entomology. I first saw it in The University of Maryland Cooperative Extension publication, Landscape and Nursery IPM Report, and I knew it would be of interest to a great many Eastern Shore Gardeners. Enjoy! Barbara

Since some pollinator species are in decline it is important to conserve these beneficial insects. Therefore, I will be discussing various pollinators throughout the season. The solitary bees to discuss this week are mason bees which are in the family Megachilidae since mason bees began to emerge from nesting habitat at my house just over a week ago (Columbia, MD on March 16th). In general, mason bees are early spring pollinators but a few species emerge in late spring or early summer. Mason bees nest in hollow stems of plants, reeds or galleries in wood left behind by wood boring insects. Mason bees get their name because of their habit of making compartments in their galleries that are separated by mud.



Above: Male mason bees just emerging from galleries in wood where they overwintered (photo by P. Shrewsbury, UMD).

Mason bees are well known for the pollination benefits they provide and are some of the earliest pollinators of the season. It is estimated that just 250-300 mason bees can pollinate an acre of apples or cherries. Mason bee males emerge first and females emerge a few days later. This phenomenon, called protandry, is relatively common in the world of insects. It seems that female mason bees are a highly sought after “commodity” and males that emerge early in a season are more likely to find and hook up with mates. Once a male and female mate, the male bee then hangs out on the female’s back and fights off other males that would also like to mate with his partner. This “guarding behavior” ensures sperm from the original male are used by the female.

Mated female mason bees spend many hours and days gathering pollen and nectar from which they create pollen cakes or balls. They fill hollow plant stems or wooden galleries with these pollen cakes. After collecting pollen from plants, the female returns to her nest and enters the nest tube head first, deposits the pollen cake (this may take several trips to get enough pollen for one cake), exits the tube, turns around and enters the tube abdomen first. She then oviposits (lays) an egg onto the pollen cake. She then seals that section of the tube or gallery with mud. The female repeats this process until the tube contains several pollen cake – egg compartments and is filled. She plugs the entrance with mud and may then search out another nesting site. Eggs that are destined to be females are laid in the back of the tube, and male eggs toward the front.

Mason bees are active about 4 weeks and the females will fill as many nests (tubes) as she can in that time. The eggs hatch into bee larvae that consume the cake as they develop and grow during summer and fall. They complete their development (pupa and adults) during fall, settle down for winter, and are ready to emerge just in time for the return of spring. Mason bees do not produce honey, are not aggressive and do not sting. I stand for long periods of time in the midst of the 100’s of bees busy around their nesting site in my yard and have yet to be harmed but am always entertained by these beauties.

Mason bees provide valuable ecosystem services by pollinating a variety of native and non-native flowering plants, many of which are fruits that we consume or flowers of plants in natural and managed landscapes that provide resources and habitat for animals at other trophic levels. For those of you who would like to become active in the conservation of mason bees you have a little bit of time still – but hurry! At my house I have purchased commercially available “bee tubes” and drilled holes into firewood (see the images). Not only can you enhance ecosystem services of pollination, but you create a great learning environment for children and adults. I highly suggest you try buying or making habitat for these beneficial, educational and very entertaining insects. There are many resources on line that can inform you of best practices for creating habitat and raising these beneficial insects. Do a web search for mason bees or bee tubes. NOW is the time to set up nesting sites!


Above: Bee tubes and galleries drilled in fire wood (~1/4 – 5/16” in diameter and 4-8” deep) provide suitable nesting sites for various solitary bees. Different diameter holes attract different species of mason bees. (photo by P. Shrewsbury, UMD)

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A couple of days ago I was returning from running errands, and spotted a family of turkeys in our yard. They were strolling through a group of trees along the driveway that I hope one day will resemble a woods. As they slipped into the tangle of vegetation, it reminded me how much progress I’ve made over the years replacing lwangrass with more wildlife-friendly plantings. This woodsy area is still far from beautiful, but it does now host a variety of native trees and shrubs that I have planted over the years. In the interest of full disclosure, it is also the site of one of my major wineberry battles earlier this summer.

I keep a list of birds I have spotted on the property, and this isn’t the first time I have seen turkeys here. (In addition to being a gardener, I am a birder, so I am usually always looking.) Still, it has been fun to follow this family all summer and plan what else I can add to the landscape that will make it friendlier to an even wider variety of creatures.


Above: Yellow-Billed Cuckoo, one of the many species spotted at Hackberry Point.

