Gardner vs. Naturalist

Well, the sun is back out in Blacksburg and we are almost thoroughly dried from the floods.

The town will begin collecting autumn yard waste tomorrow morning, so I spent a good portion of the afternoon trimming branches and cutting stems of overgrown plants in my yard.

I keep a very beautiful, but very messy garden. I like to plant my perennials so close together that it’s difficult to see the weeds growing up between them.  The only downside to this is that by the end of the season, my busy garden is full of brown seed heads, spent daylily stems, and weeds that I thought were pretty enough to let grow.

Meanwhile, only the asters, mums, and goldenrods are still blooming. The garden is more messy than pretty by a longshot.

And this is when the gardener in my brain wrestles with the naturalist.

Messy gardens are good for wildlife.
I have to repeat that mantra to myself a lot throughout the fall.

These past few weeks, though, the wild world has been helping me out by actually showing up to take advantage of my messy garden.
Here are some pictures of the things that have helped the naturalist and the gardener get along:


This picture shows the pokeweed that has grown huge in my corner garden. I find the fuchsia stems and inky purple berries quite attractive. But, there’s no doubt that most of my neighbors consider this poisonous plant a weed.  And, as the season goes on, the large leaves turn yellow and droop and entirely unattractive manner.  I was on the verge of cutting the whole thing down when I arrived home from a walk and spotted my very first cedar waxwing gorging itself on the berries.  The pokeweed stays.


These are the spiky brown seed heads of my purple coneflowers. The stems and leaves are equally brown and crispy. The gardener in me itches to grab the pruners and remove the unsightly, unverdant lot of them.  But then every morning when I first open our front door, I am treated to the startled flight of a small flock of bright yellow American goldfinches. They wake well before I do and feast on coneflower seeds.  So, if I have to put up with brown in order to get a scattering of gold every morning, the coneflower seed heads stay.


My zinnias didn’t come in well this year.  I think I stored last year’s seeds incorrectly.  Where usually they are a gorgeous green mass of leaves topped by impossibly large flowers that look like fireworks, this year they are leggy and not blooming so well, as you can see in the picture. But, when I am stuck folding laundry, I often look out the window because something has zipped through my peripheral vision and I spot  the ruby-throated hummingbirds that are sipping sweet zinnia nectar to fuel their little bodies over the long migration south.  And, just this last week, Monarch butterflies are using the zinnias has pitstops on their southward migration as well.  The zinnias stay.

The naturalist wins.

No doubt the gardener will get some more trimming done after the first killing frost, but the seed heads will stay until every seed has gone into a goldfinch tummy.
And, in the spring, all the branches and stems that I didn’t get collected by the town’s second fall brush collection and, therefore, are piled in an out of the way corner will make a wonderful hiding spot for a mama Eastern cottontail and her soft, sweet, baby bunnies.

Pandapas Pond – Part Two

Wednesday.  I’m in my house and should be sorting laundry or cleaning the kitchen or writing the grocery list.

But I promised a second part to our little trip to Pandapas Pond, and I’m a woman of honor, so I’m going to skip those other things and write about nature instead.

For you.  Because I’m selfless and committed like that.

Now let’s see. . .where were we at the end of part one?  Oh, yes, 2,196 feet high in the Jefferson National Forest, one quarter of the way around man-and-beaver-made Pandapas Pond with the golden evening sun pouring through the trees on the mountainside.

This photograph of a daisy (Chrysanthemum spp.) shows a honey bee having her fill of sweet nectar.  I captured this shot in 2013.

This photograph of a daisy (Chrysanthemum spp.) shows a honey bee having her fill of sweet nectar.

Five petals and plenty of thorns - you can bet this blackberry (Rubus allegheniensis) is related to the wild rose.  I took this photo in Louisiana in March of 2012; they bloom two months earlier that far south.

Five petals and plenty of thorns – you can bet this blackberry (Rubus allegheniensis) is related to the wild rose.

We walked past blackberry vines in bloom (Rubus allegheniensis, another member of the rose family of plants – five petaled flowers and fruit that follows, just like cherry and crabapple trees and cockspur hawthorn we talked about) and oxeye daisies (Chrysanthemum leucanthemum) showing their friendly faces.

The bright orange native flame azalea (Azalea calendulacea) is so gorgeous it makes me wonder why we bother with the nursery hybrid azaleas.  This beauty is blooming at Pandapas right now.

The bright orange native flame azalea (Azalea calendulacea) is so gorgeous it makes me wonder why we bother with the nursery hybrid azaleas. This beauty is blooming at Pandapas right now.

We were drawn across the first bridge of this figure eight shaped pond by something that seemed to have been set aflame by slanted rays of the setting sun, but was, in fact, a flame azalea (Azalea calendulacea or Rhododendron calendulaceum depending on which book you reference) in full bloom, pictured at left.

Though the flowers have little smell and the blossom color can vary from soft yellow to muted red, hummingbirds and other pollinators have no trouble finding this native nectar source.

I’m growing a flame azalea in my back yard next to the deck stairs; I bought it at a local nursery that specializes in native plants.  It’s only about two feet tall right now, but someday it will reach 12 feet, and the bright orange, trumpet shaped flowers will be at eye level as I stand on the deck, which means that the hummingbirds visiting it will be at eye level, too!

More great information and excellent pictures of the flame azalea is available at another excellent blog, Virginia Wildflowers.

I’ve just realized that I’m straying from my usual bold title and underlying description format.  I’ll get back on track for the rest of the post.

