Tag Archive | Buddleia alternifolia

Fledging

It was a big day here. I’m so exhausted you’d think I were fledging. I came downstairs shortly after sunrise to let Stellar out after hearing his nails click on the floor. I was horrified to see a Phoebe fall from the nest – but wait, it hadn’t fallen, it had flown. I couldn’t miss this, so I didn’t even go back upstairs for the camera phone. I grabbed the big camera and went outside.

There were three phoebes already out of the nest, squatting all over the patio.

They could barely fly, with their brand new wings and their stubby little tails, yet they kept fluttering from one surface to another.

Once they discovered the cat ladder, the real fun began. Back and forth, back and forth. Topaz, however, had by now been locked inside for the first hour of the day, given up, and gone back upstairs to bed. Not a peep from her the rest of the day. More hours went by, well-spent as far as I was concerned. I’d been waiting for this day since May 19, when the chicks first hatched. In the previous week, the speed of their growth astonished me.

From the ladder, back and forth to the old cable wire that I leave hanging just for this reason, to the old insulation hole in the adobe double-wall, to the ladder, to eventually, hours later, the honeysuckle and the rose bush beyond the patio. Mama and Papa continued to take turns feeding the babies, but how could they tell who was who? I noticed that sometimes they’d feed the same chick three or four times in a row, until it just wouldn’t open its mouth again, then they’d take their bug to another. Their instincts came through though: when any of them approached another, well, they just kept opening their mouths to receive food, even if it was just another chick coming in for a landing. Sometimes they got lucky.

Even after being fed they squawk.

Everything went really well. Four chicks out of the nest, each getting its turn getting fed, but the fifth chick just would not leave the nest. Even as the others explored sensations of flight, tested their quickly growing limits, I swear even their tail feathers seemed to grow before my eyes, stretched their wings, the fifth chick simply wouldn’t leave.

Mama continued to feed it, teasing with the insect and making the chick reach for it again and again before relinquishing it, and once actually got on top of the chick, I think urging it to leave the nest. I began to despair of it leaving ever, as the first four chicks flew from the ladder one by one, out into the trees east or north of the house.

The last chick flexed its wings a few times, but remained alone in the nest for more than an hour, before finally joining a few remaining nest mates on the ladder. But they, too, flew off, leaving the last little bird alone on the ladder for a long time. I couldn’t leave. I pretended to read, time marched relentlessly on, it was getting close to noon, I could hear the rest of the family chirping from around the north side of the house, and still the last little bird lingered on the ladder.

Some other things happened.

I was grateful that I had no firm commitments on my calendar until evening, when I had a group to lead online. I could bide my time outside. I had started the morning rapt with joy, completely immersed in the huge little drama unfolding with the Phoebe family. By eleven, as I sat anxiously watching the last little fledgeling sleeping on a rung of the ladder, anxiety assailed me: what if they left it there? what if no one came back for it? what would I do? how would I save it? I observed these thoughts arise, only mildly disturbed by them. Even as my mind raised anxieties, a more detached awareness simply watched it all unfold, waiting patiently, reassuring the rest of me that it would all be okay no matter how it went down, and more specifically, calmly insisting that they would never have invested that much energy into bring the chick to this point in its life only to abandon it. Finally, I saw a parent approach it with food, trying to entice it off the rung. It took another hour, but eventually, the last chick flew to the rosebush, then to the maple, then on around beyond the house. I went inside. By then it was hot, and I was exhausted from my irresistible seven-hour vigil. I went inside to meditate and nap.

Come evening, cooled down, I went outside again to water the vegetable beds; stepping around the north end of the house to turn on the hose, I saw them all stacked up along a shelf support in the tool area. Before dark, they had dispersed to several other perches. I kept thinking they’d return to the nest overnight, as last year’s clutch did for a few days after hatching, but didn’t see that before I went in at dusk. I’m grateful for an absolutely perfect day watching the greatest show on earth, a participant observer in the thrilling action of a special day in the life of a single bird family. May they all live through the night, and the summer, and the next few years.

The Names of Things

Two native Osmia, or orchard bees, enjoying the cerulean blooms of Penstemon cyananthus.

Two native Osmia, or orchard bees, enjoying the cerulean blooms of Penstemon cyananthus.

The demise of my honeybees has spawned a silver lining after all: It’s opened my eyes to the wider world of native bees. The first summer with my captured swarm of “wild” honeybees, I bought a macro lens specifically to photograph them; I also bought a special pair of binoculars, Pentax Papilio, the only binoculars I could find after hours of online research with a focal length short enough that I could sit close to the hive and watch the bees go in and out. It’s not the best for watching faraway birds, but turned out to be amazing for getting a better view of things that are already pretty close up.

When my close-up vision began to deteriorate about fifteen years ago, I just let go of the need to see small things without my glasses. Consequently, I missed a lot of what was going on in the garden. Aphids, for example, until they had already done a lot of damage to a plant. But with the Papilios and the new camera lens, the world of small things opened up to me, and I was thrilled with it.

A ladybug taking off from the aging blossoms of catmint, Nepeta.

