Thursday, December 31, 2009

2009 Cat of the Year...

Alex named 2009 Cat of the Year at Marler-Schmetterling Household!

Alex (pictured above, humbled by the honor, with June in the background overcome with joy, and cheering him on).

He won by a unanimous vote, trouncing Natalie,
and June. Never one to take anything for granted, Alex was astonished by the honor of this award. When told of his victory, he humbly acted like he did not even know what we were saying. His lack of pretentiousness is refreshing. He does not expect much in life, probably because of his modest beginnings.

An innocent victim of an animal hoarder, Alex was surrendered to the Bitterroot Humane Society a few years ago, where he was promptly shaved and treated for various ailments. As a bald, adult cat who does not purr, he did not get much attention at the Humane Society. After seeing many of his peers get adopted during his year at the shelter, he withdrew and suffered from depression. He was placed in foster care where he received special attention. We fell in love with his picture on line and adopted him soon after.
Unflappable, Alex is the glue that keeps the cat family together: he likes all three of his housemates and does not buy in to the often petty politics and resentments so common in housecats. Beneath his calm demeanor, Alex enjoys classic games like "Chase" and "String." He is a little bit of a renaissance man. He can play Chase by himself, or with the other cats, even if they don't know they are playing a game.

Alex is a Turkish Angora cross, and we think he feels a little ostracized by our registered Himalayan (Squeak) and purebred Persian (June). However they were both rescued from shelters, too, so we don't understand why they have such snobby attitudes. He is not the biggest cat (Natalie is nearly twice his size), not the oldest cat (Squeak, at 16, is 8 years his senior), not the newest cat (June). He is not the fluffiest (Squeak), nor is he the fanciest (June and Squeak are tied). As a result, many of our friends forget about him. Nevertheless, he has important jobs- he greets everyone that comes into the house, he eats anything yet does not beg for table scraps (I hope June is reading this). We are glad to take this opportunity to recognize his achievements.
Alex has put together a remarkable year: he was our least expensive cat this year (Natalie's synthetic body wall surgery will keep her ahead in that department for a while), was a great sport about June joining the cat family, and carried out his aforementioned duties without a single complaint (it is almost as though he doesn't even know he has these jobs).

June did pretty well in the voting, too, but her litter box habits are not going to win her any prizes.

Visit your local humane society or donate to ours! in Missoula and in the Bitterroot.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Backyard birding: a year in review

Having wildlife in my backyard is one the greatest rewards from native plant gardening. One easily quantifiable indicator, of the "success" of our garden is the number and diversity of species of birds that use our yard and variety of uses they have for our garden.

Although it is obviously difficult to ascribe the abundance and diversity of birds using our yard to native plant landscaping (their are no controls or replicates in this study), I look back to our previous home just five blocks away- a house we rented, and did not landscape. There we were only able to attract a few species; house sparrows, pigeons, house finches and European starlings. Our current home is in the same neighborhood, same ecotype, same proximity to natural areas, etc...but we have landscaped our yard with wildlife in mind.

Compared to the past few years, we changed little in our garden in 2009, the exception from a backyard birding standpoint is that we have been feeding less and less (click here for my feelings on this). We have cut back and stopped feeding black sunflower seeds- they tended to draw in undesirable species like house finches and squirrels (read more about squirrels here), and instead the only feed we provide is suet (click here for our conventional and unconventional feeders) and hummingbird feeders seasonally.
Here are a few highlights from 2009:
  • 40 species of birds used our yard this year. In total we have had about 60 species use the yard over the last 10 years (here is the list). Some exceptions this year were red polls (haven’t seen them in a while, and not since a "cold" (read: normal) winter, blue jays (don’t know why), and many species of warblers (though I might have missed them between building our greenhouse and training for a couple of marathons).
  • American robins were the first to return (Feb. 16) and the mountain chickadee (Dec. 14) was the most recent arrival.
  • One new species to our backyard bird list- the Brown creeper. Though not an uncommon bird, we had never had one in our yard before.
  • Black capped chickadees had two clutches. Though this happens every year, I still love it.
  • Northern flickers had a clutch. The noteworthy thing about that this year was the the male was a hybrid of two morphs and the female disappeared early on, leaving him to raise the nestlings.

Here is the list of birds in 2009:

Year-round or resident bird species
American Crow
Black-billed Magpie
Black-capped Chickadee
Cedar Waxwing
Dark-eyed Junco* (*fall-spring resident)
Downy Woodpecker
House Finch
Northern Flicker
Red-breasted Nuthatch
Sharp-shinned Hawk
2009 bird arrivals to our garden
Mountain chickadee December 12
Pine siskin October 4
White crowned sparrow October 3
Yellow rumped warbler October 3
Dark eyed junco October 3
House wren August 22
Olive-sided Flycatcher August 16
Hairy Woodpecker August 1
Northern Oriole May 28
Warbling Vireo May 27
Western Wood Pewee May 24
Yellow Warbler May 24
Wilson's Warbler May 23
Western Tanager May 21
American Goldfinch May 20
Gray Catbird May 20
Chipping sparrow May 18
Lincoln's sparrow May 16
Dusky flycatcher May 14
Black-chinned hummingbird May 12
Rufous hummingbird May 10
Ruby crowned kinglet May 2
Calliope hummingbird May 2
Golden crowned kinglet April 29
Bohemian Waxwing March 27
Varied Thrush March 26
Song Sparrow March 22
Brown Creeper March 16
Mourning Dove Feb. 21
American Robin Feb. 16

Monday, December 14, 2009

Where garden projects come to life

With 10” or so of snow blanketing the garden, thoughts have turned toward projects for next year. Looking back on pictures of the backyard (like the one below)- it seems impossible that the garden will look like that again. I do enjoy the different seasons, and despite and smaller color palette, I like all the seasons in the garden. A lot of the reason I enjoy our garden so much outside the somewhat lush spring is because of all the structure and structural elements. There is always something to look at, and even poking up through the snow. Many of these structural elements are natural like the standing or fallen snags, the brush piles, hills, and even seed heads. All this structure is critical for wildlife and adds visual interest year round.

