Frog Foray: Fish frantic.

August 22, 2009

Last night brought tumultuous weather—winds, rain, thunder, lightening.  Early this morning, the clouds began to dissolve in the bright sun.  The air was still thick on my skin though, a lingering reminder of the tempest of the previous night.  It’s been a stormy summer, but the storms typically don’t have much impact on the behavior patterns of our frogs.  They are creatures of habit.  But this morning, everything was confused.

The only female bullfrog moved from the Ponderosa to the People Pond

Female bullfrog sitting on water lettuce in the People Pond

First of all, the green frog that sits at the edge of the Ponderosa while we have coffee was nowhere to be seen.  Hopefully he’s ok.  The female frog, who we have never seen venture out of the Ponderosa, was sitting prominently in the middle of a water lettuce patch in the shallows of the People Pond.  Ed, the largest bullfrog, was sitting in the spot that Tommy sits in every day.  And that brings me to Tommy, the second largest bullfrog.  He is about six inches from nose to butt.

Tommy sits underneath the pickerel rush plants, next to the water lily, in the People Pond.  He has been there every single morning this summer.  We see him there every evening when we return from work.  This morning, we found he had migrated to the Ponderosa.  We have never seen him in the Ponderosa before.

Tommy the Bullfrog, camouflaged by water lettuce, stalks fish.

Tommy the Bullfrog, camouflaged by water lettuce, stalks fish.

While we enjoyed our morning coffee, Tommy stayed for a while in the plants at the side of the Ponderosa, but then he moved over to the shallow end (about a foot from our feet).  He scoped out the area for a few minutes, then emerged from the water, camouflaged by some small water lettuce plants.

He sat there for a brief period, waiting.  Then, a decent-sized goldfish (perhaps 4 inches or so) swam by.  Before we knew it, Tommy pounced, grabbing the fish headfirst.  He emerged from the water with that fish half in/half out of his mouth.

Tommy the Bullfrog with goldfish tail hanging out of mouth.

Tommy the Bullfrog with goldfish tail hanging out of mouth.

We had seen him go for the small mosquitofish before, but this was a huge eat.  We were worried that he would spit the fish out (after killing it), realizing that it was too big to eat.  He took that fish, swam a little farther away, and gradually choked down that fish over a period of about 15 minutes.  What a show!

Tommy as he digests the goldlish, the tips of the goldfish tail hanging out of his mouth.

Tommy as he digests the goldlish, the tips of the goldfish tail hanging out of his mouth.

The fish were not amused by this display of frog-gression (ha!).  They fled the scene, disappearing into the depths.

Note:  The quality of these pictures is far from optimal.  The humidity caused the lens of the camera to continually fog up, making it very difficult to focus.

Female and male goldfinch eating from sunflower plants

Female and male goldfinch eating from sunflower plants

A family of goldfinches has taken over the sunflower patch.  Luckily, the bees don’t seem to mind.  The birds flit from flower to flower, nibbling on the sunflower seed hearts.  There is usually at least one male and one female present.  Sometimes they bring Junior, who waits patiently on the top-most flower for mom or dad to feed him.  They have made quite a mess, leaving the seed shells all over the deck, but the show is worth the mess.  They seem to be the only birds interested in the sunflowers, but the squirrels enjoy them too.  This morning I found a half-eaten sunflower on the deck railing.

Between the bees and the goldfinches, I’ve found that the sunflowers are a good bang for your buck in the garden!

Click here for more information about attracting goldfinches!

Fledgling Cardinal

Fledgling Cardinal

“We should all do what, in the long run, give us joy, even if it is only picking grapes or sorting the laundry.”

E. B. White

The grapevines at Dragonwyck Sanctuary were heavy with sweet, white grapes.  As such, we spent much of today picking (and eating) grapes.  And we were not alone.  In the early hours of the morning, a family of cardinals flew into the trees above the grapevines.  They stayed there all day long.  (In fact, it is 7:30 pm, and I can still hear those baby cardinals chirping away!)  The mother and father took turns joining us in the grapevines, taking grapes, and bringing them back to their offspring waiting in the nearby trees.  There were two fledgling cardinals—old enough to fly independently, but young enough to require assistance feeding.  We only saw them several times during the day, but we heard their continuous chirping throughout the day.  It was a big cardinal family event.

