This morning I was mesmerized by a scene on the Sound-side bluff in front of our home in Indianola on the Kitsap Peninsula. In Hitchcockian proportions, the sky and garden to our fore was cyclonic in flocks of Pacific Crows, European Starlings, Band-tailed Pigeons and Western Gulls. The fruit of the Pacific Madrona had obviously reached a palatable ripeness and a bacchalian feast had begun.
I was particularly pleased to see so many Band-tailed Pigeons. These giant, gentle and elegant doves are normally seen in pairs or more disturbingly, during hunting season, single. The fruit of the Cascara, Rhamnus purshiana, is also favored by this species as is the red drupes of our Pacific Dogwood, Cornus nuttallii. Both of these trees however are on the decline in our region; the Cascara removed from landscapes as undesirable and the Dogwood due to anthracnose. As a rather fascinating aside, the Band-tailed pigeon has recently been found to carry a louse species, Columbicola extinctus, that had long been thought to have been extirpated along with its only other known host, the Passenger Pigeon.
Cornus nuttallii is also visited in autumn by ravenous Pileated Woodpeckers which awkwardly negotiate the lightweight framework of these trees to consume its ripened fruit. As our trees defoliated completely by mid-summer of 2007 and no fruit was produced, the distinctive whooping call and bobbing flight of this splendid bird has been conspicuously absent. We hope they will return to visit our suet feeders this winter.
Sorbus or Mt. Ashes are good substitutes for our native, ever-decreasing, autumn berry producing trees (and there are native Sorbus as well!). In my previous garden, I enjoyed the early winter spectacle of Stellar’s Jays, Varied Thrushes, Robins and Yellow-Shafted Flickers mob the trees after the first hard frosts accelerated the formation of sugars (and alcohols) in the white-blushed-pink fruit of Sorbus forrestii, a species from Yunnnan Province in China.
This delay in palatability is extremely helpful for late migrating and over-wintering birds and is a strategy that is replicated with Symphoricarpos or the Snowberries. The tiny flowers of this genus, though not ornamental, are nectar rich and attractive to pollinating insects as well as hummingbirds. Its showy crops of white, pink or red fleshy fruit is delayed until the days shorten and temperatures drop. New cultivars of Symphoricarpos, initially bred for the cut-flower trade in Europe and called the Fantasy series, have recently hit the racks of local nurseries and should be sought out.
Pyracanthas, or Fire-thorns, will not appear on the menu until late winter or early spring, allowing full enjoyment of the heavy crops of orange, scarlet or yellow fruit during the winter while providing a ready food source for early immigrants in spring. Local nurseries carry a number of good cultivars which can be purchased now in fruit.
As my new garden has begun to mature, I am gratified to watch the number of birds—species and individuals—increase dramatically. Some of this I attribute to having brought a source of fresh water to the garden for drinking and bathing. Much of it has to do with habitat and cover and a lot has to do with individual plants. It is important to note that many plant species are secondary yet very important food sources for insect eating bird species. I admire most members of the Umbel Family, the Apiaceae (this family name itself implying the association with bees), for its enormous appeal to pollinating insects, in particular tiny, harmless species of wasps. These in turn will provide sustenance to those birds that are primarily insectivorous, such as the Kinglets, Swallows as well as the slowly but thankfully recovering populations of Purple Martins.
One of my favorites of the lot is an evergreen, drought tolerant shrub from the Mediterranean known as Bupleurum fruticosum. Making a dense rounded shrub to 5′, it is smothered in late summer with chartreuse heads of flowers and swarmed by thousands of flickering pollinating insects.
As I write this column in mid-October, the flowers of Mahonia ‘Lionel Fortescue’ are fully open and a month earlier than generally expected. The upright trusses of yellow, nectar rich flowers will feed our winter-resident Anna’s Hummingbirds during these shy months. Yet other birds, most notably the Townsend Warbler, will be seen daily among these shrubs happily drinking in its sweetness. Its handsome crops of blue fruit will ripen in mid-June of next summer, just as Bohemian Waxwings arrive. The Waxwings, in my estimation one of our most beautiful birds in the PNW, delay their nesting until mid and late summer when the fruit of Mahonias, Salal and other plants species provide a ready source of food for their nestlings and fledglings.
Throughout the winter, the handsome orange flowers of Grevillea victoriae, an evergreen member of the Proteaceae, keep well fed and content our sizeable population of the afore-mentioned Anna’s Hummingbirds. We maintain feeders for these birds as well, putting heat-lamps on them during arctic outbreaks, and delight in watching the young arrive to feed as early as early February.
Grevilleas share the same taxonomic haunts of Embothrium coccineum, the Chilean Fire Tree, which blossoms in June, transmuting into a columnar combustion of orange red. By this time, the BroadTail and Rufous Hummingbirds have returned from their lengthy migrations south and find this species irresistible. Later, Fuchsia magellanica (hailing from the same environment of the Embothrium in S. Chile as naturally hummingbird-pollinated) will provide a surfeit of nectar rich flowers from July until the first harsh frosts of winter. Though red flowers are considered the color of choice by hummingbirds, we find they are non-discriminating as long as nectar is present. The tubular white flowers of Correa alba, an evergreen shrub from Australia, are visited throughout the winter outside our kitchen window, as are the rich blue flowers of Agapanthus and Salvia in late summer.
As I have matured as a gardener, the satisfaction I garner from the process is based much more on the invitation of wildlife to the garden and much less on personal achievement. Keeping a pair of binoculars and a bird book on the kitchen table and taking the time to note when we first see each appear through the year and on what they are feasting has added a dimension to our landscape that deflates any concept that gardening is solely about plants.