Friday, December 14, 2012

eye on the sparrow

Grasshopper Sparrow
(photo by Dave Patton)

“What is the price of five sparrows? A couple of pennies? Not much more than that. Yet God does not forget a single one of them.”

                                                                                                                         -- Jesus Christ

When most non-birders hear the word “sparrow” they think only of the “House Sparrow” – that common little bird of America's cities, suburbs, and farms. But the House Sparrow is not even a sparrow. It's a finch (yes Virginia, there is a difference...). And an introduced Old World Finch at that.

Here in the New World, we have over 150 native species of true sparrows, 50 of which live in the U.S. and Canada. Only six of these breed/nest in the relatively small and watery state of Louisiana. But come winter, these six are joined by 17 additional migratory species. And if you add in the rarer non-regularly-occurring species that have been recorded in Louisiana, the total tops out at 33 species – well over half of the total species native to North America (north of Mexico)! In all of the U.S., this degree of sparrow diversity is surpassed only by Texas, California, and perhaps Arizona.

Savannah Sparrow -- Acadia Parish
(Photo by Matt Conn)

In general, sparrows are small, shy, wary birds, more often than not secreting themselves within dense grassy fields and brushlands; that's why so few non-birding humans are even aware of their presence. But once you get to know them – and that takes a lot of time, patience, and ideally, a good spotting scope – you too will be blown-away by the exquisite intricacy of their color patterns, and the sweetness of their lifestyles. Sparrows are indeed wondrous things to behold – easily as wondrous as a fine collection of gemstones – actually, more so in most cases.

White-crowned Sparrow -- a favorite of all Sparrow Freaks
(photo by Russ Norwood

Because they are so small in size and retiring in habit, sparrows give fits to those of us who are learning to identify them down to species. Newbie-to-intermediate birders often simply throw up their hands, and refer to them collectively as “LBJs” – Little Brown Jobs.” For birders and erstwhile birders alike wishing to marvel/study the sparrows, here are a few tips:

First, get yourself a spotting scope. When you're trying to learn the sparrows, in most real-life situations binoculars are too shaky, too clumsy, and limited in magnification to adequately see the fine, delicate, and detailed – almost like studying a mosaic – color patterns inherent to each species. That's where a 20-30X spotting scope comes in. Mount that sucker on a lightweight but good-quality tripod and you're ready to rock. You'll be surprised at how easy it actually is to manipulate and learn to use such a rig. And remember the fact that you're generally not going to be slithering through the woods 'n twigs n' branches n' vines with it (sparrows don't live in such places) but more often than not standing (or better, comfortably seated on a portable field seat rig or on the tailgate of your vehicle) at the edge of a forest or field or brushland.

Leconte's Sparrow -- Jeff Davis Parish
(photo by Dave Patton)

Next thing you should know is, the early bird gets the sparrow. You've got to get out there at the crack of dawn to optimize your chances to study sparrows with any degree of leisure. With the rising of the sun, they all jump up to the tops of grasses, shrubs, fenceposts, utility lines, etc. and sit there for minutes at a time, casually preening and allowing the sun to dry the dew off of their wings. With the angle of the rising sun to your back, you'll snag some fantastic “studys.” For photographers, dawn/early morning sessions such as this are a must – not an option.

Seaside Sparrow...occurs only in salt-marsh habitats;
this one from just north of the Gulf shore at Sabine Pass on the TX-LA border
(photo by Matt Conn)

A fool-proof modification of the above scenario would be to approach your friend/family member who lives on a farm and/or owns a big expanse of brushy/weedy land – maybe YOU already live in such a place – and in an open area adjacent to the grass/brush where you see a bunch of sparrows hanging out, place a series of seed-feeding stations in a row (spaced every 25' over 150' is optimum). You don't have to get elaborate. A simple board or piece of plywood on a cinder block will suffice. Buy 50lb sacks of the cheapest “wild bird seed” you can find. Faithfully refill the seed stations when they're empty. You'll be in sparrow-studying heaven from November through March. That's five months, kids! Oh and keep this rig portable as possible, for if you “strike out” in one place, search out a better place. In these parts, it won't take long to “hit it.”

White-throated Sparrow, our most common/ubiquitous winter species
(photo by Russ Norwood

Obviously, you'll need a good field guide. Try National Geographic or Sibley's guides to the birds of North America. Don't get an “eastern” or “western” version, for both eastern and western sparrows hang out in Louisiana. We're lucky that way.

Nelson's Sparrow
Very Site-specific species in cattail marshes in coastal parishes
but this one was caught red-handed in fall migration in northern Louisiana
(photo by Jeff Trahan)

Lastly, for those of you who enjoy traveling out in the field, work on creating a solid “search image” series of the specific habitat types which sparrows frequent most. Certain sparrows are very site-specific. White-crowned Sparrows want dense shrub thickets. Clay-colored and Grasshopper sparrows like “spaced brushlands” where big shrubs and small trees are dotted rather than tightly-bunched within a grassy field. Henslow's and Bachman's sparrows are all about long-leaf pine savannahs – grasslands dotted with long-leaf and other pines along with the occasional shrub thicket. Other sparrows such as White-throated and Song occupy all manner of brushy and forested (especially forest-edge) situations, up to and including densely-landscaped urban backyards.

