Birds and Blooms Blog

Get the latest birding and gardening tips from our expert bloggers.

Finding Warblers in Costa Rica

Rob Ripma

When many people think of warblers, they only think about the species that migrate through the US as well as those that breed here. What they are forgetting are the many amazing species that don’t quite make it this far north. While traveling in Costa Rica over the last few weeks, I encountered several incredible warbler species that either rarely or never occur in the United State.. A few of the more tropical species that I saw, such as Tropical Parula, Golden-crowned Warbler, and Rufous-capped Warbler are seen in the US from time to time are quite rare. I’ve seen both Tropical Parula and Golden-crowned Warbler in the Rio Grande Valley but it was really fun to see them in their more usual habitats.

I took this photo of a Tropical Parula in the Rio Grande Valley but also saw many of them while in Costa Rica.

I took this photo of a Tropical Parula in the Rio Grande Valley but also saw many of them while in Costa Rica.

In addition to those species, I found several warblers that were new birds for my life list and are not found in the US! My favorite new warbler was Collared Redstart. This species is extremely friendly and hangs around people that in Spanish the bird is called “amigo del hombre” which means “friend of man”. Some of the individuals were so used to people that they would come inside the bar at Savegre Mountain Lodge when the door was open and catch insects that were inside!

The Collared Redstarts were extremely cooperative for photos at Savegre Mountain Lodge!

The Collared Redstarts were extremely cooperative for photos at Savegre Mountain Lodge!

Other warblers that were new for my list were, Flame-throated Warbler, Olive-crowned Yellowthroat, Black-cheeked Warbler, Buff-rumped Warbler, and Slate-throated Redstart.

Big Eyes in the Butterfly Garden

Jill Staake

“My, what big eyes you have!” I say this nearly every time I encounter a Spicebush Swallowtail (Papilio troilus) caterpillar, like the ones shown below. Those aren’t eyes, though – that’s just what the caterpillar wants me to think. Instead, they’re a clever form of defense known as “eyespots”, and many caterpillars, butterflies, and moths use them.

Eyespots in the Butterfly Garden

Jill Staake Spicebush Swallowtail (Papilio troilus) caterpillars use eyespots for defense in the butterfly garden.

Eyespots are pigmented areas on an organism’s body designed to look like big eyes, in an attempt to fool predators into thinking a creature is much larger than it really is (Spicebush Swallowtail caterpillars are sometimes known as “snake caterpillars”). The actual eyes of those Spicebush Swallowtail caterpillars are about the size of a pinpoint, and are located lower down on the head, closer to the mouth. The eyespots are much bigger, and when the caterpillars are on a leaf of the same green shade as their bodies, the eyespots are the first thing a predator will see. With any luck, it will cause them to back off and seek a meal elsewhere.

Eyespots in the Butterfly Garden

Common Buckeye (Junonia coenia) butterflies are only a couple of inches across, but their eyespots can make them look much bigger to predators.

Adult caterpillars and moths use eyespots too, but they display them on their wings instead. Large eyespots can fool a predator into thinking they’ve disturbed a bird as large as an owl, rather than a small a relatively defenseless butterfly. Even if they don’t avoid the butterfly or moth entirely, the predator may be fooled into attacking a wing instead of the body, injuring the insect but still leaving it able to fly away and live another day.

Eyespots in the Butterfly Garden

An up-close look at the eyespot of a Polyphemus Moth (Antheraea polyphemus).

Have you ever spotted any “big eyes” in your butterfly garden? Tell us about it in the comments below!

Drought Tolerant Garden: 10 Ways to Save Water

sprinklers

Water is vital to a garden.  However, areas throughout the entire United States has been affected at one time or another with periods of drought.

Wouldn’t it be nice if your garden could weather dry periods with little impact to your plants?  It isn’t just possible, it is part of a movement toward more sustainable gardening, which includes strategies for conserving water while still having a beautiful, drought tolerant garden.