A ladybug taking off from the aging blossoms of catmint, Nepeta.

As I photographed my honeybees on all the various flowers in my drought-tolerant landscape, I found myself taking pictures of other small creatures in the same blooms, some of them really quite minuscule. Smaller than gnats, even.

I remember when Joseph came over to help me open the hive that first time, he looked at some flowers abuzz with bees and said, “Oh, nice, native bees.” It registered, but I didn’t understand it. How could he tell from where he stood what kind of bee was moving around just inches above the ground?

After three summers of photographing and observing bees, I can now tell a whole lot about which kind of bee is feeding on a flower, even from my gigantic height of five-eight. I’ve taken many photos of pollinators (honeybees, native bees, flies, beetles…) over the past few years, and I’m so busy all summer that I promise myself I’ll take some time in the winter to identify them, look up all their proper names. (My dear friend Paul calls the common names of plants and animals the “vulgar” names, and the Latin binomials the “proper” names. He’s got plenty of cred, so I go with that.)

But about a decade ago, because I’m fundamentally lazy (though curiously driven at times) I decided that I no longer need to know the names of things; it’s enough that they are here, living, and that I witness their glory, each and every unique living thing I come across. So I haven’t spent any time the past three winters learning the names of all the native bees I’ve photographed. Because something else is always above that on my To-Do List.

Until now.

A native bumblebee (Bombus) flies among the small blue penstemons that grow in the flagstone. The proper names of all the penstemons in the garden? A whole nother story.

A native bumblebee (Bombus) in the small blue penstemons that grow between flagstones. The proper names of all the penstemons in the garden? Another story. And it turns out it’s not so easy to ID bumblebees down to species.

Chris sent me an email last spring announcing a national Pollinator Photo Contest, and so I entered some of my images. There were actually two contests, one sponsored by the Center for Food Safety, and the other by the Wild Bee Gardens app. I was pleased to learn that I won in both contests, with different images of a native leafcutter bee, Megachile sp. So there is half of the proper name that I have learned. The app creator also wanted to use some of the other images I submitted in the new version of the app, so I happily consented to that.

And then I checked out the app.

It is elegant, and brilliant. And the introductory video changed my life.

My purpose felt extinguished when my honeybee hive died. Through the first half of this year, I’ve felt more and more bereft in their absence. It is beyond noticeable; it is flagrant. Sure, some honeybees have finally arrived, mid-June, in my garden. But they’re not my honeybees. My honeybees would have been smothering with caresses all the flowers in the yard as they bloomed, from February’s croci on through March’s (absurdly early) fruit trees, April’s daffodils and tulips, May’s irises and penstemons, and June’s profusion. As it is, yes, they’re coming, slowly growing from a few into hundreds, thousands; feeding on the wild pink roses, Buddleia alternifolia, Gallardia

Gallardia and Salvia with the new birdbath, a gift.

Gallardia,  Salvia, and Penstemon with the new birdbath, a gift.

Wild rose, Rosa woodsii, blooms profusely, hosting many species of pollinators during its short bloom cycle.

Wild rose, Rosa woodsii, blooms profusely, hosting many species of pollinators during its short bloom cycle.

Yet another Osmia on the wild ancestor of the common butterfly bush, Buddleia alternifolia.

Yet another Osmia on the wild ancestor of the common butterfly bush, Buddleia alternifolia.

This enormous shrub native to north-central China lives up to its common name of "fountain butterfly bush" with its arching sprays of richly scented flowers, attracting many species of butterflies including this western tiger swallowtail.

This shrub native to north-central China lives up to its common name of “fountain butterfly bush” with its arching sprays of richly scented flowers, attracting many species of butterflies including this western tiger swallowtail…

... and this

… and this elusive Monarch.

 

Last year my entire yard was loud with the sounds of bees, especially honey; now it buzzes discretely with the wingbeats of native bees. And my eyes are opened. I learned from the app that there are around 4000 species of native bees in North America, and they are responsible for pollinating far more of our native and staple food plants than are the introduced honeybees. For example, blueberries, green peppers, and tomatoes are best pollinated by bumblebees.

And that raises the question of neonicotinoids. I jumped on the “decline of the honeybee” bandwagon even before I found my swarm. I’ve preached about neonicotinoids poisoning honeybees since science first suggested the connection. I’ve sweated about the alarming decline of honeybees, and I never once wondered what that implied about native bees. (As a self-proclaimed naturalist, I feel pretty stupid about that.)

Fortunately, someone else did, and she pursued the question to its natural conclusion: a digital field guide to the native bees of North America. Celeste Ets-Hokin, an Oakland biologist, conceived and created the Wild Bee Gardens app, an elegant and intuitive research tool for gardeners, farmers, and others interested in preserving pollinators. With cross-references among native bee genera and the plants that host them, fabulous native bee photographs (including, in the newest version coming soon, some of mine), and extensive written guides on their ecology, lifecycles, anatomy, behavior, and how to create a wild bee garden, the app is a wealth of information, a whole college course in one package, and an inspiring creative work. It’s holding my feet to the fire, and making it fun, once again, to learn the names of things.