Henslow's Sparrow -- Rapides Parish
(photo by Dave Patton)

Over time, you'll learn which sparrows to expect in which types of landscapes. Then the fun begins. And the cool cultural thing about this sport are your sparrowing-surroundings: Hanging out in tiny, convenient parking spots along quiet, gravel farm roads. The occasional friendly conversation with the local farmer (after you explain that you're not some terrorist spying on his house). Farmers are, like Donald Sutherland once proclaimed, “the finest kind.” All the while, ducks, geese, blackbirds, wading birds, and who knows what all else are all flying and hollering overhead. Hawks are on every telephone pole. Country stores are selling boudin and beverages and giving away awesome conversations for free.

Swamp Sparrows -- Iberia Parish
(photo by Matt Conn)

Have I convinced you?

I mean, think about it. What do you have to lose? Main thing is you'll be out in Nature; where the Big God lives.

Sparrow Freaks, unite!

Saturday, December 1, 2012

nuthatch year

Red-breasted Nuthatch
(photo by Larry Amy along Bayou Vermilion in Lafayette 11/21/12)

Nuthatches are warbler-sized woodpecker-like birds, five species of which collectively inhabit much of North America. Here in Louisiana two species – the Brown-headed Nuthatch and the White-breasted Nuthatch – live in pine and hardwood forests, respectively.

And then there's the Red-breasted Nuthatch, a bird of the far northern and western sections of the U.S. and Canada. Each winter, a small population of Red-breasted Nuthatches migrates down to take up residence in Louisiana. During normal (if there is such a thing anymore) winters, a birder would be lucky to see/hear a single one. Down here in south Louisiana along the I-10 corridor, any of the Christmas Bird Counts, for example, considers the addition of even a single Red-breasted Nuthatch to its day-list a great stroke of fortune.

But this year is different. Beginning way back in early October if not late September we began getting Red-breasted Nuthatch reports. Normally, we don't get such reports until late-November/early-December. This year we got 'em early – and from everywhere, all the way down to the coast. This is an “invasion year” for this species, perhaps the biggest invasion year in Louisiana's ornithological history. Biologists refer to those certain animals (birds obviously included) whose fall/winter migrations are strongly tied to the condition of their primary food crop as “irruptive species,” who will travel however far it takes to locate that primary food source. In the world of North American birds, a number of seed-eating species that ordinarily overwinter to our north – crossbills, finches, and nuthatches included – fall into this category.

As they generally live and work, woodpecker-style, very close to larger branches and trunks, tiny nuthatches can be difficult to detect. Fortunately, they're even more vocal than woodpeckers; so with a decent ear, you can tell when they're around. All nuthatches make very nasal, squeaky, toy-horn or toy-rubber-mouse-like noises. In the case of the Red-breasted Nuthatch, it's like a “ink-ink” or “yenk-yenk” vocalization, uttered a lot when they are foraging along the crevices of tree-bark or around pine cones or when disturbed.

Ordinarily, Red-breasted Nuthatches hang more in urban/suburban pine groves and forests; and moreso in northern-central Louisiana. But this winter, dozens upon dozens of Red-breasted Nuthatches have been reported from towns, cities, parks, and forests of all makes and models throughout the entire state. Back in late-October, I spied one working in a large live oak all the way down at Avery Island right above Vermilion Bay. Reports have been emanated from New Orleans and Cameron parish as well.

Look for Red-breasted Nuthatches in a tree near you! I'm still waiting for one to turn up in our poor-pineless bottomland woods at my place.....dear Santa, etc etc etc........ 

Thursday, September 20, 2012

louisiana hummer plants

eastern coralbean (aka "mamou plant") in bloom

As a follow-up to the previous post regarding the Louisiana hummingbird phenomenon, here's a little primer regarding best nectar plants for hummingbird garden use. Due to space limitations, I'm focusing on only the best/most essential hummer plants for our region. Here along the Gulf Rim, “our region” includes horticultural planting zones 8b-9 (google “U.S. horticultural zones, if you're not familiar).

The Major Players

First and foremost is Tropical Sage (Salvia coccinea), native to the immediate Gulf Coast and southern Atlantic Coast from Texas eastward through South Carolina, where it resides in coastal forests, often in association with coast live oaks (Quercus virginiana). In garden settings, tropical sage often verges on weediness; but that's precisely what hummingbird/butterfly gardeners need. And ultimately, it is so shallow-rooted that pulling it up is a snap.

this pink-flowered form of tropical sage popped up in our garden
from a nominate red-flowered plant that we obtained from
cheniere au tigre on the central louisiana coast...over the years
it has actually out-competed the nominate form in places........