As a native Californian who now lives and gardens in the desert Southwest, periods of drought are not unknown and I have learned some helpful tips that have allowed me to enjoy a beautiful garden by following these helpful hints:

1. Water in the early morning.  Believe it or not, the time of day you water can make a difference in conserving water.  By watering in the cooler period of morning, there is less evaporation occurring.  Avoid watering in the afternoon, when much of the water can be lost to evaporation.  It is also wise to avoid watering in the evening when the moisture can foster fungal diseases.

mulch

2. Mulch around your plants.  Once you water plants, water begins to immediately evaporate from the soil’s surface.  By adding a layer of mulch, you help to limit the amount of water lost to the atmosphere.  In addition, mulching helps to keep the soil moister longer while keeping soil temperatures down in summer and warmer in winter.  Organic mulch such as shredded bark, leaf mulch and pine needles also adds nutrients to the soil over time.

3.  Use native plants when possible.  Wouldn’t it be nice to have a garden filled with plants that needed little to no supplemental water?  Native plants are specially adapted to survive on natural rainfall amounts.  In times of drought, they may need some supplemental water, but not as much as those that are not adapted to your local climate.  Another bonus is that native plants are generally more pest resistant, need little to no fertilizer and are lower-maintenance then those that aren’t native.  If you decide to plant some non-natives in your landscape, be sure that they are well-adapted to your climate without needing excess amounts of water.

For a list of native plants for your area, click here.

A bed of drought tolerant aloe vera.

A bed of succulent, drought tolerant aloe vera.

4. Group plants with similar watering requirements together.  A drought tolerant garden will have higher water use plants grouped together toward the house where they can be watered easily.  Toward the outer areas of the landscape, more drought tolerant plants are planted next to each other.  For a list of drought tolerant plants, check out “40+ Drought Resistant Flowers and Plants”.

5. Use compost when adding new plants.  In the planting hole, mix 1 part compost to 1 part native soil.  The compost will help the soil to hold onto water for a longer length of time while not allowing it to become waterlogged.  Compost also adds nutrients to the soil.

Making your own compost is easy to do or you can purchase it at your local nursery.  Here is a great resource to get you started, “DIY Compost Bin”.

6. Allow grass to grow longer.  By letting your grass grow to a height of 3 inches, it will shade the roots thereby decreasing the amount of evaporation.  In addition, a higher mowing height will also help keep weeds from growing.

perennials

7. Decrease the amount of grass in your landscape.  A lawn uses a large amount of water – an average of 55 inches a year.  Beds filled with perennials will use much less water and provide a welcome spot of color in the landscape.  If you opt to take out your entire lawn, there are countless ways to create a beautiful garden that needs little to no supplemental water.  I recommend the book, “Lawn Gone” by Pam Penick, which is filled with landscapes that will inspire you along with guidelines on how to get rid of your lawn.

8. Use porous materials in your landscape such as gravel or sand-set step stones instead of concrete.  Rain water is able to seep through these porous materials, thereby watering nearby plants.

Drip irrigation

Drip irrigation

9. Install a ‘smart’ irrigation controller and/or drip irrigation system for plants that require supplemental water.  Wouldn’t it be nice if your landscape received supplemental water only when it needed it?  ’Smart’ irrigation controllers uses real time weather data and only waters your plants only when they need it, which can save 30 – 70% of water used for supplemental watering.  The Irrigation Association has more information about smart controllers and where to purchase one for your garden, which you can find here.

In addition to a ‘smart’ irrigation controller, a drip system is the most efficient way to get water to the root zone of plants right where they need it without wasting water.  Small drips of water permeate the soil without any water lost to runoff.  This is also the best way to water plants deeply, which is best for plant growth.  The roots of plants that have been watered deeply grow down deep into the soil where it is moister and cooler.  Hand-watering can be inefficient because water can runoff before it can penetrate the soil deeply.  If you don’t have a drip-irrigation system, you can water individual plants via drip by creating your own drip irrigation system using an empty milk jug.

10. Harvest rainwater.  When rain does fall, it is important to harvest and direct it toward our garden instead of allowing it to runoff.  There are a variety of ways to harvest rainwater including creating rain gardens and using cisterns or rain barrels.  On Friday, we will look at different methods for harvesting rainwater for our gardens.

