Back from the Tropics

Cattleya skinneri, the National Flower of Costa Rica

We are just returned from a week in Costa Rica where we sought warmth and refuge from the winter cold.  We went through multiple climate zones in Costa Rica and sought out as many of the country’s birds, flowers and other wildlife as we could in such a short time.  All told our guide counted 117 birds species in our various explorations.

Slaty-tailed Trogon

But more about Costa Rica in subsequent posts.

Meanwhile, back in Maryland, the weather gods reacted by providing a serious warm spell while we were gone.  When I looked around this morning it was still cold and dreary but almost all the snow had melted and things were starting to grow.  The Winter Aconite were among the first to show color, which is usually the case.

Winter Aconite (Eranthis hyemalis) popping out

The first two Crocus have popped up in the lawn.  I don’t know the variety but it’s like a white and purple species type.

First Crocus of Spring

This is appropriate to see because my first son was born 35 years ago today (Happy Birthday Jonathan!) and I remember seeing the first crocus on that day 35 years ago.

The snowdrops have been having a field day.  They are multiplying in the woodsy little area that I put them in.

Snowdrops multiplying

However, now that I see them fully open, it’s clear from the petal markings that they are the Giant Snowdrop type rather than the nivalis as I have them labeled.

Giant Snowdrop (Galanthus elwesii)

Or maybe the rest will be nivalis — we’ll have wait and see.  We can’t lose in either case.

The plants that went from barely visible to fully out were the Witch Hazels.  Once they start to unfold the petals it happens really fast.

Chinese Witch Hazel (Hamamelis mollis) at full bloom

Witch Hazel (Hamamelis x intermedia) 'Diane'

Even with all this growth starting the fickle weather people have given us snow again this evening.  It’s calling for 8 inches and I’m voting for much less.  We are right on the edge of the snowstorm and it could go either way…

Wanna Get Away?

Aoife's Bench in the Snow

Last weeks snow was one of the heaviest I’ve ever seen.  All the tree branches were dragging on the ground creating eerie sights the next morning.  We lost a few branches, but it could have been a lot worse.  Many people were without power for 2 to 3 days and, while we had a brief interruption that forced us to watch a movie on the iPad, the power folks pretty much kept the juice flowing for our road.   As it happened, I was on my way to California, and, with only a slight delay, I spent the weekend in the Riverside area.

It was nice to walk around without my heavy coat and while I can’t quite say I was basking in the sun it was at least an opportunity to see flowers growing outside again.  The camellias that my dad planted at the side of the house are a reliable a long term performer every year.

Camellias at the side of the house

There are two varieties, both japonicas with names long ago lost to history, and they are almost intermingled.  One a pure single fuschia red and the other, nearly identical in color is fully double.

Camellia #1

Camellia #2

These plants were part of my inspiration in planting Camellias here in Maryland.  Suffice it to say, if you can plant Camellias you should.  And if your climate zone says you shouldn’t plant them, you should probably give it a try anyway.

In the back garden I noticed that calendulas have self-seeded and are springing up like wildflowers.

Calendulas self-seeding

It’s not quite the California springtime, but getting really close.  I saw a few poppies by the roadside.

In Riverside the classic plant is the Washington Navel Orange.  The parent tree for the whole navel orange industry is still growing on Magnolia Avenue in a place of honor.  Prior to the explosion of suburbs around Riverside the surrounding countryside was all citrus groves.  At one time you could not drive on the backroads without encountering orange or lemon trees dropping their fruit on the roadways.  Consistent with all this history and because they grow pretty easily in the area, I planted a dwarf Washington Navel in my mother’s back yard and it now fruits pretty regularly.

Washington Navel

I also have one of these in the basement in Maryland waiting for a greenhouse to show what it can do…

Around in the front yard is a lovely large Rosemary that is flowering at this time of year.

Rosemary in SoCal Winter

Although we can get them to survive outside in Maryland we haven’t managed flowering yet.

When I returned this week the snow was hanging in there with more sleet and ice in the offing.  Despite this I saw several Robins downtown who apparently know something about the weather that the forecasters haven’t foreseen.  Or maybe not…

The Birds of Winter

Cardinal on the snow

Although I’m looking forward to getting back out to the garden both for growing things and for watching the birds that migrate through our woods, there is a pleasure at this time of year in seeing what birds decide to make our yard a home for the winter.  There is a cast of regulars like the Tufted Titmouse, the Cardinals, the Black-capped Chickadee, Blue-jays, Downy & Red-bellied Woodpeckers that are with us pretty much year around.