Our next stop was the wetland boardwalk (the top of the figure eight, looking back into the wetlands that stretch into woods) where we sat, looked, and listened for almost an hour with birds overhead and fish beneath our feet.  Here are the rest of the highlights from our Sunday nature walk at Pandapas:

The star of the wetland songbird stage, the red-winged blackbird (Agelaius phoeniceus) trills its high notes all summer.  Photo provided by Alan D. Wilson via Wikimedia Commons.

The star of the wetland songbird stage, the red-winged blackbird (Agelaius phoeniceus) trills its high notes all summer. Photo provided by Alan D. Wilson via Wikimedia Commons.

Red-winged Blackbird

“Conk-ka-reeeee” sang a male red-winged blackbird (Agelaius phoeniceus) from the top of a nearby snag.  There are several dead trees (called “snags”) in the wetland area at the back of Pandapas, and the male was using the closest one as a stage, flashing his scarlet and gold epaulets.  He must have been singing for an all female audience in the nearby woods, because we didn’t see a single female respond.  That didn’t stop the gallant soloist, though, and my dear husband swears he heard a few new trills previously undocumented for the red-winged blackbird.  I doubt that in our family hour we made a minor discovery in wildlife biology, but I heard the different trill, too – a long trill that went up and back down like a shallow bowl turned over – and my interest is piqued!

This tail-wagging member of the flycatcher family of birds was fabulous to watch even if I never got a decent photo.  This excellent shot was provided by Manjithkaini via Wikimedia Commons.

This tail-wagging member of the flycatcher family of birds was fabulous to watch even if I never got a decent photo. This excellent shot of an Eastern phoebe (Sayomis phoebe) was provided by Manjithkaini via Wikimedia Commons.

Eastern Phoebe

“Oooh, look over there, what’s that little bird?” my daughter asked.  My first answer?  It’s an LBB.

Ahh, the LBBs (Little Black Birds and Little Brown Birds) – they’re hard to distinguish from one another!  I never got close enough to be 100% certain that this was an Eastern phoebe (Sayomis phoebe) and not an Eastern wood-pewee (Contopus virens), and heaven knows the zoom on my phone was no help (not that I’m bitter), but I got close enough to see the shape, size (about as long as my hand from base of palm to tip of middle finger), and behavior of the bird, so I’m fairly certain I’ve got it right.  The first thing you notice about a phoebe is that it’s a tail wagger, constantly pumping its tail up and down, and this little fellow was definitely wagging.  It was also perched on a low branch near the wetland boardwalk bridge, and phoebes nest under bridges and other overhangs.  The birdy never sang, but it did fly out and fly back to its perch on several insect-snatching sorties.  What this LBB lacks in size it makes up for in speed and maneuverability, which is too bad for the insects, who make up its meals.

This mallard mama is obviously more used to humans than the one we encountered at Pandapas.  I never got a clear shot of her and the ducklings, but Alan D. Wilson came through with this beautiful photo via Wikimedia Commons.

This mallard (Anas platyrhynchos)mama is obviously more used to humans than the one we encountered at Pandapas. I never got a clear shot of her and the ducklings, but Alan D. Wilson came through with this beautiful photo via Wikimedia Commons.

Mystery Mallards

As we sat and watched Abbey sally forth up and down the boardwalk, spotting perch and Eastern newts in the tea-brown water, we kept an eye and ear on the field of cattails in the marsh.  And then they moved.  Suddenly.  Not blown by the wind, but by some not-tiny animal moving within them.  We all got excited.  I don’t know about the other two, but as I held my breath I wished for beavers.  Lots and lots of people have seen the beavers at Pandapas, but I haven’t.  Their lodge and dam work is obvious to all, but I’ve yet to spot the furry brown builders themselves.

I didn’t this time, either.  What did come waddling into a clearing was a mama mallard (Anas platyrhynchos) and her half dozen ducklings.  And it didn’t matter that they weren’t beavers or that I’ve seen hundreds of them before, my face split into an instinctive grin at the fussing mother and the wandering, wobbling, fuzzy little babies.

The ruby-throated hummingbird (Archilochus colubris) we saw was a female, like the one pictured here, but had less sparkly and duller green feathers because she was flying in the shade.  This fabulous specimen was captured by Dick Daniels and provided via Wikimedia Commons.

The ruby-throated hummingbird (Archilochus colubris) we saw was a female, like the one pictured here, but had less sparkly and duller green feathers because she was flying in the shade. This fabulous specimen was captured by Dick Daniels and provided via Wikimedia Commons.

Ruby-throated Hummingbird

I’m extra glad for the noisy mallards that kept my eyes focused on the cattails because that gave me another gift – the sighting of a ruby-throated hummingbird (Archilochus colubris).  The ruby-throat, as they’re often known, is the only hummingbird that visits us here in the mid-Atlantic region of North America.  I have planted lots of native, hummingbird friendly plants (coral honeysuckle, liatris, wild columbine, bee balm/monarda, and more) and have even hung a hummingbird feeder, so I know they’re out there, but still a sighting is rare.  They’re little green birds – well, if phoebes are little, then these are actually tiny – that dart so quickly through the landscape it’s hard to catch them.  In fact, they’re the only birds that are so maneuverable that they can fly backwards!

I thank my lucky stars that I saw this one, a female, I think, because I didn’t see the ruby throat that indicates a male, because she was gathering cattail fluff to tuck into her nest!  I saw her pluck fluffy seeds from the spent cattail flower stalk, fly to a second stalk, grab even more, and then carry it off in her beak as she flew away to the woods’ edge.  That kind of sighting, well, for a nature nerd like me, it’s enough to make your whole week!

And it did:  I’m still grinning.  But, on the other hand, it’s not going to get the laundry done, so off I go!