Thursday, December 30, 2010

American Robin

These robins along with about 20 more were foraging in our back yard this afternoon. The weather has turned warmer and the snow cover is melting. The snow was practically gone on this south facing slope that is our backyard. These over-wintering robins did not seem to find many larvae, insects or earthworms in their search, but they certainly were busy looking under all the dead leaves.

Sunday, December 26, 2010


Today was a perfect day for getting out the snowshoes and hiking about the prairie path. We have had a lot of snow but today was sunny and not very windy. While walking along the bottom prairie path we noticed various animal tracks and that the river was not frozen over yet. But mostly I just enjoyed the beauty of the season and the company.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Ground Feeders

The back brick patio at Habitat Home (once it is shoveled) is just perfect for throwing a scoop of cracked corn and sunflower seeds on to feed the birds. A few of the partaking birds are a blue jay, junco, mourning dove and sparrow.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Bird Feeders

Bird feeders are so important this time of year. Deep snow, cold winds and ice all make it difficult for the birds to find food. Not only will you help the birds survive this time of year but you will benefit also from watching the beautiful birds at the feeders. These are just a few that visited our feeders this afternoon.

A tufted titmouse, the downy woodpecker and the little chickadee.tufted titmouse (Parus bicolor)downy woodpecker (Picoides pubescens)black-capped chickadee (Parus atricapillus)My friend reminds me that: Tomorrow [12/18/2010] is the annual Champaign County Christmas bird count. The circle of territory runs from approximately Flicker Woods Trail at Homer Lake to the east and Busey Woods to the west, so if you are within that area please consider counting a few birds tomorrow, either at your feeder, on a special trail, in your car, or at Homer Lake with some of the Champaign Co Audubon folks. Folks will be at the Homer Lake Nature Center at 7AM and the building will be open from 11-1 for indoor bird watching at the feeders.

Happy Birding!

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Ring-necked Pheasants

ring-necked pheasant (Phasianus colchicus)
We were pleasantly surprised to see an unusual sight today, a group of about eight ring-necked pheasants wandering through the back yard.  There has been quite a bit of snow recently, with the latest inch or two falling last night.  These birds, six males and two females (plus or minus), walked in from the bottom prairie, explored and foraged among the trees behind the house, and then flew in a rush a couple hundred feet to the east for some additional searching for something to eat.

We frequently remark about the apparent decline in the number of pheasants we've seen in recent years.  Ten years ago, it was an almost daily occurrence to see or hear one of these beautiful birds flying into the prairie, moving around in the upper savanna, or running across the road in front of the car. Today, it is rare that we see a pheasant anywhere in the area.  Apparently, this is not an isolated situation; pheasants are having a hard time throughout much of North America.  Although not native (pheasants were introduced from Asia in the late 19th and early 20th centuries), pheasants thrived here.  However, their population peaked around 1950 and has been declining since.

Loss of habitat heads the list of reasons for the decline, likely locally as well as regionally.  These birds like hay and grain agricultural areas, especially where there are grassy borders and pockets of tall grass and trees (sound familiar?).  They historically did well in the agricultural Midwest, but the changes from small multi-crop farms to large monoculture farming practices have taken their toll.  Alas.  Anyway, it was so fun to see this "large" group, that I have to include another photo.
ring-necked pheasant (Phasianus colchicus)

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Marcescent oak leaves

Even in today's blizzard with snow and 35+ mph wind gusts, the oak leaves are still hanging on. Withered and dry they are, but they will not fall off till spring when the spring buds push them off. Marcescent leaves, leaves that hang on even though they are dead, are a characteristic of younger oak tress. This particular tree was planted about 20 years ago. That is young for an oak tree. Another characteristic of marcescent leaves is that they occur on the lower branches as exemplified here. There are various theories about why certain trees, mostly oak, hornbeams, and beech do this and but not a lot of research has been done.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

The Dawes Arboretum

On a recent trip out to Boston, we decided to stop and visit the Dawes Arboretum in Newark, Ohio. We were certainly glad we did. It is a wonderful combination of trees, history and nature. Although the Dawes family's country home was closed to visitors that day, there was plenty else to do. The friendly person at the gift shop informed us of the Dutch Fork Wetlands just down the road. It was a sunny cool day, perfect for hiking around the arboretum and wetlands. We barely got to see everything before the place closed at dusk.

There is a nice Bonsai collection at the visitor's center. On the lower level of the visitors center is the nature center that has this really nice observational bird feeding station.

Holly Hill is where you will find a mature collection of hollies. The hollies were really nice to view this time of year with all their red berries.

