Birds and Blooms Blog

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Birding Basics: Recognizing Variation within Species

Rob Ripma

One of the birding basics that I have seen people struggle many times is identifying a bird that looks slightly different than a species they are familiar with from their backyard due to the species’ varying appearance in another part of the United States. There are many species that this can happen with, including Red-tailed Hawks and Savannah and Song Sparrows, but one of the most common species that causes this challenge is the Dark-eyed Junco. Birds that used to be considered separate species have been lumped together into the single species known as Dark-eyed Junco.  There are multiple subspecies, some of which look quite different from each other.

If you are in the Eastern United States, you are likely familiar with the subspecies of Dark-eyed Junco known as the Slate-colored Junco. Many people refer to this subspecies as the snowbird, as it is seen in most of the Eastern US only during the winter months.

The Slate-colored Dark-eyed Junco is the most common subspecies in the Eastern United States.

The Slate-colored Dark-eyed Junco is the most common subspecies in the Eastern United States.

As you head west, Dark-eyed Juncos get much more interesting! Although it only breeds along the West Coast and up into southern Canada, during the winter months, Oregon Junco is quite common throughout the Western United States. In addition to being regularly seen in the West, it’s also the most likely subspecies other than Slate-colored to show up at bird feeders in the East and cause confusion for birders.

As you head west, especially during the winter months, Oregon Junco becomes quite common.

As you head west, especially during the winter months, Oregon Junco becomes quite common. This individual was photographed at a feeder in Central Indiana. (Thanks to Eric Ripma for the photo)

Depending on where you are out west, other subspecies that can be seen include White-winged, Pink-sided, Gray-headed, and Red-backed. Also, if you are in Southeast Arizona or Southwest New Mexico, keep an eye out for a junco with yellow eyes. This is not a subspecies but instead a whole different species, Yellow-eyed Junco.

I photographed this Pink-sided Junco in Colorado.

I photographed this Pink-sided Junco in Colorado.

You can immediately separate this from all of the Dark-eyed Juncos by its bright yellow eye.

You can immediately separate this from all of the Dark-eyed Juncos by its bright yellow eye.

Cookie Cutter Butterfly Pumpkins

Jill Staake

We love to decorate the butterfly garden and free-flight exhibit where I work for fall. Pumpkins are popular with both human guests and butterfly residents – some butterfly species love to drink the juice from the carved pumpkins. We usually include some surface-carved pumpkins, but this year I also tried creating some butterfly pumpkins using a set of cookie cutters in realistic butterfly shapes, and I love how they turned out!

Cookie Cutter Butterfly Pumpkins

Want to create these butterfly pumpkins too? It’s no harder than carving a traditional pumpkin, but you’ll need a set of metal butterfly cookie cutters (I used this set of 7 by R&M) and a rubber mallet. I used smaller “pie pumpkins” to create this small collection. Hollow out each pumpkin as you would for traditional carving. Then, center a cookie cutter on one side and gently tap with the rubber mallet until the cookie cutter goes all the way through the flesh. Start in the center and work side-to-side to avoid bending the metal. Remove the cut pumpkin along with the cutter, and clean up the edges with a sharp paring knife. Display and light any way you like.

Cookie Cutter Butterfly Pumpkins

It would be fun to line your path to welcome trick-or-treaters this Halloween, or display these butterfly pumpkins on your porch railing or front-facing windows. Looking for more nature-inspired carving ideas? Try our easy stencils by clicking here!

Drought Tolerant Agave Make Great Container Plants

Queen Victoria Agave 'Compacta' (Agave victoria-reginae 'Compacta') growing in a container.

Queen Victoria Agave ‘Compacta’ (Agave victoria-reginae ‘Compacta’) growing in a container.

Have you ever seen agave growing in the landscape?  Often referred to as ‘century plants’, these iconic succulents flower once in their lifetime before they die, which can take 7 – 50 years depending on the species.  Agave are known equally for their beauty in the landscape as well as for the tequila and agave nectar that are made from certain species.  Today, we will leave the subject of alcoholic beverages and sweetener aside and concentrate on how to use these drought tolerant succulents in containers.

Chances are that if you live in the northern half of the US, seeing agave planted in landscapes may be a rare sight, where cold winter temperatures would kill them.  However, gardeners who live throughout the Southwest and even southern areas such as Florida are fortunate enough to be able to grow one or more of the over 200 species of agave in their landscapes.

The gray/blue leaves of Agave parryi 'truncata' contrast with the maroon spines in the author's garden.

The gray/blue leaves of Agave parryi ‘truncata’ contrast with the maroon spines in the author’s garden.

If you are one of those northern residents who would love to grow agave in your garden, then I have good news for you – you can.  In fact, agave can be grown in all climates – even ones with cold winters, as long as they are brought indoors during winter.  Now does that mean that you have to plant and dig up your agave every year when freezing temperatures are on their way?  No.  By growing them in pots, you can move them indoors when cold winter temperatures arrive.

agave in container

No matter what climate you live in, agave make great container plants – particularly small to medium species such as black-spined agave (Agave macroacantha), Victoria agave (Agave victoria-reginae), Agave colorata, Agave schidigera and my favorite – Agave parryi ‘truncata.

Agave are truly ‘fuss-free’ container plants that thrive with sporadic watering and can handle a variety of exposures including full sun to filtered shade, depending on the species.  In zones 8 and above, most agave can be grown outdoors in the ground or in containers all year long (there are some exceptions, so research the cold hardiness of your species ahead of time).  However, for those who live in colder climates, most agave species will not survive cold winter temperatures, so growing them in containers where they can be brought inside is essential.

