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Saturday, June 22, 2013

The eastern House Finch is the one we see in Texas

House Finch

The "eastern" House Finch is very common here in north Texas. A 15-year study of all House Finches has been published by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology; dramatizing that House Finches are of two groups – western (as in “west of the Rockies”) and eastern. Originally, there was only a western population, but a few birds from the west were captured and brought to New York in the 1940s as “Hollywood Finches”. Some escaped and are now common everywhere east of the Rockies. (The western population still lives a rather isolated life). The two groups began as genetically identical; but the eastern group has diversified greatly as its range expanded.

The males are noticeably red around the head, but the females are drab – a brown and tan streaky appearance making nesting less obtrusive.
The eastern group (the one here) is far more susceptible to a common eye disease among House Finches, since the birds stem from just a few birds, and have very little genetic diversity. Cornell is working on a remedy to this contagious disease in check. Until then, however, keep your feeders clean, especially if you spot a House Finch with an eye/s that look swollen shut.


feathered insecticide        The colorful Flicker,  fairly common in north Texas is actually a woodpecker. However, it’s a woodpecker who, in addition to pecking on trees, gets quite a bit of food via seeds and berries, and probing the soil for bugs. One biologist opened the stomach of a dead Flicker (the “Northern Flicker” lives here), and counted more than 5,000 ants inside!


Wednesday, June 19, 2013

The most important thing for hot weather care of your landscape

 Now that we’re into the season of dry, relentless Texas heat. it’s an especially good time to mulch your landscape plants if you haven’t already. It's the single best thing you can do for your yard in hot weather.  Even mother nature knows the value of mulching: the concept is as natural as you can get. For as long as shrubs and trees have grown on this earth, their leaves have fallen to the ground yearly and formed an organic layer of mulch.  As the leaves decompose, they become extremely fertile, water-retentive organic matter to naturally augment and enrich our soil.
       I’ve had the best results with organic mulches, by far. These are mulches derived from natural materials (usually plants) that were once alive. Over time, organic mulches will decompose and become part of the soil. Inorganic ones like gravel or rubber fibers won't. Decomposition adds “humus” to your soil, helping it retain water and nutrients.  
Shredded leaves. When dead leaves are shredded they're often used as a mulch; they decompose quickly and improve the soil. I use them exclusively on my own yard. You’ll never see shredded leaf mulch advertised or sold because it’s 100% free and abundant.  I just run a lawn mower over my leaf-covered lawn every fall (ignoring the quizzical stares of neighbors).  Whole leaves can be used, but they sometimes mat together and slow water movement into the soil.

Bark.  Bark mulches are made from the by-products of logs. Most common are shredded bark and bark chunks. Bark mulches resist compaction, will not blow away easily, are very attractive, and are readily available. Pine bark tends to float away, but bark mulch made from native trees is highly prized.

Wood chips. Wood chips are made from trees and shrubs. They stay in place, and weather to an attractive gray color. The process is the ultimate in recycling, since mulch is made from trimmings and old lumber that you and your neighbors throw out. Several sizes are available. 

Cedar chips. These are a popular kind of wood chip, but I steer people away from them. The harvesting of the cedar trees is often done at the expense of dwindling wildlife habitat.

Sawdust. Sawdust makes a poor mulch for most situations since weed seeds easily sprout in it. It also tends to cake, making it harder for water to soak into the ground – a big disadvantage in our climate. It also robs nitrogen from the soil as it decomposes, so more fertilizer may be needed. 

Straw.   Straw makes a good mulch for gardens. It is inexpensive, suppresses weeds, conserves moisture, and insulates well. On the other hand, it is not very attractive, may contain crop seeds, and is extremely flammable. Some may even contain growth-retarding chemicals. It’s important to use "straw" rather than "hay," since hay contains many weed seeds. 

Pine needles. Pine needles are attractive, decompose slowly, resist compaction, and are easy to work with. However, they are notorious for washing away in a rainstorm. They are often available commercially or are free if you have pine trees on your property.
For newly-planted trees and shrubs, spread mulch evenly about 3 inches deep. For trees and shrubs that have been in place a long time, I’d recommend a 2 inch layer of mulch. For trees and shrubs within a lawn, I’d strongly suggest reshaping the lawn if you can. (Lawns and trees have very different water needs.)  Otherwise, mulch a wide ring (extending from 3 to 6 feet out from the trunk) around each tree. 

 For areas of flowers or ground cover, mulch should be applied up to 2 inches deep (after settling), but should not come in contact with any plant stems. Any unwanted plants that grow through the mulch layer can easily be pulled out by hand.

Avoid any "colored mulch".  Ground-up wood from a wide variety of sources is dyed all sorts of strange colors. For the coloring to stick, some sort of chemical must be added - this is the sort of thing that you don't want around. Also, the chemical may stain your house, driveway etc. and colored mulches don't support the beneficial microbes your plants need. Keep in mind that mulches rarely stay in place. A "displaced" piece of red or white mulch will look very odd in your green landscape.

 When is the best time to put down mulch?  There’s no season or time when it shouldn’t be done, so the very best time is to do it today! Especially if there's hot weather coming.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Try owl-watching during the day.

Great-horned Owl on nest
Screech Owl
Owls are hard to watch for one very simple reason; they're active at night. But seeing one during the day is well worth the effort. Try daytime "owling'.
Owls sleep and take it easy during the day, so look for them in several places. They are masters of camouflage, so look for an owl very carefully. Then look again. I've "re-looked" up and down a tree, and spotted a resting owl that I missed the first time. Look for a well-secluded perch, often in the fork of a mature tree. Often there will be "whitewash" marks on whatever's below the place where an owl rests. This is because the owl goes to the bathroom ocaisionally - the more whitewash, the more it's used as a perch.
Owls and hawks like the same habitat and prey. So a home to Red-tailed Hawk by day may be home to a Great-horned Owl or a Barred Owl by night - and the owl is probably resting nearby during the day.  Or Mississippi Kite by day - Screech Owl by night, and so on.
During the day, if you a see "mobbing" action by smaller birds (lots of small birds flying at and screeching at something) they may have spotted a sleeping owl and are pestering it. Investigate!  
Parks, ball fields, big gardens, railroad and utility rights-of-way and farmer's fields are all potential owl habitats. Especially if there are large trees nearby for roosting. If there is water nearby (stream, marsh, swamp etc.), so much the better.
What I'm saying is look very, very carefully. And look in the appropriate habitat. Owls are all around us - they have to be somewhere during the daylight hours.
 “country-mouse” has it better than “city-mouse”    Owls that hang out in developed urban areas capture more prey than their rural counterparts. This may be because there’s more prey in urban areas, and more places to perch.  Ideally, the distance from an owl’s perch on a branch, fence-top or roof edge, to its prey, is 20 feet. Sometimes they even hover over the location of hidden prey (mouse, rat?) flapping their wings to flush it out