Tufted Titmouse

White -throated Sparrow

But then, as always happens when you take the time to observe, there are surprises that you didn’t expect.  The Eastern Towhee is always a delightful sight with it’s red eyes and striking colors.  It tends to be shy bird in the underbrush that I see rarely at best.  I didn’t realize that it actually sticks around to enjoy our wintertime.

Eastern Towhee in snow

Recently I saw postings from Jan at Thanks for Today and Randy at Randy & Meg’s Garden Paradise that mentioned Pine Siskins.  It made me pause and think because I had seen birds like that and assumed they were either female Goldfinches or House Finches.  I took another closer look the next time they appeared and sure enough we have Pine Siskins as well.

Pine Siskin

We often have had the White-breasted Nuthatch stop in both winter and summer.  As they walk upside down on the oak tree they are quite easy to pick out from the crowd.  They will also use the feeder to grab sunflower seeds in the winter.

White-breasted Nuthatch

What was a pleasant surprise for us this year was the first sighting of the Red-breasted Nuthatch.  This little guy is smaller than his cousin and he causes a double-take the first time you see his masked face at the feeders.  Their normal year-round range is north of us but they do come south for the winter.

Red-breasted Nuthatch

We’re expecting more snow tomorrow, so I will fill the feeders again, put out the suet, and keep watching for some sign of warmer weather in the future.

The December Drearies

Flowering Coleus

It has been a dreary start to December with temperatures 12 degrees below normal on average and a number of cloudy days.  It even snowed briefly last Friday with just enough slickness to it that cars careened off the road all over the city.  We live on a hill so that getting down or up on such days can be a dicey proposition.  In such conditions it’s nice to see flowers wherever you can and the coleus that Beth took a cutting from more than a month ago has obliged by putting up lovely lilac flowers.  If coleus were difficult to grow or expensive to acquire I’m sure we would go overboard trying to acquire it from exotic nurseries.  However, it is ridiculously easy to grow from seed and widely available in nurseries so I confess we often fail to give it full coverage in describing its impact in the house and garden.

Coleus was one of the first plants we ever intentionally grew back in our student housing days at UC Riverside.  We were fascinated by the different variations in leaf color and propagated a great many of them.  As time went on, we moved to more challenging plants and neglected the coleus as too common.  The last few years, however, we’ve been rediscovering the impact of coleus in the garden.  As an annual it grows quickly to 2 – 3 feet tall and can be kept thick and bushy in containers or in the soil.  The cut leaves last a very long time in indoor arrangements, sometimes to spectacular effect.  Perhaps if we thought of them in terms of their new botanical moniker, Solenostemon hybrids, we would give them more respect.

As I was working at the computer on a particularly rainy afternoon yesterday, I looked out to see a good-sized hawk sitting on the fence outside my window.

Worm-eating Hawk

I apologize for the poor quality image which was taken in poor light and through a rain spattered window, but what I found remarkable as I followed this hawk about the yard is that the hawk had no interest in the hundred or so birds and many squirrels that were flitting about our feeders.  Instead, he was actively harvesting the worms that were surfacing because of the water in ground.  It was very much like a robin on steroids.  Perhaps worms are seen as epicurial delights in the world of raptor dining.  Note to self — the camera should be kept in bird picture ready mode at all times, not left as though one had just taken multi-second timed exposures of coleus flowers in the house.

December is when we tend to review our donations for the year and, like Santa Claus, decide which charities have been naughty and nice.  Sometimes charities, the Nature Conservancy comes to mind, get tangled up in their own misplaced executive extravagances, and we have to punish them by withholding our giving for a while.  One place that we have never felt the slightest reservation about recommending is Able and Willing International Education Foundation.  We know the founders, Puma Mbuyu Wa Mbuyu and Ruth Snyder, who began this effort in the Congo with their own time and money in 1995.  Beginning from scratch they have built schools in two villages that now serve 661 students over all grades.


