Sunday, January 30, 2011

It's time to clean the nest boxes; spring is almost here

I took a break from shoveling snow to do some annual cleaning of the bird houses. This is a post I write about annually, but it is always a good reminder.

For more information about cleaning details click here and for more information about bird houses click here, and for some general bird stuff on this blog click here

Bird nest boxes need to be cleaned and inspected annually. It is a good time to look for water damage, and a good opportunity to inspect the boxes to see if they need any other repairs. At the minimum, remove the old nesting material, scrape off any mildew, and repack if you will be packing the house with saw dust (see here for more information).

I used to clean and re fill them right after the nestlings would fledge, but now I usually wait until early February to clean and refill the bird houses. I don't know if it is because of wisdom or laziness.

If left empty through the winter, birds may use the empty boxes as roosts. For example, this winter when we had several days below -10 F, flickers roosted in the flicker box and chickadees roosted in the chickadee boxes. However, in the past, squirrels have roosted (albeit temporarily) in the flicker box. But let’s just say that squirrel won’t be telling any of his friends about that warm spot to spend the night. Anyway, I digress, another reason to leave them empty after the nestlings fledge, is that our chickadees typically have two clutches and they will build their second nest right on top of their first nest.

Nevertheless, the sooner you get them repacked, the sooner you can watch for excavation activity. It is always amazing how quickly they start checking out the boxes, especially if we get a few warm days, and the little birds' thoughts turn to love.

Here are some important dates on nesting activities in the Missoula area from my backyard:

Red-breasted nuthatches are the first to begin excavating their selected box- they begin excavating in early to mid February (between February 5 and 21 at my house) and they are usually complete by the first week of April (April 1-9) when they begin to fill their boxes with nesting material.

Black-capped chickadees start excavating about a month after nuthatches, with peak excavating around first week of April (from March 25- April 4), until middle April when they bring in nesting material (April 11-15). But they investigate and start defending nest sites in February.

Northern flickers are on a similar schedule as chickadees and they begin excavating in late March – early April (March 24-April 8), but they search for nesting locations in February and may do some exploratory excavating as early as the beginning of February.

Monday, January 24, 2011

2010 Cat of the Year: The story of June bug

The people have spoken and by a landslide June bug was named the 2010 cat of the year for the Marler-Schmetterling household. June bug received 54% of the vote and easily won over the electoral college to claim the victory...

I have to say, though, I voted for Alex. Three times.

I love all the cats deeply, and clearly June has the saddest story, but sometimes I feel most for Alex. Alex is very quiet, he doesn’t even purr. When we adopted him, he didn’t even know how to be a pet. His major problem is that he has systematically been ignored. He is small, but not the smallest and his size might be from neglect or malnutrition.

He does nothing wrong (save a few midnight toe bites), and inevitably gets ignored. Even in the post on our cats on a Missoulian reporter's blog, Missoula Red Tape, Alex got left out of the headline ("Vote for June bug! And Squeak! and Natalie!").

Thank you to everyone who voted. I especially appreciated all the thoughtful comments, some were a riot. It is clear that readers of Montana Wildlife Gardener took this responsibility very seriously.

The story of June bug:

This competition turned out to be the story of June bug, and here is a little more background.

As far as we know, she was kept in a dog crate (not kennel, but crate) outside for 8 years. The reason started from her poor litter box use. The previous owner even put her in a diaper, and then ultimately a crate. Outside.

When she was surrendered to the Humane Society the staff was shocked by her appearance and health. The intake form read simply “rough shape”. She had to be completely shaved. She had ticks, fleas, internal and external parasites, a mouth full rotten teeth and infections from the flea and tick bites, and only weighed about 4.5 pounds. Frankly, given her age and condition, I am surprised they kept her alive.

After years of neglect and abuse, she stopped grooming herself.

I first saw June in a description on the Internet, I forwarded the link my wife the link and we decided we had to go see her. We went to the Humane Society and were told she was sequestered in a cage in the staff bathroom (the same place we got Squeak! pictured below).

This was clearly a good sign. "You had us at 'bathroom'," my wife quipped.

When I picked up this tiny, bony, but surprisingly hot, little thing, she started to purr. It was from her purring, I was convinced she was a cat (and that was about the only thing that lead me to believe she was feline- see the picture).

She spent the next hour on me and my wife getting petted and given attention. The staff remarked that this was the first time she’d been loved. It only took us a minute or two to realize that she had to come home with us. However, it would be weeks before she could come home. She had to get dipped for various ailments and could not be exposed to our other cats. So, since we couldn't take her home, every couple of days I’d go down to the Humane Society and carry her around and pet her. She purred when I’d open the door to her room and she’d purr and drool on my lap.

We got her home, slowly introduced her to the other cats, and made her comfortable in her own room. She ate and purred and ultimately put on a pound. Her health though was still really shaky, and we made many more trips to the vet, almost weekly.

Her teeth continued to rot, and we found out she was allergic to her own tooth enamel. The vet pulled all but two of her teeth and we give her daily doses of antibiotics.