However, a lot of the structure in the garden are projects I have built, for function (like the raised beds, or greenhouse), to define space (like the clothesline screen, arbors and trellises), to benches and chairs to better enjoy the garden or nest boxes for birds to roost in the cold winters and raise their young in the spring.

Though typically in the background of many pictures, my shop (shown above, perhaps the last time it was clean!) is where I spend a lot of time building and planning things for the garden. The shop itself is a prominent element in our backyard, and it carries its share of the native plant and wildlife garden. Affixed to the south side is a red bat house, on the east side is the black capped chickadee house, and covering the north, west and east sides are trellises for climbing native western white clematis (Clematis ligusticifolia).
On the north side of the shop (not pictured) is an arbor that surrounds the overhead door, which a clematis has devoured. This dense thicket is where song sparrows and dark eyed juncos roost in the winters. The roof of the shop supplies water to the rain barrels that provide irrigation to vegetables in the raised beds in front of the shop. The south wall of the garden super-heats the raised bed in front of it where our tomatoes grow.

The shop also creates shade, and even some micro-climates in our native plant landscape. Because of the shade on the east side, we can plant a greater diversity of plants than would otherwise be possible, since we do not water any of our landscape. Some plants that are more water loving, like orange honey suckle (Lonicera ciliosa), side flowered miterwort (Mitella breweri), shrubby penstemon (Penstemon fruiticosa), violets (Viola canadensis), wild lily of the valley (Smilacina stellata) or fern species (I have no idea what species we have) thrive in the shade- a surrogate for water.
Susan, the Bike Gardener inspired me to post some pictures of my shop after seeing her beautiful woodworking shop, and our ensuing discussion on shop heating (you can see the heater aglow, below).This is where most of my gardening takes place this time of the year, and watching the wildlife using our garden from its windows.

Monday, December 7, 2009

winter in the wildlife garden

It is cold and getting colder. Temps are predicted to be around -20 degrees F (not including wind) and highs are forecasted to be in the low single digits for the next few days. And, on top of that, there is the wind. It is below zero now, and it is only getting colder. This is an important time to think about wildlife in the garden.

While working in my woodworking shop yesterday (where it was very warm, by the way), I spent a lot of time watching birds and what they were up to in the garden. It was a lot of fun and gratifying to see the wildlife garden in action. I even braved the cold and -20 degree wind-chill to take some pictures (maybe “brave” is too strong of a word).

Winter roosts
The northern flicker in the photo above has been spending the night in the nest box to escape the cold. This is the same male that excavated the nest box this past spring and raised a clutch in our yard (he has a distinguishable nape crest). Although it is important to clean and fill nest boxes annually, especially ones that you fill with nesting material (see here for information), it is important to leave these boxes empty for the winter and not refill them until February.

Brush piles, bird nesting boxes, snags and rock piles are such important features for a variety of wildlife species in the garden. These elements allow birds and other animals to escape conditions that would otherwise be inhospitable and unavailable in a "clean" yard- that is a yard with only a manicured lawn and some nicely pruned specimen trees.

We don't feed very much, even in the winter by most standards (click here for more information). Our primary feeder is our garden- the seeds, berries, insects and others results of our garden design. For example, downy woodpeckers are spending a lot of time drilling our aspens looking for borers (click here for the fascinating, never ending borer story), and flickers are emboldened by the cold to excavate our anthill in search of cold weary (and defenseless) ant. These are the most reliable and most diverse feeders we have.
Pictured above is a song sparrow sitting on one of our fallen snags eating seeds from an aster. We do feed suet in the winter (click here for directions to build an easy one), and black sunflower seeds though not the latter for some time. Just having suet available for winter birds, seems to attract the fewest pest species.
Knowing what species are likely to visit your feeders is important in determining what to set out as food. Generic “bird food” usually end s up unused or wasted, or attracted non-native or pest species (like eastern squirrel species, European starling, house sparrows or house finches). In our yard, the primary winter birds include black capped chickadees, red breasted nuthatches, northern flickers, dark eyed juncos, downy woodpeckers, and others.
One unconventional feeder that is really effective is a natural suet feeder. Though this might look a little odd to some, a deer, elk or antelope carcass is just what lots of birds love, including chickadees, nuthatches and magpies. This is what store-bought, conventional suet feeders try to imitate. After butchering game, I will usually hang a ribcage in the backyard for birds to peck at and feed on. Yesterday as I watched, the chickadees and nuthatches never went to a typical suet feeder, but rather spent all their time feeding on the deer ribcage. Consider hanging your ribcage for the birds, or if you don’t hunt, and you are interested in adding a conversation piece/ feeder to your yard, stop by a wild game butcher, I am sure they will give you a ribcage.