Birds and Blooms Blog

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Garden Basics: Improve Your Soil This Fall

adding manure as soil amendment

Did you know that many important garden tasks take place in fall?  It’s true.

Earlier this month, we talked about why you should add new plants in fall.  Today, let’s talk about another important task to be done now – improving your soil.

Whether you have a vegetable garden or flower bed – the soil needs to be refreshed by adding one or more soil amendments.  What are soil amendments?  ”A soil amendment is a product that adds fertility or improves the texture of your soil or does both.”  Compost, aged steer (or chicken, horse or rabbit) manure and bone meal are all examples of organic soil amendments.  When these amendments are added in fall, they slowly release nutrients into the soil so that by the time spring arrives, your soil is ready for new plants.

Adding soil amendments

The most important soil amendment is compost, which in addition to releasing nutrients and adding beneficial soil microorganisms to the soil – it also helps to improve the texture soil by helping clay soils to drain better and sandy soil to hold onto water for a longer length of time.

In my own gardens, I add 2-inches of both compost and aged steer manure so that I have a total of 4-inches of amendments to incorporate into my existing soil.  I then add bone meal, which is a great source of phosphorus and is important for flower and vegetable production in spring.  *If you only add one type of soil amendment, than add compost since it is the most beneficial.

Lightly mix the soil amendments into the existing soil.  You can do this with a shovel, pitchfork or with a cultivator.  When incorporating soil amendments into existing garden soil, it is important not to cultivate too deeply or you can harm earthworms and the existing soil structure – a good rule of thumb is to mix the amendments into the top 6-inches of soil.

By taking a little time this fall to add beneficial amendments to your soil, you’ll reap the rewards come spring time.

To learn more about the garden basics of soil amendments and how they work, click here.

Observing the Migration of North American Birds of Prey

Rob Ripma

September is one of the best months to visit a local hawk watch site and see which North American birds of prey are on the move. Unlike species such as warblers and hummingbirds that migrate at night, birds of prey migrate during the day and, given the right conditions, congregate in huge groups! Hawk watching is becoming very popular with birders, and there are some amazing locations around the country that give you a good chance to see thousands of these birds. I spent one day last week at the Detroit River Hawk Watch and enjoyed seeing thousands of raptors pass overhead on their way south!

One of the many Sharp-shinned Hawks that I observed migrating at the Detroit River Hawk Watch.

One of the many Sharp-shinned Hawks that I observed migrating at the Detroit River Hawk Watch.

Here are my top 5 places in the US to go for hawk watching, including the Detroit River Hawk Watch that I visited.

1. Hawk Mountain, Pennsylvania – Hawk Mountain was the first refuge for birds of prey in the world. It was protected in 1934 in order to stop the hunting of birds of prey for sport and opened to the public the following year so that people could observe these amazing birds. This site is now one of the most popular hawk watch location in the eastern US. You can learn more about Hawk Mountain on their website.

2. Hawk Ridge, Minnesota – Hawk Ridge sits right on Lake Superior in Duluth, Minnesota. As the birds of prey come around the lake, they fly right past Hawk Ridge, making this an ideal location for a hawk watch. Like many of the hawk watches in the eastern US, this site gets an incredible number of Broad-winged Hawks! Learn more on the Hawk Ridge website.

3. Florida Keys, Florida – This hawk watch is a little different than the others in this list. Most birds of prey avoid going over large bodies of water, but a few species such as Peregrine Falcon and Osprey don’t seem to mind. In 2012, this location set the world record for the total number of Peregrine Falcons (3,836) during a single migration season. Learn more on the hawk watch’s official blog.

4. Detroit River, Michigan – The Detroit River Hawk Watch is located on the west end of Lake Erie and thousands of Broad-winged Hawks pass over this spot. Be sure to visit during the middle of September to have the best chance to see a huge movement of birds of prey. Learn more on the Detroit River Hawk Watch website.

5. Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona – There are two hawk watch locations within the park, and they are both awesome. The most common species are Cooper’s, Sharp-shinned, Red-tailed, and Swainson’s Hawks, American Kestrel, Osprey, and Northern Harrier.  In addition to the many migrant birds of prey, you can also see the resident California Condors flying past the site. You can learn about Yaki Point and Lipan Point on the website.