Baby Grackle Watching Cardinal Family

Baby Grackle Watching Cardinal Family

The cardinals were not the only birds partaking in the feast of grapes.  A catbird and a robin stopped by several times as well.  We also had a baby grackle come for a visit.  He seemed a little out of sorts.  He watched the cardinal family for a while, almost as if he wanted to join them.  Like the cardinals, the grackle was old enough to fly independently, but he was not very graceful.  He fell off a branch once, and later got tangled in a cluster of leaves.  He flew over to the People Pond for a swim, but one of the frogs jumped at him, and he immediately left with a squawk.  We never did see a grackle parent, but he didn’t seem injured or in any danger.

Overall, there was a lot of activity around the grapes today, but nobody seemed to mind that we were underneath those grapevines.  The birds enjoyed them so much that we ended up leaving half of them on the vines.

We picked over three gallons of grapes.  Tomorrow--jam!

We picked over three gallons of grapes. Tomorrow--jam!

Honeybee on Mammoth Sunflower

Honeybee on Mammoth Sunflower

Another BEE-autiful Day!  (I’m sorry, I just couldn’t resist!)  No signs of bee depopulation at Dragonwyck. The sun was bright throughout most of the day, and a light breeze blew through the trees.  Once again, bees were all over  Dragonwyck Sanctuary.  The bumblebees seemed to prefer the pond plants, specifically the purple flowers of the pickerel rush plants.  The honeybees far outnumbered the bumbles today.  They congregated around the sunflowers and the corn.  (Both types visited the black-eyed susan flowers from time to time.)

We are pleased to see the vast numbers of bees in our garden this year.  Bees are an essential element of a healthy and productive garden.  In addition to pollinating ornamental flowers, they are important pollinators of fruits, herbs, and vegetables. Last year, we had noticeably fewer bees.  There has been widespread reporting of a decline in feral bee populations as well as commercial honeybee colonies. Science Daily noted that such a decline constituted a global “pollination crisis”.

Honeybees are sensitive to a variety of pathogens, including parasites, bacteria, fungi, viruses, and chemicals.  They also suffer from loss of habitat.  You can positively impact your native bee population, at least on a small scale, by creating an environment that is safe from harmful chemicals and provides for their basic needs.

The first step in creating a bee-friendly environment is to determine what to plant.

1.  Include as many native plants as possible in your garden.  It makes sense that native bees like native plants.  Bees may be up to four times more attracted to native plants than they are to exotics.  You may wish to go to your local nursery or extension service for advice.

2.  Whenever possible, select heirloom varieties instead of hybrids.  Hybrids tend to produce less pollen and nectar than heirlooms.

3.  Plant a variety of plants that flower at different times.  Bees will need pollen and nectar during all of the growing season.  Be sure that at least one type of flower is blooming at all times in the spring, summer, and fall.  Don’t forget to plant flowers for the early spring and late fall.  If you have to, get out your calendar and write down the bloom time for each flower in your garden to make sure you have no gaps.

4.  Plant flowers of different colors.  Bees can easily discriminate color and are particularly fond of yellow, white, blue, and purple flowers.

5.  Plant flowers of different shapes.  There are thousands of different types of bees, varying in size, shape, and preference for flower shape.  The greater variety of plants you have, the greater of variety of bee you can attract.

Two Honeybees on Crimson Sunflower

Two Honeybees on Crimson Sunflower

Once you have selected your plants, you need to determine where to plant them.

6.  Bees like sunny places, so your garden should be located in a sunny area.  (Be sure you have checked the growing conditions required for the plant.  Not all plants like sun!)

7.  If possible, place plants of one type in clusters instead of mixing the different plants together.  If you have the space, plant clusters should be approximately four feet in diameter.

8.  Try to select a garden location that is free from wind.  Bees like to fly from flower to flower without being swept away by a breeze.  If you don’t have such a location, consider constructing something to protect from the wind, like a trellis or fence.

A few years ago we ran into a unique problem with the placement of plants.  We planted two scotch broom shrubs next to the Ponderosa.  In the late spring, these shrubs burst forth with small, lemon-yellow flowers.  The bees loved these shrubs!  Our placement of the shrubs, however, was unfortunate.  Cartwright, the main bullfrog at the time, would spend all of his day sitting underneath those two shrubs and just devour every bee that came by.  We are smarter now.  The majority of flowering plants in or near the pond have very long stems!  Problem solved.

Once your garden is established, the bees have their food source.  They will also need water and shelter.

