Pine Needles and Paper Wasps

Pine needles and paper wasps were not in the weekend plans.

We were just sitting down to dinner when one of our regular Little Free Library patrons knocked on the door. She’d mentioned once before that she thought she saw yellow jackets, a more aggressive type of wasp, on the top of our Little Free Library (LFL).

I inspected the library and the surrounding areas at the time and didn’t see any activity. Perhaps they were just passing through.

Little Free Library San Jose

Little Free Library, 2018

She spotted them again this weekend, hence the knock on the door. About a dozen wasps decided to hunker down on the roof of the LFL.

paper wasp cluster

Paper wasp cluster on roof of LFL

We had an unusually windy day, but the sun was warm. They gathered in a cluster, barely moving, perhaps enjoying the sun.  One or two flew out of the birdhouse portion of the library, but I had no way of seeing inside.

Our LFL is a work of art by artist Donna Pierre. I was reluctant to dismantle the birdhouse which is artfully attached to the larger library. That said, dozens of neighbors visit the library daily. I didn’t want anyone getting stung, least of all a small child.

After a brief debate on our plan of attack (ours, not the wasps) we trudged out to the garage in search of the auguring tool. Mike usually welcomes the chance to use his power tools, but it was the end of a busy weekend, after a week-long business trip to Mexico.

I said I would do it.

Mike shouted encouragement and Chris took pictures (because I’m a blogger after all) while I donned a heavy leather jacket and gloves, drill at the ready. I wore my son’s mosquito hood from his back-packing days in case they all flew out at once.  I drilled a large round hole in the back of the birdhouse, hoping they would fly out and be on their way. Once they exited, we could put a small screen over the front, return the removed piece from the back, and then call it a day.

As the augured piece fell into the birdhouse, imagine my surprise when a stream of ants came racing out of the birdhouse and down the back of the library. It was so unexpected.

ants

Ants swarm out of the back of the LFL

Mike produced a flashlight so we could look up into the birdhouse through the larger hole. There it was: a nest filled with grey, honeycomb-like cells, with a few ants dotting the nest. That birdhouse had to go, at least for now.

Paper wasp nest inside birdhouse of LFL

Mike pried a few supports loose and we gingerly inched what is now a nesting box, out of it’s home.

The gathered cluster of wasps sat undisturbed on the roof as I carried the nest to the back garden and hung it high in a tree.

So how do pine needles factor in the title? After all that activity I was a bundle of energy and nerves. As I mentioned, the winds were fierce, knocking pine needles from our roof and the neighbor’s tree. I raked and swept and gathered them into a pile, occasionally checking on the relocated nest. Eventually the adrenaline wore off and we called it a day.

I would like to say, “Problem solved” but the wasps are back. They’re sitting in the same spot on the library roof, even though the nest is no longer there. I’m relieved to know via my search that our wasps are the docile kind, but when I look out the window and see people flailing their arms, it’s a worry.

After researching here: The difference between a yellow jacket wasp and a paper wasp

I decided to post a couple of signs saying:

Our flying visitors are European Paper Wasps (non-aggressive) vs Yellow Jacket wasps (which are aggressive).  We relocated their nest, but a few of the adults are still hanging around.

These wasps are beneficial for the garden, which is probably why they are here.

If you’re concerned, please visit another Little Free Library in the neighborhood until they move along.

Thank you!  Alys, Little Free Library Steward

Yellow Jacket vs Paper Wasp

What, then, is the difference between a yellow jacket and a paper wasp?

When it comes to appearance, both look similar. Both are black with yellow bands. A paper wasp, however, has a longer body than a yellow jacket, which has a shorter and fatter body. If you look closely, a paper wasp also has an orange-tipped antennae while a yellow jacket does not.

A yellow jacket is more aggressive and can sting repeatedly, while a paper wasp only attacks when threatened. Both feed on garden insects, but a yellow jacket scavenges for food and even feeds on food found in the trash or on picnic tables. A paper wasp, on the other hand, feeds on pollen and nectar as well.

Moreover, a yellow jacket builds its covered nest underground or in hollows, while a paper wasp build its coverless nests in a tree, eaves or spouts.

Source: DifferenceGuru

The research I did for this post also solved a mystery. I’ve mentioned wasps in the past, and noted that they never bother me. They make paper nests in the eaves, come and go without a fuss, and of course they do wonders for the garden. Yellow jackets and paper wasps look nearly identical unless you view them up close.

What I thought was a “pass” from the yellow jackets for providing an appealing garden smorgasbord was mere smugness on my part. It turns out that our garden visitors are their more docile cousins. May it always be so.