Come September, I will certainly add more natives for birds and other wildlife, and I hope many other Eastern Shore Gardeners will do the same. To help get you planning and planting, I wanted to share a link to 10 Tips for Attracting Birds to Your Landscape, a blog post I wrote for the University of North Carolina Press in support of Chesapeake Gardening & Landscaping earlier this year. I hope you enjoy it!

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Two days ago, a small flock of bluebirds visited our backyard. They spent a few minutes flitting around near the house, then headed straight for an old, berry-laden Eastern red cedar (Juniperus virginiana) growing by the creek. Today, with a blanket of snow blocking access to seeds and whatever else is available among the leaf litter, the red cedar’s berries are a valuable source of food form all manner of birds that visit our yard.

Above: Eastern red cedar (Juniperus virginiana)

Since this is also the season of garden catalogs and seed-starting, the bluebirds got me to thinking whether or not there were more plants I could add to the landscape to feed birds over winter. Sweet summer fruits like blueberries and blackberries are gobbled up as soon as they are ripe, and often before that, so they are not available to birds in winter. Flowering dogwoods (Cornus florida) bear bright red fruit that is quickly consumed in fall by both birds and squirrels. The same is true of fruit borne by spicebush (Lindera benzoin) and American beautyberry (Callicarpa americana): Birds relish the berries, and they are gone long before wintertime. The best winter food stays on the plant until there is little else that birds will eat. Staying on the plant is important, because that means the fruit is still visible and available even if the ground is covered with snow, as it is today.


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Last weekend was very exciting—box turtle-wise, that is. Saturday night (7/29), friends who were exploring my front garden came indoors to report that a female box turtle was digging a nest along the front of the garden. We all piled out to get a glimpse, keeping a respectful distance, of course.


Above: First attempt, Saturday night through a carpet of thyme.

She was still working on the hole when my husband and I went to bed that night. In the morning, I was disappointed to find the empty hole, which wasn’t filled in as I expected. I did a bit of research, and found that turtles commonly dig one or more test holes and then abandon them for unknown reasons. Experts speculate that they find the soil conditions unacceptable.

Happily, she returned Sunday evening at about 6:00 p.m. and began to dig a second hole in a new location.


Above: The start of her second, successful, nest. You can see the hole just beneath her left rear leg.


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Thus far on Eastern Shore Gardener I have recommended plants, but today I am posting my first product endorsement. After an evening of working in the Victory Farm Community Garden, I discovered I had  once again been attacked by one of the Eastern Shore’s most frustrating pests: Chiggers. That evening I had a new row of welts around the top of each of my socks, plus bites in a few other choice locations. As every gardener who has been bitten knows, I was facing weeks of itchy bites that never seem to go away.


The next morning I walked into one of Chestertown’s local community pharmacies, Stam Drugs, to pick up a prescription. Almost just to make conversation, I asked what they had for chigger bites. You see, I thought I had already tried everything and the chain drugstores seem to all carry the same, uneffective products.  The woman behind the counter pointed to a nearby shelf, and recommended a product called Chigg Away. For the vast sum of $6.99, I decided it was worth a try. (I also bought a new container of Afterbite, an ammonia-based product, that until now was the best treatment I had found to date.)

When I got home, I applied Chigg Away to all my welts, and the itching simply stopped. Really, it just stopped. None of the other products I have ever tried have been anywhere near as effective. Although I applied it once more the following morning when I felt a bit of reoccurring tingling,  a single application was actually all I really needed.


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One evening earlier in the week, I was tending to the two parrots that share my office. While I was changing their water and getting them settled in for the night, I noticed we were not alone. In this case, I am not referring to the four dogs who “help” me get Harley and Milo ready for bed every evening. A tiny tree frog clung to the outside of the picture window that overlooks the creek. He had discovered that the lights left on for the parrots indoors made bug hunting an easy matter for anyone who could cling to the glass outdoors.


I’ve seen tree frogs on the window a couple times before, but this is the first time I got pictures. When it comes to wildlife, I always am curious about exactly what is visiting, so identification was in order!

A little bit of research in my trusty field guide, Amphibians and Reptiles of Delmarva by James F. White, Jr. and Amy Wendt White narrowed down the i.d. to either Gray or Cope’s Gray Treefrog. (I’ll admit I looked at Northern Spring Peeper first, but my visitor had large round toe pads, which you can see in the picture, like all treefrogs do. It also lacked the peeper’s characteristic “X” on the back.) I also looked on the internet, and that lead me to Maryland Department of Natural Resources Discover Maryland Herps, which had additional pictures plus links to the calls of each species.