Honeybee on Black-Eyed Susan Flower

Honeybee on Black-Eyed Susan Flower

9.   Be sure you have a water source in your garden.  It doesn’t have to be large.  At Dragonwyck Sanctuary, we have two ponds, one dog pool, and a birdbath.  Bees do not need this much water, however.  Birdbaths are a great water source for bees, but you can even just keep a pie plate with water in your garden.

10.  Many wild bees do not live in hives.  Instead they burrow into the ground.  So, if you mulch your garden, leave some space uncovered for the bees to live.  You can also leave a pile of dirt or sand nearby for this purpose.

Maintaining your bee-friendly garden.  Go organic!

11.   Avoid using pesticides in your garden.  Pesticides are designed to poison insects.  Bees are insects.  There are other options for pest control.  Try some of them!

12.  Do not use herbicides in your garden.  Herbicides are designed to poison plants.  Bees are very sensitive to poison.  Instead of herbicides, try using mulch to cut down on invasive weeds.  You can hand-weed any weeds that do get through the mulch.

Note:  Sometimes bees really enjoy some of the weeds that grow, such as dandelions.  You may consider keeping them, at least until the flowers are gone.  Just a suggestion!

Finally,

13.  Be careful with deadheading.  Don’t pull off those flower blooms until they are crunchy and hard.  Bees may still be enjoying the fruits of a withered flower, even if you aren’t.

If you follow these suggestions (or even some of these suggestions) you should find that your garden will be healthier and full of bees! Please let us know if you have any more bee-friendly tricks!

For Further Information

The 10 Best Plants for Bees

Join the hunt for Bees! The Great Sunflower Project.

References

Mader, E.  (2009, March, 23).  Conserving Pollinators:  A Primer for Gardeners.  Cornell University Cooperative Extension.  Retrieved August 7, 2009, from  http://www.extension.org/pages/Conserving_Pollinators:_A_Primer_for_Gardeners

Urban Bee Gardens: A Practical Guide to Introducing the World’s Most Prolific Pollinators Into Your Garden. University of Berkeley, Retrieved August 7, 2009, from http://www.cnr.berkeley.edu/urbanbeegardens/general_nativevexotic.html

USDA/Agricultural Research Service (2009, May 29). Honey Bee Colony Losses In U.S. Almost 30 Percent From All Causes From September 2008 To April 2009. ScienceDaily. Retrieved August 7, 2009, from http://www.sciencedaily.com /releases/2009/05/090522180642.htm

Bumblebee on Flowering Rush

Bumblebee on Pickerel Rush

Oh hey, y’all best be careful or I’m gonna sting you with my stinger.  Oh, no!  But then I’se gon’ die if I sting you.  You know what?  I’m not gonna sting y’all after all, and that’s my choice.  Y’all ain’t worth it.  I’m just gonna head on over to that flower and suck on that stamen like there’s no tomorrow.

Mayor Bee, Family Guy

Bee-witched.

Bees everywhere today–at least three different kinds.  There have been about 15-20 bumblebees congregating around the pickerel rush flowers at any given time this morning.  The flowers are high enough from the water that the bees are relatively safe from the frogs.  We haven’t even seen any attempts at bumblebee eats.  Some of a smaller type of bee, a honey bee, have been visiting the black-eyed susan flowers en masse.  We have also seen many very tiny bees, about the size of mosquitoes, hovering around all of the flower types.

Bothered.

We continue to be bothered by the mosquito fish (Gambusia affinis) .  Once we discovered their love for tadpoles, we tried to relocate them from the People Pond to the Ponderosa.  The Ponderosa already has many goldfish so tadpoles have little hope of surviving there anyway.  There are three other problems with mosquitofish.

  1. They are very quick, swimming to the the deepest section of the far side of the pond whenever they see us.
  2. They are very observant.  They see us as soon as we even begin to approach the pond.
  3. They are live bearers so there are constantly what seems like millions of fry in the pond.

We have managed to catch most of the really large ones, but those that remain (about 15) swim together in a school and are even more cautious than the others.  They continue to elude us, despite daily attempts with the big net.  Sometimes we go out at night with a flashlight and try to catch them.  That seemed to work for a while but then they got wise to us.

Bewildered.

The dragonfly larva we found in the pond.

The dragonfly larva we found in the pond.

This morning during one of our fishing attempts, instead of mosquitofish, we found something completely unexpected in our net.  (Picture right).  It was approximately two – three inches long and writhed around, very displeased at being disturbed.  After inspecting it, we decided that it bore a strong resemblance to the dragonflies that enjoy the pond.  We decided it must be a dragonfly larva. Later in the day we found another one.  Perhaps they are also contributing to the decline of the tadpoles.  We don’t want to relocate them, however.  Some of the goldfish are large enough to be dangerous to our young dragonfly friends.