This species grows 12-60” depending on sunlight exposure, soil type, soil moisture, genetic strain, etc. The cool thing about it is that you can maintain it at any height you want. I've seen it maintained as a ground cover beneath live oaks; kept at 4-6” via weedeater, and happily blooming away. As with most all New World salvias, the more you deadhead (prune off the spent bloom spikes) the more they bloom. Tropical sage is happy in just about any sunlight regime, from full sun to rather deep shade; and most any soil type except highly acidic (pH < 6) soils.

here's a mix of the nominate red-flowered tropical sage
(see why another common name for it is "blood sage"?)
and its pink-flowered progeny (which we dubbed, 'chevrette'....dat's "shrimp" in French, ya'll)

True native strains (from seeds or cuttings collected in the wild) of this species are prolific self-seeders; so this plant will travel about your garden. To control it, simply pull it up where you don't want it, and allow it where you do want it. Note that several cultivars (horticultural selections) of tropical sage are offered in the nursery trade. For the most part, these are various color forms of the species, are rather short-lived, and do not self-perpetuate in gardens via seeding.

Down at my latitude (cusp of zones 8b & 9), tropical sage blooms at least nine months per year – 12 months(!) in years with warmer winters. In this regard, it simply cannot be beat. Ask any hummer.

anise sage

Anise Sage (Salvia guaranitica) is a South American native which has proven itself to be a very long-lived perennial in Gulf Rim gardens, even though it does not self-seed. It is a clump-former, growing to heights of 30-50”. Like S. coccinea, you can maintain it at shorter heights by pruning. The nectar produced by this species possesses the highest sugar content (~ 30%) of all nectar plants, and is cherished by hummers. Bloom season: April-November. It is root-hardy to at least 20F. In our garden we have clumps that are at least 20 years old, which have survived many floods, dry spells, and sub-freezing nights.

turk's cap

Like tropical sage, Turk's Cap (Malvaviscus arboreus var. drummondii) is native to the forests of the immediate Gulf and south Atlantic Coasts. It is a creeping, sprawling shrub, and is tough, adaptable, and long-lived. Grown under direct sunlight, it will run wild, covering large areas and growing to heights of 5-6'. Grown in shade, it behaves itself, averaging 20-30” and limiting its spread to 6-8' areas. I like to use it over the immediate root zones of shade trees, where most other plants would have a difficult time surviving. There, it definitely behaves itself, producing only ~25% of the blooms that a full-sun specimen would; but hey, that's still plenty enough flowers. Bloom season is about six months: April-September.

sultan's turban....note that blooms hang downward....
turk's cap blooms poke upward, and are much smaller

 For those living on the I-10 corridor and southward, also consider Sultan's Turban or “Giant Turk's Cap” (Malvaviscus penduliflorus), native in the U.S. to only the Rio Grande Valley of Texas and peninsular Florida (also, possibly native at Grand Isle, LA). It's a big 6' X 6' herbaceous shrub that blooms only fall into winter at this latitude. Down close to the coast, it blooms throughout the entire winter. Sun or light shade.

“Flowering Maple” (Abutilon pictum) is native to southeastern Asia. This is a large herbaceous shrub (15' X 7') from the Hibiscus family. When sited correctly – no more than 4-5 hours direct sun; eastern exposure; protection from winter winds – it will bloom continuously for at least nine months out of the year. Once it grows large, its stems do tend to flop; and in strong winds the whole plant can easily topple, so I reinforce the stems by loosely encircling all of them together with one wrap of green garden tape at a height of about 5'. It's also a good idea to tie the plant to a deck rail, porch post, or whatever in order to prevent wind-toppling. Courtyards are fantastic locales for this plant! It is “bloom hardy” to about 28F and root hardy to about 16F.

Cuphea 'David Verity'

Cigar Plants (Cuphea spp.) are native mostly to the New World tropics, and several species are commonly used in zones 8b-9 hummer/butterfly gardens here in the U.S. The best two performers for our region are Mexican cigar plant (C. micropetala), and C. ignea selection 'David Verity'. The former is mainly a fall-bloomer, whereas the latter is yet another nine-month bloomer for our region. Both make neat sun-loving shrubs that you only have to cut back once per year in order to maintain neat shape. C. micropetala grows to about 65” X 60” and is root-hardy down to the sub-20F range. C. 'David Verity' averages 36” X 30” and is root-hardy to about 24F.

trumpet honeysuckle

Native Trumpet Honeysuckle (Lonicera sempervirens) offers excellent nectar in both spring and fall months, totaling at least 5-6 months per year. Give this well-behaved, 8' vine a half-day of sun and something to climb on. Grows in most soil types. Keep its roots well-mulched – moist and cool.

The Minor Players

These plants ended up in the “minor player” category because they're either less-used (comparatively speaking) by hummers or they possess notably short bloom seasons. Regardless, they're still valuable, beautiful, tough/adaptable, and very useful plants.

