Bringing Birds To the Garden

September through December proves the best time of year for planting new trees and shrubs in our area. Woodies planted now have the chance to develop strong root systems through the autumn and winter. They are more likely to survive when planted in fall than in the spring.

My ‘to do’ list for the next few weeks includes moving various shrubs and small trees out of their pots and into the ground. And I am always most interested in those woody plants which also attract and support birds in our garden.

This post contains a revised list of  more than 30 woody plants which attract and support a wide variety of birds.  These are native or naturalized in our region of the United States.  Adding a few of these beautiful trees and shrubs guarantees more birds visiting your garden, too.

Read on for specific tips to increase the number of  wildlife species, especially birds, which visit your garden throughout the year.

-WG

Forest Garden

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Do you feed the birds?  Most of us gardeners do.  Unless you are protecting a crop of blueberries or blackberries, you probably enjoy the energy and joy birds bring to the garden with their antics and songs.  Birds also vacuum up thousands of flying, crawling, and burrowing insects.  Even hummingbirds eat an enormous number of insects as they fly around from blossom to blossom seeking sweet nectar.  Birds are an important part of a balanced garden community.

We have everything from owls and red tailed hawks to hummingbirds visiting our garden, and we enjoy the occasional brood of chicks raised in shrubs near the house. There is an extended family of red “Guard-inals” who keep a vigilant watch on our coming and goings and all of the activities of the garden.  There are tufted titmice who pull apart the coco liners in the hanging baskets to build their…

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Berries, Branches, and Flowers?

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When you click on this photo to enlarge it, you may be able to spot the yellow Forsythia flowers, blooming out of season in November.

Late yesterday afternoon, I wandered around the garden looking for branches to cut for this arrangement on our refreshment table ready for tomorrow’s gathering.  I wanted a mixture of branches with evergreen leaves, some interesting fall color, and bare branches.

After cutting some Southern Wax Myrtle, whose berries have all been eaten by the birds, sadly; and some  Ligustrum, still heavy with deep purple berries; I  wandered over to a stand of Forsythia to cut a few branches of beautiful gold and burgundy leaves.  And there, believe it or not, were tiny yellow flowers.  Now, I’ve seen Forsythia bloom in late January after an especially mild winter, but I’ve never seen it bloom in November.  Look closely at the arrangement, between the two cardinals and just above the purple berries. There… you’ll see the yellow Forsythia flowers.

Our refreshment table is set and ready for tomorrow's gathering.

Our refreshment table is set and ready for tomorrow’s gathering.

The branches with large yellow leaves are hazelnut. If you look closely you’ll see tiny male catkins hanging from the branches.  The catkins produce pollen, and are usually seen in early spring.  If you think you see gold branches in this arrangement, your eyes aren’t deceiving you.

The largest pieces are re-used from last Christmas’s mantlepiece, and are sprayed gold.  Normally they are covered in little blown glass birds.  There are three birds in this arrangement.  Can you spot them?  The two red cardinals are carved wood.  There’s also a little grey and white bird in the very center.  The blown glass birds are a bit much until after Thanksgiving, when we’ll gear up for the holidays…

For all of you fellow gardeners, who watch the seasonal movement of the wild things as I do, I thought you might be interested in Forsythia and Hazel blooming in November.  It ended up as a very rewarding walk around the garden yesterday.  Even after our first frosts, I was still able to find interesting and beautiful material for a bouquet.

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All Photos by Woodland Gnome

“Winter is an etching, spring a watercolor, summer an oil painting and autumn a mosaic of them all.”      

Stanley Horowitz

Tell the Tale of Change

Sea gulls fly inland during rough weather on the coast to find shelter along our creeks and marshes.

Sea gulls fly inland during rough weather on the coast to find shelter along our creeks and marshes.

When it gets blustery along the coast, the sea gulls come inland.  I’ve seen flocks of gulls in parking lots as far inland as Richmond ahead of very rough winter storms.  It has been windy and cold all day today in Williamsburg.  Our high in early afternoon topped out in the 40s, colder when you’re in the wind, but it’s been bright and sunny and beautiful.  We knew there would be gulls along the creeks and marshes of the Colonial Parkway.