A quick internet search yielded the following information about dragonflies.  Dragonflies are predatory from birth.  They live underwater in their larval stage, eating mosquito larvae, small fish, and yes–tadpoles.  Dragonfly larvae (i.e., nymphs) have a special appendage on their heads that they use as a spear to catch small fish.   (We didn’t notice this appendage, but it sounds quite frightening.) When they have matured to airborne insects, they catch mosquitoes and gnats in mid-air before devouring them.  Hats off to dragonflies!

Black-capped night heron waiting for pond access.

Black-crowned night heron waiting for pond access.

He’s baaaaack!

This morning, about 6:30 a.m., we crept outside to see if we could spy some very tiny frogs that we have been glimpsing as they dart away from us in a flash.  As we approached the Ponderosa, our friend the night heron flew into this tree.  He just sat there, staring down at us.  He was rather skittish during his last visit.  I am assuming he was waiting for us to leave so he could sample more of our wares.  After about ten minutes we waved our arms and chased him away.

We were able to get much closer to him this time.  I hadn’t appreciated the enormity of this bird until now.  He is huge!  It is hard to convey this in the photos.

I’m pretty sure that he arrived only when we were outside.  I didn’t see any evidence that he had been there earlier.  Last time all the fish were huddled at the far end of the pond.  Also, Tommy (one of our two large bullfrog residents of the People Pond) was sitting by the thalia plant, as he does most mornings at that time.  We didn’t see any other frogs, but that is pretty common for the early morning.

Meet Pete the Toad

July 26, 2009

Newly emerged toad hiding under the deck.

Newly emerged toad hiding under the deck.

“I’m not sure that’s Pete.”

“Of course it’s Pete.  Look at him!”

O Brother Where Art Thou

This is the little guy we found on Friday.  He is very tiny–he would easily fit on the surface of a dime.  We caught a glimpse of him zipping through the flowers.  At first we thought he was a grasshopper, but on closer inspection we realized he was a newly emerged toad.  A Fowler’s toad, perhaps?  He spent most of the evening in this little area underneath the deck, but we’ve not seen him there since that time so I don’t know if it is his home.

We’ve not had much luck with toads at Dragonwyck Sanctuary.  Two summers ago, our next door neighbor brought one over, thinking it was a frog that had “escaped” from the pond.  That one was, in fact, a Fowler’s toad.  We released him at the water’s edge.  Later that week, we heard a crazy sound coming from the back of the Ponderosa.  We were inside the house when we heard him. He was loud enough to easily hear over the sound of the air conditioner.  After some research we discovered it was our new toad calling.  Unfortunately, that was the last time we heard him.  He was making such a racket back there, I think he must have drawn the attention of a predator.  We have many raccoons and an opossum or two roaming about each night.   This was our one and only toad experience until now.

Our natural swimming pool--a work in progress.

Our natural swimming pool--a work in progress.

Great news!  We found the two frogs that were missing and feared eaten by the night heron.  The female frog was finally spotted in the Ponderosa (picture at very top of page), and the male apparently emigrated to the People Pond (picture directly above in post).  So frog count today=3 large bullfrogs, 2 medium bullfrogs, 2 small green frogs, and one froglet.

About the People Pond

One day last June, during our vacation-at-home, we woke to find slaughtered goldfish strewn about the yard.  It was a ghastly sight.  For some of them, all that remained were entrails.  For others, they were intact with either a bite out of them or worse–just a puncture.   Both our upper and lower deck were covered with little fish-oily raccoon footprints.  We found evidence of at least 30 goldfish bodies, including Pig–one of our original (and our favorite) goldfish.  It was heartbreaking.

This was the first time we had ever seen any sign that raccoons had been targeting the fish, but that morning it looked as if a grenade had been thrown into the Ponderosa.  After cleaning up the extensive mess, we sat by the Ponderosa–and yes, I’m going to say it–we pondered.  I don’t remember exactly how it came about, but at some point we were comparing the lovely Ponderosa with the hideous old aluminum above-ground pool that came with the house.  (They were located about 20 feet apart from one another.)  We had tried to hide it with bamboo, but once we added the upper deck, it was all too visible.  At that moment, we decided we could not tolerate that hideosity any longer.  We tore down that awful pool and replaced it with a natural swimming pool. We braved merciless mocking and teasing by our friends and co-workers, but we persevered.  One of the women at work, who had aways been interested in the Ponderosa, began calling it the People Pond.  The name stuck, and we haven’t changed it yet.