First is Lantana (Lantana spp.), native to the American tropics/sub-tropics, and certainly as decorative and long-blooming as tropical sage and flowering maple. Of course lantanas are known for their longevity of bloom, but hummers look upon them as second-rate nectar sources, going to them only when better options are not available. I'm not much of a fan of the hybrid and trailing lantanas, but the nominate shrub species “West Indian Lantana” (L. camara) and “Mexican Lantana” (L. horrida/urticoides) are both excellent performers around these parts. Once established, you couldn't kill either one if you tried. I consider both of these species native to Louisiana's coastal zone. Both are outstanding butterfly plants, and are visited with varying degrees of frequency by hummers.

Next comes a trio of native spring-blooming species, all of which doubtlessly evolved right alongside of the spring migration pattern of Ruby-throated Hummingbirds in the eastern U.S. Red Buckeye (Aesculus pavia) is a gorgeous shrub to small tree, grown best in shade, or in only a few hours of direct sunlight. Full-sun specimens get very large (25-30'). Because this deciduous species is on a rather whacky foliage schedule (leafing out by late January; defoliating by July), you'll want to keep it in unobtrusive locales/planting sites. Bloom season: March-May.

copper iris

Copper Iris (Iris fulva) is the earliest-blooming of our native iris species, and is the only species pollinated by Ruby-throated Hummingbirds (the other species are mostly bumble-bee pollinated). Bloom season: March-April.

Eastern Coralbean (Erythrina herbacea) is a perennial shrub from the bean family (Fabaceae). Bloom time: April-May.

The Cover Plants

With the winter hummingbird thing (see previous post) happening here along the Gulf Rim, it is essential that winter hummingbird gardeners provide these birds with some protection from cold winds and temperatures. This is where densely-foliaged evergreen plants come in. Oh....and here would also be a good place to reiterate that regardless of the lushness of your hummer garden, most all of us winter hummer gardeners pretty much have to commit to maintaining at least a couple of artificial nectar feeders throughout the winter season. Eventually, winter will take its toll on winter hummer gardens, with fewer and fewer blooms surviving after each successive blast of cold air. The last thing you want is to strand one or more winter hummers who've taken up residence in your yard once a freeze has occurred and suddenly there are few to no blooms available. Again, see the previous post for tips on how to maintain artificial nectar feeders.

Winter Honeysuckle or Bush Honeysuckle (Lonicera fragrantissima) ranks high as a winter shelter plant because not only is it a large evergreen shrub, but it also produces blooms – even down into sub-20F weather! This Oriental native grows up to 7' X 6' in loamier soils and under about a half-day of direct sun (it will put on acceptable growth/blooming in lightly-shaded spots as well). Blooms all winter into spring. Blooms smell exactly like fruit loops cereal. Joy!

Hollies (Ilex spp.), both native and Oriental species, are mostly evergreen, very adaptable, and thus provide good shelter for winter hummers and other birds, not to mention food for songbirds.

Last but by no means least are the Oriental evergreen Camellia species/cultivars. You absolutely cannot go wrong with these. Most important are the Camellia sasanqua cultivars, as they are the toughest, most adaptable, largest, and tightest-foliaged of them all. The C. japonica group is important as well. They prefer light shade (or no more than 4 hrs direct sun) in order to be happy. Oriental Camellias bloom in winter. Winter hummers routinely hunt around Camellia blooms of all types, but we're still not sure whether they are nectaring or bug-hunting. Regardless, Camellia flowers are definite bonuses for hummers. Note: Do not select dwarf Camellias as hummer cover plants. You want the old-timey, standard-sized stuff.

For more detailed information of Louisiana's hummingbirds and hummingbird gardening, I highly recommend Louisiana hummer expert Nancy Newfield's books: Hummingbird Gardens (1996) and Louisiana Hummingbirds (2011;

Sunday, September 9, 2012

the louisiana hummingbird phenomenon

young male Broad-tailed Hummingbird
(photo by Dave Patton)

I think most of us can agree that the descriptors “amazing” and “incredible” are among the most overused and misused words in our present-day pop-culture lexicon. I mean, if everything is as amazing and incredible as it's made out to be these days, then why are we in such trouble?

On the other hand, Real things – take Nature for example – are truly amazing and incredible; and one of the most amazing and incredible organisms in all of Nature is the hummingbird. The tiny size, the irridescent plumage, the ability to fly backwards and upside down with itty-bitty wings that beat 60 times a second . . . amazing . . . incredible.

Limited in distribution to the Americas, where over 330 species live, hummers reach their peak species diversity in northern South America, where 150 different species reside in Ecuador alone! As you go north or south from the tropics, hummer diversity drops accordingly. In the U.S., about 25 species have been recorded, 14 of which are regular breeders here, and the remaining 11 “strays” which have made brief appearances from points further south.

female Ruby-throated Hummingbird
(photo by Matt Conn)

Here in Louisiana, we host but one breeder, the Ruby-throated Hummingbird; but in an odd and recent turn of natural events, a dozen additional species have been recorded here to date – almost all of which show up in winter. Wow. Bear in mind that, as a rule, these additional species, as well as our own Ruby-throated, normally/traditionally overwinter down in the American tropics of Mexico, Central and South America.

