Monarch Threats and Winter Birds

You may have heard of the disappearance of the well-known conservationist that has been protecting the monarch butterflies that migrate to Mexico and winter there.  Homero Gomez was last seen on January 13th.  Monarchs have a number of threats including illegal logging that reduces the size of their winter habitat in Michoacán.

I recently finished reading a book by conservation biologist Nick Haddad called The Last Butterflies.

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This book took me a while to read, but I enjoyed it.  It was interesting if you like reading about scientific experiments in the wild and that sort of thing.  One of the last chapters was about the migrating eastern North American monarch.  Much like the passenger pigeon, there are still millions of monarchs, but they face a number of threats that could wipe them out, including threats to their wintering grounds in Mexico.  Here in the United States there is a loss of habitat as well as threats from pesticides.  Why does this matter?  Monarch caterpillars and butterflies are the most well known and loved insects.  They are like the canary in the coal mine.  When they decline, despite efforts to assist them, we can guess that many other insects that we care less about but that are very important are also facing numerous threats.

I am looking forward to getting some milkweed plants from an acquaintance at the Palos forest preserve restoration project who has promised me some plants in April.  I have had no luck planting milkweed from seeds.  I have swamp milkweed and butterfly weed, but am eager to plant some asclepias syriaca (common milkweed), too.

Another important thing gardeners can focus on is nectar plants in the autumn when monarch are migrating south.  Below are a few pictures from my garden.

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Monarchs on sedum in September.  One day this past year I looked out and saw six monarch feasting on the sedum nectar.

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That same day the monarchs were sipping on the Agastache ‘Blue Fortune.’

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Monarch on zinnia

But we are still in the very middle of winter, so I will post some winter bird pictures as well.

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Male red-bellied woodpecker snacking on suet.

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Two downy woodpeckers wait for the red-bellied woodpecker to leave.  The feeder is hanging by a string so it swings around when birds peck on it.  Notice that we just pruned off a few lower branches on the chinquapin oak tree.

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I have enjoyed having the downy woodpeckers visit the yard more frequently this week.

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The house sparrows look for bits of suet that may have landed below the feeder.

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The mourning doves arrived to check out the action.

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The European staring gives it a try.

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Looks like the squirrel managed to get a chunk of it.

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White-breasted nuthatch

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When we pruned the trees I brought in some serviceberry branches to see if they would open inside.  I have no idea if that will work.

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Sunrise on our street.  The days are getting longer!

 

Beauty and the Beasts

OK, no real pictures of beasts in this post, but when you step into a nature preserve the animals you meet are wild, not domesticated, and that can be an adventure.  The beauty part is the gorgeous, snowy landscape we encountered on our Saturday morning walk!

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The snow outlined every tiny branch as we started our walk this morning in a nearby forest preserve in Cook County.

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The trail had an interesting pattern, as the snow covered each twig and leaf on the ground, but melted when it met the clay path.

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We noticed animal tracks climbing a tree.

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A closer look at raccoon tracks

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With snow covering everything we made our way carefully down the hill to the stream.

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The water was flowing in the stream.  We found some large stones where we could step and cross over without getting wet.

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We followed a horse / animal trail so that we would not get lost, as everything looks the same with the snow cover.  Up ahead, through the shrubs, we glimpsed two white-tailed deer run through the forest.

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When we stopped to listen we could hear an emergency vehicle, an airplane, and also a bird.  Looking around I spotted a male red-bellied woodpecker.

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A little further down the path we stopped to listen and heard some howling and yipping coyotes, maybe chasing those deer we saw or something else.  We could not see them, but they were somewhere off to our left.  We both picked up pointy branches and decided to head back out to the main trail.  Coyotes don’t see people as potential prey, but when there are a group of them and it is not our backyard we wanted to be ready to stand our ground and scare them if they were nearby.  After that we did not hear them again.  Sorry, no pictures of deer or coyotes!

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Back at home, there was just a thin layer of snow that was mostly melted by the afternoon.

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The male northern cardinal, a frequent visitor, is a beauty!

January 1, 2020

Happy New Year!

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Snow Crocus emerges.

I first noticed this snow crocus on Christmas Day, which is the earliest I have seen it appear.

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Daytime moon

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Dark-eyed junco on liatris.  It looks like it got a seed to nourish it on a winter day.