The gulls crack clam shells by dropping them on the road from altitude, and then gather to feast on the meat inside.

The gulls crack clam shells by dropping them on the road from altitude, and then gather to feast on the meat inside.

We went at low tide.  It looked as though the gulls were standing on ice, but it’s not that cold yet. November 13, 2013 parkway 011 They were standing on the mud in a thin sheen of water, where they searched out what shell fish they could find in the muck.  With a tightly closed clam clenched in its beak, the gull would take flight and drop it onto the pavement, where it cracked.  We drove up to find a huddled group of gulls in the road feasting on their tasty clams.  And they weren’t anxious to leave their meal for us to pass.

Suddenly it’s cold, and all the creatures are reverting to winter ways.  The eagles along the Parkway have left their nests, young reared and hunting now for themselves.

A bald eagle soars over the river and marshes, watching for a meal.

A bald eagle soars over the river and marshes, watching for a meal.

We saw them only from a distance today, high in the clear blue sky.   We recognize them when the light flashes off of the adults’ white heads.  Otherwise, they are a tiny silhouette against the sky.  The young won’t grow their white feathers for several years yet, but they are learning the skills they’ll need to survive along the river.

The only geese we saw were flying at altitude across the marsh, probably heading south to someplace warmer.  The large families who lived along the Parkway all summer have disappeared.

Muskrats make "push ups" in the marsh to shelter their family for the winter.  They can eat the reeds and grasses from the inside during the worst weather.

Muskrats make “push ups” in the marsh to shelter their family for the winter. They can eat the reeds and grasses from the inside during the worst weather.

Muskrats have been busy building their winter dens in the marsh.  Called, “push ups”, they are formed by pushing up mud and vegetation to form a home about 3′ high.  The family of mother, father, and young stay warm inside, and find protection from predators and the weather.  These “push up” nests suddenly disappear by early summer, to be rebuilt in autumn.  Native Americans at one time used the size and timing of the “push ups” appearance to forecast the coming winter weather.

Deer were out along the Parkway in the midday sun, boldly grazing in the meadows.  They are so accustomed to the traffic that they barely lift their heads as we drive past.  November 13, 2013 parkway 039Sadly, we came home to find two more young ones had squeezed themselves tiny to sneak in through our fences and graze  in our garden while we were away.  They find it harder and harder to find food as summer vegetation disappears.

November 13, 2013 parkway 038

Bald cypress trees, tough and long lived here along the coast, turn brown and then lose their needles each autumn. A freshly camouflaged duck blind confirms this spot is valued by hunters.

Even the bald cypress trees have turned brown, and will soon lose their needles.  One of the only deciduous conifers, these beautiful, long lived trees love the wet ground along the banks of our marshes and creeks.  In fact, one of the tallest ever recorded bald cypress trees, at over 44m high, grows in our area.  The oldest know bald cypress tree is over 1600 years old, so these tough hardy trees merit our notice and respect.  They are native to the East Coast of the United States from Delaware south to Florida, and along the Gulf coast west to Texas, and as far north as Kentucky.  From Virginia Beach south they’re often covered in Spanish moss.  They grow among pines, live oak, and wax myrtle.

November 13, 2013 parkway 033As the brightly colored deciduous leaves surrender to November’s winds, and the hardwood trees stand nearly bare; the Hollies, Oaks, Pines, Magnolias, and Wax Myrtle shine.  Their glossy green leaves reflect the winter sun and keep the landscape bright and alive.

A young Magnolia tree grows in the shelter of the hardwood forest on Jamestown island.

A young Magnolia tree grows in the shelter of the hardwood forest on Jamestown Island.

I can only wonder what the first colonists must have thought watching their first few autumns on Jamestown Island.  They had never seen a towering Magnolia, vibrant and green against the autumn sky.  They had never before seen crimson Staghorn Sumac, crowned in berries, or the majestic Bald Cypress with their knobby “knees” poking above the high tide.  What a different landscape from what they had left behind in Britain.

