On Leaves and Seeds (or Rethinking Fall Cleanup)

My little corner of the earth is slipping towards its winter nap. Leaves are falling, flowers fading, and everything is looking just a bit unkempt. (More so than normal anyway–my garden has never quite achieved the opposite of unkempt!) Despite the ragged edges, I won’t be rushing out with clippers and rakes. That’s because the fallen leaves and ragged stems that look untidy to us are gold for backyard wildlife. This sad-looking brown-eyed susan has been crawling with hungry goldfinches this week. (Click to enlarge photo.)

brown eyed susan seed heads

Instead of trimming seed heads and discarding them, I leave them as a food source over the winter. In my yard they are especially appreciated by the aforementioned goldfinches and by pine siskins. In addition to being ready-made (and free) bird food, they have interesting shapes and patterns I have come to appreciate. (Click to enlarge photos.)

monarda seed head

fall fluff

lemon balm seeds

It’s the same story with leaves, I leave them undisturbed everywhere I possibly can. I enjoy watching the towhees skritch, skritch, skritch through the leaf litter in the winter as they hunt for tasty morsels. Their double foot “hop-scratch” is pretty wonderful. “My” chubby fox sparrows are leaf litter hunters as well.

fall leaves

So, skip the tidying where you can. Sit out under the trees and raise a glass of cider to fall’s untidy beauty.

All Set for Winter

Today I set up our backyard feeding station. The chickadees were our first visitors. We feed black oil sunflower and suet. We are also trying out a new mix of nuts, corn, and sunflower seeds–special treats for the squirrels and jays.

hanging feeder

Check out this new ball-shaped feeder. Can’t wait to see the squirrels get their little paws on this one.

ball feeder

You don’t have to go spending a lot of money to set up a feeder station. We build ground feeders out of leftover lumber and screen door screening. I make hanging feeders out of old orange juice cartons. The birds don’t seem to mind!

OJ feeder

When setting up a feeding station, don’t forget to leave the leaves wherever possible. They are home to lots of invertebrates, which your feathered friends will hunt for throughout the winter.

leave the leaves

Spider Safari 2014

I know Halloween is over a month away, but for me, September is the month for spiders. It’s a little like spring for bird watchers. Adults are at their “attract a mate” best, making them easy to spot and interesting to observe.

The first spider I spotted was this large (about 2 inches across), handsome male grass spider.

Male grass spider. September 2014. Vancouver, WA. Click to enlarge.

Male grass spider. September 2014. Vancouver, WA. Click to enlarge.

The dried-up front lawn teems with little wolf spiders. Some skittered up the side of the house.

Female wolf spider. September 2014. Vancouver, WA. Click to enlarge.

Female wolf spider. September 2014. Vancouver, WA. Click to enlarge.

Most spiders I observe throughout the year come and go. A few manage to survive long enough in one spot to receive a name. This year we have Freida, a female grass spider, living in an impressive funnel in a garden box next to the garage. She wouldn’t come out for photos today.

Frieda the grass spider's house. September 2014. Vancouver, WA. Click to enlarge.

Frieda the grass spider’s house. September 2014. Vancouver, WA. Click to enlarge.

Our worm bin hosts many cobweb weavers. These spiders typically have round abdomens and prefer dark places. This lovely female is guarding four egg cases.

Cobweb weaver and egg cases. September 2014. Vancouver, WA. Click to enlarge.

Cobweb weaver and egg cases. September 2014. Vancouver, WA. Click to enlarge.

If you looked closely, you may have noticed that she is not just guarding egg cases, but spiderlings as well.

Egg case and spiderlings. September 2014. Vancouver, WA. Click to enlarge.

Egg case and spiderlings. September 2014. Vancouver, WA. Click to enlarge.

My favorite September spiders are the Araneus Diadematus, or European Cross spiders. These are the beauties that build the big orb webs around the garden in the autumn.