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We had about an inch of snow yesterday morning, which should melt today and tomorrow.  It has been a mild winter.

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The cyclamen is blooming for the fifteenth year!  This autumn I refinished the wood counter in my greenhouse window.

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We started the new year with a wonderful hike at Cranberry Slough in the forest preserve.  The trail was icy, but not slippery, and the only person we met was riding a bike.

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One last shot to say goodbye to 2019. Mute swans flying over Lake Katherine last weekend. 

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One of our favorite parts of the Cook County Forest Preserves are the Cap Sauer Holdings.  We parked on the south side of the Calumet Sag Road (Route 83) and walked in on a tiny path where no dogs are allowed.  As we walked south the traffic sounds gradually faded.

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We walked uphill until we were walking on top of a ridge.  We saw no one on our morning walk but constantly heard airplanes overhead.

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We walked by a wetland where we hear frogs in the spring.  But is was cold and quiet.

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We paused to look at fungi and try to identify a bird call.  Or was it a squirrel?  I heard a woodpecker drilling on a tree.

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Then I saw a movement, and realized it was a coyote.  I tried to get Dan to see it.

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I managed to get one clearer picture.  There were actually two coyotes and they gradually slunk away from us further into the woods.  It is a good place to hide and they blend in well with the gray and brown landscape this time of year.  They looked healthy with pretty fur.

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As we walked out I could see a frozen stream flowing downhill.  It was a gray day and these pictures may seem dull, although it was a beautiful walk.  This is a wonderful place to see spring wildflowers.

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We saw a lot of these tennis ball looking fruit near the trailhead.  Looking on Google it seems like these are from an Osage Orange tree.

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Back home, my attention was drawn to a flock of starlings that were checking out the birdbath in the backyard.

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The house sparrows were attracted by the racket.  The water is off and on frozen these days.

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The male northern cardinal briefly stopped by.

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The female northern cardinal looked for a meal on the ground.

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The robin tried out a crabapple.

We are almost at the shortest day of the year.  Time for winter walks, and mostly cozy time indoors, and holiday celebrations!

 

Lake Katherine Reflections and a Raptor

Yesterday morning I had a quiet walk around Lake Katherine in Palos Heights.

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The still water reflected the trees and the clouds.

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It was a cold morning and the mute swans seemed to be sleeping with occasional grooming.

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Mute swan

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Mute swan

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There were not many people out, but two women were laughing and taking picutres on the bridge at the pond surrounded by cypress trees in autumn colors.

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Water is high in the pond this year.

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I see that invasive phragmites are taking root in the pond.

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When I first arrived at the lake it was birdy and I was trying, mostly unsuccessfully, to take pictures of white-breasted nuthatches, cardinals, downy woodpeckers, goldfinches, and some unknow sparrows.

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Then I noticed a red-tailed hawk land in a nearby tree.

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After a while it flew over to another tree.  Can you see it?

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I got a closer look at this predator.  I wondered if he had already had his breakfast or was hunting.

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Here is a view of the back feathers.  I understand that red-tailed hawks don’t get red tails until they are two years old.  The tail did not appear to be red.

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One more shot of the red-tailed hawk.  can you see the yellow at the base of the beak?

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Other than the swans there were only mallards in the lake.  There was plenty of quacking.  The geese must have already flown away for the day before I arrived.

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Duck getting breakfast.

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Parts of the lake were still frozen.  The temperatures have been swinging above and below the freezing point these past weeks.

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Fungi on a log were covered with a pretty frost.

Books:  I am currently reading Troubled Water: What’s Wrong with What We Drink, by Seth Siegel.  Lots of food for thought and a pretty interesting read.  Do you drink water from the tap?  A lot of us don’t trust it.  The book it not out to get villains, but says there are a lot of bystanders.  It is a complicated issue, but a serious one.  I am just on the fourth chapter but I understand more about why no one is taking action to solve the problem, which is getting worse each year. (I think it might involve taxes and getting re-elected.)  I am looking forward to what suggestions and solutions I will find in the book.

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Crabapple Tree

The crabapple tree outside the kitchen window has been catching my attention recently.

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It snowed on Halloween, but the next day the sun came out and I love the blue sky and fluffy clouds above the snow outlined crabapple tree.  On the left the chinquapin oak tree was showing its fall colors.

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Backing up, here is the view from the kitchen window.