Question: How do you save water in the garden?

Bird Photography at Nature Pavilion in Costa Rica

Rob Ripma

This morning, I visited a property in Costa Rica called Nature Pavilion. It’s extremely well known as a bird photography spot but many birders just pass it by. It’s really unfortunate because it’s an amazing place for both photography and birding. We arrived early this morning and got to work shooting some great images!

After a while, I decided I needed to see what other birds might be around so I hit the trails. It didn’t take long before I came across some incredible species, Green Ibis and Gray-necked Wood-Rail. Just before lunch, we tool another hike across the creek to a small island. We found some awesome birds including this Laughing Falcon!

This Laughing Falcon was trying to get some type of prey item out of this tree. It didn't succeed and we never did see what it was after.

This Laughing Falcon was trying to get some type of prey item out of this tree. It didn’t succeed and we never did see what it was after.

We spent the afternoon watching birds from the Nature Pavilion’s beautiful observation decks and taking many more photos. Towards the end of the day, Activity really picked up with many hummingbirds zipping between the feeders and a number of birds actively feeding the surrounding trees. My biggest highlight of the day was seeing both a Snowy Cotinga and a Long-tailed Tyrant from the observation deck late in the afternoon!

Here are a few other photos that I took today!

Green Honeycreepers are really beautiful birds! They were very common at the feeders at Nature Pavilion.

Green Honeycreepers are really beautiful birds! They were very common at the feeders at Nature Pavilion.

The hummingbird feeders were quite active! This White-necked Jacobin was quite cooperative.

The hummingbird feeders were quite active! This White-necked Jacobin was quite cooperative.

Twine-Wrapped Bottle DIY Bird Feeder

Jill Staake

Not long ago, I bought a cool little gadget that allows you to turn a plastic soda bottle into a DIY bird feeder, with the intention of doing this project with my nephews when I visit them next month. In the meantime, though, I discovered that this adapter can also be used on glass bottles, and decided to try a project for myself instead! This DIY bird feeder is made by wrapping twine around a glass bottle, held in place with double-stick tape. Here’s how I did it.

Twine Wrapped DIY Bottle Feeder

Twine-Wrapped Bottle DIY Bird Feeder Supplies

  • Soda Bottle Feeder adapter (shown below)
  • Glass bottle (be sure your bottle fits the adapter)
  • Jute twine (I got 3 rolls for $1 at the dollar store) in color(s) of your choice
  • Double-stick tape
  • Metal corner bracket (found at your local hardware store)
  • Superglue, scissors

Twine Wrapped Bottle DIY Bird Feeder

Twine-Wrapped Bottle DIY Bird Feeder Directions

  • Wrap a few inches of the bottle with double-stick tape. I found it easiest to work one section at a time, rather than wrapping the whole bottle at once. I used a very wide double-stick tape to make the process a little faster.

Twine Wrapped Bottle DIY Bird Feeder

  • Begin wrapping twine. Tuck the end underneath the first few rows as you work for a neater appearance. Keep each row of twine very close to the next, pushing it firmly into place as you go.

Twine Wrapped Bottle DIY Bird Feeder

  • Continue wrapping. Change colors as desired, wrapping the end of the old color beneath the new color as you work.
  • Twine Wrapped Bottle DIY Bird FeederWrap until you’ve covered as much of the bottle as desired. Be sure to cover all visible tape. Use a dot of superglue to hold the final bit of twine in place.
  • Glue the metal bracket to the bottom of the bottle and add twine to hang. (See this project for more info.)
  • Fill your DIY bird feeder, add the bottom feeder piece, and hang!

One note: I haven’t tried this feeder out in very rainy conditions yet – I wouldn’t be surprised to find that it doesn’t hold up to intense rain very well. Still, it was fun to create, and cost only a few dollars. It will be great for the drier winter months here in Florida, and I can always bring it in if it we have lots of wet weather in the forecast.

Looking for more DIY bird feeder ideas? Check out the Birds & Blooms Backyard Projects pages!

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