In the process they’ve brought electricity and an ethic of self-reliance to the area.  In Puma’s words, “More than simply constructing the buildings, AWIEF helps to establish the programs that enable schools to support to themselves.  In doing so, the organization seeks to model a healthy process of development that promotes self-reliance and helps to break the cycle of dependency on foreign aid.”  Nowhere else have we seen such a dramatic impact of our contributions put to effective use.

Fall Crocus & More Birds

Crocus speciosus 'Oxonian'

This year I looked for the Fall Crocus that I planted last year and saw nothing as I was considering where to put the ones I bought for this season.  I decided that putting them in the lawn as I did last year was a dumb idea.  So this year’s batch I put next to some very big trees hoping that I would thus avoid mowing them down at a critical juncture in their growth.  It turned out I was just a little early in anticipating when they should appear.  They started flowering about 10 days ago and have been popping up ever since.  Nonetheless I think that my thoughts about where to put them in future is probably still a good idea.

I didn’t plant Fall Crocus for years because I associated them with Colchicum which I always found a bit to extravagant and floppy for my taste.  It turns out that the Fall Crocus are very much like the Spring Crocus and crocus are delightful to come upon in either season.

Crocus cartwrightianus 'Albus'

Instead of my usual birdwatching at the back of the garden I took an early morning into the woods a few days ago and discovered the Eastern Towhee hopping about on the forest floor.  All year long I wondered where the Towhee was and hadn’t seen any.  I know that they enjoy prospecting about in the brush for insects, fruit and seeds so one is not likely to see them in the trees.  But I have seen them come into our yard in the past.  Their markings are so striking that they are instantly identifiable as distinct from other species.  This is testimony to varying one’s habits and seeing what new things arise.

Eastern Towhee

A completely new species for me that showed up last week is another of the little birds that you might miss entirely if you didn’t look with binoculars or zoom lens in the trees.  The Golden Crowned Kinglet is one of the smallest native birds.

Golden-crowned Kinglet

I’ve seen them repeatedly now, both singly and in groups, in the woods and in the orchard, but I have yet to get a real bell-ringer of a photo.  They are constantly on the move and they are so small that it’s a challenge to get locked in on them.  I did see the Ruby-crowned Kinglet on one day but again no really great photo.

The Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers hung around for about a week and on one day I had about three of them checking out our Mulberry tree.  Here was the best picture I got of one of the females.

Yellow-bellied Sapsucker female

Rain lilies and Puffballs

Rain lilies (Zephyranthes candida)

One of the happy sights at this time of year is the bright white flowers of the rain lilies that testify that you really have gotten some rain after a long dry spell.  These flowers, like super-sized crocus, are always a surprise even when you know that you planted them.  There are many plants in this genus and the related Habranthus that go collectively by the name rain lilies because of their habit of going dormant before shooting up there flowers after a rain.  While they all have merits in the garden these little white guys are my personal favorites.

Another occasional surprise after early fall rains are the puffballs that can sometimes spring up in the pasture.  You never know where they will appear although there seems to be some tendency to repeat in a general area.


This is one of the few mushrooms that I think I can identify.  If you have any friend who is a mushroom expert they can certainly point out the puffballs for you.  In this case I managed to pick one nice one before the animals destroyed the rest.  This is what it looked like in the kitchen.

Puffball with bottom cut off

When you slice them they look as pure and clear as you can imagine.

Puffball slices

For supper that night I sauteed the slices with garlic, olive oil, and white wine.  The slices became the basis of a mushroom sandwich with spinach and sourdough.  Very tasty.

Puffball slices in the pan

A couple more birds have shown up for my morning ritual this week.  The first was a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker.

Yellow-bellied Sapsucker

This is a woodpecker that I haven’t seen for a couple of years.  I do see it’s handiwork on the trees though.  They frequently drill a substantial number of holes in the pecans and the maples.  Usually in a circular pattern going around the tree.  You would think that someone had been taking maple syrup for years.

Then there was a Northern Flicker that came by just to pose for my camera.

Northern Flicker

The Flickers are really easy to identify with their very strange markings.  This one is a male as indicated by the black bar on the cheek.  Note the pretty yellow tail feathers.  Unlike the other woodpeckers these sit on the branches in normal bird fashion and pose for the photographer…

The Eagle Flies on Friday

Bald Eagle

The “eagle flies on Friday” referred to payday in T-Bone Walker’s classic blues song “Stormy Monday”.  In my case the Eagles flew on Saturday.  A pair of the them flew overhead marking the first time I have ever seen eagles from our perch on Ball Rd.  They are magnificent large birds in flight and it was a spectacular reward for getting up early and going out to my bird watching chair at the bottom of the garden.