Beginning back in the 1930s, “winter hummingbirds” began to be reported from the U.S. Gulf Coast, including here in south Louisiana. By the 1980s, the rate of winter hummingbird detections in Louisiana began to swell on an annual basis, with each successive winter bringing more and more birds and species. Pioneering banding efforts by Louisiana's Nancy Newfield and others have proven that many of our winter hummingbirds are actually “returnees,” birds which return here winter after winter, more often than not to the same yard where they were first captured and banded!

adult male Rufus Hummingbird
(photo by Dave Patton)

Today, at least three non-Ruby-throated Hummingbird species populate southern Louisiana in such numbers as to be considered common winter inhabitants: the Rufous Hummingbird from the northwestern coast of the U.S. and Canada, the Black-chinned Hummingbird from the western/southwestern U.S., and the Buff-bellied Hummingbird, a Mexican/south Texas breeder which regularly wanders northward to overwinter along the northern Gulf Coast of the U.S.

The Seasonal Hummingbird Set-up in Louisiana

Ruby-throats breed throughout the state, mostly in wet forests and preferably as near to water as possible. They love to build their marshmallow-shaped/sized nests on twigs which hang over water.

mama Ruby-throated Hummer on nest
(photo by Skip Miller)

Folks in urban areas and places well-away from water generally see Ruby-throated Hummingbirds only during their migration periods (March-May and August-October) into and through the state. Those of us who live in the woods near rivers, bayous, swamps, and lakes see them regularly throughout their May-August breeding season as well. Peak spring migration numbers occur in April; peak fall migration numbers in September. During those months, almost everyone who hangs a feeder or maintains a nectar plant garden will see large numbers of migrating Ruby-throateds.

Buff-bellied Hummingbird
(photo by Dave Patton)

If you see a hummingbird at any point between late October and early March in Louisiana, chances are it's not a Ruby-throated. Yes, a few Ruby-throateds do overwinter in southern Louisiana, but far fewer than do Rufous, Black-chinned, and Buff-bellied hummers. Additional wesstern U.S. species (listed in decreasing order of abundance) that you might also encounter include Broad-tailed, Calliope, Allen's, Anna's, and Broad-billed, all of which are reported from our state just about every winter. And then there are the super-rare species such as Blue-throated, Green-breasted Mango, Green Violetear, and Magnificent hummers to consider, though to date these have been recorded on only 1-2 occasions in Louisiana. Refer to your bird field guides and/or google to learn more about all these species.

Attracting and Hosting Hummingbirds

First and foremost, you'll need garden space in which to install nectar-producing plants and provide habitat for not only the hummers, but also the tiny insects/invertebrates which comprise up to 25% of their diets. Next blog post, I'll cover hummer plants, so stay tuned.

Equally important for those of us who host hummers for long periods of time (breeding/overwintering Ruby-throats and/or overwintering non-Ruby-throats) are artificial nectar feeders. If you maintain or desire to maintain artificial nectar feeders, understand that you are creating an artificial lifeline to the hummers that you'll host. Thus, you must commit to maintaining these feeders, ensuring that they are clean and contain fresh (changed out every week or so) sugar solution on a daily basis. Do not put red dye in the sugar solution. That ain't necessary and it's probably unhealthy. Do not use honey or any other sweetener besides ordinary table sugar. Acceptable sugar-to-water ratios are 1:4 in the summer months and 1:3 in colder weather (that's like l cup sugar to 3 or 4 cups water). If you're not hosting hordes of hummers, keep your feeders only partially full. It's no use filling them to the top only to have the unused nectar spoil after a week or so. Store unused sugar solution in the fridge.

adult male Black-chinned Hummingbird at da feeder
(photo by Dave Patton)

Maintain as many feeders as you dare, only make the committment to continuously maintain them for the sake of the birds that depend upon them. Once the big slug of migrating Ruby-throated hummers has passed, many of us will take down all but 1-3 feeders.

If you live within the Interstate-10 corridor and southward, DO NOT take your feeders down in attempts to induce Ruby-throated hummers to continue southbound migration during the fall. Ruby-throats must double their body weights in order to make the long trip to southern Mexico, so they need all the feeder help that they can get here in the north. If a Ruby-throated or two linger around your feeders into December, chances are they are too young, too old, or too sick to migrate any further south. Besides, non-Ruby-throated species are actively seeking overwintering sites here from October-February, and they'll definitely need your feeders, particularly when freezing weather has killed off many of the nectar-producing plants in our gardens.

immature male Black-chinned hummer
without lots of practice, most non-adult male hummers
encountered during the winter months will be difficult to identify...
(photo by Dave Patton)

