Tuesday, December 9, 2014

A Christmas Cactus

My Christmas cactus is actually blooming. I haven't managed to kill it yet. Long ago, in California, I used to have quite a green thumb. Here in Washington, I can kill anything. It is remarkable that this plant is still alive, let alone producing a bloom. It used to be much bigger.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Origin of Mysterious Bark Strips Revealed

All the trees on our large suburban lot were topped long before we moved here. The birches in front and the evergreens in the back. This means vigilance and tree inspections to monitor the condition of the trees. We've had several trees removed when they began to drop huge limbs on to the roof and our neighbor's car. 

We ask the arborist to leave a snags when cutting the trees. We have one tall hemlock snag that was untouched for several years.

During the summer we found huge strips of bark strewn around the basketball court. But we never saw or heard any birds. Until now. 

I was doing some yard chores when I heard the rat-a-tat of bird beak on wood. Peering around the bushes, I saw a large woodpecker with a bright red Mohawk. I didn't get the camera because the bird looked around constantly.  

On the week-end my husband alerted me to the bird's return. I shot some pictures through the bedroom window. He reared his head far from the trunk to build up momentum for the percussive hits. Bits of bark flew thorough the air.

This is probably a male pileated woodpecker since the red extends down the forehead. His favored food is carpenters ants.  Carpenter ants! 20 feet from the house! I hope he is extremely hungry.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

My beautiful bumblebee nest box from Bumble Boosters did not attract any queen bumblebees. It might have been a bit late when I set it out. It still looks pristine so I think I will set it out again next year.

Desirable residence, brand new, lovely prospect with access to a variety of flowers, perfect for family life

I did however get a few takers on the wood block house. The two largest holes are daubed with mud. I'm guessing around the end of March next year mason bees will emerge. 

The top two holes are plugged with mud

 Mason bees nested in the windows again, this time in the bedroom. Perhaps someone should market vinyl windows as mason bee homes.  One bee emerged first. It didn't crawl all over the window like last's year brood. It wandered up and down the window track. When I took it outside, it just sat on the ground. 

More bees emerged over several days and behaved in a similar fashion. They walked up and down and disappeared back into the hole they came from. One bee attacked another. Very different behavior from last year.

Looking closely at them, I saw what I first thought was mud on their fur but I think now they were all infested with mites. This is a clear lesson on why nests should not be reused from year to year. Of course this meant the bottom channel of our window that is right over our bed had mites in it. Luckily they weren't interested in us.

We are somewhat sensitive on the topic of mites. There are many kinds and some are host specific, but others are generalists. Years ago, we had an infestation of mites that came up from the crawl space after we exterminated rats under the house.  On the search for new hosts, they invaded the bathroom counter. Mites are really tiny so it took awhile to figure out what was biting us and where they were coming from. Then it took some trial to find the right non-toxic elimination method.

I sound detached and clinical about it, don't I? Actually, it was horrific seeing a multitude of eensy white things crawling on the bathroom counter. And they kept coming back. Time does draw a veil over things, thank goodness.

When I saw mites on the mason bees I stopped taking photos. Out they all went. They didn't fly off and probably became food for some critter. The photos I did take have disappeared. I won't be so excited next year if mason bees emerge from the windows. I may have to plug all the outer holes to prevent nesting.

Sunday, June 29, 2014

 When I visited my grandparents and aunt in Florida forty years ago, the nights were livened by tiny frogs hopping into the house from the backyard. We don't see them now.

One of the great things about going to new areas is seeing unfamiliar wildlife. I was so excited when we found this fellow hiding behind the hurricane shutters at our aunt's house.

He was large, about five inches. He wasn't disturbed by the opening of the shutters or having his picture taken until I tried to get a shot from above.

Cuban tree frog front view

Then he turned toward me. Look at that face, almost human. 

Back in Washington, I looked him up. He is a Cuban tree frog. Aaand, wait for it.....he is an invasive species! Yes, even when I travel I run into invasives.

Cuban tree frogs are much bigger than native Florida frogs and eat them up. You can do this simple test to confirm you have a Cuban tree frog. Take the frog (Wear gloves. Its skin emits an irritating substance) and try to move the skin on the head. If it doesn't move it's a Cuban tree frog since the skin is fused to the skull.

If you find you have a Cuban tree frog, you are encouraged to euthanize it. Want to know how? Catch the frog in a plastic bag. Holding the frog (again wear gloves) rub a stripe of benzocaine along its back or use a benzocaine spray. Put it in a plastic bag and seal the bag. 

The benzocaine will knock the frog out. Place the bag with the unconscious frog in your freezer overnight. Wash your hands well just to make sure you don't have any skin secretion on them. 

The frog will enter hibernation and then die. The next day put the bag in the trash.

How glad am I that I didn't know what kind of frog it was until safely back home? Very glad. How glad am I to only be a visitor to the Florida house? So, so glad.

Excuse me. I was gone for ten days and it's time to hunt bracken. Which I will do, gladly.

More information on Cuban tree frogs at University of Florida extension

Friday, May 16, 2014

Beware the Bracken, Killer Thug in a Pretty Dress

The prehistoric beast emerges
See the fiddle head? A lovely sign of spring, no?

No! You are looking at a hairy little monster. This is bracken rearing its diabolical head.

When they first appeared, I thought them graceful, growing over six feet tall, blanketing the area along the fence, gently swaying in the breeze.

Then I found out they are garden thugs. Still, I let them be. We have a big yard.

Then I found out they poison cattle and other herbivores. Oh well.  We don't have any grazing animals; I let them grow.

Then I found out they cause stomach cancer in grazers and then...              

Then I found out they are suspected of causing stomach cancer in people who ingest them, either purposefully by eating the fiddleheads, or inadvertently by swallowing the spores that are released by the millions in late summer and early fall.

Can you imagine the fear this struck in my heart? Perhaps not. I was terrified. I vowed total annihilation. Not an easy task, as they spread via creeping roots as well as spores and they've had free reign in our garden for several years.

Ready to unfurl and take on the world

Last year I picked them as they emerged. I kept a spreadsheet with body counts so I could gauge my success from year to year.

 I outfitted myself with a face mask, nitrile gloves and boots. I washed my clothes and showered when I finished a sortie.

One of the reasons I enjoyed this winter so much is that bracken goes dormant in the cold, dark time of year. Alas, it is spring, so the war continues.

Don't they look pretty? This is not my yard. It is from down the street.

You can't really avoid them. They are everywhere. But you might not want to take a walk in the woods in late summer and don't let them entice you to let them in your yard.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Look what came in the mail! 
I am participating in a study to see if there is a particular kind of 
artificial house that would be acceptable to bumblebees. 
The study is being run by the Entomology Department at the University of Nebraska.
Notice that the Entomology Department is in Entomology Hall.
I love that name. 
 As part of the study they sent me a bumblebee house! 
I am beside myself with excitement. 

What could be in this delightful packing?

A bumblebee house with dried grass and kapok for nesting material. 
And there is a mason bee block and a package of wildflower seeds.
O my goodness! This is the best present.

All I had to do was insert the two plastic pipes for entrances and put the lid on.

The house needs to be sited facing morning sun.
I put it where we have had two natural bumblebee nests before. 
It's resting on a concrete block to keep it off the damp ground.

Dried grass covers the entrances pipes.

Bonus mason bee block. 
Maybe descendants of my little office hatchlings from last year will nest in it.
 I like that the instructions said to discard after one year to prevent disease. 

My kind of people.