Lake Merritt Winter Bird Walk

George and I often spend Christmas afternoon strolling through the wonderful gardens at the Lake Merritt Garden Center in Oakland. We were very disappointed this year to find the fences locked, but consoled ourselves by walking over to the Lake Merritt Bird Sanctuary instead.

Great Egret at Lake Merritt

In 1870 the Sanctuary was designated as the country’s first official wildlife refuge, and in 1963 it became a National Historic Landmark. It’s really exciting to see so many different kinds of birds in one location. The birds that hang out at a fenced-in man-made pond near the walkway are used to people, so you can get much closer than in the wild. An adult Black-crowned Night Heron let me get a closeup of his beautiful profile:

Black-crowned night heron

Other herons perched in the trees.

Black-crowned night heron

Excitement was seeing White Pelicans at the Lake for the first time!

Pelican

This pair swam and fished together in the small pond.

Pelicans in Lake Merritt

Western Gulls feasted on clams.

Western Gull

Man-made Duck Islands provide shelter and plenty of tree branches for birds’ nests.

Lake Merritt

A string of Canada geese skidded into the Lake.

Lake Merritt Canada Geese

How about you – any exciting winter bird sightings to report?

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Artist Talks at the ArtFirst! Holiday Show

Come to our artists’ talks this week at the ArtFirst! Holiday Art Show. I introduced you to daydreaming artist kayla garelick in this post.  Many people wonder how kayla achieves such amazing abstract effects with her photographs.

kayla garelick crystal photograph

Here’s your chance to find out! kayla will present a one hour hands-on demonstration and talk on “Through a lens darkly; an artist’s view of photography.” Start times are 3 pm and 5 pm on both Wednesday & Thursday November 28 & 29. See through kayla’s amazing lenses and into the depths of a tiny crystal. kayla writes: “Some spiritualists say you can see your soul when you gaze into the depths of a natural crystal! Perhaps you’ll see your destiny, find your soulmate, or encounter past lives. Or perhaps not, but you will see the beginning of my creative process!”

kayla garelick crystal photograph

On Friday November 30th from 4 pm to 5 pm, I’ll speak about selling artwork and crafts online. I’ll share tips and answer your questions about the various venues available to sell online, engaging in social media to promote your arts and crafts, and more.
Etsy home page
And on Sunday December 2nd, starting at 1 pm and running throughout the day, you can watch my slideshow “Gardening For Wildlife”, which is a collection of my original nature photographs of local butterflies, birds and other wildlife, and gives examples of the different kinds of plants you can use to attract and nurture them.
Pipevine swallowtail on pipevine plant
Join us at the Village Shops & Galleries, 10330 San Pablo Ave., El Cerrito, between Stockton and Eureka Streets. The ArtFirst! Holiday Show and Sale will run from Wednesday Nov. 28 through Sunday December 2nd, from noon to 6 pm. The Gallery is wheelchair accessible, and there is plenty of free parking. It is about a half mile from the El Cerrito Plaza BART station.

The Four Elements of Habitat

George and I took our “pup and pony show” to the El Cerrito Garden Club today.  He spoke, and we showed my photos on the topic of maintaining a garden to attract and nurture butterflies.

George speaking about Gardening for ButterfliesWe prepared some handouts and I want to share some of the information with you, so here is George’s explanation of the elements that you need to provide habitat for wildlife.

The four critical elements are: food; water; shelter; and places to raise young. All four elements are intertwined and necessary for wild life. No one element stands alone, and without all four successes at providing for wildlife suffers.

1) Food: All wildlife enhancements absolutely require this. Animals of all species will avoid areas unless they can be guaranteed a reliable food source. A balanced ecosystem needs to sustain everything from plants for larval insects to seeds and prey species, etc.

Anise swallowtail butterfly caterpillar eating fennel

Anise swallowtail butterfly caterpillar eating fennel

2) Water : The second partner in the pas-de-deux of life. Many animals need water to even feed, or to provide the food they need.

3) Shelter : The greatest variety of wildlife occurs at the interface of distinct habitat types. Example: an open field adjacent to a wooded area. Birds can feed in the field while having the woods to escape if necessary. And there needs to be shelter for them for waiting out inclement weather, or for night-time. Brush, trees of all types and heights, brush piles, high grasses, rock walls, and deep leaf litter and undisturbed forest “duff” all provide shelter and for the last item below:

4) Places to raise young : Success at proving habitat comes in a reward: succeeding generations of young! Tadpoles, baby birds, spawning fish, a skunk and her kits, emerging butterflies ovipositing and the emergent adults from cocoons or chrysalides is the perfect indicator of habitat success.

Monarch butterfly chrysalis

Monarch butterfly chrysalis

As for shelter, again provide brush, trees of all types and heights, brush piles, high grasses, rock walls, and deep leaf litter and undisturbed forest “duff”’, and gravel beds for many anadromous species of fish.

Notes: it is essential that the above provisions are consistent, removal of one or many of the elements will cause unnecessary suffering and waste of valuable energy for animals. Make all changes to the environment gradual and incremental. Many animals will flee a changed ecosystem and not come back.

ABSOLUTELY REFRAIN FROM USING HERBICIDES AND PESTICIDES. They have no part in habitat preservation. Most long-term effects are unknown and the current load already in the environment is doing irreparable harm.

Thanks, George, for this concise explanation. Dear reader, are you gardening for wildlife – butterflies, bees, birds, and other critters? What are you doing in your garden to provide the four elements of habitat?