She suffered signs of stress and anxiety, and we give her Prozac daily. Her years of abuse have clearly taken their toll. All the trips to the vet made us realize that we might not have her very long, and that she was clearly not a healthy cat. We resigned ourselves to fact that maybe all we were doing was providing her with a comfortable place to live out her life, however short that might be.

Nevertheless, she continued to follow us around, sleep on us, and purr. And eat. She has the biggest appetite of any of our cats, even the 15 lb Natalie (or "Fatalie" as my friend Trisha calls her, lovingly of course). For the record, Natalie is big-boned.

June's hair grew in, and it was the softest fur I have ever seen. Evidently her guard hairs did not grow back. As a result, her coat quickly got incredibly matted.

We discovered everything she liked to eat, which is everything. Or at least everything that my wife and I eat. She is especially fond of meat. Any meat, and raw. She seems to really like deer, antelope, turkey, grouse, pheasant, and cheese.

We eventually had to get her a lion cut. Not the best day.
But she got some adorable sweaters out of it.
Then it seemed like her underfur did not grow back and all she had was her guard hairs. Not the best look either. Her vet tested her for various skin fungi. Yes, it looked that bad. Finally after about one year, she has the right balance in her coat, and she is looking really good. She even grooms her face now. Well, she tries anyway.

Her litter box habits were a very frustrating mystery. We tried everything to get her to consistently use a litter box. Attractants, pheromones, multiple boxes, mood lighting, privacy, etc... It was hard to get mad at her, since her litter box behavior is probably what got her put into diapers and then a dog crate. We've since discovered she will not share a box with the other cats. The most remarkable thing is the other three cats use two litter boxes and they will not use June's! Yay team!

June has her own bedroom (pictured below), and the other cats respect this. Though Alex likes to sneak in and nap in June's bed. But June seems fine with that.
I am continually amazed how adorable and loving this little creature is, and especially in light of how badly she had been treated most of her life. She sleeps between our heads every night, and she continues to get better every day. Her vet never expected her to live this long. Now it seems like she'll live forever, though I know she won't. I was surprised the Humane Society kept her alive, but I am so happy they did.

Upcoming Native Plant and Wildlife Gardening Talk

Do you live in the Flathead? Or, if you don't, and you'd like to take a little trip, join me at the monthly meeting of the Flathead Chapter of the Montana Native Plant Society, on February 16th. This meeting will be held at 7 pm. at Discovery Square, 540 Nucleus Ave. in Columbia Falls (the old First Citizen’s Bank). My talk "Conservation Gardening: Landscaping with Montana Native Plants for Montana Native Wildlife in your own Backyard" will show how native plant gardening can be fun, educational, sustainable and meaningful.

Planning gardens, identifying problem areas in my landscape and thinking of all the potential and the possibilities is one of my favorite parts of gardening. This talk will focus on using Mon­tana native plants to create habi­tat for native wildlife and to create a sustainable garden for people to enjoy. If you are thinking about adding more native plants or attracting wildlife, I think you'll enjoy this program.

If you've never been to a Montana Native Plant Society event, look up your local chapter and consider attending a meeting, or joining the society. There are a lot of great events and even more wonderful people in the society- it is a great place to learn about native plants and their habitats.

Click here for more information. I hope to see you there.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

2011 Garden Projects

I was inspired by an email I got yesterday from my friend Mike. He asked what I had planned in the garden for the upcoming year and gave me his list of projects. He has a lot of great ideas and some interesting projects planned. Until this point, I really didn't have much planned for the coming year, and this email correspondence inspired me to write up a list of projects and reminded me to revisit last year's list.
2010 Garden Projects:
New raised bed for the vegetable garden (mainly for onions) - next to grape arbor in the photo below
  • Move current occupants of area that will become raised bed to front yard. Done, and this worked so well, I added a new raised bed in front of the greenhouse- a garlic bed
  • Reduce bluebunch wheatgrass (Pseudoreugnaria spicata) in front yard and replace with displaced plants in the area that will be occupied by the new raised bed. Done
  • Remove one Steuben blue grape vine (we have two vines that produce over 50lbs of grapes/ year. That is a lot of jelly) and replace with a Himrod (seedless table grape). In the photo above one of the grapes is going for a ride. Done. The Steuben blue has a new home at my friend's house in Idaho.
  • Install cameras in bird boxes and connect to Internet. Done
  • Complete outdoor grill shed (all I need is to install the roof, so I am waiting for someone with galvanized delta rib roofing to remove theirs and donate it to Home Resource).Done

  • Remove one section of lawn and replace with natives like hairy golden aster (Heterotheca villosa), yarrow (Achillea millefolium), showy fleabane (Erigeron speciosus) that I will mow to form a meadow.

  • I liked this so much, I got rid of the last vestigial lawn patch, and replaced it with more flowers and an urbanite path.
  • Prune clematis on garage. Done, but I have to do it again. It is a bigger job than you'd think.
  • Start a bunch of native plants in the greenhouse to add to our front yard to replace some bluebunch wheatgrass and blue flax (Linum lewisii). Done. See the Elkhorn clarkia (Clarkia pulchellum), in the photo below.
  • Make a new compost bin? Not completed in 2010
So, my list for 2011
  • Make a new 3 bin composter
  • Plant some trees in decadent aspen stand. I am thinking mountain ash (Sorbus scopulina), but we'll see. The aspen have performed admirably, but it is time to move on. Plus, we have the same number of aspen in our garden, they are just in different places.