Have you ever had the chance to visit a hawk watch? Tell us about your experience in the comment section! If not, you can find a hawk watch near you by visiting

Chrysalis Hunting in the Butterfly Garden

Jill Staake

It’s a common refrain from butterfly gardeners: “I had caterpillars on my plants, but then they disappeared! Where did they go? Am I doing something wrong?” After all, the fun of a butterfly garden is watching the whole life cycle, from egg to caterpillar, chrysalis to adult, but oftentimes butterflies are nearly impossible to find in the chrysalis stage.

There’s a simple reason for that – they’re extremely vulnerable at that point, and so most chrysalids (the proper plural of “chrysalis”) have evolved to disappear into their surroundings, making them very difficult to spot. Many caterpillars often crawl a long way from their host plants – hundreds of yards, in some cases – before undergoing the final stage of metamorphosis, making it even harder to locate them. (See a great video of a Black Swallowtail caterpillar on its journey here.)

The trick to finding chrysalids in your butterfly garden lies in knowing what to look for. Here are some common chrysalis styles, and a few fun facts.

Living Leaf: These chryslids look like leaves on a plant, and often wriggle when provoked. Species include members of the sulphur family.

Chrysalids Living Leaves

Jill Staake Cloudless Sulphur chrysalids look like living leaves.

Dead Leaf: Like the “living leaves”, these chrysalids look like leaves, but these are camouflaged as dead leaves. (They also wriggle when touched.) Species include Zebra Longwing and Gulf Fritillary.

Chrysalids Dead Leaves

Jill Staake Gulf Friitillary (left) and Zebra Longwing (right) chrysalids look like dead leaves.

Twig/Branch: Tree-eating caterpillars often look like a branch or twig of the tree their chryalis is on. Giant Swallowtails are especially good at this.

Chrysalids Branches

Giant Swallowtail chrysalids blend in perfectly with the tree branches around them.

Color Matching: Sometimes blending is as simple as matching the colors of your surroundings. Color matching chrysalids will often vary in color to match the plants they’re on. Species include Monarchs and Black Swallowtails.

Chrysalids Color

Monarch Chrysalids are green to blend in with milkweed and other plants.

Chrysalids Color

Black Swallowtail chrysalids can be green or brown, depending on the foliage around them.

Hidden: Sometimes the easiest way to hide is just to, well, hide. Species like Long-Tailed Skippers (Urbanus proteus) make their chrysalis inside folded leaf shelters.

Chrysalids Hidden

Long Tailed Skippers wrap themselves in leaves before pupating to chrysalis.

“Other”: When it comes to caterpillars, it’s best to expect the unexpected! Some species camouflage themselves to look like something unappealing, like the Red-Spotted Purple – its chrysalis looks exactly like dangling bird droppings!


Bird poo? Nope, a Red-Spotted Purple chrysalis!

Fun Facts: 

  • “Chrysalis” and “cocoon” are NOT the same thing. A “chrysalis” is the word for the pupa stage of butterfly metamorphosis. A “cocoon” is the silken case that some moths create around themselves while in pupa. If in doubt, the word “pupa” covers both.
  • The word “chrysalis” (pronounced “KRISS-uh-liss”) comes from the Greek for “gold”, and some chrysalids appear to have gold coloration (see the Common Crow for an amazing example) or gold flecks, like monarchs or zebra longwings. This is actually just a trick of the light refracting through the skin of the pupa, but it makes for a pretty cool effect nonetheless.
  • Curious about what exactly is happening inside a chrysalis during metamorphosis? Check out this great article from Scientific American, and see some amazing 3D scans at National Geographic.

Need help finding caterpillars in your butterfly garden, too? Try this blog post for more tips.

Plant Peonies in Your Flower Garden This Fall

Peony Garden

Have you ever seen peonies in full bloom?  If you have, it’s hard to forget the large, beautiful blooms that decorate the spring landscape.

Peonies come in many different colors, shapes and varieties.  In fact, the only flower color that you won’t find in peonies is blue.

'Beautiful Señorita' Peony

‘Beautiful Señorita’ Peony

So, why are we talking about peonies now, when spring is long past and fall is on it’s way?  The reason is that fall is the best time to plant peonies.

Peonies are a great choice for those who live in zones 3 – 8, where winters are cold enough to help promote bud formation.  Although peonies look like they would be hard to grow, they aren’t at all and make a great choice for the beginner to experienced flower gardener.  Once planted, peonies can live with little care for up to 100 years.