Agave medio-picta growing in a container in Madison, Wisconsin.

Agave medio-picta growing in a container in Madison, Wisconsin.

While agave are easy to grow, they do have some specific requirements when grown in containers:

1. Use a fast draining planting mix specially formulated for succulents.  Agave do not like wet feet and soggy soil can kill them.

2. Water when the top inch of soil is completely dry.  In hot, arid climates – water once a week in summer and in other climates, water once every 2 – 3 weeks in the absence or rainfall is usually sufficient.  In spring and fall, watering every 3 – 4 weeks is usually enough.  Agave seldom need water in winter, but you can lightly water them once a month.

3. Like most container plants, agave need to be fertilized.  In late spring and summer, add an all-purpose (20-20-20), liquid fertilizer at half strength, once a month.  In desert climates – add fertilizer in spring and fall and skip fertilizing in the summer.  Agave need no fertilizer in winter.

4. Agave need plenty of sun, especially when grown indoors, so place your agave container next to a west or south-facing window where they will get plenty of sunlight.

The curly white filaments of Agave schidigera adds to its beauty.

The curly white filaments of Agave schidigera adds to its beauty.

The variety of agave species is truly astounding with differences in color, size and shape.  Some are thorny, while others have little to no thorns.  Others have white margins on the leaves or leaf imprints.  Agave with blue/gray coloring can be used to contrast with darker green plants in the landscape.  Small agave can also make nice outdoor centerpieces on your patio table.

How about you?  Have you ever grown agave?  Perhaps you have admired these drought tolerant succulents and thought that you could never grow one.  Well, now you can – all you need is a container and sun!

A Year of Blogging about Birds!

Rob Ripma

I was recently looking back over some of my previous posts here on the Birds & Blooms blog and realized that I have been blogging about birds here for almost exactly a year! Since my very first post on October 17 of last year, I’ve written more than 90 articles and covered a very wide variety of topics. The following is a list of ten of my favorite posts that I’ve written so far, and I look forward to another year of blogging about birds for Birds & Blooms magazine.

1. Birding Basics: Choosing Binoculars without Breaking the Bank

2. Bird Species Profile: Roseate Spoonbill

Roseate Spoonbills are incredibly beautiful birds!

Roseate Spoonbills are incredibly beautiful birds!

3. Birding Basics: Using eBird to Find Species

4. Celebrating the 4th of July with Bald Eagles

5. Lesser Known Birding Hotspots: Goose Pond FWA in Indiana

Goose Pond FWA has a good number of Dickcissels on the property.

Goose Pond FWA has a good number of Dickcissels on the property.

6. Bird Photography Tips: Patience is Key

7. Backyard Bird Feeding: A Green Heron

8. The Lodge at Pico Bonito: Birding Hotspots

Rufous-tailed Hummingbirds are the most common species at the Lodge at Pico Bonito. They were easy to see and photography from my table during lunch.

Rufous-tailed Hummingbirds are the most common species at the Lodge at Pico Bonito.

9. Birds & Beans – A Great Gift for Coffee Lovers and Bird Lovers Alike

10. Should You Attend a Birding Festival?

Birch Bark DIY Candle Holder

Jill Staake

A few months ago, I spotted a new item at my local craft store: Sticky Barc paper, which is really a very thin veneer of actual wood with an adhesive back that can easily be used in craft projects. I bought a roll of “Rustic Birch”, not knowing what I was going to do with it, but knowing I’d come up with something. This fall, I decided to use some of it to create a DIY candle holder that resembles a tree trunk, accented with a hole-punched bit of cardstock and a wood maple leaf. I bought the plain glass candle holder at my local dollar store, making this fall craft fairly inexpensive and easy.

Birch Bark DIY Candle Holder

Birch Bark DIY Candle Holder Materials:

  • Round glass candle holder with straight sides (not tapered)
  • Barc Wood Roll, Rustic Birch
  • 1.5 inch strip metallic green cardstock, 12 inches long
  • Maple leaf paper punch
  • Wood leaf accent
  • Tacky craft glue
  • Rubber bands
  • Scissors
  • Paper cutter, or ruler and pencil

Birch Bark DIY Candle Holder Materials

Birch Bark DIY Candle Holder Instructions:

  1. Clean the candle holder well – rubbing alcohol is ideal – to remove any residue.
  2. Measure the circumference and height of the candleholder and cut a piece of Barc Wood paper to fit. (A paper cutter works best for this.)
  3. Remove the adhesive backing from the Barc Wood paper and wrap around the candle holder. Trim the seams so they overlap just slightly.
  4. Apply a thin layer of craft glue where the ends of the paper meet. Use rubber bands to hold the paper in place while the glue dries.
  5. Use the maple leaf paper punch to randomly to make cut outs on the strip of cardstock.
  6. Apply craft glue to the back of the cardstock strip and wrap around the middle of the candle holder. Use rubber bands to hold it in place while it dries.
  7. Remove all rubber bands. Use craft glue to attach the small wood leaf to the front of the candle holder.

Birch Bark DIY Candle Holder

The wood veneer is thin enough that the glow of a candle shines through beautifully. I’m considering making these in a variety of sizes to create a little “forest” of birch bark candles on my dining room table.

Love decorating with a leaf motif? Try making these Leaf Patterned Painted Pillows too.

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