Category Archives: wildlife

Ode to a Holly Tree

This is the sight that has welcomed my family home for the last several years.

Few days have passed without Chris snarling about  my beloved holly tree.


I love that holly. In the summertime, I can sit out on the porch in complete privacy, sheltered from the rest of the cul-de-sac, lost in my own cool oasis. In the winter time, the holly has been one of the few colorful things in the entire yard, and it’s a very welcome sight at Christmastime. All year long a family of cardinals, and their feathered friends, dance among the branches while I watch from my living room window.

But even I’ll admit that a tree shouldn’t grow that close to anyone’s foundation.


And now she’s gone. My beautiful berried holly is gone, leaving behind nothing but a hole in the ground where the pokeberries have begun to thrive.

For months, I thought if one more person were to tell me how beautifully open the house looked now I would lose it. Then one day, while I was sitting across the yard next to my would-be pumpkins, I thought to myself, “Wow, the house really looks nice and open now.”

I bit my tongue, then realized that it wasn’t the house I really wanted to shelter, it was the yard. And so the plan for the front yard has evolved further, and I have been hunting online and locally for the perfect medium-growing holly trees to create a semi-circle just beyond the house to help shield the yard and provide a new home to my cardinals. I’m looking for a balance between the fast-growing 40-foot heights of the Nellie Stevens or American Hollies and the slow-growing yet more appropriately sized Blue Prince/Princess. The Castle Spire/Wall combination (this variety needs a pollinator) looks promising but the search will continue through September.


Meet Vince

No doubt about it, that fish is gone.

Chinese Hi Banded SharkOur exotic little algae-sucker was very quickly made into a fish stick by some passing predator.

Chris was immediately ready to go plop down change for a new exotic. After a little persuasion on my part, we instead invested in a different addition to the pond.

First let me just say, we could have gotten a heron. Instead, Chris wanted this guy:

I’ve been calling him Vincent, an homage to Vincent Price, because the gator’s creepy grin gives me the willies. I find myself out weeding when the hairs on the back of my  neck start prickling; I look up to see Vince snarling his toothy grimace and several times the sight has made me jump. If any more fish go missing I’ll be ready to serve the remainders on a platter to the bird that has the guts to go up against this thing.

Chris also picked up a piece of corrugated pipe that we’re going to plant beneath a rock to serve as a third hiding spot. Lately when the skittish fish go to hide I can still usually make out a tail or two fluttering along the entrance to their cave. It’s getting a little crowded down there so hopefully a few new caves will help them out.

Re-restocking the Pond

We were saddened to learn earlier this year that a member of our little family had passed on to the big pond in the sky. When the pond thawed out around the beginning of April, we noticed that one of the koi – one of the larger of our fish, with a mix of white, black and orange coloring – was simply missing. We’re always very excited each year to see our finned friends again, and relieved to know the pond can sustain them as they hibernate through the winter. This was a hard blow, especially to Chris, who takes his pond maintenance duties very seriously.

Tadpoles hard at work, pond-cleaning.

Tadpoles hard at work, pond-cleaning.

As May has crept in, however, the pond is filling back up. The tadpoles are out in force, wriggling eagerly against the rocks as they eat their fill of algae. In the evenings we can sometimes hear the frogs singing from the nursery window, a good reminder for me and the little Rose to go out and feed our fish. Yesterday when we did just that – Rose mesmerized by the swirling colors of the remaining fish – we got a special treat. I bent down by the water’s edge to see a frog that was, as I delicately explained it to the unimpressed toddler, carrying a smaller frog “piggyback.” I knew Rose wouldn’t pay attention to the well camouflaged brown creatures – but then the she frog swam directly to us and popped out of the water. For a moment we were all quite still in our surprise, and then Rose exhaled a quiet “ooh” and the froggy pair plopped back into the protection of the water.

As I’ve written in the past, the tadpoles do a fantastic job of cleaning the pond each spring. But then they leave and the sun grows hotter and the algae blooms in earnest and Chris runs himself ragged replacing the lava rock in the waterfall and balancing additives in the pond. This year he decided to try a different additive: a Chinese hi fin banded shark. SONY DSCOur new friends at Virginia Water Garden had recommended the suckerfish, but we’re currently waiting to see if we’re the suckers.

You see, after allowing him time to adjust to the water temperature and make-up, we released the little guy out into his new home – and we haven’t seen him since.

Releasing the FishChris has been on constant patrols trying to spot some evidence of the fish. I’ve laughingly remind him that the whole point of camouflage is to not be seen, but I’m surprised to by how quickly and completely the fish has hidden. And I recall all too easily that we had originally purchased three goldfish: My favorite disappeared within a week, and a second was gone before winter. So for now we’ll continue our patrols and hope that someday soon we’ll go to feed the koi and realize that the pond has magically be cleaned …


This isn’t exactly a garden post: this is a “I yearn to be outside all day again” post. This is about the latest inhabitant of my little oasis. No, not that one. This one:

HawkBeautiful, isn’t she? She’s been hanging out around the back yard all winter. Maybe she’s been waiting for the fish to come back or maybe Akira has made the moles easy picking for her. Or maybe she just likes the view. But just when I think she’s found a better hunting ground, there she is, sitting on a fencepost or swooping past the nursery window to perch on the porch eaves.