Species identification of adult male hummingbirds is pretty straightforward. Females and immature males, on the other hand, are usually very difficult to identify to species. Only a handful of hummingbird experts are able to routinely identify females and immature males here in south Louisiana during the winter months. Nancy Newfield, a Metairie resident and longtime Louisiana birder, has been studying and banding Louisiana hummingbirds for nearly 35 years. She'll be glad to investigate any winter hummer that might show up in your yard, particularly if you live in southeastern Louisiana. Check out for info on Nancy (504.835.3882 h, 504.338.3882 c; and Louisiana hummers. Additionally, her new Louisiana Hummingbird publication is now available in both hard-copy and downloadable form at Much of the information that I've related in this post comes from Nancy. Her next speaking engagement will be November 29 at the Bluebonnet Swamp Nature Center in Baton Rouge.

If you live in southwestern Louisiana and find yourself hosting a winter hummer, contact longtime Lafayette birder and hummer bander Dave Patton (337.298.8447;; see also for a look at Dave's fab hummer pics, some of which appear on this post). This coming Saturday (September 15) Dave will be conducting a hummingbird banding demonstration in Lafayette. Contact him or Lafayette's WildBirds Unlimited store for more information.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

roadside diner

American Robin munching yaupon holly berries
(photo by Steve Pagans)

It really is a no-brainer. I love food. I love birds. I love wild plants. So why shouldn't I love birds who love food-producing wild plants? It's become a lifelong fascination. 

Back in the 1980s when I began working at the Acadiana Park Nature Station (Lafayette, LA), a book in the facility's library caught my attention: American Wildlife Plants – A Guide to Wildlife Food Habits (Martin, Zim, & Nelson, Dover Publications, 1951). A wonderful read, to be sure. But the thing was dated, man. Nineteen-fifty-one, you know? So I initiated a literature search for more recent stuff. The news wasn't good. Worldwide, I found no more than a handful of papers, only two of which dealt with birds and wild fruits in the southern U.S. In fact, the majority of those references dealt with bird gut sample results conducted back in the early 1900s by U.S. Department of Agriculture biologists – back when birds were viewed as either human food sources or noxious crop pests.

Yellow-breasted Chat on Service-berry Tree (Amelanchier arborea)
(photo by Beth Erwin...or maybe Rector Hobgood)

When I whined about this to LSU ornithologist Van Remsen, his reply was quick and to-the-point: “Why don't you conduct your own bird/wild fruit survey?” So that's what happened. Besides Remsen and myself, I managed to recruit a couple of dozen folks from around Louisiana who knew their birds and their wild fruits. For nearly five years (1994 through 1998), we recorded every instance of a bird eating a wild fruit that we observed, totaling 1,040 bird/fruit interactions in all, involving a total of 67 bird species and 50 plant species. I think we learned a lot about Louisiana birds and the wild berry species upon which they rely. I know I did.

during our survey, we observed 13 different bird species using
rough-leaf dogwood fruits, including several species of vireos & flycatchers...
since the survery, 3 additional observations involving Hermit Thrush,
Yellow-rumped Warbler, and Baltimore Oriole (above) have been reported.

Today, some observers still send me bird/fruit observations, the most recent of which came from Shreveport birder Terry Davis, who sent me this fine photo taken by Mark Priddy of a female Baltimore Oriole consuming rough-leaf dogwood (Cornus drummondii) berries.

Red-bellied Woodpecker lusting after black cherries
(photo by Russ Norwood

So what did we find out from our 1994-98 survey? Well one of the first things that struck me was the fact that all woodpeckers love fruit. All woodpecker species like all sorts of berries. One of my best memories from the survey involved a family of four Pileated Woodpeckers – mom, dad, and two youngsters. There was a nice black cherry tree right in the middle of the Acadiana Park Campground. The campground was empty, and the woodpecker parents had escorted their young to the cherry tree in order “show them what's good.” As the woodpeckers ate, the youngsters began to holler – with delight, I guess – which attracted a motely crew of American crows. The crows descended around the cherry tree, themselves hollering and side-swiping the woodpecker family. Expectedly, the youngsters were freaked, but the parents nonchalantly held their ground, completely ignoring the crows. The youngsters followed suit.

poison ivy....late at nite, when you sleepin'.....
note tiny berries top/center

We also found out what poison ivy's good for. In our survey, we tallied a total of 23 different bird species using poison ivy berries, including woodpeckers, thrushes, catbirds, thrashers, chickadees, and warblers. So now we don't have to hem and haw when kids ask us, "Why did God make poison ivy?"

Cedar Waxwing scarfing down evil Chinese privet berries
(photo by Matt Conn)

In a related side-story, we also noted that the very best wild fruit plants – those which routinely attracted the most birds and the highest diversity of different species – tended to be plants that humans consider to be trashy. At the very top of the list, for example, is hackberry, a tree whose presence few property-owners will tolerate. As mentioned, poison ivy ranked high, as well as other hated/disliked species such as Virginia creeper, red mulberry, elderberry, and Chinese privet. Don't even get me started on Chinese tallow fruits. That's a subject for another post....

