It’s Prime Bird-Watching Season!
Walking along Santa Rosa creek recently, during a break between atmospheric river events, I was delighted to see Common Mergansers—a male and two females— feeding in the fast-moving creek. Been hearing the Great Horned Owls, too, hooting nightly. Bird activity really starts to heat up in early spring; it’s nesting season. Turns out we have a pair of bald eagles nesting in the Laguna de Santa Rosa and they have produced 14 offspring over a 14-year period. Unlike the Great Horned Owls and the eagles who build their own nests, there are others who are cavity-nesters, and songbirds, in particular, compete for good nesting sites. Nesting boxes are a great way to help out. Check out various bird conservation sites for information on how to build nest boxes or what to look for commercially (nestwatch.org is a good one). Nest hole size, placement, proportions of nest boxes are all important considerations.
Nancy Bauer is the Co-founder of the Habitat Corridor Project and author of the California Wildlife Habitat Garden (UC Press). https://www.amazon.
com/California-Wildlife- Habitat-Garden-Butterflies/dp/ 0520267818 or request it at your local bookstore!
Sometimes we want to do something beneficial, like turning our backyard into a wildlife habitat, but it feels too big a task or we just don’t know where to start. The good news: you really don’t have to start over; there are so many ways to make a garden more wildlife-friendly. So where to start? Is there space to add one or more native trees or shrubs? Ceanothus, coffeeberry, hollyleaf cherry, toyon, for example, like sunny spots and are drought tolerant. Do you need a hedge for screening? These plants double as hedgerow options, too, while providing nectar or berries, or both. Can you find room in planting beds for a drift of native perennials or small shrubs? Early spring-blooming native salvias are a great source of nectar for native bees, honeybees and butterflies. Summer-blooming coyotemint (Mondardella spp.), a favorite of butterflies, looks beautiful massed or spilling over a wall. Taking a big-picture view of your back and front gardens, look for ways to increase diversity. Planning for more vertical layers of trees, shrubs, and ground plants will add shelter and nesting places. Plants that produce seeds and berries, fruits and nuts add more foraging sites. A water source for birds can be as simple as a birdbath filled with fresh water. Summer is a good time to see who is showing up in your garden.
A Few Tips on Bird Feeders
There are many ways to attract birds to your garden—water features, plants that offer seeds, nuts, fruit (especially California natives) and plants that provide cover and nesting sites. But If your habitat area is small or you just love watching birds from your window, bird feeders are a way to enhance the experience. Hanging bird feeders that are far enough off the ground to discourage cats and other predators are good choices. Most bird conservation groups recommend feeders that exclude songbird predators such as jays and crows. Equally important is keeping bird feeders clean. Contaminated food, water and feeder surfaces can spread disease among wild bird populations. For this reason, platform feeders are no longer recommended.
If you use hummingbird feeders, be sure to wash them thoroughly at each refill. If you go on vacation and feeders will not be maintained, it is better to take them down than to risk infecting your local hummers.
Use these plants to create a bird focused habitat.
Bird Habitat Plants for Sebastopol
Trees and Shrubs
California wild rose
Creambush (Holodiscus discolor)
Hollyleaf cherry (Prunus ilicifolia)
Pacific wax myrtle
Silk tassel bush (Garrya elliptica)
Western spice bush (Calycanthus occidentalis)
Smaller Shrubs and Perennials
Buckwheats (Eriogonum spp.)
California aster (Aster chilensis)
California fuchsia (Epilobium spp)
California wild grape
Coyote mints (Monardella spp.)
Evening primrose (Oenothera hookeri)
Monkeyflowers (Mimulus spp.)
Oregon grape (Berberis aquifolium)
Pink-flowering currant (Ribes sanguineum); gooseberries
Phacelia spp. Esp tansy phacelia
Pitcher sages (Lepechinia spp.)
Native grasses and sedges: Foothill sedge, carex pansa, deergrass (Muhlenbergia), Pacific reed grass, Idaho fescue, CA fescue, and others.
