Monday, February 13, 2012

Save the slugs! (Macro Monday)

     This toy turtle is about an inch long, so he's my Macro Monday entree.  Amble on over to Lisa's Chaos to see the other Macro Monday posts.  Yesterday, this little guy winked his little eye at me and said, "don't follow every bit of advice you read."
     In better weather, I often have real turtles visit my garden.  The visitors have included two kinds of turtles.  About once a year in the summer we have an Eastern mud turtle come up from the brackish marsh to dig a hole in the backyard for eggs.  I haven't been lucky enough to see the babies emerging but I just leave the site alone for a few months and hope that all goes well.  More often it is box turtles that visit my yard.  Box turtles' coloring is very variable and I know we have had many many different individuals over the years.  I thought about trying to photograph them to see if I could recognize individuals from year to year, but for the most part they don't stick around and wait for me to get my camera.  I got lucky with Rocky, below.  If I see him again, I hope I will know him by the "M" on the peak of his back.  
     Once while weeding in November, I accidently uncovered this baby box turtle.  I wasn't sure if he was emerging from the nest or digging in to hibernate.  Not knowing if he was coming up or going down, so to speak, I put him back and covered him lightly with duff and leaf litter.  Hopefully he fared well.
     One year when we had a very dry summer, the drought ended with a brief summer downpour.  I took a walk out in the backyard as the rain started to let up and encountered eleven different box turtles, from tiny babies like this one to adults, both male and female.  Considering that this is only a slightly larger than normal suburban lot, I was amazed.
     Usually when I see box turtles in the yard, I happen upon them suddenly, and we startle each other.  The turtle usually pulls its head in its shell and I must be very patient indeed to see it relax again.   If I'm lucky, I'll spot the turtle ambling along when I am sitting relatively still, usually weeding, and I'll be able to observe it without disturbing it.  My encounter with Rocky, pictured above, started like that, but Rocky was quite bold, or else completely oblivious.  He ended up walking directly over my shoe, scrambling up and over like I was a stone or other minor obstacle not to be fussed over, and I was charmed.
     There are lots of books on gardening for birds and butterflies, but not much information about attracting turtles.  Once I saw a box turtle in my yard eating the mock strawberries that naturalize in my lawn and everywhere else.  These aren't edible to people - or rather I should say they aren't palatable.  I've tasted them and am none the worse, but would not eat them any sooner than I'd chew on styrofoam, which is a similar experience.  Now I call them turtleberries and don't weed them quite so aggressively as I once did.  However, berries are a relatively small part of a box turtle's otherwise carnivorous diet.  They much prefer sow bugs, beetles and slugs.  So to attract turtles, should I plant hostas?
     These beautiful hostas (and a blue hydrangea) are in the Norfolk Botanical Garden.  I once had hostas, but they turned into deer.  Actually, they probably were gobbled by both slugs and deer, because I have both.  I don't bother with hostas anymore, but near other plants where I've noticed particularly thick slug populations, I've had good luck trapping them with cheap beer.  At least they die happy.  The slugs seem to be perfectly content with beers I'm not attracted to at all.  A study - yes, an actual scholarly article - by Whitney Cranshaw in 1997 showed that garden slugs prefer Michelob and Budweiser to other American beers, but the best results were with a near-beer product, Kingsbury Malt Beverage.
     An item in the April 2012 issue of Fine Gardening (it comes in the mail bizarrely early) gives a tip for completely eliminating slugs from your yard.  The very thought appalls me.  I'm not a fan of slugs and drown them in Bud as discussed to decrease the pressure on particular plantings.  I have my doubts it could really be possible to completely eliminate slugs anyway, but I'm quite sure I wouldn't want to.  My first instinct is to flinch away from such power.  Massacre the entire population?  Surely there would be unintended consequences.  Mother Nature seems to have a way of making a mountain out of a molehill and I like to use a relatively light-handed approach.  I will leave most of my slugs for my turtle population to deal with.  
     And turtles are not the only slug predators that enchant me in my garden.  There is another species, for whom slugs form a large portion of the diet for the young.  On summer nights when I go to bed, I look out into the yard and see the twinkling of fireflies.  When the fireflies were young larvae, they ate a lot of slugs.  Firefly populations are dropping.  I'm not proposing that this is primarily due to slug bait.  Instead habitat loss and light pollution are believed to be the biggest factors.  Light pollution, because as this site explains, fireflies speak the "language of light" while they are speaking the language of love.  When there is too much light at night, the fireflies' messages get drowned out and fewer young fireflies are born.   This makes me want to make doubly sure all my outdoor lights are turned off at night.  And I think I will go easy on my slugs.