It was the first day of our week-long vacation, so we had planned to spend the rest of the week constructing the natural swimming pool  The removal of the old pool was by far the easiest step.  Then we had to dig out bamboo.  The rhizomes were like an extensive underground steel cable network.  It was a grueling task, but after three days working in 90-degree weather, we got it out.  (By the way, we have learned our lesson with bamboo–never again.)  Our big mistake with the pool construction was to to dig by hand and not rent a machine.  The digging ended up taking months, and then we had a driveway filled with dirt, much of which is still there.

We dug a hole the diameter and depth of the swimming pool.  We also added a very shallow area, about half the surface area of the swimming hole, for the biofilter.  Note the picture above:  biofilter is comprised of the water plants that you see.  The round area behind that (underneath the tall bamboo) is the swimming hole.

Once the hole was dug, we had to purchase a liner.  We wanted the thickest rubber available, but the size of the roll we needed weighed in excess of 1000 pounds, so we opted for the second thickest rubber (a mere 750 pounds). We had difficulty with delivery, because the delivery men weren’t able to get the roll of rubber off the truck due to the weight.  Luckily our neighbors took pity on us and helped us all load that roll of rubber onto the driveway.  Several days later, a group of friends came over to move the roll of rubber from the driveway to the edge of the pond hole.  Unfortunately, there were only two of us to actually lay that monstrosity in place.  It took hours of rolling and pulling and scrambling to get it situated.  The biofilter was not in place yet, but we decided to fill that large pond.  We left the hose on all evening, through the night, and by morning it was nearly full.  It also had one frog (from the Ponderosa) swimming all alone in his glory.

We discovered bamboo rhizomes shooting through the thick rubber liner shortly thereafter.  This was particularly troubling because it wasn’t even the big grow season for the bamboo.  We couldn’t imagine how bad it would get.  So we patched the holes in the liner then dug a trench around the entire pond and installed a PVC barrier.  This was not complete until the spring.

In the spring of this year, we were finally able to plant the plants for the biofilter.  We planted bogbean, marsh marigold, cardinal flower, pennywort, watercress, water lily, flowering rush, horsetail, variegated glyceria, pickerel rush, thalia, cat tails, and several oxygenating plants.  They are still young (as you can see from the picture above), but they are growing well.  The biofilter is working well also.  The water in the swimming area is crystal clear.  You can see down to the bottom (nearly 5 feet in the middle).  We went for our first swim two days ago, as the frogs looked on from the perimeter.  A success–clean, refreshing, and beautiful!

This is the big gaping dirt pit that was in the yard for months.

This is the big gaping dirt pit that was in the yard for months.

Two medium bullfrogs sit together at the edge of the pond.

Two medium bullfrogs sit together at the edge of the pond.

We are a bit concerned about the status of the frogs in the Ponderosa.  We have been consistently counting at least one large and two medium bullfrogs.  We also have one froglet.  Since the night heron appeared, we have only been able to spot one frog and the froglet.  We are hopeful that the others are hiding.  This is a picture of the two missing frogs.

Thankfully, there appears to be no change in the large pond.  The frog count there remains at two large bullfrogs and one, possibly two,  small green frogs.

The night heron had a good meal at Dragonwyck Sanctuary yesterday morning, so we are expecting that he may return.  We checked periodically throughout the night, but we didn’t see him.  We don’t have enough fish and frogs to sustain that big boy for long!

A Morning Surprise

July 12, 2009

Black-Crowned Night Heron

black-crowned night heron hunting for goldfish

This morning we awoke to find this guy hunting in the Ponderosa.  He had just caught a fish and flew up to a nearby tree branch.  We stayed inside watching from the window, and he stayed on his branch watching us.  He finally came back down and slowly made his way over to the edge of the pond.  Even though we knew he was hunting our fish, we couldn’t bring ourselves to chase him away.   He stood at the edge for a few minutes, motionless.  Then in two quick strides, he walked into the pond and plucked out our largest goldfish!  At that point we ran outside, hoping that we could startle him into dropping it.  He just flew off, screaming at us with the fish in his mouth.  He landed on the roof of the house across the street and watched us as he choked down the fish.

We were able to identify the bird as a black-crowned night heron.  Apparently, they prefer to hunt at night.  Hopefully he wasn’t hunting in the Ponderosa all night long!

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