As my developed areas have grown, so has my ability to observe the vast array of arthropods and vertebrates with which I share my acreage. Perhaps this is because my plantings are diverse, offering a wide variety of seeds, fruits and flowers. Perhaps it is because much of what I plant is understory vegetation that lets me move freely among plants in a way that I cannot with the overgrown forest understory that occupies much of the rest of the property. Certainly I’ve added more surface structure (wood, rock, metal, glass) than was here before. And there is more sunlight from the removal of trees behind the shed and barn.
All told, I tentatively put forth the idea that I have increased habitat diversity by planting far more native and non-native (PNW) species than were ever here before (by 100 fold I would guess based on my plant list), increased the amount of forest edges, improved lighting, and provided more habitat structure, both living and non-living.
My efforts have certainly brought forth a host of birds that enjoy the yard in front of the barn, but invertebrates are easier for me to photography, and have been a life-long interest of mine.
Among the more interesting vertebrates I’ve encountered this summer are reptiles, which are comparatively rare in Western WA:
According to Amphiaweb.com, Pacific tree frogs (Pseudacris regilla) are usually the most common frog species where they occur in the Pacific Northwest. This summer in particular, I have observed them nearly everywhere I go on the property, clinging to leaves, logs, walls, and windows, leaping frantically from the mower blades and dangling from my raspberry vines. It seems to be a takeover of sorts.
They breed in the wetland I refer to as the lake, which consistently fills up each winter, then mostly dries out in the summer as feeder streams bring sediment and vegetation gradually builds up. Apparently they enjoy ephemeral wetlands as they like calm, shallow waters. They usually begin their breeding chorus in February when sheer numbers create a wall of noise within which individual frogs are nearly undetectable.
During the summer, they leave aquatic habitats and migrate upland where they can be found nearly everywhere. Meanwhile, their breeding songs have been reduced to occasional dry ‘craaaaks’, as though to locate each other during their wanderings.
They can be found in a wide range of unexpected places. A little frog I named ‘Sir Splat’ liked to tuck up at the top of an outside door I use frequently. As I opened it, it would fall to the tile floor with a moist ‘splat’, then crawl away as though the equivalent of a human jump off of the Brooklyn Bridge had meant nothing to it.
Before I noticed the frog, I had seen small black droppings on the door and around the recessed knob. I blamed the cats for failing to catch house mice, wondering nevertheless how a mouse could scale a vertical surface and leave pellets. Turns out it was frog scat I was seeing, a substance that comes in an array of sizes, the largest of which reveals the cast-off chitin of their insectivorous diet.
Other frogs inhabit window sills, where they press into corners with feet drawn up under them to conserve water.
Curiously, even during hot, sunny days, I would find the on the tops of leaves several feet above ground, exposed but pressed closely to the surface to stay moist.
Others preferred hiding under the bark of logs I intended to move. One log yielded three little green faces with black stripes peeping out at me as I carefully replaced the loose bark and left them alone. Mowing yielded an abundance of frogs frantically hopping to escape the blades like porpoises cresting a bow wave. While picking raspberries, a favorite froggy hangout, one fellow landed upon my arm so that I could feel his cool, sticky belly for the moment it took it to realize that I was too warm and hairy for a perch.
The Pacific tree frog has genetic variants in the population that are capable of changing color. Those I see here range from basic green to a pure, bright copper color with variations in between.
A rare few displayed a dark green tint that looked like the result of mixing brown and green. According to a paper by Wente and Phillips published in Animal Behavior (2005), some frogs maintain their color while others change from green to brown according to substrate. Frogs that do not change stick to background colors that match their own, but color-changing frogs do not.
As esoteric a substance as frog manure is, I may be able to collect enough to sell small samples for high prices if I convince fellow gardeners of the value of chitin for plant growth. Regardless, I enjoy the company of the little amphibians even though I’ve got to pay more attention to washing my salad greens.
I’ve created a new art form born of functionality and a tendency towards the use of metal as an art form.
Last year, I created a piece I call ‘Deer-Deterence’. It consists simply of two pieces of four-foot rebaror pipe and some barbed wire.