Araneus diadematus. September 2014. Vancouver, WA. Click to enlarge.

Araneus diadematus. September 2014. Vancouver, WA. Click to enlarge.

Today’s Lesson

Know how to tell a male spider from a female? Here’s a little spidery lesson for you. You know that spiders have eight legs, four on each side. If you look closely, you will see that the also have what look like two short legs in front. These are called pedipalps, often shortened to palps.

Can you spot the palps? Click to enlarge.

Can you spot the palps? Click to enlarge.

Female spiders, like the wolf spider in the photo above, have palps that are short and straight. They are mostly used for carrying and maneuvering prey. This is also true for immature males. Mature males have palps that have little round knobs on the ends, almost like little boxing gloves. They are part of the male spider reproductive system.

Male cobweb weaver. Can you spot the palps? Click to enlarge.

Male cobweb weaver. Can you spot the palps? Click to enlarge.

So, there you go. Now you know how to tell a male spider from a female!

Easy Schoolyard Habitat Projects

Type “schoolyard habitat image” into a web search and images of beautiful schoolyard habitat projects from around the country will appear. If you have the district support, funding, people-power, and sheer gumption to take on a full-scale habitat project, that is fantastic! However, many teachers lack one or more of these elements. If you fall into that bucket, this article is especially for you.

Why? Because a habitat project does not have to be expensive or require loads of volunteer time to be effective. (You will still have to get school/district approval for some–sorry about that!) Following are a few ideas that are inexpensive, reasonable to maintain, and still packed with educational opportunity.

If you look closely, you can see the little round ball of mud this mud dauber wasp is carrying away to build her nest. Click to enlarge.

If you look closely, you can see the little round ball of mud this mud dauber wasp is carrying away to build her nest. Click to enlarge.

Build an Insect Water Source
If you read this blog regularly, you will recognize this one. We featured it a couple weeks ago. The only cost is a water saucer of some sort. The saucer is filled with dirt, rocks, and a little water. It can be tucked in behind existing plantings or placed right out in the open, depending upon your school’s policies and landscaping. Full instructions can be found here.

A Fruit Snack for Butterflies
Even if you are unable to plant a butterfly garden, you can provide food for butterflies. Turns out they like fruit just as much as we do! They are especially fond of overripe fruit, making this simple butterfly feeder a great way to repurpose fruit that goes “past perfect.” Loudoun Wildlife Conservatory in Virginia has easy-to-follow instructions here.

The boards at the base of these stairs create an "underneath." Under them I've found beetles, centipedes, millipedes, pill bugs and slugs.

The boards at the base of these stairs create an “underneath.” Under them I’ve found beetles, centipedes, millipedes, pill bugs and slugs.

Create Some “Underneath”
A while back, I wrote an article for Native Plants and Wildlife Gardens called “In Praise of Underneath.” The idea is to create homes for creatures that like to live under things. Creepy crawlies like pill bugs and beetles are perennial kid favorites and can easily be attracted by laying an old board on the ground or making a small pile of sticks or firewood. Admittedly, this isn’t very attractive, so you’ll either have to be creative and make it look better or hide it behind a shrub or something. Still, it’s easy and worth the effort. For more ideas for creating “underneath,” click here.

Invite the Bees to Stay a While
Have you seen images online of insect and bee walls? They are a marvelous intersection of art and habitat. You can encourage native bees to hang around by providing nesting sites. They don’t need to be as elaborate as the arty pieces online. Xerces Society has an instruction sheet for providing homes for native bees. Click here.

Want More?
I wrote an article for KIDS DISCOVER called “Schoolyard Habitat on a Shoestring” that features the following easy habitat ideas:

  • Worm bins
  • Let the grass grow
  • Meadow in a box
  • Water for wildlife
  • Plant a tree

You will find the article here.

Share Your Schoolyard Habitat Ideas
Have a great idea for creating schoolyard habitat inexpensively? I would love to share it with our readers. Please let me know in the comments below.