The ferries run all day between Surry and Jamestown.

The ferries run all day between Surry and Jamestown.

The small songbirds found shelter out of sight today, probably roosting in the bamboo groves and evergreen shrubs.  We never even saw a red flash of cardinal darting along the road.  The James river  glittered as it does on any summer day in the bright sun.  The ferry kept up its trips from Jamestown to Surry, and the tour buses plied the Parkway full of  curious visitors.

Replicas of the ships used by the first group of colonists to come to Virginia in 1607 sit anchored at Jamestown Festival Park.

Replicas of the ships used by the first group of colonists to come to Virginia in 1607 sit anchored at Jamestown Festival Park.

We humans keep to our relentless routines as the seasons ebb and flow.

But the wild things tell the tale of change and transition, as they always do.

Photos by Woodland Gnome 2013

A Golden November Day

Beech tree at the top of the garden

Beech tree at the top of the garden

November 3 2013 Parkway 022

The Colonial Parkway, looking back towards Williamsburg where a fellow photographer told us about the red tree.

The November sun is vibrant today after this morning’s hybrid eclipse.  It is the sort of clear golden light to reach in through the window panes of house or car, grab you, and say, “Come outside and bask in my warmth and goodness.”  The sky is deeply blue.  Every red and golden leaf is a panel of stained glass in the mosaic of this sparkling day.

There is one particular sycamore tree, on one particular pond, along the Colonial Parkway between Williamsburg and Yorktown we visit each year when the leaves finally transform themselves into brightness.  It is a very large and well shaped tree.  Caught on the perfect day it is a sight worthy of the pilgrimage.

Our much loved tree between Williamsburg and Yorktown

Our much loved tree between Williamsburg and Yorktown

We decided the best use of this clear blustery morning was to set out together to make the drive and see what we could see.  The weather is still swirling off the coast, the wind truly cold now, whitecaps frosting the rivers.  I was surprised to see how many people were bundled into winter coats and hats on their morning walk or bicycle ride along the Parkway.

Leaves blew in golden showers across the road, reminding us of the approaching snow now close at hand.  Where shafts of light poured through the forest canopy the leaves were illuminated for a moment, then lost in shadow.November 3 2013 Parkway 023

We pulled into the lot beside the pond and discovered our much loved tree nearly bare. Its leaves must have blown off in Friday night’s storm, and we missed its color this year.  Still lovely in form, its bark mottled, with a few stubborn leaves still clinging to its branches, we sat and admired its beauty and remembered other years when our visit was timed more perfectly.

Scarlet Virginia creeper scrambles through shrubs by the marsh.

Virginia creeper scrambles through shrubs by the marsh.  The vine, now scarlet, calls for attention after an entire summer of blending in to the surrounding green.

November 3 2013 Parkway 011

Virginia Creeper

I was looking today for Virginia creeper turned scarlet.  I love the intense red vines climbing through trees and shrubs along the road.  Staghorn Sumac, a slightly duller crimson, and blazing Dogwood trees grabbed at our attention.  We passed so many beautiful spots, but with a car on our bumper and no safe place to pull off.

A fellow photographer tipped us off to a blazing red tree somewhere in Yorktown.  She didn’t mention exactly where- only that it was stopping traffic as car after car stopped to admire it or take a photo.

So we went in search of it.  Yorktown isn’t large, but it is full of dead ends and closed streets.

Yorktown

Yorktown

After a lengthy search, we headed back to the Parkway.  I decided its leaves must have already blown away.  But, there beside the ramp, we spotted a towering tree across the field ablaze in orangey red splendor.  It must be the tree she had seen.  We slowed enough for me to snap two photos from the car window.

A beach near Yorktown

A beach near Yorktown

A tiny bit of space left on the memory stick, we revisited the pond and noticed how everything looked fresh and new seen coming from the other direction.  Life is a bit like that at times, as the people and happenings in our lives subtly shift and change when we look back over them from “here” and “now”.  We see so many little details and connections we failed to notice the first time.