Nancy’s Final (I hope) Word on Tropical Milkweed
As co-founder with April of our Habitat Corridor Project, I mostly talk about how to make gardens more wildlife friendly, and the habitat value of native plants. Though I have written more than a few times this past year on monarch butterflies and milkweed, it seems important to highlight some concerns over recent efforts to ban the sale (and discourage the planting of) tropical milkweed. Asclepias curassavica (tropical milkweed) has been banned in several California counties, including Marin, Contra Costa, San Mateo, and Ventura. And I hope it doesn’t happen here. The downfall of the monarch butterfly is a complex issue that many experts believe involves climate change, loss of habitat, and pesticides. In a UC Davis Bug Squad blog (see link below), Professor Hugh Dingle (UC Davis), whose focus the last 20 years has been on monarch butterflies, says that “it is a wasted effort”. Art Shapiro, expert on monarchs for the last six decades at UC Davis, agrees, calling the rationale behind the ban “hogwash”. These two researchers and others believe that winter breeding by monarchs is influenced by warmer winters caused by climate change. Shapiro points out that this tropical milkweed has been planted in coastal southern California for a century, but winter breeding only began about a decade ago. Moreover, another entomology professor at Washington State University, David James, who has studied monarch migrations and breeding in the Bay Area, believes tropical milkweed may be a vital resource for monarchs in a changing climate. The “parasite” question and current research is thoroughly evaluated in this article. I will add this from my own personal experience (and that of other habitat colleagues in Marin County): Without the easy availability of tropical milkweed (at the time), I would not have been able to successfully rear caterpillars taken from a native milkweed that had been stripped. No matter what milkweed a monarch caterpillar starts out on, it can be successfully transferred to tropical milkweed. To read all of the evidence, please follow the link below.
NATIVE PLANT SALE
If you are looking to enhance the habitat value of your garden, you won’t want to miss the annual CNPS (California Native Plant Society) plant sale on October 8, 10am-1pm, at the Laguna Foundation, 900 Sanford Road, Santa Rosa. There will be all the usual suspects— manzanitas, ceanothus, coyote bush, salvias, monkeyflowers —plus many more great habitat plants. Here are a few on offer that may be less familiar. Do you have quail on your property or nearby? Quail bush or saltbush (Atriplex) is a fast growing, dense, silvery gray shrub that grows 5 feet or more, and quail love to use it for cover. It’s tough and drought tolerant and tolerates wind and saline soil conditions. Spicebush (Calycanthus), a large bird-habitat shrub I enjoyed immensely at a former garden, is ideal for planting near ponds, along streams or other moist areas. Growing 5-12 feet tall with beautiful green foliage and exotic dark maroon flowers in spring, which are beetle-pollinated, spicebush does best with part shade. Our native red-twigged dogwood (Cornus sericea) is another large shrub that needs some summer water or a moist location. With beautiful red stems that look dramatic in the winter and white flower clusters in the spring, this dogwood provides food and cover for birds and also serves as a host plant for the Spring Azure butterfly. A plant I always look for in late spring on certain trails near the coast is bee plant (Scrophularia). I once planted a drift of this local perennial under a black oak and watched the hummers nectar on the long stemmed tiny red flowers—bee plant is a delightful addition to a habitat garden. Hummers also love the gooseberries and there will be several ribes species available: pink-flowering currant and golden currant. And don’t forget milkweed for the Monarchs! Enjoy!
MORE ON MONARCHS
On July 21 the monarch butterfly was declared endangered by IUCN (The International Union for the Conservation of Nature). Being listed on the IUCN Red List means it is the first time the monarch has been officially considered in danger of extinction. Evidently, there is a big difference in which population —the eastern or the western— is more at risk. Our western population has declined 99.9 percent in the last few decades, from around 10 million in the 1980s to under 2,000 in 2121. The eastern population declined by 84 percent between 1996 and 2014. There was a recent controversial study based on citizen-science data from summer nesting sites that showed an increase in some US locations. However, according to the latest research, it is the winter data that tells the real story. Even if populations rebound in some places in the summer, overwintering populations, whether declining or even remaining stable, are just way too low.
So what to do? As always, plant as much milkweed as possible, because chemically sprayed farmland milkweed, loss of habitat, and overdevelopment of traditional nesting grounds are some of the reasons our gardens seem to be the last ditch resource for our western monarchs. We advocate planting native milkweeds, but if you do plant tropical milkweed, be sure to cut it back in the fall/winter. Tropical milkweed stays green and discourages monarchs from migrating. Cutting it back also helps to eliminate spores that could be on the plant. Climate change has made it easier for tropical milkweed to overwinter in our area. So I repeat, be sure to cut it back. Look for native milkweed plants at our CNPS plant sale this fall. We’ll keep you updated on which species will be available.
It has been encouraging to see so many habitat gardening enthusiasts plant more milkweed and work together to save the rapidly declining Monarch populations. While there was some good news of a significant increase in the overwintering Monarch populations on the West Coast, we are still far from the numbers we have seen in the past. We continue to need more milkweed in backyard gardens, public gardens, undeveloped land—anywhere we can replace some of the milkweed that has been lost to development.