Monday, August 20, 2012

our prettiest weed(?) . . .

my oh my....Passiflora incarnata

There's a wise old garden saying that goes, “a weed is a plant out-of-place,” which means that 1) all “weeds” are not necessarily weeds, and 2) sometimes a “weed” coming up in the “right place” is a good thing...perhaps even better than one (or more!) of the plants that the gardener might have originally chosen for that place.

Personally, I can't even begin to count the number of plants that I've planted and lost in our gardens, and worse, client's gardens – hundreds, if not thousands over the past 35 years. By the same token, I'd also have a difficult time remembering all of the “accidental” plants – let's not call them weeds – that have come up (“volunteered”) in gardens which ended up making a better showing than the plants that I had originally intended for said spots.

passion vine festoons our 7' X 8' swamp rose

A perfect example occurred this past summer at our place. Out of nowhere, a native passion vine (Passiflora incarnata) took root under our swamp rose. Lydia and I both noticed it at the same time. We both received it with great delight, since both of us had unsuccessfully tried on several occasions over the years to get it started at our place. I mean, what's up with that? Here we are, two professional gardeners, and neither of us can make a local weed happy at our place? Yes kids, if you have not found out already, gardening is one of the most humbling of human endeavors. . . over the years we've found out that humble turns out to be a good thing, though. . .

note the tri-lobe leaves (esp. lower left)...learn the leaf
and you can identify the plant when it's not in bloom...

Anyway, up comes the passion vine. Plentiful rains have it growing at the speed of light – or at least water. . . It winds up and around and around the swamp rose. It jumps on the daylily row next to the ditch, and then onto the wild hibiscus in the ditch. Where she stops, nobody knows. We're loving it. . .

Passion vine (aka passion flower) is a member of the plant family Passifloraceae, a tropical family containing a dozen genera and over 600 species – about 500 of which are passion vines (genus Passiflora). Here in Louisiana, two species of Passiflora natively occur. Passiflora lutea, called yellow passionflower, is a small, delicate, shade-loving woodland vine; whereas Passiflora incarnata, called purple passionflower, is a large, husky, tough, sun-loving vine found in agricultural fields and other disturbed areas. Yep, many if not most farmers consider it a bad weed. What a weed, non?!!???

P. incarnata fruit

Another common name for P. incarnata is “maypop,” probably in reference to the fruit. As is the case with most species of passion vine, the fruits of P. incarnata are quite tasty, offering a sweet/tart flavor mix.

inside, each seed is encapsulated with its very own
envelope of juicy pulp...

Historically, French-speaking Louisianians called the fruit, grenade (pron. Grah-NOD), and made a refreshing lemonade-like drink from it. In his Edible Plants of the Gulf South (2005, Allen's Native Ventures, 337.328.2252), Charles Allen proclaims all parts – leaves, flowers, and fruits – of Passiflora incarnata to be edible.

Gulf Fritillary Butterfly
(nectaring off of red porterweed)

Passiflora incarnata is a primary host-plant for the larvae of both Gulf Fritillary and Zebra Longwing butterflies.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

a wild garden

"Wild thing
You make my heart sing;
You make everything groovy."

-- Chip Taylor

New Orleans' Longue Vue Gardens is appropriately named, for the site possesses a dozen or more ingeniously constructed mini-gardens laid out so that numerous resulting “long views” through several gardens at a time exist throughout the property. And of course the main “long view” – up to the main house – should rank among the most spectacularly-designed entry gardens in the U.S.

Longue Vue House and Gardens was the brainchild of Edgar and Edith Stern, who had the home built and grounds landscaped back in the 1930s. They hired nationally-renowned landscape architect Ellen Biddle Shipman to design the gardens. Beginning in 1935 with the spaces immediately surrounding the house, Shipman worked her way outward, and by 1939 had finally made it to a quiet, one-acre space at the northwestern corner of the property, adjacent to the 17th Street Canal dividing Orleans parish and Old Metairie. Here, using a fine brick pigeonaire as an aesthetic anchor, Shipman created Longue Vue's Wild Garden via a geometrically-simple pathway system that effectively divided the garden into several hefty segments.

Legendary Louisiana artist/writer/naturalist Caroline Dormon was called in to consult with Shipman on the Wild Garden's planting selections. And over the succeeding years several additional Louisiana native plant garden specialists have been called in to provide input there, beginning with Richard and Jessie Johnson, founders of the Louisiana Native Plant Society, and hand-picked successors at Dormon's beloved “Briarwood” (now known as The Caroline Dormon Nature Preserve) just north of Natchitoches.