The rare tree and oak collection was a good place to collect nuts.
Perhaps my favorite place to view was the Cypress swamp, even though it was dry at this time. This would be a great place to see in the spring.
One of the nice things about this place is that you can drive to all the various collections and sites to see. We did not spend much time at the Japanese garden. the Azalea Glen and Rhododendron Glen were not at optimal viewing, nor did we take the time to hike the "Deep Woods." There is also a nice observation tower that overlooks the lake and hedge lettering if you like that sort of thing!

We took the short drive over to Dutch Fork Wetlands and hiked the trail to the bog and back.
Perhaps one of the unexpected delights of the place was seeing many really old Beech trees which we do not have in East Central Illinois.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Green Dragon

green dragon (Arisaema dracontium) bulbs
Doesn't look like much does it? But I was so excited to receive these bulbs.  These are what will hopefully produce green dragons (Arisaema dracontium) this summer. Green dragons are similar to jack-in-the-pulpits, however the green dragons bloom later in the summer, are taller and have beautiful large foliage. Neither or these plants were growing here when we bought the property. I have introduced jack but had a difficult time finding any green dragons. A friend dug up these bulbs from his yard and suggested that I plant them in a shady damp location. The middle bulb is younger and hopefully will also produce a flower. The bulbet on the left was removed from the large bulb on the right and planted separately in an experiment to see what it will produce. They are all planted in the woods along the river where it frequently floods. The bulbs are not eaten by animals as they contain a toxic substance, calcium oxalate. But insects visit the flowers and many animals eat the berries. The foliage, unusual flowers and bright red berries of the green dragon are a beautiful addition to any moist shady area.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Invasive Plants

What are invasive plants?
Alien or "exotic" plant species are those which have been introduced by some non-natural process (primarily human transportation and/or planting) into an environment in which they did not naturally evolve or spread. Some exotic species are able to thrive outside their normal zones, and those termed "invasive" are capable of aggressively competing with native species to the point of displacing them. To accomplish this, invasives tend to exhibit very strong vegetative growth, abundant long-lived seed production, a high degree of germination, and rapid maturation to seed-producing capability. While there can be overlap, the term "invasive plants" generally refers to natural areas management, and is distinct from the more legal designation "noxious weeds" applicable to economic impact in agricultural systems and regulated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Why should we worry about invasive plants?
Invasive plants can have a tremendous negative influence on balanced ecosystems of soil, water, plants and animals. They can crowd out primary or even sole source species of food or hosts for a variety of insects, birds, mammals, and other organisms, and can restrict wildlife movements and natural migration patterns. The long term effect can often be a significant reduction in the diversity of species occupying a local or even regional ecosystem, in some extreme cases leading to native species extinction. Such a reduction in diversity can place both terrestrial and aquatic habitats and their occupying animal populations under great stress. Government agencies and local park districts charged with enhancing and preserving natural habitats face rising costs in their efforts to remove invasive plants and reduce their spread.

What can we do about them?
At Habitat Home, we follow a few simple rules.  First, we try not to introduce exotic plants of any kind, using only native plants in both our natural areas and in the landscaping around the house.  By the way, we consider the house landscaping to be just another case of the natural areas management we are doing in the prairie, savanna, and riparian corridor areas of the property.  Second, we actively remove invasive species as we find them.  And find them we do!  It is a never ending process.  The biggest problem species at Habitat Home are bush honeysuckle (Lonicera spp.), autumn olive (Elaeagnus umbellata), and yellow sweet clover (Melilotus officinalis).  Mowing helps, especially for the olives, but we cut the clover and honeysuckle and spray the honeysuckle stumps with a small amount of glyphosate (for example, Roundup).

Sunday, October 31, 2010


Indiangrass (Sorghastrum natans)
What a majestic beautiful plant Indiangrass Sorghastrum natans is. Or perhaps it just seems so because it is the last plant of the tall grass prairie plants to bloom and therefore just looks better than its neighbors. It is now a glowing golden color and will remain so throughout the winter. It is the tallest of the grasses in our prairie, reaching well over six feet tall. Indiangrass is often a co-dominant species with big bluestem, and usually sparser. In our prairie these two grasses are in separate areas so it will be interesting to see how they do develop together. Curently there is a very healthy stand of Indiangrass.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Rose Hips

Rose hips of Carolina rose (Rosa carolina)
Rosa carolina produces  beautiful rose hips every year if you leave the pink flowering  roses on the plant.  These rose hips are actually a structure called achenes, an urn shaped receptacle that contains the fruits of the plant.   Rose hips are sought after by deer, rabbits, squirrels and birds all winter long.  Rose hips are very high in Vitamin C and can be used in Jellies, jams, and to make tea.  The best time to harvest the hips are after the first frost but leave plenty for the wildlife.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Salt Marsh Caterpillar

salt marsh caterpillar (Estigmene acrea)
My potted tomato plants are gone now.  The other day the leaves were all eaten.  I wondered who did it, but being the end of the season, I just dumped the soil and what was left of the poor plants onto the compost piles. This morning as I watered some  scented geraniums, I noticed this caterpillar.  Looking so cute and fluffy, I asked the resident photograher to photograph it.  It was not until tonight as I was looking up what it actually was that I realized it had eaten the  tomato leaves!  I  think it is a salt marsh caterpillar, the mature larval form of the salt marsh moth (Estigmene acrea).  The larvae are well known for their ability to skeletonize foliage of vegetable plants, one of which is tomato plants.  Doesn't look so cute and fluffy any more.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Migrating Monarchs

