Helping Our Bird Friends in Winter

by Donna Lewis

Don’t be fooled by our nice weather…  just around the corner could be lurking a cold winter blast.  Hopefully not a blast from the past (I am talking about the 10 days of freezing temperatures we had. So, there are some pretty simple things you can do to help our feathered friends right now.  Better to do these things while it’s nice for us to go outside.

We built and installed a platform under our front porch for the Phoebe’s to build their Spring nest on.  This is to hopefully keep them from putting 10,000 pounds of mud everywhere on our porch trying to build their own platform for their nest.  Boy is that messy. I have never done this before, so we will see if they use it.

Many species of birds like open platforms. Here are a few: Chickadees, Wrens, Phoebes, and Nuthatches. Ducks and other large raptors also use large platforms that are higher up.

Also new is a Bluebird feeder. This is an attempt to keep the dried mealworms from blowing off the platform dishes onto the ground and getting them wet and icky in winter weather. It’s hard for any insect-eating bird to find food in the winter.  

I have also stuffed the Bluebird nest boxes with dry pine needles for extra protection from the weather. I have shown here the area behind my house where I feed the Bluebirds and put out eggshells for the Purple Martins. The cow panels make perfect perches for the birds. Perches are very important if you want to draw any birds to you.

Bluebird house

I have placed these feeders away from the regular feeders so we don’t have conflict between the birds, and I can see it easily from inside the house.

These are my regular feeders. The open hopper is a favorite of most all my regulars, Cardinals, Chickadees, Titmice, and just about every bird.

So, you can do a few things that will assist our wild friends. Do what you can.

Here Come the Martins

by Donna Lewis

Believe it or not, the first Purple Martins have already landed in Florida as of December 27, 12021! Wow, that’s pretty early. Whether that is good or bad, I couldn’t tell you.

Ready for cleaning

But, if you are a Martin landlord you need to get your housing in shape and ready. Here are my guidelines:

  • Do not open any apartments or gourds yet.  Block them off or other bird species will go in, and the Martins will be left out in the cold.
  • The housing should be clean, with extra pine needles in them (if you do that).
  • Be ready to raise the housing up as soon as you hear a Martin or February 1, just to be safe.
  • You never open all the entrances at once, just a few at a time.

The Martins here in Milam County have historically arrived around Valentine’s Day. Last year I did not have any till March, however. So, as the earth’s weather changes, wildlife changes also.

I opened my apartment house today to see if it was still clean like I had left it last summer when I closed it for the year. I had taped over the entrance holes for the first time to see if it would keep out the spiders, lady-bugs and wasps. 

It worked pretty good, but there were still lots of spiders near all the corners. The spider webs are difficult to remove. Here’s a tip that I use to get them out easy and fast:

Spider web

Get a stick and twirl the web around it. They come out fast. Then, pitch the stick.

Stick magic

Secondly, I use a wet/dry vac to get anything else out that might be in there. I wipe out anything nasty with a damp paper towel or sponge and let everything dry for a day or so.  You need the apartments to be dry. I will do that later and take photos of it. For now it is so much easier to prep your houses while it’s not cold outside. Much better on your hands.

Time to vacuum!

Our friends are coming!

A Prairie Project Report

by Eric Neubauer

In 2018, wheat was planted here at my property, where there was once blackland prairie. Since then, nature has taken over. A mix of native and non-native grasses and forbs quickly came up by themselves. Each year the mix changed, but by 2021 it was obvious Johnson Grass was a huge threat and would eventually outcompete and overwhelm everything else. I was reluctant to use herbicides, because they might affect the plants and animals that I wanted to keep. For example, it’s unlikely anyone tested the effect on wolf spiders. So, I was left with only mechanical means of control.

I decided to focus only on the Johnson Grass to keep it simple. I came up with several plans depending on how thick the Johnson Grass was and whether an area would be mowed. One image shows an area where I pulled the Johnson Grass and ragweed starting early in the year. It looks pretty nice now and only a few unwanted seedlings have come up since. I’ll mow this area in early spring before the bluestem comes up and after it goes to seed. You can see some Johnson Grass I haven’t gotten to lurking in the background on the right.

The other image shows where the mowed area meets the unmown area. Johnson Grass doesn’t like regular mowing. There are numerous small plants in the foreground, but these have limited root systems and will die or are easy to pull. King Ranch Bluestem tolerates regular mowing. I mowed around the plant in the foreground and now it’s going to seed. I mowed around other plants, primarily legumes, and hand pulled any Johnson Grass that didn’t get cut. In the background is a mass of Johnson Grass. I’m hand pulling this. You can see little of anything is left except leaf litter where I have pulled it to the right. Some will  regrows, and I’ll have pull it again, but subsequent pulling goes much quicker than the first. In the meantime, other plants, such as asters, now have enough light to spout and grow. By the way, if you hand pull Johnson Grass, wear good gloves. Otherwise it can give you a nasty cut if your hand slips.

Other areas I’ve promoted with selective weeding are stands of goldenrod and a large patch of frogfruit where water collects sometimes.

It’s possible another threat will rise out of the several species of non-native grasses present, but for now I have a plan.

To Edge or Not to Edge?

by Donna Lewis

Hello all.

Keeping our gardens looking neat is something most of us do. For years, when I lived in Houston, I would use a weed eater and trim with a pair of scissors.  Yes I was crazy. I thought the garden looked great!

Away with the weed eater!

So, over the years, as I learned more about nature and taking good care of it, I have altered the way I do things.

How many of you have had the awful experience of zipping along with a weed eater and cut a poor little frog in half?  I can hardly write about it. But you know it happens…so what to do?

Our toad friend.

I have found a safer way to edge the garden.  Yes it is a little more work, but my little friends are worth it. Use a sharp-shooter shovel and go slow. You will see the frogs and toads move before you hurt them. Then, you pull all the grass away from the edge, and it actually lasts longer than cutting the tops off the grass. I also find that if you edge after it has rained it’s even easier.

My technique. Doesn’t it look good?

Just a little tip from someone who loves all the critters.

The Fennel Forest

by Donna Lewis

I know you all were wondering earlier this year what I was going to do to this small garden in my front pasture area.  The freeze took every single plant to the ground. Laid  to waste.   

I was not able to weed it, or really do any work in it like I always have for many years. Injuries, a few too many years…it all adds up. I have been 29 several times I think.

So, let’s talk about what the garden is right now.  It looks messy to us humans. But,  I didn’t plant it for us.  I planted it for the wildlife. This garden had lots of native plants in it and a perch I made for birds to rest on.

I planted zinnias, fennel, yarrow, sunflowers, sage, coneflowers, salvia, cowpen daisies, and a host of native things that just blew in. Freebies! And very important, I made a perch for the birds to sit on.

Many gardeners forget to put something for the birds to perch on and get off the ground where they feel safe. I cut a cattle panel in two, then took some hognose clips and made it to where it would open up.  The birds love it.

All those “native plants” I had put in for years came back after the horrible weather. Even the heat and too much water has not deterred them. But all the mess has lots of bugs in it.  Food for hungry birds. So, I may have just given you a reason to get out of all that work, trimming, weeding and other back breaking work.

Remember who we are gardening for…

Donna, the happy bird girl