  • Prune the white clematis (Clematis ligusticafolia) on the garage, again a bigger job than you'd think.
  • Rearrange some plants in the front prairie, including getting rid of a green rabbit brush (Ericameria viscidiflora) and adding more shrubby trees close to the house
  • Replace urbanite in front of the greenhouse and on the side yard that has settled too low. Replace it with larger chunks. It became painfully obvious this past week that these low spots were too annoying to live with
  • Start some native plants in the greenhouse. Always a good goal. I want more sticky geraniums (Geranium viscosissimum) in the garden (photo on the top of the post).
  • Make a "cut-off" trail in front of the onion bed. The area near the grill shed is kind of a congested area in the garden and by adding this new trail/ path, people will be able to flow better.
  • Stream 2 nest box cameras simultaneously this year. Last year I streamed the chickadee camera, and later the flicker camera. While I am at it, maybe I should invest in another camera to stream the nuthatch box.
Lots to do. It will be another exciting year. And here I thought I didn't have any garden plans!

Monday, January 17, 2011

Build an indoor seed germination chamber

I read that today, January 17th, is statistically the saddest day of the year. I'm not sure exactly how that was quantified, but few people in Missoula will likely disagree today. It is about 40 degrees and raining outside. Although this is not unheard of for a January thaw, it is definitely pretty dreary today. On the bright side, with all the melting snow, it is a good day to marvel at the beach lines on Mount Jumbo and Mount Sentinel.

Givin the dreariness, I thought this would be a good day to write about a garden project that you make and have inside. This is post is about building an inexpensive seed germination chamber.

This is a fun project and it is really cheap to build (especially if you get all the materials at, say, Home ReSource (1515 Wyoming Street in Missoula). But even if you don't live in Missoula and you have to pay big city prices, you will hardly be out any money.
It is timely to think about ordering seeds and starting them indoors. We just inventoried all our seeds for the vegetable garden, did some planning and deliberating, and last Friday all the seeds arrived. We'll be transplanting many of our germinants out in the greenhouse; if you don't have a greenhouse, consider building a cold frame to get a jump on spring. After the depressing weather the last few days, it is really important to think of spring and remember that it is in fact getting closer every day!

We use our germination chamber for starting vegetables, but of course you could use yours for starting native plants.

Here I will show what materials you'll need to make a germination/ growth chamber, but really
it is nothing more than a box with a light in it. Here are some tips:

If you haven't been before, take this as an opportunity to visit Home ReSource, a building materials reuse center. Home ReSource is my favorite place to shop and come up with ideas for my next project, and it is where I get materials for many of the things I've featured on this blog from my greenhouse to my bee house.
Below is Lauren, the co-founder and co-director of Home ReSource. He and any of the other enthusiastic, knowledgeable staff enjoy helping customers, especially in the treasure hunt-like environment of Home ReSource.
To start, select a fluorescent light fixture. Show below are an assortment of recycled fixtures that cost just a couple of dollars each. Whatever size you select will dictate the size of the box you build. I use a standard 4' "shop light" set up.

The next step is getting bulbs for the fixture. Although you can buy "grow" lights (lights specifically for growing plants) you do not need to.
All you need are fluorescent bulbs that cover the range of the light spectrum, and you can accomplish that with one "cool" bulb, and one "warm" bulb. At Home ReSource, the bulbs are cheap ($0.50, for a 4' bulb).
But even if you buy a new bulb and it is a "grow" light, they are still not terribly expensive.

The bulbs not only provide light for the plants, they also supply the heat for germination and growth. Although a florescent bulb does not give off much heat, it does give off some, and that will be plenty to keep the chamber around 70 degrees, especially with a well insulated box (see below).

The next step is selecting a timer. You want to set the growth chamber so your plants will get 12 hours of light/ day. Again, a trip down the aisles will reveal several timer options.
Here, for example is a new in the box timer for $4.
But if you didn't want to spend that much, there are plenty of other options. Look at the piles of timers laying around at Home ReSource...
The next step is building the enclosure or box. The simplest way is to make a box out of rigid insulation. Insulation with a foil face is best- it allows light to reflect. However white rigid insulation will do just fine. The thicker the insulation the better. The thicker it is, the more rigid the box will be and the greater the insulating value.

Just build the box to allow for the size of the light and the size of the trays you might use for seed starting. In general you want the box to be small, for conserving heat, but you have to allow the light fixture to move up and down.
So the plants don't get leggy, you want the light to be about 1" from the plants at all times, so allow for some space to adjust the fixture height.
Using the rigid foam insulation is a really easy way to build the box- no complex joinery to deal with. I made ours just using foil tape to hold it together.
It is nothing fancy, but it works, and has lasted several years taking up some unused space under our basement stairs.
The good news is, June 17 is statistically the happiest day of the year, and it will be here before you know it, with a whole bunch of plants you started from seed this winter.