On both species, color varies from gray to grayish green with a white or lighter spot below the eye. Amphibians and Reptiles of Delmarva also notes that, “color can change depending on activity level, temperature, and activity.” It goes on to say that, “The hidden surfaces of the hind legs are bright orange or yellow with black mottling.” My photo from inside my office caught the orange-yellow color precisely, but I didn’t notice any of the black mottling. These are tiny frogs, although the pictures make them seem huge. Size varies from 1.3 to about 2 inches.


Gray and Cope’s Gray Treefrogs can only be told apart by their call and by chromosome count (Cope’s Gray is diploid; Gray, tetraploid), so I’m satisfied getting my i.d. down to one of two species. Next spring and summer I’ll study the calls (I have frog calls on my I-pod!) and will see if I can determine which species I hear. Males begin calling in April and breeding continues through late June.

Habitat Notes
Treefrogs need a combination of wetland and woodland in order to survive—another reason I strive to provide both in my garden. In addition to ponds, creeks, bays, and other permanent bodies of water, they also breed in ditches and vernal pools—temporary pools that usually lack fish or other predators. According to the website, they are most often observed on branches of trees and shrubs that hang over the water, and are found in deciduous woodlands and mixed deciduous-coniferous woodlands. Both species spend most of their time in trees and shrubs hunting for insects and other invertebrates.

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We’ve all read at least something about welcoming wildlife in the garden. Providing suitable habitat—including food, water, and shelter—is essential. Sometime the habitat that wildlife chooses isn’t quite what you would expect, though. My current case-in-point is the rather large toad that has been living on our deck all summer long.


Above: A potted Pyrrosia fern summering on a deck doesn’t seem to offer much in the way of wildlife habitat, but evidently toads think otherwise!

At first glance, a deck doesn’t seem like a great spot for a toad to set up residence, especially one that is the main route four dogs take to and from the back yard several times a day. Still, “our” toad seems happy there. Food doesn’t seem to be a problem, since he or she seems to be able to find plenty to eat—especially in the evening when the lights in the living room or out on the deck are on and are attract night-flying insects.

I added a plant saucer to make sure adequate water was available, which takes care of two of the three basic characteristics of suitable wildlife habitat. (Dogs and toad don’t seem to mind that they are sharing, as long as I keep the saucer filled up.)

Shelter is another story. I wondered what our resident toad did during the day and in very hot weather, since toads normally spend the daytime in cool, moist soil, either under logs or debris or in burrows. During hot, dry weather they can aestivate, meaning they spend the hot summer days in a dormant state, in burrows or similar locations. As it turns out, houseplant containers provide perfect shelter.


Above: A potted sansevieria is the perfect spot for summertime snoozes, thank you very much, as the photo above illustrates.


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Turtles are out and about, and they have started crossing the roads again. I know this blog is supposed to be about gardening, but wildlife is an essential part of  my garden, and one of the things I love most about it. Maybe we need an unofficial Turtle Crossing Society. Members would pledge to take time to drive a little slower, watch a little more closely, and take time to give turtles a bit of help getting across safely.  I know there are many potential members out there, because I’ve seen people stop their cars and carry turtles to safety.

From now until cold weather returns, I watch the road closely. In addition to turtles on the pavement proper, I always keep an eye out for ones on the berm. If they’re pointing away from the road, they’re probably okay. (I still stop and move them all the way off the pavement.) If they’re on the edge of the road and pointing toward it, stop and give them a safe, quick lift across.

When moving turtles, always carry them in the direction that they are pointing. In other words, don’t pick them up and move them back toward the edge of the road where they started. They’ll just walk back out into the road. Ideally, carry them straight across and set them down several feet away from the edge of the pavement. (Don’t forget to look both ways before crossing yourself!)  If they’re walking into more trouble—into a field that’s being plowed, for example—move them to another safe location. Sliders and other aquatic turtles can go to a nearby pond or waterway. Box turtles are best moved toward woods edges or hedgerows.

Snapping turtles are a bit harder to rescue, and they’re not shy about walking toward you and trying to bite. A broom or a shovel makes a safe handling tool, as does a stout stick. Use it to gently push them in the direction they need to go. Just take care to stay well away from the jaws!

So, I hope this post will recruit some new members to the new Turtle Crossing Society. Now that I think of it, snakes could use similar help. Not only do they cross roads, they also enjoy basking on them. You may see me helping them across, too. Now that I think of it, I’d better put the broom back in my car so I’ll have it handy.

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