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The dark-eyed juncos have arrived, and are winter residents in our neighborhood.

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Male house finch

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The crabapples probably get tastier after a freeze or two.  Though they probably are not terrific tasting since usually quite a few little apples persist on the branches over the winter.

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The crabapples are at various stages of ripeness.  The tree is full of crabapples this year and we hardly had any last year.

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Profusion crabapple tree this past spring.  The weather must have been just right to get the flowers pollinated and set into little apples.

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The squirrels have come a number of times for a snack.

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Golden-crowned kinglet migrating through Chicagoland.  It is always fun to look out the kitchen window and see what birds are stopping by.

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The bark of the tree does not look very healthy to me.  Does this mean the tree is dying?  The leaves get diseased and fall off early each year.  I have not diagnosed the problem yet.  We did have robins successfully nest in this tree early in the year though, when there were still leaves.

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As a side note, I saw a black swallowtail caterpillar in the fennel on November fifth, the week after the snow.  We are in cleanup mode these days and have started a big leaf and grass compost pile.  I am leaving more plants standing in place this year to provide habitat for wintering insects and other critters that are good bird food.  Insects are the foundation of the food chain, right?

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Dan and I had a fantastic walk in the woods this morning, starting at the Wolf Road Woods trail in the Palos Forest Preserve.

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At Tomahawk Slough we saw a very fluffed up great blue heron.  The temperature was below freezing last night and thin ice covered parts of the slough.

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This shot was from our walk last week at the Willow Springs Forest Preserve.  It is time to pull out the cozy jackets, wooly scarves and mittens, and warm boots and enjoy cold weather hiking.

Flowers of the Field

When I started seriously gardening over ten years ago, I was mostly interested in color schemes, height and placement of flowers, and having something blooming in all seasons.  That is still interesting to me, but since then my focus has moved to growing more food and planting as many native plants as I can.  So I still have non-natives in the yard, but I keep adding native plants, as they attract many more pollinators and provide habitat for a greater diversity of wildlife.  This time of year the abundance of flowers is really wonderful!

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Purple coneflowers, monarda – wild bergamot in the background, and Ratibida pinnata, sometimes called prairie coneflower, yellow coneflower or gray-headed coneflower.

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I bought this Ratibida – gray-headed coneflower – at the farmer’s market today and I hope it survives the heat these next few weeks, as I usually don’t plant anything this time of year.

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View from the kitchen window.

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For some reason I bought a lot of packets of sunflower seeds this year, so I planted them all over the backyard.

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Monarch on sunflower.  The goldfinches love to eat the seeds.

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Two tall varieties of sunflowers in the vegetable garden.  The two in the back are so tall that they have not even started to flower yet.  Can’t wait to see how big they get.

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Besides the sunflowers we have a lot of Echinacea purpurea – purple coneflowers. They seem to be multiplying and the goldfinches love them, too.

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Black swallowtail butterfly on purple coneflower – taken from the kitchen window.

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The monarda – wild bergamot – really took off this year, and it has been swarming with bumblebees and all kinds of pollinators.

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A hummingbird moth or clearwing moth of some sort has been visiting all the flowers.

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Liatris, blazing star.  I now have two nice clumps growing in the garden.

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Rudbeckia hirta, black-eyed susans.

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Gateway, Joe Pye weed.  I like the look of the flower as it gets ready to open.

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The pollinators like the Joe Pye weed when all the flowers are open and messy.  This is an ailanthus webworm moth.

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The fennel plant is now taller than I am and blooming, attracting a wasp and an ant to the nectar.

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The male house finch can be seen now and then snacking on the sedum, which has not started blooming yet.

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Did the robin enjoy the bath?  Sparrows never miss a chance to join the fun.

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But who is this visiting the garden at dawn?

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Is this stealthy, fat neighbor cat looking for a bird, a rabbit, a squirrel, or a chipmunk?  Salvia blue hill flowers in the background.

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I found two of these large bugs/beetles on the stalk of my new gray-headed coneflower after I planted it.  Do cats eat those kinds of bugs?  Or do birds eat them?

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Common buckeye butterfly we saw on a walk last week.  I see monarchs just about every day in the summer in my yard, but there are many butterfly species I rarely see because they like a variety of host plants that I probably don’t have in my garden.  It is just a reminder that wild habitats need protection.