Red Tail Hawk

Some days when the sun is just right, she really glows. Her tail takes on a warm rust color and her cream belly seems to reflect the sun. And she always seems to patient and content, as if there were nowhere in the world she’d rather be than just where she is.

This morning was the first time I really had a chance to capture her. Usually just as I’ve attached the zoom lens, she’s disappeared into the sky. But today my hawk spent hours at the top of this tree, quietly watching the world wake up.


I suppose I’m a little jealous of her. Last year the cold didn’t slow me down, but this year getting outside is a little more of an endeavor. Akira, the little Rosebud and I are spending a lot of time looking out the windows and talking about spring. Which isn’t such a bad thing – it’s good to have a plan when it comes to gardening. But this year, I don’t think spring can come too soon. I’m ready to set out and explore too.

Soaring Hawk

Why I’m Hibernating Until Winter

Even now my heart is hammering in my chest, I can barely unclench my fists enough to type and there’s a trickle of sweat itching the back of my neck. More to the point of this blog, I have vowed not to step foot outside until winter, at least until a good frost has covered the ground for more than a morning. Could make getting to work a little tricky, but I suppose I’ll cross that (safely inside) bridge when I get there.

What event could have led to such a horrible conclusion?

I was sitting by the pond, sipping on a muddled drink, idly throwing pellets of food to the fish, when I happened to glance up looking for Akira. I didn’t see the dog. Instead, I came eye to eye with a nightmarish-black serpent slinking past the skimmer with a fist-sized frog dangling from its mouth.

Now, if you’re one of those “they’re all God’s creatures” or “they’re part of gardening” or, blech, a “but they’re wonderful additions to the yard since they keep away pesky rodents” type gardeners, stop reading, exit this page, don’t even think about leaving a comment. Because believe me, I know that snakes have their place. I know they have a bad rap. I know that nasty thing isn’t going to do me any harm. I know this, logically. Still, the second the sun’s rays sparkle off those sequin-like scales, calling my attention to these legless, finless intruders, instinct kicks in, my amygdala kicks my legs into action, and I’m  out of there. Usually shaking and whimpering in an embarrassing display.

To tell the truth, this time I did pretty good. I screamed at the dog to “run, get, go, run!” as I headed up the deck steps. Not like when I was five and ran screaming  into the house at the sight of the tiny garter snake, locking the door before my toddling sister had even realized I’d left her alone. See, I’ve grown some.

It’s so incredibly frustrating, because I really do know better. And I’ve tried to overcome this frustrating gardening obstacle. I’ve gone to nature exhibits where snakes are on display, and proudly reached out to barely touch their colorful sides. I saw an exhibit once at the Baltimore Aquarium of water snakes, and I had to admit they were kind of beautiful. And if I think on it hard enough, I’ll admit there was something a little beautiful and noble about the sleek creature swimming through my grass today.

Doesn’t matter. If there was a button I could push to destroy them all, I’d do it in a heartbeat, without a thought to the consequences or the karmic retribution I’d draw down upon myself.

A Dear Surprise

I was all set to post an update to my fall flower initiative, when two unexpected guests dropped by yesterday afternoon.

I dropped everything to grab the close-up camera lens and snap through the front door these photos of the two young fawns lunching on my front lawn.

I never did spot the children’s mother, but can only assume she had taught them well or was watching nearby, as their ears were on constant alert, flickering at the slightest thing.

May your day likewise be full of unexpected surprises!

Butterfly under Glass

My mosaic butterflies flit up the porch wall.

In my musings on local wildlife I didn’t mention the butterflies. I haven’t geared my garden toward attracting them, but have received more frequent visits from monarchs in the last few weeks. I like butterflies as much as the next girl, and have a few winged touches thrown about on my screened porch. They are one of the loveliest visitors to the garden, after all.

Apparently my tiled souvenirs of the Key West butterfly garden have seduced more modestly colored Virginia butterflies to entrapment in my screened porch. Like sirens, the large tiled insects have led a few poor swallowtails into the cool shadows of the screened porch, never to leave.

I found the butterfly above, which (who knew?) has helped me identify as an Appalachian Tiger Swallowtail, sitting prettily on my coffee table. After a moment’s admiration, I picked up its hind wing and dropped it into my little vase, showing off its beauty like Snow White in her glass coffin. I felt a little morbid – like the morning after you realize you forgot the holes in your lightning bug jar – but remembered the Key West gallery’s displays of lifeless butterflies in flight and figured it was only human nature to want to preserve this delicate beauty beyond its so-brief lifespan. Over coffee this morning, watching large yellow- and blue-winged butterflies bobbing erratically over the grass, I’ve been thinking about ways to encourage these insects to stay just a little while longer. What butterfly-friendly additions have you made to your garden?