I first visited Longue Vue's Wild Garden in the late 1990s, and over time was privileged to collaborate with a succession of three of the facility's Head Gardeners in providing design options and planting selections during the Wild Garden's crazy pre-/post-Katrina years. My last interaction came just several weeks post-Katrina (2005) when I was contacted by Head Gardener Amy Graham to come out and assess the damage and provide replacement plantings.

a bank of wild aster has naturalized
on the right side of this path

Salt-marsh mallow blooms (above) mingle with
black-eyed susan (below)

Amy, who's still serving as Longue Vue's Head Gardener, as well as her predassessors Ann Donnelly and Marcela Linero (Singleton), were all keen on native wildlife-attracting plants – a lucky happenstance for a guy like me. During that last-go-round in the wake of Katrina, I focused on seed/berry/nectar-producing natives, installing mid- to small-sized trees such as American hornbeam, red mulberry, rough-leaf dogwood, sweetbay magnolia, red bay, yaupon holly, and deciduous holly, shrubs such as American beautyberry, arrowwood viburnum, little-leaf viburnum, dwarf palmetto, and wax myrtle, as well as wildflowers such as salt-marsh mallow, black-eyed susan, indian pink, asters, irises, turk's cap, St. Andrew's cross, and others.

Tyrone Foreman (pictured) and I took shelter in the pigeonaire and
caught up on old times during a brief rain shower......behind Tyrone
is a young speciman of needle palm (Rhapidophyllum hystrix), a rare
native, endemic to pine flatwoods in the southernmost parts of South Carolina,
Florida, Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi

These photos were taken on a recent visit to the Wild Garden, where I serendipitously ran into old friend Tyrone Foreman, a well known Louisiana native plant advocate, and Susan Norris-Davis, both of whom have been carrying out the main maintenance duties there for the past several years. New Orleans birder Wendy Rihner conducts seasonal birding tours through the Wild Garden. Her next tour is scheduled for September 22. Check the Longue Vue House and Gardens website for more info.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

furry waif's cemetery

(metal sculpture piece near cemetery gate, donated by Susan Votier)

Lydia's been volunteering at Lafayette Animal Aid, a no-kill shelter for homeless dogs and cats, for a long time. Not long after they moved to their new facility north of Carencro, she got the idea to turn their little “pet cemetery” into an ornamental garden. She initially succeeded in installing one, enlisting her pals Michael Heinemen and David Kent. Alas, more pressing cares and concerns with the shelter, and the little garden soon fell into disrepair.

Then along comes volunteer Melinda Falgout – and this is key – her newly retired husband, Gary. Those two, along with Tammy Broussard weeded, soil-prepped, planted, and steel-edged the garden. Volunteers and staff donated wind chimes, bird-baths, and other niceties.

foreground: wormwood Artemesia, old-timey zinnias & Gaura lindheimeri behind

The “sun garden” portion is now a 125' x 4' perennial bed, chock-full of all sorts of hummingbird and butterfly plants, many of which are native wildflowers. And those which are not out-and-out south Louisiana natives have a long track-record of local adaptation. The “shade garden” section has just gotten underway as well.

front: old-timey zinnas; back: native turk's cap

These days, garden maintenance has become a priority of sorts, with Melinda, Lydia, Randy West, and Virginia Richard working there alternate days. Melinda and Debra Clothier installed an irrigation system. In establishing gardens in hot/dry/exposed sites out in rural areas, where belive me, weeds are ten-times the problem that they are in town, irrigation and steel-edging are “musts.”

"pink cigar plant" and turk's cap blooms mingle
these two are outstanding hummer/butterfly plants for our area

yarrow (left), Gaura (upper left), and dwarf rosemary (lower right)
frame a headstone

The headstone decoration quickly evolved, beginning with LAA Facility Manager Melissa Soto, and eventually involved students from Carencro Catholic, Boys and Girls Club, 4-H groups, Girl Scouts, and at-risk youth groups.

headstone workshop

Once upon a time, the abandoned-animal scene was nearly as bad as the litter scene presently is here in the Lafayette area. I write “nearly as bad” from the head. From the heart, of course, abandoned animals are gut-wrenchingly worse scene than litter. It's a sad thing that so many people treat living things as litter...or ornamentation...or armament....etc.

Besides being socially and morally reprehensible, the abandoned animal scene is ecologically reprehensible as well. Stray cats and dogs put even more pressure on already-stressed songbirds, lizards, skinks, frogs, etc. Pressure that these wildlings are having an increasingly tough time coping with.
Thanks to organizations like Lafayette Animal Aid, the local abandoned-animal scene is far less visible than just a few years ago. Joining forces with other groups, they've collectively spayed-neutered thousands and thousands of animals in the past few years. LAA adopts out hundreds of animals each year, as well. They visit classrooms. They host field trips. Watch for their recently-produced series of public service announcements on KADN. They're a happenin' group!

Consider becoming a Lafayette Animal Aid “Guardian Angel.” It's all of $25 per month commitment for God's sake. They've got a heck of group of people out there – staff, volunteers, and other folks who help them in fundraising, public relations, etc. A very impressive operation. Don't take my word for it. Check 'em out at or call 337.896.1553.