Sunday, January 29, 2012

A Discovery!

A new nest
     I apologize for the somewhat lousy photos in this post, but I'm very excited to have found a bird's nest under construction!  My husband and I spotted this nest about 7 feet up in a young pine tree.  There are grasses in it that we believe are pampas grass fronds that have been drifting around our yard since we paid a friend to remove the clumps this fall, so we're pretty sure this really is new construction.  (Actually the friend left them pretty neatly stacked in the compost bin, but I made a mess -- I'm very good at messes -- trying to chop them up smaller so they will compost faster.)
     The nest is probably a robin's, which is not particularly unusual in our yard, but it's interesting and exciting for two reasons.  First, while I knew that winter residents like robins get a jump-start on nest building, I had no idea they would start to build this early in the year.  Second, this is the first definite nest we've had in our "habitat restoration" area.  I'm putting quotes around that because this is nothing official and really a quite small area on the grand scheme of things.  But this is an area where we are encouraging native loblolly pine trees and other native vegetation to provide a natural buffer between the cultivated and utilitarian parts of our yard and a swath of tidal marsh at the back of our property.  We lost a few very large trees to storms in the first few years after we moved in and decided to plant more trees.  
Roots of a 70 foot oak felled in a Nor'Easter in 2006
We planted a lot of bare root trees from the National Arbor Day Foundation but had a lot more success when we realized that seedling pines were appearing everywhere in the new sunny gaps.  We just stopped mowing and ended up with a mini pine nursery. 
A place to sit at the end of the path
     The trees are about 10 feet tall now and the only maintenance we do is mow the main path, occasionally trim or cut some of the pines and shrubs closest to both paths (there's a wide grassy one and a narrower leaf-litter covered one), and work on keeping the invasive plants out, including sweet autumn clematis which blankets our neighbor's backyard, and Phragmites australis.  
Sunlight shining through the autumn leaves and Phragmites seedheads
     The phrag is a scourge of almost every wetland and the strip at the edge of "our" marsh has probably been there for hundreds of years (my city of Hampton, VA, bills itself as the oldest continually inhabited English-speaking community in the U.S.).  It's almost certainly not going to be eradicated anytime soon, but encouraging trees in the adjacent area has the happy consequence of limiting its spread in that direction, since Phragmites does not do as well in shade.  The pampas grass was probably not terribly invasive, but it didn't sit well in this natural habitat and I never liked it.  I don't have the lower back strength to dig out such a behemoth, though, so it was great that our friend agreed to it (thanks, Mike!) 

Wax myrtles, favorite of Yellow-rumped warblers and kinglets
    The wooded space is very green.  The dominant plants are loblolly pine and wax myrtle.  There really are not very many flowers here so many people would probably not consider it a garden.  The only blooms are some high tide bush and goldenrod in the fall and a pretty native pink mallow right around my birthday.  Even if I were not determined to keep only native plants in this area, it would be a real challenge to garden here in the traditional way since we have salt flooding seemingly every couple years now.  But this space holds its own charms for me.  It's green and pleasant all year round.  In winter, the taller oaks and sweet gums have lost their leaves so the sun shines in on the green world.  It's so sheltered that it's often pleasant enough in the middle of the day to sit back there and eat lunch even in winter.  In summer, in contrast, it is much shadier and cooler than the adjacent areas.
White-throated sparrow
    Best of all, it really does attract wildlife, including some that is quite unusual for a suburban backyard.  The first time I saw a wood nymph butterfly I considered that we had achieved a real woodland.  Better still, we have even seen a woodcock and an ovenbird (both only briefly during migration).  I even had a brief glimpse of a fox trotting across the path once.