Wednesday, March 31, 2010


Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis)
While walking the sloping woodland trail today, I was lucky to spot these white flowers of the spring ephemeral Sanguinaria canadensis, commonly called bloodroot. It has this name because of the reddish orange sap found in its thick rhizome. Bloodroot can be found in the rich soils of mixed deciduous forests in most of the Eastern United States. The flower is short lived but the leaves continue to open and grow more interesting all season. This is a good native plant to consider if you are looking for some unique texture in a shade garden. Often bloodroot grows in massive sweeps but I have only found a few scattered in the woods at Habitat Home.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Barred Owl

Barred Owl (Strix varia)
We noticed this barred owl sitting on the electric wires along the road early this morning.  Barred owls are common around here, often seen swooping around or watching from a tree or utility pole, but we're not sure if we've ever seen one on the wires.  This owl has a good view of the large upper field with conveniently short grass, but he's keeping a watchful eye on the traffic on the road, too, including me.

Barred owls feed on a variety of small mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians and even fish, so the environment around here is perfect, with a mix of grassland, trees, bogs and the river.  They haven't nested on the property for several years, though, so we're hoping maybe this one will settle down.

By the way, Joan prides herself on a great imitation of the barred owl's call, and claims to have had many two-way conversations.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Prairie Burn

Today marked the (mostly-)annual burn of the 5+ acre Habitat Home prairie. There wasn't much wind, so the burn was not as "exciting" as it sometimes is, but the grasses were quite thick following the good season last year, so everything burned quite well.

Although it looks like it could be dangerous, and you always have to respect fire, we are always very careful and methodical about our burns. We always start burning from the downwind side, creating slow-burning firebreak extensions to the existing natural breaks around the perimeter of the field, and have a crew armed with flappers and a roving water tank. The video above (about two and a half minutes) shows a couple of scenes from the more upwind side where the wind, such as it was, pushed the fire a bit more aggressively. Note the smoke in the background where the firebreak fire is burning slowly upwind.

Grass fires were a common, natural occurrence in the North American Prairie. Burning is very beneficial to native grasses: it can promote seed germination, it kills competing species (e.g., trees, shrubs, and non-native, invasive plants), it releases nutrients into the soil, and opens the ground up for light and warming that encourages new growth. Following a burn, we often see more owls and hawks around the perimeter of the field, where they have an easier time spotting mice, voles, and snakes moving around.

The prairie field is an important part of Habitat Home. The tall grasses - mostly Switch Grass (Panicum virgatum), Big Bluestem (Andropogon gerardii), and Indian Grass (Sorghastrum nutans) - and forbs provide seed, nectar, and cover for a variety of insects, butterflies, birds, and small mammals. There are so few acres of prairie left in Illinois that every little bit helps!

All in all, a successful burn!

p.s. I apologize for the black frame, rather than the first content frame, in the initial view in the video window above. This has been happening for the past six weeks or so. It appears that google is trying to discourage blogger-resident videos and get us to use youtube. They don't force it, they don't say it, they just make it increasingly inconvenient to upload and use videos in blogger. Bother!

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Pussy Willow Shrub

pussy willow shrub (Salix discolor)
The big beautiful pussy willow shrub (Salix discolor) is now blooming in our front yard.  We planted it years ago.  Even though the deer love to rub on it, it has grown really big.  This makes it difficult to cut and bring in stems, I have to get out the ladder.    But,  it is also nice to  just stand underneath the big bush and look up at the blooming flowers.   Male and female flowers are produuced on seperate plants.  The males being more ornamental than the females. The flowers are gray and very silky to the touch.  As the pollen ripens the flowers will turn yellow. 

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Burning Little Bluestem Clumps

A few days ago, the weather was perfect for burning clumps of little bluestem in the yard. It was sunny and not too windy but windy enough to carry away the smoke. The little remaining snow acted like a natural firebreak. The clumps looked rather sooty for a few day but the rain today is cleaning them up. The birds will miss the few remaining seeds and the voles and rabbits will miss the cover but burning is the easiest and quickest way to get these prairie plants ready for spring.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010


These are the first flowers to bloom at Habitat Home. These crocuses have managed to survive my constant digging up of plants in my efforts to change over to native plants. Also, they have not yet been eaten by the deer. They are so bright and colorful and such a welcome sight after a long snowy winter.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Red-Tailed hawk

In our upper savanna area, the trees are finally getting big enough to support these large birds. They like to sit at the very top of the tree.  We often see one flying from one tree top to the next and also to the top of the telephone poles.  We watched as this one swooped down and captured something.  It then  flew to the top of a distant telephone pole and with its back to us, ate whatever it caught.  These hawks are fond of voles, rabbits, mice, chipmunks, birds, snakes and frogs.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Spring Clean Up

One of the first things I try to get done come spring is trash removal.  Living along the river means that when the river floods it brings lots of trash with the flood waters.  Then as the water recedes, the trash is deposited here.  So on this nice sunny day I walked the river trail and the prairie trail picking up everything from bottles to shoes. There is still a tire with rim out there that will require the lawn tractor for removal.  The most prevalent of all, however, is styrofoam - foam cups, foam plates and foam containers.  So I am getting on my soap box here and asking readers to think about styrofoam and what an impact it has on the environment.  I encourage you to consider alternatives to styrofoam NOW, today, on this beautiful sunny day.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010


Opossum (Didelphis virginiana)
This opossum  (Didelphis virginiana) was walking around  the yard this morning looking for something to eat.  He eats just about anything.  He was checking out the compost bins, the bird feeder and then the garage door; they like to live in outbuildings so make sure your doors remain closed.  They can become a problem  if they get into buildings.   But we rather like the little critter as he eats everything and I am always amazed when  frightened opossums  play dead.  He looks really cute here because you cannot see his ugly naked tail.