'Flame' Peony

‘Flame’ Peony

If you are tired of envying your neighbor’s flowering peonies each spring, how about planting your own this fall?  Are you ready?  Let’s get started:

1. Location – Select an area that receives at least 6 hours of full sun – more sun is better.  Keep them away from other trees and shrubs where root competition can be a problem.  Individual peonies should be planted at least 4 feet apart to allow them enough room to grow while ensuring good air circulation.

2. Soil – Peonies need well-drained and fertile soil – they do not like soggy soil.

'Pink Venus' Peony

‘Pink Venus’ Peony

3. Hole - Dig a hole that is approximately 2 feet deep and wide.  Amend the existing soil with compost to improve drainage, add nutrients and microorganisms.  A good rule of thumb is to add 1 part compost to 1 part existing soil and mix together.  For best results, add phosphorus or a granular all-purpose fertilizer to the compost/soil mixture (bone meal is a good source of phosphorus).  After mixing the compost and fertilizer with the existing soil, fill the hole back up and tamp it down to remove air pockets.

4. Planting – Peonies are usually planted in their bare root form.  Each bare root should have at least 3 ‘eyes’, which are small red buds that will later grow into stems.  Each bare root tuber should be planted just 2-3 inches deep and positioned so that the eyes are pointing upward.  It’s important to not plant them too deeply.  Water well after planting.

'Sea Shell' Peony

‘Sea Shell’ Peony

That’s it!  Now you can sit back and dream of the beautiful flowers that will decorate your flower garden in spring.  It’s important to not that peonies usually take at least 2-3 years after planting before producing blooms – but they are worth it!

How about you?  Do you grow peonies?  Will you be planting some this fall?

*Want to learn more about peonies?  Check out our little known facts about peonies, here.

Birding at One of Florida’s Best Birding Hotspots

Rob Ripma

This past weekend, while in Florida for a family wedding, my wife and I were able to sneak away for a morning of birding at one of Florida’s top birding hotspots, Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge. This amazing refuge is located right on the Atlantic coast and is only about an hour from Orlando. I had been to this property once before, and I was very excited to make a return visit during this trip. As always, the birding was awesome and the refuge was beautiful!

Merritt Island is a wonderful place to watch a huge variety of wading birds, and there is no better place to do this than along the Black Point Wildlife Drive. This 7-mile one-way auto tour route allows you get rather close to many herons and egrets! The birds are rather used to cars and people, allowing you get great photos without disturbing the birds.

Tricolored Herons were the most common wading bird at Merritt Island while I was there.

Tricolored Herons were the most common wading bird at Merritt Island while I was there.

In addition to seeing many herons and egrets, there were quite a few shorebirds around as well! Some of the highlights were Marbled Godwit, a couple dozen or so Black-bellied Plovers, and several Willet. In order to really get great looks at all of the shorebirds, I highly recommend bringing along a spotting scope.

Another highlight of our trip to Merritt Island was a huge number of Osprey throughout the refuge. This is a bird species that just a few short years ago was in serious trouble due to the use of DDT. They have made an incredible recovery, and I’m always excited to see high concentrations of this species.


My wife captured this image of an Osprey as it cruised overhead.

My wife captured this image of an Osprey as it cruised overhead.

Although this refuge is known for having a large group of Florida Scrub-Jays, we were unfortunately unable to find them on this visit (partly due to lack of time). I have seen them before on refuge property, but there were none to be found during our trip. In addition to being a great place to find birds, Merritt Island NWR is also an incredible spot to see West Indian Manatees! While they aren’t really a great subject to photograph, we enjoyed watching a large group of about 15 manatee feeding very close to shore in one of the canals.

As we about to cross the bridge to leave the refuge and head back to Orlando, some birds caught my eye near a fishing access area. I quickly pulled over and found three Black Skimmers resting not too far off the road. Black Skimmers have always been one of my favorite birds, and it was the perfect way to end our day!

These Black Skimmers were mixed in with a flock of Laughing Gulls. Don't worry, nothing is wrong with the one with its head on the ground, it's just resting!

These Black Skimmers were mixed in with a flock of Laughing Gulls. Don’t worry, nothing is wrong with the one with its head on the ground - it’s just resting!

Have you ever visited Merritt Island NWR? If so, what were some of your favorite sightings?


2014 State of the Birds Report

The 2014 State of the Birds report was just released and it shows some disturbing trends for some bird species but also offers some good news for other bird species.

Unexpected Fall-Planted Bulbs to Try

It’s time to go beyond tulips, daffodils, and crocus. Try these fall-planted bulbs to add some new and unusual blooms to your garden next spring.

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