Throughout this year, which has tested my fortitude on the gardening side (pests to the right of him, drought to the left of him, onward he blundered), watching the birds has a redeemed my investment of time and patience with many new discoveries.  In particular, I’ve found that long after the fruit has disappeared from the mulberry tree it still acts as a haven for bird life.  I don’t think I ever looked as carefully during the summer to fall transition and I probably just never noticed the many little birds that pass through as a part of their migration.

A few years ago I saw, just once, a scarlet tanager in full color.  Now, each time a cardinal flashes by, I keep expecting to see a tanager again.  What I hadn’t anticipated is that all that flashy red color disappears by fall and when the tanager came by I had to do a fair amount of research to discover that was the pretty yellow visitor.

Scarlet Tanager

At one point I saw him eating and I fervently hope this is a stink bug that he has captured.

Scarlet Tanager with bug

Can it be a stink bug?

It has been a pleasure to see new birds (to me at least) several times a week.  Clearly there is a limit to this realm of discovery but it does amaze me how frequently new faces are showing up here.  The warblers and flycatchers all have the characteristic of rapid motion in the tree and photographing them is a challenge.  And then, even when I have the picture, determining the identity of birds which are perhaps most easily distinguished by their song is even more difficult.  I will share some of the images with the clear invitation that if you can better identify these visitors I am open to suggestions.

Black and White Warbler

Blue-headed Vireo

Pine Warbler

American Redstart female

Common Yellowthroat

Eastern Phoebe

Eastern Wood Peewee

Least Flycatcher

Northern Parula

Yellow-rumped Warbler?

Common Yellowthroat female or juvenile?

Another Source of Water in Maryland

Blue Water Lily with yellow cente

Yesterday I awoke at 6am with crashing thunder and multiple lightening strokes headlining the arrival of the first rainstorm in 29 days.  It was quite a storm with over 5000 people losing power in Frederick(not us) but most importantly for our yard was the total of more than an inch of rain.  It was followed by more rain in the afternoon and then again last night.  It is hard to believe how dry it has been here.  The ground has been cracking, trees losing their leaves,  and plants have been dying left and right.  Gardening has been discouraging on the whole when you see so many of the spring’s investments disappearing.  It’s not just that it’s been dry but the temperatures have been high enough to make it really unpleasant to go outside.

Two weeks ago a posting from Melissa at Garden Shoots reminded me that last year I had made a photography trip out to the sunflower fields that Maryland plants near the Potomac River.  I had heard that the fields were not up to last years display but I remembered that the Indigo Buntings were plentiful last year and I decided to journey out to the McKee-Beshers Wildlife Management Area to see what I could find.

The field was full of dried out stunted sunflowers that were well past the peak of flowering.

Very tired collection of sunflowers

I spent a couple of hours there hoping to see the Indigo Buntings that were so plentiful last year.  I thought I imagined I might have maybe possibly seen one or two in the distance.  But the field was loaded with Goldfinches and House Finches.  There were hundreds.

Goldfinch on sunflower

A very red House Finch

I did see a Pileated Woodpecker in flight across the field.

Pileated Woodpecker in flight

After two hours of waiting and watching on a very hot day I packed it up and decided to go find my own water.  On the way back from the Potomac I stopped at Lilypons Water Gardens.  Their 250 acres of ponds are filled with flowering water lilies at this season.  It was refreshing to see so many flowers at once and what a contrast to the dry tired field of sunflowers.

Pond of Fuschia-colored Water Lilies

You can wander freely about the grounds and it’s a great spot for photography.  Wildlife abounds as you would expect with so much water and lush vegetation.

Dragonflies mating

Swallowtail at Lilypons

I have to confess that I don’t really know my Water Lilies at all.  I’m a water gardener wannabe.  I could guess at some of the varieties I was looking at but I’m probably on safer ground just to cite the colors.  Suffice it to say, Lilypons is worth a visit if you are in the area.  And if you aren’t, they have a mail order catalog.

Yellow-white Water Lily

Yellow Water Lily

Lilac Water Lily

Pink Water Lily with reflection