Ironically, we noticed how much of the best color surrounds our own garden; the transition from Parkway to neighborhood to driveway seamless.  Happiness and peace fill the air today.  Clear calm has returned to the sky with the storm off the coast, but the wind is still blowing in from the northeast.

The York River, looking out from Yorktown towards Gloucester.

The York River, looking out from Yorktown towards Gloucester.

A good day for sailing, if you have a strong stomach and a trustworthy boat. (I remember a certain November day, much like today, sailing the Rappahannock River in an old wooden skipjack.  That was another lifetime ago it seems.)  No boats were out on the rivers this morning, and no one fishing from the banks.  Only photographers were braving the wind to go near the water.

We were glad to come back inside at journey’s end to mugs of hot coffee, and to admire the garden from inside, through the windows. Leaves float from limb to ground with every new gust of wind, but our attention has turned to other things on this golden November afternoon.

When I see
                   Heaven and earth as
                   my own garden,
                   I live that moment
                   Outside the Universe.

                              A Zen Harvest: Japanese Folk Zen Sayings,

All photos by Woodland Gnome 2013

Our garden is ringed by beauty.

Our garden is ringed by beauty.

Southern Wax Myrtle

Southern Wax Myrtle along the front edge of our garden.

Southern Wax Myrtle along the front edge of our garden.

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Southern Wax Myrtle, Myrica cerifera, makes a beautiful loose hedge across the front of our garden.  A tough, fast growing evergreen, this shrub is covered in beautiful, dusty blue berries in autumn.  The late spring flowers are tiny and white, almost unnoticeable, but the fall berries clothe the stems in soft blue.

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Myrica cerifera produces beautiful blue berries along its branches each autumn.

Myrica cerifera produces beautiful blue berries along its branches each autumn.

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Growing to 15′ tall and wide, it offers privacy and attracts many species of birds, offering shelter and safe areas to perch.  The berries, produced only on female plants, offer migrating birds an important source of food.

Growing from New Jersey south to Florida along the East Coast, and then west along the Gulf into Texas, Southern Wax Myrtle is hardy in zones 6-9.  Closely related to Northern Bayberry, Myrica pensylvanica which grows in Zones 3-7;  it is also fragrant, and its berries can also be boiled to render a waxy substance for use in candle making.   Both shrubs can take salt spray and thrive near the coast.  Southern Wax Myrtle grows considerably taller than the Northern Bayberry, and retains its leaves.  Northern Bayberry loses many of its leaves during the winter.  Both enjoy part shade to full sun.

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October 17 2013 monarch bf 008

 

 

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Native Americans and the early settlers used Myraca to treat a number of conditions from diarrhea to fever.  Compounds in both the roots and leaves can be used in herbal medicine.

Unattractive to deer, this is a reliable grower in the edges of a forest garden.  It tolerates a variety of soils from sand to clay, and will grow in areas with low soil fertility.  It is one of the first shrubs to colonize a newly cleared area.  Its roots fix more nitrogen in the soil than many legumes, and so it actually improves the soil where it grows.   it is a thirsty shrub and is happy growing near water, but can tolerate periods of drought.  Southern Wax Myrtle will spread by underground roots which sucker, which makes it even more effective as a screening plant or hedge.

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December 15, Christmas mantel 004

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Finally, this is a good plant to cut for holiday decorations.  Although many of the berries may already be eaten by mid-December, branches will last many weeks in a vase with water.  Its evergreen leaves will remain fresh looking into the new year.  Because of its loose, branchy habit, I like to use it with small glass birds clipped onto the branches.  It makes a good filler for flower arrangements, and the the shrub responds well to pruning with new growth in spring.

This tough, beautiful, native shrub is an excellent choice for anyone hoping to attract more birds to their garden.

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Southern Wax Myrtle in August.

Southern Wax Myrtle in August.

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All Photos by Woodland Gnome

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Southern Wax Myrtle grows as a large shrub or small tree, and grows thickly enough to make a good screen.

Southern Wax Myrtle grows as a large shrub or small tree, and grows thickly enough to make a good screen.

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