My Garden Sows Content

The sweet peas are out, but the cornflower will remain for awhile

Life is full.

Since my last post we’ve celebrated three family birthdays, Mother’s Day and Father’s Day, and my oldest son’s graduation from college. My youngest son came home from his first year away at college and my oldest son moved home mid-June. Somewhere in there we took a two-day getaway to Las Vegas after Mike finished a big work project.  Next week I leave for a long-anticipated trip to British Columbia and Alberta. I’ll be traveling with my friend Kelly, a dear friend whom I met through blogging nearly eight years ago. I am really looking forward to this trip.

Through it all though, my garden continues to sow content.

We had some brutally hot days in the low 100’s (104 F or 40 C), but it has settled down into cooler temps.  During the heat wave I arrived home to wilting hydrangeas and burnt ground cover. The flowers recovered but the ground cover is done till the rains return.

On the subject of rain, we had the loveliest, late-season rain in May, bringing about larger and taller flowers, fuller blooms and a short-term delay in the unbearable heat. It was such a gift.

I spent some early mornings this week pulling out the spent Nigella, also known as Love-in-a-mist and the sweet peas. I let both of them go to seed, reaping the benefits of a self seeded garden each spring. The cornflowers are the last of the self-seeded spring flowers. The bees are still pollinating the remaining blooms while the birds swoop in for the seeds.

I’ve been musing to myself that some of my garden favorites are the ones that return year after year with no effort on my part. They attract birds, bees and admiring neighbors. I get several month’s worth of small garden bouquets, and enjoy sharing the bounty with others.

Now that summer is here, our plums are ripening and the four o’clocks are about to bloom.

My miniature Hobbit garden, planted a year ago in celebration of my New Zealand friends and hosts is also robust.

I’ve added a tiny rusted table and a few flower “lights”, a gift from my friend Laura. I noticed this week that a tiny violet has self-seeded near the Hobbit door. We’ll see how it grows.

The tomatoes are looking promising this year!

Over the years people ask “is your garden a lot of work?” and the answer is always the same. Yes, it can be back-aching work, bending and lifting, pruning and pulling weeds, especially during the hot days of summer.  But the work is joyful. It’s not so much the ends but the means. I love working in the dirt, discovering new things, seeing what works and learning from failures. Working closely with nature is uplifting.  I marvel at the different shapes and sizes of the bees. I’m honored when a hummingbird comes close, inquisitive and open. I hear the rustle of the lizards and hope the cats will let them be. I laugh at myself when I’m startled by a spider, but I’ve learned to manage that fear while respecting the gifts they bring to the garden. A few ladybugs came for a visit last month and polished off the invading aphids. These are some of my favorite examples of nature at her finest.

I get dirt under my fingernails and sometimes in my teeth. Bruised knees and a sore neck mean I’ve stayed out too long. It takes me a lot longer to get up from the ground, and the pain in my hips reminds me of my advancing age. It’s all worth it for that time in the garden where I find a real connection to this earth.

Laboring in my garden sows content.

 

 

 

Temporarily Sidelined From the Garden

Campanula Serbian bellflower Campanula (Serbian bellflower) and hydrangea hugging the fountain

It feels good to be back in the garden. I did something to my back a few weeks ago and for a few days the pain was unbearable. It subsided and then my neck went out. Good grief, I am so over it! It’s spring for gosh sakes. This is no time to be sidelined from the garden.

I pulled a few weeds sitting in a folding chair, making it official: I’m an “old woman gardener.”

Last weekend, in between back pain and neck pain, we got things done. Mike hung the shade sails on both patios which we leave up for six months of the year. Shade sails make the San Jose sun bearable, while at the same time creating “rooms” in the garden. Once our shade sails are up we spend more time outdoors.

I repurposed a decorative shower curtain once again to cover the swing cushions. After sewing two or three replacement covers over the years, only to see them in ruin, I no longer dedicate any sewing time to a swing cover that is generally faded by the sun and gnawed on by squirrels at season’s end. It’s a decent compromise.

I hung a few mirrors from a local shop called Not Too Shabby along the back fence. I’ve always wanted to do something like this. It creates a focal point while covering up the boring fence. The mirrors are in the shade of the fruit tree and reflect different plants in the garden, depending on where you sit.

mirrors arranged on fence Patio and garden with mirrors on the back fence. (Pictured: Mouse and Lindy)
four mirrors on garden fence Your’s truly holding the camera for a closeup view of the garden mirrors

I planted tomatoes in my EarthBoxes® this year. Last summer’s crop was a bust, so I’ve moved the boxes into a more open space. Wind is more important for pollination than bees, so I’m hoping the new location on the gravel path pays off in delicious summer tomatoes.

pair of Earthboxes planted with tomatoes Pair of Earthboxes with tomatoes and red mulch

Astoundingly, this is the first time in ages that I don’t have any self-seeded pumpkins. That said, as the garden fills in, there is less and less room for the seedlings to take hold.  I’m going to plant pumpkin seeds in the front garden this year, so as the sweet peas die back in June, the pumpkins can fill in the space. It just doesn’t feel like a garden without pumpkins.