Monarch butterflies (Danaus plexippus)Last year, we removed most of the bush honeysuckle from the edge of the path adjoining the woods at the northwest corner of the bottom field near the orchard. This year, this cleared area is awash with volunteer brown-eyed susans (Rudbeckia triloba) and wingstem (Actinomeris alternifolia, image below). While we routinely observe Monarchs (Danaus plexippus) through the summer, this area has been visited by hundreds of monarch butterflies in the past two weeks; at any visit to the site now there are usually 20 or more present, both on the flowers and in the trees. These images were taken in the early evening, essentially standing still and rotating in place.

Monarchs (the State Insect of Illinois) are present in the state all summer, having up to three broods. But those that have become adults by September are ready to migrate south, either to the gulf coast or all the way to "traditional" breeding grounds in the highlands of central Mexico. These fall migrant Monarchs were born in Illinois or points north into southern Canada, probably three or more generations removed from their ancestors that left the winter roosting grounds last winter/spring. They have never made this trip south before, yet somehow they know when and where to travel. As many as 300 million will congregate in Mexico's Transvolcanic Plateau. How and why they pull off this feat is a mystery. Monarchs are the only butterfly that has such a fixed migration pattern; the migration behaviors of other butterfly species are much more erratic.

It's nice to see all these flowers still blooming and providing these Monarchs with some nectar as a source of energy for the next leg of their long flight ahead!

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Trumpet vine

Trumpet vine (Campsis radicans)
Campsis radicans is doing a fine job of attracting hummingbirds this summer with the large number of flowers it is producing. With its lovely orange flowers, lush foliage, and interesting seed pods this is a very ornamental native vine to grow. However, the vine is very aggressive and can take over an area, so be careful where you plant it. Often in the country one sees it growing in full sun on sign posts and old fence posts where it freely creeps over the whole fence. In addition to attracting hummingbirds, several insects are attracted to the flower, and a variety of songbirds will nest in the tangle of branches where they are hidden by the dense foliage.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Gray Treefrog

Gray treefrog (Hyla versicolor)
This little creature, Hyla versicolor, joined us for breakfast the other morning.  It was a sunny morning and the wooden deck had warmed up when what should appear but a tiny treefrog.  It sat there for quite a while.  Long enough for us to run and get the camera and take a few photos.  It then hopped off onto the trumpet vine by the deck.  Treefrogs are great to have around as they eat all manner  of insects like crickets, grasshoppers, flies and moths.  They are also interesting in that they will change colors gray, green or brown depending on the temperature and background.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Burr Oak

These beautiful acorns are not growing here at Habitat Home. These acorns are growing on trees planted in Millennium Park in the heart of Chicago. These Burr oaks are planted just outside the Lurie Garden that is also located in Millennium park. This garden is full of native plants and designed by one of my favorite designers, Piet Oudolf. The diversity of plants and the way in which they are planted has made me wonder about redesigning the meadow area at Habitat Home. When I first started gardening I wanted one of every plant, now after seeing this garden, I want hundreds of just a few native plants. The massive plantings were quite impressive especially when viewed against the city skyline. It was also interesting to sit on the benches and watch as the dragonflies and other insects flew above the plantings.
The last photo is of Cloud Gate, a sculpture, also located in Millennium Park. No photo can do this interactive piece of art justice. It was so engaging to all who viewed it. I would be very satisfied to have just one of these!
'Cloud Gate' (a.k.a. 'The Bean') sculpture, Millennium Park, Chicago, Illinois

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Colorado Mushrooms

Who knew that there would be so many mushrooms along the hiking trails in Rocky Mountian National Park near the YMCA of the Rockies where we stay. I need help identifying them. These are just some of the photos.

Hairy grama

hairy grama (Bouteloua hirsuta)
hairy grama (Bouteloua hirsuta)While in Colorado, I was able to do a lot of hiking in the Rocky Mountains. The wildflowers and grasses and even mushrooms were all in abundance due to the amount of moisture the area has received this year. Perhaps the most delightful sight for me was this field of Hairy grama that is shown above. It is an interesting native Rocky Mountain grass and one that is not readily established in the Midwest, although we have a similar grass here: side oats grama. I was lucky to see Hairy grama (Bouteloua hirsuta) blooming in its natural setting and even see the tiny seeds.