Meanwhile, there are many other local butterflies that are not flourishing. Even if I hadn’t seen news of declining butterfly populations, in general, I would be worried at how many fewer butterfly species I am seeing each year in gardens, on hikes. Unlike the Monarch, some of our local butterflies can lay their eggs on several species of host plants, though they are often in the same plant family. Some of our butterfly host plants are trees or shrubs, such as willows (Mourning Cloak, Western Tiger Swallowtail, Lorquin’s Admiral), oaks (Mournful Duskywing, California Sister), California coffeeberry (Pale Swallowtail, Gray Hairstreak), and mallows (Painted Lady, West Coast Lady, Common Checkered Skipper).
Mallows include shrubs and perennials, and they are easy to grow. Chaparral mallow (Malacothamnus fasciculatus) is a fast growing shrub up to 6 ft tall; island mallow (Lavatera assurgentiflora), which is native to the Channel Islands, is also a fast growing shrub (up to 10 feet tall) with beautiful foliage and showy rose-pink flowers from spring to fall. Though drought tolerant it is happiest at the coast and would need summer water inland. A friend grows it successfully in Novato by planting it near the house, which offers some wind protection. Our native perennial wildflower, checkerbloom (Sidalcea malviflora) is commonly planted as a host plant, but trailing mallow (Modiolastrum lateritum), if you can find it, was always the favorite choice of a botanist friend who inspired me to plant for butterflies many years ago. Mallows, of course, are great nectar plants for all pollinators.
Co-Founder - the Habitat Corridor Project and Author of The California Wildlife Habitat Garden: How to Attract Bees, Butterflies, Birds, and Other Animals (UC Press)
Locals and Migrants: Autumn in the Habitat Garden
The white-crowned sparrows have come and gone. Their melancholy song marked the end of summer and the return of the autumn season. Golden-crowned sparrows, a female tanager and a male yellow rumped warbler turned up at the garden pond a few weeks ago. Cedar waxwings have shown up to bathe communally at the waterfall basin. It’s the season for these migratory birds and many others as they make a stopover to hunt for food, to stay awhile or continue on. They join our local residents in the hunt for fall’s bounty of seeds, nuts, and berries.
Native trees and shrubs not only provide these food sources, they also support a high number of insect species that birds feed on, which makes them essential to bird habitat. Coyote bush, for example, attracts hundreds of insect species. Many native shrubs provide berries—coffeeberry, toyon, blue elderberry, hollyleaf cherry (and other Prunus spp.), for example— for Northern mockingbirds, cedar waxwings and robins, omnivores that eat insects plus seeds, berries and nuts. Meanwhile, seed-eaters like the resident finches, California towhees and juncos are searching in the leaf litter that we leave under shrubs and trees where it falls. Leaves, flower petals and chopped up plant trimmings make excellent mulch that soaks up the rain and provides hiding places for insects, which also feed the leaf mulch foragers. Light leaf mulch (or bare soil) offers nesting sites to ground-nesting native bees. Beetle larvae also overwinter in the soil. Fall and winter are ideal seasons for planting natives; they will have the winter to grow deep roots for the long dry season. They will enhance the bird habitat value of any landscape.
WHAT CAN WE DO
in our own gardens to help sustain our local wildlife? Because by all accounts, and many of our own observations, populations of many songbirds, butterflies and bees are going in the wrong direction, way too fast. In “The California WIldlife Habitat Garden”, I write about ways to grow a habitat garden by starting first with a walk around your landscape. And this is a good time to take that walk and start thinking about what to change or plant in the fall. What are you providing right now? Vertical layers of cover? A water source? Food and nectar plants? Are there fences or trellises available for shrubs or vines that produce nectar for hummingbirds or fruit for birds? Are there plants that have little wildlife value that could be gradually replaced with native trees, shrubs or ground plants? A plant screen of berry-producing trees or shrubs would serve wildlife and might also give more privacy from neighbors or cars. Is there a place for a birdbath or wildlife pond? For drifts of seasonal nectar flowers? Which host plants for local butterflies could you add near the nectar flowers? Don’t forget to look at traffic patterns in the garden; improving the habitat value of areas where activity is lightest is a good place to start. When we decide to plant for wildlife, a new relationship with the land evolves. Instead of outdoor decoration, the garden becomes a web of life, a sanctuary, and a daily invitation to enjoy whatever shows up—and every single habitat garden is unique with its own unexpected surprises.