More Hummingbird Happiness

If you saw my recent blog post, Hummingbird Happiness, you know what my favorite bird is. I’ve been sitting for hours in our garden this past week, waiting for the hummers to dive down from their tree-perches to get nectar from our flowers. One flitted around the stand of agapanthus flowers.

Hummingbird at agapanthus flower

Hummingbird at agapanthus flower

Another preferred the buddleia (butterfly bush).

Hummingbird at buddleia

Hummingbird at buddleia

Someone just asked me how to get photos of hummingbirds, since they move so quickly. It’s definitely a challenge to get clear, in-focus photos of them. A lot of it is patience, waiting for them to come to a spot where you can get a clear shot. And focusing can be near-impossible, especially when they’re hovering. One trick is to pre-focus on something stationary where you anticipate they will be, then take the shot when they enter that area.

Hummingbird at buddleia

Hummingbird at buddleia

And of course, the first step to getting great photos of hummingbirds and other birds and critters is to plant lots of flowers and other sources of nectar and food for them.

Monarch eggs in the garden!

Well, guess what? George was right that she was a female – she left us some precious gifts. Yesterday I noticed many tiny yellow eggs sprinkled on our milkweed plants. Here’s an extreme closeup of one, it’s about the size of the head of a pin!
Isn’t it amazing how she tucked it up under the cap of the bud of the unopened milkweed flower? Most of the eggs that we spotted are on the Asclepias cancellata “Wild Cotton,” which we got at Annie’s Annuals & Perennials.  You can read about this beautiful milkweed plant on Annie’s website. Here’s another extreme closeup:
You can see the oval shape and tiny lines (which my poor eyes can’t even see without blowing up my photos).  This side view really shows the oval shape:
 I think this one is getting ready to emerge from the egg – the black speck appears to be the tiny larvae (caterpillar) breaking through:
Click here to see an incredible time lapse video on Youtube of a monarch caterpillar breaking out of its egg.  Pulling back a little, you can see this one tucked among the unopened flower buds:
Finally, I really hate to post an out-of-focus photograph, but I took this one last night when we first found them, and the light was fading and I had no time to set up my tripod (excuses, excuses), so sorry for the fuzziness, but it shows you the size of the egg in scale with George’s finger.
I mentioned in my prior blog post that we have hardly seen any monarchs in our garden for a couple of years. I checked, and it was Spring 2009 when we last had the good luck to find monarch eggs on our milkweed. We raised and released them, and I photographed the entire process. You can see those photos by clicking here.  The mortality rate of butterflies left outside is quite high, due to predators, weather factors and other causes, so raising them indoors greatly increases the chance that they will survive. We’re honored that this monarch trusted us with her eggs, and we will guard and nurture them until they emerge, then let them go to continue the cycle!

Monarch in the garden

A good day –a monarch butterfly is flitting around our garden! Here she is perched on the leaves of the peach tree.
Monarch butterfly perched on a peach tree
It has been a couple of years since George watched a monarch lay eggs on the milkweed in our backyard. We brought some of the eggs inside to raise in safety.  Click here to see the photos I took of the whole process, from the tiny eggs, to the caterpillars, to the chrysalises, and finally to the butterflies which emerged (and which we released.)
But despite all of the milkweed George has planted to attract them, we’ve hardly seen any monarchs in the garden since that special year.  So imagine my delight when I saw this one — she (George got close enough to identify her as female) was sunning on the angel’s trumpet, and she also seemed to like the fennel plant and the dogwood tree, as well as the milkweed.   Here she is on the dried seed pods of the fennel, which is one of the anise swallowtail butterfly’s larval food sources.
She spent quite a bit of time on the milkweed, and I’m hoping she left some eggs.
I love this milkweed, it’s Asclepias physocarpa. Bees like it too – can you see the honeybee a bit to the left of the butterfly? Physocarpa is also known as “Family Jewels” because the seed pods look like … well, here’s a photo I took yesterday of one of the dried seed pods, see for yourself.
Here’s a closeup of the butterfly on the milkweed, you can see her poor tattered wing.
Did you know that one of the monarch butterfly’s protective characteristics is to poison its predators? In the larval stage it eats milkweed leaves to incorporate the milkweed toxins into its body. Perhaps a bird realized after getting a bite that it didn’t want to keep eating.

George’s winning Dracula orchid

I’m so proud of my orchid whisperer husband! George just won an Award of Merit (80 points) for this amazing orchid from the American Orchid Society at the San Francisco Orchid Society meeting.

Dracula amaliae 'Hestia'

It’s a Dracula amaliea ‘Hestia’.  This is a shot of just three of the blooms, the incredible plant has blooms nearly all the way around, I counted ten, and I’m sure there are some still hiding in the thick foliage! This same plant won a slightly lower award in 2009 – a Highly Commended Certificate, with a score of 78 points.  Click here to see the 2009 official AOS judging record and photographs.  I love the description they give: “Two flowers and two buds on four inflorescences; sepals cream overlaid maroon on reverse appearing tan interiorly, heavily tomentose with tan-tipped glandular hairs; petals minute; caudae maroon, well presented; substance firm; texture felt-like.”

Dracula amaliae 'Hestia'

This is a photo I took of the entire plant in 2009.  The Dracula likes partial shade and cool to cold conditions, perfect for the weather we’ve been having.  And click here to see another of George’s award-winning Dracula orchids, a Dracula diabola ‘Andina’ which won an HCC (79 points) in 2010.