We had above-average rain this year, so everything looks healthy and refreshed.

My favorite, self-seeding flowers are back this year including Nigella (love-in-a-mist),

sweet peas,

nasturtiums,

and our state flower, the California poppy.  I liberally scattered poppy seeds at the end of last summer and it paid off.

Front garden Front garden natives mix with annual self-seeded cornflower, California golden poppies, & sweet peas

For any of you royal watchers, here’s a bit of California poppy trivia:

To commemorate Meghan Markle’s Californian origins, Clare Waight Keller included the golden poppy in the coat of arms.
Source: Wikipedia

Perhaps the most important plant in the garden each spring is the Nepeta. Nepeta, also known as cat nip or cat mint is briefly intoxicating to cats. Lindy likes to eat it, Tessa dives in head first and all three cats take turns using the plant as a lounge.

cat sleeping near cat nip Lindy snoozing between the Nepeta and the violets
native garde Back garden and patio. Lindy standing near the Nepeta
cat with nose in nepeta plant Tessa dips her nose in the Nepeta
two faced Tessa Tessa enjoying the garden

Spring. There’s a little something for everyone.

An (Almost Spring) Garden Posy

Ahhhhh…

It’s been raining off and on for several weeks, leaving the air fresh and clear. I managed some garden time between storms, pulling together a spring garden posy. I love this time of year.

Spring bulb posy

Spring posy nestled in the planting bed. The wind kept tipping it over, but I finally got this shot

cat vase with spring bulbs

Hyacinth, Daffodil, Nigella, and Freesia in a tiny vase

It’s cheering seeing bulbs emerge from the dark, wet soil. Most are brightly colored and in some cases scented, too. They’re an intoxicating mix and a harbinger of things to come.

The hyacinth come up first…

Pink striped hyacinth

Pink candy-cane striped hyacinth

pink hyacinth

Fragrant and lovely hyacinth

followed by narcissus (daffodils)…

Daffodil and hyacinth

Garden posy: daffodil, hyacinth and Nigella greens

white freesia

White freesia

and then freesia.

The freesia are the garden darlings these days, growing larger and spreading farther year after year. They pop up in whites, reds, yellows and pinks, and seem to last for weeks.

“Spring drew on…and a greenness grew over those brown beds, which, freshening daily, suggested the thought that hope traversed them at night and left each morning brighter traces of her steps.”

–Charlotte Brontë

As I said earlier, “Ahhhhh….”

A Little Sorrow, a Little Joy

Thank you to readers Lisa and Eliza for correctly identifying the songbirds posted in A Tale of Two Wrens. Our feathered guests are House Finches.

Last week I rescued a finch from our walkway. It sat fluffing its feathers but not otherwise moving. I brought him inside, made him a little nest inside our cat carrier and drove to the local wildlife rescue and rehabilitation facility. I learned a few days later that the sweet little songbird suffered from a highly contagious and generally incurable eye disease called mycoplasmal conjunctivitis or MG. Our rescued finch has been humanely euthanized by the caring folks at Wildlife Center Silicon Valley.

There is small comfort knowing he died in a pair of loving hands. Left on the cold sidewalk he would have surely fallen prey to a cat. Further, since it’s highly contagious, removing any diseased bird from a community gives the others a fighting chance.

Here’s what I’ve learned:

Male House Finch with MG, a highly contagious eye disease prevalent in songbirds

Clinical Signs
House finches with mycoplasmal conjunctivitis will exhibit swelling around the eyes, crusty eyelids, and watery ocular and/or nasal discharge. Extreme swelling and crusting can lead to impaired vision and at times blindness. In severe cases, birds may become debilitated, depressed, lose body condition, and die. Some birds can act as carriers of MG while showing no clinical signs of the disease. 
Diagnosis
Mycoplasmosis is diagnosed based on clinical signs and the isolation of M. gallisepticum by culture or other laboratory tests. 
Treatment
Treatment of wild birds with MG is not recommended. Although antibiotics may clear clinical signs, birds can become asymptomatic carriers that can spread the bacteria to new locations. 
Management
Management efforts to control mycoplasmal conjunctivitis in finches focus on transmission prevention. Bird feeders and baths should be kept clean and spaced far enough apart to prevent crowding. Only clean, fresh feed should be provided at feeders. Tube-style feeders seem to be particularly problematic in MG transmission. During outbreaks of mycoplasmosis, bird feeding should be discontinued to eliminate this source of transmission.

https://www.northeastwildlife.org/disease/avian-mycoplasmosis

We don’t feed song birds via a feeder, but we do have a hanging bird bath and a bubbling fountain. I’ll need to be more diligent keeping them clean. Holly Cormier of the WCSV confirmed that vinegar is just as effective as bleach, and it’s non-toxic. You need to let it sit 15 minutes, then thoroughly rinse with a blast of a garden hose.