I intended it to protect my Western redbud, but it was after-the-fact as the local buck got to the lower limbs before I figured it need protecting. The bucks use small trees to rub the velvet from their antlers. Around here, the process begins around September. Native trees fall victim too; I have found alders badly gouged with ragged strings of bark hanging from their trunks. My pyrocantha shrubs along the driveway were badly mauled, and a beautiful dark blue flowered ceanothus lost several large limbs.
Taking a page from the Bloedel Reserve, which uses two metal fence posts driven into the ground at an angle to protect tree trunks, I’ve employed materials that I have on hand, namely rebar, steel pipe, and barbed wire. In some instances, I’ve also wrapped pieces of woven wire fencing around the trunks of larger trees. In other cases, I’ve placed a single pipe at angle.
Time will tell which will work the best, or if I will need to default to more extensive fencing measures. As of today, October 14, I’ve seen no evidence of fresh buck damage anywhere, although a summer herd of four does continue to hang out around the gardens.
The little waterfall and pool are already proving a welcome habitat augmentation for the local bird community that visits my two feeders. Red-breasted nuthatches (Sitta canadensis) and chesnut-backed chickadees (Parus rufescens) regularly compete for space for drinking and bathing. An adjacent mature Douglas fir tree and a lilac bush provide perches for the birds to wait their turns or to dry themselves. The chickadees in particular seem to take considerable pleasure in getting throughly soaked in the shallow end below the falls. A seldom-seen brown creeper (Certhia americana) even joined in one day. As the summer progresses, the rocks of the pool have become coated with green algae, but any method that I can contemplate beyond draining and scrubbing would likely harm the creatures that enjoy it, so I let it be for now (for pond construction and maintenance, Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife has an excellent primer at Backyard Wildlife Program ). Rather, I have chosen the long-range approach of planting shading vegetation around the edges, including horsetail (Equisetum hymale), Sword fern (Polystichum munitum), red-flowering currant (Ribes sanguineum), Spirea (Spiraea prunifolia?? – last winter’s purchase from a local nursery, but I cannot recall the species), Siberian bugloss (Brunnera macrophyllum ‘Jack Frost’), and container-bound Japanese bloodgrass (Imperator cylindrical). Four-inch pots of Alaskan fern (Polystichum setiferum) have been tucked into moss within the rocks the hope that they will provide large fronds that will shade and soften the edges of the pond. My intention is to create a leafy corridor that will shade the water and create the feeling of a small stream emerging from the woods, and a pleasant surprise for those approaching the deck. This area had been formerly overrun with St. John’s Wort (Hypericum perforatum) originally planted by my mother, and later razed in an attempt to create a succulent garden. However, the St John’s wort stubbornly reemerged and was dueling with a resprouting hawthorn (Crataegus phaenopyrum) stump for dominance of the 15′ x 30′ area when I arrived upon the scene. I am still battling both of them in hopes that sheer tenacity will succeed. The hummingbirds here are not readily drawn to my artistic glass feeder with brown wood base and red-metal flower petals, plus the ants usually get to it first. So I have contented myself with growing two baskets of fushcias and several nascent salvias in the front yard that seem to attract an Anna’s (Calypte anna) on occasion. Meanwhile, profusions of dark-eyed Juncos (Junco hyemalis) and robins dominate the fringe habitats, the Juncos chipping with fury when the cat emerges for a stretch. I imagine that they might enjoy the additional structure provided by the now 9-foot tall pole beans that curl about bamboo props in what this winter will become the front yard. The beans, content with the rich mix of rotted horse manure and sawdust applied to the area, are doing little more than producing a profusion of green leaves. The cukes and yellow squash, in contrast, are durable producers, already overwhelming our ability to keep up with them.
A rare find the other day was the appearance of a barred owl with 200 feet of the house late one sunny afternoon. Indeed, it flew over the heads of my father and I and perched in a nearby alder where it sat imperiously for quite some time while I examined it with binoculars. Later that night, I heard several hooting ‘who cooks for you all’ in the woods out back of the house.My most favorite of the avian visitors are the Pileated woodpeckers (Dryocopus pileatus) that have lived and even nested on the property for as long as I can remember. My newly instigated gardens are of little interest to them, but they roam the back twenty, where numerous alder and Douglas fir snags of varying heights provide them with feeding stations, and I often hear their cries through the forest. Continuing to perpetuate their devotion to this place will be on of my primary goals in the creation of natural gardens and viewing areas elsewhere on the property.
Adventures in creating a 10-acre garden from scratch