Archive for September 2009

New Birds

September 29, 2009

There are three of them. They showed up two days ago. I pulled into the drive and there they were. One was on the top of the dual-armed pole that holds two bird feeders. Another was on the ground below and the third was up on the fence behind the feeders.

Scrub Jay by Julie Webster

You couldn’t miss them. The size of crows, their plumage was a mix of the soft dove gray of an elegant suit and the bright blue of a jay.  Their chests are white. A long narrow tail fans slightly when they perch. Despite their coloring, the tops of their heads are smooth with no comb on the top.

I got out of the car. The one on the ground looked up at me and watched me. Unlike other birds who fly to some high spot when I walk through, it watched me calmly and went back to poking at the ground once I had passed. So they are even bolder than the jays who scramble to the treetops when I cross the yard. Had they been Steller’s Jays, the one on the fence would have cried out an alarm when I got out of the car. None of these made a sound.

Scrub Jay with a seed by Julie Webster

I did what I do whenever some new bird shows up. I went inside and looked in my bird books. Of course there wasn’t anything that looked like the birds in my yard, not exactly. The closest I could find was the scrub jay. But in all the pictures, scrub jays were much bluer than these. None of the  pictures showed the gray that was so predominant on these birds.

The range of the Scrub Jay shown in the book extends as far north as the prairies south of the Seattle-Tacoma area. I wonder if the unusual heat and dryness this summer has driven some further north? I know that the ranges of many birds and plants are changing.

So I am calling them my scrub jays. They are out there every morning and every evening. I finally heard them make a sound. It was similar to the Steller’s Jay but softer and less abrasive. Obviously they also use it more judiciously than those other bright blue birds. If  I am right, they will return to a more southern place as the weather chills but for now I am enjoying their company.

Scrub Jay puffed up by Julie Webster

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Favorite Non-Native Plant

September 26, 2009
Myrtle blooms against the sky by Julie Webster

Myrtle blooms against the sky by Julie Webster

The Backyard Habitat workshop dedicates a lot of time to plants and much of that time is focused on native species. About three-quarters of the way through the class a woman raised her hand to ask a question. She asked, with some trepidation, if she was going to have to get rid of a plant she really liked.

Heads nodded around the room. Were we going to have sad little funerals as we consigned beloved plants to compost in the name of habitat? I thought of the combination of sadness and righteousness I had felt taking out the butterfly bush in my yard, thinking how I would miss its perfume in August and those royal blue plumes.

The instructors laughed and one stepped forward to say that creating habitat didn’t mean we were restricted to native plants. The only proscription is on invasive species that are detrimental to native habitat. To convince the skeptics, each of the instructors offered up their own favorite non-native plant.

I have several that I like my hands-down favorite is Crape Myrtle. This is a perfect little tree for the urban garden. Mine is in my backyard inside the chain-link fence near the gate. It’s vase-shape mirrors that of the nearby vine maple creating a nice continuity of shape. It sits in full southern sun for most of the day and since its first year has never needed supplemental water.

The leaves are oblong, dark and glossy. In the fall they turn a vibrant red providing even more cohesiveness with the maple. In late summer and early autumn each upper branch is extended by a fuchsia flower head similar in shape to those on lilacs. The
flowers last for weeks and are visited by hummingbirds and bees.

Close-up of Crape Myrtle bloom and leaves by Julie Webster

Close-up of Crape Myrtle bloom and leaves by Julie Webster

In the winter, barren of leaves, the bark becomes the focus. Smooth cream bark peels regularly to reveal a rough olive color layer that peels again to display the deepest layer of smooth khaki. Like the coat of a painted pony, it invites you to look for pictures in the mottled surface.

Myrtle bark in the sun by Julie Webster

Myrtle bark in the sun by Julie Webster

As with all the best of plants, it is interesting enough to take a stand-out place in the yard and is equally useful in a collection.

Stealth Jay

September 19, 2009

When I started my garden Stellar’s Jays would appear in the neighborhood two times a year. First they would show up in the spring, screaming at the crows. They would hang around for a few weeks and then disappear until the fall when they would be around for a few more weeks.

A few years ago they began to stick around longer. Last summer they arrived on schedule and stayed. Having them around all year has given me the opportunity to really watch them. Make no mistake, I always know when they are around because I can hear them. Not only that, there is no way their bright blue plumage can be camouflaged by the native greenery.

Every now and then I toss a handful of peanuts onto the stepping stones in the front yard or on top of the wall beside the drive in the back. Sometimes the squirrels find them and sometimes the crows see me putting them out. Often in the back the crows and jays try and outsmart each other trying to get them, all of them screaming and posturing. I think the game is more interesting than the peanuts.

Yesterday morning I put peanuts out by the wall. When I got inside I looked out the window. A jay was sitting on the peak of the garage roof across the alley – quiet. It turned its head to look up the alley and then down. It flew to my chain link gate swinging low to the ground then rising at the last moment in a maneuver worthy of a Harris Hawk. It disappeared behind the rosemary that lines the wall and then a few seconds later flew back up to the gate with a peanut in its beak. Again it looked up the alley and then down before flying off behind the garage.

It repeated this maneuver until it had collected all the peanuts without the crows discovering what was going on. For over ten minutes the jay was absolutely and totally silent. I would never have guessed that a jay could keep quiet for even a minute about something so exciting. Of course if I had to take a bet on it, I would have bet that the crows would catch on before the jay was done. I guess betting on corvid vs. corvid is never a sure thing.