Armed with this new information, I was anxious to learn of the wellbeing of our second House Finch. He arrived in December and continues to sleep under the eaves each night. Most nights he’s facing in so I can’t see his face. I finally captured this photo showing no outward signs of MG.

Male House Finch, San Jose, California
Male House Finch Closeup San Jose, California

 His healthy presence brings a bit of joy to each day.

Please consider sharing this post with anyone attracting songbirds to their garden.

 

A Garden in Rest

We’re quite spoiled living in California this time of year. Temperatures rarely drop below freezing, and we’re frequently treated to several days of unseasonably warm conditions. 

Curb garden perennials going to seed

While much of the country is dealing with weather known as the polar vortex with insanely cold and hazardous conditions, I’m wearing a t-shirt as I go about my day. I wish I could send all my mid-west and eastern seaboard friends a bit of warmth and sunshine. Come June, I’ll be looking on enviously at your summer rains.

Nigella and sweet peas populate the curb garden

I’ve been popping into the garden at the end of the day, pulling young weeds before they get a foothold. It’s a joy to observe the daily treasures nature has to offer.

Nigella bud just before opening
Nigella in all its beauty

When fall arrives in late October, my garden cleanup includes pruning, grooming and dead-heading perennial plants and shrubs. Last fall, I consciously let things go. This wasn’t born of laziness. In fact, it took some resolve to let things be. My propensity for organization and a tidy garden are nothing new, however my awareness of the benefits of a garden to all the visitors comes with a sense of responsibility.

Rose hips in the curb garden

Emerging growth on a miniature rose

Letting perennials go to seed means there are seeds available for birds passing through. Allowing a bit of leaf drop to cover the garden floor provides cover for some beneficial insects, while at the same time providing a natural mulch. Mulch keeps the soil warm and moist, while reducing weed growth and protecting roots from uneven temperatures. Leaves breakdown quickly, feeding the worms and improving the overall health of the soil.

Excess leaves, swept from the sidewalk and deck, made it into our compost bin. After working my way through three different compost systems over the past decade, I finally found one that I like.

Tessa likes to sit on the composter at dusk

New habits take time. I’m itching to get out there so I can prune some of the dead growth. I’ve had a little chat with my inner gardener, and together we’ve decided this is best. After all, the first day of Spring in the northern hemisphere is only 49 days away.

I can hardly wait.

About Those Christmas Lights

The jokes abound about leaving up the outdoor Christmas lights well into January. It’s always more fun to put them up than to take them down (says the woman who does neither). The outdoor lights are my husband’s thing.

That said, I had a vested interest in their removal this year after noticing a small deposit of bird droppings at the corner of the front steps just before Christmas. I looked up hoping to see a bird’s nest but alas, no nest in sight.

I got a jug of warm soapy water, rinsed the steps and carried on with my day.

A few days later the droppings were back, but still no sign of my feathered neighbor.

As luck would have it, we drove up the driveway around 5 pm one evening and I got out of the car to fetch some packages. In the process I startled a small red-breasted bird who is apparently sleeping on the edge of the extension cord used to hang the Christmas lights.

Bay Area House Finch

Possibly a house finch, common to the area, and probably male with the red breast

House finch under the eaves

House Finch under the eaves, December 28, 2018

My feathered guest leaves during the day, then returns at dusk for the night. He tucks his head toward the edge of the overhang, perched on the cord, and though it looks inhospitable to me, he’s clearly content. We replaced our Christmas lights several years ago with long-lasting, cool-to-the-touch LED’s so it’s not the heat that attracted him. Why he’s chosen this corner we’ll never know, but when the lights came down yesterday, the extension cord remained.

House finch under the eaves

Still visiting, January 2, 2019

It’s a lovely start to the new year and a softening of the inevitable melancholy that follows when both boys head back to university for another term. I’m immeasurably happy to see this little bird perched there each night, and hope he remains year round.

What’s new in your corner of the world?

Bay Area Birds